Teenage girls are often associated with paranormal phenomena. One idea goes that the hormones, the electricity, of being an adolescent girl causes or attracts poltergeists. The internal tornado of teenage emotions certainly feels like it should be strong enough to fling things around the room. Like every girl is Carrie if pushed to her limits.
Groups of girls, together, can also create a frenzy of energy greater than the sum of its parts. Mass “hysteria” makes it sound like a female failure, rather than what it actually is: a terrifying power. Some theorize that the girls at the center of the Salem Witch Trials were swept up in such a shared fervor, believing there was witchcraft all around them. (When I try to imagine what it might have been like to be a seventeenth-century teenager at what felt like the edge of the known universe, a harmonizing freakout among peers doesn’t seem implausible).
Being teens at the edge of the universe is the fate of the girls in the TV show Yellowjackets, which recently ended its second season. To summarize the concept: in the mid-1990s, a girls high school soccer team from New Jersey, is heading to a competition in Seattle. But their plane crashes somewhere in the woods in Canada. The survivors are stuck trying to make it through months in the wilderness. They dissolve into a distaff Lord of the Flies, with a dose of the supernatural.
Leaning into 90s nostalgia, the opening credits sequence is made up of retro video footage, jumping between school scenes and creepier images, reminding viewers of Reality Bites (and the Blair Witch Project), all played over music that sounds like the theme from Daria in a darker key. The casting reinforces the theme, with 90s It-Girls Juliette Lewis and Christina Ricci, plus Melanie Lynskey, who first came to fame as a teenage girl in a murderous folie a deux in 1994’s Heavenly Creatures. Alanis Morissette even sings the theme in some episodes, completing the vibe.
The group that survives the plane crash isn't entirely female: there are two teenage boys (sons of a coach), and a junior male PE teacher. (This is in itself something of a plot hole. There is no way these girls would have taken such a trip without some women chaperones. A female teacher, a coach, or someone's mother would have been on that plane).
But an older woman might have stopped the girls going off the edge, and that's the point of the show. The only older women are the girls themselves as we meet them two decades later, their life courses shaped by their shared trauma after their eventual return to civilization. They have adopted a code of omerta about the darker side of how they made it, but it casts an inescapable shadow on their souls.
One of the girls, who is either mentally ill or psychically gifted (you choose) became a kind of spiritual leader. Because of course she did. Teenaged girls are always flirting with the occult, from ouija boards at sleepovers to chanting “Bloody Mary” at a mirror. Talismans, curses, burn books and charms: these are part of the adolescent girl landscape.
Through a starving winter, they reached cannibalism and blood sacrifice driven apparently by some malevolent force in the woods. The girls also crack in different ways: sleepwalking, hallucination, any number of psychoses that could be due to starvation, and the extreme stress of their situation.
The PE teacher, the only adult to survive the initial crash, cedes any authority: first because he is too injured to take control, and later because he is horrified by the girls behavior, and dissolving into his own despair.
The teens run their camp in a strange amalgam of the conscientious domesticity of girls, and the snarling animal instinct to survive. The bitchy backbiting of a girl scout troop arguing over who is not pulling their weight fetching firewood, while what they roast on the fire is human flesh.
But the truth threatens to resurface as the show begins. The crash survivors are now in their 40s where they should be at their career peaks. Yet only one is operating at what a school report card would have called “her potential”: Taissa, who is an attorney and State Assemblywoman candidate, living the slick yuppie life.
Shauna is stuck in suburban ennui, still married to her high school boyfriend. Misty is a nurse and (it is heavily implied) of the Angel of Death variety. Natalie was the girl from the impoverished, violent home, who was going to have a brighter future thanks to her sporting talent. Instead, she ends up bouncing in and out of rehab. Lottie, the psychic (or psychotic) charismatic, now runs a wellness retreat of a kind where they all wear matching clothes and one suspects a mass suicide might be on the horizon.
They’re all broken. And they’re all archetypes, a pantheon of women illustrating late-Gen X women's rage, a cohort’s simultaneous midlife crisis. At an age when many people ask is this all there is? these women know exactly where their lives took a turn. They are bound together in a bitter sorority, also hating each other as they hate themselves. The supernatural force (whatever it is, if it is) seems to come back, are they facing a foe together? Or is each woman going crazy on her own? They’ve reached the next female hinge point, the perimenopausal breakdown, so is the supernatural force itself simply the hormonal shifts in a woman's life?
The mysteries of Yellowjackets are what they actually did to survive. How much are their flashbacks unreliable narration? And what is this malevolent force? There are symbols carved in trees. Tribal ceremony? Or are the girls doing it themselves? Like the ergot poisoning theory for Salem Witch Trials, are they all just hallucinating?
As adults, the women have never, in therapy-speak, “addressed their trauma”. Maybe because there is no way to address “I became part of a murder cult guided by the ghost of the woods”.
Meanwhile, what to do with midlife women has always been a challenge for those creating art. From Mrs Dalloway to Mrs Robinson, matron is an awkward role. The male midlife crack-up has long been documented: from Peter Finch being “mad as hell and I'm not going to take this anymore” to Michael Douglas’ Falling Down.
When women have a midlife crisis it's usually played for laughs. Shirley Valentine goes to Greece; Stella gets her groove back. Midlife women are allowed to be bored, sick of household drudge-work, or abandoned by their husband for a younger model. They just need to eat, pray and love.
The deeper, darker midlife crisis of directionless anger and thwarted ambition is for men. A woman's ambition, at least in movies, goes as far as meeting a cute foreign guy and maybe restoring a house in Tuscany. Their prize, their recovery, is more domesticity, just a bit better.
The Yellowjackets women don't need or seek more domesticity. Their crisis transcends socks and what to put in Tuesday’s casserole. They survived a plane crash and its aftermath. But maybe the crash was a metaphor for the dream-shattering impact of adult life. For coming of age in late-capitalist West, at the point of Fukuyama’s End of History.
Maybe falling from the sky is only way to really capture the power and intensity of female adolescence: as a force majeure. Something we all survived. But not unscathed.