Where the Boys Aren’t

By Elizabeth AlsopNovember 3, 2023

Where the Boys Aren’t
AT THE CENTER of Greta Gerwig’s box-office smash Barbie (2023) is Barbieland, a candy-colored paradise in which the Barbies live, lightly work, and play. And dance, of course, as they do in an unforgettable musical number, set in Stereotypical Barbie’s Dreamhouse, during which the Kens stand awkwardly to one side. From the start, it’s clear that this is Barbie’s world—Ken just lives in it.

Later, the newly red-pilled Ken will briefly seize control of Barbieland, turning the Dreamhouse into the Mojo Dojo Casa House, tricked out with Marlboro ads, acoustic guitars, and some horses. But this script-flip is short lived, and by the third act, both groups have had their consciousnesses raised. Barbieland is a feminist paradise regained.

In its fascination with imagining gender separatism on screen, Barbie is hardly an outlier. Over the past couple of years, high-profile series like Yellowjackets (2021– ) and Y: The Last Man (2021) have used the frameworks of disaster—a plane crash, an apocalyptic plague—to imagine worlds without (or nearly without) men. Meanwhile, a cluster of lesser-known comedies, including New Zealand’s Creamerie (2021– ) and Australia’s Class of ’07 (2023), similarly has unfolded in spaces populated mostly by women—or, to paraphrase a character in the comic procedural Deadloch (2023– ), in “man-free les-topias.” Closer to home, Dead Ringers (2023) spends much of its first season in bespoke birthing centers, full of laboring women, or in the upstate compound of a Sackleresque investor who adorns her walls with oversized paintings of vulvas.

What distinguishes so much recent television, however, is that, unlike Barbie, these series dare to envision female-centric spaces not just as dreamlands but also as dystopias. Collectively, shows like Creamerie, Class of ’07, and Yellowjackets lean into an idea that Barbie merely flirts with—that women can be the agents of their own oppression. In so doing, these series signal a shift away from the second-wave logics on display in both Barbie and an earlier cohort of prestige programs as well, like Big Little Lies (2017–19), GLOW (2017–19), and Top of the Lake (2013–17), which not only ar emphatically pro-sisterhood but also depict how threats to women’s collectivity typically come from the outside—mostly in the form of abusive men. Within this newer cross section of series, by contrast, women’s separatism doesn’t guarantee solidarity, or even safety. Instead, by sidelining male characters, these shows are free to confront a difficult truth: that patriarchy can survive—even thrive—in the absence of men.

The strike might have delayed the return of fan favorites like Yellowjackets, whose writers room just reopened. In the meantime, this recent wave of female-driven series is pointing the way toward a newly complicated and intersectional TV feminism.

The dark comedy Creamerie, which just concluded its second season, provides a clear distillation of recent television’s more nuanced take on sisterhood. In the pilot, we learn that a global “mandemic” has killed everyone with a Y chromosome, and we meet three young Asian women—Jaime, her friend Pip, and her sister-in-law Alex—who now run a dairy farm in rural New Zealand. As soon becomes clear, however, the series’ real villain is not the virus but the particularly toxic strain of white woo-woo femininity that has arisen in its aftermath. This threat is embodied in the figure of Lane, a willowy blonde who resembles Goop-era Gwyneth Paltrow with a twist of tradwife. As local mayor, Lane is an authoritarian in guru’s clothing, a nap-dress-wearing cult leader who preaches the gospel of Wellness, the regime that now controls most aspects of civic life (“Wellness knows best!” characters cheerfully intone). One of its chief innovations is the “repopulation lottery,” which determines who will be selected to procreate using the country’s limited supply of sperm. Lane rules over it all with a well-moisturized iron fist, a poster child for what Kathleen Belew calls the “crunchy-to-alt-right pipeline.” It’s fascism, now with spinach-and-flaxseed juice.

Baked into the show’s comic premise, then, is a sharp critique of the way “wellness”—and whiteness—have been weaponized both against women and by them. When the series starts, Pip has fully drunk whatever the organic alternative to Kool-Aid would be. When one character gushes that Lane is “a paragon of abundance and light,” Pip eagerly responds, “Yeah, totally!” But over subsequent episodes, even Pip starts to realize that Lane’s motives are extremely un-well. (Stop here to avoid spoilers!) The trio exposes a conspiracy to enslave the few surviving men and extract their sperm, a.k.a. “white gold,” a sly riff on the setup in Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale (1985), in which it is members of the opposite sex who are reduced to vehicles for reproduction. But if the sex has changed, the exploitation remains the same. It’s a message underscored in the first-season finale, in which Lane threatens the series’ main male character with rape—a scene that, for all its gender-flipping, feels sadly familiar.

The implication—that the worst aspects of white heteropatriarchy will survive even the apocalypse—is at once mordantly funny and deeply depressing. There’s no doubt, in the world of the show, that an all-female government has accomplished some good stuff. “Eight years in, and look what we’ve built,” Lane brags. “Education, healthcare for all, menstruation leave […] mandatory!” Yet, as Alex points out, they’ve also retained the bad, including a reflexive disdain for women’s freedoms, reproductive and otherwise. “The world could have been anything!” she explodes. “We had the chance to wipe it clean, start over, but instead Lane and her entourage are just doing the same old shit: keeping women down by telling them there’s something wrong with them. The oldest trick in the book and [men] wrote it!” It might be cool to see the Barbieland Supreme Court stacked with women, but Creamerie reminds us that “representation” by itself is not enough (see: Amy Coney Barrett). Purely cosmetic adjustments—what media scholar Kristen J. Warner calls “plastic representation”—will not dismantle the master’s house.

In interviews, Creamerie co-creator and director Roseanne Liang has referenced The Handmaid’s Tale as a point of contrast, and the show takes some funny swipes at its predecessor text—including what Handmaid’s Tale fans will recognize as a similarly pointed use of Latin (“Carpe Futurum!”). But the show’s ideological rebuttal extends further in as much as it refuses to oversimplify the problem of women’s unfreedom by reducing it to a speculative parable or cautionary “tale.” Creamerie’s fictional world—in which the state tells women they can’t have babiesis not too far from our own, in which certain states are telling women they can’t not. Lacking The Handmaid’s Tale’s ominous “it can’t happen here” tone, Creamerie’s lighter touch only makes its plotline feel more plausible. We don’t need an openly theocratic regime, the show reminds us, to experience gender-based oppression. And we don’t need a murderous Aunt Lydia to remind us that women can serve as misogyny’s—or trans- and homophobia’s—co-conspirators.

The show’s proximity to our present was brought home to me recently by an article about higher education’s panicked reaction to the disappearance of men. Even as colleges fret over the absence of male students, they seem unconcerned with the legacy of their historically dominant presence. “Women I spoke to at the University of Vermont agreed that high numbers of female students did not necessarily make for a feminist haven,” the reporter wrote, citing precisely one source, who says, “It shocks me how many women we can have here and still have a horrible toxic male culture.” The contribution of a show like Creamerie is to suggest that it’s probably past time we stop being shocked. The idea—that sexism, like racism, is systemic—may not be an appealing message, but amidst the rise of “lazy girl” jobs and “trad” womanhood, it feels like an increasingly urgent one.

In their willingness to think structurally and intersectionally about identity-based problems, these series offer a messier portrait of feminism than we’ve grown accustomed to seeing on TV—but also a more accurate and instructive one. That Pip can be a “good” feminist and still fall under the sway of fascist gender politics is, after all, a potent reminder. The more viral the trend, and the more normalized the threat, the harder it can be to fight back.

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Class of ’07, another dark comedy from down under, works with a similar premise—the main difference being that the guys get taken out by a massive tidal wave, leaving the attendees at a girls’ boarding school reunion as the sole survivors (or so they assume). Unlike Creamerie, however, there’s barely the pretense of sisterly harmony before the situation devolves into survivalism, with every woman for herself. Soon, former queen bee Saskia has reverted to high school form, and as with Lane, her mean-girlery expresses itself through the imperious policing of other women’s bodies. As one character puts it, “[y]our internalized misogyny is showing, girlboss.”

Like Creamerie and Yellowjackets, Class of ’07 is entirely unsentimental about its female subjects—the fact that, as Molly Haskell once put it dryly, “the sisterhood was not always mutually loving.” But it’s precisely by clearing space for confrontations among women that these series manage to better illuminate their connections. A main arc across Class of ’07’s eight episodes is the reconciliation of two friends, Zoe and Amelia, who, when the season opens, are feuding after a years-long misunderstanding. As Zoe puts it, “The difference between surviving and living is doing all the same shit but having someone else to do it with.” It’s a message echoed by Creamerie, which finds the original antagonism between Pip and Alex overcome in the course of their shared struggle. Just because these series aren’t fantasies of sisterly love, in other words, doesn’t mean they’re not in favor of it.

In fact, there’s a playful self-consciousness in Class of ’07 about its own referential coordinates—its place in the long and often sensational tradition of representing women without men. In a later episode, for instance, one character chastises another, “None of that Picnic at Hanging Rock shit!” It’s a comment that signals the creators’ awareness not only that the show exists along a continuum of girls-school dramas—from The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie (1969) and Picnic at Hanging Rock (1975) to more frankly gothic films like Suspiria (1977) and The Beguiled (1971)—but also that the single-sex setting has frequently been the subject of hothouse fascination, if not horror.

Yellowjackets is, if anything, even more self-aware about what viewers expect from the “sorority” subgenre: mainly, catfights and nudity. Instead, Yellowjackets gives us cannibalism and unwashed bodies, clad in layers of MacGyvered clothing and repurposed airplane parts. When we do meet men, in both the 1990s wilderness timeline and the present-day one, they are generally well-meaning but ineffectual. (No knocks on Coach Ben—too sensitive to survive the cruelties of teenaged girls—or Jeff, TV’s most endearing wife-guy.)

In other words, if these series aren’t delivering fantasy to female viewers—withholding the kinds of “go-girl moments” that, like America Ferrera’s Barbie monologue, have frequently served as signifiers of feminism in prestige TV—they’re not exactly pandering to male audiences, either. When female characters make out in these shows—as they do, because, well, they’re lesbians—it’s part of the plot, a source of narrative progression or tension, not titillation.

Perhaps no show demonstrates more savvy about viewer expectations when it comes to TV genres, and more interest in transforming them, than Deadloch, an Australian series set in Tasmania. Inevitably described in reviews using some combination of the following keywords—black comedy queer feminist crime procedural—Deadloch is, on the one hand, a very funny and effective rebuke to the “dead girl” show. Pointedly, especially given its many comparisons to Twin Peaks (1990–91, 2017), it’s men who are discovered in the early episodes “wrapped in plastic,” and who emerge over the first season as both the targets and the victims of violent crime.

But it is also, of all the above-mentioned series, the only one in which characters have chosen their self-imposed exile in girlville. It’s made clear from the start that the fictional town of Deadloch is a present-day isle of Lesbos—a planned community for well-off lesbians. This premise is routinely used to expose the bigotry of the old-timers. Convinced that the new arrivals are to blame for the serial killings, for instance, one longtime resident rages that “this town is full of man-hating lesbians with a taste for man murder!” But if the writers’ main target is the town’s chauvinism and homophobia, they also save some jabs for the excesses of its bougie newcomers. At one point, the town’s progressive mayor only discovers that her outdoor festival features an experimental film screening when she introduces its creator: “It’s called Poseidon’s Uterus. It’s an ode to water and the divine feminine, and it goes for four hours … Fuck my arse, Joan, really?”

Underlying and informing the investigation plot is the network of relationships—romantic, professional, transactional—binding the town’s women, including a Maori teen targeted for “sponsorship” by a wealthy benefactor, a Martha Stewart type intent on helping the Indigenous community, just on her own terms. A complicating factor arrives in the form of Eddie Redcliffe, a foul-mouthed, bad-tempered detective on loan from Dundee, who dresses in clearance hunting fleece and flip-flops, like a small, angry version of The Dude from The Big Lebowski (1998). Initially locked in an odd-couple standoff with her counterpart, stoical police officer Dulcie Collins, the two find common cause even as they are distracted by romantic entanglements—Dulcie by her needy wife, Cath, and Eddie by a lovestruck local.

Male characters, for much of the season, are ancillary. The show focuses on them only insofar as they advance the plot, making them, and their dead bodies, feel more like McGuffins. It’s hard not to see this decision as poetic justice for the many female corpses that have catalyzed crime procedurals, or the “manic pixie dream girls” that have existed—that still exist—to prod male protagonists on their way.

Put another way, Deadloch is perhaps the most polemical example of recent TV’s interest in moving boys to the side so as to redirect the storytelling in other directions—namely, toward the matrix of possible relationships among female characters that, Bechdel test notwithstanding, still feel comparatively unmapped. While television, of course, has a long history of exploring female friendship—in shows from Golden Girls (1985–92), Girlfriends (2000–08), and Girls (2012–17) to Kate & Allie (1984–89) and Grace and Frankie (2015–22)—what feels distinct in this newer wave of shows is their more apocalyptic strain of feminism, in which the stakes are less personal than frankly political. It is this sociological focus, this interest in women relating at scale, that both differentiates these post-Trump, postpandemic fictions and registers as the response to an ever-less-speculative question: when shit really hits the fan, where are women going—or not going—to stand?

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If these series are less utopian in their portrayals, the act of subtracting male-centered storylines and imagining new fictional futures can itself be aspirational. Back in 2018, when Sophie Gilbert clocked an earlier version of the feminist dystopian trend in fiction, she described the thrill of encountering “a world so totally upended and so full of possibility,” not just another doomist dispatch from the near future. Given that we are living through what Rebecca Traister recently called a “period of marital revivalism,” narrative pivots away from (heterosexual) marriage can feel especially liberating.

One way in which these series feel less forward-looking, it must be said, is in their seeming indifference to trans characters. In Creamerie, we meet several characters possibly coded as nonbinary or genderqueer, while in Deadloch, someone criticizes another’s thinking as “so binary”: “Gender’s made up […] It’s like the stock market!” But it’s also true that these shows appear largely populated with cisgendered subjects. Even as they question certain binaries, then, they seem unable to fully think beyond others.

In other ways, however, Deadloch, Creamerie, Class of ’07, and Yellowjackets collectively respond to what one reviewer calls “reductive and cringy ideas about how the world would be different if women were in charge”—ideas, notably, often championed in white feminist texts like Barbie. As one of the young Maori women in Deadloch observes, derisively, “All that civility and no actual community amongst you cunts.” What happens, these shows seem to ask, when you drill down past the romantic ideas, the “civility” that women are socialized to perform? What might such narrative experiments—which are also thought experiments—reveal?

That feminist media may be newly inclined to take up this question is reflected less by Barbie than by another movie from 2023 that charts a young woman’s disillusionment with the status quo: Nida Manzoor’s Polite Society. Manzoor’s film is a genre-flexible exploration of, among other things, how much female ferocity lies behind dominant cultural scripts. Not for nothing, the heroine—a young Londoner and would-be stuntwoman who chafes against the expectations of her conservative Muslim Pakistani family—deploys as her catchphrase the line, “I am the fury!” When her sister becomes the target of a particularly nefarious marriage plot, she enlists the help of her two best friends. “[W]hat is it with men, am I right?” one laments, and the other nods in agreement. “It’s like the whole universe revolves around them, bending to their will. Maybe it’s time the universe bends to someone else.”

It’s a line that could serve as a manifesto for these series, which aren’t interested in just gender-swapping. They want to change the narrative coordinates altogether. For too long, these series imply, even feminist storylines have been shaped by a world that favors and “revolves around” men. To that, these shows offer a collective rebuttal to Hollywood: your fictional universe can get bent.

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Elizabeth Alsop teaches film and media studies at the CUNY School of Professional Studies and the CUNY Graduate Center. Her writing has previously appeared in The Atlantic, The New York Times Magazine, Public Books, The TLSand Bookforumamong other places.

LARB Contributor

Elizabeth Alsop is an assistant professor of communication and media at the CUNY School of Professional Studies and a faculty member in film studies at the Graduate Center. She is the author of Making Conversation in Modernist Fiction (Ohio State UP, 2019), and her writing has previously appeared in The Atlantic, The New York Times Magazine, Public Books, Salon, Ms., The TLS, and Bookforum. She is currently completing a book on the films of Elaine May.

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