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Debating Y: The Last Man’s #girlboss world with The Bechdel Cast’s Jamie Loftus

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It’s a strange time for this long-awaited adaptation

Graphic featuring a photo of a women on stage with a mic and a still from the film “Y-The Last Man” Graphic: James Bareham/Polygon

It took awhile, but Y: The Last Man, Brian K. Vaughn and Pia Guerra’s comic about a world (mostly) without men, has been adapted for the screen. What might have seemed absurd when the comic launched in 2002 — a world ravaged by a deadly virus that wreaks havoc on the global social order — is now our everyday experience. COVID-19 might have made Y: The Last Man more relevant on the surface, but it also made a broad, cheekily satirical sci-fi tale about a goofy dude with a monkey for a best friend into a deathly dour television series that flattens the story into the question: “Can #girlbosses save the world?”

For those who weren’t on the internet in 2014, the term girlboss became a catch-all way to describe any woman who “leaned in” or asserted themselves within the context of the traditional framework of business success. The girlboss ethos said that toughness, ambition, and self-confidence could break the glass ceiling in capitalist systems and empower women across the world. It was a phrase brought into popularity by fashion magnate Sophia Amoruso, the founder of the Nasty Gal clothing brand. Amoruso named her New York Times best seller #Girlboss and defined a generation of upwardly mobile, mostly white women.

As with any breathless media trend, the girlboss thing became a cliche, then worse yet, an insult when it became clear figures like Amoruso were not worth admiring. A recent feature on #girlboss culture in The Cut pointed out that today, many women find the term “infantilizing and sexist.” At first glance, Y: The Last Man appears to offer up a #girlboss vision of a world where all but one cis-male has died. The new President of the United States, as portrayed by Diane Lane, is competent, focused, and steady. The show is, in many ways, female competency imagined at its highest level. But is this image of traditional female power even relevant in 2021, when intersectionality defines much of the social discourse around equality? Even if the show doesn’t dig that deep, the question is provocative.

In this week’s episode of Galaxy Brains, I asked comedian, writer, and host of The Bechdel Cast, Jamie Loftus, to dissect both Y: The Last Man and the remnants of girlboss culture.

As always, this conversation has been edited to make us sound less weird.

Dave: [Y: the Last Man] tries its best to interrogate what feminism means right now. Where do you feel like feminism stands in this really perilous bummer time?

Jamie: We’re recording this the week of the Supreme Court decision in Texas, so I would say, you know, it’s always a rough time in feminism. I feel like it’s so hard because the show for me was just confusing and messy. But I do feel like it was trying at different times to acknowledge that women don’t just inherently bond together based on their chromosomes. That’s such a bizarre concept that’s kind of pushed sometimes, like we’re all in this together. And it’s like, well, no, there’s still all of these divisions on the basis of class and race and all of this other stuff that seems present in the show.

I worked on this show recently that I started I did all this research on the history of American feminism and how cyclical it tends to be for “girl bossing” to fit into it in this really unfortunate way, where it’s always centered, upper-middle class white women, and usually nepotism on top of that. A lot of what we’re seeing right now is things that were going on in the ’60s and ’70s, unfortunately, where we’re still fighting for abortion rights and still trying to be more intersectional, but not seeing that really reflected in policy and not seeing the coalition building that’s necessary to actually push forward. I feel like I’m feeling very negative this week about everything!

Dave: I think it’s fair to feel negative right now.

Jamie: The other day I was talking about this with my podcast co-host, Caitlin Davonte, and we were kind of reflecting on how we were feeling when the #MeToo movement started, how there was all this rage and energy. It really felt like this was all going somewhere. And then just through reading other authors from past waves of feminism, how there’s always a moment where it’s like this is going to change everything and then fast forward three or four years. And it’s like Just kidding everyone, we’re still fucked. The one thing that I’ve been kind of encouraged by is an increased awareness of intersectionality and coalition-building online has been really great.

Dave: This is an important point. [Y: The Last Man] tries really hard to make it seem as though this kind of calamity would level the playing field, so to speak. There’s the president’s aide — her husband dies, her son dies. She’s lost everything. She can’t get into the bunker where the government has holed up. And so now she’s brought low by this calamity. But we’re going through a pandemic now in real life, an actual virus is circulating, yet the show says, “Oh, everything’s going to be the same.” You know, people are going to be on a level playing field. But in truth, in the real world, this pandemic is only reinforced the divisions and the inequalities and all of the things that make life hard to live. I mean, if this actually happened, let’s say all cis gendered men died and we were left with just women, trans men, and a variety of other people that aren’t cis gendered men. Would it be anything like this TV show or would it be completely different?

Jamie: I fucking hope not. I really don’t want to live in the world of this TV show. I think it all depends on how willing, whoever is left to challenge the systems that were in place where I feel like that’s something that never comes up in this show of like, is American democracy the best suited system to handle this calamity, which this show seems to firmly feel? Yes. To the point where it’s not even worth exploring alternatives. I mean, it’s so bizarre that the way that the general public is treated by this show is you don’t really see them, which I’m assuming is because it was shot during a pandemic.

Dave: Possibly they couldn’t afford the protocols and to put a bunch of people in the same room

Jamie: Which totally makes sense. But the result of that is you just sort of hear normal people discussed as an angry mob and you don’t really know what they want. You don’t know if there’s any leaders like on the ground. You don’t know what systems they might be fighting for. That isn’t the American democracy that they’re so desperately trying to preserve. This show, even beginning from its premise, is so early 2000s that I don’t understand why you would even want to adapt it right now.

Dave: You know, as you said earlier, all the divisions and all of the strife, all of the conflict, all the differences that we have inherent in our society would just be exacerbated by this sort of thing happening. And you would think there would be people who would say, well, let’s try it differently. And everyone in this show who says let’s do it differently is valid.

Jamie: It almost feels like Ghostbusters where the villain is like the EPA or you’re just like, wait a second...

Dave: There’s no left political movement in this show so far. Of course, you know, we’ve only seen the first four episodes, so we can’t comment on the rest of the show.

Jamie: Maybe the DSA storms the White House in episode 5. We have no idea. But it seems like American centrism is like what will save us all?