The Walking Dead: Staggering Toward Mediocrity
by Tamara Watkins
Dear The Walking Dead: I’ve given you three chances, and you’ve failed me each time. Now I have to take a rhetorical cricket bat to your head.
I had high hopes for The Walking Dead, as I have a soft spot for the undead, and hoped for practical tips on how to slaughter them should they come to my town. Alas, rather than getting a well-written story full of strong, developed characters, all I got were some decent special effects and a product that forced me to contemplate gender stereotypes. Make no reanimated bones about it. This show is for men and celebrates traditional gender roles and images of masculinity. The series focuses primarily on the story of Rick, who was a sheriff in pre-zombie Georgia. When Sheriff Rick gallops toward Atlanta on his trusty steed, he evokes cowboys in the Clint Eastwood and John Wayne tradition. He lives in a world where manly men battle zombies while beautiful and obedient women cower and hold each other.
Before the zombie apocalypse gets underway, we're treated to a philosophical conversation on the differences between the sexes that sets the tone for the entire show. Apparently it comes down to this: men turn off the lights, and women don’t. Shane, Rick’s best friend and fellow law enforcement officer, summarizes the lecture he gives to his lovely lady friends: “Bitch, you mean to tell me you’ve been hearing this your entire life, and you are still too damn stupid to learn how to turn off the switch?” When asked about his wife, Lori, Rick states she turns off the lights. This is apparently high praise, even if their marriage seems to be on shaky ground. Moments after this insightful exchange, Rick is critically wounded during a shootout. After waking up from a coma, Rick finds that the world has changed. His family and friends presume him dead, and move on with the difficult process of trying to survive in a world filled with brain-focused reanimated corpses.
If Shane’s reductive assessment of the differences between the sexes and repellent language seem vaguely familiar in tone (if not content), it’s likely because horror, as a genre, doesn’t have a great history of positively representing women. Women are often objects of sexual desire and/or sexually-based violence (Mina in Dracula, Marion Crane in Psycho), “protected” from knowing about their male counterparts’ unsavory actions (Rachel Creed in Pet Sematary), or prevented from putting their lives in battle (the women left behind in the Boulder Free Zone in The Stand). Lori carries on this proud tradition as Shane, her new love interest, and the other men in the camp systematically strip her of her autonomy and guilt-trip her out of acting bravely. Lori wants to venture outside of the camp to warn travelers of the dangers found down the road in Atlanta. Shane cites Lori’s obligations to her son as a reason for her to not leave the “safety” of the camp. (Interestingly, no guilt trips are doled out to Rick, who two episodes later later goes into Atlanta on a rescue mission. The members of the camp defer to his judgment, rather than second guess it.)
The Shane-Lori relationship reflects women’s traditional economic and social dependence on their male partners. Shane’s pre-zombie analysis of sexual differences and his condescending speech to Lori paint him as an individual who revels in his masculinity and authority. One wonders whether Shane has harbored amorous feelings for Lori for some time, or if she is an easy target for him to prey upon and dominate. I reckon that Lori, no doubt blindsided by what she perceived as the loss of her husband, sees Shane as a port in the brain-eating storm. He offers physical protection from zombies and gives her life stability as their relationship conforms to traditional Western cultural standards. However, Lori’s reluctance to pair bond with Shane is evident. She makes sure to remove her wedding band—strung on a chain—while she engages in sexual contact with Shane. The meaning behind the action seems to be that she doesn’t want to contaminate the memory of her assumed dead husband; or, perhaps she doesn’t want to remind Shane that he’s tilling the fields his best friend once possessed. Nothing puts a damper on the lovemaking like thinking about a dude you suspect is dead.
Eventually, Rick stumbles upon the survivor camp that houses Lori and Shane. Husband and wife reunite, and have some awkward sex mere feet away from their preadolescent son. As her original, and obviously preferred, “protector” has reappeared, Lori must break things off with Shane. She matter-of-factly informs Shane that his "privilege" (her word) to tell her what to do has gone now that the husband is back to take over that role.
Lori’s function in the story, so far, has been as a blank canvas onto which the males around her—her husband; her stand-in husband, Shane—project their wills. In this way, Lori’s story becomes a modern retelling of the Gothic classic The Yellow Wallpaper. She’s cloistered and stripped of her autonomy, completely under the thumb of authoritarian men who restrict her activities to “protect” her. Lori allows herself to become the ward of the primary man in her life, abetting her own oppression.
Alas, Lori is not the only woman on The Walking Dead who clings to stereotypical or otherwise demeaning gender-based expectations. During one scene, we see women gossiping and cackling while washing the camp’s clothes. In another scene, two women cower and whimper as the men dispatch a zombie that managed to infiltrate the camp. The most jarring scene, however, involves domestic violence. A knuckle-dragger beats his wife, and in an admirable sense of misplaced chivalry, Shane repeatedly punches him in the face. Horrified that her husband is getting a taste of his own medicine, the abused wife quickly swoops in to tend to her abuser’s wounds. Even though there are a handful of women in the camp, none—including Lori—are undergoing significant character development in the show. They’re pretty props who orbit around the men in the story and move the plot forward, but through no real effort of their own. The women are onscreen to be kissed, hugged, beaten; to clean, chat, and giggle. They’re receptive, not active. Their scenes feel like intermission between acts that feature significant plot development.
The Walking Dead fails as a story because it’s simply not realistic—even after one suspends disbelief and accepts that zombies roam the earth. I argue that, should the actual zombie apocalypse occur (an eventuality I’ve given inordinate consideration), relying on tired gender social constructs would be a detriment to survivors and, frankly, an unrealistic reaction to the situation at hand. By restricting women’s activities to those considered traditionally “female”—laundering, childrearing, and cooking—individuals’ innate talents for “non-traditional” activities would be squandered. Furthermore, while The Walking Dead contains subservient women who don’t, or won’t, stand up to men, I sincerely doubt actual women would be so obsequious if confronted with the zombie apocalypse. Contemporary American women have been raised to understand that we do anything we choose, and I argue that our cultural reluctance to bear the scarlet F (for Feminist) would fall to the wayside like so many discarded gunshot shells.
Tamara Watkins teaches college classes and semi-professionally gets angry about politics.