This is easily my biggest departure from “standard comic” reading material to date.
I had heard some buzzing about this comic online and happened upon it in the store one day. On a lark, I decided to buy it to see what all the fuss was about.
This trade paperback collects the first five issues in Kelly Sue Deconnick and Valentine De Landro’s Image comic, Bitch Planet. I sat down late one night to begin reading, planning on only getting through the first issue or two before bed. Let me tell you:
I devoured this comic.
I cannot sing its praises enough. This comic is an unapologetic, brutal take on the patriarchal values that govern our society.
Set in a futuristic society, the New Protectorate (presumably the former United States) is a society aiming for perfection, run by the Fathers, a group of men who set the rules and pass judgement on their people.
There’s no doubt about it that this is a male-run world, with women remaining submissive and becoming obsessed with their appearances.
Their obsession is crude and seemingly absurd, and yet it’s not really that far off from what lengths some women will go to in order to reach the supposed ideal physical appearance.
If a woman doesn’t fit into this ideal, she is sent to an off-world prison, aptly nicknamed “Bitch Planet”. Here the women-only population lives completely separated from the rest of the world, secluded from all of their friends and families.
The comic focuses on a small group of inmates who are approached to form a team of sorts to compete in a nationally televised sporting event. Little do they know, it is actually all a plot to have the strongest and most physically fit women from Bitch Planet killed and made an example of.
Now, before I go into further details, let’s address something: Yes, this comic takes the concept of female oppression to the extreme. Reminiscent of Margaret Atwood’s novel A Handmaid’s Tale, we would all love to believe that these ideas are absurd and could never actually happen.
However, as with that novel, Bitch Planet is based on very real truths that women today face; they’re simply amplified in this story.
The comic opens with an aside about one Bitch Planet inmate, a woman named Marian:
Marian’s husband cheats on her, and she laments that she “drove him to it.” What’s more, when she gets angry and confronts him about his infidelity, she is punished for her insubordination and sent to Bitch Planet, where she is ultimately killed as her husband is allowed to live on facing zero consequences with the woman he cheated with.
Yes, the idea of imprisoning a woman for getting angry sounds ridiculous, and yet how many times have we heard a woman (or society as a whole) blame herself for her husband’s straying? It’s an ever-present problem, and one which Bitch Planet brings to the forefront of our minds simply by exaggerating the consequences.
Life on Bitch Planet is harsh and unforgiving, with each woman having no recourse to control how they’re treated. They are constantly criticized and punished for not meeting the expectations society sets for them, with no regard given to what they might want.
One of the most fascinating characters in this comic is an inmate named Penny Rolle. Penny defies the establishment with her very appearance. She is an overweight black woman with unruly hair and an unapproved tattoo. On Bitch Planet, the fathers call her into a hearing and berate her for allowing herself to become so unattractive. In an attempt to rehabilitate her, the fathers employ a special neural transmitter which is designed to project her ideal mental image of herself onto a screen, so that they can attempt to work with her to reach that goal.
As the transmitter comes into focus, Penny’s ideal image of herself is revealed to be her current appearance.
This is an incredibly powerful image, but Penny’s response makes it even better.
Penny’s positive view of herself is incredibly empowering, and yet in the world she lives in, it’s a threat. Women are expected to look a certain way, behave a certain way, be a certain way, any anyone who doesn’t fit into that mold is sent to Bitch Planet. Penny’s fellow inmates are incarcerated for such benign things as disrespect or being physically undesirable. At first glance it seems like such an unbelievable concept, and yet is it really all that different from what women face today?
No, women are not imprisoned for these “crimes”, but they do face their own sort of metaphorical trials and imprisonments. Women are faced with innumerable critiques on their appearances, being bombarded with advertisements for various products designed to mask imperfections, help you lose weight, or make you a “better woman.”
Open any magazine geared towards women and you will inevitably find articles with titles like, “10 Ways to Be a Freak for Him in Bed”, “How to Keep Him From Cheating”, or “Lose your Love Handles-He Won’t Be Able to Keep His Hands Off You”. I might be able to forgive these articles if similar ones appeared in men’s magazines, but it’s simply not the case. You don’t see articles titled, “How to Be A Gentlemen” or “Treat Your Girlfriend with Respect.” It’s simply not done. Women are inundated with instructions on how to please men and make themselves perfect, and if we don’t meet all of these requirements we’re deemed failures.
Don’t get me wrong, this is not meant to sound like a man-hating tirade. Truth be told, it’s not just the so-called patriarchy that places these ideals on women. We do it to ourselves as well. We’ve been so indoctrinated with these ideals that they’re a part of who we are, and we don’t bat an eye at thinking and feeling that we’re not good enough. We may scoff at the women in the above panel weighing their food or bodily ablutions, but guaranteed most women have themselves counted calories or weighed themselves incessantly in order to meet a society-set ideal body image.
This comic brazenly questions these concepts, highlighting the faults in society by enhancing the problems women face on a daily basis. Bitch Planet balances everything perfectly, addressing the problems in society without ever coming across as the often-criticized man-hating feminist prose. The comic is careful to point out that while there are plenty of men in the man-run society who are responsible for such events, women are equally to blame for not rising up and demanding the opportunity to express their individuality.
Honestly, I believe this comic is relevant enough to be taught in schools. Its graphic nudity and violence would likely rule out younger grades, but it presents an important view of our world and the problems with creating ideals in society. Although the comic focuses on the pressures women are put under to be perfect (pressures men may not always face, or not to such an extreme) the story is meaningful enough that its point could be applied to any group of people who is forced into a specific role within society.
Bitch Planet is without a doubt one of the best comics I’ve read, and I cannot wait to keep reading the story. The characters are considered flawed within the comic, but in reality they are strong, no-nonsense women who are simply trying to express their individuality without facing social criticism. This story promotes free-thinking and questioning the ideals we’re all inundated with on a daily basis, arguing that one would be much happier if she was allowed to just be who she is, supposed flaws and all. It’s an important message not just for women but for the world as a whole, reminding us that we need to be aware of these subtle nudges towards control if we want to change them.