The Yellow Peril rises from the grave... to get your White women! Orientalist themes in zombie stories

Curator's Note


In zombie stories and Orientalist fiction, there are fates worse than death.  In zombie stories, it’s becoming one of the undead.  In Orientalist fiction, it’s living in a world in which the Oriental dominates the West – economically, culturally, physically – and sexually. 


Gina Marchetti’s work has highlighted sexual themes in Orientalist stories, including gang rape, sexual slavery, and racial pollution.  In this video collage, I’ve cut together video and images to compare themes in zombie and Orientalist stories.  I invite your comments and feedback.


Zombies’ hunger for flesh symbolizes more than just gluttony.  We can also interpret “flesh” as sexuality (e.g., “fleshpots” refers to sex workers), particularly White women’s sexuality.  Orientalism has represented “the Oriental” as a sexual threat to White women and White racial purity.  Asian, Arab, and Muslim men have long been cast as perversely lustful sexual predators, looming over terrorized White women. In 2008, Lan Dong said, “One of the most potent aspects of the Yellow Peril discourse in American popular culture is the predatory sexual desire from the yellow race that endangers white womanhood and consequently threatens the racial purity of white American society.” 


In 1877, Dennis Kearney, infamous American leader of the anti-Chinese “Workingman’s Party” said, “To an American, death is preferable to life on a par with a Chinaman.”  The Orientalized enemy doesn’t just want to enslave individual White women – it wants to make all of Western civilization its sexual slave.


In 1992, Gary Hoppenstand said, “A favorite convention of the yellow peril featured the lone white woman surrounded by a horde of Chinese bent on debauchment.  She holds them at bay with a revolver, and that revolver has only a single bullet left.  Seeing that her situation is hopeless, she points the barrel of the gun to her temple..."  Sometimes – as in Taken – the White male hero saves the White woman in the nick of time; other times, not.  Resident Evil 2 evokes this Orientalist nightmare, with zombies standing in for the lecherous Oriental – reiterating to White women that suicide is preferable to racial pollution – and to White men that homicide or genocide is justifiable in protection of White racial purity. 



Interesting observations. And I have to agree with the analysis of TAKEN: though ambivalent about it, so many friends extolled it as the best action flick of recent years, that I sprung to see it on video and it found it to be the most atrocious, racist updating of the even more reprehensible movie COMMANDO.

But as for our zombies: part of the analysis of Romero's zombies at least is how multi-ethnic the shambling hordes are, so it's hard for me to see them as representing a white fear of the "other" (at least in so far as the "other" is racially typecast). Do you think Resident Evil just takes it in another direction, or do you think the zombies' "otherness" represents race, even when they are (visibly) multiracial (and mostly white, for that matter)?

Kim Paffenroth, Author of Dying to Live and other zombie fiction and nonfiction

I do agree that Romero's zombie hordes tend to have a good representation of Zombies of Color.  But, I see that as supporting my case that zombies represent the racial Other.  If anything, I think that the presence of Whites in the zombie horde would contradict my argument.  But, I think there are a number of reasons, practical and symbolic, why even Romero's hordes have plenty of zombified White people.  First off, I think that the racialization of actors playing zombies is less symbolically important than the in-story characteristics of the monsters themselves.  For example, in the Kate Beckinsdale race-war parable, Underworld, both the Vampires and the Lycans have one token Black member -- but to me, that's much less important to my interpretation than the overwhelming symbolic characterizations of the Vampires as White aristocrats and the Lycans as the formerly enslaved, Black resistance fighters.  Which leads me to my second point:  Practically speaking, I think that institutional White Supremacy in Hollywood means that any large group of extras would have plenty of White folks in it (unless the script explicitly called for, say, a group of non-White people).  And third, symbolically, because some people DO look more at who's cast in a role than at the characteristics of that role, I think that casting a zombie horde with entirely non-White performers might be more terrifying to many White audience-members on one level, it would also undermine some of the threat of pollution or conversion.  If a non-White zombie horde merely killed White characters, then the fear of racial pollution would be lost.  Part of the terror of zombies is the fear of losing one's personal, familial, romantic, and racial loyalties to an overwhelming pollution by the Other.  And, what with historical and contemporary fears of racial pollution of both individual bodies (e.g., by sexual relationships, whether procreative or not) and of the body politic (e.g., via immigration, miscegenation, or what conservative theorist Samuel Huntington called the Mexican "reconquista"* of land the U.S. forcibly took from Mexico), the fear of pollution seems to be a, ehrm...  "vital" part of the terror and fascination with zombies.


*Also, notably, Huntington's idea of a Mexican "reconquista" of the U.S., which is hugely popular among Right Wing groups like the Minutemen and other anti-immigrant groups, actually inverts the original use of the term.  My understanding is that, originally, the "reconquista" referred to Catholic Spain, several hundred years ago, "reconquering" European land that had been conquered by Muslims.


As for Resident Evil, I sometimes try to imagine how a producer might pitch a movie by alluding to three other movies or less.  For me, I'd pitch Resident Evil as Aliens meets "Night of the Living Dead.  Replace Resident Evil's zombies with Aliens' xenomorphs and you're basically back to Aliens -- a survival horror movie in which a small band of low level military folks realize that the military-industrial-congressional complex is much more powerful and nefarious than they realized, and that it may, through its greed, be the death of humanity.  But, in both cases, the MICC has trifled with the literal, biological equivalent of a rapacious corporation, respectively, zombies and xenomorphs.  Which, perhaps also relates to what Melanie Kaye/Kantrowitz has referred to as the paranoid "squeeze play" story that many White Supremacist ideologies have historically sold or told to working class White people -- that they're squeezed between powerful elites (generally scapegoats like Jews or East Asians, standing in for overwhelmingly White and Protestant-run and -flavored corporations) and underclass hordes (generally scapegoats like Black folks or Latin@ immigrants).  So, in both cases, the heros are facing off against corporations from above and zombies or aliens from below.


So, yes, I think that zombies generally stand in for those aspects of Whiteness about which people are uncomfortable and want to project onto an other -- regardless of the race of the actors cast to play them.  In your post, you note this too -- as Romero put into the mouth of one of his characters, "They're us."


I will, also, give Romero credit over most other tellers of derivative zombie stories -- Romero comes closer to recognizing that "they" are "us," than most of them.  In the more derivative stories, "they" are much less like us and much less sympathetic as monsters.  Romero, after all, was the one who posited in Land of the Dead that perhaps working class humans (symbolizing working class Whites) might be better served by casting their lots with zombies (symbolizing the racial Other underclass) than with the rapacious and callous upper-class Whites.  This is, after all, a basic anti-racist message -- that poor Whites should favor class solidarity with other poor people, regardless of race, over racial solidarity with upper-class Whites.  In contrast, derivative B-movies like Flight of the Living Dead are a very transparent Orientalist interpretation of 9/11 fears and stories -- it's a story about a group of people who sneak onto a plane and threaten to crash the plane into a crowded city, magnifying their power.  Of course, Flight of the Living Dead is talking about zombies, not racialized terrorists.  Not subtle.

I very much appreciated the juxtaposition of multiple "hoards" in the post, and I do think that the observation about zombies vis-a-vis white womanhood is fascinating.  I am struck by the ways in which turn-of-the-twentieth-century anti-Chinese (or yellow peril) discourse was in part built on the notion of citizenship.  Specifically, at stake in such discourses (which are often focused on miscegenation) is how the nation is threatened by the potential birth of non-white subjects.  Accordingly, the zombie becomes an almost hyperefficient "reproducer," able to not only infect but build a larger nation of zombies through intimate exchange. What do you think?  How does the very way in which zombies are able to produce other zombies (irregardless of gender) in turn underscore past androgynous characterizations of the Chinese (or other Asian/American subjects)? Both Taken and Resident Evil 2 rely on structuring feelings of anxiety through threats to white womanhood, which makes for an interesting, provocative comparison.

I definitely appreciate and respect your points about citizenship and reproduction.  With a bit of symbolic unpacking, I think that White women might also be good allies against the oppressive symbolism of many zombie stories -- because, as you point out, racism and sexism are intertwined and mutually reinforcing.  I'm reminded of past ways that White Supremacist Patriarchy has used the imagined threat of Brown Hordes (generally of men) to control Women of Color, Men of Color and White women.  I'm thinking, for example, of then-President Teddy Roosevelt's admonition to White women, in the early 1900s, that they were committing "race suicide" by having abortions and by not producing enough White children -- because in those ways, the Brown people of the world would out-reproduce and overwhelm White society.  So, when White women today hear stories about Brown people "overwhelming" White society, I think alarm bells should go off.  Because such stories, when deployed, often imply that White women should be valued primarily for their (unpaid) labor reproducing the White race over all else.

Hi, I think I'll jump into this discussion (last semester I did a post on Indigenous Video, and it's my first time coming back). Your post reminded me of a couple of things concerning the mindless horde and the rape/invasion iconography, as parts of the zombie genre's metamorphosis. Granted that zombie films are ever seen as metaphors, they exceed the zombie genre proper, and I agree with you in thinking in terms of zombie tropes, or zombie situations, carrying those same structural positions. Sometimes this overflow is to the point that the zombie allegory becomes so obvious and overstated that it is possible that the typical zombie issues may have migrated to other genres - science fiction, action/adventure etc. Maybe this migration started long ago, perhaps shortly after Romero even, and in the pastiche era of postmodern cinema, the Zombie genre remained, in part, as that endless elaboration and refinement, the perpetual polishing of the fascinating device, ideology obsessed with form. So, among these new loci for para-zombies, outside the zombie genre, and zombies themselves, I think of Science Fiction, and Horror.


One of the most horrific films I've seen in the last couple of years was Alexandre Aja's 2006 remake of Wes Craven's "The hills have eyes" (1977). Blood-thirsty mutant humans, victims of the Nevada atomic bomb tests, brutally attack a family traveling through the desert. The film in itself certainly welcomes all kinds of psychoanalytic/post-colonial/return of the repressed readings. But the sub-human-as-zombie-pack's sexual attack of a young girl is what brings it here for me. It's all there in the trailer and in the main slogan for the promo, a highly sadistic version of your "I'd rather die than…". In this particular case it's "The lucky ones die first.", and in the trailer it comes after a rape scene involving the creatures and the daughter of the family. One more to the repertoire of the crooked rabble and the damsel in (extreme) distress.


Another metamorphosis of the genre is the zombie-drone/android, and a good example is in "Star Trek: First Contact" (1996). Instead of mutated humans, we have a bonding of organic and synthetic, creating a techno-automaton-undead army called "The Borg". The appropriation of new humans into the swarm gains sexual connotation in an interesting twist. Instead of a blond woman running from a group of oriental looking men (or deformed sub-humans), we have the captain of the ship, Jean-Luc Picard, using his macho-wits to avoid the highly contagious mob, while flirting with a black woman from earth (Alfre Woodard) who has become stranded on the ship. In the end of his effortless struggles to rid the ship of the Borg invasion, he goes to meet them, and encounters what appears to be the manifestation of their unified brain, a kind of contradictory personification of the Borg collective: a seductive viscous cyborg woman. I've recently re-watched the film and happened to copy down the moment when the captain confronts the "Borg Queen" (as she's credited); it's bellow. Interestingly, this complex extrapolation of the zombie encounter receives strokes of the voluntary servitude idea, and is all framed through seduction. In the scene, as a kind of last heroic deed before he gives himself to the Borg and lets the ship be destroyed, Picard is trying to save his cybernetic friend Data, who in turn is being helped by the Borg to become more human (one of the film's themes) and, unbeknownst to Picard, does have a plan, which ultimately saves the day:


(Picard and the Borg Queen)

- What have you done to him?
- Given him what he always wanted, flesh and blood.
- Let him go, he's not the one you want
- Are you offering yourself to us?
- Offering myself? ... That's it, I remember now! It wasn't enough that you assimilate me, I had to give myself freely to the Borg. To you!
- You flatter yourself! I've overseen the assimilation of countless millions, you were no different.
- You lie! You wanted more than just another Borg drone, you wanted a human being with a mind of its own, who could bridge the gulf between humanity and the Borg, you wanted a counterpart. But I resisted, I fought you.
- You can't begin to imagine the life you denied yourself…


Ernesto Ignacio de Carvalho

First off, I definitely agree with your read of the Borg as space zombies.  I find the Borg particularly interesting, in part, because I also read them as Rodenberry's Capitalist fear of Communism (Rodenberry did, after all, believe that militarized "enterprise" would carry us into a utopian future.).  On one hand, I don't think of Soviets as "Orientals."  But, on another hand, U.S. representations of Soviets varied over time, with Soviets "Oriental-ness" rising or falling in time with whether we were opposing them or allying with them.  When we were allied, the Soviets tended to be represented as Whiter; when we were opposed, they were more Orientalized.  And now, with the collapse of the USSR and China's re-emerging power, the Borg seem even more Orientalist, standing in for fears about Chinese Communism.


As an aside, I also read the Reavers of Firefly/ Serenity as space-zombies.  But, in an intriguing twist, Joss Wheadon suggested that the Reavers were actually betrayed (ostensibly White) colonists, who were seeking revenge against their brutal colonial regime.  So, while I originally read Serenity as an anti-imperial answer to the question, "Why do they hate us?" (answer: because a "Pax" Romana would make some people rebel violently and relentlessly), I now think of Serenity as a story about how White Supremacist imperialism itself is the "pax" that poisoned underclass White folks -- and while most White people would be cowed into a deathlike submission, some would go completely apeshit, becoming indiscriminately violent (rather than striking against the source of their pains: upper-class White imperialism).  Unfortunately, Wheadon's explanation of the Reavers also implies that there were no indigenous people on the lands where the Alliance sent colonists.  But then, Wheadon's read, like Romero, acknowledges that the stories "we" tell are about "us," even when we say that the monsters are some Other group.  


And speaking of the ways that racism and classism or imperialism are bound up in each other, I appreciate your point about the White underclass "mutant" monsters from The Hills Have Eyes.  I think there's been a resurgence of interest in stories about middle-class Whites who're terrorized and violated by underclass Whites.  (I'm thinking here of franchises like The Hills Have Eyes, Texas Chainsaw Massacre, and Rob Zombie's films.)  I think that the relatedness of racism and classism in these movies may be generally under-examined.  Because while the "monsters" in these films are racialized as White people, they're explicitly poor White people.  And I believe that classism and racism are mutually constituting.  Over the U.S.'s history, many European groups have been re-racialized to be included in Whiteness -- a Whiteness that is distinctly Anglo.  I'm thinking here, for example, of the Irish, Scots, Germans, and Italians.  But, I think that the prior racializations of these now-White groups still persists -- and that those ideas become most obvious when we're talking about poor White people.  I think that, in the U.S., despite myths of a "classless society," social class is seen in racial terms.  Britney Spears, despite her wealth, is still castigated as "trailer trash," because of her perceived unwillingness or inability to behave like a "proper" upper-class White woman (in which "proper" implies old money tastes and manners -- which are defined in large part by Anglo norms -- not Irish norms, not German norms, or so forth.)  In some ways, money does Whiten -- or rather, perhaps lack of money makes Whitening seem less convincing -- and then the monstrous racializations of the past become more obvious.  Plus, because of class segregation, poor Whites have been more likely to live in close proximity to (disproportionately poor) People of Color than wealthy Whites.  So, in this oppressive logic, to be poor and White is to be one step closer to being poor and Brown -- and thus monstrous. 

I'd agree with the last paragraph of your comment esp - LAND makes Romero's vision of race/class the clearest, with Big Daddy leading the horde (= foreign, alien, threatening, untermenschen), but the horde turning out to be much more heroic and sympathetic than Kaufman and Co ( = white, rich, genocidal cross between Trump and Bush). I find the final glare from Big Daddy to the human hero quite uplifting, as it seems to indicate a truce, as our heroes trapse off to safe, peaceful Canada (!) and away from the racist, consumerist, militaristic USA.

Kim Paffenroth, Author of Dying to Live and other zombie fiction and nonfiction

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