WIRED Book Club: Are We Woman Enough for Bitch Planet?

Topple the patriarchy! It almost seems possible, at least when people like Jill Soloway say it. But in the future world of Bitch Planet, the comic by writer Kelly Sue DeConnick and artist Valentine De Landro, the patriarchy hasn’t been toppled—it’s been fortified. (Scarily prescient?) So-called Fathers rule the Earth, while “noncompliant” women—crimes range from murder to dishonoring the father’s bloodline—are banished to an off-world prison colony, where they’re at the mercy of horrible men. After last week’s happy foray into the liberated playground of Sex Criminals, we’re back in the classroom with Bitch Planet. Some of us are thrilled; others, bothered and confused.

So what did we learn?
Lexi Pandell, Assistant Research Editor: Exploitation lit is awesome, revenge storylines are cathartic as hell after a bad week, more books need explainers on intersectional feminism, and we ought to burn the patriarchy to the ground. Sound about right?
Jason Kehe, Associate Editor: Intersectional feminism is fun! Well, not “fun” per se, but it doesn’t have to be sterile or academic or over-ism’d. You might say that DeConnick et al. de-problematize the discourse—in one sense by literally avoiding the word “problematic.” It’s real, it’s ugly, it’s here. It’s BITCH PLAAANEETT.
Jay Dayrit, Editorial Operations Manager: I’ve learned I can’t deal with women-in-prison narratives. Add that to other genres I can’t even with: cringe comedies, romantic comedies, westerns. I had to force myself to finish Bitch Planet. It was tortuous. I just felt bad for all the women. Such a terrible feeling of hopelessness.
Pandell: Wait … Jay, you have to explain this aversion.
Peter Rubin, Senior Editor: Agreed. Besides, it’s much less Caged Heat than The Longest Yard, isn’t it? Except instead of Burt Reynolds (or, uh, Adam Sandler) as the ex-pro athlete who leads the ragtag bunch against the guards, it’s Kam. And instead of prison guards, it’s the faceless pawns of the darkest timeline version of r/theredpill (which, believe me, is already the darkest timeline).
Dayrit: OK, so how do I explain this without sounding totally sexist? Whenever I see stories (fact or fiction) about women in prison, I just feel like they were wrongly convicted or if they did commit the crime, they did so out of desperation, because somehow the system let them down. Sure, women are capable of committing heinous crimes, but my mind always gives them the benefit of doubt. I don’t apply that same standard to men. So, yeah, it’s a sexist double standard. Meanwhile, cringe comedies make me uncomfortable. Perhaps I empathize too much. Romantic comedies bore me. And westerns make me thirsty. Everyone looks dehydrated and dusty.

Who’s your favorite character?
Pandell: Kam and Penny Rolle. They (quite literally) kick ass in totally different ways but are both so much fun to watch. Physically, of course, they’re both crazy impressive (and I can’t lie, when I was working out this morning, I totally envisioned Kam’s sculpted shoulders and biceps), but they’re also mentally tough as nails. I love the scene where the Fathers have Penny, with her commendably high pain tolerance and fabulous “Born Big” tattoo, envision a “perfect version” of herself, and she pictures … herself. It’s too rare that we see a tall, fat female character who loves herself and whose power is directly drawn from her size and self-confidence. Plus, come on, is Penelope Rolle not the best character name ever?
Dayrit: Penelope Rolle, of course. Her journey was the most fleshed out, her downfall the most heartbreaking. Plus, she is quite visually distinct. As with Sex Criminals, I had trouble telling almost all of the characters apart. Penny is easy to pick out of a crowd. And Kamau Gogo, because of her Cleopatra Jones hair and cross-fit body. Everyone else just blended together. Could be because of the way they’re drawn and/or maybe I lack visual acuity.
Sarah Fallon, Senior Editor: The happiest moment in the book is hers—where she’s playing in the kitchen with her grandmother. I think that’s part of what makes her story arc so heartbreaking. (That and all the terrible things people say and do to her.)
Kehe: My happiest moment was the line about her tits. (Two lines, actually, and the second line is about BOTH tits!) For the record, I have never before expressed this much enthusiasm for tits. [Eds. note: Confirmed.]
Rubin: As someone whose early adolescence was spent in pursuit of those happy moments, I’m glad that everyone else can experience such joy. Penny got the benefit of a full-issue backstory in this first arc, but I have to think we’ll be learning more about everyone soon enough (especially Violet, who’s the dark horse of the story—did you see her keeping up with Kam on the treadmill?).
Katie Palmer, Senior Associate Editor: Can I say I didn’t really have a favorite? I couldn’t get on board with any of the characters, or really the story arc in general, because everything felt overwrought. I know this’ll be controversial, so let me try to pick apart my feelings: The fact that we’ve terraformed a separate planet for a correctional facility-slash-TV studio aside, there’s nothing in this world that’s new. It’s just the real world, taken to its awful extreme. Even though I know that’s supposed to be a lens into our own experience, I can’t suspend my disbelief that it could ever get this bad, so I can’t feel anything about it. Help me, please.
Kehe: Katie, you can only help yourself. All I know is I cried when Meiko died, so something was working.

What did you think about the art style?
Dayrit: I find it rather inelegant and grotesque, which is fitting with the storyline and its themes. The style, like the narrative, is disturbing. I don’t know, maybe I am just not meant to read comic books and graphic novels.
Pandell: I love the retro look, particularly of the hilarious fake ads sprinkled throughout this volume. And the coloring is really lush!
Rubin: Those back-of-issue ads are works of art—especially the correspondence between “Rabbit” and “Duchess,” which feels like it broke through Bitch Planet’s fourth wall and onto the page. (Honestly, I’d call out every single one of the ads, but there’s only one Internet and I don’t want to hog all the bytes.)
Palmer: I loved the tone shifts for Penny’s flashbacks, turning everything all sepia and pixelated for the way-back-whens, shifting again for the slightly more recent memories, and changing to those grays for the last set of memories. And did you guys notice the impact of the full-bleed panels and pages? Those were the moments when, despite my misgivings, I couldn’t help but get sucked in—without borders, everything felt a lot realer. There must be a metaphor in there …

What would you be sent to Bitch Planet for?
Fallon: Non-compliance, for sure. Failure to run a tidy household. Shrew-like nagging of husband. Failure to greet with a smile when he walks in the door.
Dayrit: Because I am a guy, I would probably be one of the prison guards. Um, sorry. Corrections officer. If I were a woman, I’d probably be tried and convicted of treason. Whole time I was reading Bitch Planet, I kept wondering what series of events led to this political situation. How did people let this happen, and why aren’t they fighting to bring an end to the Auxiliary Compliance Outpost?
Pandell: I’m totally noncompliant. If I was living in that world, I imagine I’d be found guilty of working on some anti-Fathers propaganda.
Rubin: I feel like there’s no right answer here. Can I pass? Oh, wait, no, I’d be an envoy from Maki Engineering who on the surface feebly insists “#notallmen” while I’m installing ductwork, all the while secretly plotting to line the guards’ masks with superglue.

Now let’s talk about poop.
Kehe: My favorite subject. It’s constantly in the background of this society. Yogurt ads, toilet scales, highly desirable gastrointestinal parasites: It’s incredible.
Dayrit: What? Poop is a recurring theme? Totally missed that.
Pandell: There are mentions throughout, especially in the fake ads. By the way, this all feels very “on brand,” Jason. I talk about burning down the patriarchy; you, my dear GI-obsessed friend, talk about poop. We should join forces. Poop on the patriarchy! But, for real, what’s with all the poop?
Kehe: Well, the people for whom digestion is an obsession in Bitch Planet are kinda part of the problem. The ladies in the bakery, for instance, who order a single (sugar- and gluten-free) muffin for three people. Prepositionally speaking, they’re pooping *in* the patriarchy. I get it: Stomach health is increasingly associated with superficiality and privilege. The better off you are, the more you can scrutinize every calorie you put in your body, and there’s no shortage nowadays of gastrically distressed millennials. Lexi, now I’m worried: By talking about my stomach with such openness and frequency, am I in some ways perpetuating the patriarchy?!
Pandell: Ha! That’s such good point—our culture has an obsession with policing what goes in and what comes out of our bodies, especially women’s bodies. And a lot of it does, indeed, have to do with poop, whether you’re “purging” on a diet or detoxing with juice or whatever else. Women associate pooping with skinniness and, I suppose, skinniness with “compliance.” Though, I will say, that pooping has long been considered unfeminine … acknowledging poop is pretty radical. Remember how much people freaked out about the pooping scene during Bridesmaids? Part of the reason why it was so deeply funny is because you have this woman in a full, white wedding gown doing something taboo (crapping) in the grossest, most public place ever: the middle of the damn street. It’s also pretty much the entirety of Sarah Silverman’s schtick. The Revolution is here, the Revolution is poop.

Read more: https://www.wired.com/2016/11/wired-book-club-bitch-planet/