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“YELLOWJACKETS” and Confronting the Needs of Civilization and Survival

Monday, January 24, 2022 | Deep Dives


William Golding’s Lord of the Flies is a seminal work of literature. Examining survival, civilization, and religious ideology, the story of school boys stranded on a deserted island has inspired art in nearly every medium. Classic though it may be, Lord of the Flies is also notable for another reason: it contains no female characters. Having been asked about this creative choice many times, Golding added an introduction to the audio version of his novel. Excerpts from his answer theorize, “… little boys, they are more like a scaled-down version of society than a group of little girls would be […] This has nothing to do with equality at all. I think women are foolish to pretend they are equal to men, they are far superior and always have been. But one thing you can’t do with them is take a bunch of them and boil them down, so to speak, into a set of little girls who would then become a kind of image of civilization, of society.” 

While reductive and essentialist in his ideology, Golding probably didn’t intentionally mean to insult women. His answer is a relic of a time when the so-called “fairer sex” was seen as inferior to men, the pinnacle of humanity. This is not to take anything away from the classic novel. As it stands, Lord of the Flies is a fascinating examination of leadership, dominance, and mob mentality. But it’s no wonder Golding chose boys as his cast. Coming from a staunchly patriarchal society, he likely saw men as the real characters and thus the only ones worth studying in a novel about civilization. Women and girls would have existed in his worldview as variations of the norm, inherently weaker in their femininity.

Named for a more dynamic insect, Showtime’s YELLOWJACKETS seemingly challenges this presumption of inferiority. In the series, a plane carrying the titular high school girl’s soccer team crashes leaving a group of mostly female survivors stranded in the wilderness. Though early scenes tease dark moments to come, season one shows the formation of a new society, built around both men and women.  Not quite a matriarchy, but definitely not a patriarchy, the community the Yellowjackets form in the wilderness is composed of flawed but fully human women and men who survive based on the connections they make with each other. But YELLOWJACKETS also stands as a condemnation of the patriarchy Golding examined. Removed from the limitations of societal expectations, the survivors do not merely form a recreation of the civilization they came from but a newer version free of gender stereotypes and oppressive norms. They reform a culture that allows them to exist as they choose and in it, find the freedom to be themselves.

As her time in the wilderness drags on, the team’s captain, Jackie (Ella Purnell), grows disillusioned with the life she left behind. Popular and perfect in high school, she struggles to find her place in the wilderness. Facing starvation and reeling from the discovery that her boyfriend has impregnated her best friend, Jackie vows to seduce Travis (Kevin Alves), another survivor, to avoid dying a virgin. She describes her life as a rotted husk, a hollowed out shell containing nothing that matters. Much of this hopelessness likely stems from anger and the shock of being so deeply betrayed. But this pain leads her to the realization that the life she has constructed is based on outside expectations rather than her own desires. She’s been saving her virginity for the proverbial “special night” with her boyfriend only to find that he hasn’t saved himself for her. In her former life, Jackie would see, her virginity is a special gift to be given to a perfect partner, perhaps on Prom Night. But in the wilderness, she embraces her carnal desires. Realizing that her idealized “first time” is nothing but a fantasy, she abandons this societal construct and simply enjoys herself in the moment. She is free of the rigid expectations set for her life and finally able to enjoy living it.

Though not mentioned by Golding, menstruation is often used as an argument against female leadership. One of the most liberating and satisfying episodes, “Blood Hive,” addresses this reductive concern. The girl’s menstrual cycles have all synched up and they find themselves visited by Aunt Flow at the same time. Without access to toiletries, they create their own sanitary napkins and deal with the biological issue in much the same way they would the need to go to the bathroom. Though necessary to survival of the species, menstruation has been stigmatized for centuries and this confrontation of a societal taboo designed to denigrate women is extremely empowering. Rather than isolate themselves until their bleeding is complete, the girls boil their homemade pads in a pot over the fire right next to the group’s pot of breakfast. 

Another element of this argument is the negative stigma of PMS. It’s a commonly held belief that women in power will get their periods and make irrational and dangerous decisions based on their uncontrollable hormones. In this episode, the girls are indeed emotional and slightly cranky, but they are still able to fulfill their duties and support the community. They fight with each other, but their disagreements are minor and quickly resolved. They stand in contrast to Travis and Ben (Steven Krueger), male survivors also impacted by their bodies. Travis storms away from camp in rage and humiliation after he is unable to maintain his erection during a failed attempt at sex. Coach Ben is understandably upset after having lost a limb in the crash. His grief overwhelms his rationality and he lashes out, saying he wishes they had let him die. Like the girls, these two male characters become emotional over uncontrollable facets of their own bodies. Women are constantly presented as fundamentally unstable due to the natural cycle of hormonal changes. Yellowjackets simultaneously reveals the fallacy in that reductive argument while also showing that men lose their agency in the face of powerful emotions as well.

An addition to Golding’s thesis involves the complications of love and sex. When justifying his character choice, he writes, “Well, if they’d been little boys and little girls, we being who we are, sex would have raised its lovely head, and I didn’t want this to be about sex.” YELLOWJACKETS confronts this reductive assumption in a variety of ways. Natalie (Juliette Lewis) and Travis do fall in love while stranded in the wilderness. They make up the group’s hunting party and find connection in their shared responsibility to the community. Though they sometimes use their time hunting to also flirt and kiss, when a deer is spotted, they immediately stop their canoodling and get to work. Their focus contradicts the assumption that love would prove to be a dangerous distraction. Golding’s quote also reveals a heteronormative view of love in which the only romantic couplings possible would be a man and a woman. Another relationship among the survivors is Taissa (Jasmin Savoy Brown) and Van (Liv Hewson). In the woods, they find the freedom to publicly express their love for each other, something that would have made them outcasts in the repressive culture Golding describes. 

Episode nine, “Doomcoming,” shows the survivors throwing a party by the light of the full moon. They base it on the homecoming ritual from their civilized life, but it more closely resembles ancient rituals of the forest. Dressed in the trappings of nature they become drunk from fermented berries and feast on hallucinogenic mushrooms put in their earthen stew. Though not aligned with any spirituality, it’s similar to the way groups of women and men have gathered for centuries to commune with nature, celebrating the offerings of the earth and attuning themselves to the rhythms of the forest. As they dance, the survivors find themselves mesmerized by their surroundings and transform into creatures of the woods. They strip away their rationality and begin to look closer at the fundamental elements of life. With their minds open, Ben discloses the true sexuality he’s been hiding. By the light of the full moon, Van removes the bandages from her face, revealing the scars from a brutal wolf attack she’s been hiding in shame. Immersed in nature and far away from the societal norms that had been controlling them, they find transformative beauty in the freedom to unveil their hidden truths.

This hazy ritual takes a darker turn as several of the girls turn their attention to Travis, ravaging his body and unleashing their sexual desires. In an echo of Golding’s hunters, the girls succumb to mob mentality in the throes of their hunger. Travis seemingly transforms into a stag dashing through the woods and the women become wolves, stalking their prey and losing themselves in expressions of their viciousness. They will be vilified for their actions later, but they embrace their desires in the moment and follow their baser instincts. Days away from certain death. Their psychedelic transformation comes from a need to eat in order to survive and one would hardly blame the wolf for the deaths of her prey. Travis is saved by Natalie, inspired by the magic mushrooms to finally declare her love. Though this chase carries larger implications for the group itself, the moonlight ritual is a beautifully thrilling depiction of women abandoning civilization’s definition of what makes them human and creating it for themselves. 

Golding’s novel is a powerful examination of a civilization based on the needs of men. He did not see a place for female characters in his novel because he came from a system that did not see a need for women in positions of power. But by centering female characters, YELLOWJACKETS shows that women are just as human as the men prized by patriarchy. The girls and boys in the woods fall into the same traps as the boys on Golding’s island, but are arguably more successful because they embrace each other’s humanity. They are fully realized characters who show that societal power is not defined by gender assigned at birth or sexual orientation, but by individual needs and desires. The society the girls create is feminist, placing every member on equitable footing. The Yellowjackets community is not without its flaws but its members find strength in the acceptance of their individuality and the group is made ever stronger by embracing the strengths of its diversity. 

Jenn Adams
Jenn Adams is a writer and podcaster from Nashville, TN. She co-hosts both Psychoanalysis: A Horror Therapy Podcast and The Loser’s Club: A Stephen King Podcast. In addition to Rue Morgue, her writing has been published at Ghouls Magazine, Consequence of Sound, and Certified Forgotten. She is the author of the Strong Female Antagonist blog and will gladly talk your ear off about final girls, feminism, and Stephen King. @jennferatu