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The Emmy-nominated Showtime series Yellowjackets follows the same storyline that so many survival shows and movies eventually, inevitably, follow: a dystopian hellscape of backstabbing, treachery, murder, and cannibalism. The series focuses on a high school women's soccer team whose plane, which is meant to be taking them to a competition, crash lands in a deserted, forest-covered stretch of land. As we follow this storyline, we're also transported to the present day, following the current lives of three of the now fully-grown women and the long-lasting, often devastating, impact this experience appears to have had on them.
In the opening scene of the first episode, a young woman runs through a snowy forest in a nightie, her heavy breathing harmonizing with ominous birdcalls that sound like screams. Suddenly, the ground beneath her caves in and she falls with a final, high-pitched shriek. The camera pans over her now-dead body, pierced by sharp branches and pooling with blood. Then, standing over her grave is a figure wrapped in furs with bandage-like wrappings masking their whole face. This was clearly a trap.
It's a menacing opening to a show that has received wide acclaim from audiences and critics alike. And it's great TV—Yellowjackets is interesting, different, the acting is stunning, the cast is predominantly women, there's queer joy, and deep explorations of friendship.
For the 2022 74th annual Emmy Awards, pop justice is featuring critiquing this year's award-winning copaganda—and highlighting abolitionist storylines lurking in our favorite shows.
It is also somewhat of a cliché. The past-tense storyline revolves around the girls' survival, and we see them pushed to extremes—hallucinating, keeping secrets from each other, disagreeing forcefully on fundamental values and… eating human flesh. They're the same themes that are woven into most stories of post-disaster survival—this is what humans would resort to if stranded on a desert island or post plane-crash. These shows portray humans at their worst, and the worst in humans.
But is this really what would happen if we took away the traditional structures of our lives?
Abolitionists envision such a situation quite differently. In fact, this canon of pop culture is a perfect way to truly consider what it might mean to live without the restraints of racial capitalism and the structures that uphold it—a much more positive, hopeful and beautiful vision than these shows will lead us to believe.
Popular media like Yellowjackets pose some of the more difficult questions we face as abolitionists: what would a society without law, money, and power actually look like? Does pop culture portray these accurately? How do we arrive at such an alternative vision of the future—and is it even possible?
I asked abolitionists from the U.K. and the U.S. for their responses to the big philosophical questions Yellowjackets raised for me. Here's what Woods Ervin, Co-Director of Critical Resistance (U.S.), Kelsey from Cradle Community (U.K.), mj from CAPE (Community Action on Prison Expansion) (U.K.), Aviah Day from Copwatch Network (U.K.) and Andrea J. Ritchie (U.S.) told me.
Are humans inherently good or inherently bad?
Kelsey: Neither—we're raised within a culture or multiple cultures and within a society, and we make choices that are informed by that and by the values that we are raised with. I would say that people can choose to do good things and I think they can choose to do bad things.
mj: I don't believe that we're inherently anything, except that we're inherently trying to meet our basic needs. I think we're all very much shaped by the conditions and the availability that we have to our getting our needs met.
Aviah Day: I think that we are fundamentally social. I don't think we are inherently individualistic… and the fact that we're social leads me to believe that whether or not we're good or bad, there is something about us being social beings that means we have to rely on each other to a certain extent, to survive.
Do you think the way stateless, moneyless "societies" are portrayed in pop culture is accurate?
Kelsey: Sometimes, we do act out towards each other—and it's not that we would never do that [in a different world]. But real stories of survival that involve marginalized people—[stories] that are happening in real life today—are all about people being there for each other. For example, sites created for supporting people suffering from addiction, or the alternative provision of healthcare support during the HIV crisis.
Coming back to the law, actually, lots of things that are actively helpful for people's survival are criminalized. In the U.K., for example, squatting is illegal, but squatting is how the refuge movement of safe housing for women and survivors of domestic violence was started.
I don't think that without those structures we would be lost violent. Actually, I think it would give us the space and the time to do that really deep work with each other—that deep relational work that so much of the time we are too busy [for] and don't have the capacity [for], because we have to go to work, do childcare, balance all of these different things.
Aviah: In pop culture, there are very few examples of utopian or non-hierarchical futures. [They're all] fundamentally dystopian and scary. I think this serves a function to make people feel like challenging what is going on is not worth it, because it's all going to descend into chaos.
mj: This zombie apocalypse dystopia doesn't ring true for my reality of the world, where people are struggling and forced into desperate situations, but still choosing to try and take care of themselves and each other.
Woods Ervin: Shows like this [purposefully] dramatize and sensationalize the individualistic and competitive orientation of late-stage capitalism—and then pinkwash it.
What does an alternative future look like instead?
mj: I want to refer to my favorite book, which is The Dispossessed by Ursula Gwynn, because it does a really incredible job at being able to imagine what that could potentially look like. It's this idea that we still have to live at one with the land… we still have to build and construct; educate and learn; play and have fun. And all of those things still require some level of organization and labor to create them.
I imagine the future as a place where we all have housing, we all have food, we all have places to play, we all have ways of expressing ourselves. There's no ownership, which means there's no need for money. How do we do that? I suppose even distribution of labor and making sure we rotate the harder shitty work. There are still going to be conflicts, there are still going to be difficult conversations to navigate. In fact, there's still going to be harm. But it's like, what do we do with that then, how does a community come together to support people who are in conflict? We would address it without punishment.
Kelsey: When we as a society prioritize people being able to access not just their basic needs, but abundance—when people have options, fulfilling things to do, choices, space for themselves and communal space, access to health care—we'll have that time to really spend time building trusting, meaningful, fulfilling relationships with each other, and dealing with problems in much more generative and transformative ways.
Woods Ervin: At Critical Resistance, we work in community with people who are most impacted [by state violence and the prison industrial complex] toward a world where people have what they need, in order to achieve and maintain wellbeing in a way that is specific to each community. And those things are concrete things, like housing, food, water, schools, meaningful work, resources, and the ability to move unencumbered and collective self-determination.
How do we get there?
Aviah Day: Nothing short of revolution is gonna get us there. The people who are currently in charge have money and power, and they're not going to give it up lightly. There's this concept of building power through workers' strikes or rent strikes. But then the other side of it is learning what the structures are and how things are run, so that you're linking together with different kinds of workers that all have that understanding andt when that moment comes, it's not going to be like, "Oh, we took over the reins of power, but we don't know how to run things."
Woods Ervin: Critical Resistance uses the "dismantle, change, build" framework. We change hearts and minds, we change the relations of power, and we build up the institutions that are needed. And those things are happening simultaneously and in relationship to each other. It's helpful to think about abolition as a project, because the prison industrial complex is in motion—it's responding and reorganizing itself, and it's nimble. [In order to respond we need to constantly be asking ourselves]: Can we push further? Can we shrink them further? Can we shrink their power? Can we shift the resources? Can we shrink their tools, their tactics?
mj: I think we are getting there. It's about presence, not absence. So it's not just about burning down the prisons and abolishing the police; it's building and creating and imagining where there is absence at the moment, and how we build presence into those spaces. At a tangible level, as an example, on my estate in Leeds where I grew up, as kids we were bored, we had nothing to do, so we hung out on the streets and smoked some weed, and that kind of thing. People were frustrated and acting out, and my mum acknowledged there was an absence of something in that community, so she opened a community center at the bottom of my street and it immediately became a hub. Suddenly, everyone had somewhere where they felt safe, somewhere to have fun, somewhere where they could find friendship and community, somewhere they weren't lonely. From a physical perspective, it also provided shelter, food and warmth. You really don't have to look far for the answer. This is not rocket science.
Is an abolitionist world possible?
mj: Oh, yes. That's not even a question. It's not just possible—it's inevitable.
Aviah Day: Yeah, it's 100 percent possible to get there, whether it happens in my lifetime [or not]. If we think of Indigenous communities, before forced assimilation, they were run on non-hierarchical principles. I think that it's absolutely possible, and we have examples of it.
Woods Ervin: I do think it's possible to get there. Varying Indigenous societies throughout history have lived not under capitalism, without money in the way we conceptualize it as capital. I don't want to frame it as blind idealism. Ruth [Wilson Gilmore] has said something along the lines of, "I don't have the luxury of despair." The people that I cannot live without are being targeted and caged. So we have to get there if humanity is to survive on this planet.
A final note comes from organizer Andrea J. Ritchie, the author behind books like Invisible No More: Police Violence Against Black Women and Women of Color and co-founder of Interrupting Criminalization. "These are definitely questions central to abolitionist politics. Abolitionist scholars David Correia and Tyler Wall expertly take them on in their book Violent Order, in which they expose how narratives propagated in the context of the emergence, establishment, and preservation of racial capitalist states condition us to think of police and policing as what makes 'civilization' possible. They explore how copaganda frames the alternative, the 'natural order,' as chaotic, violent, and terrifying, when, in fact, it is the society that policing manufactures through enforcement of law in service of concentrating wealth and policing access to resources to maintain existing structures of power that is chaotic, violent, and characterized by immense suffering and deprivation."
"Not all copaganda is legible as such—shows like Yellowjackets and so many other films, stories, and sci-fi in this genre play a critical role in the process of convincing us that a world without police is untenable. In No More Police [Ritchie's new book co-authored with Mariame Kaba], we talk about how a precursor to Yellowjackets, William Golding's Lord of the Flies, offers a similar view of humans as inherently evil, violent, and prone to descent into chaos in the absence of an order manufactured and maintained by policing, constraining the imaginations of generations across the English speaking world."
"It is really striking that the fictional story of Lord of the Flies is mandatory reading, but not the countless real stories that undermine this narrative—like the one about a group of Tongan teens stranded on an island for 18 months who survived and met their material needs through cooperation, mutual accountability and reciprocity, without structures of policing and punishment—or visionary fiction offerings that can open our imaginations to what a world in which everyone's needs are met, everyone has what they need reach their human potential in ways that are accessible and sustainable, and we all have the skills we need to prevent, interrupt, heal and transform harm might look and feel like. We get there by learning about and practicing those stories and visions every day, and building power to create a world in which they are the norm."