This week I taught Bitch Planet‘s first volume (numbers 1-5) in my Women and Violence in Contemporary Texts course. Some students had the hard copy. Some brought their iPads. A few read it on their smartphones (oh, to have young eyes not destroyed by grad school). A few read it on smartphones with cracked screens. Yikes!
But they all read it. That is for sure. Because our discussions were fun, lively, awkward at times, and productive.
We spent two days with the text, considering it as an introduction to subverting gender norms–and the implications of the gender norms we live with here on this planet.
The first day of class students started with a ten-minute focused free write with this question: “What does noncompliance look like in the book?”
I purposely asked a vague question and instructed them to approach it in any way they would like. We then used that question to talk about the concept of noncompliance in the book.
It looks like:
- being a “bad mom”
- being “too big”
- being “too loud”
- being upset when a husband cheats on you
It results in:
- being sent away
- being ostracized
And then the beautiful moment that makes teaching worth all of the work:
It kind of looks like really what normal life for a woman is now.
With that idea stewing in their minds, I showed them this awesome video in which DeConnick talks about the importance of making people uncomfortable and what it means to act on that discomfort.
I wanted students to see that her work is supposed to make people squirm. But that it also dances right on the edge of living in our patriarchal capitalism. I asked them to talk about how it made them feel to read the book, to buy the book. One student told the story of going to Barnes and Noble and having to ask where to find it, how she felt odd saying the word “bitch” in the store. Another told the story of a friend asking “What on earth on you reading?” I made a joke about parents wondering what the hell their tuition dollars were going toward.
But the physical nature of holding a comic book with the word “bitch” on the front is exciting–exhilarating for me to teach. I sure learned that this week. I asked students to come in with a page they wanted to discuss for the next class.
Day Two began with me offering my copy of Number 6 to anyone interested. Hands shot up. I told them we can circulate it if they couldn’t buy it.
Students started with a free write about the page they chose (I walked around to see what pages were open so I would know how to structure the lesson. I do that a lot–leave it up to their interests. A bit scary, but I know the discussion will be more lively if it comes from their starting points.) Students chose lots of different scenes. In honor of the Super Bowl coming up (in my Intro to Women’s and Gender Studies class we watched Tough Guise 2 and discussed masculinity. I wish I could say I planned these lessons in such a timely way…), we started with this image:
I am distilling their conversation. One sharp student noted the hard edges of their bodies, the line, the big boobs (we talked about how this construction looked a lot like
creepy Barbie). Another student commented that the bottom panels really sounded like the “cool girl” speech from Gone Girl we had unpacked earlier in the week.
This is the conforming girl–tiny, supplicant, for the male gaze, forcing her personal desires down for the sake of her man’s desires.
Continuing this idea of being what patriarchy expects women to be, we moved to the “obligatory shower scene” as it is entitled in the text.
We discussed the images that show an awareness of the male gaze, how the peeper’s eye is in the center of the page. Students saw how the women’s bodies were segmented by the panels while his eye was intact. Then they started to see how the women were using the expectation of what they were supposed to do in the shower to their own ends so they could have secret conversations.
In our discussion of subverting these tropes, we moved a few pages later in the book.
Here Kam exploits the male gaze. She knows he is watching. And while she gets him right where she wants him by performing a masturbation scene for him, she can catch him literally with his pants down. I won’t give away what she uses as her blackmail information because I think you should go buy this book and read it–but I will tell you that we got to talk a lot about how those images are used in dialogue with the piecing of the female bodies earlier in the text.
Lots of other pages got attention. I ended with my favorite page to make the connection to the observation made earlier about noncompliance looking a lot like living on this planet as a female:
Students were able to see the connections between these messages of compliance and the ones they are told over and over.
“How are women taught their vaginas are disgusting” you may ask (I did.)?
- vaginal spray
- labiaplasty for aesthetic purposes
“Why are the muffins made with fiber for more pooping?”
- you are supposed to bake for your family and be domestic but be thin at the same time
And then there’s Agreenex, which allowed us to talk about the “cool girl” all over again.
We ran out of time, which happens often.
I asked who was next for Number Six on Monday. The student with my copy walked to the front and handed it to me. She couldn’t wait. She had read it during class. I had never been so happy to have a kid ignore me and read a comic book.