From the Flavorwire archives, in honor of International Women's Day.
(I received an ARC of this title from the publisher via NetGalley, in exchange for an honest review.)
Trade publication date: October 20, 2015 (all collected issues previously released individually)
If the future is undiscovered country, why does it feel like we’ve been here before? That’s why stories like this pack such a gut-punch; it’s too real, too possible. Never mind the space travel or the other science fiction trappings, the story has been told before and it never loses its alarming fascination. Charlotte Perkins Gilman told the story of a woman imprisoned by patriarchal society in The Yellow Wallpaper over 100 years ago. A story not set in a future dystopia, but set completely in the real world of her own experience. Gilman used horror as her vehicle; DeConnick merely switches up the genre and shows how easy it would be to come full circle.
Kelly Sue DeConnick has taken all of the greatest hits of science fiction dystopia—fascism, surveillance, manipulated media, death-as-spectator-sport, off-world detainment—and mashed them up with 70s-style prison exploitation, complete with badass afroed heroine and the obligatory group shower scene. There is a rich irony in her particular mix of styles, which she milks for all its worth: using a male-gaze genre that focuses on dehumanizing women for sexual kicks and turning those women into complete ass-kickers who will literally take down the voyeurs with their bare hands-- pure genius. In this future, any woman who is considered to be “noncompliant” is shipped to an off-world prison nicknamed Bitch Planet. Noncompliance can be anything from “seduction and disappointment” (not putting out) to “genetic error” (being born a twin) to being a “bad” mother (undefined, but I can guess). The “crimes” require nothing more than a complaint from a man—father, husband, stranger; the actual relationship doesn’t seem to matter.
I don’t think I can talk about Bitch Planet without making comparisons to The Handmaid’s Tale. Atwood’s novel set the standard for ass-backwards-patriarchy-gone-mad dystopia, and BP follows a line of direct descent. The tone and execution are completely different, but the effect is essentially the same: absolute, rage-inducing horror. As one reviewer put it, it’s “the kind of book that makes you feel good about being angry.”*
But unlike Handmaid’s Tale and, quite frankly, a lot of other feminist work, BP is intersectional in its look at women and women’s lives. The majority of the lead characters are women of color, often poor and working class, which reflects not just a wider human experience than most literature, but also the very real likelihood that race is a determining factor in who is considered noncompliant. There is a moment where the racism of the future (which is just racism with a new vocabulary) is made very clear: people of color are referred to as “skins.” The color-based terms once used are replaced by a more generic word, only to be just another way to describe someone as “other,” with even more reductive effect. It’s chilling, and all too real.
There is a reason real women all over the world have read these comics and branded themselves with the NC (noncompliant) tattoo, a punishment that is reclaimed as a act of defiance in Bitch Planet. What is compulsory in BP society is voluntary in this one; by choosing it willingly, we (I’m considering one myself) head off the possibility that someday it COULD BE mandatory. We accept that this future is possible, and we know where we stand, since simply by living our lives with expectations of being treated as fully recognized human beings, we are being noncompliant with the basic rules of a patriarchal society. There are people even now that want to set us back by a hundred years because a woman who can make her own choices is a threat. Bitch Planet shows us what that could mean, in a powerful, visceral way. This first collection is just the introduction to the world and the characters, but it packs a punch from page one.
DeConnick’s story is brought to life by Valentine De Landro’s sharp-as-nails art. He captures the run-down sterility of the prison, the oversaturated outside world, and the smarmy politicking behind the scenes with equal skill, and his retro-fabulous covers and ads are amazing. The settings, the character design, the dark color palette with incongruous pops of neon; all seamlessly reinforce DeConnick’s black humor and biting social commentary. De Landro is especially adept at presenting a wide range of body types among the women- each one is unique and every imperfection highlights their humanity and how very close we are to their reality.
This is only the first trade volume, collecting issues 1-5, but I’m definitely hooked for the long haul. Some people may be put off by how in-your-face DeConnick is about the violence and the cruelty, but it’s absolutely necessary for the message. And watching the ladies kick ass even when everything looks hopeless is exactly the kind of noncompliance we need.
(My only complaint is that the trade doesn't include the feminist essays that are published in the single issues.)
*Daily Dot blurb from the back cover of Volume 1
5 deconstructing stars.
Lilus Kikus by Elena Poniatowksa, on the surface level, is about a young girl and her adventures as she grows up. This book was first published in 1954 erroneously as a child’s novel due to the age of the protagonist (although her age is never clearly defined) and the simplistic writing style. However, Lilus Kikus is bursting at the seams with a feminist and anti-patriarchal agenda.
As a modern reader, the evidence of this book’s agenda is so apparently and blunt that the only explanation as to how it could ever be passed as a children’s novel is because the publishing industry in the 50s, especially in Mexico, was dominated by men and they just didn’t expect this sort of commentary from a woman.
The reader is first introduced to Lilus when she is outside playing. Lilus does not like to play with dolls (which are traditionally feminine), instead she prefers to play doctor and perform experiments (traditionally masculine roles). As she grows up, she joins an all-girls school where one of her closest friend, the “Lamb,” is being sent away due to pre-martial sex that resulted in pregnancy.
When Lilus is talking to her next door neighbor, the Philosopher, he says this of the Lamb:
“The lamb, the lamb… let me think. Ah yes, the feminist. The free thinker. … Well, life started too early for her.” Lilus herself is neither fully feminine nor fully masculine, but she knows better than to try and stand up for her female rights. She knows she will end up exiled like the Lamb and decides that "she would rather keep quiet. It is better to feel than to know."
Indeed, the Lamb was born into the wrong time period, where women are not allowed to commit the same “sins” as men or hold the same positions. They are meant to be beautiful, vivacious and submissive: “Also, Lilus had heard it said that dummies were the most enchanting women in the world.”
One of my favorite parts of this book is when Lilus is describing her good friend, Chiruelita, who is very naiive and innocent. Chiruelita is the picture perfect idea of a "feminine" lady, of a "delicate" woman. She ends up marrying an artist and obeying him easily, until the one day she decides to think for herself and “with a languid gesture, the eccentric artist wrung her neck!”
If that's not a blatant statement comparing the patriarchy to the silencing of women, then I don't know what is. It is baffling to see how original readers missed all of this subtext.
Eventually, Lilus cannot be contained and is sent to a nunnery where she is completely oppressed, both by the patriarchy and the Catholic religion. The ending is open – it can be read as Lilus searching for signs of rebellion or as Lilus searching for signs of God. Either way, the message is clear: the woman’s place is in the silence of the men’s voices.
All this in a “children’s” book.