Is Feminism Still Alive? Gender and Gender Roles in “The Walking Dead”

Curator's Note

It’s a spring day, with the weather just starting to turn warm, and down by the lake there’s a group of women washing clothes. There are no sounds beyond their splashing and chatter—no planes in the sky, no cars droning by. After a while, one of the women’s husbands comes by and angrily demands they stop their gossip and get back to work.

The scene described above might be from any number of period dramas, but it’s actually from AMC’s post-apocalyptic zombie drama The Walking Dead. And although the husband in question is beaten and threatened by a (manipulative and disturbed) cop for his abusive ways, and later dies via zombie, it doesn't mean much. The women are still stuck with the drudge work, and the men almost without exception are the ones who call the shots and run the show.

In the second and third seasons, this changes a little, with women playing a more active role beyond housekeeping.  But even the stronger female characters (Andrea, who demands to be given firearm training, and former lawyer Michonne, who takes out the undead better than anyone) never rise to the political prominence of the men.  Indeed, much of the in-group tension for the show’s female characters comes from the fact that they are consistently marginalized.

To be fair, all the characters in the show are deeply flawed as individuals, and at times the cast seems to be made up more of stereotypes than individuals at all. There’s the good cop, the bad cop, the loner, and the redneck. For the women: the abused wife, the cheating wife, the rebellious daughter...

But it's problematic that most of the strong female characters either end up as love interests or are shown through ostensibly neutral plot development to be unreliable, suicidal, or harbingers of doom.  Andrea's affair with season three's antagonist leads to all-out war with Rick's group, and Michonne is crazy (and problematic anyway as a stereotypical angry black woman).

If all post-apocalyptic settings don't have this problem (The Road might, but Revolution doesn't), why does The Walking Dead have such a lack of strong women?  Is it setting (rural Georgia), or the writers of the show (to say nothing of the comic book), who seem to envision a return to older, patriarchal patterns of society?

Is this just another case of male writers giving women short shrift, or is something else at play?  If so, what?


I've been seeing this shift in a lot of programs. Strong women are rare, and when they do appear they are somehow disciplined by the series, or portrayed as repellant. There are exceptions, but even many of those need a man's help or are pursuing a man. TV in the last five years or so is harkening back to the 50s, but is also worse in that it maintains a guise of "feminism."

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