Monday, November 1, 2010

Sexism in The Walking Dead: An Ongoing Discussion

(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.

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.
Those are pretty much exactly the same issues I had with the comics.

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.
Really, there's a lot to like there, and I understand why all the fans are so impressed and excited and delighted by it. It's just that none of this makes the sexism any less present or more excusable. If anything, it kind of makes it all the more disappointing, because this show had the potential to be just brilliant, but it's already been tainted by this very strong negative aspect that I can't ignore.

37 comments:

kryptongirl November 1, 2010 at 10:48 PM  

Holy cannoli! Thanks for writing this up. I've been dismissed all day for reading too much into that scene and it's nice to see a well thought out post on the issues since I mostly turn into a pile of angst when I try to talk about this stuff with the world at large. There is a defensiveness about being a fan that I can understand, but unfortunately it leads to a lot of beating my head against a wall when trying to engage in a dialog about problematic things. Yes, there are problematic things, but you are not a huge jerkface asshole for liking it, and neither am I! Talking about them is how we put one foot in front of the other and move forward.

I absolutely loved the first episode IN SPITE of the gross car discussion (hint: Rick said gross stuff too) and I don't think it makes us hysterical oversensitive women to want things to onwards and upwards from here.

Darren November 2, 2010 at 5:35 AM  

Thanks for the link. I'm surprised this hasn't been more of an issue, to be honest, with all the praise the series gets. Maybe we're just overjoyed to have a comic book fantasy based around something other than men in tights, but I always figured this should be a bigger part of the discussion.

Juan November 2, 2010 at 6:29 AM  

OK, I can't really talk specifically about this, since I haven't read the comics nor watched the show (inexcusable of me, I know).

In general terms, however, I will say that I dislike the climate of political correctness where every story must have strong female characters and portray minority characters in a positive light. We end up with tame, politically correct stories that lack personality. We end up with stories set in medieval times being criticized if they do not portray women wielding swords or bows and fighting in wars.

I think there is a line between depicting women as intrinsically incapable of doing certain things and recognizing that, socially, they have traditionally had different roles than males. That is changing, of course, but there's still a lot of that. I would not want every storyteller to be forced to have an imposed quota of strong female characters in every story.

Yan Basque November 2, 2010 at 8:47 AM  

Well, Juan, what can I say other than I thoroughly disagree with you? This is not about "political correctness." It's not about having an "imposed quota of strong female characters." It's about ideology. It's about what values and worldview that writers and producers choose to promote in their books/shows. It's about taking responsibility for one's work and acknowledging that the "straight white male" perspective is not the only one that exists. It's about people creating stories that go against stereotypes and institutional sexism, instead of reinforcing it.

But it's pretty hard for me to have a discussion with you about it, since you haven't read the book or seen the series. (No, it's not inexcusable. It just makes me wonder what prompts you to comment here if you're not interested in the material in the first place.)

Blandy November 2, 2010 at 10:31 AM  

Nevermind that the best shooter in the comic books is a woman....

Yan Basque November 2, 2010 at 10:37 AM  

Never mind the fact that I mention this in my post. Please, don't bother reading it before commenting.

Blandy November 2, 2010 at 12:17 PM  

Sorry, I have to admit that I stopped reading halfway through in disgust.

Blandy November 2, 2010 at 12:25 PM  

Also, the most hardened zombie killer in the book is Michonne, a female with a katana; the men tend to be the most unstable (contrasted with the stereotype of crazy, irrational women). There are exceptions to the latter, of course, as also exists in real life everywhere.

Yan Basque November 2, 2010 at 12:42 PM  

The reason I titled this post "an ongoing discussion" is that I'm open to other interpretations. I'm aware that it's not as simple as "all female characters are weak, while all male characters are strong." Look at my comments in response to Kelly Thompson's post, where I say that she points out many redeeming qualities of the female characters that are definitely worth taking into consideration.

Still, I don't think that one or two strong characters is a deal breaker. The only way to gain some insight about the portrayal of women in the books is to look at the overall picture. And I still think for the most part, it's a picture that paints women as generally unfit for (or uninterested in) leadership. Sure, the male characters are unstable - everybody is in the series, which makes sense, given the incredibly fucked up situation they're in - but they're still the ones taking the lead, and as a general rule, even strong characters like Michone have a tendency to defer to the decisions made by the men.

Like I said, I'm open to discussion about this. But it's a bit hard to have an honest discussion when the person commenting says he couldn't read the entire post because he was too disgusted by what I had to say. You're disgusted by my opinion, and yet you dismiss it without having made the effort to follow my arguments all the way through.

Blandy November 2, 2010 at 12:44 PM  

It could also be said that after the outbreak, society simply reverted to nomadic tribes and the traditional hunter/gatherer roles that went with them.

Blandy November 2, 2010 at 12:49 PM  

And the reason I stopped reading is because I see this kind of thing on the internet too often. Something isn't quite as PC as someone else would like it to be, so they get a stick up their ass.

In an extreme scenario, one somewhat risque Marvel cover a few years ago prompted a female writer to jump in and start ranting about it, and also throw in a huge rant on equal pay for women, as if it were still the early 1900's.

Yan Basque November 2, 2010 at 1:00 PM  

Well, I have to confess, reading your comments, it certainly doesn't sound like we've made much progress since the early 1900s.

Blandy November 2, 2010 at 1:03 PM  

You've found me out. My wife is chained to the stove right now with no shoes on.

Darren November 2, 2010 at 2:45 PM  

@ Juan: I don't think it's an issue of political correctness - I think it's a bit misleading to say that it is. We aren't suggesting that Kirkman has or should have a "quota", we're just looking at the data and seeing some trends that concerns us.

Nobody is suggesting that's wrong to portray a stereotype of itself - some women love to cook, some men love to drink beer and form ruling councils.

Y: The Last Man, for example is crawling with stereotypes - from the prissy middle-class housewives who want the traveling troupe to produce soap opera scripts through to the ridiculously straw feminists who praise the "gendercide" as women's liberation.

However, the problem is that you can't use the same stereotype IN EVERY (or almost every) CIRCUMSTANCE. Some women like doing the laundry or will use sex as a bribe in order to secure protection, but when nearly every woman in your cast does, it sends the wrong message - it starts to imply that this is how the author actually sees the world, or how the world should be seen. Which is worrying.

I like that the characters are flawed. I enjoyed the series. However, when every woman shares the same key stereotypical flaws (as opposed to most of the male cast's distinct brand of flaws), it looks awkward.

Sorry for the rant.

Godzylla November 3, 2010 at 1:20 PM  

I haven't read or seen The Walking Dead yet, but I find it interesting that what seems to be an unrealistic structure is being defended as the natural order. Some of the women I know might sit back and let others (men) make decisions, but they're certainly not going to let things go without input or tolerate something they blatently disagree with, regardless of their feminist stance, and they certainly aren't going to let what they perceive as bad decisions or structure stand in the way of doing something they think they need.

Except in an exasperated "okay, fall on your face" sort of way. ;) The kind of general malaise that I see described seems to belong to a '50s frontier fantasy. I'm sure this is an overstatement (as I said, I haven't read any of the series yet), but it seems to be the foundation of the complaints and specifically defended by some.

Marina November 4, 2010 at 2:26 PM  

I completely agree with this post.

I began reading the comics with a lot of curiosity and interest, but these kind of ideology Kirkman wants to show makes me vomit. I don't quite understand this thing about putting your thoughts and belief system in your work... a work of art transforms in a mere vomit them. It looks like political propaganda, or something like that. It's disgusting.

Men look like real people with real passions while woman are protrayed as frightened little animals.

I wonder... are men afraid of women?

Michael November 5, 2010 at 12:47 AM  

Thanks so much for writing this post. I'm completely unfamiliar with the comic series and had no idea about this show. I started watching this pilot online by chance. I just finished watching the campsite scene and was so appalled by the way in which the female characters were portrayed, and perhaps most of all by the way Lori is psychologically bullied into submission and then makes up for it by kissing her aggressor.

I searched in google in the hopes that I was not the only person feeling worried/dismayed/disgusted by the absolutely unproblematized way the producers deal with gender inequality. I don't care if it's the end of the world, it's still fiction and it still sends a message to viewers that woman are naturally stupid.

I think your analysis of the pilot is spot on. I'm a sociology grad student (and study gender among other thing) so I couldn't help but be dumb struck this show and then delighted to read that others are sensitive to it.

Carol November 7, 2010 at 2:54 PM  

Thanks for this post. Your comments on She Has No Head led me over here. I still haven't watched the pilot. I had actually stopped reading The Walking Dead because I was troubled by the portrayal of women in it (as well as the melodrama). As others have said, I don't need every female character to be a great shot and a natural born zombie killer. I don't need every female character to be Michonne, though I could use Michonne being Michonne without the Governor. But in an ostensibly realistic scenario, I need them to be people. As it is, it feels like a much less entertaining 1950s melodrama. (Though I would totally watch Douglas Sirk's Walking Dead). I had actually hoped that the tv series would even some of this out. I'm a little disheartened to read that, in this respect, the series might actually be worse than the comic. I'm still going to give it a try. My experience is that pilots are almost always worse than the rest of the series.

Christine Smith November 8, 2010 at 9:58 AM  

Count me with those who stopped watching partway through. The discussion in the car kept gnawing at me, but I was thinking 'maybe this is just set up to show them for jackasses'. Then, halfway through, I realized I just didn't care enough to stick around and find out.

Yan Basque November 8, 2010 at 10:05 AM  

Thank you all for your comments. I'm glad some people appreciated my post and it's nice to see some discussion around these issues.

Lisa November 9, 2010 at 8:38 PM  

This is a great post. I watched the pilot for this series yesterday and was really turned off by the first 10 min--especially the main character's assessment that the difference between women and men are that women are cruel. Maybe a case could be made for the other guy's comments. He seems like an ass. But this is our main hero. How can I connect with a character that despises my gender?

L November 14, 2010 at 11:13 PM  

Great post. I haven't read the comic, but have been following the TV show, and tonight's episode (#3, "Tell it to the Frogs") brought the misogyny to a head. It appears to adhere closely to the comic, but that's no excuse. "The Women" (portrayed as personality-free warm bodies) do all the hard labor around the camp while the men goof around and decide to do stupid things like try to rescue a racist pig. One woman questions the "division of labor" and the others wave away her concern. Then their talk devolves into a giggling discussion on vibrators. Yes, seriously. Vibrators. Later, a woman's significant other drops by and makes some typically misogynist remarks, which is solved by Shane (the male character sleeping with the protagonist's wife) beating the shit out of him.

I'm a zombie lover. I'm also a novelist who's written a zombie book. I eat zombies for breakfast, lunch, and dinner. But The Walking Dead is sexist garbage. And it kills me to say that, because I want to love it.

Kieran November 16, 2010 at 8:17 PM  

Thanks for the great post. Now having watched episode 3, it's quite clear that the title's 'Walking Dead' actually refers to the humans in the show, not the zombies. If we, the viewers, are subjected to enough of this sub-human sexist racist trend, they will perhaps succeed in turning us all into the walking dead.

Rory November 19, 2010 at 1:03 AM  

The third episode was the one that really hit it over the head to me that this show was going to be following the same pace of the comic series in terms of gender roles. The women are literally doing laundry while the guys goof off or just sit around between periods of hunting and zombie killing. Such an obvious divide of gender roles is very striking and not very realistic. The women seem annoyed at the situation but not indignant, kind of a more things change the more they stay the same mentality.

Even if such a situation is a realistic portrayal for some men and women, the purpose of good fiction should be to push boundaries, not reinforce them. After all, this is a story about people trying to survive and rebuild after the world has totally fallen apart. I've known plenty of women who are survivalists, outdoorsy types, good at shooting, or are just plain ambitious. Including some of those women (and likewise, some men who like to do their fair share of domestic chores) in a story about the zombie apocalypse would shake things up, challenge traditional thinking on gender roles, and make for more compelling interactions between the characters.

Ms. P November 20, 2010 at 3:46 PM  

Re: the tv show, I think that a lot of action / horror media is aimed at men because the producers are thinking that's their target market, so they don't care about appealing to or offending women. That bums me out because I like zombie / horror / action shows and I can't stand sexist crap :( I thought the movie Zombieland was pretty awesome and it passed the 3 part Bechdel test (http://ruthe-pogacar.blogspot.com/2009/11/zombieland.html) : 1. featuring at least two women 2. who talk to eachother 3. about something other than a man

sewerfairy December 7, 2010 at 2:42 PM  

I haven't read this whole post (yet) because I haven't read the comics yet but I did watch the series and am also in the middle of writing something about it.

Seriously, why do we always have to put up with people saying stuff like "oh but if you care too much about PC then the story gets boring". As if we have had SUCH A LOT of mainstream stories made for major audiences that already deal with strong females or non-white, non-heterosexual people in general. How can people say something is getting old which isn't even mainstream yet? Oh well!

I think The Walking Dead is really interesting. It's fun to watch (even though I have trouble filling the blank emotionless stares from the main character with content but I am sure that's because I am not the target audience that is supposed to put themselves into his shoes) and fun to deconstruct as well. Just because you criticise something in some aspects doesn't mean you can enjoy it as well.

Yan Basque December 7, 2010 at 3:57 PM  

Thank you, sewerfairy. That's a very good point. So much of the reactions (not just here on this blog, but elsewhere that I've discussed it or other similar issues) are immediately defensive. It's almost like people think just because I'm criticizing a show or book for having sexist elements, I'm implying that they are bad people for enjoying it or not noticing it. That's really not it at all. The fact that I see problems with a show doesn't mean that nobody is allowed to enjoy it. In fact, I could even be enjoying it, even if I have problems with some aspects of it.

I've never told anyone they should stop watching or enjoying a show. But please, let us at least have a discussion about it if we want to.

Josh December 7, 2010 at 7:06 PM  

Okay I just started watching the show and the sexism smacked me right in the face. Maybe it's because I was prepared for it. I read Kirkman's Ultimate X-Men run and I had found it to be extremely sexist, like Jeph Loeb's Ultimates run sexist! The usually strong female X-men were demoted to weak, fragile women who hung on the male X-Men like they couldn't control the weather or destroy someone with their mind.

I was hoping The Walking Dead wouldn't be the same. I'm a big fan of strong female characters and was hoping that the writers would move away from Kirkman's way of portraying women as the lesser sex, but so far no luck.

I'll stick around still. Hopefully it approves over time.

David December 12, 2010 at 2:03 AM  

Wow, just discovered your blog by accident, but I love it and will enjoy going through the archives.

Yes its sexist, and I won't try to justify that, But I think there is a reason for Kirkman's sexist overtones (Can't speak for the show, you're pretty much dead on with your post). I think he sees the world in a deeply cynical way. I think he's probably read about war crimes through out the world committed by well armed, violent men on women over and over again. I think he looks at how quickly we tend to fall in line for though guy father figures (Dubya, the GOP in general) and has sort of channeled all that really negative energy into this book. I don't think he personally sees this as the "natural order" of things. I think he just doesn't have much faith in humanity as a whole. He's also saying a lot about how horribly messed up men are (or could be come at the literal end of the world).

The book is sexist because he tosses out a few token "tough girls" with thin or generic back-stories and acts as if that's giving 50 percent of humanity a fair shake as the world ends. Its sexist because there is zero effort made to make any of the female characters remotely three dimensional/likable/interesting/etc. Its sexist because everything you've said about Laurie is dead on and it only gets way worse for her as a character in the books. Through almost 80 issues he continually finds new and even more generic ways to be sexist in fact.

But I think its mostly because he's an average writer people have held up to some kind of higher status.

Some of the sexism is Kirkman's ham-fisted attempt at social commentary. His "oscar" moment, if you will. But instead of The Godfather, you're getting Patch Adams (i borrow friend's issues). I just don't think he's right wing nut. I feel like I could smell that out.

I do however totally agree that blatant and non-stop sexism is holding the book back. But I think it might be more his weakness as a writer then his political views.

Or maybe he likes to do WWII reenactments dressed up as a Nazi. Who knows? Either way, thought provoking stuff from you and the posters. Very happy to have found your blog.

Alexander December 13, 2010 at 8:18 PM  

I really enjoyed reading this article and the following discussion.

I honestly hadn't really thought much about the gender roles in the show before reading this. You could chock that up to lack of senitivity on my part, but its hard for me to notice something when its basically the standard operating procedure for modern society. Women are almost always portrayed poorly and with little thought to how such portrayals effect the populace.

:Full disclosure I have watched season 1 of the tv show but I have not read the comic.:

In retrospect I can definitely see how many of the scenes could be taken as presenting a sexist message. However, I don't feel that this was an active intention so much as a passive side-effect of not providing a strong female voice. Obviously that is a form of sexism in and of itself, but I think it is worth noting the difference.

In my own view, the conversation between Rick and Shane in the squad car shows us their personalities, warts and all.

It never occured to me that I was meant to take their conversation as a testament to male/female relations, but rather as a quick insight to their characters.

In a later episode we have a scene where two sisters, Andrea and Amy, sit in a boat and discuss their father with reverence.

Now this could be taken as an example of the women being weak because they show such strong dependence on their father, while Shane and Rick were barely able to stand the women in their lives. However, I see it more as a statement to how much more the sisters honored their father, in contrast to Rick and Shane "bitching and moaning" about the women in their lives.

Furthermore, because the two scenes occur on opposite sides of the outbreak, we see that in the regular world the two cops are criticizing what would shortly become the most important thing to them, while Andrea and Amy remain as devoted to their father after the outbreak as they were before.

Granted, I immediately assumed that I was meant to dislike Rick's wife based on the few moments she was initially given. However, I figured that based on the very select amount of information that was presented, that perhpas there was more to the story.

I was glad to see that there was an attempt to further explore the complexity of the situation and that it seems to be an ongoing part of the story.

I would like to see a particularly strong female presence in the story, not simply out of a desire for equality (though that is one reason) and not strictly because they are so rare in pop culture (though thats also quite true) but mostly because I feel it would add realism to the story. Women can be catty, coniving, bitchy, emotional, and whorish. They can also be smart, strong, independent, decisive, cunning and inspirational. Failing to present either the good or the bad leads to a lack of realism.

Hopefully, we get more of the latter to counter the former as the show moves forward in it's second season.

Again, this was a great find, and I'm really glad I got to see this article thanks to Dispatches From The Fridge.

Yan Basque December 19, 2010 at 11:40 AM  

Thanks again for all the comments. I'm amazed to see this post continuing to draw hits and getting linked to from all kinds of awesome places.

Missus Goodveggie March 21, 2011 at 4:52 PM  

Ok I know this is really late in the day but I was so excited to come across this post. I was given the walking dead comics (not seen the show yet) by my brother-in-law and have since had some very interesting debates with him over this sexism issue. I thought the two scenes you mentioned (the laundry and the voting) were appalling precisely for that reason that it's kind of the writer going "this isn't sexist...because it's totally true mwah ha ha ha". I also want to point out that Michonne can hardly be used as a 'strong' female character because about 3/4 of the way through we discover that her uncompromising violence has been under the influence (real or imaginary) of her dead boyfriend - if you then go back to the scenes where she's talking with him you can see that Michonne herself is arguing against violence. I'm not saying violence is right, but it's overwhelmingly portrayed as the 'strong male' role here and therefore the woman can only engage in it under the control of some ethereal, omnipresent male. That she's unable to resist his influence even after he's passed on is troubling. Even her revenge on the Governer for raping her is actually her 'boyfriend', so the rape of the woman is more his issue than hers? Andrea I'll give you, I could nitpick (would Dale have been shown happily shacking up with her if she were the elder, physically dependent partner) but that's all it would be.

However, if you examine the portrayal of masculinity in the book it's not actually much more positive. It could be argued that Rick is equally constrained by the hyper-masculine role he takes on. He's the white, straight alpha male, aggressive and decisive, perceived as the natural leader by all the 'lesser' (ethnic minority/old/young/disabled) men as well as the women. And he perceives himself that way. Rick's biggest tragedy is not just that he's actually s**t at leading, but that this role is so ingrained into his and everyone else's minds that nobody (including him) will accept the fact. They follow his inane, off the cuff, moral hypocrisy through death after needless death. They question his leadership, but they vote him onto the leadership council. He is tormented by self-doubt, but is convinced by his own and others' misconceptions. The only time Rick's effective as a leader and sympathetic as a character are the moments when he's engaged in the ostentatiously 'feminine' art of relationship building and nurturing. Given that one of the key themes of the series seems to be that the morally ambiguous, post apocalyptic dystopia they're living in is more the result of the survivors' own behaviour than that of the zombies, you could see the whole thing as a damming indictment of what a world regressed to traditional gender roles would look like.

Yan Basque March 21, 2011 at 5:24 PM  

Thank you so much for your comment, Missus Goodveggie. It's really amazing that several months after I posted it, some people still find their way to this post and have valuable new insight to contribute to the discussion. I may have to do a follow-up post at some point, just to draw attention to some of the excellent points you and others have made in the comments.

I think your analysis of Rick's hyper-masculine role is fascinating and spot-on. If anything, this shows that dismissing the work as "sexist" (without further reflection) doesn't really do it justice. Yes, there is sexism in it, and I think it needs to be acknowledged. But because of the depth of Kirkman's world and characters, it's worth looking at the different ways that gender is presented.

dfgd March 6, 2012 at 2:07 PM  

Thank you for this nuanced post -- I share your sentiments exactly. The extreme and unapologetically-blatant sexism in this series detracts immensely from my ability to enjoy the show. It's such a shame, because 'The Walking Dead' is otherwise brilliant in all other respects, and definitely one of the top TV series I have ever seen.

Kirkman claims this sexism of his, and his creation/portrayal of weak female characters, is somehow "justified" because he thinks it would be a "realistic outcome" of a post-apocalyptic scenario, where all artificial impositions like political correctness goes out the window. According to Kirkman, the daily struggle to survive would mean regressing back into our more "natural and efficient" gender roles of women as caretakers and men as the leaders out on adventures (due to, of course, the men's bigger and stronger bodies).

I criticize this so-called "justification" of his -- most of all the killing of zombies was done through weapons like guns. It doesn't take physical strength to carry or use a gun; it takes skill and precision, which, unlike physical strength, women are just as capable of developing and executing. (Hell, even Glenn, with his boyish figure, gets more action and adventure than any of the women who are taller than him, and he is additionally portrayed as "intelligent" to counter-balance his slight physique, whereas *all* of the women are portrayed as not only physically, but mentally incompetent.)
The fact that Kirkman did not even think to include a strong, competent female character who could take out zombies on her own with weaponry skills, leads me to conclude that Kirkman *is* indeed a misogynist intent on portraying women in a bad light, and that the "justification" he gave to backup his decision was merely an after-the-fact, improvised rebuttal to the stark sexism everyone else saw and complained about.

Brother Warrior March 18, 2012 at 12:45 AM  

Thanks for writing this. I just started watching the walking dead and I can't lie, it captivated me. However, I could not ignore the blatant sexism that appeared in the show. In almost every scene a woman appears, she is doing something stupid,useless,causing a problem or being talked down to. All I can say is REALLY? Women are capable of fucking up a zombie. I'm really into the plot line of the show and think it has a lot to offer, but damn, how is this being overlooked??

Steele Oracle March 19, 2012 at 3:57 PM  

Thanks for writing this. I agree with you.

The idea of humans reverting back to their tribal roles could be considered plausible but in these tribal roles, women were the center of society. They held an elevated status making these tribal societies primarily matriarchal. It is only with the evolution of farming and tribes turning in to cities that we see these roles reverse and society become more of a patriarchal one. So if Kirkman wanted to actually get this idea right, he would have more of a pro-female matriarchal model and it doesn't seem like he does. It seems like he has a rather flat simplistic view of what tribal-styled society really means.

A good example of a matriarchal styled society would be the First Nations People on the west coast of Canada prior to the arrival of the Europeans. The women of this society were once again at its' very center and it's very core. One of the things that elevated their status was their ability to make blankets for trade. The blankets were highly valued as was their ability to produce them.

However, what would have been more realistic for Kirkman's gender roles in his comics and TV series would be that the roles would have been more balanced. If you consider women just directly after WWII, many of them liked to work when they had wartime jobs and were resentful to have been forced back in to the home. So a more realistic approach would be having some women as "hunters" (The comic does offer us a few candidates for this) and some as "gatherers." You could even have male "gatherers" as well. Today's society is more fluid with their roles. As another example, there are more househusbands and stay-at-home fathers these days and they're okay with this. Therefore, it would be acceptable for male gatherers to exist.

So in conclusion, gender roles are actually quite fluid and they change over time. In tribal societies prior to the move to farming, women held the center of the society and had an elevated status over the men. So long and short, Kirkman fails at realism and did not do his research.

Yanna March 20, 2012 at 5:30 PM  

I wish everyone could read this. I wish everyone was given the chance to understand this. They could desagree, but at least they'd be aware.

I believe we don't want to force authors to create strong female roles if they don't feel like it, but the books are crossing a line when all the women are weak and uninteresting by default and the active ones are exceptions.

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