When Showtime first announced Yellowjackets, the premium cable channel’s psychological horror show about a high school girls’ soccer team surviving in the wilderness after a plane crash, I could feel it coming.
Well before the premiere episode aired, and well before all the recaps, theory posts, and Twitter fandom, the spirit of my newly gay ’90s teen self stirred within me and whispered a call unto the zeitgeist: “This show is gonna be gay as hell.”
Not since the days of Buffy The Vampire Slayer has a television show with horror elements and a strong ribbon of queer been this exciting. As someone who went to high school between the years 1991 and 1995, and first realized I was gay when I had a dream at 14 about kissing Winona Ryder, a show like this could not be more perfect.
It takes place partially in the ’90s, features a soundtrack of platinum hits from the decade, and stars a core cast of Melanie Lynskey, Juliette Lewis, Christina Ricci and Tawny Cypress. The first season is coming to an end and I still get dizzy just thinking about how Yellowjackets even exists.
The focused aggression on the soccer field. The parties in the woods. The letterman jacket casually tossed on the floor next to a pile of Sassy magazines, all backlit by a Lite-Brite that spells out something vile. It’s peak ’90s gay before it even gets to the gay parts. I’m like Misty when I say drop me in this landscape and break the flight recorder so no one can ever find me and bring me back.
A key to Yellowjackets’ popularity is the show’s ability to offer up content that appeals to a wide range of viewers, while also possessing a certain intangible gayness. The psychological horror elements of the show bring in a mass audience, as does the core cast who have, collectively, starred in fan-favorite TV series and films throughout the years.
The writing, the acting, the music, the production—these are all tools skillfully deployed by a show that has become a quick obsession. So it’s easy to see how a broader fandom has latched onto the show while the queer community can, in conjunction, claim it as their own.
Without being marketed directly as a such, Yellowjackets is a very gay show because anything can be seen as gay if you just try hard enough, and that’s half the fun of being gay. (This practice is given a special descriptive these days, “queer reading,” and I’ve put it to great use in every Angelina Jolie movie since Foxfire, and, every single episode of Riverdale).
Yes, this show is about survival, trauma, dissociation, brutality, manipulation, etc. But, it’s also very much about adult Natalie (Juliette Lewis) applying dramatic eyeliner in a hand-mirror while listening to Mazzy Star, Shauna (Melanie Lynskey) shoving her husband Jeff (Warren Kole) into a piece of furniture with undeniable femme-top energy, Jackie (Ella Purnell) with her hard femme wilderness hair and lingering “best friend” glances, and Taissa’s (Tawny Cypress) letter opener dexterity.
The combination of underlying gay listed above, and overtly gay realities like assistant coach Ben’s (Steven Krueger) finger snaps in response to the girls doing a dance routine in the cabin, teenage Taissa (Jasmin Savoy Brown) and Van (Liv Hewson) going full mushroom munch in the woods, and adult Taissa’s terrifying home life with her wife Simone (Rukiya Bernard) give us a lot to work with, and it all feels very welcoming for a piece of media that is teasingly steering us towards teen cannibalism.
“And I asked myself about the present: How wide it was, how deep it was, how much was mine to keep.”
What deepens the impact of a show like Yellowjackets debuting in late 2021/early 2022 is its ability to hold up a mirror to fans who went to high school during the period depicted in its flashbacks. Fans who are now middle aged with families of their own in a time that, in many ways, seems so much darker and drearier than 25 years ago—and in just as many other ways, better. And for younger generations of the show’s fans, they’re able to see themselves in characters, both queer and straight, navigating a culture that didn’t always make it so easy for a person to live their truth.
LGBTQ+ culture was certainly not as taboo in the ’90s as it was in the preceding decades, but representation of LGBT characters (the Q+ was just a glimmer in our eyes at that point) in media still caused quite a surprising stir. Sandra Bernhard’s portrayal of a bisexual character named Nancy Bartlett on Roseanne was a big to-do, as was Ellen DeGeneres’ coming out story arc in “The Puppy Episode” of her sitcom Ellen in 1997. Alyson Hannigan’s character Willow Rosenberg opening up about her gayness in season four of Buffy dropped jaws left and right.
Compared to the raw and edgy dicks-out days of Euphoria, the ’90s felt like an untouched glass of whole milk. Younger viewers of Yellowjackets may find it odd that Ben kept his sexuality in the closet, and Van and Tai hid their relationship for so long, but that’s the way it was back then.
Gay life—queer life—was a fun little secret that we made space for ourselves in privately, or within the accepting graces of a chosen few. We’ve certainly made some cultural advancements there, but a lot of the worry and carefulness of being in the queer community still remains. Even in these wild, wild woods of 2022.
Quickly approaching the end of my 44th year on this earth, I watch Yellowjackets and think about how fun it was to be gay in the ’90s. Everything felt so new, like it was just for us. We smoked our Marlboro Reds, listened to our PJ Harvey, and it was just a gay, gay, gay ’ol time. How nice for this show to remind me, and us, that we are just that much closer to being able to have all that fun, with just a little less—when all goes as it should—of the bloody parts.