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Are you WOMAN enough for Bitch Planet?

Leigh Nicholson takes a trip to an intergalactic penal colony and reviews Bitch Planet, an exploitation comic without the misogyny.

You know a comic is going to be good when it’s billed as ‘Margaret Atwood meets Inglorious Bastards’.  Also, the title is pretty catchy.  Bitch Planet is the latest series from comic writers Kelly Sue DeConnick and Valentine De Landro.  It’s an angry mix of sci-fi and feminism, set in a future where ‘non-compliant’ women are sent to the prison planet Auxiliary Compliance Outpost, aka, ‘Bitch Planet’.  What hooked me, is its brutal satire of old exploitation comics and film – that genre of ‘50s, ’60s and ’70s media which appealed to the misogynistic mix of ‘damsel in distress’ and violence, where “women in prison” was its own form. And unlike other representations that have briefly touched on reclaiming that media, the majority of the characters in this comic are women of colour.

I have always been conflicted by my love of Quentin Tarantino films and Frank Miller comics.  Both are self-aware reproductions of old exploitation media. But both also come at a price: the ‘satirical’ exploitation is always being done by white male writers/directors at the expense of exploited minorities.  Tarantino’s Jackie Brown was one of his first exploitation-inspired films. The protagonist is a boss woman of colour who ultimately fucks over everyone who is trying to fuck her over.  Except a lot of his later films have some pretty horrendous race politics.   Death Proof – my favourite of the genre – is a great example of how those directors can sometimes get it right.  Death Proof is made eons better when you know that Zoe Bell, the New Zealand woman who kicks Kurt Russel’s ass, does all her own stunts. Frank Miller’s Sin City comics are a pretty good self-critical homage to old exploitation comics, by including diverse range of characters, each with their own headlining stories.  But on the other hand, Robert Rodriguez’s film remakes were an excellent example of how a guy can screw up what could have been an empowering and pro-sex-worker flick.  For example, he sidelined a lot of the women and gave them less control in his films than they had in the comics.

It is these numerous failures that make Bitch Planet all the more a success.  Its objective is made pretty clear in the first prison scene. All of the women lined up, nude. The reader is introduced to Penny, a massive woman with the words “Born Big” tattooed on her arm. When she is handed prison clothes that are obviously too small, she shoves them back. She’s hit by a male guard, but in retaliation, lays an uppercut on him powerful enough to knock his helmet off and screams “Where’m I supposed to put my tits?”.

Bitch Planet comic strip

The comic is set in a dystopic and violently patriarchal sci-fi world where it takes very little to get a woman imprisoned on Bitch Planet. In this universe, any strong, empowered woman is guilty of a crime: failure to be ‘compliant’. “Follicular Mutilation” – shaving your hair – is enough to land you on Bitch Planet.  It’s a crime awfully reminiscent of the horrifying, but very real, ‘diagnoses’ that used to land women in asylums in the ‘50s.  “Mania”, “hysteria” and “woman disease” – now I guess what we call ‘a Bitch’.  And once you get a bunch of angry, non-compliant women in a planet-sized prison (the tagline for Issue 1 is “Girl Gangs…Caged and Enraged!”), the next logical step is for the inmates to become subjects of a fighting, Hunger Game-esque reality show, which is inevitably where the story ends up going.

In an interview with I09, Kelly Sue DeConnick suggested that Bitch Planet was born out of a similar conflict to the one I felt with exploitation films.  DeConnick was fan of the old exploitation films when she was younger, but she was horrified to re-watch them as an adult and realise how sexist and racist they were.  The comic became her attempt to still enjoy the genre.

The comic she created has the themes of old exploitation media, but with enough tongue-in-cheek satire for it to be clear to most people what is happening.  In old exploitation films, women are often nude in dehumanising or unnecessary situations; kind of like Jane Fonda in Barbarella but with more violence.  Bitch Planet has similar amounts of nudity but it is done purposefully.  In an interview with Wired, DeConnick said “I’m OK with the reader being uncomfortable with nudity, but I don’t want the reader to be deliberately aroused by it”.

Each Bitch Planet issue comes stocked with a double page mini-essay at the back on a particular feminist topic.  Issue 2 comes with a bit written by the self-proclaimed “unapologetic, black feminist” Tasha Fierce, tearing into the greater need for intersectionality and the dilution of the term ‘feminist’.

The essays are great way of injecting discussion into a type of media that is often seen as insubstantial. Each contributes a different perspective to the comic panels that you read prior. I imagine that there are a lot of people reading Bitch Planet who don’t pick up what DeConnick and De Landro intend to do, or wouldn’t until they read the critical reflections at the back.  I spoke to Tasha Fierce about this and she agreed. “If you don’t get that the comic is rooted in feminist ideology, the essay at the end smacks you in the face with it”.  She pointed out that women being behind the comic make it inherently subversive and “the fact that the essay is kind of snuck in at the end contributes to its subversiveness”.  It could have even more of an impact if the reader had missed that aspect of it the first time around.  Fierce hopes that “maybe they’ll go back and read it again with new eyes”. 

When I told Fierce about my conflict in indulging in exploitation media as a queer woman, she admitted herself to also be a fan of Tarantino and Robert Rodriguez- including Jackie Brown and the Machete series.  I think it’s possible to appreciate some aspects of work that are great while acknowledging other aspects are problematic.  That’s life in general,” she said. “But you have to balance that with holding media-makers accountable”.