Bitch Planet: Extraordinary Machine
by Kelly Sue DeConnick, Valentine De Landro, and Robert Wilson IV
2015 • 156 pages • Image Comics
While I’m familiar with the long history of feminist dystopian fiction (have I mentioned how much I loved Only Ever Yours?), I’m far less familiar with exploitation films, especially the women-in-prison variant. Nonetheless, the idea of reclaiming women-in-prison films for the purposes of feminist discourse naturally appeals to me. I also very much trust Kelly Sue DeConnick due not to anything like Captain Marvel (as I haven’t read her run yet), but to her adaptation of Barbarella (which I also haven’t read, but I’ve read DeConnick’s interviews regarding the art of adaptation). Reframing and adapting supposedly empowering female narratives from the past to actually be empowering? Nice.
Bitch Planet takes place in a future where women who are deemed noncompliant—i.e., too loud, too butch, too queer, too brown, too assertive, too “insufficiently feminine”—by the ruling Fathers. Women who are terminally noncompliant are arrested and shipped off to the Auxiliary Compliance Outpost, nicknamed “Bitch Planet.” The latest crop of ladies struggle, suffer, and resist against their guards. But inmate Kamau Kogo is approached with an offer: put together an all-female team for the bloody Duemila sports competition. While kowtowing to the powers that put them in prison doesn’t appeal to Kamau, the opportunities it might provide, for both her fellow inmates and herself, do…
I usually recommend Only Ever Yours to people with a major disclaimer regarding how brutal it is and how there’s no relief for that brutality unlike in, say, The Handmaid’s Tale. Bitch Planet is just as brutal, but the difference is that the inmates are hyper-aware of the system they’re suffering under and how much they can get away from it. The result is lives whose fullness can only be expressed in stolen scraps. When Kamau is summoned to the back of the showers to gather intelligence, she learns that there’s a shower where inmates go to have sex. Homosexuality is definitely noncompliant, but the inmates have struck a deal with one of the guards. He won’t rat them out if he can watch. For this inmate and her girlfriend, it’s the only time they have to even be with each other, and the expression on their faces as they tell Kamau this is heartbreaking—one abashed, one steely.
Kamau’s response to learning this information comes a little later. It is amazing and definitely worth not spoiling.
The world of Bitch Planet is loud, over the top, and frighteningly true to life. Duemila is a man’s sport, say the Fathers, so the only training footage the inmate team gets to work with is a Duemila for Dummies Women video. In this interview with Hazlitt, DeConnick mentions that she thought she was pushing it—until she found an actual Football 101 By literalizing the system of standards that keep women down and often keep women from each other, Bitch Planet (and the entire genre of feminist dystopian literature) gives us the tools to talk about and dismantle them. While this collected volume doesn’t collect the essays or letters pages from the single issues—which I’ve heard are fantastic—it does provide some questions for a reading group at the back.
Ultimately, the joy of Bitch Planet seeing the different ways in which the women resist. Kamau has the most overt protagonist traits—she’s treated as a leader by the other inmates, she can’t be broken, and she’s seemingly on a search for someone—but in the first five issues, it’s Penelope “Penny” Rolle who stands out. She’s one of the biggest women in the prison, tall and, according to the Fathers, “wantonly obese.” In the third issue, we learn a lot about where Penny came from, as she’s singled out for a procedure that aims to look deep into her psyche to pull out the woman she wants to be at its core. As a group of Fathers look on, Penny stares into a mirror to find—herself, as she is now. Penny is strong, loud-mouthed, and capable of incredible violence, but her greatest threat to the Fathers’ world order is the fact that she dares to love herself for who she is in a world that tells her she should hate herself and other women.
Cue fist pump. I can’t wait to see where this goes.
I rented this book at the public library.