‘Yellowjackets’: A Tale of Cannibalism and … Feminism?

Showtime’s Yellowjackets compares female empowerment then and now, contrasting girls of the ’90s with the women they are today. My fellow Gen Xers, I ask: How goes your feminism? Maybe it’s time to check in with your inner 17-year-old.

(Kailey Schwerman / Showtime)

Another season of the award-winning Showtime series Yellowjackets begins this weekend, and I’m still unpacking the first one. For this Gen X feminist, the show’s unlikely extremes ring true—and not just because the ‘90s references are spot-on.

The show compares female empowerment then and now, contrasting girls of the 1990s with the women they are today. A story of high achievers entering adulthood stranded in the middle of nowhere (who may or may not have resorted to cannibalism), it offers the perfect allegory of the lasting effects of a contradictory period in feminism.

There’s a lot going on in this brilliantly suspenseful show, including some spectacular deconstructions of stereotypes—good and bad—but what really stands out to me are the questions it asks about competition.

Yellowjackets was created by showrunner duo Ashley Lyle and Bart Nickerson. (Oddly, IMDB mentions that Lyle is married to Nickerson, but not vice versa.) The pilot was directed by Karyn Kusama, also a producer on the show, whose work is closely associated with feminist themes. Throughout the show’s creation, women have been in the room.

The large cast of major characters mirrors the diversity of New Jersey, the show’s pre- and post-wilderness setting. It would have been valuable to see at least one gender nonconforming character, especially given the attention on trans students and athletes today—but otherwise, the Garden State locale effectively spotlights a realistic span of diversity. Yellowjackets explores a life-shattering ordeal shared by girls who differ racially, ethnically, economically and culturally as well as in sexual orientation and disabilities, particularly with mental health.

Yellowjackets sets an intersectional stage and then encourages viewers to trace the implications, offering an invitation to consider some of the central questions of feminism: What do we do with our differences when we want to accomplish change together? How do we disentangle feminism, which requires coalition and collaboration, from capitalism, the competition-based system we’re stuck with, at least for now?

Season 2 trailer.

‘90s Feminism: Lost in the Wilderness

In 2023, thankfully, feminism is widely embraced as relevant and cool. It’s hard to believe (even for me, and I was there) that only a few decades ago, many people thought they lived in postfeminist times—that the goals of feminism had been achieved and nothing further was required. Equally problematic: Many thought they lived in a postracial world as well.

In the ‘90s, however, the narrative that feminism was victoriously obsolete circulated widely, and you likely would not have known any different unless you had a feminist parent. (I didn’t.) Roe v. Wade and Title IX seemed written in stone. In the first episode, we see American girls celebrated for playing the same sport as boys and playing it better (little do they know that 20 years later, the U.S. National Women’s Soccer Team would have to leverage global championship to even begin closing a 60 percent pay deficit relative to the men’s team).

According to feminist theorist bell hooks in 2011, the years of “postfeminist” empowerment made feminism far more difficult for young women “because so much is expected of you all. And you really see, if you watch television, that you’re expected to be slim and beautiful, smart and the equals of men, but to subordinate yourselves to men whenever that’s appropriate for getting ahead. So many mixed messages leave a lot of young women feeling depressed—not in feminist practice but not subjugated either. More like lost.” (emphasis added)

Understandably, the Yellowjackets take their rights a bit for granted. Until the plane crash, their main problems are on the order of winning another championship, missing prom for nationals, social awkwardness and deciding which prestigious university to attend.

Even post-disaster, we see them flipping the bird at a boy their age when he’s sexist, taunting him with grody menstruation jokes because they know they can—and not just because girls constitute the majority in their party of survivors.

Yet both before and after the disaster, their postfeminist relationships with one another are deeply toxic, and the challenge of surviving together mostly makes them worse. The show’s intercutting time-travel reveals the lifelong consequences.

How do we disentangle feminism, which requires coalition and collaboration, from capitalism, the competition-based system we’re stuck with, at least for now?

With its ironically bitchifying tone and its sensationalizing focus on cannibalism, Yellowjackets may seem cynical or nihilistic, a less-than-critical reflection of what scholar Catherine Rottenberg has described as “the evisceration of feminism of its emancipatory potential.” I think, however, it expresses a deep longing for better community among women and therefore everyone—belonging that doesn’t rely on someone being excluded or betrayed. A desire to find a way out of the wilderness of human inequality.

‘Colorblind’ Before CRT

Searching my personal memories of the ‘90s for parallels proved rather embarrassing. We did not yet possess the language to effectively critique cultural appropriation and what Michelle Alexander calls “the new Jim Crow,” but I wish I had known better.

Once, when I was a junior, a friend who was having a terrible year spread a rumor about me, claiming that I said I wouldn’t drive her to school because she wasn’t white. I didn’t say, or even think, that—I was a pathetic grade-hound and had an early schedule, she wasn’t a morning person, and it was making me late for my oh-so-important class, competition being my family’s love language. However, she was not wrong about race being a factor. Unfortunately, we as kids in an almost all-white high school in the early ‘90s simply didn’t have the vocabulary to discuss the very real problem of white privilege.

If we had, it might have helped me take responsibility for my sense of entitlement—a frictionless selfishness that I benefited from every day. We had not yet heard of the theory of intersectionality, which might have illuminated how and why our experiences differed. We did not know how to think and talk about racism as systemic or structural rather than solely interpersonal—a problem much bigger than we two could solve, but that I could have helped to protect her from. We could have discussed how important it is for girls to have each other’s backs. I wish I could go back in time and share an understanding of how these factors may have been part of the reason her father had recently died way too young. (If you’re reading this, I’m so sorry for not saying and doing the right things. If you’re up for it, I would love to hear from you.)

So, yeah. For this viewer who came of age in the ‘90s—benefiting from a lot of self-empowerment messaging but not much feminism, let alone intersectional feminism—Yellowjackets really hits.

There is a cringeworthy moment in the first season, when Vanessa, a white character, naively asks Taissa, her Black girlfriend, why tokenized people of color in horror movies seem always to be the first who die. At least, I thought as I watched that scene, some women really have “come a long way” since then. It is horrifying that there are those today who seek to take our hard-won critical vocabulary away, leaving each generation to reinvent the wheel.

Competition, Cannibalism and Capitalism

An inspiring contest rewarding someone whose personal best is notable. A struggle to win something for the betterment of the many. Rivals who avoid injuring bodies or relationships. A flirtatious pretext for intimacy.

Obviously, these forms of competition are different than a quest for domination, or a seething case of jealousy.

But competition is always about establishing hierarchy, and the edge separating the celebratory and empowering from the exclusive and violent can be thin, fragile and nebulous. Competition can unleash our worst, most repressed feelings: rage, envy, shame, hatred, humiliation—all of which Yellowjackets features in ample amounts. And in our species’ current system of survival, almost all human interaction involves competition.

In Yellowjackets, a game is always much more than a game, and the goalposts never stop moving. We see the slippery mess of competition in the team’s cohesion, which relies on struggles for dominance both within the group and without. What is a team if not a group that goes head-to-head against other groups? And what is a team’s leadership, if not a form of dominance over one’s teammates?

Jackie is the official team captain, selected by the coach for her “influence,” meaning popularity, largely based on wealth and white-coded, heteronormative attractiveness. She benevolently overpowers her teammates in a conventionally feminine manner, using emotional persuasion rather than aggression, with a focus on getting along. Meanwhile, Taissa, the unofficial team captain, driven to pursue high and clearly articulated goals, emphasizes hard work and confrontation—and she isn’t above breaking rules and using physical force. In the woods, the latter kind of leadership quickly moves to the fore.

After the crash, the stakes are at once lowered as far as they will go and yet raised in the extreme. The survivors must scramble to sustain their lives, with the likelihood of failure creating unfathomable psychological strain. Thus commences a contest over who deserves the power to lead when a miscalculation can easily end in death. The group remains interdependent and must cooperate, but without the benefit of values such as equality and altruism—the opposites of competition.

Competition may symbolize any and all systems of oppression, but I see the theme of cannibalism as speaking directly to capitalism and its relation to feminism. The feminine rhyme between ‘cannibalism’ and ‘capitalism’ speaks to competition, how it turns women against one another, as individuals and in groups—even when we all claim to be ‘feminists.’

To borrow from a famous horror trope, the ‘final girls’ of Yellowjackets survive together by entering into the most profound complicity with some, while betraying others. In this fight, in a sense, no one wins, because the toxic implications for the victors never end. Instead, they grow louder as the years pass.

Nonetheless, I see in Yellowjackets an allegory of blunted potential that can still be unlocked. To my fellow Gen Xers, I ask: How goes your feminism? It might be a good moment to spend some time with your inner 17-year-old.

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Carolyn Elerding, PhD, is a feminist author and freelance editor. Find her on Twitter @celerding and Mastodon @celerding@toot.io.