Insubordination. Seduction and Disappointment. Emotional Manipulation. Patrilineal Dishonor. Disrespect. Unpermitted Birth. All of these are crimes against The Fathers, signs of the non-compliance of women. Sentence: Bitch Planet. Championed by critics as feminist exploitation, the comic series Bitch Planet—an explicit narrative satire of and imagistic homage to women in prison (WIP) films—follows the trials of women outcast to an outer-world prison planet for offenses committed against the Fathers, an all encompassing and severely retributive governing system. Many WIP films have long been subject to recuperative deep readings working to justify the films’ pleasures through claims of subversion. With panels labeled “The Obligatory Shower Scene” where women plot revolution while the guards are distracted by their own lasciviousness, to back pages that intermingle real-life domestic violence statics with advertisements for products like lessons in “Gynotism” (hypnotize your romantic rival into feminism and win the man!), the pleasure and power in Bitch Planet lies in the obvious, rather than hidden, transformation of the position of women in WIP films. Penny Role embodies this metamorphosis. Sentenced for wanton obesity (a charge leveled not because she is fat, but because she does not care that she is fat), capillary disfigurement (her partially shaved head violates aesthetic standards), and multiple counts of assault, Penny’s defiant corporeality directly threatens the Father’s vehement patriarchy. Attempting to uncover assumed bodily insecurities in an effort to subdue her, the Fathers extract a visible image of Penny’s psychological sense of her "perfect self." What they see is Penny exactly how she is: violently unapologetic and fanatically confident. Penny’s—and by extension the text’s—subconscious and conscious self are one. Given Bitch Planet’s explicit, unrepentant, and holistic feminist identity, does the term exploitation add value to the text? Outside of signaling stylistic inspiration, the tag—despite the “feminist” qualifier—defines the text through the thematic tradition it explicitly works to corrupt. Does the label then undercut the comic's transformative power? If the Fathers carry the historical baggage of the often-restrictive paradigm of exploitation of the 1960s and 1970s—promoting normative gender constructions, demanding patriarchal compliance, and grasping tight to male power over female bodies—Penny is the intensely empowered feminist that transformative frameworks like Bitch Planet encourage and celebrate. When the label of exploitation is applied, however, does its referential meaning and nostalgia overwhelm the text's own radicality? Present-time visual constructions of exploitation benefit from feminism, but does the reverse hold? Can feminism benefit from exploitation?
Well, maybe I’ll have to
Well, maybe I'll have to break down and finally become a comics fan for the first time since Donald Duck comics did something for me as a kid. "Bitch Planet" sounds delightful! I've been fascinated with feminist appropriations of WIP films since seeing Michelle Johnson's "The Best of Lezsploitation" and the more politically ambiguous WIP retro-throwback film "Sugar Boxx." There seems to be a certain danger, perhaps, in nostalgia being used as a reinforcement of the presumed hetero-male audience for ostensibly feminist exploitation films of old (like Jack Hill's "Switchblade Sisters," for example), but I have to think that if nostalgia need not be inherently conservative, then the question of whether women are necessarily "exploited by" sensationalistic genre films or can exploit them for more feminist purposes becomes more complicated. If we believe canonical feminist film critics like Pam Cook and Claire Johnston, for example, a filmmaker like Stephanie Rothman could make a feminist intervention precisely because exploitation films are more likely to present blatantly broad stereotypes of gender roles, and are thus more open to contestation by viewers. Feminism would stand to gain much from "exploitation" in certain cases (e.g., compare Abel Ferarra's "Ms. 45" with Marleen Gorris's "A Question of Silence"), but, as Lisa Coulthard has argued in relation to the "Kill Bill" films, a major limitation might be whether narratives of female retribution against patriarchal oppressors play into more of a postfeminist story of individualistic revenge against threats to family/husband/domesticity/etc. instead of emphasizing more collective action against structural inequalities. Not having (yet) read the "Bitch Planet" series, I can't speak to those books in particular, but I look forward to seeing how they play out.
Work on the Self
Hi Alicia, this is a really interesting post, thanks for sharing. Like David, I have not read these comics and have only recently learned of them. I am curious though, based on the image you provide and the way you contextualize it, if some kind of neoliberal "work-on-the-self" is being explored here, specifically the rejection of this ethos as the crime itself? If so, it would also seem productive to think about the character highlighted in your image as a criminal not merely because she doesn't desire a more "ideal" body image for her own but also that she refuses to constitute herself through endless self-improvement, which is traditionally, I think, a construct of the patriarchy you evoke.
My hope would be that using
My hope would be that using "exploitation" as a term might be a kind of stealth feminism - those who wouldn't pick up an avowedly "feminist" book without some other "hook." And I don't know that that's just a marketing ploy. Rather, I think that exploitation films have traditionally broken all kinds of boundaries, and some of those tools offer the possibility for feminist detournement. Sadly, I've only read the first issue (which I loved!), but it would be great to explore some of those other tools.
Add new comment