Non-Compliance: Bitch Planet and Feminist Exploitation

Curator's Note

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 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.

Thanks for your comment! Glad to hear you this is a comic that interests you; I think it has a lot to offer even within its first 5 issues. I think your point about Rothman is in interesting one, especially since I think her films and Bitch Planet are doing some similar work—creating nuanced and specific female characters within the broad scope of exploitation as particular feminist interventions. What I would say is different about Rothman’s films and Bitch Planet is that their intervention’s are not depend on negotiations by the viewers—they are presented plainly on the surface of the material. Which constructs them as outliers in a way. Their politics are not dependent on deep readings or textual negotiation; it is built into the structure, narrative, and ideology of the text itself. I think bringing Coulthard into the conversation is a great move, particularly because Bitch Planet is, in my opinion, doing what she is arguing in favor of—constructing a collective rather than individualist revolution and in this way rejecting neoliberal postfeminist individualization in favor of political collectivity. I’ll give an example that isn’t a spoiler! There is a Hunger Games-type sporting event that the women of Bitch Planet are asked to participate in. They decide to pull together to form a team because the event will be taking place in an isolated location, filled with The Fathers. The women plan to use that opportunity to blow up the entire space, eradicating the oppressive government in one fell swoop. Their plan is, however, totally dependency on them working together, leveraging their individual talents (and in some cases, lives) for the liberation of everyone from The Fathers. Of course, being only 5 issues in, we will have to wait to see how that plays out!

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.

Glad to hear this is a text that interests you. I knew that creating my initial post around something so new would be a risk in that it would be unfamiliar to most, but if that drives some interest in to investigating the comic, all the better. You are absolutely right in your comment that Penny is criminalized not just because of her lack of desire around idealized corporeality, but also because she refuses to engage in the neoliberal postfeminist project of the self. What is interesting about this is that she does engage in work of self-improvement over the course of the issues in the form of training for her participation on a team bent on taking down The Fathers. So while she rejects bodily improvement as a form of governmental control, she simultaneously subverts the neoliberal postfeminist project of the self by working to remake herself into a weaponzied body to destroy the oppressive regime that criminalized her initially.

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.

Thanks for you thoughts Gordon. I think your comment brings us to a core question in studying exploitation: is it politically more effective to create radical work on the margins or to “smuggle” radical thought into mainstream texts. Based on both the fan reaction—primarily women—to this series (there is a significant online fan community, clothing/art inspired by the series has been created, women are getting “non-compliant” tattoos) I would place this text in a rubric of cultural work that denies the need for stealth when engaging in feminist interventions, as well as one that is not primarily invested in “converting” anyone to feminist points of view. In that sense, it follows some of strains of thought around identity politics that rejects the idea that it is the responsibility of the discriminated to educate the discriminators on their negative and harmful behaviors and ideas. So while I agree with you that the exploitation nostalgia/aesthetic the series engages in provides a path to categorization (a “hook,” if not necessarily a marketing one), I would push back on the idea that the exploitation toolkit is a particularly generative one when engaging in feminist detournement . In many ways, the existence of a comic series based wholly around women characters and created by a woman (still fairly unusual in the comic world) is already generating those paths, outside the rubric of exploitation.

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