Race, Gender, and Zombies: The Walking Dead
A long while ago, Lavern Merriweather did a post on
her Brothawolf’s blog. It was titled Sympathy For the Racist and detailed issues with racist characters in TV shows that the writers expected the viewers to cheer for, amongst them Merle Dixon from The Walking Dead. I’d heard of The Walking Dead show and comics before this (and was admittedly a huge fan of the episodic adventure game, which was written by different people), but this post piqued my interest in viewing it just to see how bad things were. Well, I’ve finally archive binged my way through most of the show (stopping at “Hounded”), and let’s just say Lavern Merriweather was not only right on the money, she only barely scratched the surface of this show’s issues.
WARNING: MASSIVE SPOILERS AHEAD
Let’s start with one character, T-Dog, who I feel is emblematic of this shows race problems. To call him a living prop is a little generous. There’s a compilation of all his lines in Season 2, and it’s only 4 minutes and 49 seconds long. He literally exists to add a non-white face to the cast and for no other reason. He doesn’t have a back-story (at least not one that is ever explored in the show itself), he barely interacts with anyone else, he has never had an episode centered on him (which most of the other characters have), and on the rare occasion he speaks it’s to say some of the most painfully stereotypical bullshit you’ve ever heard. Oh, but since we haven’t covered all the POC cliches needed in any TV show, guess what happens part way through Season 3.
If you didn’t guess “He dies”, try again.
More insultingly, he dies only to get replaced by Oscar, who is, for all intents and purposes, the exact same character. Same tendency to stand in the background, silent as a rock. Same general lack of importance to the group. Same painful dialogue on the rare occasion he is allowed to speak at all. And all of this is a lot more insulting when you consider these characters were created explicitly for the show, where T-Dog replaced a POC Tyreese who, apparently, had actual character development and importance to the group.
Michonne, a character that actually appears in the comics, follows a similar route, and suffers issues due to both her race and her gender (I’ll get to the show’s issues with the latter in a moment). Despite being a fan favorite from the comics, the Michonne we get in the show is pretty much a one-trick pony. She is capable only of suspicion and paranoia, her face is apparently frozen in a permanent scowl, she speaks precious little, and seems to basically fill the “Hot Chick With A Sword” and “Angry Black Woman” tropes and little else. Sure, her comic incarnation was also a silent type, but she was a cunning and intelligent character as well. This version, meanwhile, is pretty much defined by looking pissed off at everything.
We also have an Asian man named Glenn. He, for the most part, is a somewhat well-rounded character that is reasonably important to the rest of the cast, but his main purpose in life is to be a clinger-on to a white woman, Maggie. While their relationship is possibly one of the best and most realistic parts of the show, it does feel a little disappointing that most of his character development happens in relation to Maggie and that he isn’t quite a fully realized character on his own.
(Before you ask “Where are Jacqui and Morgan?” I didn’t include them because they, if anything, matter even less than the above characters. Morgan appeared for a grand total of one episode, and Jacqui doesn’t even have a spot on the AMC cast page.)
So, I think I’ve made it clear that this show is pretty poor when it comes to race. But what about gender? Well, as you’ve been given a preview of with Michonne up there, this show is pretty terrible on that front as well.
Well, to be fair, there is one female character, the aforementioned Maggie, who is relatively well written. Unlike her lover, Glenn, she is more or less defined outside of her romantic relationship to another character, although her relationship with Glenn is probably the best aspect of scenes with her in them regardless. Still, it would be unfair to say she was part of the shows problems in this particular area.
Lori, on the other hand, is a prime example of this show’s gender issues. She is the very definition of what is wrong with female characters in media today. She is whiny, self absorbed, has inconsistent and often nonsensical actions and motivations, and has a moral compass that shifts not only from episode to episode, but from scene to scene. One moment she is screaming for Rick to kill Shane, the next she’s horrified he actually went through with it. Despite the fact she is supposed to be a maternal figure, she is actually a pretty terrible mother to her son Carl, and though she probably was intended as a moral center of some sort she ends up alienating not only the viewers, but other characters as well. By the time she starts becoming more tolerable (and gets some surprisingly effective scenes with Carl), the writers end up killing her off through “Death by Childbirth”.
Andrea is in a similar position to Michonne up above. The writers of the show took a female character who was originally tough and three dimensional and made her into a completely intolerable bitch. Unlike Michonne, though, she lacks anything resembling competence in any area. She is the writers attempt at a tough action-oriented woman, but she isn’t even all that good at it, and instead is seen making incredibly bad decisions that result in her accidentally shooting Daryl, as well as trying to hook up with the kind-of-insane Shane and the impressively-insane Governor. Pretty much every competent thing she’s ever done was under the guidance of a male character who wasn’t completely out of it, and she is essentially just an extension of whatever man she’s attached herself to the hip of.
Carol, meanwhile, doesn’t even attempt to disguise the fact she is completely male-dependent. She starts as pretty much a whimpering mess who has the settings of “sad” and “unhappy” as her only emotional states. What little character development she goes through is entirely because of Daryl, who she starts a relationship with.In essence, she is little more than a satellite character, first to the group as a whole, then specifically towards Daryl.
Pretty much every other woman in the show, from Beth to Amy to Sophia to the aforementioned Jacqui, is little more than decoration, or some innocent character who can die horrifically so someone more important in the cast can grieve over the tragedy of their loss. The Walking Dead has no limit of disposable women to discard when the plot calls for it, specifically to cause someone else emotional turmoil.