The Necessary Audacity of ‘Bitch Planet’

Kelly Sue DeConnick doesn't go easy on the patriarchy.

“Men and women live on a stage. Men have written the play, directed the show, interpreted the meanings of the actions. They give preference to docile women, and those who fit their job description accurately. Men punish, by ridicule, exclusion, or ostracism, any woman who assumes the right to interpret her own role or–worst of all–the right to rewrite the script.” — Gerda Lerner, The Creation of Patriarchy

“When a man gives his opinion, he’s a man. When a woman gives her opinion, she’s a bitch.”– Bette Davis

In the years since her arrival on the scene, writer Kelly Sue DeConnick has become a celebrity of the comics world. Not only has she proven herself as a talented and popular writer through projects such as Marvel’s Captain Marvel starring Carol Danvers (now the basis for the upcoming movie) and her creator-owned book at Image, Pretty Deadly, but she has also become a powerful feminist voice and advocate for women’s representation in comics and the media. She’s now renowned for her proposition of the “Sexy Lamp Test” (her own version of the famous Bechdel Test), which states that any story where a woman character can be replaced with a sexy lamp and the plot still works is hack writing. She’s frequently been the rallying cry for women writers at conventions, stating she would gladly “make people uncomfortable so my daughter doesn’t have to” and describing herself as “Smurfette” at an Avengers panel when she was the only woman speaker.

DeConnick has never shied away from indicating sexism when she sees it, or from speaking out about the dire need for more widespread and genuine representations of women in popular media, a courageous gesture in a culture that so often vilifies outspoken women, even to the point of death threats or firing. And it’s DeConnick’s resolve that makes Bitch Planet the comic she was born to write, telling the story of a world where men make the rules and standards, and women either comply or are ostracized. So essentially, the comic’s world is our own.

Bitch Planet models itself after the women-in-prison (WiP) exploitation films of the late ’60s, depicting a world where women who are “non-compliant” to the male governance are shuttled off to a women’s prison planet jokingly called “Bitch Planet”. In keeping with the films’ now famously cliched and fetishized tropes, including women’s oppression, abuse, and objectification, DeConnick cleverly uses the scenario to parallel the ways in which patriarchal culture similarly subjugates women in modern life, providing a biting satire of male-dominated society.

The story revolves around Kamau Kogo, an inmate of Bitch Planet with extensive combat training. Seeing Kamau fight the prison’s guards in an attempt to save another inmate, an older white woman named Marian, from execution, the prison overseers request that Kamau lead a team of women inmates against a team of the guards in a popular sporting event called “Megaton”. which will be broadcast back to Earth. While Kamau arranges and trains her team for the event, she also looks into the mystery of who killed Marian. And all the while, the fervor within the prison boils as the women seek their chance at getting back at their captors.

In building the world of Bitch Planet, DeConnick has constructed a dystopian future evolved from modern-day gender politics and the grievances therein. The men in charge demonstrate sexist, patronizing behaviors and treatment that reflect similar or identical practices repeatedly seen and heard about even today.

In the first issue, Marian is shamed for her disobedient crime (which was simply getting angry with her husband for having an affair) by a holographic program resembling a nun and deemed “the Catholic”, which suggests Marian consider her own fault in the affair. In the opening of the second issue, a man tells a waitress at a party to smile and slaps her ass. In the fifth issue’s opening, a news corespondent repeatedly refers to his station’s anchorwoman as “sweetheart”. And in the obligatory WiP shower scene in issue four, several of the women are allowed to have sex as long as the guard in charge is permitted to watch (a wide-page spread of a man’s eye peeking through the wall serves as a brilliant symbol of the “male gaze”). These behaviors are direct reflections of degrading actions and practices still widely seen today in masculine culture and male-dominated institutions.

DeConnick also utilizes the comic to address more ingrained cultural prejudices towards women, including fat-shaming and racism. The third issue of the series provides a fascinating gender study in telling the origin of Penny Rolle, the prison’s resident large angry black woman and arguably, the comic’s breakout character. The issue shows Penny being brought before a tribunal of men in suits for her riotous behavior in the prison, including her frustration that there are no clothes her size. The men seek to shame Penny for her appearance, citing her crimes including “repeated citations for aesthetic offenses” and “wanton obesity” and then insisting they want to help her, asking her why she’s so angry.

Penny reminisces about a lifetime of being defined by others, including being told in school to see herself “through the fathers’ eyes” (including wearing a more “behaved” hair style) and being openly fat-shamed by male customers in a bakery, who deem her obesity a result of her being black. The story ends with the tribunal hooking Penny up to a device that reads her brain waves to display a picture of what she views as her “true self”. Much to the men’s shock, Penny only sees her reflection. The issue is a powerful statement on the oppression of women through societal standards of beauty, and the seeming audacity of women who are comfortable in deviating from them.

It’s no coincidence, then, that the bulk of the cast of Bitch Planet are non-white women. The guilt of the denizens of Bitch Planet runs deeper than their crimes, instead finding their basis in real-life parallels of bodily “non-compliance”, or non-adherence to the “model” individual in a patriarchal western culture: being a thin, young, sexualized white woman, (or even more ideally, a white man), as explained in the essay by Danielle Henderson in the back of the first issue. In Bitch Planet, as in life, one’s disadvantage coincides with one’s distance from this model, and one not need look too far to see the real-life parallels (think the increasingly exclusionary age and appearance standards for women in Hollywood). Penny is the most non-compliant of all the women simply in her existence: she’s a black woman, and she’s (very) plus-sized. And much to the surprise of her “superiors”, she wouldn’t have it any other way.

The comic’s themes reflect the famous words of feminist philosopher Mary Wollstonecraft: “it is time to separate unchangeable morals from local manners.” Many of the women in the comic have committed crimes under the law, but the outrage surrounding them stems more from their audacity to not know their place and their “manners”. The women aren’t seen as a threat because they’re criminals so much as that they’re non-compliant “bitches”. In her own way, DeConnick has embraced the title of “bitch” to applaud those women willing to be “non-compliant” towards restrictive, patriarchal gender norms, even inspiring a league of fans to tattoo themselves with “N.C.” markings like those seen on the inmates’ clothing.

Bitch Planet is a bitchy comic in the best sense of the word: it’s outspoken, confrontational, and unabashed in its criticisms. It is the kind of comic that creates the discomfort needed to highlight the stubborn gender norms that continue to stunt women’s progress and representation in the media and professional world. And if it needs to be up in your face about it to get the point across, that’s exactly what it’s going to do. And that’s exactly why it’s so necessary.