Cures for a patriarchal hangover on “Y: The Last Man”

The lives of the survivors may very well rely on their ability to root out remaining patriarchal power structures

Published September 27, 2021 7:00PM (EDT)

Diane Lane as Jennifer Brown in "Y: The Last Man"

Diane Lane as Jennifer Brown in "Y: The Last Man" (FX)

FX on Hulu's "Y: The Last Man" poses a fundamental question — or fantasy, depending on who you ask: What would happen if all cisgender men and Y-chromosomed beings dropped dead? 

In the series, the cataclysmic Event has inexplicably eliminated half the world's population, leaving families torn apart, supply chains and energy sources depleted, and women and non-cis men everywhere desperate and scrambling for answers. Jennifer Brown (Diane Lane) has become de facto president after the previous POTUS and men in line after him perish. But she still has to deal with her predecessor's legacy; she's frequently forced to spar with the Meghan McCain-esque Kimberly Campbell (Amber Tamblyn), the politically ambitious former first daughter who seems to hold a petty political vendetta against Brown.

Meanwhile, Brown's children – lone cis man Yorick (Ben Schnetzer) and daughter Hero (Olivia Thirlby) – are trying to navigate this dangerous new world with about as much competence and independence as you'd expect from two young people from highly privileged backgrounds. 

And with each episode, it's increasingly looking like the survival of the remaining people may rely on letting go of patriarchal power structures that still persist – with or without cis men around.

The making of a patriarchal hangover

Nearly all of the relational conflicts and problems in these characters' arcs are products of patriarchal design. Of course, the most obvious holdover from "before" would come from the titular last man himself.

In Episode 4, Yorick is being protected and escorted to safety – since it's still a mystery as to why he's survived and therefore could be in some danger – by the enigmatic Agent 355 (Ashley Romans). Instead of being grateful for having a highly trained agent who once guarded the former president beside him, Yorick has been making 355's life about as difficult as possible by constantly endangering them and behaving like a child. At one point he demands that they risk their lives . . . to go back and find his lost phone.

Agent 355 sets Yorick straight about his entitled demand: 

"I don't owe you s**t! From the goddamned day you were born, the whole world told you you're the most important thing in it! You think you can f**k around all you want with no consequences! An entire life of just being given s**t! Like, I don't know, the benefit of the f**king doubt? You can just walk into any room, take it for granted. And now that you actually are the most important person in the room, you could give a s**t!"

It's a moment of pure catharsis, an eviscerating blow to male entitlement and its exhausting toll on anyone who isn't a beneficiary of cis-male privilege. While saying these words surely brought 355 at least a moment of much-needed relief, the speech doesn't change the fact that her sole task in life right now is to protect Yorick.

Hero, on the other hand, is navigating this post-apocalyptic world with her sole friend Sam (Elliot Fletcher), a trans man in a world that's become a waking nightmare for trans men amid a scarcity of testosterone. Hero relies on and manipulates Sam to keep him at her side no matter the risk, including all but forcing him to separate from the group of fellow trans men they had been traveling with.

Their relationship and Hero's treatment of Sam ultimately reflects the social power and privilege afforded to cisgender identity. And yes, this is a power dynamic established under patriarchy, in which social status and power relations extend beyond just cis men oppressing cis women. Rather, anyone who doesn't conform to cis-heteronormative expectations can be violently oppressed, with trans people including trans men like Sam often facing greater persecution than cis women.

Want a daily wrap-up of all the news and commentary Salon has to offer? Subscribe to our morning newsletter, Crash Course.

Over in the world of politics and government, Kimberly is a frequent visitor and critic of President Brown, ready to flaunt her relationship with her father, the late president. And she's always clad in feminine business professional and high heels, in contrast with the more practical post-apocalyptic attire of sweatpants and sneakers that nearly everyone else currently in government wears. 

We've seen this in our world. The popularity of "conservative feminism," and the emergence of the girlboss-from-hell, have long hinted at the grim reality that plenty of privileged women are beneficiaries of patriarchy, and are therefore happy to uphold it even in its absence. They know they can reap power from their proximity to powerful men or historically male systems, and could care less about the women and marginalized people who lack these connections.

Nora Brady (Marin Ireland), a former aide to President Campbell, had walked a path similar to Kimberly's prior to the Event and served as a prototypical "pick me" whose political rise was owed to doing anything men asked of her without complaint. Now, in a world where women in positions of political power are capable of doing these tasks themselves, she seems lost, without a sense of self or role in the new world, even struggling to care for her young daughter. 

And then, of course, there's President Brown, whose ascension to the presidency appears to be a "girlboss" triumph on the surface. It might be trite to point out how Congress and the presidency were created by and for men, but this reality — of government and hierarchy as inherently patriarchal tools — is exacerbated by the ongoing apocalypse and global women's struggle for survival. 

Brown's presidency reflects the awkward, ineffective continuation of power structures like normal in a no longer normal society. This is because the presidency, a role that has historically been filled and exploited by men, creates an imbalance of power that can be dangerously exploited even by the most well-meaning individuals: Consider how Brown seizes on the power of her position to prioritize the search for her children at the height of the confusion and fear caused by the Event.

Brown is reluctant to do so, but presidential power can breed innate selfishness in those who have access to it. In this way, the office of the presidency extends from patriarchy and male entitlement, regardless of its occupant's gender. Survival of the remaining people of Earth will require thorough dismantling of this patriarchal institution to build a new, habitable world for survivors.

What's needed: A whole new world

The establishment of hierarchy has rarely been a wise move in survivalist worlds — just consider the events of "Lord of the Flies," and the violent chaos that erupted on a stranded island of deserted schoolboys. In mankind's earliest days, collective and equal living were essential to our survival. Contrary to the sexist myth of men as hunters and women as gatherers, human societies and collectives were far more equitable and often void of mythologized gender role assignment, with hunting, gathering, child care and domestic labor equitably assigned across gendered lines.

In "Y: The Last Man," survivors find themselves in an entirely new world, one that's too precarious to take chances by assigning power and leadership, feeding petty political squabbles while the world is on fire. The remaining resources in the world are so scarce that allowing inequalities in access to these resources based on hierarchy could sabotage everyone's survival.

Successful, stateless societies have existed throughout human history, and across different parts of the world. Different Indigenous populations continue to live and thrive in such societies, like the Kung Bushmen of southern Africa, the Siriono and the Nambikuara Indians of South America, the Kwakiutl and other North American Indians, and other groups around the world, often assuming pastoral lifestyles.

Government, bureaucracy and hierarchy aren't innate to humanity, nor are they especially necessary to safety and protection, as many real-life women and people of color could attest to. Depending on which political philosophers or scholars you read, some might understand government and laws as a form of violence of their own, as any kind of power or rulemaking is upheld with the implicit or explicit threat of violence.

This is all to say that on "Y: The Last Man," power imbalances, unequal relationships, and post-apocalyptic politics comprise a dangerous patriarchal hangover, the muck and residue of an old world governed by men. That world is gone, and the old tools and social and political systems that maintained it are now not only useless but even catastrophic in this new world. 

Over the past millions of years, mankind has survived one apocalyptic disaster after another. And in its earliest, most formative years, it did so without government systems that bog us down with petty politics, corruption and inequality — inventions of patriarchy — when we should all be united in just trying to live another day. The continuation of the survivors in "Y: The Last Man" might just rely on their ability to do the same.

"Y: The Last Man" releases new episodes on Mondays on FX on Hulu.

By Kylie Cheung

Kylie Cheung is a staff writer at Salon covering culture. She is also the author of "A Woman's Place," a collection of feminist essays. You can follow her work on Twitter @kylietcheung.

MORE FROM Kylie Cheung

Related Topics ------------------------------------------

Commentary Fx Hulu Tv Y: The Last Man