Queer Girls in The Wilds: Refusing White Feminism's Settler Colonial Fantasy

May 22, 2021   •   By Hannah Manshel, Margaret A. Miller

The Amazon original series, The Wilds, begins with a simple and perhaps even reductive premise: Lord of the Flies, but make it (white) feminist. Whiteness lurks in the background of this show about eight “troubled” teenage girls who believe they are attending a feminist retreat in Hawai’i called the Dawn of Eve only for their plane to abruptly “crash” land on a remote island. That island is presented to viewers as completely empty of human life, and viewers, if not the girls, soon realize that their presence on the island has been no accident. The Wilds both traffics in and plays off of a number of colonial-minded plot and genre conventions. There is the nod to the “wilderness survival” show, a la Survivor or Alone, in which a motley group is dropped in a remote location, usually figured as generically “wild” and “exotic,” without attention to the historical and geographical specificity of the place or the people who are Indigenous to it. And there’s the Robinson Crusoe trope in which a remote, ostensibly uninhabited island serves as the staging ground for the development of the good liberal subject. The two main constituencies in the show — the teenaged girls and the scientists, embodied by the icily dispassionate Gretchen (Rachel Griffiths), a white woman with a desperate faith in the objective truths to be gleaned from the controlled social experiment — make vastly different work of these tropes. Though we would not go so far as to argue that the show itself is a successful anti-colonial media endeavor, despite the creators’ obviously deliberate interracial casting, there are elements of the ways the girl respond to their predicament that offer something other than the neoliberal “girl power” settler state envisioned by the villainous white Gretchen and her multi-racial team of scientist underlings. The girls — two of whom are Indigenous, though not to the island on which they end up — exceed both Gretchen’s and the show’s attempts to capitalize on the supposed vacancy of this land. 

Gretchen, prototypical white settler feminist that she is, has no qualms about figuring this island (which we eventually learn is somewhere off the West coast of South America—a considerable distance from the retreat’s supposed location of Hawai’i Island) as terra nullius: vacant land on which to play out her social experiment, not so unlike the 17th-century English Puritans who hoped to create a new, untainted, holy community in what then was not yet Massachusetts. Gretchen positions the girls as simultaneously proto-colonial and ethnographic subjects: they are there to build a new society of exemplary female liberal subjects, supposedly free of the toxic-masculine violence of patriarchy. In Gretchen’s words, they are there to “discover a peaceful, female-driven model of governance.” And yet, their situation on the island in which they are surveilled, the viewers learn, by a feed projected from a network of cameras hidden within trees to multiple giant screens in Gretchen’s dystopian office headquarters, also resembles that of Indigenous, “primitive” people being observed and recorded by the all-knowing anthropologist. The girls are expected to “go native,” and only through this forced proximity to “savagery” can they become good liberal, self-governing female subjects.  

Patriarchy is not the only villain in this show; the combative and defensive second-wave white feminist who looks the other way at intersectionality, colonialism, and anti-racist movements, poses a particular threat to the teenage girls. Moody and cerebral Leah (Sarah Pidgeon), who serves as a stand-in for the viewer, finds herself on the island because she has fallen in love with a thirty-something white male author and spiraled into depression while blaming herself for the relationship’s disintegration. Her white mother downplays Leah’s distress, insisting that if a “private plane to the Big Island…doesn’t get you out of your funk, I don’t know what will.” The collation of American capitalism — “private plane” and settler colonialism — “the Big Island” rings acutely false as the appropriate setting for any sort of worthwhile feminism and for any tangible healing from girlhood trauma. (The “retreat’s” advertised location of the Big Island of Hawai’i indexes a widely-accepted willful ignorance of US empire, which sees Hawai’i not as a sovereign kingdom overthrown by the US government at the end of the 19th century, but solely as a paradise for female empowerment.) It is this feminism of an older generation that makes Fatin (Sophia Ali), a sex-positive Muslim cellist, roll her eyes, complaining: “I don’t even get feminism.” The girls collectively see past the glossy veneer of the cult-like welcome video where Gretchen, scientist at the helm of the feminist retreat qua nonconsensual social experiment, proclaims that “the Dawn of Eve literally waits for no man.”

The show itself wavers on the line between darkly satirizing white corporate feminism and participating in its millennial inheritor, the multicultural politics of inclusion. As one Amazon reviewer writes: “People need to stop throwing their political agenda’s into every damn thing getting produced now adays. We’re done, we’re tired of the BS. Not worth the waste of time, I see how SIW’s (social injustice warriors) could fall in love with this, and rant and rave about how refreshing it was…. But nope just another trope where some far lefter thinks that they know better than everyone else what we’re going to like….” [sic]. (1,597 users voted this review “helpful”). The show’s inclusion of two Indigenous characters (Toni and Martha, played by Erana James and Jenna Clause) is simultaneously an exciting moment for Native representation on television, and a nod to Gretchen’s liberal politics of inclusion, which is happy to cannibalize people of all identity categories into its white social ideal. We see the show’s knowingness about its own diversity politics in the opening episode: on the private-jet flight to the “retreat,” ever-perky Texan pageant queen Shelby (Mia Healey) suggests the girls “powwow” and get to know each other. “This white girl said powwow,” Toni says to Martha, under her breath. To which Martha responds “So?” “It’s not her word, you should be triggered,” continues Toni, indignantly. Martha continues to be nonplussed. This exchange simultaneously performs and spoofs the sort of “woke left agenda” the reviewer above disdains. 

Perhaps one of Gretchen’s subtlest neoliberal power moves comes from employing two women of color (Nora and Jeanette, played by Helena Howard and Chi Nguyen, respectively) as on-the-ground informants required to surveil, deceive, and maintain the other girls’ ignorance of the experiment at hand. Gretchen makes them both a promise to provide a “world that men don’t control” as if echoing the separatist sentiments of the 1970s/1980s which regularly rejected women of color who maintained allegiances to their racial communities and to anti-racist activism, implying gender oppression was the most dire and urgent injustice. The informant Jeanette (whose real name we eventually learn is Linh Bach), an Australian Asian graduate student, pays the ultimate price for allegiance to Gretchen. En route to the island, Jeanette suffers an internal injury that eventually leads to her death, which the girls must contend with as an event that Gretchen hubristically has not anticipated. As the girls bury Jeanette and memorialize her through a tribute singing of P!nk’s “Raise Your Glass” (her ringtone), Gretchen watches with glassy-eyed awe and confidently decides to move forward with the project. Jeanette, like so many women of color before her, becomes rendered disposable, a necessary casualty for the good of white settler feminism’s cause. 

Gretchen’s settler worldview cannot account for what the girls might want or need beyond mere survival. She focuses on their successes locating survival kits purposely placed by operatives or foraging for berries, but ignores types of hunger deemed excessive, namely: queer sex and queer desire. Twenty-two days on the island and after eating all of their rations, the girls soberly realize the plane they previously saw is not going to rescue them. Episode nine, notably, directed by the Navajo trans filmmaker Sydney Freeland, opens with an overture from Nora: “hunger is a force of nature.” The only kind of “hunger” that Gretchen and her team have apparently considered is that of food. Toni and Shelby, disappointed that they have already picked clean an area’s berries, forage for food and prepare themselves to hunt the seemingly singular goat on the island. At this point, hot-tempered Toni, ever the vocally queer girl, and pageant-femme Shelby, ever the timidly queer, but nonetheless brash one, have already confronted their love/hate and will-they/won’t-they romance with a kiss, but their physical intimacy has not gone much further, perhaps there being some “performance anxiety” Toni teases to Shelby as they trek. 

Prior to their looming first sexual encounter, Shelby and Toni stumble across a cornucopia of lychee trees. Instead of collecting the lychee and returning straight away to the group, Toni and Shelby indulge. Without a second thought they begin plucking the fruits off the tree, ravishing them with sucking lips, quite obviously foreshadowing the queer sex to come while legitimating sexual satiation as a response to dire hunger. Given the lack of control and the forcible coercion of the Dawn of Eve program, Toni asking Shelby if she is sure (about fucking) to which she replies she is, becomes the first moment of agency and erotic pleasure that neither patriarchy nor white settler feminism manufactures or produces — it exceeds logics of survival grounded in either heterosexual reproduction or in staving off physical death. 

In an episode about hunger and an absence of food, there is an abundance of touch. Mutuality and reciprocal care are essential uses of the erotic. As Leah’s obsessive certainty that the girls are not alone and that their being on the island is no accident gets the best of her, Fatin holds her in her arms, touching their foreheads together in a protective embrace. Nearby, Nora holds her sister Rachel, who just saved Leah from drowning, to her chest in a moment of sororal safety. Hunger does not only register a need for nutrition; it also indexes the body’s desire for intimacy as required sustenance to remain alive. Even when the episode does eventually return to the more obvious hunger plot, Martha — the vegan animal lover — is the one who decides to provide the girls’ next meals. When the girls retrieve the dead goat, Fatin quips “this must be what cave women felt like when their men came home with meat. Like, I am legit hot for you right now.” Though Fatin’s sexuality seems to mostly err on the straighter-side (though not entirely), her comment conflates sex and food, implying that being a provider (no gender needed) is a turn on.    

As a provider, Martha validates her identity as an Indigenous woman in a way that is neither legible to Gretchen nor marketable for her white liberal agenda, which foregrounds an ethnographic conception of “native-ness.” Martha not only enacts an ethics of care for the rest of the girls, she also embodies a practice of relating to non-human beings that is equally respectful and reciprocal. Despite feeling guilty about killing the goat, Martha’s animal knowledge, perhaps derived from her compassion and affection for them, allows her to perceive their encounter as one with dignity: “he was old you know, and I looked at his teeth after cause that’s how you can tell. Nine years old maybe.” Martha continues on, emphasizing a spiritual or even kinship connection to the goat rather than one based in white colonial logics of competition, mastery, domination or fitness: “he just wouldn’t stop following me. Like he wouldn’t leave me alone. And I got this feeling like he wanted me to do it, almost like he was asking me.” The goat’s life becomes a necessary trade for Martha’s, a sacrifice that does not subscribe to a human-animal hierarchy, but instead to one of age, identifying Martha’s healthy youth as worth protecting over an aged body that has already lived a relatively full life. In a play on the ethnographic subject/object dynamic set up by the scientists, Martha may appear to be tapping into either some sort of “mysticism” or “savage instinct” usually derogatorily associated with Indigenous cultures; however, Martha has not “gone native.” The editing of the goat-killing scene gives it a ritualistic quality: the narrative flickers between the past — showing her readying herself to perform the jingle dance for an Anishinabe competition — to the present—Martha, on the island, hoisting a large rock over the goat’s head. The traditional drumming and singing from the flashback carries over to the present, splicing the two temporally distinct moments into one linear development. In fact, as the camera pans behind a tree, Martha’s clothing switches to her traditional jingle dress. Her goat killing is not an enactment of a white fantasy of Native culture. Rather, in this moment, she has come to embody her Indigenous identity more confidently and resolutely.  

But these moments of anti-colonial resistance may be just that — moments. One of the most effectively unnerving elements of the show is the way in which Gretchen’s experiment, to some extent, works. Left alone on this island, this group of seemingly incompatible, “troubled” teenage girls do, in fact, find both individual healing and a sense of community. But under what pretenses and at what cost? In intercut flash-forward scenes, Gretchen’s investigator-therapist-henchmen interrogate the girls at a remote detention center where Gretchen’s team is holding them in isolation after their rescue. It seems, at the very least, that Gretchen and her team are more interested in retaining power than in facilitating further healing.  

By leaving the ending ambiguous as to whether Gretchen-the-villain has won, or if the girls have some means of escape, the producers may be attempting to capture a guaranteed audience for Season Two. But the broader politics of the ending begin to produce questions of narrative ownership (will Gretchen find ways to co-opt the girls’ stories and their healing?), suggesting that even if they do eventually escape, will they, like many survivors, lose control of their trauma and their healing through legal and carceral discourses and infrastructures always already built on colonial frameworks of dislocation and dispossession?