Tuesday, December 7, 2010

Gender in The Walking Dead (part 1)

My fingers have been itching to write about this but I wanted to wait until at least the first season of The Walking Dead was over. Now I have seen all the episodes and I want to write down my observations and impressions about how the issue of gender is being dealt with on The Walking Dead. I will do this by not fully analysing every episode but rather dealing with a few key scenes that I will take a closer look at. Episode by episode an underlying theme and motif should become clear.

Before I start writing away however I also have to mention that I have not read the comic book. I did this on purpose so that my experience of the TV series wouldn't be influenced by any preconceptions.about the characters. As I understand it towards the end of the season the storyline has started to deviate a lot from the comic book anyway, so I might still read the comic books at some point. However all that I write here is only about the TV series as I have seen it and I don't know how this corresponds to the comic books at all.

I want to begin with episode one. The first scene with actual dialogue in it introduces the main character Rick and his colleague Shane by letting them have a conversation in their cop car about "the difference between men and women". Shane starts talking about how women are too stupid to turn the lights off. All of this is done in a joking way, an assholeish joke maybe, but a joking way nonetheless, which is probably supposed to be endearing or something. When Rick starts talking, things immediately go serious and he talks about his relationship problems between his wife Lori and him, finally coming to the conclusion "the difference between men and women? I would never say something that cruel to her". What starts out as a funny conversation about women being too dumb to turn the lights off turns into a dead serious declaration that women are fundamentally crueler than men. Now of course you can say that this is supposed to show that these guys are a bit fucked up and have problems with women but I think it is a pretty risky thing to have the first conversation in a new series, which is simultaneously supposed to introduce two male lead characters, make such a bad and one-sided statement about women. Personally it just gave me the reaction of: "Okay, maybe you guys are just getting what is coming to you". Let's just say that in terms of gender images we aren't off to an all too great start with this series, even though I can also acknowledge the kind of ambivalence this first scene has when it is seen in context with later scenes. Still the first impression that the viewer gets is that this Lori must be a heartless bitch.

Another significant scene in the first episode (and sort of the only other scene where a woman has any significance) is the camp scene where we are reassured that both Shane and Lori (and her son) are alive. We are also introduced to the fact that they have started a relationship. This does not come in favour of our already slightly prejudiced image of Lori. First she is cruel to her husband and now she has an affair with his colleague, just like that? I feel like most people will first start questioning her morals and maybe as an afterthought we will get our first doubts about Shane's morals as well. This scene is significant as well because it shows a difference of opinion between Lori and Shane. The one time in the pilot episode that a woman gets to suggest something significant (wanting to go warn Rick, who is approaching the city, about the danger that lies there) and she gets talked down to by Shane and she finally obeys him. It's a bit of a buzzkill and it also vaguely depicts the woman Lori as impulsive and emotional, while Shane is the voice of reason in this scene. This fits together a bit with the general depiction of women later in the series.

So the pilot episode does not pass the Bechdel test. It doesn't have a whole lot of women in it and the way they are talked to and talked about is mostly, let's be honest, bad. However, much of this can also be explained or at least relativised by context and later episodes do shine a light on the relationships between certain characters. So let's look onward at episode two.

In episode two we have a kind of uncomfortable scene in the beginning with Lori going into the forest to look for mushrooms. She hears a noise and starts looking around for zombies. The experienced viewer knows that this is the moment where not a zombie will come but instead a cat will jump out at the character or something similarly mundane as that. However, it is a tense moment and it turns out to be Shane who jumps Laurie. He holds her down for a moment to keep her from making a surprised noise, alerting the rest of the group, so they can have a bit of "private time". Before they have sex on the forest ground Lori takes off Rick's wedding band that she still wears as a memento. The viewer realises that Rick or at least his memory still holds some kind of significance for Lori but she does have sex with his colleague nonetheless. Her image doesn't really change from watching that scene but I felt like Shane is starting to get increasingly creepy.

One of the earlier scenes in the city has Andrea confronting Rick about his careless behaviour in the city filled with zombies, holding a gun to his head. She is angry at him for attracting a lot of zombies and making it difficult for her group to get out of the city alive. There we find the same pattern of women being portrayed as impulsive and emotional when under pressure. The only guys portrayed in a similar way in that series? The racist Merle and his slightly less offensive brother Daryl. But those guys actually do something, they fight, beat up people and kill zombies, while women rarely get a chance to fight in a similar way to men. But more on that later. In a later scene we also hear from Rick that he remained so calm with a gun pointed at his face because the safety was still on. Women... always leaving on lights and safeties! But nonetheless, the viewer can empathise with Andrea because she does get to tell a bit of her backstory, we realise she has a sister and she even gets to crack a little joke. She is introduced as impulsive but not cruel or unfaithful.

Finally, episode three! In that episode we have the big family reunion of Rick, Lori and Carl. This scene and this episode are very significant to the development of the relationship between Lori and Shane, now that her real husband has come back. When Lori and Carl suddenly see Rick standing there in their camp their joy is very visible on their faces. But with all that joy in Lori's and Shane's faces we also see a bit of shock. We come to realise that Lori is really and honestly very happy to have Rick back and that she very deeply regrets having slept with Shane. This earns Lori a bit of sympathy already.

Then there is another very significant scene, which also gave the whole episode its title. Tell it to the frogs! In that scene Lori comes to fetch Carl from the lake where he has been trying to catch some frogs with Shane as was arranged earlier. Lori tells him to go back to the camp and severs ties with Shane. This is a big turning point in our image of Lori, as we realise that Shane told her that her husband died FOR SURE. Suddenly it even seems a bit like Shane wanted to get his hands on that happy family (as he has always been plagued by girlfriends who left the lights on and as he remarked in the car, Lori is really good at turning the lights off!) and has no qualms whatsoever to jump into the gap when his colleague is disposed of. Or at least, if the thing wasn't planned then at least Shane didn't seem to wait for long. No matter how we precisely interpret Shane's intentions, in this scene he very much appears like the unethical one in this situation. Lori is also suddenly portrayed as a very strong and protective mother, trying to keep everything that harms her family out. And Shane no longer belongs to this family.

This, together with Rick's return leads to a very difficult situation for Shane. On the one hand, he is not the only cop in the camp anymore. He is not completely in charge anymore. Now I bet Dale also always had a say in things but from the way things were being handled when Lori suggested to warn Rick when he approached the city, it becomes rather obvious that Shane was the authority in the camp. That's probably the way things would go, if there's a cop still alive people would look to him for guidance. Now Shane has to share his power with his returned friend. On top of that he loses his newfound "wife" and "son". He doesn't only lose a part of his masculinity by losing authority over the camp but he loses the ego boost he gained by suddenly being in the role of a family father and protector as well. We can see that this takes a very harsh toll on him when he flips out at the wifebeater in the next scene.

This is also a rather important scene when one wants to talk about gender images in The Walking Dead. The scene begins with the women from the camp sitting at the lakeshore and doing the washing. They talk about what they miss from the life that they had before. Ding ding ding, I think we might have a winner here! This might be the first scene with which The Walking Dead passes the Bechdel test! Halfway into the first season, that's not so bad. To be fair, it's a very short season, too. Eventually the conversation strays to why the women have to do the washing while men stand around and smoke a cigarette (as Ed does) and Shane plays around with Carl in the water. When Carol admits that she misses her vibrator, too, the women break out into laughter. Annoyed by that, Ed, Carol's husband, comes along and tells them to laugh less and work harder because this isn't a "comedy club". The women don't immediately talk back at that but the scene instead cuts back to the scene between Lori, Shane and Carl. Then when the scene cuts back to the washing women Andrea gets up and tells Ed he can do his laundry himself and questioning what his job at the camp is. Ed reacts by telling his wife it's time to come back with him but Andrea objects and tells him she doesn't have to go anywhere. Ed threatens Andrea with violence and the situation quickly escalates when he punches his wife in the face. Of course at that moment, Shane who has witnessed the argument from afar comes running to save the day. He beats up Ed pretty badly. This is a very significant scene as it shows all that frustration that Shane feels now that his authority is standing on clay feet and that he has lost his would-be father role to Carl. He reinstates his masculinity by being the benevolent saviour of a bunch of harassed washing women. Ed is the perfect punching bag as nobody will, rightfully, feel sorry for him.

Now I have heard that this scene wasn't originally in the comic book, so adding a segment about domestic violence in which the offender is at first criticised and then also punished seems pretty progressive and praiseworthy, doesn't it? However, when you look at how the scene is solved it leaves a stale aftertaste. The criticism made by the women in the first place, about the division of labour within the camp and about Ed's treatment of his wife doesn't go anywhere. They can not protect Carol from being harmed and they can not defuse the situation once it starts to escalate. Instead they need a man to reinstate order. They need masculine violence to fight masculine violence. So in the end, even though I don't doubt it was meant well, the scene doesn't actually deal with domestic violence in a very progressive way. Now most people will agree that Ed deserved that kind of punishment and I am not even sure he didn't but the fact remains that women in that scene got nowhere with their talk and criticism and only male fists solved that issue.
Overall in the first three episodes we generally see women being portrayed as quite helpless, even if they try to be strong. They obey what men say and even if they try to fight they don't get anywhere. The two female characters with the biggest amount of lines, Lori and Andrea, are still quite ambiguous. Lori had a very bad image from the very start, being introduced as "cruel" and as the episodes progress we also see her having sex with her husband's colleague. However when we realise that Shane told her that her husband was dead for sure, thus seeminglylying to her and as we see how much she regrets having slept with him we get more sympathetic towards her case. Shane in contrast loses some of our sympathy and finally at the end of episode three we can see him become increasingly unhinged as he tries to rebuild his hurt masculine pride. Andrea didn't get a whole lot of lines yet but she comes across as probably the strongest female character of the series, confronting Rick angrily at his careless behaviour and also standing up to a wifebeater. There is no reason why the viewer would dislike her, we only laugh at her a little bit when we realise she had forgotten to remove the safety of her gun. Another thing that is increasingly stressed is the role of Lori as a protective mother. This is a quite conservative role for a woman to fit in but in the coming episodes we will also see that The Walking Dead relies heavily on the themes of fatherhood and as an opposite to that naturally motherhood as well.

My impression from the first three episodes is that it has already become quite visible that this show is aimed at males, with women getting significantly less screentime and not having as much background info and significant roles as the males. But of course a series isn't immediately sexist because it has male lead characters. I will however continue to analyse the underlying themes and motifs in that series and aim to come to a final conclusion about the whole first season in the next post. Then I will of course also deal with episodes four to six in detail.

I actually really enjoyed watching the series, because I like watching stuff about zombies. Also I'm not even sure the handling of gender images was the worst thing about this series. What kind of bothers me is that Rick so far feels like sort of a blank. Maybe it's just because I'm not exactly the target audience of The Walking Dead, but most of the time I can not fill his blank emotionless stares with content and put myself into his shoes. It's still the series I've been looking the most forward to watching during the last few weeks since Halloween. Rest assured, people can criticise aspects of products of popular culture and still be a fan.

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