"No, really," I told my husband, "it's awesome. It's set in a women's prison."
Ed gave me the dubious look that he often gives me when I get really excited about something that he suspects is going to end in ridiculousness. "A women's prison?"
"A women's prison. In space!"
Bitch Planet is the newest title from Kelly Sue DeConnick, who gave us Pretty Deadly (which was also recced on xoJane, actually) and it is, three issues in, already a magnificent ride. I'm gushing, I know, but I can't stop myself. I love this comic book so much.
See, it is not that I love the Women in Prison genre when it comes to film. These sexploitation movies have been around since the 1960s. (The genre and its history is surveyed here in this Free Film School article.) And I get why the tropes work for so many people. But there's something about them that has never clicked for me and maybe it's the exploitation part of it, the idea that — despite knowing that the villains are probably going to lose in the end — any victory on the part of the protagonists is a hollow one, achieved on someone else's terms. The terms of the male creators and viewers.
Women in Prison films often involve a fresh-faced innocent, someone who is there because she was wronged or otherwise falsely imprisoned. There's that character at the beginning of Bitch Planet, too. But rather than simply participating in and perpetuating the genre, Kelly Sue DeConnick is subverting it. Maybe this is where I should put a spoiler alert. I'm not mentioning any events or specific incidents specifically but better to be safe than sorry, I guess.
See, this innocent is not the focus of Bitch Planet. She's there to set up the trope. And then events conspire to dismantle the moment, to let us know we are not on the same path that Women in Prison films have led us to expect.
No, Marian Collins is not our protagonist, not the character with whom our hopes and fates reside. That would actually be Kamau Kogo, among a few others. And she is amazing.
Kamau Kogo and the other residents of Bitch Planet, more properly known as the Auxiliary Compliance Outpost, are noncompliant. It is where women who are criminals are sentenced, but also where women who are simply inconvenient are sent to disappear. The governance of Bitch Planet is corrupt, of course, but then so's the whole system. It's rigged against women from the get-go.
Because we're only a few issues in, there's still a lot of details being revealed. But there's a church with a lot of power and there's a game coming up, a game that's meant to channel all the bloodthirsty instincts that humanity has into something that is entertaining, something that somehow keeps the peace.
Duemila, also called Megaton, sounds like the ultimate game of football, in some ways, except also there is a lot of death and mayhem. And viewing is compulsory.
The problem is that engagement is slipping for this bacchanalia of violence, no matter how steady the ratings are. The Protectorate (the church, I mean, the dude insists on being called Father Josephson, let's be real) has a problem.
And the administrator of Bitch Planet has a potential solution.
If things continued to simply play out along these lines, I think my reaction would be different. But because the Women in Prison tropes are being engaged in a proactive and critical way (instead of passively, where we just follow them), the women here have agency. There are schemes to exploit these women but even in a situation designed to render them powerless they are working to retain their own agency, to approach things on their own terms. There are fights — but the women defend each other against the guards. There is awareness that the game is rigged and they can't win by the terms that other people have defined.
And then there's Penny Rolle.
Penny Rolle is a habitual offender. She's in for assault. But not just assault. She's in for "repeated citations for aesthetic offenses, capillary disfigurement, and wanton obesity."
Do I have to tell you how much I cannot even deal with my love of Penny Rolle?
Look, Kelly Sue DeConnick looks, in the Google image search pictures I have seen, like a thin, pretty, white woman. But she has populated her prison with a realistic proportion (disproportion because let's talk about who gets sent to prison in the US, right?) of women of color and she has also conceived of a world where a fat woman can go to jail for being fat.
The third issue is a glimpse into Penny Rolle's backstory. If you are a fat woman who is angry at the constant pressure of compulsory diet culture and the social punishment that is relentless in telling you that you are noncompliant (especially with a racialized component for women of color), then I cannot suggest picking this issue up highly enough. It made me shaky with recognition and triumph at the end.
And when a comic book can do that, well, it's onto something.
Every issue also features an afterword by Kelly Sue DeConnick and an explicitly feminist feature called Bitches Be Like..., which is a double-page spread essay by a guest, writing about issues that should be concerning feminists. So far contributors include Danielle Henderson, Tasha Fierce, and Megan Carpentier. Mikki Kendall, Laurie Penny and Lindy West are confirmed essayists for future issues.
Bitch Planet feels like more than a comic book — which is not to malign comic books or imply they are not an amazing format. But reading Bitch Planet feels like being part of a conversation with media and the people who make it. It feels like things are being acknowledged in a way mainstream white feminism has failed to do, which makes it feel political.
But at the same time, it's a women's prison. In space. And I am rooting for whatever victory these women decide will be theirs.
Are you reading Bitch Planet? What do you think?