From apocalyptic wastelands to plane crashes and shipwrecks, today’s most popular media offers an alternate model of meritocracy—but the message is not as progressive as it looks
Aside from the abandoned malls, there’s one thing late-stage capitalism and the zombie apocalypse has in common: ethical consumption is hard to come by. As journalist Jo Livingstone explains in her article “There’s No Such Thing as Ethical Grocery Shopping,” something as simple as buying shrimp for dinner could implicate you in slave labor—just one of the many “half-known” (yet all-American) horrors that characterize our day-to-day experience in the West: We have access to countless goods and services, but because so many others do not, one man’s privilege is often another’s oppression.
Yet despite (or perhaps because of) all the modern amenities at our fingertips, Americans love to watch survival stories—where, rather than a labyrinthian flow chart of problematic supply chains, their characters are faced with a simpler imperative: kill or be killed. From Yellowjackets to Triangle of Sadness and The Last of Us, these narratives scratch a familiar itch—because, much as contemporary “eat the rich” storylines promise to satisfy our craving for economic justice, survivalist dramas offer a new model of meritocracy: one where blue-collar workers have the opportunity to become kings among men, should their practical skills outstrip those of their wealthier counterparts.
In Ruben Östlund’s satirical drama Triangle of Sadness, the collapse of a luxury cruise ship leaves its inhabitants stranded on a deserted island, and the ship’s former toilet manager, Abigail (Dolly De Leon), is the only one possessing any wilderness survival skills—leading her to become head honcho overnight. Similarly, when a plane crashes in Yellowjackets, the high school pecking order is flipped; the popular and beautiful Jackie Taylor (Ella Purnell), captain of the soccer team, quickly loses social standing, while the eccentric outcast Misty Quigley (Samantha Hanratty), soon proves essential to the group due to her superior medical knowledge and disconcerting lack of squeamishness. So what do the oppressed do when they suddenly have all the power—and would they wield it differently, had they not been mistreated in the first place?
“Much as contemporary ‘eat the rich’ storylines promise to satisfy our craving for economic justice, survivalist dramas offer a new model of meritocracy: one where blue-collar workers have the opportunity to become kings among men.”
In Triangle of Sadness, it takes little time for Abigail to adopt the opulent lifestyle of those she once served. Soon, she’s using her newfound sway to solicit the sexual services of a male model, Carl (Harris Dickinson), in exchange for securing safe shelter; she’s taking a bigger share of the food, and calling all the shots, seemingly gleeful at how the tables have turned. So when Abigail and Carl’s girlfriend and fellow supermodel Yaya (Charlbi Dean) discover that they are, in fact, stranded outside of a luxury resort, Abigail doesn’t rejoice in the revelation. The movie ends (spoilers!) with Abigail creeping up behind her, a large rock raised in hand, as an oblivious Yaya cries with joy, suggesting that when they return to polite society, she’ll help Abigail find better work—perhaps as her assistant.
In Yellowjackets, Misty makes a similar choice. Having overheard her classmates whispering about how they would be “totally dead without her,” she chooses to secretly destroy the group’s flight recorder—ensuring that they’ll remain stranded in the wilderness, where she’s deemed an essential member of the group. Rather than returning to a society where they don’t enjoy these privileges, both Misty and Abigail are willing to put other people’s lives on the line to secure their position—driving home the idea that it’s a dog-eat-dog world, and the people in power would do well to hold on to it, lest the roles be reversed.
Similarly, HBO’s new survival drama The Last of Us takes place in a world where morality is radically relative. In this case, it’s not because its characters are stranded in the wilderness, but because twenty years ago, a mutant fungus transformed much of the US population into cannibalistic zombies—yet the real tragedies that occur often aren’t at the hands of monsters, but by those of his fellow man. When the people of Kansas City overthrow the abusive regime of FEDRA—which had allegedly been raping and murdering them for years—the leader of the revolution, Kathleen (Melanie Lynskey), is quick to replicate these tactics, and not just against her oppressors.
“It’s clear that we like watching the world get turned upside-down, and with it, the status quo—yet despite offering this second chance at the American dream, these underdog stories often miss the mark.”
It’s clear that we like watching the world get turned upside-down, and with it, the status quo—yet despite offering this second chance at the American dream, these underdog stories often miss the mark by driving home the message that, if given the same power as their former oppressors, everyday people would wield it just as unfairly, despite evidence to the contrary. It’s a stark contrast to earlier class critiques like Knives Out, in which Marta Cabrera (Ana de Armas) prevails out of “pure goodness”; in fact, she’s so morally pure she can’t help but throw up if she tells a lie.
The central appeal uniting these stories is that, outside the parameters of the society we know, we’re forced to ask ourselves questions about human nature—and whether you believe people are inherently good or evil, the reversal of power dynamics has a way of bringing out the worst in us. Coupled with the modern appetite for watching rich people suffer, this tendency has been been milked for laughs in anti-capitalist blockbusters like The Menu and Glass Onion—both of which are also entrapment-slash-survival fantasies, in which the rich and the poor are trapped together by inescapable circumstance, whether on a boat for foodies or a private island.
The appeal of watching powerful people suffer has yet to pass—but while it has revolutionary roots, the mainstream recognition of anti-capitalist art like Bong Joon-ho’s Parasite has spawned its own, high-grossing cinematic genre, populated with feel-good imitations that lack the radical politics of the original. As this familiar setup leaks into other genres of media, it’s worth examining the ways in which many of these stories seem to subvert the status quo, yet replicate its logic. Like the countless capitalist-as-cannibalist metaphors gracing today’s cinematic roster, many of these critiques don’t have much bite—and it’s starting to get stale.