“Yellowjackets,” and the Problem of Women Eating One Another

In the Showtime drama “Yellowjackets,” cannibalism is preordained, both for the characters and for the viewers. The series, about a high-school girls’ soccer team stranded in the Canadian wilderness, has been building toward this turn since the very first episode, which reeled in audiences with its ominous flash-forwards of an unidentified young woman being chased into a spike-filled trap, then ritualistically eaten. The show takes place in two time lines: in the nineties, when a plane crash forces the girls to fend for themselves, and in the present, when some of the survivors, now middle-aged, are still grappling with the aftermath, making vague references to the unspeakable things that they endured during their nineteen months in the wild. We have always known that someone (if not multiple someones) was going to get eaten, but the animating mystery has been who and when.

The question of the teens’ first victim was finally answered in the second episode of the new season, which culminates in the members of the eponymous girls’ soccer team devouring their captain, Jackie (Ella Purnell). In all fairness to the Yellowjackets, Jackie had frozen to death long beforehand—and their decision to eat her isn’t presented as much of a decision at all. After building a funeral pyre, the girls wake in the middle of the night to the tantalizing smell of smoked meat. They are lured outside almost involuntarily, like “Looney Tunes” characters drawn to the odor of a freshly baked pie on a windowsill. “She wants us to,” Shauna (Sophie Nélisse), Jackie’s best friend, says, super convincingly, and the team proceeds to feast. The scene, set to “Climbing Up the Walls,” by Radiohead, is shot like a fever dream, cutting between the real meal and an imagined bacchanal where the girls are eating succulent fruit and meat roasted golden, while also getting drunk and making out. Ultimately, the cannibalism does not feel like an act of necessity so much as the fulfillment of a woman’s deep-seated erotic desire. (Fittingly, the episode is titled “Edible Complex.”) The only person who sits out the feast is the girls’ older male soccer coach, who is revolted by the sight of the teammates going to town on their captain’s corpse.

In its most recent cinematic depictions, cannibalism has been treated not as an unthinkable transgression but variously as a fetish (the 2022 black comedy “Fresh”), an identity (the 2016 horror film “Raw”), and a girlboss revenge fantasy (the 2009 cult classic “Jennifer’s Body”). Increasingly often, it seems, the fictional practitioners are women whose cannibalistic hunger is connected to other bodily appetites. In “Raw,” directed by Julia Ducournau, a teen-age girl’s sexual awakening coincides with a newfound, apparently matrilineal urge to consume human flesh: at one point, in the midst of kissing a boy, she chews off his bottom lip. Ducournau was influenced by Claire Denis’s “Trouble Every Day,” which centers on a woman who seduces men before biting them to death. In “Jennifer’s Body,” the titular character is a succubus—a man-eater in every sense of the word—though the most charged scenes are those involving Jennifer and her awkward best friend, Needy, with whom she has a passionate and codependent relationship that one character describes as “lesbi-gay.”

Karyn Kusama, the director of “Jennifer’s Body,” directed the pilot episode of “Yellowjackets,” and the series, despite all the cannibalistic trappings, is mainly a study of female friendship, a messy and complicated phenomenon that can be as life-giving as it is draining. The show’s emotional core is the relationship between Jackie and Shauna, whose toxic dynamic long predates the latter sanctioning the consumption of the former. Back at home, before the plane crash, Shauna was the overlooked beta to Jackie’s charismatic alpha—the Needy to her Jennifer—whose wants and interests were cannibalized by her more popular friend. Jackie sought to remake Shauna in her own image; Shauna, both resentful and infatuated, seemed torn between the desire to be Jackie and to be with her. The potentially romantic nature of Shauna’s devotion was further complicated by the fact that she was sleeping with Jackie’s boyfriend—and, as we later find out, was impregnated by him.

It is partly Shauna’s fault that Jackie eventually freezes to death; after the two get into a fight, Jackie sleeps outside, and in the morning the group discovers that she died of hypothermia. The first episode of the second season explores Shauna’s psychological deterioration in the wake of this unexpected and needless loss. Jackie’s corpse, frozen and still intact, has been moved to a shed, where Shauna visits and has conversations with her, as if the captain were still kicking. During these imagined chats, Jackie makes assertions about Shauna’s affair with her boyfriend: “You know Jeff only had sex with you because I made you into someone else. And you only had sex with him so you could imagine being me.” The claim reeks of narcissism and pettiness, until one remembers that it is Shauna herself who is putting forth this theory.

As her downward spiral continues, Shauna puts makeup on Jackie’s face and becomes the first to succumb to some low-grade cannibalism—eating Jackie’s ear. She later hallucinates that Jackie has carved off a piece of her own arm as an offering. Shauna, now racked by guilt, attempts to refuse; Jackie replies, serenely, “You’re the one holding the knife.” Once the rest of the group becomes aware of the unsanctioned “Weekend at Bernie’s” reboot happening in the shed (though not of the reason for Jackie’s missing body parts), they decide to cremate her, if only for Shauna’s good. Eulogizing her friend, a few hours before devouring her, Shauna says, “I don’t even know where you end and I begin.”

In the days since it aired, “Edible Complex” has been praised for its layered treatment of a long-anticipated plot point. Speaking with Vulture, Jonathan Lisco, one of the episode’s writers, framed Shauna’s actions as a kind of cruel and unusual form of intimacy. “The eating of a person is the ultimate way to dignify that person and keep her with you forever, while at the same time destroy her and dominate her,” he said. This idea of cannibalizing someone as an expression of love was also central to the world view of “Bones and All,” a 2022 movie from “Call Me by Your Name” director Luca Guadagnino. The film, which contains so many flesh-craving characters that I was reminded of a line from “Moby-Dick”—“Cannibals? who is not a cannibal?”—concludes with a dying young man (played by Timothée Chalamet) begging his girlfriend (Taylor Russell) to consume him. “It’s beautiful,” he insists. “Just love me and eat.”

What follows is a gory feeding sequence that is shot much like a sex scene, with Chalamet’s face twisted into an expression of pain and ecstasy. Like most contemporary cannibal content, “Bones and All” is chock-full of moments when what looks like an erotic impulse turns out to be a cannibalistic one, along with scenes where they’re essentially one and the same. The first such reversal comes early on, when a charged conversation between two young women at a sleepover ends with one taking the other’s finger in her mouth, only to bite it off. Cannibalism serves as a metaphor for queerness throughout the film: the people-eaters, who are able to identify one another, either embrace their desires—which become more acute during puberty—or grapple with self-hatred, as they contend with a societal or familial rejection that leads them to forge their own codes and communities. But the movie’s focus soon shifts to the unconvincing romance between Russell and Chalamet, and, by its conclusion, cannibalism has gone from sapphic to sappy.

The entanglement of cannibalism and queer desire is a long-standing trend in literature and on screen (the NBC series “Hannibal,” the 1999 film “Ravenous,” and, if you accept Roger Ebert’s argument that “a vampire is simply a cannibal with good table manners,” then “Carmilla,” “The Hunger,” and Anne Rice’s “The Vampire Chronicles”), although not every such character is forthright about one or both of those impulses. In “Moby-Dick,” the narrator, Ishmael, goes from being terrified of Queequeg, a cannibal, to agreeing to go to bed with him, and the two wake up the next morning intertwined. (“You had almost thought I had been his wife.”) The theme crops up throughout Melville’s fiction, in which, as one scholar put it, “the most open expression of love between men is tangled up with cannibalism.”

For Melville, the connection was more intuitive than it might seem today: homosexuality and cannibalism were both realities of life at sea, driven by an urge that the writer characterizes as simultaneously irresistible and repulsive, if not compulsive. What’s less obvious is why the metaphor is surging in popularity now. In “Bones and All,” the conflation of cannibalism with queer identity partly seems like an attempt to reintroduce an element of forbidden, transgressive desire into an otherwise mundane teen romance. Meanwhile, the new cohort of cannibal women is reflective of a culture in which female relationships—platonic and romantic alike—are depicted as all-consuming, with the lines blurring between the parties involved. And yet this metaphor runs the risk of feeling too neat, turning a nuanced and subtle dynamic into something that is both incredibly blunt and somehow less honest. It can also be a bit hard to look at, though the queasiness may be the point: in a television landscape where viewers are largely numb to brutality, imbuing cannibalistic violence with emotional depth might be a way to get audiences to feel something again.

The writers of “Yellowjackets,” aware that some viewers might consider it necessary, if not perfectly ethical, for Jackie’s friends to eat her, find other ways to make the act a violation. The girls, far from reluctant to desecrate Jackie’s body, tuck in with delirious gusto—and, in the following episode, we learn that they also feasted on the parts of her that ought to have been left alone. “Tai, you ate her face,” one reminds another, the next morning.

Julia Ducournau, when interviewed about “Raw,” said, “I wanted the cannibalism to become a punk gesture against this patriarchy.” A feminist undercurrent—the idea of eating the patriarchy instead of just smashing it, of countering (or one-upping) commonplace male violence with female-driven body horror—is present in many contemporary depictions of women cannibals, whether they be gay or straight, and whether they’re eating their male lovers or their female friends. In “Yellowjackets,” cannibalism appears to be emerging as an element of a society run by an increasingly feral group of women; the participants are not just hungry for sustenance but generally power-hungry, with the social hierarchy constantly rearranged as certain members prove themselves to be more capable of survival than others. One of the show’s great ironies is that, despite being emaciated, vulnerable, and constantly scared for their lives, the stranded teens wield a lot more power and autonomy than the older versions of themselves. The real shocks lie in the stark differences between the past and present-day scenes: there is nothing more jarring than when the show cuts from the teen-age Natalie (Sophie Thatcher), a highly rational and self-assured young woman who traverses the wilderness with a hunting rifle, to adult Natalie (Juliette Lewis), a recovering addict with suicidal tendencies. Likewise, adult Shauna (Melanie Lynskey) cannot find peace as a stay-at-home mom, even though she is married to Jackie’s old boyfriend, who, by all appearances, worships her. She is weighed down by her gruesome past and the spectre of her dead best friend, which causes her to act dangerously and impulsively: she is both a bad wife and a terrible mother. Lynskey does a wonderful job playing a character with a history of violence and a great deal of repressed rage—whenever she is in the kitchen, cutting up food, I instinctively brace myself for the worst—and yet it’s also hard to imagine this soft-spoken sad sack as someone who has ever experienced a victory. As my colleague Doreen St. Félix put it, in her review of the first season of “Yellowjackets,” the show’s latter time line is “a spiky exploration of the feminist dream deferred.”

“Yellowjackets” is about what happens after the bacchanal is over. If cannibalism has any empowerment to offer, then it is seemingly only fleeting, leading to nausea in the short term (in the latest episode, the face-eating Tai vomits after being confronted with the reality of her actions) and good old-fashioned trauma in the long term.

How, then, does one ever eat the patriarchy? It’s notable that, in the strongest portrayal of feminist cannibalism I’ve seen, it is not a woman who actually does the eating. In “The Cook, the Thief, His Wife & Her Lover,” a 1989 X-rated drama directed by Peter Greenaway, which is beloved and detested for its excessive yet elegantly wrought brutality, the titular wife persuades the cook to prepare the body of her dead lover, who was tortured and killed by her despicable husband—the movie’s thief, played by Michael Gambon, better known for his role as Albus Dumbledore in the “Harry Potter” movies. At the end of the film, his waitstaff present him with the roasted corpse of his wife’s lover, which is served whole, with orange garnishes, atop a bed of vegetables, at an opulent dining table—sort of like if the Yellowjackets had placed Jackie amid the imagined delicacies at their dissociative dinner. The thief’s wife, holding him at gunpoint, instructs him to eat: “Try the cock, Albert. It’s a delicacy, and you know where it’s been.” Perhaps to his credit, the thief vomits from the scent alone. But he finally does take a bite, and, as soon as he finishes swallowing, his wife shoots him, calling him a cannibal. Revenge is a dish best served to someone else. ♦

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