In the Feminist Sci-Fi of 'Bitch Planet,' Noncompliant Women Get Even
Courtesy of Image Comics
In a world of enduring sexism, what keeps women from revolt? One obstacle is the diffuse nature of the enemy: It's not always clear where to direct one's rage. But imagine a world in which the target were clear — where everything de facto were de jure, every microaggression writ macro, and the logic of everyday misogyny carried out to its brutal conclusion. This is the world of Bitch Planet, Kelly Sue DeConnick and Valentine De Landro's sci-fi feminist exploitation comic, where noncompliant women (or "NCs") are shipped off by Earth's ruling protectorate to a for-profit, off-planet Auxiliary Compliance Outpost, otherwise known as "Bitch Planet."
This year, DeConnick and De Landro released President Bitch, the comic's second arc, which begins to trace how this dystopia came to be. In Bitch Planet, we see a group of NCs arrive at the prison, supposedly guilty of a number of crimes: mockery, accessory to egotism, irreversible ill-temper, fetal murder. Among the new inmates is Kamau Kogo, a former athlete who volunteered arrest in search of her sister, who is detained somewhere on the planet in a trans-only unit. Dangling before her the promise of family reunion, special operatives ask Kam to assemble a team of fellow prisoners to compete in the otherwise all-male Megaton, a deadly, televised contact sport that's a mix of MMA, football, and the Hunger Games. Kam wants to see her sister; the ruling protectorate wants the women's team to drive ratings and bank profits to fund the prison. Kam accepts their mission, but she and the NCs have a Hail Mary counterplan in mind.
President Bitch picks up again on Earth, where a group of women who call themselves the "Children of Eleanor Doane" have formed an underground revolutionary cell. Doane herself was long believed to be dead, until Kam discovers her alive — on Planet Bitch. Once president of the protectorate (and the first black female president), Doane was imprisoned, we suspect, when a reactionary patriarchal formation installed the current order. During a multi-compound prison riot, Doane emerges to address her onetime constituency. "I have risen," she says, with no subtle undertone. The teaser text for Issue 10, out in early 2017, promises, "President Bitch in Charge!"
Of course, the president bitch we hoped would be in charge in 2017, either as hero or lesser villain, didn't need a win to incite reaction; simply to run was enough. DeConnick, who writes the script for Bitch Planet (De Landro does art and covers), says she never intended for the book to respond to the election. But the resonances are "a little chilling."
"It's not meant to be relentlessly depressing," she says. "In the end, the women will win."
Bitch Planet is a satire, and DeConnick counts Jonathan Swift's A Modest Proposal and Margaret Atwood's The Handmaid's Tale among the comic's influences. The latter is "the DNA of the book," she says, and Bitch Planet shares that novel's radical feminist spirit and dystopian core. Stripped of rights like the women in The Handmaid's Tale, the women of Bitch Planet are forbidden from studying math or science, wearing pants, pursuing sexual freedom, or straying too far from their reproductive function.
But a more obvious point of comparison might be Orange Is the New Black — another contemporary women-in-prison narrative that puts its black, queer, and trans characters at its center. Like OITNB, Bitch Planet is equal parts drama and comedy, and periodic flashback "episodes" reveal individual characters' backstories. The show comes up often in conversation with readers, DeConnick says, but she hasn't watched any episodes beyond the pilot. "If [the OITNB writers] do something I want to do," she says, "I don't want to feel like I can't do it."
Bitch Planet veers furthest from OITNB in its combination of cheeky sci-fi and exploitation tropes (Issue 4 has a scene titled "The Obligatory Shower Scene"). Like any good satire, it stretches plausibility just far enough to reveal how much of the unreasonable future already exists in the so-called reasonable present. On the Earth of Bitch Planet, billboards bearing smiling white women shill ambiguous beauty products with tags like EAT LESS POOP MORE and NO MORE PORES — idiotic injunctions not unlike those you see on the subway (cf. the BIKINI FEARS breast augmentation ads, or the ones with the fruit). The parody of bad masculinity slated to run our country would be perfectly at home in this universe.
Such depressing familiarity induces a slow-boiling rage, and so the pleasure of Bitch Planet is the pleasure of the revenge fantasy: Women deck armed guards, rip Peeping Toms through bathroom walls, and sooner slit men's throats with violin strings than endure their unwanted advances. But a countervailing feature of Bitch Planet is its back matter, an appendix of written material that consists of guest essays, reader letters, and an editorial note from DeConnick.
After all the action, this talk has a deflating effect. Short, 101-friendly writings from academics and internet feminists stake out familiar positions on intersectionality, representation, and visibility, and artistic choices are processed to a point of threatening Bitch Planet's raw appeal, as though the comic were packed with prefab lessons just so it could be unpacked — an impression the panels don't give. "It's a lot of preaching to the choir," DeConnick admits, which explains why the back matter feels a bit like choir practice: a place where friendly parties can rehearse their talking points.
But Bitch Planet is good at showing where it's bad at telling, and smarter than the back matter lets on. Skip the readings, read the book, and feel the anger rise inside you. Like the best feminist propaganda, it restores the zeal of the convert even to the jaded.
Bitch Planet, Vol. 2: President Bitch
Story by Kelly Sue
Art by Valentine
144 pp., $14.99
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