Yorick Brown and Women After Mass Descruction

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So, I was a little late to this game.

Nearly 12 years late, to be more precise.

But I finally was introduced to Y: the Last Man, a comic book series that follows the story of Yorick, the last man on Earth after a mysterious plague wipes out every other male on the planet in an instant, and his Capuchin monkey (also a uniquely surviving male), Ampersand. He’s hoping to find his fiancée who was in Australia when the “plague” hit, but before he can get there, he’s obliged to let top scientist & cloning expert Dr. Allison Mann trace what might’ve made him & Ampersand immune; and secret agent “355” is assigned to help them get from D.C. to Mann’s lab in California.

The comic (created by Brian K. Vaughan & Pia Guerra) is apparently was originally released as monthly & bimonthly serials from September 2002 through March 2008. But, I blazed through the 10-volume edition in about 2 days.

(This would explain my initial confusion over the pacing — it takes place over the course of about 5 years, but it took me a little while to grasp that).

The series is referred to throughout the interwebs as “beloved”, and mixed sighs of relief & groans of despair emerged this January when the years-long attempt to turn it into a movie seemed to have officially failed. It has a strong, loyal following, and many fans have since endorsed Vaughan’s current series, Saga (including our very own Stewart Self).

However, I was completely unaware of its fan following, reputation, or that Vaughan was at all involved with Saga when I picked up Volume 1 last week. My boyfriend had been suggesting it for months, but I hadn’t gotten around to it yet.

The scenario propelling the story really is fascinating — it asks us, what would literally happen to modern society if all the males died? As the kind of “foreword” to Volume 2 points out,

  • 495 of the Fortune 500 CEOs are now dead
  • 99% of all mechanics, electricians, and construction workers are now deceased
  • Israel is the only country with a wide range of skilled soldiers still alive (none of the US army’s 200,000 female troops have ever participated in ground combat, and only 13 nations besides Israel trained them to see any)
  • Worldwide, 85% of all government representatives are now dead
  • Though 51% of the planet’s agricultural labor force is still alive

In the series itself, these statistics & the “plague” create some interesting specifics:

  • The new US president is the former Secretary of Agriculture — everyone above her in the line of succession was male
  • Supermodels have found new jobs — one is a mortician & body collector for the government
  • The US congress is now suddenly almost entirely Democrats (though the wives of deceased Republican congressmen want to change that by succeeding their husbands’ seats)
  • Geopolitical power is determined almost entirely by what military roles women happened to be allowed into before the plague
From p. 48 in Volume 6

From p. 48 in Volume 6

I was intrigued, for sure. The first volume piqued my interest, enough even to carry me through some eye-roll-inducing moments in 2 & 3 (“[Motorcycles] are tougher to score than Double-A batteries for your vibrator, lady.”) and straw-man feminists (the Daughters of the Amazon cult is especially noxious, but in hindsight maybe it’s realistic & interesting that terrorists would co-opt such a loaded title).

Even with the eye-rolls I endured at moments in Volumes 2 & 3, I was hooked by the end of Volume 4.

Despite the comic’s title, the story isn’t really about Yorick, the “Last Man”. And, to be honest, he isn’t even the most interesting character (I rank him at #4 on my personal list). In this way, he reminds me of Piper Chapman on Orange is the New Black — he & Piper are the trails we follow as the reader (or viewer), but they really serve as a conduit to introduce us to other, more interesting characters’ paths along the way. The series is really about women; not men, or even one man.

And what a well-developed, complex, and compelling bunch of women they are!

My top “interesting character” is Agent 355, a sort of extra covert agent from a historic government security ring who is escorting Yorick & Dr. Mann in their journey. Through multiple flashbacks sprinkled believably throughout the 5-year story arc (and this is another way it reminds me of Orange is the New Black), we come to understand a fair bit of what made Agent 355 who she is today. Her personality and her motives are not neatly packaged & served up as an inevitable product of her experiences, however — she has her own agency and makes her own choices as an individual, not just as an agent, nor just as a woman. We see her character turn from reluctant to willing killer, and then in a way circle back again.

355

Next on my list would be “Alter” Tse’elon, an Israeli Defense Forces Colonel who becomes the de facto Chief of the General Staff, and appears up throughout the series, across multiple continents. Her motivations are mysterious; she makes up her own moral code and refuses to deviate from it, to the point of becoming a very flawed character (but flawed is real; realer than the Strong Female Character Trope, I’d say). And I think she is her own unique, complex brand of disturbed. Think Dexter Morgan or Macchiavelli’s Prince, perhaps.

Alter discusses her plans with her compatriot Sadie on page 61 of Volume 3.

Alter discusses her plans with her compatriot Sadie on page 61 of Volume 3.

Third, I choose “Beth #2” on my “interesting character” list. She’s a determined survivor, and uses her well-honed savviness & empathy to successfully interact with potential threats & allies around her. She’s a former flight attendant and a lapsed Catholic, yet she shelters herself in a church through most of the series. And, honestly, she just seems cool.

Beth isn’t exactly religious these days, but she isn’t ready to dismiss everything the Church ever stood for.

Beth isn’t exactly religious these days, but she isn’t ready to dismiss everything the Church ever stood for.

There are other characters I found fascinating — Dr. Allison Mann, who was on the verge of cloning a human when the plague struck and may be the only way to figure out what spared Yorick; Yorick’s confused, angry-yet-penitent sister Hero; a lesbian Australian spy named Rose, and even the aforementioned ex-supermodel-turned-mortician, Waverly. But those earlier three are at the tip-top of my list.

Yorick himself is not a flimsy character, I should point out. Yes, he can be immature & annoying at first (he is just a 22-year-old when it starts, after all), but if you read further into the series (ahem, Volume 4…) you realize this is an intentional and temporary choice by the creators.

An element I find fascinating about Y the Last Man is how humans need to find a cause & reason for this “plague” — to the point of even creating a new mythology to explain it.

The Daughters of the Amazon (my least favorite part of the series, as I found them to be rather straw-man feminist-y with weird, brainwashing/predatory lesbianism aspects) have concluded that Mother Earth saw fit to purge herself of the mutant males. The newly populated “Sons of Arizona” believe it’s a conspiracy by the Federal government in order to usurp states’ rights, and that a shadow government is lying in wait. A tiny, ancient Vatican order believes God wants the church to pull the world out of this new “dark” age through a second Virgin birth.

The remaining populace seems desperate to find a way to explain, and maybe even justify, what has happened — and to justify their own responses to the crisis.

355 trying, unsuccessfully, to reason with the new “Sons of Arizona”

355 trying, unsuccessfully, to reason with the new “Sons of Arizona”

The way women choose to react — or react despite their best efforts — to this new world varies widely. Looting & pillaging is rampant at first across much of the world, but some communities (like the released convicts from a women’s prison) shape a successful society almost immediately. Many women turn to self-medicating or suicide. Some attempt to (almost literally) fill the exact roles that men filled (like the women joining the “Sons of Arizona” or the Republican congressmen’s wives who want to take over their seats). Others proclaim to reject everything about patriarchal society, but seem to fail miserably at doing so (the Daughters of the Amazon). Still others are content to take what they like from the old world & abandon what no longer works, without worrying over anything but what feels right to them in this new time.

Waverly, the supermodel-turned-mortician, decided to create new traditions for her new job & society.

Waverly, the supermodel-turned-mortician, decided to create new traditions for her new job & society.

What I appreciate about Y: The Last Man is that the comic doesn’t say that there’s a “right way” for women to respond to the tragedy, nor a “right” way to shape the new society. We don’t get the answers to all our questions in the end, and therefore we don’t get the easy out of knowing who to blame. Life was complicated before all but one of the men died, and it stayed complicated and confusing after. Everyone is still a little bit right and a little bit wrong (well, maybe some people are a lot a bit wrong) yet it’s clear how everyone can believe they’re the hero of their own story — not just Yorick. He’s just the vehicle to let them tell their stories.

Panem: A Land Without Sexism?

Extremely few spoilers — really, if you’ve seen the trailer, you’re gonna be fine.

Have you seen the latest installment in the Hunger Games film adaptation?

I caught it on Sunday, and hot damn, was it worth getting out of bed even while I was sick! It was exciting, it was thrilling, it was poignant, it had great action sequences and acting, and the special effects were top-notch.

But what I think is most important about “Catching Fire” is what it’s missing.

I’ll explain in a moment.

First, an explanation for those of you who aren’t familiar with the series:

In Panem, a post-nuclear-apocalyptic rearrangement of North America, a dystopian society reigns. The land was divided into 13 districts and the Capitol, and 75 years ago the districts rebelled against their government. After regaining control, the Capitol instituted an annual competition to remind the districts of the price of the peace they now “enjoy”; each year 24 teenage tributes (a boy and girl from each remaining district) must fight each other to the death. Only one is supposed to win, but in the first installment Katniss Everdeen and Peeta Mellark from coal-mining, poverty-stricken District 12 outwitted the Game Master and managed to win the Hunger Games together, by play-acting a sympathetic love story.

The residents of the Capitol, extraordinarily decadent and oblivious to the despair and poverty most of the districts live with, consider the pair their darlings, and they are forced to act out their romance even after the Games end, much to the chagrin of Katniss’s childhood companion Gale, who harbors his own romantic feelings for the heroine. The people of the districts, however, don’t buy the love story and see their defiance of the Hunger Games as inspiration for a rebellion against the capitol — the manipulative President Snow then must try to turn the pair, and all other previous winners of the games, into a warning instead of a symbol of hope.

(On the same page, now? Great!)

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Gender-Neutral War

On the surface, this series could be very similar to a lot of action movies with female leads. We’ve got a love triangle. We’ve got an oppressive government trying to keep whole sections of the populace down. And we’ve got a woman warrior.

But in “Catching Fire”, there’s a notable absence that distinguishes it from many of these “Strong Female Character” films:

Katniss’ gender is not one of the film’s fixations.

“Catching Fire”, therefore, becomes refreshing in one of the same ways that “Parks & Recreation” is: yes, Katniss is very different from most female characters (even protagonists) we see today, so it’s a big deal to us. But her casting-off of feminine stereotypes (and the complementary peeling away of men’s as well) is not an issue within the film itself at all.

It is not startling to anyone in Panem that she is a female who behaves this way. She does not have to prove to people that she deserves to be taken seriously (as a hunter, as a warrior, or as a rebel) despite her gender. She is not held up against a bar of femininity that she must either measure up to or karate-chop out of the way.

Yes, the people in the Capitol want to mold her into something she isn’t, but the mold is based on classist perspectives, not gender stereotypes.

It’s nice to see that even Gale, the brawny, more traditionally masculine type in the film, doesn’t expect Katniss to do anything especially feminine (by our standards). Nor does he try to change her to be so. He never begs her to stop getting herself into trouble, nor is he frustrated that she won’t let him protect her from the harsh world (ahem, Twilight).

Pleasantly, the inverse is also true: men in Panem don’t seem to be held to any traditionally masculine standard of physical strength, aloofness, or anger.

Gale does not express any embarrassment at being physically rescued by Katniss. No one mocks Peeta as being “soft” or “girly” because he’s a mediocre fighter, bakes shortbread cookies, and is essentially Katniss’s movie girlfriend.

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I’ll take a pass on saucy wenches, thank you.

Not even the slimy, nefarious types like the career tributes, President Snow, or Game Maker Plutarch make any easy jabs at Katniss’s femininity or stereotypes of women or men.

And this is what makes “Catching Fire” stand out — it would have been so. friggin’. easy. to just follow that tradition. A script hatched in the more traditional bowels of Hollywood would’ve taken many more cliché opportunities:

Career tributes could have made some snarky comment to Peeta about being protected by “his girl”, and then we could’ve spent part of the film worrying that it was going to bother him and that he was going to do something foolish in an attempt to prove his masculinity. (Bo-ring).

Or we could’ve seen President Snow, in the scene where he taunts Katniss in her own home, say with a sinister smirk, “You’ll be much more content as a happy wife and homemaker back here instead of stirring up trouble.” He could’ve tried to put her in her place not only as poor person from District 12, but as a woman, too.

Of course, then Katniss could’ve made some saucy retort… which would have gotten laughs, but would be trite and insipid compared to what the absence of such an exchange signifies.

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What a b****?

The absence of cheap sexist pandering is carried even farther in a notable absence in the villains’ treatment of Katniss:

No one ever calls Katniss a “bitch”.

It would even have been easy for people to disregard this gender-based slur if it had been in the dialogue. Had the writers tossed it in, I doubt many people would have commented on it, and those who did would have been quickly shut down: “Of course they called her a bitch; they want to kill her! That’s the least of her problems.”

But the decision not to use it means so much more than its presence would have meant.

“Catching Fire” makes the choice to pass on the opportunity to drop this word, in even the villains’ speech. To use it would have been a cheap way to convey their hatred to the audience, and implied that her gender inspires part of their hate. No one, not even President Snow, considers her gender when evaluating her, whether as a threat or a hero.

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A sexism immunity incubator?

But even if someone did try to hurl “bitch” at Katniss, I don’t think it could have carried the weight it usually does.

Because, in order for such an insult to wound, there must be a fear within the victim that it might be true.

Calling a female character a “bitch” can be a harsh, wounding thing to say in most stories — because the women in them have learned to harbor fears that they really are nothing more than “some bitch”. This fear is often deeply-ingrained in both fictional and real women, and it’s this fear that makes us vulnerable to that word’s power to do harm.

Yet, Katniss harbors no such fear or self-doubt. Katniss has such a sense of self-worth, of identity, and of strength that she could not be stricken by such a ridiculous attempt to hurt her. There are of course other things that can hurt her, or make her doubt herself, but it takes much more than sexism to do it.

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Catching on?

By never even considering how her behavior, decisions, or actions would be viewed through a sexism-supporting paradigm, I think Katniss does much more for women’s self-esteem and confidence in their individual identity than a character who constantly brings up how stereotype-defying she is. As in “Parks and Recreation,” it’s the absence of sexism that makes the loudest statement.

(And the men in the film do much for this goal as well, though as secondary characters this absence cannot be as strongly felt).

Katniss is a character that’s invulnerable to sexism. Not because she had to choose to fight it, but because what it entails is so absurd to her that she could never be vulnerable to it. Even the villains treat her as an individual, rather than as a tired stereotype. There is no part of her that could worry that sexist critics (if they existed) would be right about her or about her value as a human being.

This lack of sexism, both internal and external, is perhaps the only redeeming quality of the dystopic Panem society, which otherwise turns a magnifying glass on the rest of our own society’s flaws: extreme wealth disparities, a lack of resources for the mentally ill, willed ignorance, consumerism, gluttony, and the inescapable cycle of poverty.

So while people are out and about getting excited about Catching Fire-themed makeup selections (ugh), the part of Panem I think we should really apply in our own world is the characters’ invulnerability to the pressures — and sometime cruelty — of sexism and gender stereotypes.

And who knows, maybe one day Hollywood can actually make money off that.

(Oh wait, it did).

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For further reading:

NPR: “What Really Makes Katniss Stand Out? Peeta, Her Movie Girlfriend.”

RogerEbert.com review of “The Hunger Games: Catching Fire”

Ms. Magazine blog: “‘Catching Fire’: Positive Fuel for the Feminist Flame”

Reel Girl: “‘Catching Fire’ torches Hollywood’s gender stereotypes”

(BTW — don’t read the comments. They’re dumb).