In Bitch Planet Issue 3, Kelly Sue DeConnick teams with guest artist Robert Wilson IV to present the events that lead to Penny Rolle landing in the eponymous outpost penitentiary. Did she kill someone considering her frequent entries into melee with guards? Did she do something equally dangerous within society? Well, yes, but not at all what a reader might expect. Spoilers ahead! If you’d like to read part 1 of this analysis, click here.
Penny is clearly getting more angry as one of the judges gives us the culmination of the previous pages’ story: “You were adopted by the state when you were…nine–” “Eight,” she corrects. Another judge sarcastically praises God that she speaks. Penny continues to reshape their version of events: “I was eight years old when they took me.” Of course, this is our understanding of the event as well, since we clearly saw that it wasn’t necessity that put her in state care. She had a family who lovingly took care of her, but the Fathers ripped her away from her home.
Although not explicitly related, this makes me think of Native American children who were pulled from their homes and sent to BIA boarding schools. In one tribe, the Utes of Colorado and Utah, the net effect of being confined to a reservation and the loss of their children was a 50% suicide rate in adults. Our US Government did that. This is part of why Bitch Planet rings so true. History and current portrayals and treatment of women show it to be entirely plausible.
One of the judges corrects her. “Took you in. Penelope, everything your Fathers have done has been for your protection. You were a child. The woman who birthed you–” Penny interrupts, full of anger, “My mother. You’re talking about my mother!” The inset of the judge, matched to Penny’s enraged eye line, covers his mouth and seems to reevaluate Penny’s condition. Although the Fathers see Penny’s mother as “a very sad case…delusional, and dangerous, refus[ing] to see the truth before her,” Penny, as we already know, saw her mother as strong. There is a bond and love there that changing the semantics of won’t change. The judge reveals his new evaluation: “And quite frankly, we are concerned that you are too far gone down that same path.”
Seeing that the previous judge is failing to reach Penny, another shifts the groups’ line of questioning. “Are you happy, Penelope?” Another continues, “All we want is to help you be happy. Why do you insist on making your own life so difficult? Why must you be so angry?” Happiness, for these men, is a compliant smile. Penny was happy, living with her grandma. Perhaps she was happy with her mother too. But those things have been taken from her. Others’ ideas of what is appropriate for women in society have been repeatedly forced upon her, and when she attempts to just be herself, to be happy, society steps in to correct her in the myriad ways they do–shaming, contempt, pity, and charges of non-compliance. Penny’s eyes are featured again, this time with increasing anger at the hypocrisy in front of her. The eyes take us into another flashback. The bridge between pages is people yelling, “Penelope!” at her.
Again we have the large half-tone dots to indicate the shift in time. Penelope, now looking more like her grandmother from the previous flashback with shoulder-length curls and an impressive height, is standing over a boy she has just bloodied the nose and blackened the eye of. A blonde teacher or administrator, named Mother Siebertling, calls her into her office. This is apparently high school. Though the mostly white crowd of other students were initially disturbed by Penny’s show of violence, as Siebertling takes Penny away, they watch with smirks on their faces.
This scene resonates strongly with Bitch Planet. Siebertling is similar, though corporeal, to the pink hologram of the Catholic nun. Like most high schools, this one is a microcosm of society, and this is our introduction to how society at large might view and respond to Penny. We’ll see more of this in upcoming pages.
In Siebertling’s office, there’s an interesting cross-role presented in Siebertling. She is the mistress here, thus making her similar to the administrative holograms at the prison outpost, but the various pictures featured behind her desk remind me of the pictures shown to Kamau of Marian’s life while they were attempting to break Kamau into confessing (absent, of course, are the sex pictures). This is a reminder that while Siebertling is the administrator here, she is also under the same oppressive rules of society we see on all the other women. She is middle-management. Her non-compliance would be met harshly. Luckily, she seems to fit the perfect standard of beauty and femininity–blonde, blue-eyed, thin, white, clothing that shows her figure and skin.
Siebertling opens the conversation with a question parallel to the ones the judges were asking: “Why can you not control these violent impulses of yours?” “He was talking about my grandma.” “Ahhhh. Mrs. Chester Alexander rears her fat ugly head once again.” Reading this condescending, judgmental, and patriarchal (Grandma is identified in reference to her relationship to her husband, which gives her two masculine names) dismissal of Penny’s grandmother, I can’t help but ironically note the impressive control over violent tendencies Penny is showing in the face of Siebertling. Rather than get angry outwardly, Penny merely corrects Siebertling by saying, “…Bertha…” She goes on to explain that Grandma was “Alberta” but liked to be called “Bertha.” Siebertling condescendingly and unsympathetically states that once again “Mrs. Chester Alexander doesn’t get what she wants.”
I find it interesting that “Bertha” is a name frequently connected to fat women. And certainly, Penny’s grandma fits that description. But by wanting to be called this, Bertha is owning that identity and refusing to feel shame about it. It seems similar to taking a racial slur or demeaning label and re-contextualizing it to take ownership of it. You know, like the comic does with the word “bitch.” (wink)
Siebertling goes on to tell Penny that blind loyalty is the act of a fool. “You’re not a fool…are you?” Then we learn that this is because the boy Penny punched was teasing her about the arrest of Bertha, news that she might not have known previously. Siebertling says she had wanted to keep the news of the arrest from Penny. She condescendingly states, “I’m sorry that I failed you.” It sorta needs a “#sorrynotsorry” tagged on it.
In the background is a set of Greek letters indicating Siebertling’s membership in a sorority. Sororities are society’s acceptable representations of sisterhood, playing into traditional views of beauty, femininity, and gender roles. They’re not revolutionary sisterhoods. In fact, much of the violence perpetrated by men on women on college campuses happens within the Greek organizations. More amusingly, her sorority seems to be ZOD. As in “kneel before.”
Then the scene oddly turns to Penny’s hair. If it weren’t for the fact that Siebertling puts on a pair of surgical gloves, this might seem like a nurturing turn, like Siebertling was a mother combing her child’s hair. “What are we going to do with this hair of yours, hm?” she asks Penny rhetorically with a brush in her hand. Bertha’s words echo in Penny’s head: “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.” Penny asks Siebertling what’s wrong with it. Siebertling says “nothing” but then goes on to describe all the things wrong with it. In doing so, she sets up a clear metaphor between the hair and Penny. “It refuses to behave.” Some of the metaphorically elements are a little on the nose, but they tell us more about Penny. “What’s it supposed to do?” Penny asks. “Either curl up or lay down, perhaps?” Siebertling answers, suggesting Penny ought to conform to society’s expectations–submit. Then Siebertling goes on to give us a hint to a reveal to come: “It’s not black or white, good or bad. Folks don’t know what to make of it because they don’t know what it is.” Substitute “you” for “it,” and we’re just talking about Penny. We find out later her father was white. Because she doesn’t conform to society’s standards, Penny is difficult to label or understand. In short, Penny is marginalized on a couple of levels.
Penny knows Siebertling is talking about her, not her hair. “Why folks gotta say what I am, Mother? Ain’t it enough to know who I am?” True freedom of identity would focus on who she is. But this is a society of judgement, evaluation, and punishment. As far as this society is concerned, only one label really applies to Penny–non-compliant. Siebertling drops the hair metaphor: “No, Penny. It doesn’t work like that. You need to learn to see yourself through the Father’s eyes. And I will teach you, Penny. I will teach you, if it kills us both.”
Obviously, this is a threatening statement, and the question Siebertling next asks–“You know what comes next, don’t you?”–coupled with the shadow stance over Penny underline the threat. This is the punishment for Penny’s violent outburst. Unfortunately, I don’t know how to read the inset image to get a concrete idea of what that threat is. Is the tool Siebertling picks up a razor to shave her hair? The “tzt” sound effect seems to say so. Or is it a hair straightener to bring her hair in line? Thus the punishment is more moral than physical? I’d love to have a clearer picture of what happens next.
Siebertling’s message is clear, and it’s one that has repeated throughout this issue. Penny’s sense of self needs to submit to the Fathers’ view of her.