To be Non-Compliant: Bitch Planet and the Modern Comic Book Industry

I am thrilled to announce our latest post, from soon-to-be-an-alumn, Isabel Gonzales.  Isabel was the Women’s Studies Program’s Martha Welch Award recipient this year, and this smart, well-written post speaks to Isabel’s contribution to the program.  Here, she looks at comic book culture, considering the ways that patriarchal values have informed even “subversive” genres.  If you are a comics reader, I’m betting you’ll find a lot that resonates in this post, and if you don’t read graphic narratives already, Isabel’s essay will make you take notice.  

A quick note: to those of you who are new to our blog, we are generally pretty quiet in the summer, but we’re looking forward to a robust schedule of posts in the Fall.  And to those of you like Isabel who are about to graduate from our program, let us take one more opportunity to thank you for being such great students and to wish you well.  Please stay in touch, online or otherwise!

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The popular image of the comic book industry—from the storylines, the most popular characters, the producers, and the consumers—is one of a male-dominated, even males only, sort of space. Though this is far from the growing reality, this “boys club” reputation persists, in spite of the fact that women and non-binary individuals have been comic book readers and creators since the inception of the comic books industry itself. There are even members of the comic book community who wish to uphold the “by males, for males” image of the comic book industry. While the environment for women in comic books is improving slowly and slightly, there are still constant reminders of the constructed male hegemony. The headlining characters of many comic books remain mostly-homogenous, even as Marvel makes more pushes for diversity with its changes to legacy characters. Male creators—some of whom are actively hostile towards women, people of color, and people of marginalized genders and sexual orientations—still create the industry’s dominant plotlines, and dictate the vast majority of narratives. And as more women, MOGAI-identifying individuals, and people of color begin to create spaces and representation for themselves in the comic book industry, they are faced with resistance and retaliation from the “old guard” for the radical notion of wanting their lived experiences to have some sort of representation and respect. See, for example, the reaction to female fans discussing the inappropriateness of a Batgirl variant cover that harkened back to a storyline that ended with her victimization and rape, or the attempts to sexualize and de-power Spider-Gwen—a teenage character that many young female fans are finding power and representation in—by drawing her in the same pose of an infamous Spider-Woman cover that lovingly-rendered her back and buttocks with the same detail as if she were shrink-wrapped into her costume.spidergwen-spiderwoman

Even in some of the most pro-women stories, a problem exists in that there’s a constant dance-stepping away from the dreaded f-word. Creators are wanting to create “strong” or “empowered” female characters, but do so while avoiding associating themselves with feminism, and, for that matter, the intersectional core of modern, third/fourth-wave feminism. For many creators, in spite of the industry’s progress, “feminism” remains the “Voldemort” of the comic book industry. Even Wonder Woman, a character long-associated with female liberation, isn’t safe from being de-powered and disassociated from female empowerment, with the current artist of the Wonder Woman series outright stating that he wants the titular character to be seen as “strong”—but not “feminist.”

wonderwoman-feminism

Even if the artist’s intentions weren’t to discredit feminism, wanting to dissociate a character that has been so associated with women’s empowerment speaks volumes to the environment of male hegemony that women participants in the comic book industry must deal with. Considering this, it’s hard to believe that Kelly Sue DeConnick and Valentine de Landro’s Bitch Planet—one of the most overt works of feminist fiction released this year—is a comic book. But at the same time, it’s almost fitting that a narrative challenging male cultural dominance is coming out of such a hypermasculine industry. It’s a form of poetic justice, of sorts, or an act of resistance in and of itself. As it sits on the same shelves as openly exploitative books and books that tout their “girl power without the feminism,” Bitch Planet acts as an openly-angry, openly-unapologetic, openly intersectional challenge to all aspects of the patriarchy, including the “boys club” mentality of comic books, down to the iconic double-middle finger salute of the cover to the first issue. Spoilers below.

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Admittedly, upon first glance, Bitch Planet doesn’t seem feminist, and the double middle-finger salute could easily be seen as just more of the same “offensive for the sake of being offensive” faux-satire that makes patriarchal media mainstays like South Park and Family Guy popular. Now, this isn’t to say that Bitch Planet doesn’t deserve its M rating. It definitely does. The second and third pages of the first issue feature full-frontal female nudity, and it doesn’t get any more family-friendly from there. However, the narrative—and, more importantly, the artistic presentation of this nudity—is loaded with so much de-sexualization and so much intent that it’s acted as offputting to some male readers. Quite the jump from the constantly-hypersexualized superheroines of mainstream comics. DeConnick’s careful attention to narrative and detail, combined with DeLandro’s brilliant, careful art, makes Bitch Planet a modern feminist must-read.

It’s difficult to summarize such a nuanced, intense series such as Bitch Planet, but think Atwood’s the Handmaid’s Tale meets Orange is the New Black, with far more intersectionality than either and in space. The plot of Bitch Planet, simplified down to its basics, is so: humankind has begun to colonize outer space, and Earth is ruled by a literal patriarchy known as the Council of Fathers. Women who violate the Council of Fathers’ laws are deemed “non-compliant,” or NCs, and are sent to an interstellar prison planet, colloquially referred to as Bitch Planet. The nature of the main inmates’ crimes are only vaguely hinted at in the few issues that have been released, but from what vague description of their crimes the readers have, it’s obvious that the Council of Fathers’ laws are totalitarian, institutionalized versions of the controlling images that society bounds women by today. As the non-complaint women are being transported to Bitch Planet, they are told:

“Earth is the father, and your father has cast you out. For your gluttony, your pride, your weakness, and your wickedness are such that you are beyond correction or castigation….you must be excised from the world that bore you for the well-being of us all…[sic] lest your sickness spread.”

This account is imposing in its vagueness, but gives readers a look into the horrifying laws that the Council of Fathers have forced women into complying with. Compounding the descriptions of the main inmates’ crimes is one of the as-of-now-few overt looks we get at the nature of criminality in the universe of Bitch Planet: the slow reveal of the crime committed by a middle-aged white woman named Marian. As the first issue comes to a close, several important things are revealed. First, it is revealed that Marian’s crime is nothing of her own doing. Marian’s crime is the fact that she wasn’t “good enough” for her husband, “forcing” him to have an affair and leave her for a younger, bouncier, more “compliant” woman. As a result of her husband’s actions, Marian is blamed for his infidelity, blames herself for his infidelity, and is sent to Bitch Planet, where she eventually dies, in spite of the main characters’ attempts to save her life from the prison guards.

The second important reveal that comes out of the final pages of Bitch Planet #1 is the reveal of who, exactly, the true main characters are, a reveal that speaks to the true intersectional feminist core of the book. Up until the final pages, the narrative sets up Marian, middle-aged, white, and from a somewhat wealthy background, to be the main character of the book. What Bitch Planet could have given us was a narrative of white, straight, middle-aged, relatively-privileged Marian, learning how to become the leader the Bitch Planet prison compound, a population that is made up mostly of women of color. This would have been incredibly problematic, especially for a modern feminist narrative. Instead, Bitch Planet’s main character is Kamau Kogo, a cool-headed, protective, physically strong black woman who, along the course of the four existing issues, hints to a plan that not only involves an escape from the titular interstellar prison compound, but would challenge the Council of Fathers’ patriarchy altogether. In addition to Kamau, though, Bitch Planet offers us several secondary and tertiary characters, almost all of whom are women of color or women of multiple identities. Some of these women include Meiko, who—far from the “demure, blushing cherry blossom/geisha” stereotype of East Asian women—volunteers to be part of Kamau’s plan; Violet, a hijabi woman who, in the first issue, stands up to the prison guards as they are committing an act of brutality; an interracial lesbian couple who help Kamau in her plans by finding a “blind spot” for the guards; and Penelope “Penny Rolle,” an African American woman whose crime is her “gluttony” and non-compliance to the hegemonic, stick-thin image of beauty, and whose pride comes at no expense of her consistently-nuanced portrayal and backstory. In focusing its feminism on women of color, MOGAI-identifying women, non-thin women, and women who are of multiple identities, who face multiple and specific modes of oppression because of their identities, Bitch Planet goes from an “empowering” story to one that truly exists to embody modern third/fourth-wave feminism—the feminism of multiplicity.

To quote her postscript essay for the Bitch Planet #1, feminist pop culture critic Danielle Henderson sums the most horrific aspect about the NCs’ crimes, and the most appealing aspect of Bitch Planet, as a series, in one sentence: “The striking thing about Bitch Planet is that we’re already on it.” And through her careful, biting style of storytelling, DeConnick makes this vividly, violently clear. The hypersexualized female AI of Bitch Planet meant to “motivate” the non-complaints, the Matron, is the Madonna-Whore Complex embodied. The crimes of the non-complaint are the violations of social strains that women are forced into complying in the real world. Even the non-compliant prison planet itself, Bitch Planet, is Marilyn Frye’s systemic birdcage of sexism made reality. Henderson’s sentiments ring true: the scariest part of Bitch Planet is that it’s an amped-up version of the sexism that women face in the real world. And in an industry that, though improving, still proves itself as a space dominated by male hegemony, to publish Bitch Planet, to read Bitch Planet, to be part of the growing movement for more diversity and respect within a relatively-homogenous industry, is an act of resistance, making its supporters not simple passive observers, but active participants, or alternatively: real-world non-complaints.

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