Will the TV adaptation of Y: The Last Man address its most significant issues?

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Jun 9, 2018, 12:00 PM EDT

Y: The Last Man, Brian Vaughan and Pia Guerra’s critically acclaimed graphic novel, is finally being adapted for the screen after 10 years of back and forth. Multiple scripts have been scrapped and two directors walked away from the project before the rights reverted back to Vaughan and Guerra.

FX acquired the rights nearly three years ago, and one year ago Michael Green (American Gods) was tapped to be a showrunner. In April, FX finally announced that a pilot is formally in development and that Aida Mashaka Croal (Jessica Jones) would join the project as co-showrunner with Green.

Y: The Last Man, which launched in 2002, follows Yorick Brown and his capuchin monkey Ampersand, the last two mammals with a Y chromosome. The graphic novel has received numerous awards, but permit an unpopular opinion: The premise and execution are lazy, problematic, and a terrible representation of what would happen if all the men died out on earth. Despite being frequently billed as a feminist take on the end of the world, the plot and the characters read more like someone’s best imitation of what they think a feminist plot would be.

If the TV adaptation is going to be less “imitation feminism” and more deeply engaged in a truly intersectional feminist lens, there are several issues in the graphic novel the showrunners need to address, to whatever degree they can.

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The premise

The basic premise of the graphic novels is a wolf in sheep’s clothing. Again, all the mammals with a Y chromosome on earth have been obliterated by an unidentified plague except Yorick and Ampersand. So, all the men on earth are dead and we still can’t get a non-male lead?

What a perfect reminder of the actual state of the world. We’ll take the bottom of the barrel and elevate them to center stage. Not only is Yorick unremarkable in many ways, he is selfish and whiny.

The book clearly attempts to address some of these issues. It tries to be clever with Yorick’s mother, Representative Jennifer Brown, giving us a democrat who is pro-life. Yawn. Statistics about the number of Fortune 500 CEOs who have perished (495 out of 500) gives a nod to the overrepresentation of men in leadership positions. Eyeroll. The women around the brash and self-righteous Yorick temper him and criticize his actions. Oh good. Even when almost every man dies, women are still responsible for raising a man-child.

Frankly, so many of these moments feel like someone read an introduction to feminist issues book and created a checklist with no deep understanding or analysis of what was being represented. Everything that should appear in a feminist work does, but it’s a shadow version, a puppet show of feminist themes.


Sexist portrayals of women

Yorick’s world is one in which the government has collapsed and women have turned on transmen and committed suicide out of hopelessness. It’s like an inverted hellscape of Themiscyra or an MRA-imagined A Handmaid’s Tale for men.

This kind of writing is a perfect example of the problematic way male creators portray women in fiction. Even before the plague hits, women are terrible to each other. Just moments before all the men around her collapse, Yorick’s EMT sister, Hero, hooks up with a firefighter in the back of an ambulance. As they exit the ambulance, an EMT at the corner of the panel calls Hero a “whorebag” and her friend responds, “I hope he gives her herpes.”

On the grander scale, the plot demonstrates how little Vaughan thinks of women. Women couldn’t handle the U.S. government—everything would fall to shambles. Women couldn’t solve the problem of procreation—they’d be too busy in-fighting. Frankly, it’s insulting. Women attend higher education at a higher rate, perform better, and are typically underestimated either directly by their male colleagues or in general within their respective fields. If all the men in the government died, the top-ranked women would step up and run the country, possibly better than ever. If all the male scientists and doctors died out, women would work together to come up with a solution to keep humanity alive.


Essentializing gender

While the graphic novel makes it clear that the issue is the Y chromosome, the whole treatment of gender is fundamentally essentialist. Instead of gender being understood to be a fluid, societally-generated descriptor for a variety of bodies, gender is stripped down to chromosomes. Not reproductive organs, not secondary sex characteristics, not gender identity—just chromosomes. (And, chromosomal designation of gender is actually a tricky matter. There are multiple combinations and multiples of X and Y, including one variation in which those with a genetic mosaic have different sets of chromosomes in different cells.)

You might argue that the plague killed anyone with a Y chromosome, so it can be inclusive of multiple genders. And, sure, I guess you’d be right. But does that make it a good examination of gender (which is exactly what it purports to be)? What about the fact that we never see a gender nonconforming, nonbinary or trans person, but we do hear derogatory slurs about trans identities? What about the fact that a woman who was in a relationship with a transman refers to her murdered partner as a “tranny?” What about the fact that we never see the people left behind develop new or different means of organizing themselves into gender categories?

There may be some redeeming hope for the new adaptation. When Green originally pitched his version of the story, he stated that he wanted to address toxic masculinity. After the recent presidential election, Green described nearly walking away from the project. "I had to put the script down for a couple months and really reassess it tonally, because it became a different creature, it became a violent protest,” he said. “It couldn't not be political, and I had to embrace it, and I had to find my way in, and I had to find a way to channel my own dismay, disappointment and rage into it, while still keeping it what it is.”

I’ll give them a chance, but if the folks adapting the show don’t address these issues with Y: The Last Man, then it’s more like why the last man? Nobody needs another cocky white man beating up women and bumbling through the end of the world.