Surviving the Sting

The post-traumatic girls of Showtime's Yellowjackets


in Pop Studies • Illustrated by Kat Heller


Different kinds of pain summon different terms of art: hurt, suffering, ache, trauma, angst, wounds, damage . . . trauma implies a specific devastating event and often links to damage, its residue. 

In 2014, Leslie Jamison coined the term “post-traumatic girl”, a woman or girl who discards their wounded affect in response to the knowing that “woundedness” is “overdone and overrated.” In the case of Yellowjackets, as Ashley Lyle puts it, a “story about fucked up women” which is a simple misnomer for women who cannot separate their pain from themselves, who are remade by it, who follow the nonlinearity of their trauma, but are they in Jamison’s dystopian conclusion? Are they constituted by it? Is this all that is understood of the condition of being a woman? 

Jamison’s essay is embedded in the construction of the dissociative feminist. A character, juxtaposed against the hyper-optimistic #girlboss figure of the late aughts, as Clein defines, will recount the “overtly horrifying facts about uniquely feminine struggles and deliver them flatly, dripping with sarcasm.” There is a need to escape the gratuitous and particularized pain of being a woman and fail to fight against such realities. This approach coincides with the popularity of the trauma plot. Chiefly, the dissociative feminist is a central character in this narrative. As Sehgal defines the trauma plot, it is not concerned with asking questions of what will happen in the future, but concerned with the past, asking: ”What happened to her?”  

This genre of the post-wounded girl, the dissociative feminist, “fucked up girl,” etc is a reflection of what the posture of post-wounded affect has left us. We have transitioned from performing woundedness, rising above it, and performing it again in jaded disarray. There are stories beyond  Fleabag, Girls, and Sally Rooney novels. For the less popularized stories of brown and black women; Raven Leilani, Carmen Maria Machado, and others have carved out a significant space.  

Labeled as the female version of the Lord of the Flies, Yellowjackets centers on the lives of five survivors of a plane crash and eventual isolation in the middle of the woods for 18 months. The show toes the line between the horrifically visceral aspects of spending your teenagehood in the woods and the heavy emotional toll of living in the wake of such tragedies. It moves seamlessly between 1996 to 2022 as our characters unwind old and new secrets. Each of the survivors wades through their collective trauma, and it makes itself an indelible entry into dissociative feminism television.  

It feels familiar initially, familiar for those who have characterized what the late ’90s have come to encompass with flannel, slip dresses, and a horror highlighting the absurdity of suburban life. With Christina Ricci and Juliette Lewis playing notable characters, the showrunners are not exempt from relying on this nostalgic overture. It is also lurid in the same vein as I Know What You Did Last Summer and Scream — not only excess amounts of blood, but the focus on teenage girls and their own gruesomeness. The woods only heighten their insecurities and problems. One of the first scenes of the plane crash is the soccer coach’s body hanging above the girls and his kids. As winter approaches, two of the teenagers shoot a deer and reveal a flurry of maggots. But it’s not these viscerally gross moments that constitute the shock and spectacle of the show: it is the disquieting moments that evoke horror. 

One scene that demonstrates how these moments can be so discomfiting is when Shauna (Melanie Lynskey) is seen masturbating to the image of her daughter’s boyfriend in her daughter’s room. It is uncomfortable to watch but also extremely banal.  In the neverending boredom of her life, it is one of many transgressions that in Shauna’s life amount to no or little consequence. 

As a teenager, Shauna is a precocious wallflower, and her own insecurities are exacerbated by her tenuous relationship with her best friend, Jackie Taylor (Ella Purnell). She carries out an affair with her best friend’s boyfriend and her eventual husband. She was accepted to Brown in 1996, and as an adult, she is a cliche of sorts. Her story is familiar: A suburban mom with a teenager, she is the embodiment of white woman’s ennui. She physically articulates the question, what happened to all that promise? 

Carmen Maria Machado writes in reference to The Awakening,  

“I felt freer at fifteen than I do at 32. Now I know better.”  

Machado writes about a familiar experience. An audible groan rose from my high school English class when we continued to read The Awakening, but the subject of much debate was Jane Eyre. We argued that Jane’s return to Mr. Rochester did not make her equal to him because she relied on a man’s inheritance. It was misguided, but exhilarating to fight from a purist’s point. It is a lot more difficult to live by a purist’s definition. We were young and lived with the rights that took decades to achieve, and forgot the work of our predecessors. Knowing now that it is atypical to accomplish so much at a young age without some familial support or generational wealth or with the overturning of Roe v. Wade, little did we imagine that such a purist’s arguments would not serve us.  

With an old uniform hanging in her closet and an annual brunch with the Taylors, Shauna is living in the wake of Jackie’s life. She lives in a perpetual in-memoriam until getting into a car crash with a mysterious painter, Adam (Peter Gadiot). She carries out an affair off of the justification that her husband is carrying one out as she sees him leave a hotel with a blonde woman. For Edna in The Awakening, being awake serves as a present metaphor for fresh discovery alongside eating and sex, and it still applies in this show. Shauna rediscovers the person she left behind when she kills, strips a rabbit skin, and prepares it for dinner. She explains the origins of the dinner to her husband and daughter, and they laugh it off, amplifying what little consequences her words carry.    

My class was populated with lower as well as upper-middle-class Brown girls. They were smart and ambitious and never let up on their goals and visions for the future. Some of the inherent ideas and feelings I could identify with and came to appreciate later as I grew up, but the contemporaries of the post-wounded woman, the “fucked up” girl reflected very different realities than we endured. Those novels allowed those women a greater space for exploration. I grew to envy this iteration of the fucked up girl.  

It is a storied envy as Margo Jefferson writes about the privileges denied to the women of Negroland, was:

. . . the privilege of freeing, yielding to depression, of flaunting neurosis as a mark of social and psychic complexity. A privilege that was glorified in the literature of white female suffering and resistance. A privilege Good Negro Girls had been derived by our history of duty, obligation, and discipline . . .

This sort of envy, this lack of collapsing is explored with the character of Taissa (Tawny Cypress). Taissa lives in a middle-class yet relatively affluent area in New Jersey, and while she is not only one of the black teenagers on the team, she is one far and few between. As a teenager (Jasmin Savoy Brown), she is hyper-competitive, demonstrated early on when she injures another teammate’s leg during a practice scrimmage. She shows little to no remorse, and it is unclear to what extent that action was an accident. Taissa’s need for control and how calculating she can be is a battle she endures throughout this initial season.  

As an adult, worrying about every detail with regard to her political campaign, we find out that she sends an investigator to interview the remaining survivors. Her hyper-independence makes it difficult for her to trust anyone, especially herself, as there is an existing plot of her son’s problems with making friends at school. His issues are exacerbated by a figure referred to as the “Lady in the Tree” who stalks him outside his window, and is later revealed to be Taissa.  

In Yellowjackets episode 4, Taissa is offered the opportunity to meet with the political donor, a kingmaker of sorts. It is intimated early in the episode to Taissa that whatever this kingmaker asks needs to be abided by in order to be a shoo-in. From her meeting, she asks Taissa to reveal the corpulent undertakings found in those 18 months. It is a request for a libidinal exchange of information; trauma is traded for the promise of access to power. What is implicitly stated becomes text when the kingmaker reminds her that people like her have allowed people like Taissa to come into positions of power. It is a moment that fully centers her race and gender in this exchange.  

Taissa realizes she will never move beyond when asked to lay her experience bare to this shadowy figure, and she firmly rebuffs her offer.  In the next scene, someone has vandalized Taissa’s house. She makes it an event, recentering her race and gender in her campaign when she brings reporters.   

Karyn Kusama directed the pilot and is the executive producer of the show, and her ideas act as a harbinger of this show. Known for the films, Girlfight, Aeon Flux, and The Invitation, but most notably for Jennifer’s Body, Kusama continues to tread the line between the emotional and the visceral; it is a place Kusama loves to explore, and acts as a catalyst for demonstrating what past trauma does and what it is capable of inflicting.  

Misty is a lived-in Kusama touchstone. She is a girl who is, “a little smarter than where [she is] coming from, but not having the social graces to really articulate that.” As a teenager (Samantha Hamratty), she wears glasses, has curly frizzy hair, and responds to people mocking her by quoting Plato. As an adult (Christina Ricci), she continues to be met with suspicion from other nurses, and manipulates situations in her favor. She is someone who is desperate to be included by her peers and goes to extreme lengths to feel essential. In the end, she continues to fail to make lifelong friendships and connections. She is the only one that seems to have walked away from the crash not so negatively emotionally fraught, but is no less affected by it. As an adult, her social isolation is highlighted by her pet bird and her membership in a Facebook group for amateur detectives. Her desperate need for connection seems to outweigh other’s boundaries, and her experience in the woods seems to have cemented this aspect of herself.  She has not grown beyond that, and always exists in the precarious position to be “essential”, hinging on the next situation she can manipulate in her favor.  

Emerging from rehab, the first place Natalie ventures to is a bar. She is a composite of Misty if Misty was less aloof and had a little more athletic ability. Outside of soccer, she has no natural connection to her team, and is no less manipulative. She is forced to be wise beyond her years as a teenager as she grows up with her abusive alcoholic father who dies from accidentally shooting himself. Being stuck in the woods is not the only traumatic event that she has to reckon with, but as an adult, she finds purpose in finding who killed Travis, her on and off again boyfriend. Whereas Misty manipulates people to connect with them, Natalie often does everything in her power to push people away. As outwardly hurt as she seems to be, she is also the only character who has not buried everything about her past away as Shauna and Taissa.  

Sehgal argues that,  

“The trauma plot flattens, distorts, reduces character to symptom, and, in turn, instructs and insists upon its moral authority. The solace of its simplicity comes at no little cost.” 

Her argument comes against, ironically, the ever-present amorphousness of the term. Vertical concept creep does not even explain its ubiquity as it peaked in 2021, and has been “adopted widely as a kind of cultural touchstone.” From its ability to define a number of situations, ranging from “physical injury, an experience, or an emotional response to a horrific event”, a number of writers who have marked this term’s creep ask “have we become better at defining it or worse at dealing with it?” 

The trauma in Yellowjackets is character rendering, a barter, and all that there is, but it is also constantly unfolding as shown at the end of season 1 with Natalie’s kidnapping by a group connected to Lottie Matthews, introducing a never-ending nightmare for her character. Misty laces Taissa’ ‘s investigator’s cigarettes, and she passes out while driving. It is what we come to expect of her. Her need to sabotage and odd exuberance is both disturbing and act as moments of levity on the show. The moments of levity, the revolting, the humor, the banality are infused, complicating our feelings. It is bleak without lending itself fully to that point. No one moment holds any more or less emotional weight over any other, nor does it act as an emotional placeholder to move through a scene.  

Yellowjackets does not make a case against Sehgal’s argument, nor can it confidently stand up with Jamison’s central question. It is neither meant to either, but it moves beyond the moral constitution that the trauma plot or the post-wounded girl can offer. It continues to push through the conversation each writer has introduced thus far. The characters are not merely flinging for a set of responses, and the writers are good at asking what happens next. What happened to her and what else will? With the announcement that season 2 will air in early 2023, I still remain curious as to what else the show may have to say.•


Marie Johnson has been previously published with Film Daze, Mayday Magazine, and others. She currently lives and works in the Bay Area, California.