Joanna Schroeder thinks AMC is failing men in its portrayal of masculinity in the zombie thriller The Walking Dead.
Tonight’s a big night for TV nerds like myself, as The Walking Dead, AMC’s wildly successful post-apocalyptic zombie series, has its season finale. If you follow any shows on AMC (and you should: Mad Men, Breaking Bad, and The Killing all run on this network), you know these episodes are precious. AMC doesn’t follow traditional network rules, they run short seasons with few episodes and as in the case with Mad Men, can go more than a year between seasons.
The Walking Dead is typical zombie movie fare, except that Frank Darabont, who brought the original graphic novels to the screen, gave The Walking Dead a compelling group of characters and drama-driven storyline that sucks viewers in instantly. Season 1 had awesome B-stories, a heartbreaking love triangle between the leader, Rick, and his best friend Shane over Rick’s wife Lori, and stunning cinematic cityscapes full of zombies. Of course we don’t call them zombies, we call them Walkers, as you never call a zombie a “zombie” in zombie media.
And the Walkers are terrifying. They mull about in various stages of decay and dismemberment, groaning and gurgling and moving in a perfectly choreographed stutter-shuffle that reflects just how you’d imagine a body might move, were it controlled by a brain that was 99.8% dead.
But a problem has developed for me in this second season, since Darabont was famously fired by AMC. I can’t help but feel a sense of frustration at what is being said about gender in the series. At first, the women seemed equally able to defend themselves against Walkers, and they were also clever, insightful and good strategic thinkers. The men and women fought their way through the post-apocalyptic world together.
But in Season 2, when the cast arrives at a farmhouse safe haven, the show starts to fall into some really annoying stereotypes. The creators of this post-apocalyptic world could have used the opportunity to drop all of society’s traditional structures and explore what would happen were there no society at all. Instead they put the women in the kitchen and sent the men out to die.
At the center of the men’s stories is the antiquated idea that there can only be one Alpha Male. Shane was the leader until Rick came back, then Shane handed over his woman to the pack leader. And Lori goes along with all of this as if she is some commodity to be traded, to be worn like the king’s crown. She is the Alpha Female simply because the Alpha Male has chosen her. It certainly isn’t because she is so wise, or so strong.
In fact, the wisest and strongest female character, Andrea, also the one who can shoot a gun, is often relegated to being stuck in the house while all the good Walker-smashing is going on. She is highly skilled, but relegated almost totally inert.
The perfect example of these traditional male and female roles being played out is in the case of farmer’s-daughter Maggie. When we first meet Maggie, she’s an anonymous figure on the back of a horse who flies through the woods with a baseball bat, then whacks the brains out of a Walker who is about to eat all of our big tough heroes. Never in the history of TV, including She-Ra or Xena the Warrior Princess, has there been a badder-assed woman.
But then what happens? Maggie falls in love with Glenn. Glenn has a lot going for him, he’s measured, clever, wily, sometimes wise. But Glenn isn’t brave. He’s Asian-American, and so it comes as no surprise that on American television he’s the most emasculated of all the men. Even the child on the show is tougher than Glenn.
But the moment these two pair up, Glenn is suddenly called upon to be a protector, and Maggie is relegated to the house. Maggie, the toughest chick you’ve ever seen, is cleaning up the kitchen when Glenn goes out into the dangerous Walker-filled streets to be a hero. Lori, our Alpha Female, tells Maggie to let the men go do their man-work, and reminds her that it’s the women’s job to support the men.
Just as it makes no sense that one of the best shooters in the group, Andrea, stays home to keep an eye on the kid, it makes no sense that Maggie is left home with a quivering lip and a dishcloth while her unskilled, cowering boyfriend is sent into town simply because he’s a man.
The message here, really, is that these men, especially Glenn, are disposable. That, in many ways, is what our society says to men: You are disposable and the women, no matter how brave or skilled, are delicate and have to be protected. The women have no voice, and the men have no value. It isn’t working for anyone.
Beyond physical sacrifice is the emotional burden the men bear. In the episode titled “Judge, Jury, and Executioner” the guys find a member of another survivor group, a violent and predatory one, and they take him back to the farm to heal his broken leg. They realize he’s probably going to tell his band of thieves about their little safehaven. They send in the only truly likeable male character, the redneck Daryl, to torture him for information.
This is a really powerful episode, not only because it explores the question of what we would do to keep our loved ones safe, but also because it shows that the burden of these decisions is entirely upon the men, especially Alpha Rick. The women cower, they’re afraid, and so they defer to the men, with the exception of one minor character who pleads irrationally for the prisoner’s life. Of course everyone ignores her.
The burden of executing their prisoner, the burden of protecting the farm, the burden of simply deciding where to go and what to do is placed entirely upon these male characters. Not because they don’t ask the women what they think, but simply because, for some reason, the women don’t even think to speak up—with the rare exception of Andrea who eventually always defers to Rick or Shane without question.
This seems like a feminist issue, and it is, but it’s also a bigger issue in society about the burdens we place upon men and making them into disposable commodities. They will go to war, they will beat up men who look cross-eyed at the women, and they will make the decisions without questioning why they’ve been placed in that position or expecting the women to participate.
And the men of The Walking Dead, as much as a few of them are thoughtful and metered, are represented by Shane, the one battling Rick for Alpha position. Shane is impulsive, driven and fearless. Having been the leader while Rick was in a coma, he’s clearly capable of being more than just a sex-crazed beast, and yet the moment Lori goes back to Rick, his mind turns to mush and all he can think about is her, about fighting for position, about regaining control of the group so as to be back in control of Lori.
And not having Lori drives him mad, to the point of trying to murder Rick and eventually forcing Rick to kill him. The idea here is that there can only ever be one Alpha Male, and the two men battling for top position will be like dogs, and kill the other to win the mate.
And maybe this is how it is in our society. Maybe men really do bear all the burden of protection and physical sacrifice, and maybe women do tend to thrive in the home… Or maybe that’s just what we’ve been taught to believe.
But the producers and writers of the second season had the opportunity to create a different world for our characters. They could’ve made a world where Maggie would ride with her baseball bat alongside Daryl and his crossbow to try to find the lost child in the woods. She could have his back and help keep him safe, and he could do the same for her.
They could have had Andrea going on rescue missions instead of Glenn, so as to keep their best shooters together, and leave Glenn at home where he isn’t such a liability, as he can’t shoot and he freezes in conflict. Or maybe they didn’t have to buy into the bullshit stereotype that Asian men aren’t tough.
And maybe there can be two strong male characters without them having to battle over one woman. Maybe they wouldn’t have to destroy themselves in the quest to be on top. Maybe a multitude of strong men could all exist together.
Why not have the women join in making the tough decisions? And when it came time for Dale, eviscerated by a Walker in a dark field, to be euthanized, why couldn’t Andrea have done it? Rick chickens out (as he always does) and someone has to take over to spare Dale the agony of suffering. Andrea was there, she could shoot, and she loved Dale most of everyone.
But instead, Daryl had to step up, take the gun from Alpha Rick, and put Dale out of his misery. Daryl, who isn’t the leader, and isn’t trying to be, has to bear that responsibility because he is a man.
Or maybe the producers of The Walking Dead do have a plan, as the hero emerging from the dust for anyone who is paying attention is Daryl, who never cared to battle for Alpha and who isn’t in love with Lori. And now that Shane is gone, maybe Andrea will emerge to lead beside him. AMC has a choice here to give the women more agency and make the men less like shallow cardboard cut-outs of masculinity, and they should take it.
It’s up to you, AMC, to show us that you believe women are more than whining liabilities and men are more than power-hungry protectors of our virtue. Give the women some guns, and let the men use their brains. You have the whole post-apocalyptic world at your fingertips, don’t waste it.
Warning, the video below contains violent and graphic content.