(I apologize in advance for the somewhat hodgepodge nature of this post. I've tried to summarize as best as I could the various arguments for and against sexism in The Walking Dead, which I've encountered over the past 48 hours or so. I hope this is somewhat readable and coherent, but I offer no guarantee that it is.)
Over the past couple of months, I've read through the first 50-some issues of The Walking Dead, and this weekend, I also watched the first episode of the AMC television series based on it, which premiered on Sunday. Throughout all this, I've spent a lot of time thinking about the sexist and anti-progressive undertones in both the comics and the first episode of the television series. And since yesterday, I've been involved in a few discussions about it.
My intention, at first, was to write a very long and detailed review of the comics, focusing on what I think is a very problematic representation of gender relations and gender roles. As it turns out, though, I found a few reviews online that already do a pretty good job at listing some of the problems I've noticed in the books.
A few different takes on the comic books
Darren's reviews of the first and second hardcover volumes at The M0vie Blog do a pretty good job at highlighting some of the more problematic scenes dealing with gender roles. When I complained on Tumblr that I hadn't seen a lot of discussion of those issues online, someone pointed me in the direction of this excellent post by Jennifer at Fantastic Fangirls. Here's an excerpt:
One of the biggest concerns for me with The Walking Dead has been the troubling gender issues. The book is structured around zombie apocalypse survivor Rick Grimes, a man who takes charge of a group of fellow survivors and expects everyone else to fall in line behind him. While I find Rick to be an obnoxious character, and I get annoyed when his stupid or immoral decisions are validated by his swooning followers, his wife in particular, I understand that this is mainly a function of protagonist privilege. The book revolves around Rick, and even if he does contribute to the long tradition of straight white males at the center of Western narratives, that in itself isn't the problem.Those are pretty much exactly the same issues I had with the comics.
The problem comes up when issues of gender inequality are present, questioned within the text, and then summarily dismissed. This happens in the first volume, when the women of the group are expected to take care of laundry and childcare while the men do the hunting and gathering. One female character is frustrated by this stereotypical division of labor and wonders, when the zombies are gone, if women will even be allowed to vote. But the other women in the scene laugh off her fears. They know nothing about guns, after all, and shouldn't they do what they're good at? The characters continue doing laundry, the matter settled.
Later, when the group elects a committee of leaders to mitigate Rick's single-handed dictatorship, the elected group is entirely male. When Rick points out this imbalance ("No women?"), the other men assure him that the women wanted this team to be all male, because they don't feel they're cut out for leadership. Rick accepts this reasoning, and the leadership committee settles into its role.
Meanwhile, Kelly Thompson has a different take on the series, praising its "fantastic female characters" in this week's edition of her column, She Has No Head, on Comics Should Be Good. I was surprised that she doesn't put as much weight on the sexism or larger problems with gender roles in the comics as I would have expected. But even though her take on the series is mostly positive, Kelly is still critical of some of the characters. For example, about Donna, she writes:
She's totally unlikable for the majority of her screen time and is by far the most stereotypical and cliche of Kirkman's early characters. The feminist in me likes that she asks the question of why it's three women doing the laundry while the men folk do the huntin' and protectin' and I wonder if found in the same situation if I'd be asking the same question. However Kirkman pulls from the worst feminist stereotypes and she comes off as humorless, cold, bitchy, judgmental woman jealous of others younger and prettier than she. Donna is also rendered to be the least "traditionally attractive" of the ladies. I'm not sure what's a lazier stereotype than the "ugly humorless feminist" but that's mostly all Donna brings to the table for the bulk of her page time.Kelly's post is worth reading all the way through. Although I'm inclined to be tougher on Kirkman overall, her interpretation is very nuanced and it's clear that she's thought about these characters a lot. Without being apologetic, she points out quite a few redeeming qualities of the various female characters that are easy to overlook or simply ignore because they don't fit into a simplistic interpretation of the book as sexist and misogynist.
My biggest problem with the comics is the general trend toward an essentialist view of gender roles. Kirkman seems to think that men and women are fundamentally different in ways that go beyond the physical/anatomical, and those differences include men being generally more action-oriented, better leaders, and more rational, while the women are more passive, emotional, and better at domestic tasks (cooking, laundry, sewing clothes, taking care of children). There are of course a few exceptions. Amy is a good shooter, while Tyreese can’t shoot to save his life. But these are just that: exceptions.
The feeling I get from the books is that men are meant to be leaders while the women are meant to be in the kitchen. And the fact that Kirkman keeps saying "I'm only being realistic in terms of what I think would happen in a zombie apocalypse" suggests that this is what he sees as the natural order of things, rather than just social constructs. If you push the logic of the comics far enough, you could argue that all the social advances in women's rights are what's artificial - all it's gonna take is a cataclysmic event like a zombie apocalypse to return things to the way they were always meant to be.
The first episode: equally sexist, but in different ways
I was pretty appalled by the blatant display of sexism in the pilot of the series, and after watching it, I made a few comments about it on Tumblr. A few people were surprised by my reaction. "The women only appear in it for like five minutes, so what was blatantly sexist about it?" they asked.
Well, for one thing, when you have a one-hour pilot episode that only allots about five minutes of screen time to female character, that's already a pretty good clue that the show is primarily concerned with a male perspective. Which is not necessarily sexist, but it's certainly one of the first steps in that direction. But it gets a lot more obviously sexist once you start looking at the specifics of those scenes that either feature or mention women:
1. One woman at the camp near the end of the episode, whose character is only onscreen for this one scene, is so stupid and useless, she doesn't know that in order to respond to someone on a CB radio, you have the push the button. Seriously. I'm pretty sure most people have seen enough of those things on television, whether they've actually used them or not themselves, to understand this simple concept. And if they didn't, why wouldn't someone at the camp teach them how to use it?
2. Lori, Rick's wife, has already been established as a bad mother in the incredibly, blatantly, offensively sexist opening dialogue, where Rick and Shane talk about "the difference between men and women" (in which we learn, among other things, that women are responsible for global warming, because they don't know how to use a light switch). When we finally meet her, we see that her being a bad mother isn't just Rick's opinion, but is in fact true. (This is demonstrated by he way that she walks away from her son, which Shane then scolds her for in the tent.) And not only is she a bad mother, but she's also a bad wife, because she's cheating on her husband, whom she left in a coma back at the hospital.
3. The only interaction between men and women in the entire episode (not counting a few encounters with female zombies) is in that one scene at the camp. In includes: a man taking the CB away from the silly woman who can't figure out how to use simple technology; Lori trying to express herself and show some leadership, but being immediately put in her proper place by a man who knows better; Shane treating her like shit, insulting her, telling her she's a bad mother, and bullying her into admitting that he's right - all of which we could dismiss as characterization of him as an asshole and not necessarily representative of the views of the producers of the show, except that, of course, her reaction to all this is to make out with him, because that's apparently what turns women on.
4. In an earlier scene between Rick and Morgan, the guy who's staying at his neighbour's house, Rick points out that all the photo albums are missing from his place, which is evidence that Lori was alive when she left, as a burglar wouldn't have stolen these. Morgan laughs and says his wife did the same thing. "I'm out there packing stuff for survival and she's gathering photo albums." Silly women!
That pretty much sums up the show's take on men and women: men are rational, practical, survivors; while women are stupid, inefficient and sentimental.
Of course, as several people have pointed out to me, this is only the first episode. The scene between Lori and Shane could very well be setting her up as a strong character who has her own reasons for putting up with his bullying and who will eventually assert herself later in the show. I guess this is not impossible. But given how close the characterization seems to be to the books, I find that highly unlikely, since in the comics she's never really developed as a strong character.
A few things I didn't hate about the first episode of The Walking Dead
I've been debating with myself whether I'm going to continue watching the series, because as much as I hate the sexism and find it inexcusable and impossible to ignore, the show is also really exciting and well made. I want to give it a chance and I want to enjoy it.
Here are a few things that I didn't hate about the first episode:
- The expanded sequence with Morgan and Duane. I thought it was very smart of the producers of the show to spend more time with these characters and expand on their story a little bit, compared to their brief appearance at the start of the series. Those who have read the comics know that these characters will be seen again eventually, but in terms of the TV series, I would bet that probably won't be before the second or third season. I would love if they actually spent more time with these characters and gave us their story in parallel to what happens to Rick and his companions. Maybe not spend as much time with them, but at least visit them once in a while to give us an update. I don't think they're actually going to do that, but it would be cool if they did.
- The special effects, the level of gore, and the action sequences. Absolutely amazing and impressive on every level. They didn't hold back at all on the gore or violence, but at the same time none of it feels gratuitous or distasteful. And the special effects are impressive. This must have cost a fortune.
- The physical likeness between the actors and the characters in the book. Every character that was introduced was instantly recognizable from the comic. Very cool.
- The acting. There wasn't a bad performance in the episode. The only area of concern there for future episodes would be with Carl, since he's the youngest character and we all know how hit-or-miss child actors can be. He didn't do or say much in this episode, so that remains to be seen.
- And finally, the overall aesthetic and cinematography. No complaints there either.