When The Handmaid’s Tale adaptation came out on hulu, I was interested. I watched a lot of the first season, but eventually, I found myself dreading it. It just felt too real— the dystopian theocratic patriarchy was bridged too cleanly to right here and right now. I was scared to buy coffee in case I found my debit card suddenly frozen. I first read the novel in high school, and listened to the audio version performed by Claire Danes recently. Both were compelling, but neither a uniquely terrifying as the TV version. I just couldn’t watch it all.
Yet my thirst for smash-the-patriarchy feminist literature persisted. I’ve talked about prioritizing women creators of novels and movies— but you know where else female voices are still pretty consistently drowned out? Comics. And that’s where Bitch Planet comes in. It’s an overtly intersectional feminist dystopian prison exploitation comic— The Handmaid’s Tale meets Orange is the New Black, with a dash of Robocop. The comic was published from 2014-2017 is collected in two volumes: Extraordinary Machine, and President Bitch. They have coarse language, violence, and nudity. But so does life— and here, it’s all in the service of something. It’s never fetishized or sexualized or otherwise icky. The writer is Kelly Sue DeConnick— and she writes forcefully. Art is by Valentine De Landro, and though his drawings aren’t really my style, they totally work in this context.
So, here’s the deal: It’s a future patriarchal dystopia, and non-compliant women (“NC”s) are shipped to a space colony known as Bitch Planet, where they are lorded over by mask-wearing, hologram-weilding guards. Their crimes are sometimes violent, but sometimes against aesthetics or the gender binary. In these volumes, we’re introduced to some of the women of the Bitch Planet prison and their backstories— including how they were designated as non-compliant and cast out by The Father culture that fetishizes docile, pleasing women. The NCs are too fat, too loud, too opinionated, too black, too disabled, too everything to fit the feminine role required to participate in society. We have Kam, Penny, Fanny, and Renelle, among others— and they’re, well, hella non-compliant. That’s a good thing, in case you missed that day. They’re an ensemble cast, and unquestionably and unapologetically badass. They fight back. They use their bodies. They use violence, if necessary, and it’s sometimes necessary. They stand up for each other. They’re not sorry. The patriarchy screwed them over and they’re going to screw it right back, space prison colony or no. Bad. Ass.
Back on earth, the compliant women read as some combination of Pharma Sales Reps, Hooters Girls, and Stepford Wives. They dote on the ruling class of oblivious, self-satisfied men in suits, who look eerily familiar. The masses are fed constant drivel by the Feed (also familiar). None of this sounds especially implausible. Kind of like how if you think about it for a sec, the fact that the presidents of the United States have been 44 white guys, one black guy, and exactly no one else. Huh. Point made, Bitch Planet.
While it’s some combination of terrifying and fun to watch these anti-hero women kick patriarchy ass, my favorite part is the back-page “ads.” In this satire, instead of peddling x-ray specs, they’re satirical feminist goldmines, hawking products like “Agreenex, so you’re more fun to be around!” and NC “spirit fingers” (you can guess which finger).
Stay tuned for Part 2, where I’ll dig back into some of the source material— Deconnick cites Margaret Atwood as an inspiration for this work, so more Handmaid’s Tale is in the queue.