“Yellowjackets” Is a Female “Lord of the Flies” That Reminds Us Just How Brutal Teen Girls Can Be

You don't need to survive a plane crash to understand the savagery these girls are capable of

January 10, 2022 8:57 am
A scene from Showtime's "Yellowjackets"
Kailey Schwerman/SHOWTIME

Warning: This post contains major spoilers for episodes 1 through 9 of Yellowjackets.

Back in 2017, it was announced that a gender-swapped adaptation of William Golding’s classic novel Lord of the Flies — one that would feature a group of girls slowly descending into chaos while stranded together on an island — was in the works, and the internet mockery was swift. “What are they going to do?” one man wrote in the comments section of an article announcing the film. “Collaborate to death?”

That project never got off the ground, probably at least partly due to audiences’ refusal to accept that a group of girls could be capable of the savagery depicted in the book. That “collaborate to death” comment in particular stuck with Yellowjackets creator Ashley Lyle. (Her response? “You were never a teenage girl, sir.”) It inspired her to make her own “female Lord of the Flies,” and the result is one of the most compelling dramas currently on TV.

Yellowjackets takes place in two different timelines — in 1996, where a high-school girls’ soccer team is stranded in the Canadian wilderness for 19 grueling months after the plane that was supposed to take them to nationals crashes, and in 2021, where the survivors are still coping with the trauma of what happened during those 19 months in the wild. And what exactly happened? We don’t really know; that’s part of what makes the show so compelling. The first episode opens with an unidentified girl being chased through the forest before eventually falling into a spear trap and being hung from her ankles, gutted and consumed by a group of girls dressed in animal pelts. We don’t know who the leader of this tribe of cannibals is — she’s masked and sporting a crown of antlers — nor do we know who was the main course, but the implication is that this wasn’t so much the kind of cannibalism where a group of starving individuals eat the already-dead bodies of their peers because they have no other choice as it was some kind of ritualistic murder.

Yellowjackets does not shy away from the brutality that one might expect to experience during a year-and-a-half in the woods after surviving a plane crash. There’s the gore of the crash itself, of course — plenty of bodies impaled by debris, passengers being burned alive and a coach whose mangled leg is amputated and cauterized by the team’s quick-thinking and possibly sociopathic equipment manager, Misty. Then there are the horrors that come with trying to survive in the middle of nowhere: the hunting and gutting of various woodland creatures, and even worse, an example of what happens when the hunters become the prey courtesy of a particularly brutal wolf attack. But nine episodes in, we still haven’t seen the girls actually kill and eat each other. And yet, it’s not hard to see it coming; the hierarchies are already there, and anyone who’s ever been a teen girl knows it won’t be long before the subtle jockeying for position erupts into all-out war.

We don’t know who the Antler Queen is or who gets eaten, but we do know who has an adult counterpart in the 2021 timeline and who doesn’t. There’s Natalie (Juliette Lewis), who has spent the 25 years since her time in the woods in and out of rehab as she uses booze and drugs to try to suppress the memories of what she saw and did out there. Misty (Christina Ricci), the dorky outcast with a surprisingly vast knowledge of first aid and survival techniques, is now a creepy nurse in an old folks’ home who likes to spy on people via hidden cameras. Shauna (Melanie Lynskey), who slept with her best friend Jackie’s boyfriend Jeff just before leaving on their fateful trip, is now married to Jeff and living the life of an unsatisfied housewife. Taissa (Tawny Cypress) is running for state Senate by day while sleep-walking into trees, eating dirt and generally freaking out her family at night. What becomes of Jackie, the popular-but-bossy team captain; Van, Taissa’s girlfriend who barely survives being mauled by a wolf; or Lottie, the schizophrenic who starts seeing and hearing things after she runs out of her meds? We’ll have to keep watching to find out.

Lord of the Flies is about how socialization falls away and how society is a facade,” Lyle recently told The Hollywood Reporter. “We thought, who is more socialized than women? As girls, you learn early on how to make people like you and what the social hierarchies are. It’s a more interesting way of having things fall away. The mask is even thicker. It’s a more layered amount of preconceived notions of how to behave and act.” 

The truth is, even without being stranded in the woods, so much of being a teen girl is about survival. There are cliques and tricky group dynamics and the brutal, cutting way in which girls can eviscerate one another with just a word. (As Karyn Kusama, who directed the Yellowjackets pilot, told the New York Times, “The plane never even had to crash for things to get quite dark, potentially, between everybody.”) There are leering older men, boys who have never been properly educated about consent, and all the awful statistics they contribute to. There are double standards and the impossible pressure to be pretty but not slutty, smart but not too smart. Not to mention, your body starts bleeding for three to five days straight once a month while your insides feel like they’re being ripped apart, and you’re expected to keep it to yourself, continue going about your daily business and conceal any evidence of it. (One especially great episode of Yellowjackets addresses the very real question any woman watching likely had from the get-go: What would these poor girls do in the wilderness when their periods eventually all sync’ed up — yes, that’s a real thing — and they didn’t have any tampons? The answer, apparently, is “cut a bunch of cloth into rags, use them as pads and wash them all in a pot at the end of the day so they can be reused.”)

Yellowjackets does an excellent job of highlighting the way that kill-or-be-killed mentality was honed within these girls long before they set foot on the plane. We see Taissa intentionally break a teammate’s leg in practice before nationals because she believes her to be a weak link on the team. Shauna has to endure all sorts of backhanded compliments and subtle digs from her supposed best friend Jackie and responds by repeatedly hooking up with Jeff. Misty is bullied mercilessly and — after realizing the way her survival skills have made her social stock rise in the wake of the crash — secretly destroys the plane’s black box, intentionally erasing any hope they have of being found and rescued because she’d rather starve to death in the wilderness with people being nice to her than go back to the hell of being a high-school pariah.

Even after months in the woods, the sexism that they had to endure in society continues to rear its ugly head when Travis, the coach’s son and one of the few boys stranded with the group, is worried about sleeping with Natalie because she’s more sexually experienced than he is. (Seriously, dude? You’re stranded miles from civilization, starving to death, and you’re going to deny yourself a few moments of pleasure because you’re concerned people might find out the girl you hooked up with is too slutty?!)

What sets apart Yellowjackets from Lord of the Flies is the way we see the survivors struggling to readjust to everyday life decades after their harrowing ordeal. Most of them opt for simply grinning and bearing it, burying the trauma until it eventually forces itself out. When an anonymous blackmailer threatens to go public about what really happened in the woods, we see the great lengths they’re willing to go to in order to make sure no one ever finds out their secrets. In episode 9, Shauna murders the man she (falsely) believed to be the blackmailer. The assumption is that whatever she and the others did while they were stranded constitutes an actual crime — murder, presumably — that would destroy their lives if it were to be uncovered. But the show has brilliantly set up another possibility. What if the hunting and ritual murder we saw at the start was just one of Lottie’s hallucinations? What if these women really did simply resort to cannibalism when they were scared teens forced to choose between eating their friends’ corpses and starving to death, but they’re willing to kill to prevent people from finding out about it because they know they’ll be judged far more harshly than the male survivors of the 1972 Andes Flight Disaster?

Either way, whether they’re innocent victims who were forced to do the unimaginable to survive or they descended into madness and did something more sinister out there, Yellowjackets is making some important points about the way society views teen girls. They can be just as brutal and cruel and unhinged as their male counterparts, and truth be told, Ralph, Piggy and the other Lord of the Flies boys likely wouldn’t last a day in their shoes — nor would they want to.

The season finale of Yellowjackets airs on Showtime on Sunday, Jan. 16.

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