Hard Women, Hard Time: Bitch Planet Comics Studies Round Table (part three)

Editor’s Note: This is the final installment 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 concludes 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.” Be sure to check out parts one (“Caged and Enraged”) and two (“Bound By Law”) of the series.

What Can The Hunger Games Teach Us About Bitch Planet’s Megaton?

Grace D. Gipson, Visiting Lecturer in African American Studies at Georgia State University and a doctoral candidate in the African American Studies program with a designated emphasis in New Media at the University of California, Berkeley.

The film adaptation of Suzanne Collins’s young adult novel The Hunger Games provides an accessible lens for thinking through the complexities of the more mature comic book series, Bitch Planet. Kamau Kogo in Bitch Planet‘s blood-sport Megaton and Katniss Everdeen in the annual Hunger Games offer a literary and visual site for discussing violence through their fantastical gaming arenas. How do these dystopic stories explore the ways in which resistance, rebellion, and ultimately revolution become key essential components of survival through their respective game challenges?

When reflecting on the game experiences of Kamau Kogo and Katniss Everdeen, we can interrogate how the use of the “game” is interpreted in the 2012 film adaptation of The Hunger Games and volume one of Bitch Planet (reprinting the first five issues of the series).  Megaton and the annual Hunger Games have striking similarities, from being televised for the satisfaction of others to the politicization of battling for survival through sport. Both highlight the decisions the women in each arena must make in order to meet the needs of their respective communities or to simply stay alive in the context of the games and their rules.

(from Bitch Planet #2)

In The Hunger Games, the spectacle exists for the dual purpose of entertaining the Capitol’s residents and reminding the districts of the Capitol’s power and control over them. In Bitch Planet, the Council of Fathers exercise their patriarchal “boys club” mentality, while also enjoying their violent fantasies come to life in the arena. Furthermore, each game exhibits a level of curiosity about the participants that becomes exploitative. For example, the tradition of dressing the tributes in costumes that stereotypically represent their districts is used as way to mock that district’s culture. In the case of Megaton, the envelope is pushed even further. The Council of Fathers uses Megaton as not just a game of sport, but a way for a white, patriarchal system to control and exploit Black female bodies for the sake of supporting the wealthy.

Both games are televised in a reality-show format that commodifies the participants. In The Hunger Games participants can gain favor from the judges and wealthy members of the Capitol by feigning feelings that parallel favored narratives to obtain vital supplies—as when Katniss feigns romance with Peeta. As former tribute and winner Haymitch Abernathy explain to  Katniss, “you really wanna know how to stay alive? You get people to like you.” In contrast, Megaton is a sport that relies on the violent erotic pleasure of a spectacle that includes all female participants. Kamau and her fellow Non-Compliants are abused, exploited and reduced to being used in a battle royale-like fashion. In Bitch Planet #2, The Council of Fathers express the belief that, “Sport builds character. The ancient Greeks believed athletic prowess an indicator of moral authority.” Thus, athleticism and/or showmanship ostensibly becomes its own  reward. The personal narratives, feigned or authentic, curry no favor with viewers or those in control.

But there are important differences between these two texts. Consider the circumstances that drive Kamau and Katniss to participate. Katniss is willing to take the place of her younger sister and be the sacrificial lamb/tribute of District 12 in the Hunger Games. Regardless of the sacrifice, Katniss gets to willingly make that decision, whereas, Kamau is not afforded that same option. Instead, she is forcibly given an offer to assemble a team of fellow prisoners to compete in Megaton for unnamed special considerations and under not very subtle threats. In Bitch Planet #2, Kamau characterizes the offer as: “. . .a bunch of girls [who] get their asses beat to pay for the system that locks them up. The fuck outta here,” suggesting that it is not worth them losing their dignity by competing in a game they cannot win. However, this offer does provide a gleam of possibility if Kamau can manipulate the rules of Megaton to her advantage. Hesitantly, she accepts. Even if the Non-Compliants cannot win, their actions and efforts can contribute to dismantling the oppressive systems that are in place at the Auxiliary Compliance Outpost by showing that despite the odds being against them the fight still continues. For the Non-Compliants, the Megaton game becomes a space where they can literally fight back against the sexist and patronizing behavior and treatment that is imposed upon them on a daily basis through the typically masculine-aligned physicality of the game. So while Katniss makes the choice to participate in her game, Kamau makes the choice to fight back.

(from Bitch Planet #5) [Click to enlarge]

Despite both women seeking to challenge and defeat a white patriarchal system, compensation is not guaranteed for either and the end results are not the same. Katniss fights on behalf of her district and for the viewing pleasure of the Capitol. Kamau fights for personal survival in prison, the possibility of providing for her family, and (whether she wants to or not) to fund the prison system that holds her captive. Nevertheless, with Kamau as the captain of her team, Megaton also offers a chance to have some control over the game, disrupting the real-life idea that men make the rules and standards and women must either comply or be imprisoned. For example, also in Bitch Planet #2, Kamau is able to negotiate some power when she agrees to form the team under certain conditions. These conditions include having her assets freed and made available to her family, a list of all the inmates stats and weights, and to learn who framed her for the crime that led to her imprisonment.

While Katniss shares many similar experiences with Kamau, her role in the game becomes part of a wider resistance against the Capitol. Can Kamau gain some sort of power within Megaton, even if it is temporary? Can Megaton become a space where Kamau and the other Non-Compliants momentarily escape prison, even though they are still being held against their will? Fighting within the context of the game allows them to proclaim that they will not be silenced, violated, or shamed into a faux identity of traditional femininity. These women fight to be the focal point and not an afterthought.

Can Laughter Be as Vital to Bitch Planet as Anger?

Maite Urcaregui, a PhD Student in the Department of English at University of California, Santa Barbara that studies twentieth century American culture and literature through a transdisciplinary perspective.

In their editorial note for the comic anthology, Bitch Planet Triple Feature #2, writer Kelly Sue DeConnick and artist Valentine De Landro discuss the process of encouraging contributors to draw out a wider spectrum of emotion and tone beyond satiric anger in exploring the world of Bitch Planet:

When we began soliciting material for Bitch Planet: Triple Feature, however, the first few pitches came in mercilessly bleak. We knew the creative teams were aiming to match the tone of the main title as they perceived it. The anger behind the satire was reading loud and clear, but the humor, the respite that was—that is, in our view—what gave the book meaning and heart, the thing that saves it from being just a nastier version of the news, wasn’t making an impression on them.

Bitch Planet’s anger is not unwarranted. The Image Comics series critiques systems of hetero-patriarchal white supremacy that, although fictional and somewhat hyperbolic, look all too similar to our own. Danielle Henderson points out this disturbing familiarity in the essay included in the backmatter of Bitch Planet #2 when she writes, “The striking thing about Bitch Planet is that we’re already on it” (“Bitches Be Like. . .”).

After being discarded from their society as a form of “cancer” and incarcerated on Bitch Planet, Kamau “Kam” Kogo, Meiko Maki, and Penny Rolle rage against systems of intersecting oppression in ways both large and small but always heroic. Kam grabs a guard by the balls, quite literally, and blackmails him to help her find her sister Morowa, a transwoman who is also on Bitch Planet. Meiko is willing to kill for what she believes in. She ultimately dies throwing up the middle finger in the face of a guard, in the face of the oppression and violence that guard stands in for and upholds. Penny refuses to be contained, by her overalls, by the Fathers and their vision of white femininity that has already excluded her, and even by the comic panel itself.

These characters, the comic, and its fans are all righteously angry and have every right to be. Bitch Planet revels in satiric fury. But, then, there’s Kam’s vulnerability and Meiko’s music and Penny’s laughter. These wonderfully nuanced, fragile, beautiful moments that, while always resistant, go beyond anger.

Penny’s laughter (from Bitch Planet #3 [by Robert Wilson IV]

While the comic’s rage certainly has resonated with fans in the contemporary moment, its power and success cannot be reduced to anger. The complexity of its characters, the polychromatic pleasure of its pages, the pithy backmatter and its social commentary, and the spectrum of emotions that Bitch Planet invites its readers to experience far exceed a singular affective resonance. Without dismissing or minimizing anger, which is a valid response to oppression and a valuable emotion for art and politics, I pose the following question to begin to open up Bitch Planet’s polymorphous moods and possibilities: What do we learn about the comic—its form, content, and politics—if we attend to laughter, humor, joy, pleasure, vulnerability, and other affective resonances beyond anger or critique?

Audre Lorde’s conceptualization of the erotic as a form of knowledge and power as well as Rita Felski’s work in The Limits of Critique, which argues that literary scholars should adopt reading and interpretive practices beyond critique and skepticism, offer two models for this exploration. Lorde speaks of the erotic as a means of creating genuine change, “as an assertion of the lifeforce of women; of that creative energy empowered, the knowledge and use of which we are now reclaiming in our language, our history, our dancing, our loving, our work, our lives” (55). The erotic is a spiritual plane of knowledge and power that speaks to the transformational possibilities of “loving,” “dancing,” laughing, and other forms of pleasure and joy.

As an intersectional feminist comics and literary scholar, attending to the erotic in my work enacts my political and intellectual commitments to look beyond white, Anglo, masculinist ways of knowing. As Felski suggests in her own work, “It is a matter, in short of diminishing returns, of ways of thinking that no longer surprise us, while closing off other paths as ‘insufficiently critical’” (9). Anger can become soft ground on which comics scholars stake out the political claims of their work. Other affective resonances are largely overlooked in relation to satire and social critique, diminishing the range of experience and modes of resistance available to comics creators, readers, and critics who wish to challenge structures of power in their work. Just as we see in radical organizing and politics, anger while powerful, is insufficient and unsustainable on its own, and as DeConnick and De Landro say in their editorial note, humor, joy, laughter, pleasure—those moments of respite in the dystopian narrative—are not only necessary but radical acts of self-love and resistance.

Tracing those moments of pleasure, joy, and vulnerability, which do not necessarily preclude anger, offers a more complete appreciation for the characters’ humanity and uncovers alternative routes to resistance and transformation that challenge narrow notions of agency and politics. Penny’s laughter becomes radical in Bitch Planet #3 when the Fathers hook her up to a high-tech mirror device in a paternalistic attempt to reveal her “ideal self.” Penny has been incarcerated for “aesthetic offenses,” which include not only her size but also her masculine leaning gender performance and, implicitly, her blackness. In the conclusion of this issue, Penny tells them, “I wish you could see me the way I see myself,” just before the mirror reveals her ideal self: a reflection of Penny just as she is laughing in the face of the patriarchy.  Penny’s laughter is resistance. Through her laughter, she rejects the mythical ideal of femininity from which she has already been excluded and claims her own noncompliant body as her ideal self.  She refuses to become small and demands the right to take up space.  Her laughter is a conscious refusal of the Fathers’ attempts to obliterate her subjectivity through spiritual and physical violence.

(from Bitch Planet #1)

When Penny laughs, I laugh with her. It’s not a polite chuckle. It’s loud and defiant, and it takes up space. Our laughter disrupts the critical distance that satire allows; it simultaneously shrinks the space between myself and the text and expands throughout the room, reminding me that my reading practice, like my politics, should not be quiet or polite or contained. This moment of respite recalls the joyous, knowing laugh that burst from me when I heard Penny question in Bitch Planet #1, “Where’m I supposed to put my other tit?” after seeing the size of her prison uniform, a pair of standard-issue orange overalls that have now become a way to signal noncompliant solidarity and to disrupt the white, cis, male norm of cons and cosplay.  Bitch Planet’s moments of laughter, joy, and vulnerability sustain me within a narrative filled with violence that hits a little too close for comfort; they move me—in ways intellectual, emotional, and embodied—and inform my reading of the comic’s intersectional feminist politics.

As critics of Bitch Planet, we must allow ourselves to linger in these affective spaces and discover what they can teach.  In doing so, we not only honor the comic’s nuanced characters who reveal the impossibility of totalizing oppression through their laughter, vulnerability, and compassion, but we also expand what resistance can look like.

In these moments that go beyond anger or allow for joy and anger simultaneously, Bitch Planet argues that survival, sisterhood, community, self-love, self-valuation, and self-definition are radical acts. This is particularly significant in a society that exploits, exiles, and brutalizes women and people of color under the cultural logics of heteropatriarchy, white supremacy, and racialized capitalism. DeConnick and De Landro call the comic’s humor its “meaning and heart,” the thing that saves it from the dustbin of increasingly dystopian news and media. How might we understand laughter, joy, vulnerability not merely as moments of respite or as apolitical time-outs, but as essential to the comic’s intersectional feminist politics? How can attention to these emotions add more shades of meaning to our reading of the comic’s anger? How can we incorporate these emotions into our reading and interpretive practices in ways that create room for surprise, wonder, and possibility? In my own experience, Bitch Planet’s humor pulls me into the world of the comic through the sound of my own laughter; the characters’ vulnerability and compassion demand that I surrender the safe distance of criticism, and perhaps even anger.  Attending to these emotions allows me to be surprised in my work, to start from a place of feeling rather than knowing, and to practice my own feminist politics of self-care and self-love in my scholarship.

 Works Cited:

Felski, Rita. The Limits of Critique. The University of Chicago Press, 2015.

Lorde, Audre. Sister Outsider. “Uses of the Erotic: The Erotic as Power.” Sister Outsider.  Crossing Press, 2007.

McClain, Carrie. “Bitch Planet and Beyond: Two Sisters Take on #noncompliant Cosplay,” Black Girl Nerd Problems, June 27, 2016. http://blacknerdproblems.com/bitch-planet-and-beyond-two-sisters-take-on-noncompliant-cosplay/.

What is the Liberatory Potential of Bitch Planet’s Exploitation Aesthetic?

Rebecca Wanzo, Associate Professor of Women, Gender, and Sexuality Studies and associate director of the Center for the Humanities at Washington University in St. Louis. She also contributed a backmatter essay for Bitch Planet #9 called, “Superhero: Feminist Superpower: Killer of Joy, Destroyer of Worlds.” 

[n.b. This contribution to the Bitch Planet round table is excerpted from Dr. Wanzo’s book manuscript, The Content of Our Caricature: African American Citizenship and Graphic Storytelling, under contract with New York University Press.]

Bitch Planet by writer Kelly Sue DeConnick and artist Valentine De Landro calls attention to the role of surveillance—by women and men—in shaping women’s understanding of themselves. The state’s gaze is also treated as one that not only empties out the complexity of the subject under surveillance, but one that fails to recognize the revolutionary potential of incarcerated subjects because of their limited vision. The fragmentation of narrative and image produced by the comic form encourages a double reading—it references the generically familiar flattening of identity in stereotypical representations, while showing a potentially generative mask for the subjected.

(from Bitch Planet #4} [click to enlarge]

The central protagonist is Kamau Kogo, a beautiful, muscular, thick-bodied former athlete who is visually reminiscent of Pam Grier. Kogo and other women in the comic are constantly nude, but the nudity in itself does not evoke the pornographic. The decision to shift to the visual conventions of an erotic comic in issue four is another moment in which the gaze’s power is destabilized. De Landro gives readers the typical sexploitation prison shower scene. In issue #4 readers see one peering eye hidden from the showering women. Kogo appears to be masturbating, and the comic’s fragmentation of her body is evocative not only of porn’s objectification of women into parts but the idea of porn objectifying women into parts. The image is erotic and readers may take pleasure in the representation of this powerful black woman pleasuring herself as a pro-sex representation of black women’s sexuality. At the same time, the reader’s gaze may uncomfortably map onto the peeping Tom’s gaze. His eye splits the lower half of the page, and the last frame of the page is Kogo’s atomized mouth stating “Gotcha,” disrupting his pleasure and what we think we’ve seen. She goes on to break the wall and wrestle the masturbating guard to the ground. Having seen his now flaccid penis, she now has grounds to blackmail him and gains more leverage in the prison.

An explicitly political comic with an enthusiastic fan base, Bitch Planet is a series of “gotchas,” taking representations that have been seen as unrespectable or exploitative and flipping the script on what people think they know once they have seen the images, both diegetically and for readers. In this comic book the caricatured excess creates both the pleasure and the possibility. Without the idea of the grotesque, without the sensational, the characters could not flip the script of normativity. While the object of criticism is regulatory, patriarchal state power, the images in Bitch Planet are representations that those adhering to discourses of respectable blackness might still struggle to reconcile with liberation politics. DeConnick and De Landro suggest there is no liberation without being able to grab hold of not only the representations, but the intransigent views of these representations, and wrestling them to the ground.

In issue #1, readers are introduced to Penny Rolle, her nomenclature, in the way of blaxploitation, referencing her rolls of fat, black flesh. Proudly sporting a tattoo, “born BIG” on her arm, she protests the undersized uniform she is given to wear. In the tradition of women’s prison narratives and Blaxploitation flicks, the fat, black women’s body is treated as a sign of the grotesque, but it is the gaze that shapes the grotesque, not the body in itself. De Landro and DeConnick open the issue devoted to Rolle’s story with a full-page depiction of her looking out with clenched fists, thinking “I can’t see you, but I feel you. . .” and a small frame in the corner overlaying the image captures only her angry eye and finishing the thought, “judging me.” Penny’s ability to look back at those who judge her flips the judgment of the white gaze that gives power to caricature.

Penny and her hair don’t “behave” (from Bitch Planet #3) [art by Robert Wilson IV]

In issue #3, Penny comes before a jury of men on screens, and the audience learns that her rap sheet not only includes assault, but crimes such as “repeated aesthetic offenses” and “wanton obesity.” The following pages give her backstory of being taken from a loving home to be a ward of the state. When in state care, a blonde woman tells a young Penny that she needs to learn to see herself through the (state) “father’s eyes,” and that her hair needs to learn to “behave,” like her. While this is a dystopian fiction, the reference is to the consistent shaming and regulation of black women’s hair in the real world, a legal means to deprive them of education and employment.

Believing that they have broken her, back in the present, the “fathers” subject her to an experimental machine that forces her to look in the mirror and see her “ideal” self, an image that would “prioritize how others see her.” They hold the mirror up, and instead of some representation that conforms to racist, sexist, and sizist standards, what she sees is herself. De Landro depicts her laughing in the image while the men on screens look appalled. Her refusal of this gaze indicts not only the gaze of the men within the fictional dystopia, but the cultural logic that overdetermines her as an abject figure.

De Landro’s artwork consistently resists the idea that the white and male gaze overdetermines possibilities for black women. Caricatured excess creates both the pleasure and the possibility. We often condemn representations that utilize sensational and exploitation aesthetic, but we can read the entire comic as flipping the script of normativity.

Qiana and Osvaldo want to thank our respondents one more time and also thank everyone who shared links to this and the two previous installments on Twitter and other social media. That includes an extra special thanks to Kelly Sue DeConnick who signal boosted the round table and is gracious as always when it comes to supporting scholars picking apart her work. Lastly, if anyone makes use of this material in a class, presentation, or manuscript please drop us a line and let us know! You can leave a comment here or send an email to themiddlespaces@gmail.com.

The Middle Spaces plans to run one or two round tables a year, so if you are a scholar who wants to pitch us an idea, has ideas of who to invite, and wants to take on co-editing such a project, let us know. We also encourage pitches for full posts, and hope to see respondents submitting other work in the future.

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2 thoughts on “Hard Women, Hard Time: Bitch Planet Comics Studies Round Table (part three)

  1. Pingback: Countering the Gaze: The Liberatory Potential of Bitch Planet’s Exploitation Aesthetic | The Middle Spaces

  2. Pingback: The (re)Collection Agency #12: A Conversation with Rebecca Wanzo | The Middle Spaces

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