What kind of "South" rises from the (walking) dead?

Curator's Note

One of the most compelling elements of a zombie-centric narrative is the opportunity it affords producers to imagine social, institutional, and infrastructural orders under duress. How the world is disassembled and reconstituted—and, just as importantly, what is jettisoned, retained, and re-imagined in these processes—open up fecund spaces for tensions, commentaries, and critiques local and global in scale. The Walking Dead (TWD), AMC’s most watched original series (the mid-Season Two finale drew an estimated 6.6 million viewers according to Nielsen), is particularly interesting in this regard. It is a rare televisual iteration of the zombie narrative, and thus has access to a larger diegetic landscape than its filmic cousins. TWD also unfolds in the American South, a region of the U.S. that has come to stand in for the nation’s historically violent and systematic commitment to “race” and inequality. What becomes of this loaded term—“The South”—when a zombie apocalypse appears to collapse the institutions, infrastructures, and social relations integral to this region’s historical construction? Does this constitute a tabula rasa that breaks from the past?

As the accompanying clip from the series’ second episode (“Guts”) suggests, the show seems to foreclose such alternatives—and remain bound to history—even as it superficially gestures toward a post-apocalyptic blank slate. Merle Dixon (Michael Rooker) represents the archetypal southern white supremacist whose racialized concept of order is predicated upon violence and intimidation against myriad “others” like T-Dog (IronE Singleton). The openness with which he claims authority as the (white) “man with a gun” is a well-worn convention in depictions of overt southern racism. Rick Grimes (Andrew Lincoln) retorts with the familiar “colorblind” model wherein race ostensibly ceases to exist. When Grimes tells Dixon that “things are different now,” he confirms the implicit link between their conflict and the historical transition from pre- to post-Civil Rights era racial discourse wherein “niggers” and “white trash” are replaced by “white meat and dark meat.” If “race” supposedly vanishes in the wake of this near extinction level event, then how does such a seemingly racialized binary—between “white meat and dark meet” and between survivor and zombie—operate within the nascent social relations of the post-apocalyptic American South? How is “race” silenced and made manifest in the show’s perpetuation of white male authority? Rick Grimes may not be Merle Dixon, but why again is he in charge?


This is a very interesting post, Justin. Congrats.

In the comic books, Rick's leadership appears near the beginning but in the teleseries Shane is the guy who makes the difficult decisions. So, I think the teleseries has a problem when it tries to present Rick as a hero.

Anyway, I absolutely agree with you about the perpetuation of white male authority. However, I think if some characters from the comic book were introduced in the teleseries, this would change. Maybe Michonne, a strong black woman, could change that perception.

What do you think?

Your point is a good one! I think Shane's role in the television version of TWD recreates much the same problem posed by Rick's leadership. I've been amazed, especially after reading through many of the TWD comics, how the show forecloses leadership options beyond those offered by Merle, Shane, Rick, and Hershel. I find it fascinating and disconcerting that, at least in the case of Shane and Rick, their largely unquestioned authority stems from their identities as former police officers. Hershel's authority stems from his status as a (former?) landowner. Both roles (law enforcement, land ownership) historically imbue white males with power (not just in the so-called "South," although that is probably the most overt example in the U.S.), and I've really been interested thus far in how these post-apocalyptic relations seem to reconstitute themselves along pre-apocalyptic lines even as I think the show wants to go in a different direction where "race" gives way to a human/zombie dialectic (that is of course a racialized analogue). I think you raise a good point too in that the television series is bound to a certain extent by the parameters of the medium. Shane (who lives far longer in the tv series than in the comics) certainly acts as a foil for Rick, though I think this works to humanize him even more in the eyes of the audience (Dale emphasizes this by painting Shane as a borderline psychotic). I certainly hope that the producers introduce Michonne (she is an incredible character!), although they have already proven reluctant to provide strong characters of color--or to give the few existing characters of color a voice or identity. Even as producers insist that the show and the comics are totally separate narratives (see Shane's different lives in the comic/tv series), which would, in theory, free them to introduce whomever they please, they've remained fairly faithful to the comics while placing even more emphasis on the trials and travails of Rick's leadership even as his qualifications to lead are called into question rarely and then almost entirely by other white male authority figures like Shane and Hershel. It remains to be seen if the tv series will similarly problematize Rick and the racial politics of his authority by showing the ruthlessness with which he holds onto power (as the comics do).

Your analysis of The Walking Dead and its silencing of race is compelling, especially when taking into account the show's most recent episode, "Judge, Jury, and Executioner."  In the pivotal deliberation scene, wherein the survivors argue the fate of their prisoner, T-Dog is literally silenced.  It's troubling that the apparent consequence of a "color-blind" society is a system that still manages to render race mute when important decisions must be made.  While their democratic process opens up the floor for debate, the majority predictably falls in line with the white male cops holding guns.

As the only character denied dialogue in such a critical scene, T-Dog ostensibly does not possess a strong enough moral position to vocally defend it to the group.  Admittedly, the character has been underwritten from Day One, but his blatant exclusion from a scene that examines core individual beliefs in the service of collective progress is telling.  In a moment where humanity is paramount, T-Dog becomes sub-human, lacking a voice, a contribution to the democracy, and, perhaps most disturbingly, any semblance of moral fortitude.  


Very interesting post! I have to admit that while watching The Walking Dead, I have thought of how insane of a concept it is that the show creators and writers have to imagine a new beginning in a post-apocalyptic world. I have seen this theme arise in both television and film and I find it to be a very intriguing concept.

However, you do make a point that I have never thought of before. Why is Rick automatically made leader once he comes into contact with other survivors? He and Shane (well until recently) essentially called all the shots throughout the first and second season. The only explanation I can think of for this is that maybe it is because the group felt most protected by them because they are trained officers? I see how this reasoning worked out in the beginning because as far as the civilians knew, Rick and Shane were the only ones with actual experience and were the most fit to lead based on their career training to do just that; protect people.  What is most interesting is that others actually emerge to be just as fit to lead, if the main criteria involves the ability to provide protection. In my opinion, Daryl has proven time and time again that he can protect the group just as efficiently as Rick or Shane and it can be argued that he is equipped to lead.

Also, in terms of the lack of black characters who play a more active role- I agree that T-Dog has essentially been given no voice throughout the series, but at least Michonne will be in the mix next season! From what I have read, she is definitely a dominant black female character.

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