YELLOWJACKETS Sheds Society to Center Women and Queerness

If you’re an avid TV watcher, maybe you’ve started to hear about Yellowjackets. If you haven’t, the official description of the show shares that the series is “part survival epic, part psychological horror, and part coming-of-age drama.” Which means it must be doing something right because my personal elevator pitch for the show is “Lost meets (meats?) Hannibal meets queer girl drama.” And I say Yellowjackets is full of queer girl drama with only the highest regard.

If you have heard of it, maybe you’ve gathered that it’s something like Lord of the Flies but starring women. In my opinion, this comparison does the series a big disservice. But at the same time, it opens up the floor for what the show really has to say.

Yellowjackets - the survivors around the fire
Kailey Schwerman/SHOWTIME

The similarities obviously exist between the two stories. Both center on a group of teenagers who find themselves lost in the wilderness. In one case, a group of boys. In the other, a group of girls with a few men and boys around. (For taste.) Away from what they are used to, divisions form in the whole and cannibalism ensues.

But the defining feature in Lord of the Flies is that society plays the role of the hero. On the one hand sits a character, Ralph, who represents logic, order, and rational thinking. Everything one needs in a “civilized” society. On the other comes Jack, a boy wooed by the siren song of hedonism, brutality, and chaos. The two form camps that clash until help arrives, to devastating results. The thesis statement, naturally, is that humanity is inclined to evil, and the great good of society keeps peace and order.

But, to not mince words, it seems par for the course that a narrative centering a group of white (presumably cis-straight) boys would opine that the only options in life are the glories of society or the mindless call of violence. Yellowjackets would beg to differ because it  is queer television.

Although we’ve only had a glimpse of the wild events that happened to our leading ladies back in 1996, their time in the wilderness seems neither broken-down nor chaotic. Instead, it’s organized, arcane, and beautiful. Violence exists, but it’s stylized and bordering romantic. The bonfire is burning, the antlers are on. Is this devolution? Or is it evolution? Yellowjackets invites you to consider the possibilities.

Yellowjackets is queer TV - the cannibal clan by the fire
Paul Sarkis/SHOWTIME

One thing feels clear. In their lives before and after whatever happens in that forested mountain land, these girls are not fully happy. The primary characters represent an archetype: Jackie is the “girly girl,” Shauna is the “best friend,” Taissa is the “class president,” Natalie is “the goth/burnout,” and Misty is “the friendless nerd.” But while they fulfill the archetype, none of them are fulfilled by it. They all struggle against and suffer from this societal box. Each one of them feels constrained by its bounds, searching for something they feel they cannot have. All of them know they are more. And in some ways, all of them seek each other to fulfill that knowledge.

And that’s what really makes Yellowjackets queer and exciting. It’s not specifically that women kiss women (although they do, and more should), but it’s the overt and intent rejection of the roles society prescribes to them. I’ve written before, and will likely write again, that queerness can exist in the specifics. But it can also exist spiritually. The very origins of the word come from being “not of the norm.” And regardless of your gender identity, sexual preference, or any of the other many things that may lead you to declare yourself queer, if you live a life that falls outside of society’s prescriptions, you inhabit queerness. And it’s this queerness that allows Yellowjackets to craft its compelling characters.

Yellowjackets - the whole team in uniform
Paul Sarkis/SHOWTIME

There’s a lot of talking about writing “real women” in pop culture. “We just want to write a real woman,” many say. But what is a real woman? Well, real women are women who are people for themselves, and who are not held up against a societal measuring stick. Are they sweet enough? Are they tragic enough? Perfect enough? Weird enough? In short, real women cannot exist in the view of society because society does not view women as real.

And, so the answer? Remove society from the equation. In this case, literally. It’s worth noting that though we’re still uncovering what happened around the bonfires, all the women seem to be trying to recapture some aspect of their lives in the wilderness after they emerge from it. Shauna guts rabbits, Misty manipulates, and Taissa looks for a sense of leadership. Could it be that they found their truest selves out there? In a place where society became theirs to shape and mold? Only time will tell, but that would certainly be an exciting prospect to explore.

All the women certainly seem no longer able to meld into their surroundings. What queer person hasn’t experienced, for instance, a conversation-ending record scratch when they open their mouths to comment on something? The way Shauna does when she casually informs her family she caught dinner in the garden. Or a queer person deftly ignoring a man in their presence when their fellow found family member comes calling as Misty does for Natalie. Whatever happens, it remains refreshing to see so many women, and so often only women, on-screen together, bucking the system.

Yellowjackets - Misty and Natalie at a resturant (1)
Kailey Schwerman/SHOWTIME

None of this is to say that a queer, woman-run society would be perfect. And Yellowjackets doesn’t try to say that either. There’s brutality, there’s pain, and, God knows, there’s blood. A blood hive, in fact. And the show doesn’t shy away from any ugliness. Women are simply people. They have bodily functions, they get dirty and get their hands filthy. There are aggressions and wounds that get dealt mercilessly. But everything feels honest: the story, the characters are honest, and the aggressive specter of society that bleeds away into the far reaches of the wilderness, a distant foe. Smashed to pieces like the plane’s flight recorder. This society may not be perfect, but it could be better.

The show has also begun to explore the theme of madness vs. magic. Madness, of course, a traditionally “feminine” ailment prescribed to women when they step too far out of bounds. Magic, the term queer people prefer to give it. In other pieces, we’ve explored the reclamation of magic and witchcraft by queer people and trans people, more specifically. Yellowjackets takes a step into this tradition as well. The women dabble in the occult and see visions of wild animals in the ether. And often, in the background, a wailing cry sounds eerily through the wind. But we still don’t know what kind of power they wield and whether, ultimately, it gets painted as good or evil. We hope, obviously, good.

Yellowjackets is queer TV - the girls have a seance
Kailey Schwerman/SHOWTIME

Yellowjackets is, of course, traditionally queer, too. Taissa is married to a woman in the present timeline (one that she’d better start appreciating) and they have a son. In the past, she and Van (Vanessa) have a relationship as well. And Jackie and Shauna clearly engage in a dually unrequited best-friendship dance that had better end in a kiss. (Or we riot!) Many queer women will recognize this particular two-step. Shauna and Taissa even have a moment in a restaurant. Sometimes it’s all about the lingering hand-touch for queer ladies. It feels refreshing to see queerness portrayed in so many nuanced ways.

Taissa and her wife, Simone, kissing. Yellowjackets is queer TV.
Kailey Schwerman/SHOWTIME
Jackie handing Shauna a heart necklace
Paul Sarkis/SHOWTIME
Taissa and Shauna holding hands over the table
Paul Sarkis/SHOWTIME

Yellowjackets is off to a great queer, women-centric start. But this women-run society has room for improvement. Though there are many people of color on the show, the focus on white femininity remains too great. Hopefully, further episodes or seasons of the show correct this imbalance, especially in the future timeline. Yellowjackets has no shortage of women of color characters, and their roles ought to expand. Depictions of queerness and realized womanhood must include everyone.

By the same token, the show needs trans characters as well. The portrayal of womanhood remains incomplete without them. In such an otherwise nuanced exploration of women, this omission feels glaring. Non-binary characters, queer men, and the many other ways queerness manifests would also crucially add to Yellowjackets’ queer narrative. Though we cheer the show’s many good decisions, we hope it continues to grow.

Shauna and Jackie looking at each other lovingly.

At the end of the day, will the show deliver on its many promises and center the rejection of society as a good? Some signs point to yes, like its exceptional moon eyes between women and how, in many ways, men simply do not factor very heavily. Others point to maybe not, like the prevalent, distracting presence of heterosexual coupling despite so many women who are ready to couple. We eye with trepidation the relationship between the assistant coach and Misty (although our tingling Hannibal senses say he won’t be around long) but cheer for Van and Taissa kissing and giggling behind a tree, for seances, women with knives, and odd couples.

All things considered, the show already leads us down an incredibly important path. Yellowjackets raises the bar and brings these conversations and others to the table, creating a beautiful hive of its own along the way. As it continues to air ( Sundays on Showtime), the show extends a mirror to those who feel outside the norm, while paving an important path for others to walk down. And I, for one, am grateful for that. (And cross my fingers hard that Yellowjackets will deliver a resoundingly queer triumph by the time its final credits roll.)

So, should we all head out into the wilderness and start a tribe of wild fae-folk? Well… what are a few bites between friends?

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