Rereading Bitch Planet in 2021: Basic Bitches & Blackface

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

In the first part of this series, I examined the main narrative of Bitch Planet through a critical race theory framework. Critical race theory is a theoretical framework developed by mostly Black American legal scholars and is used to examine systemic oppression within the law. It is currently under attack in several U.S. states. In this follow-up, I will be examining Bitch Planet: Triple Feature! an anthology of short comics set within the same world of Bitch Planet, but created by a diverse line-up of comic creators. The Triple Feature! collection comprises five single comic issues, each containing three 8-page short graphic narratives, and these 15 short stories spin out of the world initially co-created by Kelly Sue DeConnick and Valentine De Landro. Several stories in the Bitch Planet: Triple Feature! series explicitly address whiteness: and they do these through two different lenses: satire and dystopia. A satirical parody will exaggerate the intent of the original language to make it so absurd that we recognize how absurd it is when we connect it to our reality. Dystopia is the imagineering of a hellish take on the world–in contrast to a utopian idealization of the perfect world. In the stories in Bitch Planet: Triple Feature! the concepts of satire and dystopia both intersect and at times overlap.

The short comic I will focus on is “Basic Bitch” by Bassey Nyambi, Eyang Nyambi, Nyambi Nyambi and Chris Visions in Bitch Planet: Triple Feature! #5, published in 2017. It is a rich and layered story that draws attention to multiple cultural practices and attitudes where white people, and white women in particular, are complicit in maintaining white supremacy. Blackface (and colorism), cultural appropriation (in fashion and food), tolerance (including consequences and lack thereof), law enforcement (police brutality), and anti-Blackness in the media are all touched upon in “Basic Bitch.” The comic also tackles intersectionality and misogynoir. The term intersectionality was first coined by Dr. Kimberlé Crenshaw in 1989 as a way to describe the unique form of oppression that Black women face:

Because women of colour experience racism in ways not always the same as those experienced by men of color and sexism in the ways not always parallel to experiences of white women, antiracism and feminism are limited, even on their own terms.

It has become a way to express how people who experience more than one level of oppression can face unique forms of that oppression. The term misogynoir was coined by Moya Bailey and Trudy in 2008 and describes the “anti-Black racist misogyny that Black women experience.” To elaborate further, they write:

For me, naming misogynoir was about noting both an historical anti-Black misogyny and a problematic intraracial gender dynamic that had wider implications in popular culture. Misogynoir can come from Black men, white men and women, and even other Black women. […] Black women and girls are being treated in a uniquely terrible way because of how societal ideas about race and gender intersect.

Intersectionality and misogynoir are important critical race theory terms to contextualize the way the comic utilizes satirical exaggeration and parody within the established dystopia of the Bitch Planet universe. The world of “Basic Bitch” is a mirror of contemporary culture — but it’s a fun house mirror, distorting reality while still being recognizable.

In the first panels of the comic, we encounter three white women at a bar. The scene illustrates how white women, in particular, have appropriated Black culture. White people have colonized and profited off of Black people and their culture. This is cultural appropriation, and, according to Denise Cuthbert, it is the “theft and expropriation” of the culture of the colonized; it has been ongoing since colonization.

There’s a lot happening in this tableau. The bar these women are is called “Paula Beans Soul Food” — a reference to Paula Deen, notorious TV celebrity chef who was initially ostracized for her racism in 2013 and later made a comeback. Outside the bar are billboards advertising “BLK is the NW BLK” with an image of a white woman who has her hair done in Bantu knots, an African hairstyle that white singer Adele wore her hair in just this past summer. Lastly, on this page, these women are appropriating African American Vernacular English (AAVE), a recognized dialect of English, historically criticized as being “ungrammatical” compared to SAE (Standard American English). “Finally, this hoe is calling. Y’all know she stays trying to make an entrance,” says one of the women. The woman they are referring to is their friend, Paige Anderson, our “Basic Bitch.”

The title of the comic, “Basic Bitch,” sets the tone and main character of the story. The term “basic bitch” connotes a white woman, usually middle to upper-class, between the ages of 15 to 25 who appropriates cultural trends. She is a follower, not an originator. The comic introduces Paige by showing her in a beauty salon leafing through a beauty magazine. Paige wants to make her friends envious, and the beautician suggests a skin darkening treatment so that Paige can look like celebrity Say-Say. Paige hesitates because Say-Say is “Black Black.” This aversion to dark (Black black) skin or preference for lighter skin is known as Colorism. Aisha Phoenix writes in “colourism and the politics of beauty” that colonial beauty myths constructed through the lens of white supremacy deem those of darker skin to be ugly, unkempt, and untrustworthy.

The beautician reassures Paige that she will look just like Say-Say, who is a “superstar” and that Paige, a white woman, can “pull off anything.” This statement reveals how Paige, as a white woman, has the privilege of being able to “wear” skin color the same way she is able to wear Black hairstyles. Reassured of her privilege, Paige agrees to add melanin to her skin. But when she re-enters the beauty salon waiting room with dark skin, the white patrons are shown wearing expressions of shock, concern and disgust.

This chemical darkening of Paige’s skin is a form of Blackface, a type of costume makeup that dates to the 1830s. Minstrelsy, when white actors would put Black on their face and act out their contrived ideas of Black people for “ridicule” (Yancy 111), is the most well-known type of Blackface, but the definition encompasses any instance where white people put on skin darkening make-up and act “Black” for profit and entertainment.

Judy Garland acted in Blackface in Everybody Sing in 1938, comedian Sarah Silverman leaned into Blackface for a comedy sketch in 2007, and white feminist Tina Fey’s show 30 Rock featured Blackface three separate times, the latest as recent as 2010. In the age of photoshop, Deja and Wanna Thompson identified a type of digital Blackface they term “Blackfishing,” whereby non-Black (but especially white women) darken their skin and “embody an exoticized aesthetic” to look like a racially ambiguous or mixed Black woman in an attempt to increase their “marketability” (see Francesca Sobande’s “Spectacularized and Branded Digital (Re)Presentations of Black People and Blackness”).

But when non-Black people don Blackface, they do so in contexts where they do not actually experience Blackness. The comic takes Paige to the real world, where she finds herself in a situation familiar to Black people–interacting with the police. The Black Lives Matter movement has brought attention to the differences in how white people and Black people are treated by the police, and the comic presents the disparity of that experience by contrasting the experience of Paige’s friends and that of Paige herself.

Following her visit to the beauty salon, Paige and her friends leave separately to go to the Say-Say concert as Paige wants to surprise them with her “spicy A.F.” look. Meanwhile, on their way, Paige’s three white friends end up being pulled over by police.

White woman driver: Perfect.

Police: Do you know why I pulled you over?

Driver: Because you like me?

Police: Tints. Couldn’t see you.

White woman passenger: And now that you do, are you going to ask us out or arrest us?

Police: Ha. Where are you ladies headed?

Passenger: Downtown for some music and then a coffee. Care to join?

Police: Drive safely. And enjoy the concert. Maybe I’ll see you there.

Once their tinted car window rolls down to reveal these women are white, the officer acts casually with them. While it is not stated outright, it is understood between the police and these white women that their whiteness allows them to break the law for speeding and drive away unscathed. The police officer flirts back, even laughing at their attempts. He uses “I” with them, not “we” — an indication of a personal connection over a plurally-backed force. It’s a short interaction, more of a meet-cute. In fact, the officer even suggests he will see these women later at the Say-Say concert.

Then Paige is also pulled over by police for speeding. The entire interaction begins almost exactly as when her three friends were stopped:

Paige: Perfect.

Police: Do you know why we pulled you over?

Paige: Because you like me?

Police: Tints. Couldn’t see you.

Paige: I’m… in a convertible. With the windows rolled down.

Police: Have you been drinking?

Paige now looks like a Black woman and does not receive the same kind of treatment as her white friends. The officer assumes she is inebriated and then insults her as he approaches, claiming he could not see her dark-skinned body at night. Just as her friends did, Paige attempts to flirt with the officer, but unlike her friends, she is rebuffed. When the officer demands her “identification” and it identifies her as white, the situation escalates. He yells at Paige, demanding that she “get out of the fucking car, Black bitch!”

While the reader has seen Paige’s journey and knows that she is donning Blackface, the officer sees her as Black, and is treating her as he would, presumably, treat any Black person. Paige is murdered by police officers. It is important to recognize that police history is rooted in slavery and in tracking down runaway slaves–and any Black person was a suspected runaway slave. Paige protests, “I’m not Black!”, which does not decry the brutal treatment of Black people by police officers, but the police officers treating her, a white woman, in the same manner.

The last panels of “Basic Bitch” show a newscast where Paige’s death is reduced to being just another Black victim of police brutality. The language of the newscasters to describe Paige’s death evokes the passive “bloodless” language described by John Leary, that “obscures agency and avoids the question of culpability.”  There is deflection and indifference in the passive voice; further blame is laid at the victim’s feet with the use of the term “altercation with authorities.” The murderous police officers are extolled as upstanding family men who were “uninjured” in the incident. Contrasting photos of the victim and murderers are featured within the comic panels: the photo of Paige — the victim — is one of her looking angry, while the photo of one of the officers who killed her is a wedding photo. The newscast then moves on to a fashion/entertainment reel on the “newest fashion craze” — dashikis. “We don’t know where they came from, but we’re sure glad they’re here,” the text reads, juxtaposed next to an image of a blonde white model with her hair in a braided top knot, wearing brass neck coils, hoop earrings, and gold bangles.

WORKS CITED

Aydin, Andrew et al. Bitch Planet: Triple Feature! Image Comics, 2017

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

Leary, John Patrick. “‘Officer-Involved’ Obfuscation.” Jacobin, 9 Jan. 2016, www.jacobinmag.com/2016/09/eula-love-officer-involved-shooting-black-lives-matter/.

Nyambi, Bassey, et al. “Basic Bitch” in Bitch Planet: Triple Feature! Issue 5. Image Comics, 2017.

Phoenix, Aisha. “Colourism and the Politics of Beauty.” Feminist Review, 108. 1 (Nov. 2014): 97–105. doi:10.1057/fr.2014.18

Potter, Gary. “The History of Policing in the United States.” EKU Online, https://plsonline.eku.edu/sites/plsonline.eku.edu/files/the-history-of-policing-in-us.pdf. Accessed 31 May 2021.

Sobande, Francesca. “Spectacularized and Branded Digital (Re)Presentations of Black People and Blackness.” Television & New Media, vol. 22, no. 2, Feb. 2021, pp. 131–146, doi:10.1177/1527476420983745. Accessed 22 June 2021.

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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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