Monday, 28 October 2013

Ain’t I a Woman? Representations of Sistadom in the Zombie Apocalypse

I’m not afraid to admit that I am a huge zombie genre fan. There, I said it. But I’m also a bit of a zombie snob; I’m not a huge fan of some of the older, cornier zombie films made by few popular genre directors, I’m not fond of badly dubbed films or those featuring zombies wrestling sharks, or other such nonsense. Regardless, I’ve watched (and read) a lot of zombie entertainment over my lifetime.

As a young girl I was first introduced to Romero’s Night of the Living Dead by my mother decades after its original theatrical release. To my 12-year-old delight, not only did this film represent everything that was vintage and horror, two of the best qualities a modern film could offer my blossoming sensibilities, but also the protagonist was a commanding, eloquent black American man. Though I was a child, Romero’s progressive manoeuvres weren’t lost on me. To daringly cast Duane Jones as Ben, the protagonist charged with the care of the near-catatonic, Barbara (Judith O’dea), in 1968 seemed tantamount to tipping everything typical about everyday American life over on its head. One would be hard pressed in Romero’s day or even my childhood, to find a handful of protagonists, or real black American heroes represented in American media; in films, black men weren’t heroes, weren’t eloquent, and didn’t go toe to toe with ignorant bullies. At the time I didn’t need cultural theorist, Adorno, or terms like hegemony to recognise the phenomenon by observing the deficit: so few Duane Joneses in a sea of leading men. But Night of the Living Dead pronounced the power of film to express cultural anxieties and offer, as far as my 12-year-old sensibilities were concerned, alternatives to reinforcing the status quo. Add to that the fact that this film had, in its time, burst upon the film scene and ushered in a type of cinéma vérité-marries-horror style which showed in sharp relief against an arguably more stylized and staged mainstream backdrop of the horror genre, and I got hooked on zombie films for life.

Ben, Night of the Living Dead

While recently working on a dissertation on the popularity of zombie apocalypse entertainment, I came across interesting internal questions, some of which challenged some of my long-held perspectives on what I deemed to be some of the progressive qualities inherent in classics like Night of the Living Dead. While writing, after covering how zombie entertainment often expresses Western cultural anxieties over issues like urban crowding , disease, and government authority, I turned to the subject of how zombie apocalypse films represent different types of identity. I asked myself rudimentary questions like Who are the surviving characters? How do they see themselves and organize themselves? Who’s in charge in the absence of the government? What is this director or writer getting at and is it intentional? Apocalypse films are special in that they generally represent the breakdown of the usual, dominant social order. Film critical theorist, Robin Wood, is famous for broaching the redemptive possibilities in imagining the apocalyptic on film. You can learn a lot about how we Westerners see different kinds of people, and how we wish to represent ourselves and others given societal breakdown scenarios like those found in zombie films.  One of the big questions is, do these films tend to reinforce dominant social order or resist it? And what is the dominant social order?

Having viewed and wracked my brain over so much of this idea of identity in contemporary zombie lore, as I call it, one of the issues I came across concerns the representation of women in these films. Aside from the strong female lead in Romero's 1985 film, Day of the Dead, most mainstream female characters; white female characters, have not developed very much over the years. They range from the freaked out, useless Barbra (Judith O’Dea) in Night of the Living Dead, to a later Barbra (Patricia Tallman) in Savini’s 1990 remake of Night of the Living Dead, who spends most of the film being shaken and told to snap out of it by Ben (Tony Todd), until she finally grows a backbone.

Decades later, we find Ana (Sarah Polley), in Zack Snyder’s 2004 remake of Dawn of the Dead who exhibits very little character transformation when compared to her fellow survivors, including a drifter who becomes a leader, a cop who learns to balance his care of others with his own needs, a young thug who wants to start over to become a father, and a petty, mall security guard who becomes a selfless hero. Ana goes from being a caring, married nurse before the apocalypse, to a caring nurse and girlfriend of the group leader during the apocalypse. Ana possesses the same gentle nature as the overtly vulnerable, pregnant Francine (Gaylen Ross) in Romero’s 1978 original version of the film, who has to beg to be taught to use a firearm and fly a chopper. Overall, it seems that the contemporary norm is to represent women as eager to learn but still lacking leadership qualities. But there are exceptions.

More than noteworthy is that the two biggest exceptions to this rule enter through characters Selena (Naomie Harris) in Boyle’s 28 Days Later, and Michonne (Danai Gurira) in The Walking Dead TV series. Both characters are badass. Both wield sword-like weapons at undead zombie assailants; both can survive in the wild (one in the urban jungle of London; the other in the backwoods of Georgia); both are people you’d pick to have your back during the zombie apocalypse. But most notably, while one is British and the other is American, both women share a key commonality: they’re both black.

Selena, 28 Days Later 

Michonne, The Walking Dead

 While I adore 28 Days Later, religiously watch The Walking Dead while hiding behind a pillow, enjoy both these characters and the lovely actresses who play them, I have been hesitant to wholly embrace these characters. Why? Because of one of the ways that black womanhood is represented and measured against the backdrop of whiteness.  

Follow me on this, and see if it makes sense: one element that film critical theorist, Richard Dyer, tackles is how whiteness in Western culture exists as a non-issue because it represents normality. What does that even mean? Well, Dyer asserts in his essay, White, that an established ‘white identity’ and ‘white culture’ elude definition and representation. Why is this relevant and what exactly does this mean? It means that cultural products like film help establish a passive normalization framework for whiteness, so that anything associated with whiteness, like white film and TV characters and their microcosms, is normalized. In film, white is normal: white neighborhoods, white neighbors and families, and white people in general represent averageness, and this is unspoken but ever-present in entertainment. Consequently, in entertainment, any character falling outside of that established normality like, say, a Latino corporate businessman, a quirky Asian buddy, or a black heroine get framed as unusual or abnormal.

This sense of abnormality of characters of color is something Dyer discusses in relation to the black protagonist, Ben (Jones), in Night of the Living Dead, who is super industrious, possesses ingenuity, but seems to come from nowhere, having no family ties, even when compared with human antagonists in the film. Elements like family ties and personal history make characters seem more average and normal and allow viewers to sympathize with them. In this way, Ben stands out uncomfortably in the film which, according to Romero, was never an intentional move (according to my interview with international film critic, Alan Jones; also see One for the Fire: The Legacy of Night of the Living Dead). Romero believed that simply casting Duane Jones was a progressive move, and for 1968 it was. But times have changed. It’s important to move beyond the conventions that writer, Paul Waldman champions; the era of diversity representation by having people of color simply show up to be counted. Taking a close look at postmodern characters like Selena and Michonne, it seems that they have been crafted in similar ways to Romero’s character, but include extra cultural baggage as well.

In the case of Selena in 28 Days Later, unlike her fellow survivors Jim (Cilian Murphy), Hannah (Betty Curse), and Frank (Brendan Gleeson), and even Mark (Noah Huntley), who occupies about five minutes of screen time before he bites the dust, Selena neither possesses, nor describes any family history. She’s also featured as aggressively against any possibility of romance with Jim until the very end of the film, only after she faces real peril against a pack of rogue military men. In an apocalypse film it’s rare to find a female ‘companion’ character with no mention of personal or family history and no establishment of romance with the male lead early in the film.
Michonne in The Walking Dead TV show is also a character lacking family history and romantic capacity, but to a more extreme degree. Michonne is introduced into the series carrying a sword and leading two zombies on neck collars and chains, but unlike the graphic novel version, the TV show so far has omitted the original back-story that her zombie ‘pets’ are actually what remains of her boyfriend and his best friend. The TV show also features Michonne juxtaposed against the conventional, blond beauty Andrea (Laurie Holden), a woman with whom we’re supposed to sympathize because she had to shoot her younger sister who was bitten and infected by a zombie early on in the series. In fact, we get plenty of back-story and family history for Andrea though, in general, Andrea as a character is problematic in a different way.  She’s represented on the show as being thirsty to exert muscle, secure perimeters, and shoot zombies to secure the camp, while actually proving to be a terrible markswoman and a stubborn-but-gullible character.

Michonne and Andrea become friends because Michonne helps Andrea survive in the woods (though we never see this enacted). The friendship, however, goes sour when Andrea uses her feminine wiles to become romantically involved with the rival leader and villain of the show, Governor Blake (David Morrissey), whom Michonne doesn’t trust. The fact that Andrea’s stats point towards her uselessness as a team member within the original group of survivors and her penchant for using her physical appearance to elevate her status in a new survivors’ camp, combined with the fact that a mainstream segment of the show’s viewing audience seems to empathize with and like Andrea reads as bad news; a stink bomb for the pro-womanist camp. The Los Angeles Times actually called Andrea "tough as nails". Does this point towards mainstream America’s value and normalization of the combined qualities of weakness and conventional attractiveness where white women are concerned?

While it’s arguable that Andrea is accepted in The Governor’s terrible camp because she’s weak and Michonne is rejected in that same camp because she’s strong, that doesn’t explain the viewing audience’s sympathy for a character like Andrea, or the fact that Michonne as a character, audience sympathy or not, seems estranged beyond the walls of The Governor’s camp.

In one or two awkward episodes, the parting of Michonne and Andrea is almost reminiscent of a heterosexual romantic breakup, with Andrea having to decide on whether to stay with The Governor or go with Michonne, who becomes primarily framed as a masculine figure competing for Andrea’s affections. The tone of this is punctuated by the fact that Michonne isn’t presented as a feminine figure at least, since she has no romantic interests or connections, and at most by the fact that the TV show skips a terrible episode from the graphic novel where The Governor rapes Michonne. While I hardly condone scenes of rape, to omit this sort of inherent female peril adds to the effect of magically erasing the reality of Michonne’s vulnerability; a vulnerability that a normal female character would automatically carry in the midst of an apocalyptic scenario.

So what makes mainstream entertainment like The Walking Dead so hesitant to paint black female characters as possessing normative female vulnerability? Cultural theorist Bell Hooks contends that America’s feminist movement which sought to ally itself with the black equality movement created an unfortunate by-product in the process. According to Hooks, a framework was established in the white female-black person alliance, wherein one is either a woman or black, so that those who are both black and female end up occupying an isolated cultural space in between womanhood and blackness, and get supported by neither movement.

Considering both Dyer and Hooks, it’s easy to understand why black female film and TV characters like Selena and Michonne are crafted in odd ways, and are permitted to function in ways usually reserved for male characters; their vulnerability is sacrificed, and they go beyond just resisting normal representations of womanhood in entertainment like a white ‘feminist’ character might. These black female characters aren’t considered to be members of traditional or normal womanhood or feminist womanhood, as they exist outside of each of these. It is implicit that writers and directors most often simply reflect whatever exists within the dominant social structure of a given culture. So, these sort of representations make me uncomfortable when I consider the real, historical implications of estranging black women from normative womanhood; what this has rationalized and left black Western women vulnerable to: being worked as physically hard as men while bearing the burden of all that misogyny and patriarchy entail under enslavement, being racially profiled like men and physically abused by those in authority in ways, and beyond ways in which men can be abused, and suffering every crime against women that can be committed, while being viewed as less valuable, or less worthy of saving than their white female counterparts. In this light, and against an historical backdrop where it was once considered impossible to rape a black woman because of slave status or 'scientifically' acceptable to experiment on black female patients without anesthesia, the omission of problematics implicit in normative womanhood for a black female character in a popular series like The Walking Dead just doesn’t sit right with me.

As a black woman, it isn’t that I don’t want to be represented as strong; I am strong, but being represented as having no family history, no grace, no femininity, no sexuality, no chivalry applied, and no need for rescuing; the kind of which so many white Western women have had the luxury of butting against, isn’t acceptable to me. I want to be represented with versatile, connected, vulnerably human black female characters. That’s all.

References (in order of mention)

Night of the Living Dead, directed by George A. Romero (1968; Beverly Hills: Anchor Bay Entertainment, 2004). DVD.

[Image] Ben, Night of the Living Dead, source:

Robin Wood, ‘An Introduction to the American Horror’, p. 195-220 in Bill Nichols (ed), Movies and Methods, Revised for Volume II (Berkeley, Los Angeles, London: University of California, 1985).

Day of the Dead, directed by George A. Romero (1985; Beverly Hills: Anchor Bay Entertainment, 2004). DVD.

Night of the Living Dead, directed by Tom Savini (1990; Los Angeles: Columbia TriStar Home Video, 2000). DVD.

Dawn of the Dead, directed by Zack Snyder (2004; Universal City: Universal Home Entertainment 2007). DVD.

Dawn of the Dead, directed by George A. Romero (1978; Beverly Hills: Anchor Bay Entertainment, 2004). DVD.

28 Days Later, directed by Danny Boyle (2002; Century City: 20th Century Fox Home Entertainment, 2008). DVD.

The Walking Dead, Various directors, 2010-Present, adapted from Robert Kirkman’s graphic novel, The Walking Dead, Vol. 1-17, Seventh Printing 2008 (Berkeley: Image Comics, 2003).

[Image] Selena, 28 Days Later, source: www.tumblr.comtagged28-days-later.

[Image] Michonne, The Walking Dead, source:

Richard Dyer, ‘White’, p. 44-65 in Screen, Vol. 29, Issue 4, 1988.

One for the Fire: The Legacy of Night of the Living Dead, Robert Lucas and Chris Roe (2008; Burbank: Dimension Home Entertainment, 2008).

Paul Waldman, 'The Left and the Living Dead',, June 16, 2009.

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Gina McIntyre, ''The Walking Dead': 10 characters we'll miss, 5 in danger (spoilers)', Los Angeles Times, March 25, 2013.

Bell Hooks, Ain’t I a Woman (London, Winchester, MA: Pluto, 1982).

Barron H. Lerner, 'Scholars Argue Over Legacy of Surgeon Who Was Lionized, Then Vilified', New York Times, October 8, 2003.