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The Rise of Girly Cannibalism

I love cannibalism. 

Not in an Armie Hammer way. Barring the most extenuating of circumstances, I am not into actually eating human flesh. What I am into is watching fictional characters eat human flesh. 

Cannibalism as a literary theme is nothing new. Beowulf and The Odyssey both feature it — Grendel ritualistically feasts on the inhabitants of Heorot, and the Laestrygonians kill and eat Odysseus’s crew. As long as humans have eaten meat, we’ve looked at the muscles on each other’s bodies and asked ourselves: why do I feel weird about eating THAT animal? 

The Rise of “Girly” Cannibalism

Lately, I’ve been fascinated with the wave of distinctly feminine cannibalism in media and art. As someone who has been on Tumblr for the better part of the last decade, I’m pretty familiar with masculine cannibalism à la Hannibal discourse and gifsets. Cannibalism as power, cannibalism as sex, cannibalism as emasculation, etc. etc. etc. That’s not the kind of cannibalism I want to talk about. 

Though I’m hesitant to gender a concept like literary cannibalism, several pieces of media in the last few years examine cannibalism as a feminine experience. Cannibalism becomes a symbol of obsession, of self-loathing, of sapphic homoeroticism. Scenes where women eat each other have become our generation’s Top Gun volleyball scene.  

Three pieces of media that I think best demonstrate what “girly cannibalism” is capable of are Yellowjackets, Preacher’s Daughter, and Bones and All

Yellowjackets: Cannibalism As Domination And Homoeroticism 

Yellowjackets is probably the buzziest Girly Cannibalism Story right now. The Showtime series follows a high school girl’s soccer team as they crash-land in the Canadian forest and end up ritualistically eating each other. While survival cannibalism drives the story, of course, the act of eating their teammates becomes a lot more than that. 

The very first act of cannibalism is a pregnant Shauna eating the ear of her frozen dead best friend, Jackie. Shauna and Jackie’s toxic, homoerotic, obsessive friendship is one of the driving emotional forces for the first two seasons, as they grow and change into different people but refuse to let each other go. Shauna eats the ear because she needs to keep a piece of Jackie as her own. Being Jackie’s friend was not enough; fucking Jackie’s boyfriend was not enough. She needs a piece of Jackie within her. If she could never tell Jackie that she loved her, could never have Jackie in the way she hated to admit she wanted…this was the next best thing.

See, Jackie is the first girl that they all ate. They go to burn her body, but snow falls on the pyre, leading to a delicious twelve-hour-slow-cooked Jackie roast. After starving for multiple weeks, the girls (and Travis) are unable to hold back, indulging greedily in a Bacchanal of Jackie Meat–and Shauna takes the first bite. 

The show represents this as a feast — something sinfully good, instead of an act of desperation and depravity. It’s both. The girls are deeply ashamed to be eating their former team captain. They try to tell themselves it was out of necessity. But they all wanted a piece of Jackie. They wanted to tear Jackie apart. They wanted to take her meat from her bones and teach her a damn lesson. 

It matters a lot that Jackie is the first one they eat. Once the popular, capable team captain, Jackie is entirely unsuited for life in the wilderness. She doesn’t pull her weight, complains about chores, and makes herself generally unpopular among the other girls. This isn’t to say that Jackie is a bad person; she’s a teenage girl who is not coping with this situation very well. But she’s also trapped in a cabin full of other teenage girls who wanted to eat her alive long before the plane crashed. 

In the old world, her teammates had the teenage-girl feeling of “do I want to fuck her, be her, or kill her?” toward Jackie. But once she was stripped of the things that mattered in the civilized world–a leadership position, respect from authority figures, and admiration of her peers–she became touchable. Breakable. Edible. The girls were all on even ground, and they realized it long before Jackie did. Eating her flesh was the natural endpoint of their jealousy/hatred/love. 

After all, if you were starving in a forest and your eleventh grade frenemy was slow-cooked on a pyre, wouldn’t you relish in eating her, too? 

Preacher’s Daughter: Cannibalism As Americana

Preacher’s Daughter is the dark indie alt-rock darling album of 2022. It tells the story of Ethel Cain, a young woman who grows up in a conservative Southern Baptist home and ultimately meets her end in a California basement. Her lover, Isaiah, kills and eats her. It’s gotten a lot of publicity as the “religious trauma cannibalism album”, but I want to examine it as a piece of Americana. 

In an interview with Sophie Leigh Walker, Hayden Anhedonia described the story of Ethel Cain as “the casualty of being an All-American girl.” Isaiah’s choice to eat Ethel, I believe, is an extension of his American identity. Ethel’s fate is an extension of hers as well. 

When Ethel initially meets Isaiah in “Thoroughfare” and goes west with him, it’s a deeply American love story: they bounce between motels and small-town diners, dream of the proverbial and mythological American West, Isaiah’s “western sunshine” meets Ethel’s “deep southern wet”. Their love is as American as daisy dukes and parking-lot fistfights. Thus the end of their story is equally American. 

Modern American culture is centered around consumption. We consume each other’s lives online. We consume resources. We consume art (and write articles on the internet about it). Our world revolves around purchasing, buying, using, and consuming. To be an American is to take everything in and make it our own. In Preacher’s Daughter, Isaiah is a red-blooded American man, primed to consume all he can. Once he makes it out West and has steady access to drugs and religion again, his mindset of consumption extends to Ethel’s body.  

In contrast, Ethel is raised to be consumed. She escapes a restrictive religious childhood and an abusive father only to be sucked into an equally repressive world. In “Gibson Girl”, Ethel isn’t empowered or sexually awakened by stripping and doing drugs. She’s traded one form of ownership for another. Worst of all, she’d been taught to revel in it. In becoming an All-American Girl, she dooms herself to consumption. Or perhaps she truly starts to want it. 

In “Strangers”, the closing track of the album, Ethel speaks to Isaiah from the afterlife and tells him “I just wanted to be yours/Can I be yours?” and “I'm happier here 'cause he told me I should be/You're so handsome when I'm all over your mouth”. Even once murdered and eaten, Ethel admires her blood-soaked killer. To be loved as an All-American Girl is to be consumed by those who want you. To love in America is to give yourself as a sacrifice and thank him for the pleasure. 

Bones and All: Cannibalism As Original Sin

I’ll be honest: the film Bones and All was the hardest piece of cannibal media for me to parse out. It is rich with symbolism, and the way it uses cannibalism resists a snappy, cut-and-dry, internet-article interpretation. Many sources I saw online talked about how the film uses cannibalism as a metaphor for generational trauma, and yeah. Sure. I’ll buy that. But I think that’s an oversimplification of it. Or, at least, it’s zeroing in on something more specific than the story demands. 

The read that I’ve settled on is that cannibalistic urges in Bones and All are a symbol of sin. “Eating” represents sin as an innate desire to hurt others, one you cannot overcome with prayer or Good Thoughts. Bones and All inspects the ugly but human desire to harm, and the circumstances that bring us to that point: an intimate moment with a new friend that scares and confuses you, seeing a drunk asshole in a grocery store, finding a convenient almost-dead woman and knowing no one will stop you

By the rules of Bones and All, some people truly do not feel the desire to sin, to cause harm. But those who do can literally smell it on each other. Does it make Eaters bad? Not necessarily. It just makes them sinners. 

This is what makes it so terrifying when Lee and Maren come across Bradley–a hillbilly who is not an Eater by necessity, but by choice. Maren asks him “so you don’t have to do this?!” and immediately locks herself in the truck when she finds out. If you found out someone was exempt from original sin, and chose to sin nonetheless, wouldn’t that be horrifying? Isn’t it comforting to believe that our capacity to harm was bestowed upon us, rather than acknowledging that we, too, choose to sin? 

The first two-thirds of the movie builds toward a confrontation between Maren and her estranged mother. Maren’s mother, driven mad by her desire to eat human flesh, checked herself into an asylum. She eventually ate her own hands and a leg to satisfy her appetite. When Maren finds her, her mother immediately attempts to eat her. 

I think this is not an act of insanity, or an act of trauma; she is trying to protect her daughter from further staining her soul. Her mother is willing to commit filicide to ensure Maren doesn’t become a slave to her own sin. I will commit an atrocity so you won’t have to, she seems to say.

Most importantly, though, the appetite is not something that she can overcome. Her mother has done the “morally right” thing in this situation: to protect others from her appetite, she has sought treatment, sought medication, and locked herself away. The things that could have “fixed” her didn’t work. 

This is why I resist the interpretation of cannibalism as generational trauma; I don’t think the story has that bleak a view of generational trauma. Trauma is escapable. Sin is not. When Maren eats Lee at the end, it’s an act of love, but it is also an act of harm. Bones and All shows that the two are entangled, and that to love wholly, we must also recognize our capacity to sin. 

Why Now? 

So what spurred the Cannibal Renaissance of the Early 2020s? 

Yes, time is a flat circle and no stories are new anymore–but certain tropes and symbols become popular for a reason. So what about modern life makes cannibals so alluring? 

It could be a reaction to the way we socialize with others in the Panopticon Age Golden Age of Social Media. Almost all our friendships have a consumptive element to them. When you scroll through someone’s Insta feed at 2am or read through their tweets from 2019, it can feel almost like eating them alive–taking in pieces of their online self and making it part of your lived experience. 

It could also be a gay thing! As many forms of previously-forbidden love become less forbidden, queer storytellers need ways to represent how radical it can feel to accept yourself. Yes, we have Pride festivals and Drag Brunches, but many of us grew up being told that queerness was evil and sinful and something that hurts those around us. Many of us still hear that rhetoric. Repressing our queerness can feel like second nature, even if it’s a lot safer to be out and proud nowadays.The act of same-sex attraction once felt as taboo as the desire to eat someone alive, and even though things are better now, we’re still struggling with what we learned growing up. When we watch Shauna eat Jackie’s ear because it’s the only way she can express that she’s in love with her, we understand. 

But there's a broader appeal of cannibalism-as-metaphor, too. Remember that tweet that went viral a few years ago, where the OP shared that cruelly clinical text template to tell a friend “I am at capacity and don’t think I can hold space for you right now”? Cleverer people than me have clowned on this tweet, but I think it’s indicative of the way our culture treats mental illness and flawed behavior. Underneath so much of our cultural conversation around therapy, mental health, trauma, and self-acceptance is the idea that your struggles inherently harm others. I’m not saying this is an entirely bad thing–untreated mental illness can absolutely harm people, and taking accountability for that harm is essential for healing. But centering this harm creates a shame-based motivation system for seeking mental health support. You are told that there is something inherently broken about you that hurts others, even though you’re just trying to vent to a friend over text. 

I think Maren and Lee are most emblematic of this, and Bones and All makes a point to say that shame-based healing won’t work. It’s what Maren’s mother attempts, and she ends up eating her own damn hands. Lee and Maren are only happy once they choose to live freely and bring that which they are most ashamed of right to the surface. 

This framing of therapy and healing as something we do to protect the people we love, rather than a way to help ourselves, creates a culture ripe for cannibal media. When you struggle with your mental health in a shame-based culture, you can convince yourself that being too depressed to text your friends for two weeks is equal to biting off their fingers at a sleepover. We love cannibalism as a metaphor for what we hate about ourselves, because the emotional harm we cause by accident feels as real and grisly as eating our friend’s flesh. 

Or maybe there’s just a lot more Armie Hammer types out there. I sure hope not.


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