Saturday, December 18, 2010

Gender in The Walking Dead (part 2)

I know this post is coming a little bit late but I can explain! I've been busy reading through the first The Walking Dead Compendium, which contains the first 48 issues of the comic book series. Still, the notes that this post is based on date from before I have read the comic and it's still a look at the TV series only.

In the last post I examined the depiction of gender images in the first three episodes of The Walking Dead. It already became obvious that the dominant themes in this TV series seem to be fatherhood and the benevolent patriarchical group leader.

Now in the following post I want to continue analysing relevant scenes from each following episode and confirm the first impression on gender images in The Walking Dead that I obtained by analysing certain scenes from the first three episodes.

Episode four of The Walking Dead starts out with two of the female characters, Andrea and Amy, sitting in a boat on the little lake near the camp. They are catching fish for dinner. While waiting for the fish to bite they start a conversation in which we find out that their father taught both of them how to fish when they were younger, however he taught them different knots. Andrea at first suggests that this was just a coincidence but then they come to the conclusion that their father probably taught them different fishing knots because of their differences in personality. Remembering their father and childhood memories, they’re both starting to cry but the scene ends when a fish bites.

In this scene we also see the father figure as a strong, nurturing and benevolent motive. It is nice to have a father going fishing with their daughters, especially when this is usually known as the typical father and son activity to do. However, the complete absence of their mother in that nostalgic and slightly painful conversation is striking as well. When they think back to their normal comfortable life before the zombie apocalypse the first thing that comes to their mind is their father, not their mother.

What I liked about that scene where they return from the lake was that they had actually managed to catch a big bunch of fish. At least as many as Daryl managed to catch squirrels on his hunting trip. One male camp inhabitant even comes up to them and says: „Thank you! Because of you, my children will eat tonight“. This is a single instance where we can see the typical role model of nurturing father subverted and it’s actually the women getting food on the table. However this is also relativised a bit by them stating that it was Dale’s boat and fishing rods and that after all it was their father who taught them how to fish.

Since Rick has left the camp again together with Glenn, Daryl and T-Bone to go back into the city and save Merle and bring back that bag of guns as well, it is Shane who has to deal with Jim, who obviously is developing some mental problems. Jim had been keeping himself busy with digging graves near camp all day under the hot sun and Dale already reached out to him and asked whether he maybe wanted to take a break or at least drink something.

When Shane confronts Jim together with the group he doesn’t just ask Jim, he doesn’t accept no for an answer. His handling of the situation starts to appear a bit questionable especially when Jim calls him out on beating up Ed. This is also a moment in which the domestic violence coming from Ed is relativised and Jim says that „it is their marriage“ and none of Shane’s business. Finally Shane restrains Jim by force and ties him to a tree. As viewers we realise that there is danger coming from Jim, at the very least for himself but we also question the way Shane is dealing with the situation. In contrast to the way Rick always used to handle things Shane’s attempts look heavyhanded and not thought through. It becomes clear that Shane is not as good a leader as Rick.

There is also a brief moment in the scenes from the city in which an old woman appears through one of the key moments. Rick, Daryl and T-Bone are having a face-off with what seems to be a Latino street gang, who have kidnapped Glenn and set their eyes on the bag of guns, and the situation is approaching escalation quickly, when an old latino woman appears seemingly out of nowhere and walks into the middle of the scene. At that point all men put away their gun as there seems to be an emergency. The latino street gang is actually revealed to be employees at a nursing home and relatives of the old people who have been abandoned there. It’s a pretty imaginative scene but it seems a bit badly pulled off. It also does rely on the stereotype that latinos are generally more connected to their family and traditional values, etc.

The old woman defuses the situation and does appear as a positive figure. However, since she is so old already she is not exactly regarded as a woman, more as a grandmother or general mother figure. The men don’t stop fighting because she exudes some sort of power or authority but rather because she is old, helpless and pitiful. Thus, her positive influence on the scene also stems from her being understood as a traditional role for a woman – a mother or grandmother.
Finally the episode ends with a scene of great catastrophe. The zombies start to invade the camp. This scene undoubtedly stands for action and progress and has probably been hoped for by numerous people already. Ed, who refused to join the group for dinner, ashamed of his horrible bruises, is eaten first in his tent. Then Amy, who has gone away from the camp fire as well to go to the toilet is bitten by a walker. Some random guy gets eaten as well but I am not even sure he had a name.

The fact that Ed is killed first can be seen as his ultimate punishment for the domestic abuse of his wife. However, until the end we don’t see any development in his character and again evil is not punished through reason or criticism but by brutal force. The fact that Amy is killed seems to mean that she wasn’t that important after all. She will in the following episodes work only as a trigger for her sister Andrea, much in the way that a lot of women in movies solely exist to die and give the male main character a motivation to do something or a background of melancholy. But as of the end of season one we can not see Andrea getting any kind of motivation from the death of her sister, we will only be able to see her mourn for the rest of the season.

It is this mourning process that starts episode five. When the episode begins we see Andrea still kneeling by her sister Amy while the rest of the group is busy tidying up their camp, disposing of the corpses of both the zombies and their dead. The survivors are starting to get increasingly restless because Amy hasn’t been properly disposed of yet. If her brain is not destroyed she might come back as a zombie any time.

Now this is a mechanism very familiar to the fans of zombie stories. Fans are trained to quickly favour the decision of killing infected people. After all, that is the only way to contain the infection and not endanger oneself. So the long drawn out scenes of Andrea staying by the corpse of her sister will either bring great tension to the audience or great frustration at the unreasonable and sentimental behaviour of Andrea.

When Rick tries to confront her she pulls a gun on him and assures him that this time she has not forgotten to remove the safety. Thus Rick leaves her alone. Dale also tries to reason with Andrea. He comes to pay his respects to Amy and tells Andrea his own personal story of the loss of his wife. Finally he concludes that since that loss he hasn’t felt love for anybody but the two of them. Andrea and Amy are constructed to be the surrogate daughters for Dale, who has lost his wife (children are never mentioned). Thus Dale is also constructed as a father figure in the same way as Shane accepted his role as a surrogate father when he believed Rick to be dead and took care of his family.

Finally when Amy does come back alive the viewer almost expects Andrea to be bitten. We expect Amy who is just waking up into her new life as a zombie to quickly grab and bite Andrea at any moment, as we have seen it happen in a lot of zombie movies before. However, Andrea just says goodbye to her sister and at the very last possible moment she takes her gun and shoots Amy in the head. At that point we realise that she has been in control of the situation all along. This is maybe one of the only moments where we see a woman completely in control of her situation, even despite her heavy grief.

In that episode the conflict between Rick and Shane is also deepening. As they continue to dig graves to bury their dead Shane tells Rick he blames him for leaving and thinks that not as many people would have died if he had stayed. Rick however reasons that without the guns he brought back even more people would have died. Touché. Later as Rick and Shane scout the woods they have a conversation about either leaving camp and going elsewhere or staying there and sitting it out. Shane is in favour of staying, while Rick prefers to leave.

One very significant sentence almost sends Shane over the edge: „You don’t know what it’s like, you don’t have a family.“ Shane gets extremely angry at that and tells Rick that he HAS had a family, Rick's family, that he had taken care of when Rick was gone. It is almost implied that after all it was Rick who now has taken that family away from Shane again. Frustrated, Shane even points his shotgun at his colleague, when they hear a noise in the woods and Rick goes on to check ahead. Shane struggles for a moment and the anger is very visible on his face. He is clearly considering shooting Rick and finding an excuse for it. But then he takes down his rifle and to his horror realises that his moment of plotting murder has been observed by Dale. Dale is completely shocked by what he just witnessed and Shane sheepishly tries to escape the situation by calling out to Rick and suggesting going back to camp.

We can see from that scene how important that father role was for Shane and how much of his self-worth he drew from that. Now that Rick, who is better at being a leader, better at taking care of a family and better at solving group problems, has come back he feels that he is not the alpha male anymore and has lost a significant amount of his masculine power. The father and group leader role is depicted as the ideal for a man. We also see Dale as a passive father figure (possibly because of his age) but a moral authority nonetheless. In the end Shane submits to Rick's authority and supports his decision to leave camp.

In the final episode of the season the group is briefly allowed to enjoy a bit of civilised comfort as they find shelter at the CDC. They have electricity, warm running water, books and can sleep without being afraid of waking up to a zombie trying to eat them. In this episode we can see Andrea still mourning her sister Amy. It becomes obvious that she has given up on the whole world and even herself in a scene where she throws up in a bathroom and has a conversation with Dale. She suggests that everything is gone now, there most probably are no other research facilities around the globe trying to find a cure for the zombie disease. Dale however tells her that he sees this apocalypse as a chance to make a second life after his first one ended. In that scene Dale is also further established as somebody who is there for Andrea, which is a dominant theme in this episode, as it plays a significant role in one of the final scenes as well.

But we also have Shane further slipping away into self-doubts and anger. He drunkenly tries to confront Lori about their relationship, tries to tell her not to shut him out after all that happened between them but Lori refuses and the scene ends in an attempted rape, only stopped by Lori actually defending herself. Shane leaves the room in shock and anger. The next morning somebody confronts Shane about the wounds on his neck and he says he must have scratched himself in his sleep. Rick says that he has never seen him do that before and Shane answers "Me neither. Not like me at all." at which he looks Lori in the eye. The fact that he does meet Lori's eye in a sort of reproachful way tells us that he isn't ashamed of what he did. If he was ashamed, he'd maybe state the same thing but he wouldn't aggressively meet Lori's eye in a way of saying "we both know that you did that to me". I believe that Shane at this point is beyond redemption (which is further confirmed in a later scene where he flips out and Rick has to actually physically restrain him) and I really wouldn't know what to say if the creators of the series decided to "redeem" him in the next season. I really do wonder why the creators of the series keep him around, as the whole Shane-problem is much more easily solved in the comic books, before they even leave camp. I have heard words like "love triangle" been thrown around but in both the comic book and the TV series Lori does nothing but hate Shane's guts so I have no idea what the creators of the series are thinking right now. You better not come forward with some rape-apologism here, guys.

The final scene I want to have a look at is the scene where Andrea tells the group that she doesn't want to leave the CDC, effectively choosing suicide, and Dale stays with her to convince her otherwise. It is also very striking that nobody cares about the black woman, of whom we don't even really know the name. I know she has a name but next to nobody would remember it when talking about this scene. Nice to see that she doesn't merit a little "you can't stay here, come with us"-talk by Dale. Dale however tells Andrea that if she stays there he has no reason to leave either and Andrea tells him to get out and leave her alone. In the end she decides to leave with him after all. Thus Dale is sort of portrayed as a saviour to Andrea but the way through which he did it is also problematic. Ultimately he blackmailed her into going with him, he completely overruled her own judgement. Of course this means that Andrea will survive (and I am happy at that because she seems to be the only female character that isn't stuck in a mother-role so far and could get really badass) but we know that it will always be Dale who saved her. In this scene we can also see the final cementation of Dale's role as a father figure for Andrea and Andrea as his surrogate daughter. Or so I thought, when I had seen the series. Let's just say they will have to bring forth much better writing if they want to convince people that things can go the way they go in the comic book without being creepy or at least mildly inappropriate. But maybe Dale and Andrea will remain in their father/daughter relationship forever in the TV series.

So this was pretty much it, the first season of The Walking Dead. We can see that the strong underlying themes are fatherhood, as it is portrayed in the roles of Rick, Shane and Dale and the benevolent patriarchical group leader as it pretty much culminates in the main character, Rick. The reason for all of them to live are their roles as paternal authorities, protectors of the groups and their leading qualities. Rick for example, explicitly states at some points that he is "just a father looking for his family" and that all other things are less significant to him. He is fairly confident and powerful as a father and it is also from this role that he draws his masculine power over the group.

Shane is along for a bumpy ride. At first he is empowered by his role as a surrogate head of family for Lori and Carl but then he experiences an extreme loss of masculine power when Rick comes back and takes back his family and also proves to be a better group leader and decision-maker than him. This loss of his traditional role as the head of the family and indeed the head of a whole group of people, which he had never experienced before during the time before the apocalypse, makes Shane go mad with anger and we see him actually becoming a secret enemy to Rick.

Dale is a quite passive person who never gets to make big decisions, his role is more that of a protective father and not an aggressive authority. This may very well be just due to the fact that he is old and thus maybe rather fits into a "grandfather" role than a father role. However, by "adopting" Andrea as his daughter he is also clearly portrayed as a father figure. Even the little test you can take at the AMC webpage for The Walking Dead describes Dale as a "father figure".
The relevant women in the first two seasons are Lori and Andrea. Lori at first doesn't seem like a very good mother but as soon as she is reunited with Rick she goes back to her role as a protective mother and shuts out Shane, completely severing ties with him. It is also interesting that the relationship to Rick suddenly seems to be an ideal one, old relationship problems (which we knew existed from the car conversation in the first episode) are never mentioned anymore and the family becomes the most important thing to everyone involved. All in all Lori is depicted as relatively strong but only in her role as a protective mother. When she tries to argue decisions made by the group leaders, she doesn't get anywhere. So Lori is extremely passive and also very much dependent on Rick.

With Andrea, it is maybe significant to also have a look at her name. "Andrea" means "manly" and "virile". Thus it is not surprising maybe that she is the only female character so far that gets to show some backbone. She is easily the strongest female character in the first season. She criticises Ed for beating his wife and she is completely in control when she takes care of her sister Amy. Also it is not insignificant that in one episode Andrea and Amy manage to catch a lot of fish, thus satisfyingly filling the roles of nurturer for the group. Finally during the last episodes of the season Andrea becomes quite passive but this understandable as she is mourning the death of her sister. Still, if we hope to see a strong female character in the next season Andrea is probably our best bet.

Looking back at the whole analysis one can see that the traditional role of father / benevolent patriarch / group leader is depicted as ultimately ideal and desirable within the series. Women are mostly depicted as passive, problematic, very emotional and impulsive, which has to be balanced out by the reasonable males. Also the collaboration of father and mother to form a traditional family are very important. This is of course also owed to the fact that during a zombie apocalypse society does revert to a rather premodern state. As some people have worded it "feminism bullshit isn't relevant during a zombie apocalypse!". Of course, this could be a fact. However it is interesting to see that the zombie genre, as a genre that is very popular with the younger male geek generation and could even be understood as a sort of counter-culture to the mainstream popular culture, relies on the traditional values of family and masculine power. It is even experienced as a point of pleasure to see how modern society mechanics are removed and a group of people must revert back to life in a premodern world. People who feel unaccepted in today's world might not feel a big loss at having the current society structures vanish and be able to put their own brush on the canvas and finally be considered useful by whatever peers they may encounter. But why are traditional family values the ones that are being depicted as ideal then, when there has previously been a feeling of frustration at the way in which modern society works? This is a very interesting subject matter that I definitely want to look at in more detail with other products of the zombie genre as well. What I also found striking is that all the other characters, which don't fit into a clear mother/father role, such as Daryl or Glenn get very little development. Especially Glenn with his cute geekish ways should be an easy figure of identification for the target audience, yet he remains very passive and doesn't get a lot of chances to shine.

Now having read the comic book I have to say that I am glad I didn't read it before watching the series as I would have been disappointed in all the quite unnecessary sub-plots that are being added into this series. I know a TV series can't always be completely like the comic but the underlying feeling does suffer some and certain additions just look clumsy and bad.

However, there are of course also redeeming qualities in the TV series. For once I thought the dealing with basic humanistic ideals was very interesting. There we can see that the zombie genre definitely benefits from having a bit more time to spend on relatively calm scenes. Humanistic ideals such as "not killing people even if we don't like them" aren't necessarily present in today's society and are especially not on the mind of the audience of a zombie story. One of the very basic things that viewers of zombie stories are quickly taught is that you don't have time to wait to shoot somebody when they are infected and pragmatism is the key to survival. Thus, I found it quite interesting that the group did decide to go back to Atlanta and save Merle, even though I bet it was a source of great frustration for the audience. I know from the comic book that the theme of humanism and humane decision making is a very important one to the series and despite the TV series being quite different I appreciate it that they tried to keep that aspect even though it will frustrate a trained zombie-movie-audience.

Another thing that's very similar to the humanistic ideals of the group is the humanisation of zombies. We can see Rick showing sadness and regret at killing the bike girl zombie as well as taking a minute to find out who he zombie was that they are chopping up to take the guts. The very long drawn out scenes of Andrea saying goodbye to Amy also belong into that category. In your average zombie movie there is almost no time for scenes like this so it is a really welcome change to see the survivors take some time to deal with their emotions from time to time.
For the next season we can expect some interesting developments. My hope is that Andrea will develope her potential to be a strong female character and I also hope there will be a satisfying resolution to the situation between Lori, Rick and Shane. So let's wait and see what they have in store for us next Halloween!

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