Rereading Bitch Planet in 2021: Back Off, Karens

I write this on what is the traditional land of the Mississaugas of Scugog Island First Nations.

I was introduced to comic books by my father and brother. Comic books are a traditionally male-dominated sphere and women trying to enter into this sphere experience misogyny, gate-keeping, bias and gendered microaggressions; I know this because I have experienced them. I was introduced to feminist concepts through reading and discussing comics  and, as much as I love the medium, I have hated the experiences that seem to go hand-in-hand with being a woman who likes comics. My research as an English Literature master’s student examines  how constructs of gender and race are portrayed, exploited and satirized in Bitch Planet. At the end of 2014, Bitch Planet​​, co-created by writer Kelly Sue DeConnick and Canadian illustrator Valentine De Landro was released. It was a book I had been waiting for: a critical exploration of patriarchy, gender, capitalism, and Western colonial culture. In this series, cis and trans women and gender non-conforming people are sent to an off-world prison planet for any hint of “non-compliance” – be they too fat, too Black, too queer, too political, too ambitious, too gender non-conforming, too feminist, or exhibiting any other attribute that indicates that they are not obeying the status quo. My research looks at how Bitch Planet recognizes intersectional feminism. Intersectional feminism was first defined by Dr. Kimberlé Crenshaw to recognize the intersectional levels of oppression (racism and sexism, for example) that women of colour, and especially Black women, face. This is the first of a two-part series; the first examines how the main narrative of Bitch Planet decenters the white gaze, and the second examines how the Bitch Planet: Triple Feature! spin-off series explores critical race theoretical frameworks.

Bitch Planet, first published by Image Comics in 2014, was created by white American cis woman DeConnick and Black Canadian cis man De Landro. It is often described as a feminist dystopian series, set in a world where cis and trans women and gender non-conforming people can be sent to an off-world prison planet for being non-compliant. DeConnick and De Landro recognized their respective positionalities, which afford them different degrees of privilege, and gave space to Black people, Indigenous people, people of colour, and people of marginalized genders in the backmatter Bitches Be Like… sections of Bitch Planet and Bitch Planet: Triple Feature!.

The prison world in Bitch Planet is heavily populated by women of colour, particularly Black women. The main stars of the cast are four Black women: the main protagonist, Kamau “Kam” Kogo, a former athlete who is recruited to form a squad for gladiator-style games performed for the entertainment of powerful men back on earth; Penelope “Penny” Rolle, a tall, fat and gender non-conforming brawler; Kamau’s sister Muenda “Morowa” Kogo, who is housed in a separate facility with other trans women; and Eleanor Doane, an intellectual revolutionary who dared call herself president. The primacy of whiteness is overt, institutionalized and pervasive in the society that sends women to the titular Bitch Planet: the “Auxiliary Compliance Outpost” or ACO as it is referred to in the text. The holographic avatar that greets women upon their entrance to the prison is a scantily clad, pink-hued, mythologized image of beauty; this voice of the patriarchy wears both a corset and a nun’s habit. She is both a madonna and a whore — two roles all too often assigned to women in movies, comics and books.

Whiteness frames the world of Bitch Planet. The patriarchy is literalized in its leaders: the Fathers, essentially the CEOs and principal shareholders of this colonial hetero-patriarchy, are mostly white men. And those in the ACO, those whose freedoms have been taken, are mostly women of colour. Whiteness allows a person to claim a position of absolute superiority and privilege, and creates a “binary” in opposition to the “Other”, explains Dr. George Yancy, scholar of critical whiteness studies. “In “Whiteness as Property”, one of the key writings forming the Critical Race Theory movement, Cheryl I. Harris writes that “whiteness as a theoretical construct evolved for the very purpose of racial exclusion.” The goal of white supremacists is white superiority in all aspects of life; with this understanding, whiteness manifests as depictions of white women as being more beautiful, innocent, feminine, intelligent, nurturing and capable than Black, brown and Indigenous women. In this fashion, whiteness is positioned at the top of a hierarchy and all others are relegated to a place outside of whiteness. As evidenced by Bitch Planet’s cast, those who do not fit ideas of compliance are forcibly removed from the world, criminalized and “excised” from society.

When DeConnick set out to create Bitch Planet, she told De Landro to assume that all characters were not white unless she stated they were, thereby flipping the script on the default assumptions of the “white gaze” (Yancy). Yancy describes the “white gaze” as rendering whiteness both visible and yet invisible: the audience is presumed white, the main characters are white, all the “while position[ing] and subordinat[ing] nonwhites” (Yancy 110). DeConnick and De Landro subvert the white gaze in other ways as well. This gaze is subverted in the very first issue of Bitch Planet when the reader’s assumption that the main female protagonist is white is upended, and it is instead revealed to be Kam Kogo. People in the world of Bitch Planet are separated into a caste system based on service to the ruling political party. Unlike other feminist dystopias such as The Handmaid’s Tale or Man-Eaters, Bitch Planet provides us with a glimpse at how Black, brown and Asian people of marginalized genders would be affected by a theocratic police state. Whiteness, and in particular hetero-patriarchal whiteness, is what the dystopic society DeConnick and De Landro created is founded upon.

The series’s second issue begins with a 12-panel series of action images set in the kitchen of a large convention centre. Those working in the kitchen are mostly people of colour, and two Black women servers are visibly sexually assaulted by their white male supervisor; his slap to a dark-skinned Black woman’s behind happens both openly and without repercussions. Women of colour are forced to work in short strapless yellow dresses that just hit the top of their thighs. They are dehumanized to become sexualized objects, “sexy lamps” to use a phrase DeConnick herself has coined. The uniforms are a clever play on her own term —the colour yellow coding a lamp bulb — and demonstrate that these female characters have no agency or relevance to the socio-political plot (“Kelly Sue DeConnick explains the Sexy Lamp Test”). These workers do, however, have relevance to this story: they establish for the reader a system of racialized class oppression.

They are meant to stand in stark contrast to the rich white wives of the mostly white male political ruling class. The wives wear long pink ball-gowns meant to signify their femininity and womanhood — as opposed to the hypersexualized Black and brown women forced to work while wearing short yellow dresses. Yet, these pink dresses are also coquettish: even these rich white women are beholden to the patriarchy, a fact that Black feminist Danielle Henderson notes in her essay appended to Bitch Planet #1, “But I’m not Oppressed”:

White women don’t fare much better in the culture of compliance; they’re encouraged to pluck, snip, and tone their way down to a rough, whittled flesh stick to even be considered desirable.

White women have a long history of supporting racial hierarchy — both directly and indirectly. During the Trans-Atlantic Slave trade, while they often were denied property rights, white women too often were silently complicit in the institution of slavery and, as managers of their households, active in the suppression and harm of Black people. It is true that white women have had to fight to access gender parity with white men, but the encapsulation of white feminism is that white women both ignore and perpetuate the intersectional barriers of racism and sexism that Black women come up against.

A video posted online on July 4, 2020, which later went viral, featured a white woman using black paint to cover up a yellow “Black Lives Matter” street mural; her white husband in the background shouting racist vitriol while she worked. The scene is an encapsulation of the physical work white women put into upholding and defending white supremacy. About five weeks earlier, on May 25, 2020 (a significant date in the Black Lives Matter movement as George Floyd’s death sparked a resurgence of BLM protests across the United States, Canada and globally), Amy Cooper, a white woman, attempted to weaponize the police against Christian Cooper (no relation), a Black American bird watcher and former comics editor simply because he asked her to leash her dog in New York City’s Central Park. Christian Cooper wrote a comic about the experience for DC Comics, called “Represent!” (available for free).

Amy Cooper’s wielding of the police, and thereby her whiteness, against Christian Cooper is the most recent example of a white women appealing to law enforcement (Carolyn Bryant Dunham used when she lied about Emmett Till flirting with her in 1955, and her weaponization of the myth of the pure, chaste white woman led to the sadistic lynching of Till by Dunham’s husband, Roy Bryant and his half-brother, J. W. Milam). Black Twitter (Negra & Leyda, 1-2) developed a moniker for these white women who leverage their whiteness as a violent tool: Karen. Amy Cooper is a “Karen.” The Karen is one of the many examples, however, of how white women have used whiteness to oppress BIPOC.

It is peculiar to read this comic today, in the middle of a worldwide global pandemic that has infected and killed millions — a pandemic caused by a virus that is carried in respiratory droplets. While I am reading Bitch Planet, we are being encouraged to wear face masks to prevent virus transmission. Bitch Planet offers no comment on our current pandemic, but it does highlight what a mouth covering does other than offer protection from COVID-19: it muffles the voice.

The mask the wives don for the gala may simply be a fashion choice; however, it still provides an allegory for silence and, in this case, for the silence and complicity of white women in upholding white supremacy. These women have the potential to sway the minds of their husbands. Certainly they face the threat of being sent off to Bitch Planet for challenging male authority, but are under far less threat than Black women simply by virtue of their whiteness.

Bitch Planet is often mentioned as being a starting point for entering into a conversation about contemporary issues dealing with race, sexuality, or gender, and it is a conversation that has not ended, but has only become more fraught with urgency over time. Officially, Bitch Planet itself has not ended.  Although the most recent issue of Bitch Planet was published in April 2017, both DeConnick and De Landro have stated that the series is not finished, even though they are on hiatus. A few months after this publication of Issue #10, Image Comics published a Bitch Planet 5-issue miniseries, Bitch Planet: Triple Feature! Triple Feature! was an anthology series featuring works by BIPOC creators. In the next essay, I will examine the spin-off series Triple Feature! and how specific examples further deconstruct ideas of race and whiteness, without DeConnick and De Landro.

WORKS CITED

Aylward, Caro. Canadian Critical Race Theory: Racism and the Law, Fernwood Publishing, 1999. ProQuest Ebook Central, https://ebookcentral-proquest-com.proxy1.lib.trentu.ca/lib/ocultrent-ebooks/detail.action?docID=3249822.

Crenshaw, Kimberle. “Demarginalizing the Intersection of Race and Sex: A Black Feminist Critique of Antidiscrimination Doctrine, Feminist Theory and Antiracist Politics,” in University of Chicago Legal Form, Volume 1989, Issue 1 Article 8, p. 139-167: http://chicagounbound.uchicago.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=1052&context=uclf

Cuthbert, Denise. “Beg, borrow or steal: The politics of cultural appropriation,” in Postcolonial Studies, vol. 1, no. 2, 1998, p. 257-262, DOI: 10.1080/13688799890174

DiAngelo, Robin. “White Fragility.” International Journal of Critical Pedagogy, vol. 3, no. 3, 2011, p. 54-70.

Fields, Barbara J. “Slavery, Race and Ideology in the United States of America.” New Left Review, vol. 181, no. 181, New Left Revolution Ltd., May 1990, pp. 99-118.

Harris, Cheryl I. “Whiteness as Property” in Critical Race Theory: The Key Writings that Formed the Movement. The New Press, 1995.

Mcintosh, Peggy. “White Privilege: Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack (1989) 1.” On Privilege, Fraudulence, and Teaching As Learning: Selected Essays 1981-2019.  Routledge, 2019, pp. 29–34., doi:10.4324/9781351133791-4

McMahon, Cian T. “The Pages of Whiteness: Theory, Evidence, and the American Immigration Debate.” Race & Class, vol. 56, no. 4, Apr. 2015, pp. 40–55, doi:10.1177/0306396814567407

Negra, Diane, and Julia Leyda. “Querying ‘Karen’: The Rise of the Angry White Woman.” European Journal of Cultural Studies, Aug. 2020, doi:10.1177/1367549420947777.

Urcaregui, Maite. “Intersectional Feminism in Bitch Planet: Moving Comics, Fandom and Activism beyond the page.” Gender and the Superhero Narrative. Eds. Michael Goodrum, Tara Prescott, and Philip Smith.  Jackson, Miss.: University Press of Mississippi, 2018.

Yancy, George. Look, a White! Philosophical Essays on Whiteness. Temple University Press, 2012.

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Liz Pfeiffer

Liz Pfeiffer

Elisabeth Pfeiffer is a master's candidate at Trent University. She is currently working on her thesis, which examines the comic series Bitch Planet, and representations of race and gender within it.
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