Kelly Sue DeConnick‘s comic about a prison planet populated by women who defy the patriarchy is supposed to be set in the future, but has an awful lot in common with the present.
(Spoilers for Bitch Planet #3 – The Secret Origin of Penny Rolle)
At first glance it could be a brain-washing scene from any thriller: a woman, hooked up to a machine, surrounded by dozens upon dozens of monitor screens, observed by men in dark suits. Instead of pumping her full of drugs and forcing her to watch oddly edited snuff films, the men ask her questions.
“Are you happy, Penelope?”
“All we want is to help you be happy. Why do you insist on making your own life so difficult?”
My stomach churns at that line. ‘Why do you insist on making your own life so difficult?’ I may not have heard those precise words in that exact order before, but I recognize the sentiment, the lowest form of the ‘I know what’s best for you’ ideology. As I turn the pages on the third issue of Image Comics‘ Bitch Planet, I find myself identifying more and more with Penelope “Penny” Rolle, one of the inmates of the Auxiliary Compliance Outpost, and a character as unlike me as possible. We have nothing in common but our gender, and yet the scenes of her life intercut with her intake
interview interrogation are somehow familiar.
I didn’t know what to expect when I picked up the first issue of Bitch Planet, which had been pitched to me as Orange Is the New Black in outer space. With DeConnick at the helm, I doubted it would be purely exploitative, but worried about the potential for the kind of shock-value nudity and violence that made HBO and Starz programming unappealing to me. There’s plenty of both in Bitch Planet, but rendered by Valentine De Landro in an entirely unsexy way. The female bodies on display aren’t naked to be titillating but to demonstrate one way in which the non-compliant women are stripped of their dignity. It’s the first attack men make on women who speak their mind, or behave counter to societal programming: shame them, ridicule them, make them feel low. Tell them they have failed as women because they aren’t deemed attractive, as if attractiveness is the only real measure of success for a person.
“How long since you prioritized how others see you?”
Every scene in Bitch Planet, particularly those featuring the Fathers, the future’s Patriarchy Gone Wild, is DeConnick removing any hint of subtlety from misogyny and laying it flat with a punch. She gets me confronting concepts I’ve internalized, or argued subconsciously. I have wondered what my life could be like if I were more compliant – if I talked back less, if I kept more of my opinions to myself, if I understood sexual desire, if I’d tried harder when I was younger to attract the opposite sex. I consider how much better my life would be if I just fit in. I think of women I know who seem genuinely good-natured, even-tempered, and lovable, and wonder why I can’t be like that, why I let my frustrations with the world get the better of me. I have always wanted, needed, to be universally liked, which is an impossible proposition. I’m too stubborn, too sarcastic, too skeptical, too opinionated.
Reading Bitch Planet doesn’t ‘cure’ me of the desire to seek approval from the world at large, from second-guessing my decision to skip make-up most days, or holding my tongue out of fear – but at least it gets me wondering why.