"CAN WE USE exploitation tropes without being exploitative?" asks Portland comics writer Kelly Sue DeConnick of her latest project, Bitch Planet, which reframes tropes from classic women-in-prison exploitation films within a feminist narrative. "[Bitch Planet] was a conscious effort to go back to some of the exploitation films that I particularly enjoyed when I was younger and see if I could play with those tropes," says DeConnick, who admits to having had "a particular fondness for Japanese pinky violence films" and pulpy women-in-prison movies, like Shunya Itô's Female Prisoner #701: Scorpion, Toshiya Fujita's Lady Snowblood, Jonathan Demme's Caged Heat, and Roger Corman's various sundry B-movies.
DeConnick—who's best known for her work on Marvel's Captain Marvel and her creator-owned series Pretty Deadly (Image)—teamed up with artist Valentine De Landro for Bitch Planet. In the series, launched by Image in December, with a new issue slated for publication this month, DeConnick and De Landro have imagined a terrifying future where "noncompliant" women—that is, those who defy societal norms and/or male authority figures, even momentarily—are banished by a totalitarian government to a distant planet. On Bitch Planet, they're punished by mysterious G-men and a ruthless, busty queen automaton who appears to be the virgin-whore dichotomy in sentient form. With all these factors in play, it shouldn't be surprising that Bitch Planet reads a bit like a mash-up of an extra-horrible Margaret Atwood dystopia and an Ariana Grande music video. What might be surprising is how well that combination works.
Women-in-prison movies—a subgenre of a genre literally named for objectification—may seem like odd subject matter for a feminist reboot. The prison films DeConnick and I discussed are typically low-budget messes that deal heavily in gratuitous nudity, gore, and murderous women being variously degraded and abused by captors. In other words, a very unhinged male gaze, on hallucinogens. Still, these films have been influential for many giants of pop culture, like Quentin Tarantino (DeConnick and Tarantino have Lady Snowblood in common; it was reportedly a model for Kill Bill), and Lady Gaga, whose "Telephone" video slapped a Thelma and Louise-like rescue fantasy (courtesy of Beyoncé) onto a collection of prison film tropes.
What sets Bitch Planet apart from these and so many other pop cultural responses to exploitation, however, is how risky it's willing to be. It isn't merely broad parody or unexamined homage. Instead, DeConnick and De Landro repurpose elements of exploitation as a means of pointing out what's wrong with it, which is quite a lot. When DeConnick revisited some of the films she'd enjoyed when she was younger, she found that they didn't hold up at all. "They are far more transgressive than progressive," she says. "I remember them as being empowering and they're really not. [They] put the viewer in the place of the abuser."
So it wasn't surprising to hear her describe Bitch Planet as "angry." It's definitely an earned, angry response to bizarre and morally slippery subject matter. But it's also incredibly smart, bordering on visual criticism, with none of the dry confines of theory. And perhaps because DeConnick and De Landro are willing to take on such a taboo, disempowering genre, and repurpose it within a character-driven narrative, Bitch Planet manages to begin this critique without ever coming across as didactic.
As for DeConnick's initial question—are exploitation tropes innately exploitative?—she says she doesn't have an answer yet, but that future installments of Bitch Planet will be an exercise in figuring it out, which is all the more reason to keep reading.