What Makes a Woman (Gender Identity in Bitch Planet)

Even though our class only read the first volume of Bitch Planet, I continued to check back at a website I found where the newest issues were uploaded every month. Once I reached Issue #8, I noticed an ineteresting development in the story that we hadn’t gotten the chance to experience in class: the comic’s commentary on trans* individuals, particularly ones who identify as female.

As we learned in class, the society in which the characters of Bitch Planet lives is governed by strict gender roles. Women are expected to adhere to very specific behavioral and physical standards and, if they do not succeed, they are classified as “noncimpliant” and are sent to Bitch Planet for punishment. During class, we read some brief mentions of there being a separate planet than the one our protagonists have been jailed on. We also got a confusing disparity about Kam’s sibling, exemplified in the image below:

Whitney claims Kam has a brother, but Kam says she does not have one. In an earlier comic, she mentions having a sister.

The question as to whether Kam has a brother, a sister, both, or neither lingered in my mind as we went through the first volume of BP in class. In Issue #8, however, the readers were finally provided with an answer, one that reveals the complexity of the universe in which the comic takes place.

In Issue #8, we finally get a glimpse of what the first Auxiliary Outpost for Non-compliants is. Like the women in the previous volumes, these prisoners come in a wide range of races, body types, and presumably sexualities. Unlike them, however, these prisoners seem to all be classified as noncompliant for the same reasonthey are trans* individuals. We know this from the image below, where the women’s bodies are seen to be in various stages of transition. The text below the image makes a simple statement that changes everything about what the readers thought we knew up until this point about the comic universe: “We were the first to be sent away. We are always the first.”

Some women have breasts and what appear to be vaginas, others have flat chests, some have penises and testicles, etc. All appear to be on the trans* spectrum.

Before, it was obvious from the backstories given to characters like Penny and Meiko that there were many reasons a woman could be deemed “non-compliant” and that the rules were clearly skewed in favor of the male sex. This is the first time, however, that the comic portrays the simple act of wanting to be a woman as a crime in itself (Kam’s sister, Kogo, has her crime listed as “Gender Falsification – Deceit”). There do not seem to be any trans* men on this planet. Addressing the existence of trans* women, especially women who may still possess penises and testicles (what are considered to be “male” attributes) also introduces an interesting question: were the impossible standards forced on the other women created by society as a way to discourage trans* women from assuming that identity? This itself presents another question: why would someone identifying as a trans* women be more dangerous than someone identifying as a trans* man? The characters live in a world that is incredibly dangerous, oppressive, and violent towards women specifically–wouldn’t the existence of a trans* man, or someone who has been forced to endure the struggles of being seen by society as a woman his whole life attempting to “join” the group in power, be far more a threat?

This question has not been answered, but the question of why the trans* women and the cisgender noncompliant women have been separated is in Issue #9. When prisoners from both outposts do meet, instead of banding together, they view each other in negative terms:

“They’re still men trying to take from you!”

This adds another layer of complexity to the reading of Bitch Planet–the idea that it’s not just men v. women in this world, but that there are various tiers of privilege and intersectionality. There are other examples of this earlier in the series: Kam references how Whitney’s interrogation of her makes her uncomfortable because Whitney is white and Kam is black and so the power dynamics are charged with racial tension. Meiko’s crime is related to the cultural appropriation forced on her by her father’s boss. Lesbian relationships are not allowed in the prison, and women in romantic or sexual relationships with each other must allow themselves to be objectified by the Peeping Tom in order to act on those feelings. Penny is seen as noncompliant both because of her blackness (i.e her refusal to straighten her naturally textured hair) and because of her weight. One inmate’s crime is that she is disabled, and has Down Syndrome.

This is the first time, however, that readers see gender identity as a defining factor in how the inmates regard each other. The nature of this indicates that while certain parts of a woman’s identity (such as her race, body type, and sexuality) are seen as “bad” by the men in power, the question of what makes a woman a woman is one that even the women who are being oppressed do not all agree upon. Are the cisgender inmates right to act hostile to the trans* women, as the trans* women have a possible advantage of being seen by society as not a “true” woman, and are therefore choosing to be subjected to the negative standards instead of having them forced on them (and, in fighting for freedom, are leaving the “true” women behind)? Or are the trans* women simply being forced into an oppressive role below that of cisgender women, creating a hierarchy of oppression for anyone other than the male sex? Although the series is not yet finished, the plot seems to be in favor of the latter.

What makes this important is its relevance to today’s society. While our world does not force women into space based on whether they can adhere to certain standards, the issue of intersectionality (gender, race, sexuality, and gender identity) still persists with each attempt towards equality. Bitch Planet makes a strong case for feminists to not forget about the trans* women in their fight for cisgender females’ rights.

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