"The Walking Dead" has become a white patriarchy

The post-apocalypse looks too familiar: White men rule, men of color are invisible -- and women are to be protected

Published November 11, 2012 5:00PM (EST)

Chandler Riggs and Sarah Wayne Callies in "The Walking Dead"
Chandler Riggs and Sarah Wayne Callies in "The Walking Dead"

There's a crucial moment in the opening episode of "The Walking Dead" when we realize that everything has been erased, and if humankind is to survive, things are going to have to change. That moment comes after Sheriff Rick Grimes has been rescued by Morgan and Duane, an African-American father and son who have boarded themselves up in their home. Outside, the zombies — walkers — congregate at night, and Morgan's job is to keep Duane safe. When night comes, and the men hunker down, we watch as Morgan's walker-wife comes up the stairs and tries to let herself into the domestic sphere from which she has been banished. The doorknob turns and turns, and as Duane cries, Morgan reassures him, "That's not your mom. That's not your mom." The turning doorknob was featured in the credits for the first two seasons of the show, which caused me to think that gender and race would turn, too.

As I have watched "The Walking Dead," however, I have been disappointed to discover that, while the writers occasionally take a moment to comment on the state of gender — and of race — in this new world, in the end they leave these issues to die and reconstitute a world in which white men rule. Men of color are reduced to occupying a nebulous space, and women (with rare exception) are to be protected. Even more pernicious, any power that women have usually comes to them in the old-fashioned, stereotypical way of manipulating the men in their lives into doing what they want them to do.

I'm not sure if it is a failure of the writers of the TV show (and yes, I know, the show is based upon previously written graphic novels), but surely, if the writers could take time out for the characters to constantly question and talk incessantly about how they are supposed to live a civilized life in a world that has risen from the ashes, couldn't the characters have spent more time trying to figure out how to behave, now that gender and race should no longer be factors? Why has the world of "The Walking Dead" turned into a white patriarchy?

After Rick is rescued by Morgan and Duane, it's as if racial reality disappears. Rick leaves to search for his wife, Lori, and son, Carl. Despite the fact that Atlanta is 54 percent African-American, when Rick arrives in a deserted Atlanta, he is swarmed by an all-white mob of walkers — in downtown Atlanta. That was my first moment of cognitive dissonance — in Atlanta, where were the black walkers? — but I let it go as I let myself get more into the story.

It's in the second episode that much of the racial tension gets exposed, and, just as quickly, dealt with. Rick encounters a small reconnaissance group from a band of survivors, among them Merle, who will call out T-Dog as a nigger, Morales as a "taco bender" and refer to Andrea, one of the white women, as "sugar tits." All of the racial tension is neatly deposited onto Merle — dismissed by Rick as "dumb-as-shit inbred white trash." But when Merle meets an unhappy end, it's as if the writers decided that they've taken care of the racism problem. Merle is gone, and his old ways have gone with him.

The band takes Rick back to their camp, where the old-fashioned ways of domestic harmony have seemingly been put back into place. Men guard the camp while the women do a seemingly endless supply of laundry. The domestic sphere has reverted back, not to the pre-apocalyptic age where women held down jobs, but to a 1950s realm, where women do housework and care for children while men keep the women safe. Carl is in the camp, and so is Lori, who, believing Rick to be dead, starts sleeping with his former partner, Shane, thus setting up a triangle that won't be resolved until the end of Season 2.

The writers briefly tackled these gender roles and the issue of the division of labor when they focused on the group of women gathered by the quarry's lake to hand-wash the camp's laundry. But instead of addressing it, it's turned into a joke: While Shane and Carl play in the water, Jacquie says, "I'm beginning to question the division of labor here." And "can someone explain to me how the women wound up doing all the Hattie McDaniel work?" And the response she gets? "The world ended. Didn't you get the memo?" So, the women recall  domestic appliances that they miss — among them, their vibrators.

For just an instant, it was as if the writers acknowledged that this world wasn't working for those who had been turned into domestic servants, and that in a previous world where men could be replaced by vibrators, women had led happier lives. But then, one of the men comes to beat his wife, Carol, who then is saved by Shane, asserting his authority by telling Ed,  "If you touch any of the women in this camp, I'll kill you." We are reminded women are dependent on men to protect them.

This same redomestication will recur when the former civil rights attorney Andrea expresses her unhappiness with the domestic role that Lori is trying to force her into. The writers have Lori tell Andrea that it's the women's job to give the men something worth protecting. It's the women's job to provide the men with a home that they want to come back to, so that the women don't get left behind as burdens, so that men will take responsibility for their children. If they are to be let back into the house, as (in the first episode) Morgan's wife was not, the writers say, women have to prove their worth to the men by maintaining a domestic sphere that should have burned to ashes in the apocalypse, but which the group is now trying to maintain on Hershel's farm.

At the beginning of Season 2, Andrea  confronts Dale for intervening when she tried to kill herself. Dale can't hear what she's saying: He actually resorts to mansplaining to Andrea that he's convinced that he's done the right thing for her, that he expects gratitude from her for forcing her hand in making her choose to live in order to save him. Men overrule women whenever they make choices. And once again, for a moment, the writers toy with the idea that women should have a greater role in this new world. Andrea's insistence on "choice" over whether to live or die echoes the current argument over choice over women's reproductive systems— even using some of the same language — and Dale is turned into the voice of the man who can only think that all life is sacred.

Women can also be counted on to need constant reassurance — always from men — that this life they're now living is worth surviving for. The number of times that a woman — a seemingly rational woman — looks around at the hell she is now enduring and thinks that perhaps life is not worth living, she is told, usually by a man, that she has to maintain hope and that she has to learn to do whatever she needs to do to survive.

In fact, we see why the men can't allow themselves the luxury of thinking that life is not worth living. They become "pussies" when they do this. Several times during the second season, a moment of weakness is labeled as "pussying out." While Rick doesn't use the word, he tells Lori he has no respect for what Jenner did at the end of Season 1 when he blew up the CDC because he "surrendered." If there's anything a man knows, it is that he never surrenders. He must go down fighting. Masculinity, as it was defined in the old world, still needs to be maintained. Men are to act. Thinking drives women (or anyone who thinks too much) to despair.

If gender is a question that occasionally rears its head, only to be knocked back down again, the writers occasionally try to figure out what to do about race in this new world. They confront it head-on when Dale and T-Dog are left behind when the rest of the group — including the suicidal Andrea — is out looking for the missing Sophia.

"They think we're the weakest … I'm the one black guy. Do you realize how precarious that makes my situation?" T-Dog says. Dale argues with him, telling him he's ridiculous for thinking that he's going to be the first one to get lynched. But T-Dog points out that even Andrea, who everyone knows is still suicidal, is out there. T-Dog is making sense, and perhaps the writers want to acknowledge his real fears of being the lone black person left in the group (perhaps even acknowledging what Trekkies know: that T-Dog has a red shirt on, and the question is not if, but when, he is doing to die). But then Dale discovers that T-Dog is delusional because of a high fever, thus rendering the very real discussion of race to nothing more than the ramblings of a febrile mind.

Race is also alluded to without the characters discussing it at any length, with regard to Glenn, the Asian-American man. He is frequently used by the others as an errand boy — sent into town to get supplies, sent down a well to lure a walker — as if his life is less valuable than others. His new girlfriend, Maggie, is the one to point out to him that he  is "walker bait." But she doesn't say that he's being treated this way because he is Asian — that is our assumption to make. But she does imply that he needs to stand up for himself, be more manly, if he is to keep her love.

If race remains an unquestioned category in "The Walking Dead," gender is returned to its same-old status through Lori, who is pregnant, and, of course, has no idea who the father is. But she has decided that regardless of biological parentage, the baby is Rick's.

When Lori asks Rick to kill Shane, it is indicative of the beginning of the end of Hershel's farm as a place of refuge. The deus ex machina that brings the tensions between Rick and Shane to a head appears in the rescue of a member of a surviving rival gang, a group that has reverted to savagery. Randall is injured; Rick, Glenn and Hershel save him, and Shane, who has already proven his willingness to kill anyone who gets in his way of survival, is incensed that they have brought back a stranger to the farm who may endanger the rest of them, meaning, of course, Lori and Carl.

Rick has killed two living men in order to protect access to Hershel's farm. And now Lori whispers in Rick's ear that Shane is seeking to supplant him, that he's "delusional and dangerous," and that he presents a threat to Rick's family. When Rick confirms that he has killed others to protect her, she tells him explicitly that Shane is not going to stop in his quest to take Lori and Carl from Rick.

That entire episode hinges on the other women urging the other men to do things that women, because of how the group is structured, can't do themselves. Everything has been reduced to women being on the domestic front, while it's the men's job to protect them. All of them, to some extent, have become invested in protecting this sense of the domestic that they have found on Hershel's farm, and yet, despite the fact that everything else is spoken about — sometimes ad nauseam — with rare exception does anyone question the reinstitution of inequality between men and women.

When the decision is made to set Randall free, Lori once again interferes. This time, even though she has told Rick that he must kill Shane, which Rick has failed to do, Lori decides this is the perfect moment to go try to make up with Shane. Lori now offers Shane an apology. A thank you for keeping her and Carl alive while Rick was in a coma. She intimates that maybe she had loved Shane during that time, and she leaves him with the unspoken assumption that if it were not for Rick, maybe they could try again.

Inevitably, Shane hatches a plan that will allow him to kill Rick. The high noon moment arrives. They are alone, in a field, under a full moon. Carl watches them through binoculars from a second-story bedroom.

They taunt each other with how the other is not looking after Lori. Shane says, "I'm a better father than you, Rick. Aren't you gonna fight for them? I'm better for Lori than you, man. I'm a better man than you, Rick, because I can fight for it. You come back here and you just destroy everything. You got a broken woman. You got a weak boy. You ain't got the first clue on how to fix it."

Rick is forced to do the inevitable: He kills his former best friend.

And then, as if to prove that the old domestic life is dead and gone, a horde of walkers attack, and the diminished group flees. In order to regroup, they're going to have to do it under different terms. As Rick strikes out with the small group of survivors, he sets new rules. From now on, he tells them, they will live by his rules, follow his lead, democracy is dead. Rick has been restored to the head of the family, with Hershel as his adviser and Daryl as his wingman. Everyone else can get in line, or get out. As if it hasn't already been made clear, the walking dead of the title refer not to the walkers, but instead, to this band of survivors, who have tried, and failed to maintain a mythical former world that hasn't existed for at least 50 years prior to the zombie apocalypse.

At the end of Season 2, those of us who had been waiting to see this domestic reordering of the sexes finally come to an end were relieved to see the arrival of Michonne, a tall, powerful African-American woman who saves Andrea from death. Finally, we thought, the reorder of the world that the apocalypse had effected — that is, simply moving the domestic sphere out into walker world, would finally come to an end. That perhaps, in Season 3, there would be another way forward, one that two strong women in the world could forge.

So far, we've been disappointed. Michonne and Andrea have been captured by the governor, whom Andrea apparently has some sort of crush on, and Michonne appears to be the only clear-thinking female left on the planet.

Back with Rick's group, they are now living in a penitentiary, most of the women kept behind bars where they can be safe, while the men continue to go out to protect them.

And, as predicted, last week, T-Dog was killed. Andrea did what women do: She betrayed her old group to the governor, and to the resurrected Merle. But it is Lori who completely cements what it is that women are supposed to do. She dies giving birth, sacrificing her own body for that of her child. It is, after all, the only way for women to be heroes in this world in which the patriarchy has been reinstated. She dies giving birth, continuing the species, but doing nothing to break the mythos of a world where white men rule, and everyone else is expendable.

By Lorraine Berry

Lorraine Berry is an associate editor at Talking Writing. Follow her on Twitter: @BerryFLW

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