In Yellowjackets, Female Friendship Is Horrific

Photo: Paul Sarkis/SHOWTIME

The opening sequence of Showtime’s Yellowjackets is peculiar and horrifying. A teen girl in a flimsy gown runs through the desolate wilderness. It’s winter. Bone ornaments and amulets hang from the branches; girls and animals vocalize from the trees. This is a hunt, and the girl, who is prey, falls into a trap. A masked figure in pink Converse and a soccer shirt inspects her impaled body, and throughout the pilot we return to the scene of this teenage ritual: The girl gets bound and dragged, hung and bled, cut and cooked. A cult of girls, identities hidden underneath animal skins and dirty athleisure, sit around the fire and cannibalize. Afterwards, I thought about it nonstop, couldn’t go to bed without the lights on, and went vegetarian for a week.

A blend of occult horror and mystery that’s peppered with dark humor and the occasional Daria joke, Yellowjackets is a story of female grit bifurcated in time. In 1996, the year the New York Times dubbed “the year of the teenage girl,” it’s the story of a New Jersey girls’ soccer team — champions, lauded for their exceptionalism — who board a private plane to nationals and end up crashing in the remote Canadian wilderness, where they’re stranded for 19 months. It’s out with the Jersey boardwalk, Jennifer Convertibles, and ruminations on prom and college life, and in with hunting deer, abandoned cabins, and pots full of menstrual blood. In 2021, it’s the story of how at least four survivors live in the aftermath of the trauma, which none of them want to be defined by.

They’ve survived tragedy, they were victims; but they’re also total sadists. They terrorize geriatric patients, masturbate to their teenage daughter’s boyfriends, murder garden rabbits for fun, run dirty campaigns for senator. I’ve never seen a show that made a group of survivors so tragic, and also so frightening and unsympathetic. I’ve also never seen a group of women make for such horrible friends.

I’ll admit that I’m a big fan of television that centers female friendship. Pen15, Dollface, The Bold Type, Insecure — it’s all catnip to me. These shows are part of a wave of television that conceptualizes female friendship as a loving and generative space, as havens from the outside world. Even shows about women committing communal transgressions — think Big Little Lies— can guarantee a warm friendship plot. But what I, surprisingly, love most about Yellowjackets is that it’s having none of that. In Yellowjackets, female friendships are a source of horror and danger; they’re sites of destruction, spite, and lovelessness.

Showrunner Ashley Lyle and her husband, Bart Nickerson, have spoken about the many inspirations for the show, both from fiction and life: the real-life Andes flight disaster, the Donner Party of 1846, the 1954 novel Lord of the Flies, in which a group of British schoolboys gets stranded on an island and devolves into violent self-governance. In 2017, two male directors announced plans to adapt the novel with an all-female cast. People were rightfully skeptical about two men writing a cast of teen girls. They also thought toxic masculinity was central to the violence of the book, and that it was impossible to achieve similar brutality with women. Women love each other! Women talk and bond and collaborate! Lyle and Nickerson read these criticisms online, and set out to dispel them, creating a show that argued against the clichéd bonds of girlhood and instead leaned fully into teen cruelty.

The Andes survivors gave each other permission to eat their bodies in the event of death, and those who did likened the ordeal to holy communion in order to stomach it. The Yellowjackets girls hunt each other alive. When they eat, it’s not with reluctance, but with relish. It’s that nastiness that keeps me flocking to the r/Yellowjackets Reddit page, reading theories night after night: What violence did these girls engage in? Whom did they eat? Who is the girl in the pit, who is the antler queen? Whom did they kill because they had to? Whom did they kill just because they wanted to?

Spoilers ahead, but my favorite anti-friendship on this show is that of teen Jackie and Shauna. Shauna is one of the present-day survivors; a housewife who lives on mute, and is frequently haunted by visions of teen Jackie. In 1996, Jackie was the team captain of the Yellowjackets. Pretty and popular, ordinary but influential, with a vanilla-bean homecoming-king boyfriend, she’s coded as the outmoded Queen Bee who peaks in her teens. She enjoys exerting control over Shauna, her quiet, bookish friend. They have little in common, and theirs is a common friendship trope — the popular, slightly antagonistic extravert, and the introverted protagonist who observes her. Stories about these friendship duos are usually told from the POV of the latter girl. She’s sympathetic! She’s quiet! She journals! She’s a docile observer who loves her more well-liked friend, all while passively accumulating the wounds of a wallflower.

But both of these girls are pernicious, pre- and post-crash. Yellowjackets won’t let you root for either. Their relationship is less friendship, and more like the parasocial dynamic between influencer and follower. In New Jersey, Jackie is cruelly backhanded and passive-aggressive; she gets off on thinking of herself as better and more desirable than quiet Shauna. She dictates what Shauna can and can’t wear, and undermines her sexual desirability; she assumes Shauna will play second fiddle to her at Rutgers. Shauna quietly resents Jackie — how ordinary and beloved she is. She’s torn between wanting to be her and wanting to follow her. When the wilderness scrambles the social hierarchy of the girls, Jackie is quickly rendered useless. She’s selfish in a crisis, more concerned with applying Lubriderm to her leg rash and fixing the batteries of a Walkman than contributing to group survival. Meanwhile, Shauna thrives, preparing the bodies of animals to eat, popping bones out of deer flesh, slitting stag throats with ease — maybe even delight.

Forget Heathers and Mean Girls and your preconceived notions about the wallflower and the queen bee. Both girls are absolutely heinous to each other, which I have to say makes for a more absorbing friendship story than one underlined by love. While they’re both wicked, the show strongly suggests the fact that Jackie probably isn’t alive in the present day. We don’t know how or when she dies, but the friendship is so caustic that many redditors suspect she’s the pit girl of the opening sequence, and Shauna’s the one to slit her throat. The intrigue behind these theories is what makes the show so sickly fascinating — we already know it’s bad between these girls, but how could it get this bad? Why am I so curious to see?

As an adult, Shauna carries the guilt of whatever happened to Jackie. As part of her overblown, teenaged penance, she lives out Jackie’s life as it would have been: ordinary and unexceptional. As part of her penance, Shauna attends an annual birthday brunch at Jackie’s parents’ house. In one unsettling tuna-quiche scene, Jackie’s mother likens the two girls to those in the Ferrante books. It’s a chilling comparison, maybe because we so strongly associate the Neapolitan novels with girlhood love. But even in Ferrante, the friendship has elements of painful symbiosis; of envy and mimicry. Maybe cruelty and obsession are seeded into these friendships, and Yellowjackets is just that bold show that lets the weed grow. Thinking of Jackie and Shauna, I think of a line from The Story of a New Name, after Lila has just been married, and Lenu, picturing Lila letting her husband “violate her, enter her completely,” is determined to have sex, too. In bed with her lover, she fixates on Lila’s parallel experience, and envies it. “I wanted to tell Lila when she returned,” Lenu thinks, in bed: “I’m not a virgin either, what you do I do.” Lenu finds life purposeless if she’s not living in Lila’s shadow.

“I wanted to throw away studying, the notebooks full of exercises. Exercising for what, after all. What I could become outside of Lila’s shadow counts for nothing. What was I compared with her and her wedding dress, with her in the convertible, the blue hat and the pastel suit?”

Yellowjackets captures the strange rituals of teenage girlhood: In the wild, overblown and sometimes absolutist ways that teen girls perceive of the world gain traction. Teen girls predict the future with clairvoyant abilities. Girls slip into supernatural, dirt-eating fugues; girls carry bone amulets for their protection; girls hoard psychedelic mushrooms to make men love them.

They also have symbiotic, poisonous friendships. Living in a girl’s shadow is a lifelong commitment. What is the point of surviving when the one you hate is gone?

In Yellowjackets, Female Friendship Is Horrific