In the near future, troublesome women are marked “noncompliant” and trucked off to a space age Auxiliary Compliance Outpost – aka Bitch Planet – which is also the name of a new comic series by Kelly Sue DeConnick and Valentine De Landro.
It doesn’t take much to become noncompliant. Maybe you’ve committed murder, but maybe you’re just fat. The prison itself is one part Black Mirror, one part Orange is the New Black. Incarcerated women are stripped naked and greeted by a holographic corseted nun (simulation name “The Catholic”) before they’re given uniforms. There are also holographic rooms with pornography and crying babies, and a politically controlled bloodsport that’s gladiator-catharsis-meets-CNN.
After that, who knows. As in our reality, most of the inmates are women of color. Although there can be repeat offenders, one gets the sense that NCs (noncompliants) are interned for the long term, and that their labor and thoughts are massaged, not just patrolled.
Bitch Planet is refreshing to anyone who’s spent time with some of the more popular ne’er-do-well female superheroes like Harley Quinn or She-Hulk. Bitch Planet’s women aren’t all sexy, and none are winsomely manic or quirky. One of two main characters, Penny Rolle, is extremely fat. Although standards of physical beauty are a common topic in this series, there are no Pygmalion or Miss Congeniality turns of fortune: the heroines do not suddenly become physically attractive because they’ve “discovered” their true selves and conveniently chipped away at their defenses only to find physical beauty.
This is one of the strengths of Bitch Planet. It also doesn’t go far enough. Like many contemporary feminist works, it equivocates. The comic’s third of 30 planned issues is backstory for Penny Rolle, an angry, tender black woman who is “wantonly obese” and shaves her head. The flashback itself is humanizing without avoiding real-world politics like the over-incarceration of people of color or the phenomenon of “good hair”.
But the framing device is a little schlocky. The prison wardens hook Penny up to a mind-reading device and ask her to picture her ideal self. She does, and the projection might as well be a mirror – no difference between her reality and her ideal. Well, huh. Perhaps this is Penny’s superpower. Not relatable to me, yet surely there are women who really consider themselves completely, ideally attractive. But then in the comic’s postscript, DeConnick laments the omission of one element of Penny’s backstory that didn’t make the cut: “A period in her life where [Penny] slimmed down and [felt] as though she had lost herself, literally … Penny not only feels more herself at her size … she also doesn’t care if she offends your eye; in fact, she prefers it.” A-ha! Now we’re cooking with gas. I want a feminism that says “Maybe you don’t need to be beautiful,” (some people choose not to be) rather than “Everything is beautiful,” which is pandering.
Bitch Planet can feel like dystopian Crock-Pot soup: lots of ingredients stewing without much forethought. For example, one villain is uncannily folksy, but then he goes and quotes Byron in a political speech. Am I supposed to fear the councilman for his benign despot routine, or is he like the Romantic poet, aristocratic and a little fey?
While I’m sold on the comic book’s nightmare of gender, I have no understanding of its religious or political critique. The ruling class are addressed as “Father” and a voiceover intones, “In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth” – but those are just buzzwords. How is religion actually oppressing the people? Is it problematic because it’s patriarchal, or has it been used specifically by Bitch Planet’s political machine as an opiate (or judiciary) of the masses? A socially progressive comic book should accept people of color’s spiritual lives, which are often patriarchally religious. But the race-religion relationship isn’t discussed.
Feminism is finally taking race seriously, but many feminists allude to race without getting into the specifics of lived experience. Orange is the New Black, which is similar in theme and structure to Bitch Planet, did this the right way, delving into the specifics of how women of color got screwed over by the system – and made a set of bad choices different in kind from white women’s. Bitch Planet has made race admirably salient, but its grasp of non-cliche specifics – in all its social critiques, but most disconcertingly when addressing race – means the series is still getting its sea legs. The third and latest issue was the most promising in this regard.
Bitch Planet isn’t perfect, but it’s a refreshing foray into the feminist exploitation genre.
Source: The Guardian