Showtime’s Yellowjackets has a wonderfully queer list of characters and several key LGBTQ+ cast members. While the characters’ queerness isn’t shied away from, it is often not the central point of the plot. This incidental representation of queer identities is part of a larger shift in TV and film over the past few years, but aspects of Yellowjackets’ portrayals make it clear that we are entering the next phase of LGBTQ+ representation in television.
Yellowjackets follows the fictional events of a plane crash in 1996 that strands a high school girls’ soccer team—along with their assistant coach and his sons—in the wilderness. It takes 19 months for the group to be rescued and in that time they make extreme decisions as they strive to survive against forces natural and supernatural. Meanwhile, a dual narrative shows four of the survivors in 2021 as they try to keep the truth of what happened in the wilderness hidden from mysterious individuals who threaten their new lives. The show, written and created by the married duo Ashley Lyle and Bart Nickerson, is noteworthy for its focus on a predominantly female cast.
Some spoilers for Yellowjackets season 1 lie ahead.
Tai & Van (1996)
The most well-developed queer relationship in Yellowjackets comes in the form of Taissa (Jasmin Savoy Brown) and Van’s (Liv Hewson) relationship in 1996. Some of the scenes before the trip hint at Taissa’s sexuality, but after the crash, the two have a growing relationship shown in glimpses here and there. The couple’s pairing ultimately culminates with Tai and Van attending the group’s morbid homecoming parody, “Doomcoming,” together in matching masks designed to hide Van’s scars before the two share a sex scene in the woods.
Setting the original crash in 1996 could have been an easy excuse to avoid including LGBTQ+ narratives in Yellowjackets as people were less open, but the inclusion helps to acknowledge that we’ve always been here.
While Tai and Van hide their relationship from the rest of the group until Doomcoming, theirs is not the only relationship that is concealed in 1996. Natalie (Sophie Thatcher) and Travis (Kevin Alves) also try to keep their budding romance a secret in a parallel to Tai and Van, implying that it is not the queer nature of their relationship that makes them want to keep it secret, but rather simply not wanting other people’s opinions on their lives. This parallel between the two relationships drives home a crucial point about all of this portrayal: Yellowjackets could have easily not included any queer relationships here.
Tai and Van’s relationship could have been effectively narratively identical without being a queer relationship by simply writing another cis male character into the list of survivors. Setting the original crash in 1996 could have been an easy excuse to avoid including LGBTQ+ narratives in Yellowjackets as people were less open, but the inclusion helps to acknowledge that we’ve always been here. The fact that it wasn’t necessary to the wider plot for this to be an LGBTQ+ relationship makes it clear that a conscious decision was made to include it, and it helps to make Yellowjackets an important landmark in the queer media journey.
Taissa & Simone (2021)
The relationship between the adult Taissa (Tawny Cypress) and her wife, Simone (Rukiya Bernard), is not as well-developed in Yellowjackets season 1 as Tai’s teenage relationship with Van. However, it still serves the important purpose of providing an important perspective on Yellowjackets’ LGBTQ+ representation. The first part of this is a matter of consistency: by showing Taissa’s relationship 25 years later (and mentioning the many women she dated in college), it helps the show to avoid any possible implications that Taissa’s sexuality as a teen is a phase or is driven as a temporary solution to being isolated with primarily female prospects, as has too often been suggested of teenagers’ sexualities.
The second important aspect of this Yellowjackets portrayal in 2021 is that Taissa, Simone, and Sammy (Aiden Stoxx) represent an established queer family unit on television. Even as other aspects of LGBTQ+ representation have improved, queer families are still far too unusual to see. What makes this depiction even more significant is that their family life is allowed to be messy. It’s not messy because it’s LGBTQ+ (as would have been the case not too long ago as a holdover from the Hay’s Code) but because of who Taissa is as a person; her need to be in control of situations alone, and the struggles that she is going through making her feel like she might put her family at risk. Just as with the Taissa and Van romance, this family dynamic could have been substituted for a cishet character set without making any particular changes to the narrative, but the choice to include the characters as incidentally queer is another part of this big step forwards.
Yellowjackets’ Queer Casting
Just as important as the LGBTQ+ representation in the characters of Yellowjackets is the queer representation in the cast itself. While some of the actors in queer roles are not openly LGBTQ+ and might be cishet, several key roles are held by queer actors. Jasmin Savoy Brown identifies herself as queer and is in a long-term relationship with the actress Camille Killion.
Taissa, Simone, and Sammy (Aiden Stoxx) represent an established queer family unit on television.
The Yellowjackets cast also boasts two non-binary actors whose roles in the show raise some interesting questions. Jane Widdop, who plays Laura Lee, uses they/them pronouns, but their character is referred to as female throughout. Similarly, Liv Hewson is nonbinary, and while Van does tend towards more masculine presentation (most notable in Van’s “Doomcoming” attire of pants and vest alongside Tai’s dress), Van is also referred to as female and presumed to be cisgender. It is hard to say how much these decisions were influenced by the setting in 1996, a time when nonbinary identities were less well-known to many people, or whether the characters are truly intended to be cisgender. It would be interesting to see whether Van has survived until 2021 and might have come out as non-binary later in life; however, even if not, this portrayal helps to give greater exposure to nonbinary actors without pigeon-holing them or forcing questions of whether it is realistic to represent two or more out-non-binary characters in a 1996 setting.
Ben & Paul (1996)
The portrayal of Tai and Van’s relationship and the general acceptance that the pair receive from their peers might raise some questions about how accepted queer identities really were in 1996 and whether this portrayal is genuine. However, Yellowjackets doesn’t dodge this question, while also not making it a defining focus of the show.
Ben Scott (Steven Kruegar) loses his leg in the plane crash and ends up receiving the unwanted attention of Misty (Samantha Hanratty). While the fact that Ben is gay is clearly not the only reason that he is not interested in Misty’s advances, the presence of him as a character is crucial. The conversation between Ben and Natalie by the river where she acknowledges his sexuality demonstrates the fear he has to face of being outed and losing his job, even though people like Nat are accepting. When he confesses his sexuality to Misty, he also announces it in a triumphant rebuke to the sky as he comes out to his parents, God, and the universe by proxy. All of this acknowledges the negative side of being queer in the 1990s, while the conversation that Ben shares with Tai and Van at Doomcoming, where he recognizes the bravery of what they did, helps to set up the idea of a hopeful future where all of these people might be themselves (if they don’t get eaten by wolves or other survivors).
Yellowjackets Walks a Delicate Queer Representation Line
All of these portrayals allow Yellowjackets to walk a very delicate line. The TV show leads with the conscious decision to include queer characters who could easily have been cishet and places them in a historical period (yes, I’m calling the 90s a historical period, sorry!) without whitewashing the reality of the time. There’s been a larger shift towards incidental queerness is in media, and Yellowjackets and its popularity is a sign that we’ve taken the next step as it allows for LGBTQ+ characters to exist in a story without being there as part of an LGBTQ+ plot. None of these characters needed to be queer to make the show work, but they are there because we’ve always been here.♦