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From Yellowjackets to The Power, TV Is Embracing Matriarchy at a Dark Moment for Feminism

12 minute read

For Yellowjackets’ resident mystic, the nightmare begins after what’s left of her high school soccer team escapes the wilderness. In a sequence that opens the second season of Showtime’s hit thriller, a freshly rescued Lottie Matthews, played as a teen by Courtney Eaton, steps onto a tarmac teeming with the cameras, microphones, and flashbulbs that signify a media circus. Her face freezes in an expression of anguish. We see her parents explaining that she hasn’t spoken since returning home and asking a psychiatrist to “fix her,” then a harrowing scene in which she’s restrained, sedated, and subjected to electroconvulsive therapy. “I used to feel free,” Sharon Van Etten sings, on the soundtrack, as Lottie writhes. “Was it just a dream?”

This is not the way survival stories are supposed to go. After enduring a plane crash that killed many of their teammates, followed by 19 months of filth, starvation, conflict, and lethal cold, these girls should be kissing the asphalt that marks their return to civilization. Yet Lottie is far from the only Yellowjacket who seems more vividly alive in the woods than she is at home. High-achieving Shauna (played by Melanie Lynskey as an adult and Sophie Nélisse as a teen) disappears into domesticity, but repression poisons her marriage and relationship with her own daughter. Taissa (Tawny Cypress and Jasmin Savoy Brown) compartmentalizes enough to launch a political career and start a family, even as her subconscious commits astonishing acts of violence. Misty (Christina Ricci and Samantha Hanratty), who purposely broke the plane’s black box to keep the team stranded, clings to the women who once made her feel like an essential part of a community. “After they rescued us, I lost my purpose,” says Natalie (Juliette Lewis and Sophie Thatcher). Her season 1 arc takes her from rehab to the brink of suicide.

110 - Sic Transit Gloria Mundi
(L-R): Christina Ricci as Misty, Juliette Lewis as Natalie, Tawny Cypress as Taissa and Melanie Lynskey as Shauna in YELLOWJACKETS, “Sic Transit Gloria Mundi"Kailey Schwerman/SHOWTIME

The show’s creators, Ashley Lyle and Bart Nickerson, understand that trauma can persist long after its source is gone. But Yellowjackets—like so much recent TV about young women, matriarchy, and the mixed blessing of personal empowerment—also forces us to consider whether its girls might have been better off in the off-grid society they created for themselves. As one character in Amazon’s The Wilds, a teen-girl-plane-crash drama that preceded Yellowjackets, puts it in that show’s premiere: “What was so f-cking great about the lives we left behind?… Being a teenage girl in normal-ass America? That was the real living hell.”

The same insight underlies The Power, arriving on Amazon March 31, whose wild premise imagines what might happen if adolescent girls all over the world suddenly developed eel-like electrical abilities, and Class of ‘07, also new on Amazon this month, an Australian dark comedy in which alumni of an all-girls boarding school get stranded on campus following a flood on the night of their 10-year reunion. It’s an idea that has felt increasingly intuitive since the late 2010s, as the era of Lean In feminism gave way to the reactionary misogyny of Donald Trump and the Supreme Court he transformed. Maybe, these shows suggest, male supremacy can’t be voted out of office or reformed into oblivion. Maybe young women need to dismantle it through force or escape it entirely—even if that means rebuilding civilization from the ground up.

The Power - First Look
Auli'i Cravalho in The PowerKatie Yu—Prime Video

Not that Yellowjackets and its ilk are utopian counterparts to the patriarchal dystopia of The Handmaid’s Tale. They harbor no illusions that all girls are inherently peaceful or kind or perfect. Which makes these stories, rife as they are with darkness, violence, and suffering, both psychologically realistic and viscerally thrilling. Yet they also embody a women’s movement, weary from so many fallen idols and so much lost ground, in the midst of an existential crisis. From their reluctance to address intersectional issues like race and transgender identity to the big question they leave open—would matriarchy truly heal society’s wounds?—these shows mirror the fears, uncertainties, and shortcomings of real, post-Hillary, post-Roe feminism.

Although it hinges on a flood of biblical proportions, Class of ’07 is the lightest of the new matriarchy series. Reunited at the Catholic school where they spent four years torturing each other in all the predictable teenage ways, dozens of young women get stuck overnight at their mountaintop alma mater due to torrential rain. The next morning, they discover that the school is now the sole island in an endless expanse of water. Unlike the girls in The Wilds, who wash up on a desert island, they don’t have to worry about finding shelter. But to survive long-term, they need food, medicine, a social contract. And they need to get along better than they did as kids. While the specter of cannibalism haunts Yellowjackets’ flashbacks (until Shauna finally eats her dead bestie Jackie’s ear in the season 2 premiere), Class of ‘07 plays that survival trope—along with food poisoning, a lack of working toilets, and in one case murder—for macabre laughs.

Class of ‘07
Class of '07John Platt

The show’s characters check standard high-school-reunion boxes. There’s the try-hard nerd, Genevieve (Claire Lovering); the stoners, Megan and Tegan (Chi Nguyen and Bernie Van Tiel); the self-explanatory “Forgettable Laura” (Rose Flanagan). Zoe (Emily Browning) and Amelia (Megan Smart), onetime best friends torn apart by teenage politics, form the show’s emotional center. But creator Kacie Anning’s sharpest inclusion is Saskia (Caitlin Stasey), a toxic mean girl who has since reinvented herself as “Saskia 2.0”—a feminist social entrepreneur, donating menstrual products to women in impoverished countries. Drafted by her peers to whip them into shape, despite her protestations that her queen-bee years are behind her, Saskia quickly devolves into the same tyrant they’ve spent a decade talking about in therapy.

Scratch a girlboss, find a monster is a common revelation in these shows. Pulling the strings in The Wilds, to the extent that it’s possible to control what happens to eight teens on a desert island, is Gretchen Klein (Rachel Griffiths), a disgraced academic who has recruited her gaggle of girls for a deeply unethical experiment in matriarchy disguised as a female-empowerment retreat. She’s hoping the result will be “gynotopia”—a community that proves “the reins of power should finally be shifted into [young women’s] hands.” If a few girls die in the process of investigating her hypothesis, well, that’s a shame, but for Gretchen, the end justifies the means.

Rachel Griffiths, center, in The WildsMatt Klitscher—Amazon Studios

The Power, a muddled but ambitious adaptation of Naomi Alderman’s 2016 novel, is the most overtly political of the matriarchy shows, and it’s similarly ambivalent about powerful individuals. Instead of imagining a small, single-gender society, the series plays out across multiple continents in a world where teen girls have spontaneously developed an organ that allows them to shoot bolts of electricity from their hands. Everything changes overnight, for better and worse. “I run with both my earbuds in now,” Jos (Auli’i Cravalho) marvels. “I didn’t even realize I was living in constant fear.” But patriarchal governments—that is, just about every government, regardless of who presides over its executive branch—see a threat. In the U.S., girls are rounded up in school and subjected to invasive testing. Saudi Arabia bans them from using their new ability, and the murder of a girl who harmlessly breaks the law catalyzes spontaneous protests.

Jos’ mother Margot (Toni Collette), the progressive mayor of Seattle, is brave enough to become a much-needed political ally of the so-called “electric girls.” Like so many left-of-center politicians, particularly female ones, since the Supreme Court struck down Roe, she speaks out in defense of “bodily autonomy” for women. “Either we did this to these girls or they developed it out of necessity,” she argues. But her outspokenness makes not just Margot, but also her family, a right-wing target. Questions arise: Is her crusade righteous enough to merit endangering her husband (John Leguizamo) and children, without their consent? Is she being selfless, the way we expect good women to be, or selfish, prioritizing her career over the people she loves?

The Power - First Look
Halle Bush in The PowerPrime Video

Margot’s morally complex story line is echoed by those of several other characters in the unwieldy, global ensemble. In the fictional Eastern European nation of Carpathia, victims of sex trafficking escape their captors and commence a reign of terror. An orphaned abuse survivor (Halle Bush) fries the foster father who assaults her and follows a female voice in her head, which she believes to be God, on a messianic journey. Without defending patriarchy, The Power repeatedly asks whether slotting women into traditionally male leadership roles—whether they resemble Obama or Che Guevara or Jesus—will truly effect the change humanity needs.

Yet for all the problems that persist in gynotopia, TV’s matriarchies tend to function more smoothly than male counterparts both fictional (see: Lord of the Flies) and, like the Stanford Prison Experiment, real. The second season of The Wilds finds Gretchen sending a control group of boys to a desert island of their own, and the results are not encouraging for Team Testosterone. Yet this gender discrepancy doesn’t originate with individuals; in Yellowjackets, Misty flirts with psychopathy, while the sole teen boy, Travis (Kevin Alves), is among the gentlest, most sympathetic characters. It’s about group dynamics. Egomaniacs can be female as well as male, yet where a dozen boys might fight for dominance or over resources, a dozen girls have been taught to cooperate and prioritize the collective. They also benefit from the exhilaration, in all-female environments, of suddenly shedding a shared vector of oppression.

Jane Widdop as Laura Lee, Alexa Barajas Plante as Mari, Mya Lowe as Yellowjacket #1, Courtney Eaton as Lottie, Sophie Thatcher as Natalie, Keeya King as Akilah and Sophie Nélisse as Shauna in 'Yellowjackets.'Kailey Schwerman—Showtime

So far, so convincing—not to mention refreshing, when so much feminist-minded entertainment traffics in girl-power gender essentialism. Many of these superhuman female protagonists, from Ms. Marvel to House of the Dragon’s Rhaenyra Targaryen, now come across as relics of a bygone era. What the matriarchy shows understand is that, whether they’re struggling to feed themselves during a freezing winter or carrying an unwanted pregnancy in a state that banned abortion, women survive through solidarity. As art, these series range in quality from the scattered, tonally dissonant The Power to the sublime, layered Yellowjackets. But as feminist analyses of a society waging a war on women, their insights are similarly profound.

Which is not to say that matriarchal television always presents a complete worldview. For one thing, it tends to avoid sore subjects for contemporary feminism. While its casts are superficially diverse, and queer romance is for obvious reasons embraced, the thornier issues of race, class, and religion are common blind spots. Yellowjackets has yet to grapple with the fact that Taissa is, as far as viewers know, the team’s sole Black survivor. The Power depicts different cultures’ divergent responses to the electric girls without meaningfully connecting them to real discrepancies in faith and economic circumstances. Characters whose gender identity doesn’t match the sex they were assigned at birth are few and minor. (FX’s short-lived sci-fi matriarchy drama Y: The Last Man, in which all mammals with Y chromosomes drop dead one day, did feature a trans man, played by trans actor Elliot Fletcher, among its main characters.)

Y: The Last Man -- "The Day Before” -- Season  1, Episode 1 (Airs September 13) -- Pictured: (l-r) Elliot Fletcher as Sam Jordan, Olivia Thirlby as Hero Brown. CR: Rafy Winterfeld/FX
Elliot Fletcher and Olivia Thirlby in <i<Y: The Last ManRafy Winterfeld—FX

Nothing makes the shows’ matriarchal visions feel as incomplete as the fact that they all remain, through no fault of their creative teams, literally unfinished. Female-dominated societies are apparently as tough to sustain on TV as they are to establish in real life. The Wilds and Y, which both predated the phenomenon that is Yellowjackets, were both canceled before they could wrap up planned multi-season arcs. The first season of Class of ’07 ends on a cliffhanger, and the eight out of nine episodes of The Power’s debut season that I was able to screen in advance introduced multiple stories that seemed to just be getting started. Which makes it hard to gauge the confidence of any show’s creator in a positive outcome for their respective matriarchy.

Only Yellowjackets—whose season 2 premiere broke viewership records for Showtime, which has already renewed it for a third season—seems guaranteed to reach a resolution on its own terms. And so far, it’s a pretty pessimistic show. The sadness underlying its horror feels rooted in the ground feminists have lost since the ’90s—a decade when, as the casting of some of its most offbeat teen stars underlines and a soundtrack heavy on PJ Harvey and Tori Amos illustrates, pop culture made unprecedented space for young women’s rage. The odds of seeing the show’s characters integrate the most liberating elements of their twisted matriarchy into their oppressive existences as middle-aged women in the retrograde 2020s, seem slim.

Simone Kessell as Lottie in 'Yellowjackets' season 2, episode 1.
Simone Kessell as Lottie in Yellowjackets season 2, episode 1.Kimberley French—Showtime

When we meet grown-up Lottie (Simone Kessell), now the leader of an apparent cult that she insists is an “intentional community,” it’s clear she’s spent her adult life trying to reinhabit the person she became in the wilderness. “There is a version of you that knows exactly who you are and what you really want—a primal, elemental self,” she tells her followers. “And there is nothing more painful than hiding that self.” Cut to young Lottie, finally en route to civilization, turning toward the camera and letting out a scream that echoes from 1998 into the present.

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