Interesting Times 1.3: In which we talk about poop the whole time and still only say part of it.
Everyone knows that utopias have no bathrooms. The classic koan of my youth went something like, “if Dorothy stays hydrated while following the yellow brick road, where does she go pee?” In dystopias and post-apocalypses, things are frequently much shittier. Think of the subterranean pig shit farmers of Mad Max: Beyond the Thunderdome, or the corporate toilet monopoly in Urinetown. It makes sense symbolically—waste is a sign of disorder, so its presence in dystopias points to the chaos underlying apparently functioning systems. Yet in spite of its primary association with chaos and taboo, shit’s got subtle shades of meaning from text to text. The next few posts in this series will examine the symbolic scintillations of waste in dystopias and post-apocalyptic narratives, starting with two posts on shit. So shove off your flat-bottomed barges, and steel your stomachs, friends. We’ll begin by traveling to that glorious island at the confluence of techno-dystopian comics and intersectional feminist burlesque: Bitch Planet, by Kelly Sue DeConnick and Valentine De Landro.
But first, a little primer on shit and social systems. We’ve all heard of the body politic. It’s a metaphor for the way that social systems are organized and interact. As a metaphor, it’s proven a very powerful way of describing how multiple entities can be organized according to their function to create a single-minded whole. The head manages, the hands and feet labor, the heart is the emotional center, etcetera. Of course, someone is always on top.
This structure with its attendant metaphor ends up entwined with all our Western-derived organizing systems from family to nation. We know about heads of households, corporations, and heartlands, for example. But what would you say is the large-intestine of the nation? And who gets treated like shit? If we go with our body-politic metaphor it’s the toxins, whoever needs to be expelled from the system in order for it to function as the head thinks fit. Hence the eighteenth-century British cartoons depicting broke Scotsmen descending on London, stealing jobs, ignorant of the correct way to use an outhouse. And where do evil racists like Bannon go when they want to shore up their cirrhosis-spotted white supremacy? To a book where the roiling locus of nation-destroying evil is a brown guy named “Turd-Eater.” As the ladies of Métis in Space would say: Subtle.
So that’s my refreshing refresher on the symbolic structure of shit in social systems. Let’s get to the feminism.
The very first panel in issue one of Bitch Planet shows a woman rushing through a crowded square, apologizing for existing. People are walking in all directions, there are billboards, scrolling digital headlines and projection screens, folks performing and being arrested, and robot folks arresting people, and people walking on their way, and she’s all “excuse me, excuse me” trying to run/tiptoe through the press. Behind her, the text and imagery say things like “Eat Less Poop More. . . ,” “Lighter, Brighter, Better. . . ” and “You’re Hungry . . . ” and “Contain Yourself . . . ” and “We get by when we comply . . . ” and “Because he said so . . .” and “Buy this it will FIX YOU . . . ” and “Obey.” In words and other words, it looks exactly like Times Square does to anybody who’s had their ideology eyeglasses implanted in their optical nerve by enough John Berger and Rowdy Roddy Piper.
What interests me especially in this sequence is the “Eat Less Poop More. . . .” In stark black and white like a Barbara Kruger title right there in the top quarter of panel one, it draws the eyes:
Why open with pooping more? To begin with some context, Bitch Planet, like its sister-dystopia The Handmaid’s Tale, takes place in an alternate near-future. In this world, the power of patriarchal butt-hurt has backlashed America all the way to somewhere circa 1953, but now with hovering robot cops and interstellar travel. In this America, the government is a church-state-corporate hybrid monster with its fascist fingers in every orifice of life. This series does a fantastic job of being hilarious and moving while showing how patriarchal culture creates misery for pretty much everyone who isn’t a rich, white, sociopathic dude. Its hierarchy institutionalizes racism as well as gender-policing, and insists that less powerful men grovel before their superiors.
It sucks for everyone, but the glue that holds this world together is misogyny. Women are unstable, infantile, and exist for the use of men. When women don’t or can’t bend themselves to the strictures of patriarchal power—whether it’s because they’re too fat, too old, too poor, too black, too angry, or, in the case of transwomen, threatening gender hegemony just by existing, they get deemed “non-compliant.” Non-compliant women are shipped off-world to “Bitch Planet,” a penal colony on a distant planet peopled with real bad babes, lame-ass guards, and busty holograms for all.
So, why open a feminist dystopia with the command to “eat less, poop more”? I think first, the message of the comic’s opening panels is that the patriarchy in Bitch Planet gets the compliance it needs from women through bodily-control. Not just whisking “non-compliant” women off to the old penal colony, but also insisting that in order to remain compliant, women control themselves: their food intake, their sexual appetite, their body size. Self-control is signaled as virtue, but only when that control is acting out the interests of the patriarchal police state. In other words, you’d better be the boss of your baby-weight, but not of your abortion rights.
Then there’s the way “poop” implies the infantilization of women, and acts as a sign for the way this society sees them—as fundamentally a hot stinky baby-crying mess. That association of women and leaking bodily fluids has a long, storied history. It might be most vividly displayed in Dante’s Inferno, Canto 18, where we meet the men and women of the fourteenth-century sex trade being punished for their earthly sins with submersion in a river of human excrement. Plunged and caked in shit, their bodies enact a literal version of the personal bodily defilement that the text accuses them of participating in during life.
Being a more feminist text than Dante’s, Bitch Planet is interested in the ways that women are asked to harm themselves in the name of self-control. Anorexia has its place among the insistent messages on display in the billboards of page one, as do parasites used as weight-loss aides elsewhere in the series.
Bulimia and its attendant vomit, however, are basically absent. So why do DeConnick and DeLandro hit on shit instead of vomit, that other abject substance women produce in pursuit of beauty? One reason, perhaps, is that it’s funnier to talk about stercus and cestoda, they’re so weird! On the other hand, laxative abuse is a very real thing that kills people. It’s often classified as a type of bulimia, where women use enemas or laxative pills to force their bodies to purge calories. It doesn’t work, of course, since food is already digested by the time it reaches the large intestine. But that doesn’t stop some 56% of eating disorder sufferers from using laxatives to purge.
In both cases, of course, vomit and shit (and tape worms, too, come to think of it), are the nasty underside of beauty myths. Women hide the vomit it takes to make thin bodies. They hide the shit, too, and its abjectness is a feature of confessional writing about laxative abuse. See for example “Salvia Plath,” writing for Vice, who describes the wreckage of her eating disorder thus: “During that time, I shat myself more times than I can count. I left toilets in the state of a nuclear wasteland. My stomach was apocalyptic.”
Plath gives us a little hint as to another line of meaning I see underlying Bitch Planet‘s focus on feces. Symbolically speaking, shit, more than vomit, is power. Vomit is a replay button, a winched up well-bucket of shame, it’s your search history, it’s filth at its most filthy, when the bits and pieces of what you’ve done can still be identified as your own dirty secrets. But Plath’s stomach was apocalyptic. Her shit is the bomb. She’s like that other Plath, the one who charges her enemy when he wants to own bits and pieces of her annihilated, resurrected body and its worms like pearls. The one who “eats men like air.” What happens after she eats them, do you think?
Shit is power. Freud certainly thought so. The anal stage he describes is all about self-control. The infant learns the pleasure of retention and elimination, and comes to understand that he controls his body, and that it’s sufficient. The anal stage is about the pleasurable realization that your body is yours. People who have a hard time with it, Freud says, end up obsessed with accumulation. They’re misers and hoarders. Because they didn’t get to experience a sense of self-reliance in the control of their own sphincters, they need to control everything else. If we put the Freudian shit together with the body-politic shit, we get a metaphor where the individual member of a larger social system can become aware of the power she has over her own bodily economy. Shit here is powerful because it belongs to the one who makes it, because it is a bodily act of differentiation between me and not-me. It reframes the body as its own sufficient system, and the shitter as a subject, the agent of their intake and excretion.
Importantly, too, because it’s so gross, shit gets beyond merely embarrassing and makes it all the way to taboo, as in the infamous, cinema-breaking scene at the end of Pink Flamingos, where Divine pops that dog turd into his mouth and chews and smiles. Elspeth Probyn writes about Pink Flamingos that its image of Divine is so awe-inspiringly repellant that it “causes disgust to rematerialize as the reader’s shame.” By turning shit into “poop,” Bitch Planet‘s patriarchy is trying to tame the mighty apocalyptic-shit. To be sure women know that nothing they produce has power, at least not power they can wield.
In another stercoraceous scene from the comic’s third issue, for example, a group of women gather to divvy up a single sugar-free, salt-free, gluten-free muffin and discuss “evac’ing.” Here the focus on shit instead of dieting works to make this feel like a fresh, funny scene rather than our collective daily hell.
Notice the toilet scale. It verifies that our heroine-of-the-panel has been shitting twelve ounces a day—or about three times as much as the average human person (whoever they are). So she’s eating one-third of a muffin, and she’s pooping three times the normal amount. If shit were a kind of power, this woman would really have a lot. She’s laying claim to it. She’s making her lady-friends jealous because this is some deep patriarchy replete with petty, shallow competition among women over how much they shit.
But woops, her productivity doesn’t translate to control. Shitting a lot without eating a lot has its consequences, a fact that ANRED puts in appropriately dramatic terms on its site about laxative abuse: “Enemas can stretch the colon, which over time becomes a limp sack with no muscle tone. No longer can it generate the muscle contractions necessary to move fecal matter out of the body.” That the over production of shit leads to intestines that can’t move shit through the body is a sad-and-gross irony. By highlighting an eating disorder that places shit as its primary signifier, Bitch Planet makes the misdirection of women’s power over their own bodies visible. These women are eating less and pooping more until the power to decide what’s in and out, what’s me and not me, isn’t theirs at all.
If non-compliant women are the shit of the dystopian body politic, what’s the large intestine? Maybe this is a good time to remind you that this story takes place in a prison? The process of sending women to Bitch Planet in the first place is a kind of social evac’ing, a laxative abuse by a sick body politic that purges what it needs to stay healthy. If this metaphor makes n.c. women the apocalyptic shit of Bitch Planet‘s patriarchal body politic, the implication is that the patriarchy is headed for limp-colon-sac-level collapse. As we reach issue ten, that’s certainly where the arc of the narrative appears to be headed.
Then on the other hand, in the comic, when the body politic metaphor is explicitly evoked, non-compliant women are not identified with poop. Instead the voice of the “fathers” calls them a “cancer” that “must be excised from the world that bore you. . . . lest your sickness spread.” So while the body politic and the idea of expelling something harmful from that body show up right there on page five, Bitch Planet never directly compares its heroines to shit. That makes sense too. Instead of the inmates, it’s allies of patriarchy who most often get smeared. One of the two primary security officers on Bitch Planet is named Mr. Schiti, for example. The ladies who lunch have their pooping more thing. There’s also an ad in one of the parody advertisement sections (everything about this comic is wonderful and cathartic) that says girls who throw their friends under the bus for male attention get to be “queen of shit mountain.” So shit in Bitch Planet is most explicitly coded as the consolation prize: What you get to be when you’re not the cancer, but you’re also rejected within the system you help uphold.
But if it’s totally reasonable that Bitch Planet doesn’t want to identify its heroes as the shit of the system, that doesn’t mean this comic isn’t interested in reframing shame and disgust. After all, the issue in which shit turns up most is number three, the one with the evac’ing ladies, and that issue focuses entirely on Penny Rolle, whose pride and power in her 300+ fierce pounds is a solace for the eyes and heart of this fat queer. Penny’s story skewers a system intent on framing her as an angry, fat, black object of disgust. She’s been cited for “aesthetic offenses, capillary disfigurement, and wanton obesity.” Right after the charges are read there’s a scene with some muffin batter, a flashback to a happy childhood memory where Penny and her grandmother Bertha have a food fight while baking. Penny gets brown, sticky muffin batter in her hair, on her face, and all over her grandma. In the context of the issue’s many references to poop and a later parody ad that jokes about Bertha’s bran muffins having “more fiber, for pooping!” it’s easy to read the brown batter as substitute shit. It’s also easy because the batter sticks, splatters, and drips. Clinging to her hair as she leans down for an illicit taste, it’s coded as disgust and shame.
Her grandmother is dismayed at first, but soon joins in the fun. The muffin batter stays brown and viscous, but their rejection of its codified shame through pleasure, their having fun with abject nastiness, does something akin to that scene from Pink Flamingos. In Probyn’s words again, it rematerializes filth as the reader’s shame—letting us feel our potential judgment of Penny’s body as misdirected disgust. Just as we misrecognize the batter as shit, we misrecognize Penny’s body as shame. Both are transformed by her ownership into complex tools of joy.
I’d call issue three of Bitch Planet a primer in performing that tough rhetorical move. As they read out the list of charges, the faces of the “fathers,” assembled to judge Penny show both horror and concern: “Penelope,” they say, “your fathers love you, it pains us to see you like this.” But their pain isn’t her pain: Penny is not ashamed of her body, and her lack of shame is so brazen that it basically breaks every man watching.
Okay, I guess that’s quite enough. Next post, we’ll look at a different iteration of shit as power when we examine it as “energy of the future” in dystopian and post-apocalyptic movies and books. Until then, if you haven’t read Bitch Planet yet, I suggest that you take a trip to your local comic store or image comics web page, then settle in with a banana and a cup of coffee for some gentle digestive nudging as you enjoy great narrative, fine art, big feelings and cathartic release. Or you know, have a slice of unbirthday cake and some whiskey and eat some men like air. Write a three-thousand-word essay on shit and then call Paul Ryan. Girl, do whatever you want.