Hell is a Teenage Girl: Yellowjackets and the Monstrous Feminine
Yellowjackets is a smart, layered show in which a team of elite high school soccer players survives a plane crash in the deep woods of Ontario in 1996, then follows them today, twenty-five years later, as they continue to piece their lives back together. It plays with a number of genres, including horror, teen dramas and survivalist thrillers, and is, above everything else, a study of post-traumatic stress and middle age. Lauded for handpicking some of the most exciting indie talent of the 90s for the cast and production, it among the most full-throated expressions of third wave feminism on TV, perhaps ever. In this way, it’s an intense and gothic love letter to the riot grrrls.
Gen X, a small generation sandwiched by the gargantuan numbers of Boomers and Millennials, is content living on the margins, so unencumbered by the burdens of generational scrutiny it’s a common joke that Gen Xers are forgotten by the easy categorization of age cohorts. Born between 1965 and 1981, Gen X was characterized by disaffection and cynicism and shaped by MTV, the AIDS crisis and the advent of home computing. Their youth culture evolved during the law and order, Christian fundamentalist Reagan era, so their youth subcultures tended to reject authority and shared an affection for the underdog. This was not categorical: more than a few Paul Ryans crawled out of the rubble of the 90’s mistakenly claiming to rage against the machine. But nevertheless, a punk influence, including riot grrl and third wave feminism, swept through the high schools and colleges of America where cool girls talked with urgency about dreams bigger than marriage and children, and clomped around in Tims and Doc Martens, actively undermining feminine expectations for dress and behavior. It was a short lived scene though. The movement was rapidly co opted by a corporate mainstream who stripped the “riot” from “riot grrrl,” leaving femme youth the comparatively impotent, corporate empowerment of Shania Twain and the Spice Girls.
For all its faults, the riot grrrls’ third wave feminism concentrated on dragging the ugliness of gendered oppression into the light through personal creative expression, offering less in the way of social solutions than it did an insistence that misogyny would receive a full-throated challenge. Young feminists were bawdy, intense and angry, embracing the ugly. Whether it was a successful movement is the subject of another essay. What we need to know here is that, for a shining moment, the ‘90s were a time when the punks, queers, thugs and weirdos were broadly celebrated for raw creative efforts that elevated radical expressions of social frustration and longing, and that feminism was part of the zeitgeist.
Was it a good time for women? No. For all the subversion in pop culture, it was still a bad time to be anything but a cis, hetero white man. I invite you, for example, to read Juliette Lewis’ body language during this panel discussion, where her impatience with the uncritical celebration of 90’s girlhood is visceral. My ‘90s girlhood, for one, was brutal. As in horror, there were heavy social consequences for girls who didn’t play by the rules, and those consequences had the power to derail the rest of your life. You don’t have to be stranded in the wilderness to experience the worst of humanity.
If I were Antler Queen, I would draw little constellations between this feminist storytelling project and the art and artists that inform it. The audience should know that this team of storytellers are experts in the language of monstrosity, both real and imagined, and knowledge about these experiences calls into question some of the earlier commentary around their young fame. Indie movies were one arena in the 90’s where feminist exploration happened with vigor, lending new language and vision to our coming of age during a time when creators and audiences were interested in exploding the limits of femininity and exploring the monstrous feminine onscreen and in music.
- Melanie Lynskey premiered as a young talent with Kate Winslet in Heavenly Creatures, a critically-acclaimed film based on the real life story of a pair of New Zealand teens whose intense, queer relationship culminates in a horrific murder. (Along with many other iconic indie vehicles, Creatures was distributed by real-life monster Harvey Weinstein.) This movie was beautiful, queer, horrific – and the main actors were kids in a mean world telling stories about kids in a mean world.
- Juliette Lewis starred in one of the most controversial movies of all time, Natural Born Killers, where her character’s intense relationship ends in a long series of horrific and violent murders, revenge for the trauma of childhood abuse. This was preceded by an Oscar-nominated role in Cape Fear, where she is a child who saves herself from a serial rapist by setting him on fire. Lewis was so famous so young, grappling with real and fictional horrors so serious that she had to quit Hollywood to get sober, after which she resumed her career.
- Goth icon Christina Ricci left an abusive marriage as recently as 2020, and is the celebrity spokesperson for the anti-sexual violence advocacy group RAINN (a title first held by Gen X feminist icon Tori Amos, whose own entrance to fame was a song recounting her experience being raped). Awareness of domestic and sexual assault was a feature of feminist activism in the 1990s, before which it was considered too niche and/or impolite for broad public discussion.
- Before directing and producing for Yellowjackets, Karyn Kusama debuted with her feminist indie darling Girlfight, an iconic feminist film that also debuted Michelle Rodriguez, one of the main characters from Yellowjackets cousin and cult predecessor, LOST. Her cult horror classic Jennifer’s Body, also an enduring topic of feminist attention, boasted the incredible tagline, “Hell is a teenage girl.”
Feminist archetypes and horror traditions
The horror genre has grown and expanded since the exploitation films of yore, with filmmakers like Jordan Peele and Bong Joon-ho using the genre as a vehicle to tell stories about social inequality with new vision. And the time is ripe for horror metaphor. Consider the real-life horror of the federal government shrugging while millions of Americans suffer and die in a global pandemic. Consider the horror of knowingly elevating rapists and abusers to the halls of power. Consider the horror of for-profit prison, of climate change, the tyranny of a billionaire class. Consider the horror of “women are the safety net.” So many of us feel stalked by tragedy, one critical step away (one paycheck, one police encounter, one mutual fund away) from looming disaster.
For women, the particulars of horror often take on the shape of sexist oppression. It follows that feminist horror critics are concerned with how stigmas and stereotypes about the feminine play out in these extreme and fantastical circumstances. Feminist horror asks questions about domesticity, motherhood, childhood, sex and sexuality, social and moral deviance, puberty and other “horrors of the body,” and explore how the use of horror tropes take them to grotesque, but not illogical, conclusions.
Carol Clover coined the term “final girl” to refer to the horror trope of young women who outlive all their friends and fight off the killer. In the slasher films of the 60’s and 70’s, Clover observed that the final girl lives because of her implied moral superiority. She is almost always purer than her friends in one way or another, who die. She might have to kill to be spared, but her implied virtue affords her the privilege to live to tell the story. Women in horror are both victims and heroes in this sense, a reflection of our complex gender roles.
This moral fluidity is part of the fun of watching horror movies. The characters take on shifting and contradictory positions because horror is “victim-identified, invested in who is good, who is bad, which determines who lives and dies and in what order.”
(Arguably, so is feminism).
Teens are a perennial force in horror, and critics muse that the prevalence of teenagers in these extreme circumstances both “mock[s] the middle-class American dream” and yearns for “the promised comfort and contentment of a loving, supportive bourgeois family.” While adults may be present in teen horror, they are largely useless and can’t – or won’t – help the children in their care when they need it. In life, teenagers are a politically-loaded demographic because of cultural forces that seek to dampen their agency and control their developing sexualities, particularly by those who fetishize the purity of girls in particular. So, by identifying a “final girl,” the audience is forced to root for and identify with resourceful young women, their choices and their agency, whether or not we respect them in life.
Film studies professor Barbara Creed coined the term “monstrous feminine” in 1993 to describe how feminist archetypes express social anxiety around what makes a woman good or bad in the horror genre. Whether a virgin, whore, witch, vampire, succubus, castrating lesbian, or overbearing mother, the flavor of a woman’s damnation changes depending on how we define good and bad women in a horror story, and this determines whether she will make it out alive.
Professor Aviva Briefel observed that female monsters in horror rarely commit acts of violence out of pleasure but “commit acts of violence out of revenge for earlier abuse by parents, partners, rapists, and other offenders.” This rule of horror tropes is reflected in real life where the majority of women incarcerated for murder have long, complicated histories with trauma and violence, often in the domestic sphere. In life, as in the movies, when women kill, it’s largely to survive abuse, or an extension of abuse in our care work and domestic labor. In other words, our monstrosity is largely tied to the generational trauma of being women in a misogynist world.
Horror and intertextualism
“Deliberate intertextuality” is a fancy term for recognizing when a text references a prior text, and in visual media, has become very popular in pop culture through the use of “extended universes” and “Easter eggs.” Horror loves a good reference. Intertextuality is, in short, the literary device used when an artist intentionally makes reference to other art forms as a way to deepen the intellectual or artistic experience for the audience.
Recognizing intertextuality was something of a hobby for kids in the 80s and 90s – we didn’t call it that then – because the cool kids loved demonstrating encyclopedic knowledge of obscure scenes and their artistic influences. For example, think of the Olympian lengths kids went to to identify little-known song samples in hip hop before the internet, or of Gen X ur-dudes like Tarantino and Albini, famed as much for their art as the extensive referential knowledge backing up their art. Understanding what was cool and how to find it was something of a skillset for young Gen X, and so was understanding how it fit in the larger cultural context. Who informed your favorite artist, and who informed them, was critical knowledge for ‘90s cool kids navigating the politics of personal expression. It’s no surprise, then, that genre fiction appeals so much to Gen X, where fantasy, sci-fi and horror fans alike enjoy uncovering layers of meaning in an ever-expanding story universe.
As in other genres, horror creators deliberately use intertextuality to build feelings and meanings understood by a savvy, knowing audience to evoke horror, ominousness and dread. This extended horror universe builds out the “rules” of horror – a la the famous scene in 90’s teen classic Scream on how to survive a horror movie – so that a shot, a sound effect, or a visual used in one piece deliberately calls back to another one prior, creating a string of references that enrich and inform our experience of the story, and determines who lives and who dies.
Horror is also obsessed with homage, and Yellowjackets plays with so many classic feminist horror tropes to build out their world that it’s hard to name them all. The very premise of the show is in reference to Golding’s novel “Lord of the Flies,” and Alive, the 1993 biographical survival film about the rugby team that crashes in the Andes and resorts to cannibalism to survive.
We are to understand the horror of young Shauna’s teen pregnancy in this terrible place through the lenses of Rosemary’s Baby and Bad Seed.
(Meanwhile, she and Tai attempt an unsuccessful DIY abortion, one of the gutsier depictions of abortion onscreen ever, a scene deserving of its own essay. Feminist media studies around the depiction of abortion onscreen are robust enough to support its own database.)
The dark side of Taissa’s bifurcated personality manifests in blackouts and pica, a strange and scary habit that started in the woods and resumes in the present day under considerable stress. Pica, a disorder that leads to the overwhelming urge to eat non-food items like dirt and clay, is a recurring trope in Black feminist horror and supernatural stories, such as Oyeyemi’s “White is for Witching” and Morrison’s “Song of Solomon.” In the real world, pica is seen both in pregnant women and in children who have experienced the traumas of severe neglect and starvation, like the Yellowjackets fending for themselves in the woods.
We don’t know a lot about Misty’s origins yet, except that she’s fucking batshit in a way that recalls other caretakers in horror, including Annie Wilkes of Misery and Nurse Ratched of One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, the latter of which has gotten a contemporary treatment from TV horror czars Ryan Murphy and Sarah Paulson. (Meanwhile, her participation in the “citizen detective” work of solving cold cases with other true crime nerds is a fun touch. There is, after all, nothing more Gen X than DIY.)
Natalie struggles with addiction and impulsive behaviors, and we see hints of her ability to manipulate to get whatever she needs. We are to understand her behavior over time as a result of feeling unseen, unheard and alone in her sorrows, a trope that is familiar to horror fans. From A Quiet Place to Hereditary to Midsommar to, even, Pet Sematary, grief has the power to upend entire societies, and it may upend the Yellowjackets in both timelines.
Finally, the haunted house is a horror metaphor explored at length by modern greats like Shirley Jackson’s “The Haunting of Hill House” and Stephen King in “The Shining,” and in more recent treatments like “The Babadook” and “The Conjuring,” in which the haunted domestic environment embodies and personifies the sadness and claustrophobia of family abuse and trauma.
While the story swims in supernatural elements, it’s not clear yet whether the woods are indeed haunted or if the girls are experiencing another sort of folie à deux. Are they haunted by ghosts, or are they just losing their fucking minds?
Horror and an exploration of trauma and aging
In this context, whether or not the woods are literally haunted is beside the point. As kids, the girls are haunted by the plane crash and their abandonment and starvation in the woods, much as they are haunted by their own unruly adolescent bodies, explosive anger, insatiable appetites, and unrealized power.
At the end of S1, Yellowjackets lives in that ambiguity. The main characters are both killer and victim, and claustrophobic adults grappling with survivor’s guilt over their time as feral children. Layers of intertexuality inform the foreboding we feel on behalf of the characters. We know our final girls get out of the woods, but they still bear the scars of whatever unspeakable things they did to survive. Were they the virtuous ones, or was their survival based on something more dark, moreb pragmatic? Because Yellowjackets starts with the final girls, we have yet discover how they got out.
So, they did what it took to survive acute crisis, but then what? One of the intriguing questions implied by Yellowjackets is whether it is a privilege to claw your way to the final credits, all things considered. By following these characters into the sagginess of middle age, coping with ever-present reminders of their worst selves, we get to explore the slow motion horror of women’s dreams deferred.
Reviews have talked at length about Alive and the Donner Party, and critics are enamored with young stars and the 90s soundtrack, but haven’t much engaged with how the creators say that “the show really comes down to asking who you are when you hit your 40s.”
As Ashley Lyle says,
[W]hat we realized is that getting to that age is a little bit of a reckoning. Everything that you thought your life was going to be, you start to question. And so to our minds, you don’t need to have been through a plane crash to be experiencing that. So this was a really extreme version of telling something that we think almost everybody that age goes through, which is: What is my life now? How have the experiences I went through when I was younger shaped who I am now? And do I like who I am now?
In the woods, the Yellowjackets are old enough to fuck and kill, but they are still children. In the present day, the Yellowjackets are middle aged women grappling with who they grew to be, after all. By extending these horror metaphors into our midlives, we may illustrate the darkness of some of our expectations about women over, say, 35. It wasn’t so long ago that women past the tender age of fuckability were urged to cut their hair and settle into a life of needlework, laundry, church and family. While that’s changed, American women still encounter a brutal ageism that threatens to neuter us right at a stage of life when many of us are throwing off limiting expectations and realizing our full power in the world.
Sure, hell is a teenage girl. Hell is also getting old in a world that hates middle-aged women.
Millennials are the largest generation ever. Early on, anticipating their numbers and buying power, the forces of capitalism spun up to reshape popular culture in their image to the degree that anything that wasn’t to their taste was sidelined. But millennials are aging now, the oldest of which are staring at forty, and will soon contend with what it means to get older in a world that sneers at old people. As a culture, we are also armed with new schemas about how the past leads to the present, and new language around what we did to survive adolescence and how we talk about it. As we get older, more art and literature – and more horror – will reflect our wonder at getting older and all that it means.
Yellowjackets is one of the first shows to pose these existential questions with any depth for the women of Gen X, just ahead of the oldest millennials. With this in mind, audiences should consider leaving their more fantastical fan theories behind because it promises something more uniquely uncomfortable. In the feminist horror tradition, one thing Yellowjackets asks us to explore is our fear about the irrelevance, invisibility and loss of identity and control that comes from the relentless march of time, and what powers we harness when we embrace it.