Throwback Thursdays: Gender, Feminism, and Exploitation Tropes in Y: The Last Man

The comic book series that I come back to over the years tend to be the ones with the most memorable and well fleshed out characters. I generally also re-examine these treasured tomes from a more critical perspective as time goes on, often from an explicitly feminist one. Of these all-time favorites, one that particularly warrants that reexamination is Y: The Last Man.

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The team dynamic in a nutshell. (Scan from Y: The Last Man)

I won’t lie, I’ve been wanting to write about Y since I survived the Jedi/Sith training required to write for LGG&F; I’ve also been absolutely dreading it. For those of you not familiar with the series, Last Man is a story by Brian K. Vaughan that ran from 2002–2008 in which all the characters aside from the titular protagonist are women, as is nearly every other human being alive. It’s a story, written by a man, about the last man alive in a world full of women. To say that there are some inherently problematic issues in the series from that information alone is an understatement. Many of my favorite comic book authors are men and many of my favorite comic book characters are women; that critical angle is one I encounter frequently, but Y takes it to a whole new level as nearly every character you encounter or see is female (or AFAB).

In looking back at The Last Man here, let’s explore how it inverts exploitation narratives in order to undermine them and how it uses gender as a lens through which to examine human nature.

Spoilers for the whole series, including the end, follow.

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While this page conveys a sense of emotional gravitas, it is problematic for sure. (Scan from Y: The Last Man)

Page 1 of Y: The Last Man hits us with the series premise immediately. A police officer encounters a blood-splattered passerby screaming that something’s wrong. As these two women engage in a brief conversation, the cop tells the citizen that every man on Earth, her husband and partner included, has just dropped dead; then the policewoman puts her gun to her head and we cut to the first story arc panel. That already seems to validate the stereotypes about women being too emotional for police work that kept them off the force for centuries and is seemingly not a great way to introduce the central premise. However, what’s important to note in this first page, and indeed the entire first arc, is that while the obvious trappings of the story are explicitly and excessively about gender, the reality is more that it’s about humanity as a whole. This cop isn’t suicidal because she can’t handle living in a world without men, she’s suicidal because she’s just lost both the people she cares about most and likely more than half of the people she’s close to. She’s not “giving in to emotional weakness” as these stereotypes would frame it, she’s experiencing an unimaginably traumatic personal tragedy and the simultaneous realization that Earth has just suffered an apocalyptic event. It is revealed shortly that anything with a Y chromosome—every man, male animal, male embryo, and sperm cell on Earth—has died. Billions of people are still alive, but they are presumably the last generation on Earth, as reproduction is now impossible. That is also key to remember as we look at the rest of the series: while the emotional context of the gender issues raised in Y centers around love, loss, and resilience, the scientific context centers around reproduction.

The first arc of Last Man introduces our protagonist Yorick, an escape artist and magician, and his male pet monkey Ampersand, now presumably the last males alive. As Yorick begins to realize the reality of his situation, he comes to the decision that he must find his girlfriend Beth who is in Australia (he is in New York). This sets up a big part of the meta exploitation that is often present and which surrounds some of these gender issues; namely the fact that last man alive (for a long while at least) doesn’t want to fuck anyone. While most women engage in homosexual and/or homoromantic relationships in the years that pass after the disaster, including a great many who would have generally considered themselves straight before it, the sudden loss of men doesn’t erase people’s sexuality or leave all its survivors suddenly lesbian. We do also see examples of what appear to be trans men in heterosexual relationships or working as prostitutes; while we don’t know for sure if trans men survived the event, there are still trans men and they are in demand, often by straight women, and are often shown to be prostitutes. This hints at the reality many trans women face in the real world, but it also hammers home the fact that sex drive, sexual orientation, and gender, while linked, are independent and separable from each other. Aside from explorations of sexual fluidity, this theme frequently plays out as an inversion of a standard post-apocalyptic trope: instead of a relatively few women having to constantly defend themselves against amplified rape culture, we see a male in a nearly identical situation. As the years progress, this manifests in various forms starting with him getting hit on a lot, proceeding through him needing to hide his appearance so as not to draw crowds, to eventually needing to regularly deal with threats of potential rape and other physical violence.

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Yeah, there’s a LOT of gender and sexuality stuff going on in these panels. (Scan from Y: The Last Man)

As this plays out, we also learn about the Amazons, a gang of women who believe that the death of all the men was natural selection and who violently attack anyone trying to bring back men or perpetuating patriarchal or heteronormative narratives, including the aforementioned trans men and especially Yorick. These interactions present a vision of feminism that comes off as a parody of every awful thing the “red pill crowd” thinks about feminists. They are an apocalyptic cult that embraces extremist views about gender and literally want to kill any trace of men. Honestly, while this plotline does appear to be meta exploitation, mocking the extremes of misogyny by presenting a caricature of what they fear, it does often come off as being heavy-handed. I recall finishing that first TPB and thinking “okay, it’s about gender politics, we get it, move on with the story already!”

And they do. As that arc winds to a close, we see the reality of most of these Amazons: they are, like everyone else, human beings dealing with unimaginable tragedy by desperately trying to make sense of it while focusing on survival. We also move beyond the local and start to see more of the global repercussions of the tragedy. Remember, almost all the women survived, including those in government and military as well as scientists and doctors. People who are capable of figuring out what happened and potentially preventing the extinction of almost all life still exist and they still have access to most of the world’s infrastructure. Human civilization is still human civilization; humans are still humans, no matter what chromosomes they have. Yorick’s mother, previously a member of Congress, is now Secretary of the Interior and quite influential. But the most significant female characters are Agent 355, Dr. Allison Mann, and one of the primary antagonists, Yedida “Alter” Tse’elon, who is the acting head of the Israeli military.

Dr. Mann, an ironic name to say the least, is a geneticist and the one who spends the series trying to actually fix the situation. From a global perspective, she is arguably the most important character in Last Man as she actually knows what’s going on. The reason she knows what’s going on is that she thinks she may have caused it.

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Not a situation most maternity doctors are trained for. (Scan from Y: The Last Man)

We find out that the men all died at the exact moment Dr. Mann gave (non-viable) birth to a baby clone of herself. While she is focused on actual science, she believes that by making it possible for the species to reproduce without men, she rendered men evolutionarily useless and nature (or god) compensated by killing them off. In addition to exploring the philosophical implications of scientific progress that allow us to alter the very mechanisms of the species propagation, this also begs the question of what might happen if in-vitro cloning technology (seemingly necessary for the surviving women to reproduce) is perfected, rendering women equally nonessential for propagation?

Allison is used to make one of the central feminist arguments in Last Man: gender roles are largely based on aspects of human evolution that have become irrelevant in the modern technological world. This too seems to rebut a lot of misogynistic arguments about the survival of the species. Dr. Mann’s main story arc essentially says “even if the physical differences between men and women were based on ‘natural law’, the state of nature in which they may have been useful has not existed for millennia, so what difference does it make?” Her story shows us that if we do assign social worth based solely on reproductive ability, men are less valuable, as all that is required from them is the genetic material needed to conceive. She’s used to argue that if women are only necessary for making babies, in the modern world men are almost totally unnecessary and technology may render them obsolete. This story exposes the fallacy of the “natural order” arguments many MRA types make by demonstrating that science has rendered any basis that argument might have on evolutionary biology a moot point, debunking these anachronistic views in the process. Furthermore, given her sexuality, Allison Mann also seems to reference and rebut the more specific homophobic rhetoric surrounding gay people and reproduction as a measure of their worth to society. Straight men with heteronormative views often argue that gay couples (often lesbian ones) are useless since they can’t reproduce; Dr. Mann was able to reproduce without needing a man at all, exposing that argument as pure bigotry and ignorance.

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Dr. Allison Mann eventually ends up with Rose in one of the series most compelling, deep, and emotionally fulfilling relationships. I don’t have room to talk about Rose too much but I have to at least mention her because she’s so immensely fucking cool! (Scan from Y: The Last Man)

Dr. Mann also has access to one of an incredibly few surviving men: her father, Dr. Matsumori, with whom she had a bad relationship and who is involved in the intrigue and violence surrounding both Yorick and Ampersand and the attempts to steal or stop Dr. Mann’s research. Matsumori also eventually comes to believe that he and Yorick need to die so the world can “carry on without us”. These plotlines return us to the political story involving Yorick’s mother and Alter. The relationship between Yorick and his mother is a source of some narrative tension, as the gravity of her role in government and her love for her son are regularly in conflict. She is responsible for revealing Yorick’s existence to Alter, since Israel had the most organized military at the time due to the volume of active duty women serving in their armed forces (remember, this was published before the U.S. military opened up combat roles to women). Alter becomes obsessed with capturing Yorick, ostensibly for the security of her country. It is later revealed, however, that her motivation is that she wants to die at the hands of a man and she provokes Yorick, hoping he will kill her.

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Internalized patriarchy and severe PTSD don’t excuse her behavior, but they do add depth to the character at a pivotal moment. (Scan from Y: The Last Man)

This recalls that first panel where a woman with a lifetime of service in a traditionally male-dominated profession is associated with stereotypes connecting strength to masculinity. Alter’s journey shows us in greater detail the journey we get implications of with that unnamed police officer on the first page. We see a woman who has associated success in a male-dominated field with her life’s worth and who has been overcome with grief over losing her closest friends and family. Yorick realizes that she is suicidal and when he confronts her on it, she breaks down and admits that she is so conditioned by patriarchal norms that she only thinks a man is worthy to kill her: she “wants to die in battle, and not at the hands of some girl”. The humanization of Alter and exploration of her emotional trauma’s long term effects comes, however, after she kills the most significant character aside from Yorick, Agent 355.

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Do not mess with 355. (Scan from Y: The Last Man)

355 is, to be frank, one of the most badass characters ever. She’s an elite operative for the Culper Ring, a powerful and shadowy military agency that has existed since revolutionary times (based on the real revolutionary-era organization) and is tasked by the government with finding and protecting Yorick. She initially comes off as something of a stereotype, but like most of the other characters becomes more and more humanized as the series progresses. She is shown to be a strong person, both physically as she demonstrates nearly superhuman combat skills, and emotionally as she is revealed to have lost her entire family at a young age and was the victim of racist abuse in foster care. After years of traveling together and having their relationship change numerous times, Yorick and 355 eventually realize that they are completely in love with each other. They form a bond that has both massive emotional and narrative depth—and then 355 is killed to further Yorick and Alter’s stories’ climax.

This is one of the aspects of Y: The Last Man that remains particularly controversial. It can easily be perceived as sacrificing a popular Black female character to further the story of the only white man in the books. It can also be argued that this is a form of baiting, as we get an immediate tragic end to an interracial relationship that readers have become emotionally invested in. Further, given the long arcs that precede this moment, we have become used to a world where both matriarchal social constructs and homonormativity have become the new paradigm; as a result, killing off the partner of the only cisgender man alive (paradoxically) almost feels like a form of queerbaiting.

While this aspect to the end puts a damper on my enjoyment of re-readings, it also cements Y as a series that constantly plays with exploitation tropes and gender characterization by inverting it. On the surface, The Last Man tells a parable that could easily be presented as a validation of misogynistic fantasy: a story about science gone amok and women failing to appreciate the contributions of men until it’s too late. But in reality, I see Y as both a rebuttal of that philosophy and an attempt to reach those who profess it. It presents a world where men have to hide what they are, constantly running from women who hate them for their gender or want to capture them as a prize or research subject, a world where women are in charge and men are both criticized as prudish and as being secretly duplicitous and promiscuous, a world where simply living one’s daily life as a male is risking abuse and violence. In short, it presents a world that many women live in every day and one that, I think, Y: The Last Man tries to protest. By showing us a world largely based on exploitation tropes about women and inverting those tropes, Y provides a proxy for male readers to identify with these struggles and thus sympathize, empathize, and understand the real struggles women face in the patriarchal real world.

But, as is also the case in the real world, no individual man is directly responsible for this construct; they benefit from and often perpetuate it, certainly, but no one person is ultimately responsible for their civilization’s social constructs. While this seems to let male readers off the hook on the gender themes central to Last Man, to me it makes an obvious argument that many well-meaning (real-life) men fail to grasp: while no one man is responsible for the existence of patriarchy, any individual woman will likely need to deal with its effects, and most men don’t even notice those effects even exist. This, arguably, also relates to the question of Y being written by a man and often taking a male perspective on a world of women. While this does often lead to situations that most women would find outlandish, by addressing a feminist argument to men who might otherwise be borderline hostile to that argument and wrapping it in an inversion of exploitation tropes they know well, Vaughan presents themes that are difficult to articulate. Most women would have trouble spelling out every single example of how patriarchy hinders their daily life, they “just get it” because they’ve lived it. Having not had that life experience, many men simply do not “just get” those same social constructs, but by presenting those themes through an inverted gender narrative, Y (usually) succeeds in making these themes more accessible to those men and allow them to (semi subconsciously) “just get it”. While Yorick is far from perfect and is often a straight up asshole, he provides an excellent proxy for men who haven’t really put much thought into these themes to understand them in a way that might otherwise be impossible.

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Good advice actually, granted it took him becoming the only man alive to figure it out. (Scan from Y: The Last Man)

Ultimately, while there are always more problematic moments to discover and large chunks of it are far from perfect, Y: The Last Man is one of the more interesting explorations of gender in both comics and society in recent memory. Both the characters and the art hold up incredibly well over the years, the gender politics stuff remains relevant, and, even given the tragedy surrounding its narrative inception, it’s still nice to retreat to a fantasy world where patriarchy is literally dead.

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