Pride Month on the Marquee: Batman & Robin & Poison Ivy
I will never forget the first time I saw Uma Thurman.
It was 1997: a summer I spent the majority of wearing bell bottom jeans and playing Pokémon Red. My life revolved around pool club, Toni Braxton’s “Un-Break My Heart,” and the Dear America series, hands perma-stained with blue ice pop, forever belting out pop songs in the front seat of my mother’s white Grand Am. We did everything together, and there wasn’t much to do, so most of our days included running errands, checking out library books, and going to the movies.
It was a good year for movies — especially for a seven-year-old girl. We saw Anastasia, Fairy Tale: A True Story, Selena. I obsessed over these films in the usual way — someone smarter than me could probably tell you why kids fixate on the things they do. But when my mom took me to the theaters to watch a movie that — much to her confusion, I’m sure — I begged to watch over and over, I doubt either of us (neither of whom are child psychologists) could say right then and there what the reason for my fixation was.
Now I know.
It was Uma Thurman.
Specifically, it was Uma Thurman in a red wig, covered in vines, kissing men on the lips and making them fall head over heels for her. I didn’t want to be one of those men — Uma Thurman clearly did not respect them. But I did want to look like her, look at her, live in this world she created forever. I wanted to know what perfume she wore and learn to tilt my head like her — face always toward the neon light — ethereal and wicked. I wanted to be her apprentice and hold her hand. When Batman & Robin finally came out on VHS later that year, I rented it every weekend for months. I was seven. I didn’t know anything about love or sex, let alone have the self-awareness to examine what my fascination with Poison Ivy was. I wouldn’t get my first kiss for many years later, and it wouldn’t be anything to write home about. I wouldn’t realize I liked women, too, until many years after that, and it was hardly an earth-shattering moment.
I consider myself endlessly lucky that I didn’t struggle to come out. It didn’t feel like a lightning bolt moment. It just was, like I just was.
On the other hand, Batman & Robin was received terribly for reasons I cannot fathom. The nipple suits were an epiphany; the crotch shots were bizarre and campy; the jokes were cringe-worthy and (therefore) unforgettable. Did Joel Schumacher set out to make a fundamentally queer movie? Maybe. Schumacher himself is openly gay, after all, and George Clooney himself has said “I could have played Batman straight, but I made him gay.” Slate has called the relationship between Bruce and Dick in the Schumacher films “gay domtext” and “defiantly queer.” Thinking critically, an overtly gay film that tanked possibly because of its overt gayness (“sugar-daddy Bruce and a surly, tank-topped, rough-trade Dick, complete with earring”) is a bummer. Especially for the late 90s, where gay films were cult (But I’m A Cheerleader), comedy (The Birdcage), or about AIDS (Philadelphia), it would have been refreshing and revolutionary to make a blockbuster action film featuring an ultra-popular hero who also just happened to be gay. But then again, that’s a refreshing and revolutionary idea even now, when so many of the stories about us focus on our trauma or on coming out — as though the very fact of our queerness is plot.
It’s not plot. And neither, truthfully, is gay subtext. We could talk circles around whether some queer subtext is better than zero representation; whether subtext counts as representation; whether the differences between subtext and queer-baiting register to heteronormative audiences (and whether this matters). I don’t know if any of this is necessarily important to me, personally, because it feels a little like fighting over crumbs. Conversations about what makes queer cinema good, or impactful, or interesting aren’t particularly meaningful because queerness isn’t a genre. Or at least — it shouldn’t be.
We should be featured — not as token or background characters — in slasher movies and gilded age dramas, fantasy epics and sci-fi thrillers, simply for the fact that we exist just as much outside of Pride month, gay bars, and queer conversation as we do within. I’m queer everywhere I go. I just am. And through that lens, if I want to, I can choose to make everything I’m interested in as queer as I am. I have that power now, as a grown woman who is no longer seven-years-old. But wouldn’t it have been cool to name what I was feeling as I was feeling it?
Here’s why Batman & Robin feels queer to me: I saw Uma Thurman and I fell in love with her. I loved her the way other seven-year-old girls loved Leonardo DiCaprio in Titanic that year; I loved her the way even some other seven-year-old girls loved Kate Winslet. If I could have, I would have made her the screensaver on my PC — but I did not yet have access to technology, and that honor would eventually go to Star Wars’ Padme Amidala a few years later.
Despite what the critics said, despite what the fans said, and despite what some of my very real-life friends say — Batman & Robin will always be a top-tier film for me. It will always hold a special place in my heart for being a very early destination on my own personal queer roadmap. Also, the soundtrack kicks ass.
So thank you, Joel Schumacher — whether you meant to or not. And more importantly, thank you, Uma Thurman. I’m a forever fan.
Zeynep Sasmazel is a cyber security risk analyst and writer. Much of her writing can be found at Hornet, a queer tech platform, where she covered topics ranging from queerness in ancient civilizations to Mozart to on-screen male nudity. She is currently working on her first novel.