AMC's (Tunnel) Vision of Gender Post Civilization

Curator's Note

According to the back cover copy on Robert Kirkman’s The Walking Dead graphic novel, “The world of commerce and frivolous necessity has been replaced by a world of survival and responsibility.” This zombie narrative is about the competition among possible masculinities in a state of nature. The apocalypse is a playground for (blue-collar, white) men’s fantasies of masculinity in it’s most authentic form (read "survival" + "responsibility"), in this case that of Rick, although other male characters such as Shane and Glenn provide some nuance. The AMC adaptation emphasizes this focus in the fact that characters are summarily dispatched as soon as the gender performance they demonstrate is proven undesirable (consider Merle’s racism, Jim’s sensitivity, Ed’s abuse of power and even Amy’s non-violent utility). The problem with state of nature arguments is that they invariably stress the need of the weak to be protected by, and submissive to, the powerful. Worse, by literally killing off other possiblities, they naturalize existing power relations.

The first season of The Walking Dead made some serious missteps when it came to its portrayal of women. The second season seemed determined to earn an Emmy in misogyny. Yet, as a fan of both TWD and AMC’s gender nostalgia romp Mad Men, I find myself, like some others, hoping that depicting misogyny can itself be a critique of misogyny.

Unfortunately, I find Amy and Andrea’s conversation in the fishing boat (S1E4) to be quite telling of the series’ sexual politics. This scene stands out as a genuine moment of female character development and identification (despite failing to pass the Bechdel test) and, viewed in isolation, would have been as fitting on Lifetime as in AMC’s zombie series. What this scene underscores is not misogyny, but rather the inability of the writers to imagine women in a post-apocalyptic world. The unfortunate implication is that women have nothing to gain in an apocalypse fantasy. That Amy and Andrea’s dialog would be identical had their father passed peacefully in his retirement home tells us that, in the view of this series, there are no modern institutions constraining women. Women, unlike men, already exist in an authentic state of nature. Even being oppressed itself is a male privilege.

Comments

Heather Hendershot's picture

zombies and positive apocalypse?

In Hollywood from Vietnam to Reagan, Robin Wood celebrated Romero’s vision of a positive (or perhaps he called it regenerative?) apocalypse. The idea was that much of the progressive potential of the zombie film rested in the fact that Romero was interested in the possibility of rethinking the existing social order. Could capitalism and patriarchy really persist after the end of the world? Or could something new be imagined? (Tom Zarek raised exactly these issues in Battlestar Gallactica. Things ultimately went REALLY badly for him, but I appreciated the effort.)

Romero should not have a monopoly on the use of zombies for social critique. But when zombies are NOT used for social critique, in a meaningful way, it really irks me. I don’t think the Walking Dead is completely lacking in ideas, and I appreciate the interesting comments that have been raised about the show’s racial and regional politics. As far as gender goes—and I say this as someone who has only seen season one—TWD is terribly disappointing. It’s the end of the world, but MEN and their pressing need to PROTECT their women and children are still the name of the game here. Remember the female protagonist in Dawn of the Dead declining marriage and insisting on instruction in how to shoot guns and fly helicopters? That kind of independent female initiative is unthinkable in this world.

In sum, thank you Adryan for your apt critique of TWD. Like you, I am always hopeful that depicting misogyny can end up critiquing it. Sometimes this can happen quite unexpectedly. (The Wire sometimes achieved this, though one doubts it was fully intentional). From what I’ve seen, though, the farthest TWD can go in terms of progressive critique is to show unequivocally that wife beating is bad. Do we really need a zombie narrative to spread this rather uncontroversial message?

Romero’s most recent zombie film, Survival of the Dead (2009), was barely seen, and, frankly, it’s not his greatest. But it ends with the rather poignant and disturbing image of two men—archenemies in life, now zombies—shooting each other over and over again, as if caught in a loop. Even dead, these two persist in their pointless, macho attempts at domination. Rather than naturalizing existing power relations, as per above, Romero points to the senseless brutality of humanity’s “natural order.”

Adryan Glasgow's picture

Punishing Ed post-Romero

Thanks for your comments, Heather.

I hate to nitpick, but the more I think about Ed the more I think we need to be critical of even his treatment in the TV series. First, because Ed is not punished for abusing his wife or daughter. He crosses the line when he strikes Andrea. Since the camp is a microcosm which purports to show us what sorts of communities will survive under extreme duress (which is the reversal of the critical frame in Romero’s zombie films), the selective policing of Ed’s abusive power suggests that he is free to do what he likes to his family (his territory), so long as he keeps it in the tent.

Secondly, even when Ed strikes Andrea, he is not punished for his abuse. Instead, he is presented as an appropriate victim for Shane’s pent-up rage. The fact is, the violence of Shane’s attack was generated by his own territorial dispute (Lori insisting she and her son belong to RIck). This scene of brutality isn’t about punishing Ed, it’s about venting Shane’s tension which would have otherwise poisoned the entire camp.

Romero’s gift to the zombie genre was to expand the quest for survival beyond the characters and onto the insititutions themselves. Even NotLD ends with Ben’s death, but by his sixth zombie film, Romero ceases to bother imagining alternatives. The institutions are simply too persistent. Zombie narratives could arguably have shifted from the Romero era to the post-Romero in which we live today. Where the zompocalypse once represented a critique, it has now been domesticated and can now be used to show the vitality and necessity of libertarian policies which enforce white, heterosexual, male priviledge. In the best cases, such as Fido, they can show how the status quo can use fear-mongering to enforce it nostalgia. In the worst cases, they legitimate Shane’s violence against Ed as being both useful (venting Shane’s rage) and justified (punishing Ed) is some cosmic coincidence of patriarchal naturalizing.

What gets me about Ed is that the women weren’t able to resist his misogyny. They dutifully did the laundry, allowing him to lord over them, despite the fact that Andrea and Amy are the only characters shown to successfully provide food to the camp. When they finally reached a crisis of power negotiation, a man had to come along and beat him up. Problem solved? Hardly.

Nina Huntemann's picture

Silencing Women

Thanks Adryan for the post. I’ve been looking forward to this week’s IMR focus on TWD. ***Spoilers ahead***

The most recent episode, "Judge, Jury, Executioner" underscored for me where I fear series is headed. The women were literally silent at crucial moments during the episode-long debate about capital punishment and the role of humanity in post-apocalyptic zombie land.

I was also terribly disappointed to see characters that have expertise (Andrea was a civil rights lawyer) or a long held opinion (Rick mentions that Lori is against the death penalty) shut their mouths and cast their eyes down. Their silence was deafening and sounded all too familiar in light recent conservative attempts to silence or chastise women as the GOP "debates" women’s reproductive health and other "issues of conscience."

I’m heartened to see that these actions have only embolden women and strengthened women’s organizations. For TWD however, the only role women played in "Judge, Jury, Executioner" was to (once again) provide justification for male violence. Rick is convinced that the prisoner is guilty by associating with a rival group who, apparently, raped two teenage girls while the girls’ father was forced to watch. Yes, that old, tired trope.

Might humanity, should zombies ever rise, regress to the gender relations of the Neolithic period? Perhaps. But that story has been told countless times. I’m still hoping TWD complicates the zombie genre (a la Romero) and critiques the "natural" patriarchal order. Hopefully the writers give that critique some bite, unlike the episode a few weeks ago that pitted women against women when Andrea responded to Lori’s accusastion that she doesn’t do enough housework! Shoot me in the head if that is TWD’s idea of a social critique.

Adryan Glasgow's picture

Nina, I whole-heartedly agree

Nina, I whole-heartedly agree with you.  But I want to add one caution: I don’t buy that patriarchy is the historic "state of nature" for humanity as a species. Who knows, we may have Neolithic foremothers who would be astounded to see what gender relations we attribute to their cultures.

As to Andrea and Lori’s’s silence in their field of expertise/conviction, this is an extension of my frustration with the laundry scene.  It’s  an amazing opportunity for the show to demonstrate how women are being silenced and how, in a system of patriarchy, sometimes silence is "self-imposed" in the sense that women adopt it as a survival strategy. Such self-policing could be shown as a result of volitile leadership.  Instead silence is depicted as the natural, preferred state of women. The agnecy of silencing falls to the show’s creators rather than the characters. Such a waste. In teh case of Andrea, it is simply yet another attempt to present her as successfully castrated (remember her first appearance?  She shoved a gun in Rick’s face and demonstrated her leadershp in the community - hysterically, of course).  In the case of Lori, I see her silence as an extension of her first appearnace in teh series as well, she was the woman who kept failing to turn off the light switch and thus inspired the misogynist fest because Shane and Rick. For her to forfeit her opinion about the death penalty appears, to me, to fall in the trajectory of blaming women, and the the modern culture which we supposedly have invented out of whims and fancy, paradoxically both for the apocalypse and the alientation from a state of nature that certain political figures insist men suffer.

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