Comics Academe Roundtable: Teaching Bitch Planet

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Since the publication of the first issue of Bitch Planet by Kelly Sue DeConnick and Valentine De Landro in December of 2014, many people, inside and outside of academia, have pointed to the comic, the related backmatter and essays, and even the community that has formed around it–as embodied by the many tattoos of the Non-Compliant symbol women have shared on social media–as an example of an intersectionally feminist text, a text that can be pointed to when an example is needed, both in its successes, and even in its sometimes blunders. But despite the critical acclaim, there is, as there always is with contemporary texts and especially serial narratives that are ongoing, a lack of resources for teachers wishing to engage with the text in the classroom with their students.

I’ve taught in higher education using comics for probably half a decade, and one of my goals when I first set out to create a space for women who work with comics in an educational capacity was to have them talk to each other and somehow facilitate that discussion. This roundtable, which I hope will be the first of many of its type, brings together women from a variety of educational backgrounds, in a variety of disciplines, from across the United States. Some have taught this comic before, while others are still conceptualizing how they would teach it. In it, they share their experiences, their advice, and their struggles.

What you won’t see in this roundtable are questions of whether comics should be taught or what educational value using comics has, for the teacher or the students. Rather, this roundtable, and future roundtables, operate under the assumption that such an argument would be preaching to the choir, so to speak, and instead, focuses on how to teach this particular comic. If you are new to the idea of using comics in your teaching, there are a number of resources out there in the form of peer-reviewed articles, books, and even textbooks on the subject to get you started. It’s also becoming a fairly standard panel at many comic cons around the world, and there were no less then six panels on the topic of using comics in the classroom at the recent San Diego Comic Con.

So, now that we got that out of the way, on to the discussion!

Why teach Bitch Planet?

Andrea Horbinski: It’s The Handmaid’s Tale for the 2010s. More seriously, because it’s a great comic that offers a very rich set of possible things to talk about, ranging from the representation of women in comics to questions of labor models in comics to diversity and inclusion in comics, and who gets to write comics that are celebrated for being diverse and/or inclusive.

Elizabeth Coody: Teach Bitch Planet, because it’s speaking to the culture right now. Students deserve to watch live-culture-in-action as it unfolds. My students live active lives in the world; they aren’t putting their social activities on hold to go to graduate school. This particular text allows them the chance to see up-to-the-minute ideas about intersectional feminism, race, gender, and exploitation in a creative, provocative way. Because it’s happening now, they have a chance to not just read something, but also participate and talk back themselves.

Ambria Taylor: I used an excerpt from Bitch Planet, Volume 1 as a discussion piece in a class at a prison. We had about ten men that day. Obviously, this is not the typical teaching environment. We were talking about creative writing and how one can express real life through fiction. The men connected with it instantly, and that’s where the potential for promoting a sense of intersectionality comes in. It’s important to note that there is a lot of truth about prison in Bitch Planet. In prison, the same societal pressures we all face are escalated. Seeing that truth about incarceration told on paper so brashly, but also seeing the unique pressures on women at the same time, could open up a lot of space for incarcerated men to learn to relate to women and feminism (a very difficult subject to broach there).

I think Bitch Planet should be taught on the outside for the same reasons. Women in an academic setting would have the opportunity to see their own struggles in the struggles of incarcerated women. Men, too, can see how constraining the oppression of women is. The expectations placed on women in Bitch Planet, in which they are jailed for not meeting, are real, and women are punished for them all of the time. It’s not a far leap. The key is that it seems like hyperbole at first glance, but the fact of the matter is that it really isn’t all that exaggerated. What does it mean to hold women (or anyone else) to certain self-serving expectations? How far can you go?

Rachelle Cruz: Bitch Planet offers up some interesting, complicated critiques of labor, incarceration, systematic racism, and sexism, and has–in my experience–shocked, surprised, and confronted my students in ways that make them uncomfortable. That’s a good thing. I think of one of my favorite poets, Lucille Clifton, wrote it so well: “I hope to comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable.”  

I taught Bitch Planet most recently last spring in an English class on critical writing and thinking at the community college where I teach, which is in a rather conservative county in Southern California. The class was titled “What If? Speculating the Past, Present and Future” and was centered on close reading, writing, discussion, and argumentation through science fiction and other works of speculative literature, such as Brian K. Vaughn’s Private Eye, which is fantastic for discussions on privacy and technology amidst current conversations about privacy involving Apple and the FBI. Also, Janelle Monae’s album Metropolis (the Chase Suite)–another amazing work that deals with race and SF–and Gene Luen Yang’s American Born Chinese–not SF, but an excellent graphic novel that explores issues of mythology, race and belonging. I also presented episodes of Netflix’s Black Mirror, among others.  

Before discussing Bitch Planet, as a class we unpack the term “bitch” and the different connotations behind it, which inevitably opens up conversations about societal gender expectations, queerness, body image (through the character of Penny Rolle), and sexuality. We discuss expectations for women of color as well. We do a lot of work introducing and defining terms. For many of my students, this is the first time they’ve discussed the issues that Bitch Planet brings up in an academic space, and it’s helpful for me to assess where my students come from, what ideas they have about race, gender, and incarceration, and it gives them a good place to start these discussions.

Though I didn’t bring this up in class, I thought a lot about Bitch Planet as a counter-narrative to the popular and problematic Netflix show Orange is the New Black, and this is something I’d like to tease out more in my future classes. I’d also like to figure out more ways of introducing intersectionality in an English course (again, many of my students are new to these kinds of conversations), in addition to mass incarceration in the U.S. I’d be interested in hearing from other folks which texts or media they use, since this is a continuous conversation I have in my classes.

BPHeyKidsPatriarchy1Nancee Reeves: In addition to the great points already made, Bitch Planet is a wonderful example of satire. The over-the-top storyline and the wonderful “ads” scattered throughout really bring home to the students how ridiculous the rules and regulations of that world is and, by extension, those of our own world. If a novel, movie, or comic is too earnest it can put students on the defensive, especially students from more conservative backgrounds. By making them laugh at Bitch Planet while also being outraged, they feel more comfortable discussing issues in the real world without feeling attacked.  

Chandra Jenkins: I would echo all of the reasons mentioned above! I would also add that teaching Bitch Planet creates a space to challenge the prevalent narratives that comics are not a medium for serious content.

What kind of course or module have you or would you use this text in? What texts would you use in conjunction with it?

Andrea: I tend to think of history courses, for which I could easily see assigning Bitch Planet in conjunction with Kelly Sue DeConnick’s non-creator-owned series, specifically Captain Marvel, to try to get at what kinds of differences these two labor/ownership models lead to in the comics themselves. I’d also really enjoy assigning Bitch Planet against some of the Comics Code Authority-era comics, to make a very unsubtle point about the representation of women as it’s changed in American comics. I once nearly taught a writing-intensive course on the history of comics; it would have been cool to end a syllabus that started with Little Nemo with this text.

Elizabeth: Given my context, I think it could be fascinating to use with a religion-related course that thinks through ideology. Courses like Religion and Feminism, Race, etc. are natural fits. Because of the mix of feminism, law, and religious iconography, I think a religion course would have much to discuss about say, how the prison “Bible” holds messages for Kamau Kogo and how religion is and can be complicit with (and resistant to) patriarchal structures of control.

Ambria: I really think it could be used to talk about law and justice. What is the purpose of prison? How does our culture in general impact the structure of our prison system? It may seem on-the-nose, but I don’t think we should be afraid to take it literally in some ways and teach it along with the classics about prison, such as The New Jim Crow, Discipline and Punish, and Are Prisons Obsolete? It’s worth exploring in that context.

Rachelle: At the community college, I’ve used Margaret Atwood’s poem about her ancestor who was accused for witchcraft, “Half-Hanged Mary,” alongside Bitch Planet, to discuss both the idea and lived realities of “non-compliance.”

A comic and yet it's still a great choice for teen (and adult) readers.Elizabeth, your comments on religion reminded me of these questions a student posed when I taught Bitch Planet, in conjunction with the first volume of Ms. Marvel by G. Willow Wilson, in a university-level, graphic novel class. The student wrote, “How does Ms. Marvel negotiate her religious background as a Muslim with her status as a superhero and ‘typical teenager’?  How do the characters, like Kamau in Bitch Planet experience religion? How do these compare?”

I can see how Bitch Planet can also be used in a film/new media course as a response to exploitation films from the 1960s and 1970s. In an interview with Kelly Sue DeConnick here, she discusses her interest in these films’ aesthetics, but her conflict with reinforcing patriarchal structures through adopting said aesthetics and writing her female characters into them.

Nancee: I would love to teach Bitch Planet in a course that focused on dystopian fiction. Studying what different generations, genders, and nationalities see as dystopic tell us a lot about a culture. For example, Big Brother was a real fear when Orwell wrote 1984, but by and large, American has gotten used a culture of surveillance and such fears play little part in our dystopias of today. In contrast, the feminist issues in Bitch Planet mirror those expressed in early twentieth century feminist dystopias and utopias by authors like Charlotte Perkins Gilman. Why has so much changes and yet stayed the same?

Chandra: I would like to bring Bitch Planet into an education class on curriculum. We as readers learn what so many of the rules are in the world of Bitch Planet through indirect methods. Highlighting the ways the text teaches us these rules would help to illuminate the ways we learn from society. It might also help newer educators see how students are learning all the time from society and a broad swath of media.

I taught a module that used Ultimate Spider-Man, Spider-Man Loves Mary Jane, and Spider-Man: India in order to prompt discussions on gendered storytelling and cultural representation. I also, on a very basic level, just wanted my students to get exposed to superhero comics that weren’t about white men. Are there any non-textural lessons that you want your students to walk away understanding about comics, Bitch Planet, etc.?

Andrea: I can think of a couple of things. First, that American comics aren’t all superheroes, and that they’re not entirely Marvel and DC either. Another thing I would want students to understand is that comics can be a venue for consequential science fiction, which is a debate that got settled somewhat by fiat in the 1970s in Japan, for example, because the science fiction manga that women were writing at the time was both unarguably excellent and championed by a number of prominent (male) prose science fiction writers. I would also want to situate Bitch Planet in the tradition of feminist science fiction to make a similar point about comics as a valid site for that strand of SF.

Elizabeth: I want them to think about the way so-called “lowbrow entertainment” can be a venue for deep thought and social change. My students are of what we call “non-traditional” age, which is a nice way of saying everyone is older than 22. The median age of students is closer to 40. I want them to see a comic with rather shocking thing going on paired with on-the-ground feminist essays. In other words, I want them to think about the challenges this material presents to its readers and who those readers might be. I want them to think through the medium as well as the message. What does putting feminist essays in the context a comic book with a SF plot and naked women do to the message? Is it better for it?

Rachelle: I want students to come away with enthusiasm for comics and realize that comics are worthy of scholarship across disciplines. Whenever I’ve taught graphic novel/comics classes at the university-level, I encounter students who are amazed by the diversity of content, artistry, and storytelling that’s out there. I, too, create my syllabi with an eye toward cartoonists of color, queer-identifying, women creators. I’ve had Nalo Hopkinson discuss her graphic novel work-in-progress, which was so helpful for students in their creative process, in addition to Yumi Sakugawa and MariNaomi who were both generous in sharing their older work and their journeys as cartoonists. I’m hoping to have Roxane Gay visit and discuss her work on Marvel’s World of Wakanda this fall (fingers crossed). I’ve looked to cartoonist MariNaomi’s incredible databases of queer cartoonists and cartoonists of color for resources and possible visitors for my classes.  

Nancee: For many, comics are seen as for boys for boys. I love to show that women are active in mediums that are seen as male dominated and that, indeed, they have been there all along. A text like Bitch Planet, which is both unapologetically feminist, science fiction, and political, go a long way toward easing the erasure of female bodies from the discussion. It also forces readers to consider what is “feminine,” both in the comic itself and in the production of a text that goes against the “chick lit” stereotype.

Chandra: Often education and educators forget that the texts we use in classrooms, particularly in literature classes, were often popular when they were published. I would want students to understand that popular media and mediums can be the sources of new common educational texts. I would also, as others have mentioned, want students to understand that women are not new to the comic or sci-fi or “geek” community, but that we have always been participants and creators in these fields and that sometimes our creations are more violent than those created by men. I think highlighting the variety of perspectives and approaches to life that women hold works to challenge assumptions regarding what women can or want to do.

In the trade paperback collected edition, the backmatter has been cut and instead replaced with this single page of discussion questions:

BitchPlanetDiscussionQuestions
What do you think of these discussion questions? Would you use them in your course?

Andrea: Ugh, allegory. I hate to encourage the idea that anything in a creative work is an allegory for anything outside it unless said work is obviously allegorical. On that note, I’d say a lot of these questions get at things worth discussing, but many of them I’d want to rephrase and/or further contextualize before actually using them in a classroom setting. To take one example, the question about the paratextual community around Bitch Planet would, I think, be better phrased in terms of what about the comic is powering that paratextual stuff (you could also say “apparatus,” if you wanted to get super theory about it). What about the comic has people frequently getting tattoos of the non-compliant symbol? How do we interpret those ads, either in the world of the comic or in ours? And so on and so forth.

Elizabeth: I’m not against these questions, but I do wish there was more of the backmatter in the trade. I think these questions serve a purpose to a reader outside of a class context, but in a class you have live professional teachers (like us!) to hone the conversation.

Rachelle: The questions are okay. I’ve actually used the question about the other female characters who aren’t prisoners in my class as a way to talk about compliance and non-compliance and what that looks like in the comic. It was a good start to the discussion, but a question that might be better used for issues after the first trade when more non-prisoner female characters are introduced. I do wish that the back matter from the single issues was present in the trades to contextualize these questions and enrich possible discussion.

And the question about movements. That’s a HUGE question that deserves to be unpacked with reference to prison reform movements, Black Lives Matter, feminist waves, I Wor Kuen, Black Panther Party, Young Lords, international movements, etc., and the varying ways these movements/organizations have dealt or worked with the police and the government (or not). There can also be some discussion on state repression, which would directly tie into Bitch Planet. Same goes for the question on intersectionality. Maybe this is a tall order, but I think it’s worth having these resources for readers.

Nancee: While the questions are purposely generic, I am a proponent of literature as a jumping off point for discussions about issues in the real world. I also encourage students to see literature like Bitch Planet as activism–pointing out problems that people might ignore or scoff at otherwise. I’m rather optimistic about literature being able to bring around real change in the world. That said, I do understand there is a danger with assuming the intent of any writer.

Chandra: These questions might be useful for the beginning of a deeper conversation, but I would prefer for a course to delve further into the text and the issues presented. I hope that the backmatter essays are collected at some point and published as a stand alone book. The content in those essays would work to make the last question on intersectional feminism more approachable from the characters and story of Bitch Planet. Having the conversation about the way that oppression looks different as varying identities intersect can be easier to begin when the examples start in a fictional reality. Using Bitch Planet to bridge into the discussion of the variety of lived experiences of the people in the room.

So, you can have your students purchase individual issues of Bitch Planet in physical form or “floppies,” which presents certain benefits and certain drawbacks. You can also have them buy the individual digital copies, which also has certain benefits and certain drawbacks. And Bitch Planet is also available in a collected trade paperback, both as a digital or physical copy. Which do you have your students purchase and why?

Andrea: I taught a course incorporating manga this summer, and my impression from that was that my students (granted, in the Bay Area, a known hotbed of tech) were about evenly split on wanting physical copies, potentially with an eye to renting/selling them back, and digital copies, for ease of reading across devices. I honestly don’t think I would require students to buy a specific edition, as doing that might make the entire text less accessible to a significant chunk of students. (Also, personally, I am not a fan of physical floppies.) If I did want to make a pedagogical or discussion point out of some of Bitch Planet’s floppy-specific back matter, I’d take on the responsibility of making that specific content available to the entire class myself.

Elizabeth: Because the trades do not have the backmatter that the issues have, I’d have to insist that students use individual issues. I would show students how to obtain either digital or physical copies. Denver has a rather hot physical comics scene, but I also have online students that could be anywhere. They’re currently $1.99 each on Comixology. I have to have the backmatter in order to discuss the feminist essays and “Bitch Talk” section of the comic. And, as I’ve said above, that’s something that I place high value on. I’m excited to talk about the actual comics narrative text, but the place of text in society is another wonderful way to add some live value to the class.

Rachelle: I’ve assigned Bitch Planet in physical paper, trade form. The local comic shops don’t have enough of the back issues to serve a classroom of 100 students (my graphic novel class), and the local shop closest to the community college is about 10 miles away (which can be tough for several of my students who commute from different areas). Also, $10 for an Image trade is an extremely good deal and great for the college student budget. I’ve once allowed students to purchase and read comics digitally, but the logistics can be a nightmare–half of the students scrolling on their phones, while the other half is reading from the physical book. It wastes class time just to get on the same page, or panel. I wish the trade had the original back matter from the single issues because several of those essays are fantastic and help contextualize the comic.

Nancee: It would depend on the class and how I planned to teach the text. If I was teaching Bitch Planet as literature only, I would go with the trade paperback versions. Simple and easy for the students to find. However, if I want to make a larger statement about how the text is perceived and/or the part the physical perception of a text plays in how it is read, I would go with floppies. It’s unlikely I would ever choose digital text for the reasons Rachelle expressed above.

Chandra: As Nancee mentioned, it would depend on how I was planning on incorporating the text into the class. If I planned to use the back matter, I would most likely make copies of the specific material or allow students to the digital versions.

What are you most concerned about when it comes to teaching with Bitch Planet, not only in terms of the text itself, but also concerns outside of the text?

Andrea: At the risk of doing hypothetical potential future students a disservice, I’d be most concerned about students not being open to the comic itself, particularly along race or gender lines–I’ve seen some pretty stark differences along gender lines in the interpretation of and response to various texts both as a student and an instructor, so I don’t think I’m entirely off-base on this. Depending on how things shook out in a classroom setting, I could easily see myself leaning pretty heavily on the violence and exploitation elements to try to engage students who found the female characters difficult to engage or identify with as such.

Elizabeth: I worry whenever I teach a comic (even Maus) that students just won’t take it seriously enough as a text. However, I’m used to students being wary of texts in class, so I say we just march on. After that initial worry passes, I’d worry that Bitch Planet might be too hot for theological school!

Chandra: One concern I would have teaching this text is whether the satire of exploitation comics will be understood. I would plan to make that part of the conversation, so hopefully that element would add to the understanding.

It was only last year that a student and her parents protested at a community college over the use of comics they deemed “pornography” and “garbage” in a second-level English course. What are the risks involved when selecting a comic like Bitch Planet to use in your courses? How can you protect yourself as an instructor? Is the risk worth the reward?

Andrea: The courses I’ve taught, or nearly taught, thus far have been themed around comics in one way or another, which would hopefully prevent anyone with this kind of attitude from taking it. That said, one hopes that a department approving your course syllabus would mean they would back you up in the face of possible student complaints, and I do think the risk of that sort of problem, which is probably pretty low, is worth the reward of getting to discuss a pretty great comic in class.

Elizabeth: I would provide plenty of content warnings and probably have a back up text in mind for students who were overly uncomfortable with the sex and violence as presented here. There are some people in my classes for whom this might present some real ethical problems to engage in class. Though, I might point out that there’s more sex, violence, and sexual violence in the Bible than Bitch Planet could hope to present. However, I insist that my class is safe. The people who are in my classes are more important to me than any text.

Rachelle: You know, I haven’t worried about this in my classes, even though Crafton Hills College is less than an hour from me, and I do teach a variety of controversial works. In my graphic novel lecture, I presented this very case in Yucaipa, and so many of my students were alarmed and saddened by it. One student commented, “But isn’t that student over 18?” Several of them spoke on the importance of reading literature, including comics, regardless of their explicit content in order to broaden their world views and to learn about this thing called life. I love what Professor Schultz said in his statement: “I chose several highly acclaimed, award-winning graphic novels in my English 250 course not because they are purportedly racy but because each speaks to the struggles of the human condition. As Faulkner states, ‘The only thing worth writing about is the human heart in conflict with itself.’ The same may be said about reading literature. The characters in the chosen graphic novels are all struggling with issues of morality, self discovery, heartbreak, etc.” This is so important.

I do have a short section in my syllabus that states that I teach material with explicit content regarding language, sex, and violence. It states that students are welcome to take another class if they’re uncomfortable. Sometimes I read this section aloud on the first day, sometimes I don’t. It’s ultimately the student’s responsibility to know what they’re getting into. As a class, we create community guidelines that we can all agree to (items such as respecting one another’s opinions, listening, and engaging, moving up and moving back to encourage both outgoing and shyer students, etc.). I try my best to use this practice to create a sense of safety in the classroom.

Any last pieces of advice for instructors teaching Bitch Planet for the first time? 

Rachelle: Again, if instructors are inclined, they can include a short statement on their syllabus (which I mentioned above) and speak with their department chairs and other colleagues about this issue. For instructors who are uncomfortable with teaching these comics, particularly Bitch Planet, read up on works by Roxane Gay, Bell Hooks, Gloria Anzaldúa, and other works by feminists of color. Read on intersectionality and the prison system. I read a bunch of articles and interviews with Kelly Sue DeConnick and found her self-interrogation about writing characters of color while writing Captain Marvel to be super interesting. I honestly would love to hear more about this process regarding Bitch Planet. (Interviewers mostly ask about the non-compliant tattoos…) I give a big shout out to instructors who risk putting controversial comics on their syllabi and inviting these discussions on race, power, gender, and queerness with their students. These conversations have been sometimes uncomfortable, but also necessary and affirming, and not just for the students, but for me as well.

Please continue the discussion in the comments below!


Elizabeth Coody has her PhD in Religious and Theological Studies with a concentration in Biblical Interpretation. She teaches writing for the Iliff School of Theology and writes about comics all over the web. On Twitter, she’s @ecoody.

Rachelle Cruz is an educator and writer. Her first poetry collection, God’s Will for Monsters, just won the 2016 Hillary Gravendyk Poetry Prize and will be published in Spring 2017. She is also a Lecturer at UC Riverside and Part-time Faculty at Orange Coast College. On Twitter, she’s @rawqeli.

Andrea Horbinski is a PhD candidate in history and new media at the University of California, Berkeley, who is writing a book on the history of manga. On Twitter, she’s @horbinski.

Chandra Jenkins is a PhD student in Education at Chapman University with an emphasis in Curriculum and Cultural Studies. Her dissertation research is focused on the embedded curriculum in AAA video games. On Twitter, she’s @EnglishNerd.

Nancee Reeves has her PhD in Victorian Literature with a focus on science fiction texts of the late nineteenth century. She teaches writing and literature at the University of Georgia and is currently editing an edition of The Island of Doctor Moreau for Broadview Press.

Ambria Taylor is an undergraduate student of the humanities at Shimer College in Chicago, working in and studying prison-based education. She can be contacted by email at a.taylor@shimer.edu.

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Recovering academic. Fangirl. Geek knitter.

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