tv The Tricky Trans Politics of FX’s Y: The Last Man
I put off watching Y: The Last Man, the new sci-fi dystopian series about a world where everybody with a Y chromosome dies except for one cis man and one monkey, as long as I possibly could. (The FX series is releasing new episodes on Hulu every Monday through November 1.) It is by far the new fall TV show that I’ve received the most questions about.
Y: The Last Man is an adaptation of an extremely popular comics series that was written by Brian K. Vaughan and illustrated by Pia Guerra and published between 2002 and 2008. It has a big, catchy premise, highlighted in the trailer by a shot of the fictional president dying of a mysterious, bloody disease, one that also fells all of the other men in the room. (The actual episode goes even further in depicting several bloody deaths. It’s a lot!)
But the main reason the show has raised so many questions is that the source comic’s premise, as it stood, left little room for trans people. Trans men are briefly mentioned as existing in said comic, and trans women are assumed to have all died, because we bore Y chromosomes that led to our (fictional) deaths. Nonbinary people are not mentioned at all, and the comic doesn’t include any trans people as major characters. We just sort of exist off to the side somewhere. So: As America’s foremost trans television critic, I’ve encountered a lot of people wanting to know if, uh, Y: The Last Man would be horribly transphobic and gender essentialist.
A quick definition: “Gender essentialism” is when we insist that the gender someone is assigned at birth on some level determines their destiny. So the fact that I presumably have a Y chromosome (I’ve never undergone a chromosome testing panel, so we can’t know for sure) means I can never escape that biological fact, and according to gender essentialist logic, will always be “a man” in some sense. It’s pretty gross, and it props up a lot of terrible ideas.
Chromosomes are not destiny, and both gender and sex are incredibly complicated things that we know a lot more about in 2021 than we did in 2002, when Y: The Last Man was first published. The new TV adaptation has clearly thought a lot about the complicated nature of gender, and by at least having done a lot of research, it’s doing about the best job it possibly can with a premise that is nevertheless essentialist by default.
The tension between doing the work and being trapped by the story’s core premise is one I find interesting and even compelling here and there. I like Y: The Last Man far more than I don’t. (The cast, especially, is amazing.) Still, I have never stopped feeling uneasy about the series’ attempts to incorporate our current, more fluid understanding of gender into a premise with a hard-and-fast gender binary at its very core.
How Y: The Last Man updated its view of gender for the 2020s
Agent 355 and Dr. Mann discuss several nuances of gender in front of a roaring fire. As you do.
First, a disclosure: Charlie Jane Anders, who wrote on Y: The Last Man, is a good friend of mine, and Aydin Olsen-Kennedy, my former gender therapist, consulted on the show. I am probably predisposed to cut the show some slack.
Y: The Last Man’s approach to trans characters creeps in slowly through the show’s first six episodes (which are all I have seen; there will be 10 in total). In episode four, its most prominent trans guy character — Sam, played by Elliot Fletcher — is granted more time in the spotlight. In episode five, a geneticist named Dr. Mann explains in great detail that not only men perished in the global die-off of everything with a Y chromosome. (The TV series has yet to offer an explanation for what happened; the comics featured several different explanations. Vaughan has said that one of those explanations from the comics is the “correct” one, but he has not specified which one.)
Certainly, cis men died during “the event” (this is what showrunner Eliza Clark calls it, so I’m going to call it that too). So did trans women, and so did nonbinary people, and so did several cis women who had a Y chromosome due to Swyer syndrome, and so did many intersex people. Then there are all of the people who died because they just happened to be on a plane flown by a man or riding in a car driven by a man when the event occurred.
So lots of people died during the event, Dr. Mann clarifies. Most of them were men, but saying that only men died does a disservice to the actual scale of the calamity. Most of the information presented in this scene won’t surprise many trans people, who think about the nature of gender a lot, but I’ve found that many cis people have never even thought about it, so I hope somebody somewhere learns something new from Y: The Last Man.
The point is, the TV version of Y: The Last Man understands that implying that chromosomes are destiny creates an impression of a gender binary that doesn’t exist. Human DNA is messy and complicated, and therefore, so is whatever we call “gender.”
“Human beings are meaning makers. That’s why we tell stories, and that’s why we create art. But it’s also why we create reductive labels for people and why we create binaries and why we stick with people who look and sound and agree with us,” Clark told me. “I felt like it was interesting to take a premise [centered on] that idea but then to illustrate how that’s not actually true. And it’s not the most interesting version [of this story], either imaginatively or scientifically.”
Y: The Last Man also takes pains to bridge the gap between the gender essentialism inherent to its high-concept premise and the scenes where it complicates that gender essentialism. It mostly does this by making the event really fucking sad.
In the comic, what happens is presented as horrific, but it’s mostly expressed via a woman who dies by suicide because “all the men” are gone. Then time almost immediately skips forward to a point when it’s safe for the story’s “last man” cis guy protagonist to go on semi-snarky adventures through a United States in the process of rebuilding. That choice fits the comic’s loose, rambling picaresque, where getting too serious too often would harsh what’s compelling about the story, which is a group of characters bonding during the end of the world.
On the TV show, we have to watch as a whole bunch of people die. We watch mothers discover dead sons, wives discover dead husbands. We watch workplaces collapse and cities fall apart. We watch planes crash and chaos reign. The White House burns to the ground. It’s depressing and dark and dour, and the show’s first few episodes refuse to let you look away. There’s a time jump here, too, but it takes us a while to get there.
As someone who enjoyed the comic, this adaptation choice initially struck me as slightly perverse — it’s so dour — but I grew to admire it as the show began to introduce the comic’s semi-snarky tone. It also let the show play sleight-of-hand with the fact that the death of “all men” (as most characters refer to the event across the first few episodes) wasn’t actually a death exclusively of men or of “all” men. If Y: The Last Man leans into the horrible gravity of what happened, it avoids the “haha all the men are gone, amirite ladies?!” winking tone that any story set in a world “without men” can so easily fall into.
“A lot of the reviews of the first couple of episodes are like, ‘It’s dour or sad.’ And to me the event is devastating. The show gets fun and funnier, but I wasn’t setting out to make something that was like, ‘The world’s better off without men,’ because it’s not men who died. It’s people with a Y chromosome,” Clark says. “I feel like, in fact, the world is far worse off. And the point of the show is that we need all of us. I set out to make a show that was disrupting the idea of binary thinking generally, not just about gender, and to really talk about the ways that our identities intersect, and how anyone can uphold systems of oppression.”
I admire this line of thinking, and I like Y: The Last Man, and I think the show is making a sincere effort not to exclude trans people from its narrative. I’m going to keep watching, if only for the chemistry that has developed between Ashley Romans as the ultra-capable Agent 355 and Ben Schnetzer as Yorick (the last cis man of the title).
Why are we still so drawn to stories about the gender binary?
Trans actor Elliot Fletcher plays the show’s main trans guy character, Sam.
There are lots and lots and lots and lots and lots of stories about worlds where men are either not present or where women have power over men. There are also a few stories where the opposite is true. Usually, these stories take one of two tacks in imagining an eventual outcome: Women are more peaceful than men, and they come up with a utopian society fairly quickly; or women are also complicated humans, and they replicate many of the systems of oppression that exist right now in the name of power or greed or what have you.
We do not live in a world where “all the men” died (whatever that means), nor does such a circumstance seem likely ever to happen. So we can’t exactly test either of those hypotheses to determine whether a world run by women would trend toward utopia or stay about the same. Yet the appeal of this premise is hard to resist because the gender binary most of us have drilled into our brains from birth also places men above women in our power structures. Flipping that in a fictional scenario is a fun, fascinating thought experiment, if nothing else.
The problem is that this premise, by its very nature, cannot account for the existence of trans people. Once you start accounting for the existence of trans people, you have to throw binary notions about gender out the window. Despite its attempt to boil down the event to “mammals with a Y chromosome died,” even the TV version of Y: The Last Man can’t entirely sidestep the binary because it is so entrenched in our society, where “boy = blue” and “girl = pink” remain all but intractable as gift-giving ideas for infants. There’s a careful effort within the show to make sure that anyone who says “all the men died” was among the people who were most interested in propping up the patriarchy when “all the men” were alive — but how many viewers will actually recognize that distinction?
What so many “no more men” stories are fumbling toward, at least, is the idea of the destruction of the patriarchy, and the easiest way to get there as a thought experiment is to wipe out all of the cis men and see what happens. Y: The Last Man is a sprawling show, with storylines set around the world, and in many of its best arcs, the series zeroes in on the fact that there are women who benefit from patriarchy and would want to replicate it even in a world where cis men no longer exist. (Amber Tamblyn’s character, the arch-conservative daughter of the now-dead Republican president, best exemplifies this point of view.)
For its central premise to work, Y: The Last Man has to suggest that the patriarchy is tied irrevocably to cis men (true!) but also that a globe-spanning virus/plague/magical curse could easily define what a “man” is (less true!). The “only mammals with a Y chromosome die” detail is a workaround, but it’s only that. The gender essentialism of the premise is inescapable, no matter how much the series tries to push back on it.
The resulting strain is most evident in the scenes featuring Sam. Sam is one of my favorite characters on the show so far, a trans dude in a world where synthetic testosterone has become a much-squabbled-over commodity. He’s funny, he’s a good friend to others, and he’s perpetually baffled by a world in which his masculinity is suddenly not in question.
In a story introduced in the show’s fourth episode, Sam ends up staying with a cult of women who are obsessed with outlining all of the ways men had previously wronged them. Thus, Sam’s place with them is threatened more by his manhood than his transness.
As the writers’ room was breaking the story, Clark said, J.K. Rowling’s descent into anti-trans martyrdom was ongoing, and no one involved in Y: The Last Man wanted to inadvertently strengthen anti-trans rhetoric by having characters espouse the same viewpoints on a series mostly written by cis people. (That’s not even getting into how performing in scenes featuring such rhetoric might affect Fletcher, a trans actor.)
But, like, would such a cult really exist? “Sam is threatened more for his masculinity than his transness” is interesting conceptually, but his mere existence in the world of Y: The Last Man would immediately and constantly mark him as trans. (In one of the show’s better running gags, everybody assumes Yorick, the one remaining cis man, is a trans guy.) The cultists know that Sam is trans and say they’re okay with it, but no matter how artfully the show tells Sam’s story, it remains true that Sam’s masculinity and his transness are bound up in each other. One cannot exist without the other, and if the cultists hate Sam’s masculinity, their professed acceptance of him is anti-trans, simply because it suggests they don’t see him as a “real” man. (I haven’t yet seen where this story is headed, so grain of salt.)
“A trans man in a world where ‘all the men’ have died” is a really compelling figure, but Y: The Last Man has so far treated Sam with kid gloves. The show wants you to know that trans men are men, ergo Sam is a man. But it also doesn’t want to follow the thought experiment of “trans men are pretty much the only men left alive” to any logical conclusion. It wants to present a world where Y chromosomes marked trans women for death, but also, everybody suddenly seems psyched about the existence of trans men, when we know how unlikely that would be.
To be clear, I’m not saying, “Y: The Last Man must add transphobia to be ‘realistic,’” because I really hope it doesn’t do that. Instead, I’m saying that by ignoring the transphobia of our current society entirely, the show is accidentally underlining the gender essentialism of its premise.
The TV version of Y: The Last Man wants to have the fun, gender-essentialist cake of its source material but serve it up with a side of “actually gender is really complicated” ice cream. And I get it! That idea is a really interesting starting point for a story, and it’s possible that the further the show gets from its instigating event, the more its nuances around gender will become apparent. By then, we’ll have had more time with Sam and Dr. Mann the geneticist. The story will naturally trend in the “gender is complicated” direction, even if the show doesn’t try to make it do so.
“It is a fair criticism to ask, ‘Why make a show with a premise like this in 2021?’” Clark says. “There’s no part of me that would ever want to make a show that essentializes gender or that equates chromosomes to gender. I understand I can’t control how the world talks about it. But I do think that the show has an opportunity to disrupt that notion.”
Still, Y: The Last Man was originally written by a cis guy who did not seem particularly interested in depicting trans people within his narrative. I do like a lot of what the show is doing, and I intend to keep watching no matter what. But I worry the narrative is inextricably tied to a gender binary, no matter how hard it tap dances.
What’s more, the longer the show runs, the more that disconnect might grow, rather than contract. You can have a world where “every mammal with a Y chromosome dies” or you can have a world where gender is a complicated spectrum of different identities. I’m not sure you can have both.
Y: The Last Man airs new episodes on Hulu on Mondays through November 1.
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