Shirley Jackson’s 1962 gothic novel We Have Always Lived in the Castle begins with narrator and teen murderess Merricat Blackwood introducing herself to the reader. Defiantly confounding the expectations associated with middle-class American girlhood, Merricat tells us that “with any luck at all I could have been born a werewolf, because the two middle fingers on both my hands are the same length.” Enumerating her various idiosyncratic interests, Merricat explains that while she likes her older sister and death-cup mushrooms, she dislikes “washing myself, and dogs, and noise.” Merricat is a strange and beguiling narrator, not only because of her dark inclinations, but also because of her profound appreciation for the natural world. However, her fascination with nature is not limited to delicate flowers or neatly ordered gardens, but instead encompasses all things feral, dirty and poisonous. Nature, to her, is not a placid, idealised paradise – it has teeth. Created prior to the emergence of second-wave feminism in the latter half of the 1960s, the character of Merricat rejects the silence and passivity required of mid-century American girls through violence, wildness and intransigent animality. Two decades later, Angela Carter’s short story “The Company of Wolves” imagined Little Red Riding Hood refusing her perennial victimhood (“she knew she was nobody’s meat”) and finding both liberation and erotic pleasure “between the paws of the tender wolf.”

There’s something undeniably enticing, even pleasurable, in these stories of girls refusing silence, obedience and propriety. Stripping off their restrictive gowns, running wild through the woodlands, or rejecting the tyranny of cleanliness, Jackson’s Merricat and Carter’s Little Red refuse domestication. They become feral, escaping the captivity of the home and the repression of familial relations. In many ways, these wild girls express, and even prefigure, the concerns of second-wave feminists like Gayle Rubin and Marilyn Frye, both of whom understood sexual oppression as a kind of domestication or “breaking” of the human animal. For them, to become feral, or revert to an animalistic state, is to free oneself from patriarchal bonds. Teenage girls often find themselves exposed to a process of socialisation that teaches them to behave politely, rein in their bodies, deny their impulses and smile for others. To run in the dirt, to hunt and forage, to bite and scratch – all of these actions suggest a physicality and an agency frequently denied to young women.

“The Company of Wolves” artwork by Chris Hagan

The wild girls of Jackson and Carter clearly embody the concerns of their unique social moments, the post-World War II romanticisation of domesticity and the subsequent feminist desire to escape the confines of the home. Yet, even now, feral girls persist. We find them in short stories like Suzy McKee Charnas’s “Boobs” (1989) and in films like Ginger Snaps (2000), both tales of pubertal female werewolves. More recently, the final months of 2021 and the early part of 2022 saw the release of two distinct, yet equally brutal, stories about wild girls who, severed from the strictures of civilisation, create their own communities in the wilderness. The first of these, and perhaps the better known, is Ashley Lyle and Bart Nickerson’s incredible survival horror series Yellowjackets, which premiered on the Showtime network on November 14th, 2021. The second is 21-year-old filmmaker Avalon Fast’s disturbing and dreamy Honeycomb, a film that had its debut at the 2022 Slamdance festival. In Yellowjackets and Honeycomb, isolation from society and conventional gendered power dynamics empowers young girls to cast off the constraints that previously determined their behaviour and create a new world that is both terrible and beautiful.

Yellowjackets (2021)

Set in both 1996 and the present day, Yellowjackets centres on a US high-school soccer team whose plane crashes in the remote Canadian wilds during the mid-nineties. Stranded for nineteen months, the girls shed old identities and expectations to become something entirely new. Between the first episode, where the girls’ personalities and relationships are established, and the finale, when we see them – having transformed into a howling, predatory pack – offering blood to the forest, the young women undergo a stunning, unsettling metamorphosis. Hints and flashforwards in the first episode indicate that these transformations will culminate in pagan rituals and cannibalism. Yet, when we meet the surviving girls, now middle-aged women, in the present day, it seems that while their time in the wilderness was brutal and traumatic, it was also liberating and transformative. In 2021, Shauna (Melanie Lynskey), a survivor who is now a housewife living a prosaic suburban existence, finds respite from the mundanity of family life by killing, skinning and cooking a rabbit she finds among her flower beds. Such moments of unconstrained savagery appear to open up a brief window of subversion, providing Shauna with a strange, barbaric pleasure. Likewise, back in 1996, “poodle-haired freak” Misty (Sammi Hanratty), whom we meet in episode one watching with calm detachment as a rat drowns in her swimming pool, discovers that the wilderness provides a space in which she can explore her barely repressed violent impulses.

Misty (Sammi Hanratty) watches a rat drown in her pool in episode 1 of Yellowjackets

Parallel themes of transformation and the ambivalent nature of savagery define Honeycomb. Similarly focused on a group of teenage girls, Honeycomb depicts a break from society under less dramatic circumstances. Here, the girls simply abandon their jobs, homes and families to live in a remote cabin discovered by Willow (Sophie Bawks-Smith), who tells her friends that “I strayed from the path a little, and I found something.” In their everyday lives the young women at the heart of the film appear to exist as the bottom of their social hierarchy, rendered powerless in both their menial jobs and their relationships with men. Once they abscond to the cabin, the girls cast off their inhibitions. They hunt for food, traversing the woods with bows and arrows, and they institute a new social order centred around the ideal of “suitable revenge”, whereby the wronged party selects what they believe to be an appropriate punishment. In one disturbing incident, a girl named Jules (Jillian Frank) has her eye put out after she breaks a pair of glasses belonging to Leader (Destini Stewart). Such acts of violence are uncomfortable, as are the many strange rules and rituals the girls devise to govern their new society. Yet, at the same time, their reversion to a feral state liberates the girls from the cultural expectation that, as young women, they remain eternally compliant, agreeable and sweet. When Millie (Rowan Wales) quits her fast-food service job to join the other girls in the woods, she explains that “I don’t like to serve people.” Moreover, once the girls establish the new community, their boyfriends – once the dominant figures in their social group – begin to fear them. With a mixture of awe and terror in their voices, the boys observe that girls now hunt, kill and eat wild animals.

The Girls of Honeycomb (2022)

Yellowjackets and Honeycomb are both nuanced explorations of girlhood, adolescent relationships and violence. Both works seem deeply aware of the complexity of adolescent femininity and the often-byzantine rules that govern its relations. It seems fitting, then, that both works employ images associated with bees and wasps as their governing metaphors. These insects are, after all, notorious for both their complex social structures and their powerful stings. The series Yellowjackets is named for a type of predatory wasp that lives in colonies. All female yellowjackets are capable of stinging. Images of bees also dominate Honeycomb, reflecting the elaborately ordered but ultimately fragile social hierarchy the girls inhabit. As their discarded boyfriends explain during one telling scene, worker bees choose their queen, but they can also choose to kill her at any time and replace her with a new queen.

The Yellowjackets cannibal feast

The isolated communities portrayed in Yellowjackets and Honeycomb develop into complex, often unstable, hierarchies that reflect, darkly, the stratified nature of teenage social groups. Yet, in contrast to both pop psychology and many mainstream representations of high-school girls, these works do not depict female aggression as relational, characterised by gossip, manipulation and bullying. Rather, these young women refuse the largely passive forms of aggression normally associated with teen girls and choose instead to embrace violence. In Yellowjackets, we clearly see this shift from socially acceptable modes of teen girl aggression to frenzied violence unfold over the course of the first season. In the pilot episode the girls argue, call each other names and even “freeze out” a teammate who has not been pulling her weight. By the final episode, when the icy Canadian winter arrives with the threat of a more literal freezing, the girls have begun to employ far more brutal regimes of punishment for those who transgress against their rules. Likewise, Honeycomb sees its teen protagonists exchange social violence for physical aggression, as they seek revenge on the bodies of those who offend against the new order.

In Honeycomb Jules loses an eye when she breaks the group’s rules

Predictably, given their representation of teenagers surviving alone in the wilderness, both Honeycomb and Yellowjackets have drawn comparisons with William Golding’s 1954 novel Lord of the Flies. Honeycomb even anticipates such parallels when one of the boys observes that their girlfriends are “on some sort of Lord of the Flies shit.” Yet, while Golding’s novel utilises the theme of isolation to comment on the tension between social bonds and individualism, as well as the interconnection between savagery and civilisation, Honeycomb and Yellowjackets are far more subversive works. Lord of the Flies depicts a group of boys descending into savagery, and though their barbarity is sometimes shocking, their violence is in keeping with standard conceptions of masculinity. In Yellowjackets and Honeycomb, the girls’ behaviour is not only shocking, but it deviates sharply from how teenage girls are supposed to comport themselves. For the most part, the girls of Yellowjackets adapt swiftly to the woods. Anti-social “burnout” Natalie (Sophie Thatcher) assumes an important role as one of the group’s two primary hunters, while shy and reserved Shauna (Sophie Nélisse) reveals an unexpected capacity for brutality when she volunteers to bleed and skin a deer. From being ordinary teenage girls, regularly undermined and underestimated, the Yellowjackets girls evolve into something far more animalistic. Their increasingly feral nature is perhaps most apparent in the opening episode’s flashforwards, where the girls are shown months in the future dressed in furs and eating human flesh. However, we also glimpse their burgeoning animality the penultimate episode “Doomcoming”, as the group recreates the high-school tradition of homecoming in their remote woodland refuge. Weaving together leaves, animal fur and bones for their costumes, the girls appear like appear like werewolves or mythical woodland creatures. Their girlhood is no longer delicate or pristine, it is defined by dirt, decay and shaggy pelts.

Yellowjackets, episode 9, “Doomcoming”

Yellowjackets and Honeycomb are compelling, intoxicating visions of adolescent girlhood. Both works foreground the violent impulses of young women as they are unleashed amidst the isolation and the freedom of the wilderness. Essentially transgressive, these texts imagine how, freed from the constraints of social expectation, girls might take pleasure in dirt, violence and chaos. With no one to tell them to smile or be quiet, girls might develop claws and teeth. They might discover something liberating in the process of becoming wild. There is, both works suggest, a danger and cruelty involved in embracing a feral nature. In Honeycomb, this cruelty manifests in scenes where the girls mutilate and mistreat those who transgress against their rules. Likewise, in Yellowjackets, the girls’ acquiescence to the wild leads them to abuse and denigrate the few male survivors who inhabit the woods alongside them and to punish other women who fail to uphold the group’s mandates. Becoming wild is painful, cruel and ultimately traumatic. Yet, at the same time, the young women in Yellowjackets and Honeycomb discover something satisfying and transformative beyond the boundaries of civilisation. In their animality, the girls become savage, but that savagery is tinged with beauty, desire and freedom.

Bibliography

Kelly Struthers Montford and Chloë Taylor, “Guest Editorial: Feral Theory”, Feral Feminisms, issue 6, https://feralfeminisms.com/feralintroduction/