According to the back cover copy on Robert Kirkman’s The Walking Dead graphic novel, “The world of commerce and frivolous necessity has been replaced by a world of survival and responsibility.” This zombie narrative is about the competition among possible masculinities in a state of nature. The apocalypse is a playground for (blue-collar, white) men’s fantasies of masculinity in it's most authentic form (read "survival" + "responsibility"), in this case that of Rick, although other male characters such as Shane and Glenn provide some nuance. The AMC adaptation emphasizes this focus in the fact that characters are summarily dispatched as soon as the gender performance they demonstrate is proven undesirable (consider Merle’s racism, Jim’s sensitivity, Ed’s abuse of power and even Amy’s non-violent utility). The problem with state of nature arguments is that they invariably stress the need of the weak to be protected by, and submissive to, the powerful. Worse, by literally killing off other possiblities, they naturalize existing power relations.
The first season of The Walking Dead made some serious missteps when it came to its portrayal of women. The second season seemed determined to earn an Emmy in misogyny. Yet, as a fan of both TWD and AMC’s gender nostalgia romp Mad Men, I find myself, like some others, hoping that depicting misogyny can itself be a critique of misogyny.
Unfortunately, I find Amy and Andrea’s conversation in the fishing boat (S1E4) to be quite telling of the series’ sexual politics. This scene stands out as a genuine moment of female character development and identification (despite failing to pass the Bechdel test) and, viewed in isolation, would have been as fitting on Lifetime as in AMC’s zombie series. What this scene underscores is not misogyny, but rather the inability of the writers to imagine women in a post-apocalyptic world. The unfortunate implication is that women have nothing to gain in an apocalypse fantasy. That Amy and Andrea’s dialog would be identical had their father passed peacefully in his retirement home tells us that, in the view of this series, there are no modern institutions constraining women. Women, unlike men, already exist in an authentic state of nature. Even being oppressed itself is a male privilege.
zombies and positive apocalypse?
In Hollywood from Vietnam to Reagan, Robin Wood celebrated Romero's vision of a positive (or perhaps he called it regenerative?) apocalypse. The idea was that much of the progressive potential of the zombie film rested in the fact that Romero was interested in the possibility of rethinking the existing social order. Could capitalism and patriarchy really persist after the end of the world? Or could something new be imagined? (Tom Zarek raised exactly these issues in Battlestar Gallactica. Things ultimately went REALLY badly for him, but I appreciated the effort.) Romero should not have a monopoly on the use of zombies for social critique. But when zombies are NOT used for social critique, in a meaningful way, it really irks me. I don't think the Walking Dead is completely lacking in ideas, and I appreciate the interesting comments that have been raised about the show's racial and regional politics. As far as gender goes--and I say this as someone who has only seen season one--TWD is terribly disappointing. It's the end of the world, but MEN and their pressing need to PROTECT their women and children are still the name of the game here. Remember the female protagonist in Dawn of the Dead declining marriage and insisting on instruction in how to shoot guns and fly helicopters? That kind of independent female initiative is unthinkable in this world. In sum, thank you Adryan for your apt critique of TWD. Like you, I am always hopeful that depicting misogyny can end up critiquing it. Sometimes this can happen quite unexpectedly. (The Wire sometimes achieved this, though one doubts it was fully intentional). From what I've seen, though, the farthest TWD can go in terms of progressive critique is to show unequivocally that wife beating is bad. Do we really need a zombie narrative to spread this rather uncontroversial message? Romero's most recent zombie film, Survival of the Dead (2009), was barely seen, and, frankly, it's not his greatest. But it ends with the rather poignant and disturbing image of two men--archenemies in life, now zombies--shooting each other over and over again, as if caught in a loop. Even dead, these two persist in their pointless, macho attempts at domination. Rather than naturalizing existing power relations, as per above, Romero points to the senseless brutality of humanity's "natural order."
Thanks Adryan for the post. I've been looking forward to this week's IMR focus on TWD. ***Spoilers ahead***
The most recent episode, "Judge, Jury, Executioner" underscored for me where I fear series is headed. The women were literally silent at crucial moments during the episode-long debate about capital punishment and the role of humanity in post-apocalyptic zombie land.
I was also terribly disappointed to see characters that have expertise (Andrea was a civil rights lawyer) or a long held opinion (Rick mentions that Lori is against the death penalty) shut their mouths and cast their eyes down. Their silence was deafening and sounded all too familiar in light recent conservative attempts to silence or chastise women as the GOP "debates" women's reproductive health and other "issues of conscience."
I'm heartened to see that these actions have only embolden women and strengthened women's organizations. For TWD however, the only role women played in "Judge, Jury, Executioner" was to (once again) provide justification for male violence. Rick is convinced that the prisoner is guilty by associating with a rival group who, apparently, raped two teenage girls while the girls' father was forced to watch. Yes, that old, tired trope.
Might humanity, should zombies ever rise, regress to the gender relations of the Neolithic period? Perhaps. But that story has been told countless times. I'm still hoping TWD complicates the zombie genre (a la Romero) and critiques the "natural" patriarchal order. Hopefully the writers give that critique some bite, unlike the episode a few weeks ago that pitted women against women when Andrea responded to Lori's accusastion that she doesn't do enough housework! Shoot me in the head if that is TWD's idea of a social critique.
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