Everything I Learned From Working on Season One of Y: The Last Man
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Working on season one of Y: The Last Man was one of the coolest experiences of my life. I got to be in a writer's room with some of the smartest minds in the biz, and learned a ton about story structure — and how to think on your feet when your episode has to change completely for the ninth time, because we rethought the endgame of the season. But I also got a crash course in how to adapt and update a beloved classic.
In Y: The Last Man, a mysterious event kills every mammal with a Y chromosome, except for one dude named Yorick Brown, and his pet monkey Ampersand. This is the setup for an epic journey across a shattered United States with the mysterious Agent 355 and the brilliant scientist Dr. Allison Mann. It's also a vehicle for talking about what a world without patriarchy would look like, and how the survivors would rebuild, and expand to fill the spaces left by cis men. I love the comic's playful approach to genre and the madcap verve with which it keeps reinventing itself, and I'm here for the "found family" aspect with the central trio. This is the comic that made me a fan of both writer Brian K. Vaughan and artist Pia Guerra.
There's just one problem: the comic largely ignores the existence of trans people (and when it does mention us, the treatment is much worse than I had remembered.) Like many other classics, Y: The Last Man reflects the time when it was created — and when we adapt the things we love, we also have an obligation to update and improve them, especially where they have the potential to do harm to a marginalized community here and now.
The notion that killing everyone with the Y chromosome means that all the men are dead and all of the women are alive ignores the fact that plenty of women have a Y chromosome, and plenty of men don't. And both gender and biology are more complicated than many of us realize. We always have to be careful to ensure that one person's liberation doesn't cause another person's oppression.
Nick Adams, director of transgender representation at GLAAD, summed up my own feelings perfectly when he came to talk to our writers' room. Nick loved the original comic and was a fan of the characters — but there was also something at the core of the concept that could be super problematic, if we weren't careful.
The first time I met with Eli Clark, the showrunner, she said to me, "Yorick isn't really the last man, and we're going to keep showing that." Eli had already made the decision to include a trans character, Sam Jordan, as a major part of the cast, and we were going to include other trans and non-binary characters along the way.
Once I joined the staff, I realized that we needed other trans voices to be heard in the making of this show. So early on in the process, I asked a trans man, Aydin Olson-Kennedy with the L.A. Gender Center, to come and talk to the writer's room about his life and experiences. Our bookcase of resource materials included a lot of books by trans authors. And as I already mentioned, I encouraged Eli to bring in Nick Adams from GLAAD to collaborate with us. Nick ended up being pretty heavily involved in shaping our first season, to make sure that we didn't include anything in our episodes that would inadvertently suggest that chromosomes = destiny. For example, he read multiple drafts of each episode script, and gave feedback each time.
Elliot Fletcher, who plays Sam, also visited the writers' room and told us about his desire to play a character who's not defined by his transness, and who doesn't just exist as a vehicle for the audience to get a crash course in Trans 101. And I love Sam's character, and his storyline. A snarky Brooklyn theater geek trying to make his way in a world that's been thrown into chaos, he follows his best friend Hero into hell. (The publicity materials for Y describe Sam as Hero's "enabler," which is pretty accurate.) His journey mirrors Yorick's — they're both men in a world where masculinity is being both fetishized and reinvented now that almost all of the cis men are gone.
Needless to say, at no point is it suggested that Sam survived because he's "really" a woman — it's always super clear that he's a dude, the same as Yorick, and that there are still plenty of dudes around. Yorick is special because he appears to be the only one who's immune to a deadly plague, not because of his gender.
Once we had started breaking the season, it started to sink in just how important it was that we not create a TV show that gave aid and comfort to transphobic bigots. I started to see a whole new wave of transphobia rising up. For example, a certain author of wizard-school books started to air her opinions about trans people while we were in the middle of planning the season. Two different friends of mine, who I would have sworn were cool, came out as TERFs, around the same time. I would leave the writer's room and start scrolling through Twitter, and my heart would wring like a freaking dishcloth. I had some sleepless nights in 2019, worrying about how this resurgent movement would affect my friends, and feeling scared that our show could be part of making things worse.
Meanwhile, I was realizing that there had been a ton of books in recent years that featured similar scenarios to the one in Y: The Last Man: all (or almost all) of the cis men die off. There were also books and comics in which cis women get superpowers. And I was seeing that almost all of these works were being criticized for not having trans characters, ignoring the existence of trans people altogether, or leaning on biological essentialism. Across the board, people were imagining futures without cis men, or where cis women become more powerful, and they weren't thinking about the rest of us at all.
(See this newsletter article by Danny Lavery, which I forwarded to my boss as soon as I saw it — and which spurred another round of intense conversations about making sure we did better.)
I've heard from other folks who were the only member of a marginalized group in writers' rooms, and I know that this can be an uncomfortable situation sometimes — but luckily, everyone working on Y was incredibly supportive and found ways to reassure me that I was there as a writer, not just as a representative of trans people. Which is the way it should be: we should bring all of ourselves to every collaboration, not just our marginalizations.
Still, I was hugely privileged to get to be a part of such a high-profile television show, and to help adapt such a beloved story. I'm also privileged in general — most trans people haven't had it as easy as I have, especially Black and Brown trans folk. These two interwoven strands of privilege came with a huge responsibility to be a voice in the writers' room for those who might be harmed if we fucked this up.
In the end, it wasn't enough to just include trans characters, or to avoid spreading misinformation about what makes a man or a woman. We had to educate our viewers about how complicated and beautiful human biology and gender really are, and how little say our chromosomes have about who we become. I encouraged everyone to read Evolution's Rainbow by trans evolutionary biologist Joan Roughgarden, which talks about the real diversity of gender and sexuality in nature (and she also dunks on what a hot mess the Y chromosome is.) How did we provide this education on screen? Let's just say it's a good thing that one of our main characters is a queer geneticist.
I'm not going to promise we did everything perfectly — we're fallible humans, television is a huge machine with many moving parts, and I wasn't in charge of anything — but I can say that we were aware of the pitfalls of our premise, and we kept talking about ways to mitigate them.
When you update a beloved-but-problematic story, you shouldn't have to choose between fixing the problems and preserving the stuff you love. You can trust that expanding the picture to include everyone who has been left out will only make the story better, and that questioning the assumptions at the root of the story will lead to a smarter version. Y: The Last Man is a thought experiment that asks big questions about gender and human nature — and including more variables only makes an experiment more robust. I'm super proud of the work we did on Y, including all the ways we updated this amazing story, and I can't wait for you all to see it.
Music I Love Right Now
I'm super into Stand For Myself by Yola right now. It's a gorgeous soul album that sounds kind of retro a lot of the time -- its "symphonic soul" sound could have come right out of the late 1960s or early 1970s, with tight beats drenched in horns and organ. But when you get about halfway through, it starts to feel more like its own thing, with a mix of genres and some more stripped-down arrangements. What unifies the whole thing is Yola's incredible voice, which just rings out with life and her determination to live her own life. I've been listening to it nonstop the past few week.
I mentioned at the top of the newsletter that I've been publishing a lot of stuff lately. My young adult novel Victories Greater Than Death came out in April, and my aforementioned writing-advice book, Never Say You Can't Survive, came out a couple weeks ago. And I have the short story collection, Even Greater Mistakes, coming out in mid-November. You can order signed and personalized copies of my books from two San Francisco bookstores: Folio Books and Booksmith, and they'll ship anywhere in the U.S. and Canada.
I did a wonderful event with Interior Chinatown author Charles Yu, and you can watch a replay here. Also, I had a great conversation with A Master of Djinn author P. Djeli Clark, which you can still watch right here. I've also been doing a lot of Instagram Live conversations with some amazing authors, and you can watch all of those here. I'm going to be on Instagram Live with V.E. Schwab (The Invisible Life of Addie LaRue) on Saturday 9/11 at noon PT.