Bound By Law: Bitch Planet Comics Studies Round Table (part two)

Editor’s Note: This is the second of an exciting three-part series here on The Middle Spaces—organized and co-edited by Qiana Whitted—a round table of nine different scholars discussing Image Comics’ Bitch Planet series, by Kelly Sue DeConnick and Valentine De Landro. Full bios for all our contributors can be found on the Guest Writers page.

Our round table continues today with three more scholars asking vital questions about Image Comics’ Bitch Planet by Kelly Sue DeConnick and Valentine De Landro.  As co-editor Qiana Whitted wrote in her introduction in part one: “Speculation drives these short pieces; we are posing questions and making observations that are designed to prompt further discussion about the critical intersections that Bitch Planet inspires.” Click here to see part one: “Caged and Enraged: Bitch Planet Comics Studies Round Table.”

How Does Bitch Planet Deconstruct the Stereotypes of Black Women in Prison?

Rachel Marie-Crane WilliamsAssociate Professor in the Gender, Women’s and Sexuality Studies Department and in the School of Art and Art History at the University of Iowa.

Black women are often presented in popular culture as characters with finite possibilities–as mammies, Jezebels, welfare queens, the all powerful matriarch, the Hottentot Venus, gold diggers, soul queens, gangsta bitches, prude church ladies, and sista’ saviors. These stereotypes threaten to crowd out accurate representations of black women seeking to build authentic selves and liberation from tiny cultural pigeonholes. Bitch Planet by Kelly Sue DeConnick and Valentine De Landro from Image Comics is one of the few successful comics, deeply influenced by popular culture, in which characters who are black women are shown as multidimensional human beings with wants, needs, desires, and authentic lives.

One complication is that the women of color in Bitch Planet are incarcerated. More specifically, Black women in real life and in popular culture, who are incarcerated, are often mythologized and conflated with deviance, hyper sexuality, violence, and even compared to beasts, who must be confined. In her 2003 book, Are Prisons Obsolete?, Angela Davis wrote “Jails and prisons are designed to break human beings, to convert the population into specimens in a zoo—obedient to our keepers but dangerous to each other” (23).  Black women experience sexualized white supremacy through intense, traumatic, and invasive macro and microaggressions everyday; this does not change because they go to prison. We see this echoed in Bitch Planet.

Kam confronts the peeping tom prison guard and forces him to help her (from Bitch Planet #4) [Click to Enlarge Image]

The prison shower seems to be a pivotal place in the carceral geography of Bitch Planet; especially for black women. It is the location in Bitch Planet where the stereotypes of the Blaxploitation films that inspired DeConnick and De Landro are turned on their heads. Their tongue in cheek naming of the chapter, “The Obligatory Shower Scene” in issue #4 is a nod to many of the pop culture influences of the series. In the chapter, Kamu (nicknamed “Kam”), a former athlete, framed for murder, is trying to negotiate prison culture, while recruiting women to play in a blood sport game called Megaton. The art within the entire book, but this set of panels in particular, lovingly portrays the bodies of realistic looking women of all shapes, colors, and sizes. The women allow a male guard, Rick Weldon, to engage his peeping Tom fantasies by watching them shower through a tiny jagged hole; in exchange he agrees not to report their clandestine activities and conversations.  Later, Kamu baits him by playing at deliciously masturbating, ultimately she pulls him through the wall and nearly kills him with a shower pipe. She reverses his exploitation by threatening to rat him and his “tiny freckled penis” out for perversion. His fear of exposure is so great that he agrees to help her get information and find her sister.

In issue #7, “President Bitch: Part One”, we see Kam in the showers with Penny who is sitting on the floor under a soft spray of water. We see Kam squat next to Penny and try to talk her out of the guilt she is feeling for the death of another inmate and friend named Meiko. Penny silently acknowledges Kam’s kindness through a moment of hand holding. Once she rises again she assumes the mantle of Penny Rolle, a proudly fat black woman raised to be strong by her grandmother, before the disciplining Fathers of the Auxiliary Compliance Outpost, known as Bitch Planet, intervened.

Kam comforts Penny in the shower (from Bitch Planet #7).

On the next page Kam is featured in seven out of eight panels. She also has resumed her mantle of athletic bad-ass, uses a muscled arm to knock on the shower tiles with her fist summoning her rat-guard, and tells him to get her a map, a finger in his face. Then she turns her back on him and walks away. The essay by Angelica Jade Bastien, at the end of this issue, complicates an oversimplified reading of Penny’s and Kam’s inner and outer strength by explaining how harmful the stereotype of the strong black woman can be.

Deconnick and De Landro draw on reader’s knowledge of these stereotypes, but then deconstruct them in key moments, like the shower scene mentioned above. The women in Bitch Planet must use aspects of stereotypes for self-preservation against the patriarchy and their captors, but in the process, work hard not to lose their humanity.

[For more about these ideas read, Sister Citizen by Melissa V. Harris Perry, Black Feminist Thought: Knowledge, Consciousness, and the Politics of Empowerment  by Patricia Hill Collins, and Citizen by Claudia Rankine]

Where Does Bitch Planet Fit Into Scholarly Conversations About Trans Representation in Comics?

Nicholas E. Miller, Visiting Assistant Professor of English at Hollins University.

This question operates on a complicated assumption: that substantive scholarly conversations about trans representation are happening in comics studies. A quick search of peer-reviewed publications produces few entries on trans identities in comics prior to 2015, with many of those pointing to the first trans panel at San Diego Comic-Con as a watershed moment. There is, of course, exceptional work being done by comics scholars right now, yet we remain woefully behind non-academic writers and activists in our field when it comes to writing about trans representation seriously.  (You might begin, for example, with the following conversation in Cinema Journal, facilitated by Suzanne Scott and Ellen Fitzpatrick. I also highly recommend Nami Hatfield’s essay on trans webcomics and library spaces, published by in the Queer Cats Journal of LGBTQ Studies, and Thomas J. Billard’s and  Brian L. MacAuley’s chapter in Heroes, Heroines, and Everything in Between, which examines transgender characters in Marvel, DC, and Image comics.)

Bitch Planet, the Image Comics series by Kelly Sue DeConnick and Valentine De Landro, offers us one opportunity to do more of that work. This text merits our scholarly attention, in part, because it sits at the intersection of independent and mainstream comics. The trans characters who are visible in comics today still appear primarily in independent and self-published titles, making the publication of Bitch Planet with Image significant. This series also provides us with a number of paratexts that might help us to analyze examples of trans representation that primarily have been made visible by non-trans creators. Comics scholars would be remiss to ignore the back matter included with individual issues, the dialogue between DeConnick and De Landro in the trade paperback (Book Two), or the writings of trans consultants like Emma Houxbois.

Even as consultants like Houxbois speak highly of the work done in Bitch Planet, they also note that “consultants are not a substitute for hiring actual transgender creators nor are we a substitute for doing the work.” In suggesting that Bitch Planet might serve as a productive site for examining trans representation in comics, then, I do not want to suggest that the work here should supplant a study of comics like Magdalene Visaggio’s and Eva Cabrera’s Kim & Kim or the excellent work by trans creators on independent comics. Instead, I propose that the complex narrative of representing trans characters in Bitch Planet offers a unique opportunity to think about these questions through its distinctive paratextual framework.

(from Bitch Planet #8)

This is, perhaps, most evident in the first panel to Bitch Planet #8, where we first see the “Non-Compliants” in Facility One. The narrative caption informs us that trans women were the first to be detained and sent to the Auxiliary Compliance Outpost. In that image, we get a sense of how DeConnick and De Landro approach the presentation of anatomy with trans characters. From DeConnick’s notes to De Landro—part of the back matter from the trade paperback in Book Two of Bitch Planet—we learn that: “Many of these women, if not most, will have penises. That is a fact we want to show without fetishizing—no close-ups, no centering of the penises in this frame.” Their goal here is to normalize trans anatomy and avoid passing judgment on bodies.

(from Bitch Planet #8)

What I find most striking in these paratextual notes, however, is how the representation of hair for these characters was actually the place where DeConnick found herself “projecting a bit.” What we, as scholars, would not have known from these panels is that DeConnick initially was operating under the assumption that most trans women would want to grow their hair out. As a result, one of the trans characters—Morowa—was originally written to have long hair. This assumption, however, was checked by one of the consultants who told DeConnick that: “Queers gonna queer.” The final choice to make Morowa’s hair short in Bitch Planet was thus a direct response to consultants, and one that undermined DeConnick’s own generalized assumptions about trans aesthetics and experiences.

I bring this up not to establish the importance of “authorial intent” when it comes to our scholarly work on trans representation, but instead to highlight how creator transparency, consultant writings, and the paratexts attached to Bitch Planet open up additional interpretive possibilities. As a text that features many trans women—not just a single character carrying the entire weight of representation—these notes, along with reflections by consultants, might help us to locate and interrogate our own assumptions as scholars looking to be more attentive to trans experiences. As Houxbois writes, “there’s little to no context or framework within comics criticism to examine transgender representation or aesthetics beyond the superficial.” This is something that Bitch Planet nicely highlights, and it gives us an opportunity to do better.

With that, let me open this post up to readers. If you are visiting this round table, you are likely familiar with Bitch Planet. How many of you also read Visaggio’s Kim & Kim or other comics with trans characters/creators? How do you think Bitch Planet compares with those comics in terms of trans representation? Or, on a different note, how many of you have read trans scholarship coming out of other disciplines? How might the ways trans representation is studied in other fields be useful to us as comics scholars? Finally, what scholarship on trans representation in comics might you recommend to me and to other readers?

How Do Advertising Parodies Trace the Policing of Women’s Bodies in Bitch Planet?

Nicole Pizarro, PhD student in English at The Ohio State University.

The first issue of Kelly Sue DeConnick and Valentine De Landro’s Bitch Planet begins with a woman making her way through a city. Her face is hard to make out in the sea of bodies walking around her. What is noticeable, however, is the amount of advertising that takes up most of the panels depicting her walk. The ads show messages like “Eat less, Poop More,” “No more pores,” “You’re fat,” and “Obey.” Bitch Planet is about the women who fail to comply in a world where patriarchal control over women and their bodies is the standard. These women are found to be unfit for society and are sent to the Auxiliary Compliance Post know as Bitch Planet. The women on Earth are bullied into fulfilling society’s standards, whereas the women on Bitch Planet are forced to comply or die.

Ad from Photoplay (January 1916)

The advertisements that appear throughout the story are invested in women losing weight and ensuring that their (male) partners are satisfied. Every issue of Bitch Planet ends with a page of advertisements. Aesthetically, the ads are reminiscent of those in magazines from the early 1900’s. In Bitch Planet the ads are arguably geared towards women, although all the advertisement pages from issues 1 through 5 of BP have a header that reads “Hey kids, patriarchy!” which suggests a cynical nod to the comic-reading audience. Most importantly, however, is that closer inspection of these ads shows that they rhetorically trace the narrative in the story. As the story progresses, the messages found in the ads become less about compliance and more about revolt.

As the series progresses, the ads transform.  In the second issue of Bitch Planet, there is an ad for a “3-D Gyno-coin,” with which one can hypnotize a man into being repulsed by women he likes. The back cover of Bitch Planet #3, which features Penny Rolle’s backstory regarding her imprisonment for accepting her own fat body, features many such ads including one that at first seems to be about weight loss via body parasites. However, a close look at the ad text reveals its subversive message that  women should refuse to harm their bodies to fit an outsider’s standards of beauty. The message in the ads in the early issues of Bitch Planet are about shaming women into changing their personalities or bodies to appeal to men. As the women’s resolve to escape solidifies, the ads change. An ad in the seventh issue of Bitch Planet is reminiscent of those in the 90’s or the early 2000’s. Whereas the ads earlier in the story didn’t have any pictures of people and were all cartoonish, this ad is the first to include the picture of a woman. The ad is about destroying the patriarchy through makeup, such as “Evil Eyeliner,” “Male Tears Moisturizer” and “Poisonous Polish.”

Satirical ads on the back of Bitch Planet #1 [Click to Enlarge]

In Bitch Planet #6,  an ad is rendered to appear vandalized, claiming that “Eleanor Lives!” Eleanor, the leader of the resistance, was believed to be dead, but turns out to be incarcerated on Bitch Planet. Her introduction in the story prompts a revolution inside the Bitch Planet correctional facility. The vandalized ad marks an in-world response to the content of the ads.

In Bitch Planet #10 (the most recent issue), the High Fatherthe Head of Stateis killed by the Father of Media’s daughter, Kylie. Through the issue, Kylie communicates through a digital wristband with a woman who fires shots in the middle of a social gathering and proclaimsalong with four other womenthat they are “the children of Eleanor Doane” and that they “remember.” As panic ensues in the party, Kylie is revealed to be a supporter of President Eleanor. The last panel shows her pointing a gun at the High Father and pulling the trigger. Kylie’s status as the daughter of the Father of Media and being involved in the attack suggests she might have been involved with the rhetoric of revolt embedded in the ads in the later issues of BP. If this is the case, we are left on a sour note, as issue #10 ends with ads missing that resistant rhetoric. What does the return to the compliant tone suggest? These ads are in an odd paratextual space, as they exist both in and outside the story world. As such, the intended audience is arguably doubled. They are attempts to police women’s bodies  within the world of Bitch Planet, but how do these ads impact the reader outside of the story world?  

Thank you again to our three contributors and come back next Tuesday for part three of our Bitch Planet  round table.

5 thoughts on “Bound By Law: Bitch Planet Comics Studies Round Table (part two)

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