So the season 3 finale of The Walking Dead. What can I say? Is there less sexism than last season’s appalling anti-abortion storyline with Lori’s pregnancy? Did the addition of badass Michonne change the gender dynamics?
I’m going to warn you right now. This post isn’t going to be pretty. Not with all the misogyny. When it comes to its female characters and depiction of gender, The Walking Dead has progressively deteriorated. It incessantly pisses me off with its rearticulation of patriarchy and sexist gender tropes. And no, it’s not a commentary on patriarchy. Rather it’s a defense of hyper-masculinity.
I’ve written before about The Walking Dead’s shitty job portraying women and its depiction of sexist retro gender roles. I was finally excited when Michonne (Danai Gurira) arrived as we hadn’t witnessed a fierce woman in any leadership role yet. Finally, we would see a fearless, powerful, clever, complex female character. And a woman of color! Yet I remained skeptical due to the tissue thin female characters and all of the sexism contaminating the show in the previous two seasons. My prediction came true: Michonne couldn’t save the show’s sexism.
In the comics, Michonne is a fan favorite. She’s complex, interesting, with resiliency and strength. Sadly we get little of that same warrior woman in the TV series. Yes, she’s a badass. Yes, she’s adept with a sword. But that’s pretty much it.
Michonne enters the show in an aura of mystery. Cloaked, sword-wielding, holding the chains of two Walkers. But typically we need to see beneath the veneer in order to care about a character. But we haven’t been allowed in to her backstory at all. We need to see their vulnerabilities, weaknesses, struggles, hopes. Even awesome Daryl is given moments to shine, like when he grieves for his brother Merle or holds baby Judith, nicknaming her Little Ass-Kicker. The only time we witness anything of the sort in Michonne is when she holds Andrea (Laurie Holden) in a tender embrace in the finale — before Andrea commits suicide to avert zombiehood – and we get a glimpse in the episode when Michonne protects Carl and reveals to Rick that she hears voices too, letting him know he’s not alone.
When we first meet Michonne, she saves Andrea, serving as a “black caretaker,” perilously playing out the “Magical Negro” trope. Even her friendship with Andrea became a missed opportunity, barely explored, something Laurie Holden, the actor who plays Andrea, laments as well. Michonne is regarded with suspicion by Rick’s Prison Camp Crew, even though other people, like the inmates, were considered to be “one of them.” And yes, I’m aware that they eventually bestow this distinction onto Michonne as well. But only after Carl — a 13-year-old boy — says so. When a teenaged boy gets more respect than the grown-ass women??? Can’t. Even. Deal.
When it comes to the potential for female leaders, the series does have Michonne who not only survived alone but also saved Andrea. But why must Michonne have to prove her worth in relation to saving Andrea, Carl or Rick — all the white characters? Michonne essentially proves her worth not by being a strong survivor, not through intelligence, not through empathy — but by how she rescues and serves white people on the show.
So how were the other women depicted this season?
I know Andrea pissed off a ton of people with her ridiculous decisions. She continually annoyed me…and I liked her! I mean, c’mon, am I really supposed to believe such a smart woman would make such stupid choices when it came to men? Choosing psychopaths Shane AND the Governor?? Oh wait, women do choose shitty dudes in real life. But the problem here isn’t that Andrea makes the worst romantic choices; I mean who hasn’t made horrendous decisions?
No, the problem is that Andrea’s life didn’t revolve around her friendship with Michonne, the woman who saved her, or her friendships with the people at the prison. Ultimately, the outspoken woman who strived to make the moral choice, a woman who was a lawyer before the zombie apocalypse, her life eventually revolved around dudes. Correction, in season 3, just one dude: The Governor. That’s right, the same dude who sexually assaulted another female character.
In probably the most heinous act of the season, in the episode “When the Dead Come Knocking,” Maggie (Lauren Cohan) and Glenn have been captured by the Governor. The Governor separates the two of them and interrogates Maggie alone. But his interrogation quickly dissolves into full on sexual assault. He terrorizes her. He forces her to undress. He bends her over and slams her against a table. He threatens her with rape. He uses intimidation and humiliation to exert his power and dominance.
Sexual assault should never be used as a plot device. What purpose did this incident serve? To show what an unhinged, misogynistic douchebag The Governor is? Perhaps. But it was completely unnecessary. And don’t tell me that Michonne is raped in the comics so what Maggie endures isn’t that big a deal because it was just the threat of rape. Yeah, it’s a big fucking deal. Women are raped and sexually assaulted and harassed daily. Our rape culture normalizes violence against women and conflates violence with sexuality.
It’s also interesting to note that the writers changed the sexual assault survivor from a black woman to a white woman. Too often, the media erases the narratives of black women rape and assault survivors, choosing to focus on white women survivors.
Maggie started off last season so ballsy and opinionated. But she’s devolved as the show progresses to being fairly deferential to Glenn. If she became quieter, more withdrawn and introverted after the trauma of her sexual assault, that would make sense. But her passivity started happening long ago. Maggie, who was promoted to series regular this season, was given nothing of a storyline other than hot sex with Glenn and surviving the trauma of sexual assault. And we only get a brief moment where she lashes out at Glenn because of that trauma. The rest of the time, we see how it affects Glenn, not Maggie. As if it matters more how the Governor’s rape tendencies impact Glenn (the dude) more than Maggie, the one assaulted.
And the depiction of masculinity is problematic too. Glenn wasn’t “a real man” until he was tortured. And let’s not forget that Glenn is an Asian American man which plays into the pervasive stereotype that depicts Asian American men as emasculated in U.S. media.
But women aren’t just punished with sexual assault, but also by death. Lori (Sarah Wayne Callies) doesn’t have a huge role this season. She argues with Rick and Carl and laments to Hershel that they hate her. She worries that something will go wrong and she’ll die in childbirth. Which she does. When she’s losing a lot of blood, she asks Maggie to perform a C-section, knowing she will bleed out. Then Lori is killed by her son, aka potential-sociopath-in-training Carl, so she won’t come back as a walker. Lori must be punished for her infidelity (and insipid annoyance) in the previous seasons. And so she dies. Shameful slut!
In addition to Lori’s death, we also have Andrea — who’s an excellent shot and warrior, and never would have gotten bit — bitten by Mitch. She then dies by a self-inflicted gunshot to the head so she won’t become a walker. Will Andrea’s death catalyze vulnerability in Michonne? Or will it be leveraged to show how Rick and the other dudes handle pain??
Now, I’m not saying that female characters can’t or shouldn’t die. It’s a zombie apocalypse. Of course there’s going to be brutal deaths. But when the women’s deaths exist as a vehicle to convey the pain of the men, that’s a problem.
What we’re witnessing with the women of The Walking Dead is the Women in Refrigerators Syndrome — women killed, raped, stripped of their power — in order to propel the plot and show the progression and struggles of the male characters. Also, as T.S. Christian told me on Twitter, in a Black Girl Nerds podcast, @TheRayVolution astutely asserted that women always die to illustrate the horrendous state of the world.
Again, it’s all about the men. The women, even the awesome ones, are nothing more than props to propel the male characters’ emotional journeys and transformations.
So what about the other women on the show? Thankfully, we’re starting to see Carol in a more assertive role. She speaks up and voices her opinion and seems to be more resourceful. We also meet Sasha, a good shot who teases her brother Tyreese. Oh yeah and then there’s the blond girl, Maggie’s sister, whose name I can’t even remember, that’s how unforgettable she is. Why? Because all she does is sing and hold the baby. Seriously.
None of the women are truly respected on the show. None of their opinions are valued or considered. When Rick has a problem, he confides in Hershel and Darryl. He listens to their advice. None of the women sway him. And of course none of the women lead, nor can we even consider them as leaders, as we saw when Glenn talked about how he was second in command. Um, okay.
So why can’t ladies lead in a post-apocalyptic world? Well according o Robert Kirkman, it’s science. I shit you not. In fact The Walking Dead comics creator and TV producer/writer said in an interview:
“I don’t mean to sound sexist, but as far as women have come over the last 40 years, you don’t really see a lot of women hunters. They’re still in the minority in the military, and there’s not a lot of female construction workers. I hope that’s not taken the wrong way. I think women are as smart, resourceful, and capable in most things as any man could be … but they are generally physically weaker. That’s science.”
Here’s a hint to all you mansplainers out there. It’s never, ever, ever a good idea to start your statement with “I don’t mean to sound sexist.” Why? Because clearly you’re about to drop some shit that is indeed sexist. So women remain a minority in the military and as construction workers because of science. You know, not because of sexist gender prejudices about women’s physical abilities. Right. Silly me. Why didn’t I think of science??? Must be because of my ladyparts.
Now to be fair, that interview was about the comics and it transpired 4 years ago. But as evidenced by the repetition of sexist tomfoolery in the TV series, which is interesting considering the depiction of women is much better in the comics, Kirkman obviously hasn’t changed his stance on gender. Nor have any of the other TV writers apparently. It explains so much.
Hmmm so which season is worse? The season 2 horrendous handling of emergency contraception and its anti-abortion plotline? Or is it Season 3 with sexual assault used as a plot device and women dying to propel men’s emotional journeys? It’s all bullshit.
It’s very apparent The Walking Dead doesn’t care about exploring gender dynamics in any meaningful way or deconstructing gender roles to explore societal limitations. And to an extent that’s fine. Not everything has to be some massive social commentary. Although believe me, I’d be delighted. But as I’ve written before, when you’re dealing in the realm of fantasy or playing with the bounds of reality, why depict sexism? Why not imagine something different?
And don’t even get me started on the idiotic argument, “Well, that’s life. That’s what would happen during an apocalypse of any kind.” I call bullshit. Am I really supposed to believe that if the shit hits the fan, women can’t or won’t be able to pull themselves together and not only survive but take leadership roles? Obviously that’s ludicrous.
With Robert Kirkman reinforcing the notion that sexism builds the foundation of the series, my hope that The Walking Dead will improve regarding its depiction of women, race and gender has shattered. So I’ll stop hoping it will get better and just keep on hate-watching it.