A few weeks ago, Qiana Whitted led a three part round table on Kelly Sue DeConnick and Valentine De Landro’s Bitch Planet at The Middle Spaces. I read volume one of the series about a year ago, and after reading the round table, I went back and reread those first few issues. (Unfortunately, I still have not read the subsequent volumes.) As I read back through the first five issues, questions about representation reappeared, specifically when I got to issue #3 where we get Penny Rolle’s backstory. “The Secret Origin of Penny Rolle” raises a lot of key issues that need to be explored in further detail, and today I want to touch on just a couple that I started thinking about as I looked back over the issue.
Francesca Lyn’s post on the round table focuses on the use of screens functioning as mirrors in Bitch Planet, and she spends time looking at issue #3. Notably, Lyn discusses the mirror that the “fathers” roll in front of Penny at the end of the issue. They hope that once Penny looks into the mirror she will see the reflection of the ideal woman that, according to the fathers, she wants to be. To their surprise, Penny sees herself as she is and laughs. One of the men asks, “That’s her ideal version of herself? There’s got to be a mistake. Is the wire frayed?” The fathers cannot believe that Penny is content with her outward appearance, one that the fathers challenge throughout the series. One need only look at the models that the overseers of the Auxiliary Compliance Outpost (Bitch Planet) use in the first issue to get the women to comply with their orders.
Penny does not allow the fathers to alter her view of herself, and she does not allow them to contaminate her idealized image. This, of course, serves as the key to the issue: do not let anyone tell you who you should be. Leading up to this message, the issue confronts numerous ways that others work to place their ideas of identity and normalcy upon others. According to the fathers and society, Penny is too fat, her hair won’t cooperate in the manner that society deems fit, and she is neither black nor white. These aspects cause her to exist outside of the ruling hegemonic power within the pages of Bitch Planet.
The issue flashes back and forth from the present moment to the past, chronicling different episodes in Penny’s life. The first shows her and her grandmother baking muffins in the kitchen, laughing and enjoying each other’s company. At the end of the this scene, the police come to the door and Bertha tells her granddaughter to run. In the present, we learn that the state adopted Penny at the age of eight, supposedly because her family cannot take care of her. We do not get any information about Penny’s mother except that the fathers claim “[s]he was delusional, and dangerous. She refused to see the truth before her.” With this, we can assume that Penny’s mother may have endured the same treatment Penny is currently going through, and like Penny, her ideal self did not match that of the fathers.
The next flashback, which I want to focus on, shows Penny punching a boy at school and getting called to the office. Mother Siebertling, a skinny, blonde woman who looks and dresses in the “ideal” manner, begins by trying to get Penny to admit that she punched the boy for no reason. Penny tells her, “He was talking about my grandma.” Here, Siebertling responds with a dejected looks as she states, “Ahhh. Mrs. Chester Alexander rears her fat ugly head once again.” Siebertling’s statement contains two loaded aspects. For one, she does not refer to Bertha by her name; instead, she refers to her by her husband’s name. Secondly, Siebertling rejects the image of Bertha, calling her fat and ugly.” As seen in the opening flashback, Bertha is a loving, caring, and nurturing grandmother who does the best she can to look out for Penny; however, society views her as useless because she does not match the “ideal image that they perpetuate.
Penny corrects Siebertling, telling her that her grandmother’s name was “Alberta,” but “she likes to be called ‘Bertha.'” Siebertling, again, refuses this appellation and maintains referring to Bertha as “Mrs. Chester Alexander.” Siebertling switches tactics and begins to address Penny’s hair, asking her why it will not “behave.” As she works with Penny’s hair, Pennt asks Siebertling what her hair is supposed to do, to which Siebertling replies, “Either curl up or lay down perhaps?” Siebertling continues by claiming, “It’s not black or white, good or bad. Folks don’ know what to make of it because they don’t know what it is.” According to Siebertling, people do not know what to make of Penny because they do not have a semantic label for her or her hair. Since Penny does not conform to their “ideal” image, she must be defective, thus required to change or face the consequences.
To Siebertling, Penny asks, “Why folks gotta say what I am, Mother? Ain’t it enough to know who I am?” With her backed turned, Siebertling answers, “No, Penny. It doesn’t work like that. You need to learn to see yourself through the Fathers’ eyes.” This statement, essentially, mirrors W.E.B. DuBois’ double consciousness, and we also need to consider it in relation to African American feminist scholars such as Hortense Spillers. In her seminal essay “Mama’s Baby, Papa’s Maybe: An American Grammar Book” (1987), Spillers argues that the semiotic webs that work to place African American women is specific categories are so entangled that it takes maximum effort to eradicate oneself’s from their grip:
Embedded in a bizarre axiological ground, they [the labels] demonstrate a sort of telegraphic coding; they are markers so loaded with mythical prepossession that there is no easy way for the agents buried beneath them to come clean. In that regard, the names by which I am called in the public place render an example of signifying property plus. In order for me to speak a truer word concerning myself, I must strip down through layers of attenuated meanings, made in excess over time, assigned by a particular historical order, and there await whatever marvels of my own inventiveness.
To find out one’s true identity, the person must “strip down through layers of attenuated meanings.” Ultimately, Penny does this. She challenges the fathers and expresses her own true self, laughing in the face of their proposed reeducation and reformation of Penny’s identity.
One other issue that appears in “The Secret Origin of Penny Rolle” that warrants discussion is the classification of Penny’s father as a “terrorist.” Penny is mixed-race; her mother is Black and her father is White. During the last flashback, Penny destroys a screen showing the news, and after she breaks the screen, the reporter states, “. . . authorities have identified 44-year-old gender terrorist . . . [for] miscegination. . . ” Just like Penny’s mother, we do not get a name or any other information. We do get, however, that interracial intimacy does not fit the fathers’ ideal image of marriage. This is all that appears in the issue, but it is something worth noting.
As well, we need to consider the “ideal” image of the family. Just like Spillers does in her essay when she deconstructs the Moynihan Report and society’s image of family, Bitch Planet does the same with Penny’s parents and the first flashback showing Bertha raising Penny on her own. The entire issue calls upon as readers to question the labels we place upon others and ultimately untangle the semiotic webs we construct. Only then can we find the true identity beneath all of the mud and gunk that has accumulated over the centuries.
This is not, of course, all that could be said here. What are your thoughts? As usual, let me know in the comments below, and make sure to follow me on Twitter at @silaslapham.
My only quibble here is with the idea of “true identity.” It has been a while since I re-read Spillers’s article, but I think there is an important nuanced difference between “a truer word about myself” and “true self.” In other words, while all those attenuated meanings need to be stripped away, there can be never be a meaningful individual identity outside of the context of social identity, both through conforming to and resisting (or both at once) normative values and expectations.
Anyway, thanks for responding the round table. We hope to have another guest post on The Middle Spaces responding to it soon, and I have a post of my own on a story from the related anthology series before the year is out.
I agree with that. I used that quote in another post, and I think, no matter what, we are tied to some construction/resistance of identity. Thanks for reading and sharing.
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