This article was first published on Medium, 2 April 2015. Warning: analysis and spoilers for seasons 1 to 5.
Like millions of fans around the world, I love The Walking Dead, and I’m an avid horror aficionado. Yet after five seasons, with breathtaking plot twists and turns, The Walking Dead’s treatment of gender, race and sexuality remains stagnant. For a show that takes many liberties when asking the audience to suspend disbelief, there’s one area it has no trouble maintaining a familiar narrative: the dominance of White, heterosexual men.
Since it launched, the show has focused on relationships and character development. This proved a novel way to bring horror to popular TV. Anthropologist, Professor Juan Francisco Salazar and Dr Stephen Healy, a geographer, argue that Season Five “reflects on the meaning of group solidarity in a brave new world.” The researchers demonstrate how various social science readings of the show centre on social anxiety. In their view, this most recent season was concerned with “Rick’s communitarian family.” That is, the other characters on the show who have bound together supposedly through Rick’s leadership, even when there have been long periods (notably Season 3) when Rick provided little guidance.
The show invites its audience to consider their own bravery under zombie duress. Would we panic and leave sweet Noah stuck in a revolving door swarming with zombies? Would we become “weak” within the walls of Alexandria? Should this frustrating person or that annoying character be killed? The show does not encourage us to think about why the writers persist on upholding White men as leaders, and why White women, people of colour and other minorities are notably absent from the narrative landscape.
It’s no accident that the diplomatic and inclusive leadership of Deanna (a White woman), flawed as it may be, is presented as fundamentally irrational because of its inclusive ideals. Meanwhile, Rick, a White man, is presented as the only model for viable leadership in spite of his flaws.
Though Rick has shown many admirable qualities over the years, he is by no means the only fit leader in the group. In fact, he has became increasingly frustrating in his decision-making. One of the most irritating plot points in recent times is Rick’s motivation to save Jessie, a White woman, from domestic violence because of his lust, rather than helping her because it is the right thing to do. He’s done so in a way that further endangers not only Jessie and her son, but also Rick’s group. Rick has been reckless in trying to claim this woman for his own, putting his desire above the needs of his community.
The residents of Alexandria, where Jessie has been waiting out the apocalypse, ignored the abuse because it was easier to coddle her abusive husband, the town’s only surgeon. Rick’s use of violence to possess Jessie is depicted as the most sensible option, when in fact, his motivations are objectifying and dangerous. He hardly knows her, but wants to rescue her for himself. This is familiar “Wild West” movie territory where women are objects to be conquered, not full characters with a story of their own.
[Michonne grabs her katana off the mantelpiece.] The Walking Dead: Gender, Race & Sexuality
[Rick and Michonne sit and chat] “Rick — what are you doing?” — Michonne
“I know what you’re doing.” — Sasha
“We’re going to work it out” — Maggie, with Glenn
[Rosita and Tara smiling in the woods]
“You’re a small, weak, nothing” — Carol
[Rick and Morgan stare at one another with shock] Inequality is immune to the zombie apocalypse.