Geek Girls Rule! #410 – Handmaid’s Tale, Bitch Planet and the Politics of Women’s Bodies

I did the panel Saturday night at Geek Girl Con with Pleiades McRae and Berlynn Wohl.  We compared the novel of The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood and to a lesser extent the Hulu adaptation, and Bitch Planet by Kelly Sue DeConnick.

For those of you who are unfamiliar, The Handmaid’s Tale is a novel written from the point of view of “Offred (Of Fred)” a Handmaid in the Republic of Gilead, which is part of what used to the United States.  A coup by religious conservatives leaves women without any rights, in a fascist state where people are killed for things they have done or might do.  Handmaids are fertile women who are assigned to powerful men whose wives are barren, in the hopes that they will father children on them, as per the biblical story of Hagar, the handmaid of Sarai, Abraham’s wife.

Bitch Planet is like The Handmaid’s Tale meets The Longest Yard, and takes place in a near future dystopia, where the human race has mastered space flight, and “Non-Compliant” women are shipped to a prison planet(s) popularly referred to as Bitch Planet.  The offenses for which one can be imprisoned are, mouthing off to a man, being visually unpleasant to a man (i.e. fat, woc, too thin, whatever…), aging, as well as real offenses like arson or murder. The main protagonists of the comic are all women of color with various body types. Kamau Kogo is the primary protagonist, a former professional athlete, who volunteered to come to Bitch Planet to find her sister.  Each character gets a spotlight issue, however, explaining how she ended up here.

We started off by talking about when we first read The Handmaid’s Tale, and how it affected us.

I read it when it was first published in 1985.  I was 14, living in Idaho, and that book scared the hell out of me.  I am old enough to remember a lot of the bullshit women went through even into the 1970s, like my mom needing my dad’s signature for bank transactions.  Up into the 70s and early 80s in a lot of places, women needed their husband or father’s signature to buy a car, rent an apartment, buy a house, even if the money was all theirs.  So, yes, I knew how newly won a lot of female freedoms were, and in light of the conservative backlash against second wave feminism, was terrified that they would gladly go “Republic of Gilead” on us.

Pleiades read the book in ’89 or so, living in the Seattle area.  And while Seattle had not yet become the tolerant “Queertopia” that Berlynn referred to it as in our planning meeting, it was still, as John Kiester on Almost Live put it, “Left of Idaho, but who isn’t?”  While the book stuck with Pleiades, it did not cause the same visceral terror it inspired in me.

Berlynn, also in the Seattle area, read the book in high school in the mid 1990s, and found it even less plausible than Pleiades had when she read it.  In the midst of the “Girl Power!” 90s and Riot Grrrl culture, she found the idea that we could slide into a culture like that laughable.

Now no one’s laughing, because it seems all too plausible with Trump and the GOP in charge.

We addressed the overwhelming whiteness of Atwood’s novel, and of the Hulu production.  While I could maybe, if I squinted, allow that Atwood was trying to demonstrate the white supremacism of the ruling class, I fully admit that probably isn’t the answer.  She likely just didn’t even consider adding people of color, being a relatively well off white lady from Canada in the 80s.

Now, the Hulu production has zero excuse for that shit.  They could have cast more people of color, even if they did, say, want to demonstrate white supremacy, there are several characters both named and not, who aren’t Handmaids or wives.

Another issue that Atwood didn’t really address, except in stating that the Handmaids were as healthy as possible, and provably fertile, was ableism.  This was pointed out by an audience member at the end of the panel, and that was a huge omission on our part.  We also did not discuss trans people much.  We did mention them, but could have included them in more of the discussion.

Bitch Planet definitely takes the over-arching whiteness of Atwood’s tale and focuses the plot predominantly on women of color, actively bringing in issues of racism, as well as those issues that affect all women.  She does not address ableism, at least not in the first volume, but given the nature of the plot (a la The Longest Yard) I kind of see why.

Another audience member asked why we did two works by white women and had not included Octavia Butler’s Parable of the Talents, and I did not think of this at the time, but we did not include it because while it is also dystopian, it does not actually fit the arc of the other two works, which is: women lose all rights and are even more subject to male whims.  But, please see my review of Butler’s Parable of the Sower I did earlier this year.  Those books are epic and you should definitely read them.

Anyway, the first time I read Bitch Planet, I could not decide whether I was more elated that it existed or triggered by it.  The first issue opens with an older white man trying to get his wife back from the police for being non-compliant.  You also see the wife arriving on Bitch Planet.  Then you realize that he isn’t trying to rescue her, but the police had mistakenly also arrested his new wife, the woman he cheated on his wife with.  The affair which caused his naturally aging wife to lose her temper at him, which he said “made him fear for his life,” so he had her arrested.  With her conveniently out of the way, he could marry his young enough to be his daughter mistress.  The old wife dies in the first issue, a nice reversal of the trope where usually a character of color is the first to die.

Marian’s arrest and her husband’s statement that her anger scared him, is also a commentary on the fact that more women wind up in jail for assault for fighting back against their abusers, than men who are the abusers wind up in jail.  I, personally, know one woman who went to jail for assault because she bit her husband to break free of the chokehold he had her in, and since what he did had not immediately left marks, the police arrested her.

In the third issue, which is Penny Rolle’s spotlight, there was not a thing said about her body that has not been said about my body in my lifetime.  And I have literally heard women or girls talking about how if they split a thing they would only consume X calories.  I know from my POC friends, that none of the racist things aimed at Penny were outside their experiences, from comments on their hair and color, to the fact that black girls frequently get sent home or disciplined for “dress code violations” for having natural hair or braids.  And I have definitely had men threaten me for rolling my eyes or calling out their bullshit.  Only in Bitch Planet, the men had the power to have you arrested and sent to a prison planet for it.

The thing that makes both of these works so powerful right now, is that for the past fifteen plus years, women’s rights have been increasingly assaulted by the Right.  From legislation that targets abortion clinics for the widths of their hallways, to waiting periods for abortion, intra-vaginal ultrasounds, to companies trying to avoid covering birth control with insurance, to defunding women’s clinics all over the country and demonizing Planned Parenthood we are seeing an unprecedented attack on women’s rights, that is only ramping up with the Cheetoh and his cronies in office.  As well as assaults on the rights and existence of POC and people with disabilities.

Listen, no woman has ever, in the history of ever, said “Hey, I’ve got an hour before my manicure, I think I’ll abort this pregnancy for shits and giggles.”  No.

And when you consider that a woman’s ability to control her reproductive capabilities, by spacing and timing her children, is the greatest single predictor of female financial success and security, well, that’s a hell of an ulterior motive for a bunch of dudes who want us all barefoot, pregnant, and dependent.

It was then suggested, by either Berlynn or Pleiades that Viagra prescriptions require a prostate exam.  Honestly, to be truly equivalent, they should require a penile sounding.  Google it.  Or don’t.  I don’t even have a penis and the thought of it makes me cross my legs.

Now for Berlynn, the thing that was notable about Bitch Planet versus Handmaid’s Tale, was that Bitch Planet did not offer a religious justification.  The Handmaid’s Tale is dripping with religion and religious justifications for the systemic rape of women, and murder of many, many people including priests, doctors who may have done abortions.  But with Bitch Planet, there’s no real religion mentioned.  They do often tell the women, while trying to get them to confess their crimes, that their “fathers love them and want them to be better.”  But it never feels particularly religious.

And as any of us can tell you, having spent time hanging out with and in the Atheist community, not being religious does not guarantee you won’t be a misogynistic asshole.

DeConnick illustrates that while religion is a handy justification for misogyny, there are no shortage of secular justifications for dudes to reach for.  And we see this every day in real life.  From Google-bro, to the proponents of Evolutionary Psychology (doing a massive disservice to the actual scientific field), secular dudes have no shortage of rationalizations for their bullshit behavior.

Now during the panel, at this point, I jokingly said, “Science won’t save us!” which bothered an audience member enough to come up and talk to me after, telling me that her hope was that science would save us.  And she’s right.  I spoke very inexactly.  Yes, science will eventually save us, after we drag it out of the morass of toxic masculinity it’s been stewing in since its inception.

Never let anyone tell you that science does not have its biases.  There have in fact been studies where they have removed names from grant applications and journal articles, and when that is done, the rate that male and female grant applications and articles are excepted become proportional to the number of male and female applicants/authors.  Meaning, when the people judging the applications and articles do not know the gender of the person who wrote it, they approve male and female authored applications and articles at the same rate.

Medical science is only now catching up to the idea that drugs that work just peachy for men, may not work well with a female physiology, or that conditions present differently in male and female bodied people.  We will never know how many women died, because until fairly recently the only symptoms for heart attack we were told to watch for were how they manifest in men.  Most women experience different heart attack symptoms.

Even conditions that are explicitly framed as female conditions, like breast cancer (not true, btw), are largely marketed to potential donors as a matter of how women losing their breasts affects the male ability to enjoy looking at boobies.  Campaigns like “Save the Tatas” are infantilizing and male gaze-focused.  What about the lives attached to those tatas?

Ok, I’m adding some stuff we didn’t have time to talk about, or forget in the sheer mass of material this topic offers.

We wound up with a call to action to prevent being either made into Handmaids or Bitch Planet-ed.  Be politically active.  Write your congress-critters, call.  They HAVE to log every single piece of constituent mail and every phone call they get.  Donate to organizations like Planned Parenthood, NARAL, Emily’s List, the campaigns of Democrats in heavily Republican areas.  My personal favorite group is the International Antifascist Defense Fund.

The reason both of these works are so evocative to women across generations is that the consequences to women in both are more or less plausible given the way an awful lot of men, on the Right and, sadly, also those ostensibly on the Left, seem to feel about us.  Over-emotional, not as smart or capable or logical, or, or, or…

I think I’ve covered most, if not all of what we talked about.

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