Race and Gender in the Walking Dead
In any post-apocalyptic fiction, issues of gender and race will inevitably arise as humanity fights for survival in a dangerous world. As society’s barriers of social conduct break down, the post-apocalyptic text raises questions of cultural, social and racial identity. This shift in social interactions is perhaps best exemplified in the post-apocalyptic zombie television series, The Walking Dead. The world of The Walking Dead is harsh, brutal, and frightening and as the remnants of humanity, after a global zombie outbreak, fight to survive; issues of people coming together in common goal of survuval reflect racial and gender politics found today. In this sense, post-apocalyptic narrative s are relevant and forces readers to examine their own attitudes toward race and gender and ask if the world today is not as different as the hellish zombie future seen in the television show.
The Walking Dead (Kirkman 2010-2013 ), originally premiered as a comic book series by writer Robert Kirkman with artists Tony Moore and Charlie Adlard. The series was received positively by audiences and quickly spawned prose book and television versions. The television series was developed by Frank Darabont and is consistently one of the most popular genre specific programs on television. The series attracts a broad audience base and generates substantial social media buzz with a global fan base that has fueled the series’ success. Basically, it is a show about zombies trying to eat people but what has consistently drawn viewers is its focus on the human element of survival. The zombies (never called zombies but “walkers”) amost seem secondary to the issues of survival, as the characters would face the same survival issues if the setting were post-nuclear war or post-natural disaster: the need to find food and shelter and to maintain safety from those who seek to steal and deprive food and shelter through violence, something tribes of humans have dealt with before the forming of social contracts, community, and government.
The Walking Dead focuses on the daily events of a group of survivors of a zombie apocalypse and how they cope with the trauma of living in a hostile world. This group, led by sheriff deputy Rick Grimes, has moved from Atlanta, Georgia, to north of Georgia in the current season. The moral centers have been upended and replaced by a fearful world of constant paranoia where loved ones and friends die and harsh decisions must be made for the good of the group. The group starts off small but grows as people are added, is depleted as groups are killed, and combines efforts as battles occur between groups and survivors come together for mutual benefit. The group faces racial tension as some are white power racists, some are Asian and black; each group member comes from different social classes with varied views of race, gender, and how a society of people should work. There are occasional power plays, but for the most part, the agreement of the group is that Rick Grimes is the leader who makes the best decisions for all.
For all its human element, the show revolves around a supernatural premise and as such, it abides by certain genre conventions. The Walking Dead is cinematic, melodramatic, and larger than life and uses the language of genre cinema to tell its story. This, coupled with the presence of classic literary elements such as the heroic leader, a romantic interest, and a makeshift family of survivors is designed to appeal to a broad audience base. Much of The Walking Dead is purposefully artificial but if we look at it from the perspective of its characters, we gain a different understanding of real worldsocial issues. It is important to divide our understanding of this world in terms of its ‘real’ vs. ‘unreal’ attributes, examining how the show was designed on a larger scale while attempting to empathize with the characters and understand the text from their perspective.
The Walking Dead appropriates both race and gender in the new societal structure focused on survival. The traditional conventions of American social interactions are upended, for better or worse and social interactions are reduced to the most primitive survival structures. To understand how this works, The Walking Dead accomplishes this societal shift in a universal theme. It is important to understand zombie survivors as representations of human society, and how leadership can be a territory of race and gender, while survival is seen as a competition that traditionally favors a white male authority figure. Rick faces several challengers to his role as leader, all of whom he finds a way of getting rid of: one, a white racist, he handcuffs to a building and leaves behind to be killed by zombies; another, his best friend and romantic rival for his wife, he shoots in the head; a third, ‘the Governor’ of a rival community of survivors, he uses military action to take the community down and integrate the survivors of the conflict into his community of people under his leadership. Rick is not portrayed as a power-hungry alpha male the way ‘the Governor’ is, and in fact he often seems reluctant to have the role; it seems that others turn to his leadership as a former police officer, an icon of authority in the society they once knew. However, Rick’s main objective is to keep his son and baby daughter safe, along with the close-knit original group that he relies on to help him with his children. He does not trust anyone else to take a leadership role, so must do it himself.
The Walking Dead is built on a longstanding tradition of zombie culture and cinema. The first zombie film in America, White Zombie, premiered in the 1930’s (Roberts, 2012); it is about people dealing with the effects of recession and unemployment as a fictional representation of the recent economic crash of the previous decade and the Depression of the 1930s. For the most part, zombies represented the working poor who wandered from town to town in search of sustenance. This film also had its fair share of racist undertones, particularly if we understand zombies to be part of the steadily increasing immigrant culture in the United States (Cardin 2010). After the success of White Zombie, more films followed suit, but it wasn’t until 1968 that zombie fiction became a part of cult cinema with George Romero’s classic, Night of the Living Dead. Romero’s zombie film redefined the mythology of zombies as creatures that were brought back to life with the need to feed on the living, often human brains (Roberts, 2012). This tradition of zombie literature perpetuated through various forms of media (film, fiction, comic books), finally culminating with The Walking Dead. The zombie-like have appeared in films such as The Omega Man, about survivors of a disease that has left the inflicted unable to live in daylight and who create a religion around the disease and Invasion of the Body Snatchers, about survivors of an alien invasion where vegetable-based aliens re-create human bodies and take over society. These narratives have been seen as reflections on issues of conformity, especially during the 1950s and the Cold War, commenting on the dangers of being followers of a single way of life as perpetuated by governments. These types of genre fictions are reflections of social order, social contracts, and leadership.<…>
The racial thinking that privileges Rick for being white goes hand in hand with the sexist mentality that privileges him for being male. Sexism is not just about glorifying the male; it is also about degrading the female, putting women on a level lower in terms of intellect, strength, and importance. Such is seen in the roles assigned to Lori, Maggie, and in part to Michonne. While Rick is seen as troubled, it is only because he puts his family as his foremost concern; on the other hand, Lori’s flaw is her having an affair with Shane, strong-willed Maggie’s weakness is Glenn, and Michonne is best left on her own as a possible lesbian; there has yet to be seen any overt homosexuals and this might be because homosexuals do not represent biological reproduction in a world where reproduction is necessary if the species is to continue on (as represented by the baby Lori has, and then dying in child birth). Women in this narrative are put at odds with the hero or somehow removed from situations where they might upstage the white male protagonist. Women, in this basically primitive and tribal society, are reduced to their traditional roles of housekeepers, lovers, and wives. Women who do not fit into that mold cannot exist in Rick’s survivor society because they are a threat to the idea that only white males can make a difference. An example of this is a recent episodes where Rick banishes Carol from the group because she made a bold decision to burn and kill two people with a flu virus that has been severely affecting the group, killing some. She made this decision when he was gone and Rick finds this a threat to his male-centric role as absolute leader; while he defends his decision to oust her as necessary for trust, it seems he is just angry that she has agency over his overall white male leadership. In is interesting to note that Carol, over the series, has gone from a submissive woman in a domestic violence relationship, loses her child to zombie bite, and becomes a strong-willed leader in her own right, teaching the children how to kill zombies without Rick’s consent.
The show’s privileging of white males goes beyond the script and extends to its audience. The white hero role that Rick occupies shows its limitations in terms of character as it exists primarily as a means for white male viewers to use Rick as a self-insert. Rick’s character is not that interesting. His main goals are to kill the walkers and just live quietly. While most people would behave similarly in this situation, Rick is expected to be a dynamic character according to the conventions of modern cinema. Thus, his lack of meaningful character development can be seen as an effort to make Rick as unremarkable as possible so that the white male viewers can easily use him as a vicarious self-insert character. White heterosexual males are meant to imagine themselves in Rick’s scenario and enjoy his adventures as vicarious wish fulfillment, if a presenting situation was dire, such male viewers could envision themselves giving rise to the occasion and leading people through a zombie apocalypse. By contrast, there is no one for non-white, non-male viewers to emphasize with because rarely do non-white, non-male characters affect the story meaningfully. This sends the message that all power should be held by individuals who fit a narrow set of qualifications and those that don’t fit those qualifications are not fit to have their story told.
Despite this, looking at fan websites on the Internet, female fans appear to find the women in The Walking Dead admirable. At the blog, The Female Gaze (www.femalegazereview.com), the blogger points out that the women of the show have wider roles than in traditional zombie films, where women are usually led around by the hand of men who protect them, and are relegate to victims. The blogger praises Carol for overcoming her role as a submissive woman to a violent husband, Maggie for choosing an Asian male lover, and Michonne for being ‘badass’ with her sword. However, the blogger also expresses distaste in Lori, for playing the two men in her life and being contradictory in her attitudes, and Andrea for sleeping with the enemy and rejecting the insinuated lesbian relationship with Michonne. It appears, from looking at various websites, that Walking Dead fans are heated in their opinions of characters and situations: some are dismayed at the white heterosexual male hero aspects of the series while other defend it not as a matter of race and gender, but circumstance and necessity—that is, Rick is a cop with leadership and survival training, and no one else in the group has the make-up for leadership. This is the convenience of having characters instead of real people; one can write in what works with all the other elements in the group. In this case, the effects of the white male dominance are not truly meant negatively. For the most part, they are welcomed and written in as part of the group dynamics in severe circumstances. This is problematic in and of itself because it seems to reinforce the idea that society can only function with a strong white authority figure ruling over the non-white and non-male populace.
The Walking Dead, at first viewing, will always put forth the question of how to survive in a world after a zombie apocalypse. In a world where the conventions of society are upturned, it suggests that everyone should defer to the nearest white male authority figure who should take responsibility for protecting those who follow him. The problem with this mentality should be apparent; the stories and struggles of white men are not the only stories worth telling. Genre shows need to take strides in portraying people and women of color in positions of authority. Neglecting to do so reinforces the false idea that only white males matter. This is the same issue with another post-apocalyptic teevision show, Revolutions, where white males are the leaders, although there are strong female and black male characters, it is basically another white male hero narrative. The truth of the matter is that as society’s barriers break down, it is unlikely that people will follow the same flawed social structures that have plagued the United States in the past. As the world falls apart, social conventions governing racial and gender roles will fall with it, leading to more diverse societies not reliant on the white male influence.
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