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.
“Simply put, feminism is a movement to end sexism, sexist exploitation, and oppression… As all advocates of feminist politics know, most people do not understand sexism, or if they do, they think it is not a problem. Masses of people think that feminism is always and only about women seeking to be equal to men. And a huge majority of these folks think feminism is anti-male. Their misunderstanding of feminist politics reflects the reality that most folks learn about feminism from patriarchal mass media.”
Even though many advocates of feminist politics are angered by Sandberg’s message, the truth is that alone, individually she was no threat to feminist movement. Had the conservative white male dominated world of mass media and advertising not chosen to hype her image, this influential woman would not be known to most folks. It is this patriarchal male dominated re-framing of feminism, which uses the body and personal success of Sheryl Sandberg, that is most disturbing and yes threatening to the future of visionary feminist movement. The model Sandberg represents is all about how women can participate and “run the world.” But of course the kind of world we would be running is never defined. It sounds at times like benevolent patriarchal imperialism. This is the reason it seemed essential for feminist thinkers to respond critically, not just to Sandberg and her work, but to the conservative white male patriarchy that is using her to let the world know what kind of woman partner is acceptable among elites, both in the home and in the workplace.
bell hooks talks about Lean In as the antithesis of revolutionary feminism. She argues Sheryl Sandberg has offered a masculine vision of success that is measured by material gain and fitting in with dominant White male corporate culture. hooks argues while Sandberg may have some semblance of feminist spirit guiding her philosophy, she is not an advocate of feminist politics. People want a “positive” story and individual exceptionalism; they don’t want to hear about the obstacles that minorities face in everyday life. They don’t want to hear that people like Sandberg get ahead by fitting in to their environment and bending to the existing structure, rather than fighting against it actively.
hooks argues that Lean In is aimed at a very small, White group of already successful women, rather than presenting a model for altering the system to allow diversity to flourish. Click below to listen.
Read bell hooks expand her argument on why “powerful White male-dominated mass media” gave Sheryl Sandberg so much attention.
In a perfect world, you could tell a woman she’s hot and she would smile and say thank you because there would be no millennia-long history of women’s bodies being used and abused by men, no notion of women’s beauty as being ‘for’ men, no ridiculous beauty standards. Complimenting a woman on her appearance would be just like complimenting a person on their bike or their shoes or the colour of their hair; it would not carry all the baggage that it carries in this world. But that’s not our world, and it may never be. Yeah, it sucks that women often take it ‘the wrong way’ when you give them unsolicited compliments. You know what sucks more? Yup, patriarchy.“
– Brute Reason.
Imposing unsolicited compliments on women and then being angry when she does not respond with enthusiasm is an example of everyday sexism. It’s all about context. As the author points out, complimenting someone you know very well (a friend or family member) and who welcomes such comments is fine. Feeling a need to vocalise your judgement about a woman’s looks on the street, at work or anywhere else is not okay. The idea that women need to be evaluated on their looks, “complimentary” way or otherwise, is a form of sexism. I wrote about this a couple of weeks ago.
Hispanic women are fully aware that our culture is entrenched in misogyny, but not necessarily any less than American culture. Women in the United States are often expected to take their husbands’ last name. Many men still go to their bride’s father to ask for her hand in marriage; just because we see it as a sweet gesture it does not mean that it isn’t patriarchal in nature… Loving tradition and having pride in your culture does not mean these women cannot vocalize the gender issues of their communities. My mother’s feminism was the truest form of feminism for me; a belief in the potential upward mobility of all women.
Patricia Valoy, Civil Engineer, feminist blogger, and radio host reflects on gender politics and the sacrifices her stay-at-home mother made for her children after they migrated from the Dominican Republic to the USA. Valoy writes that Western feminism encouraged her to see her mother as being trapped in patriarchy, but she argues that we need to find a way to move past narrow conceptions of feminism:
Feminism cannot continue to exist as a monolithic block, or we will never be able to include women from all walks of life.
So, TV just told me that apparently now there’s a panty liner for when you DON’T have your period, because even average day-to-day ‘dampness’ (their word, not mine) is gross when it comes to your vagina. Oh boy, and here I was all these years thinking ‘wet’ was an enjoyable and desirable adjective that went with ‘pussy’. Feminine ‘hygiene’ advertising, you’re fucked. And you can take your insecurity-inspiring propaganda to hell with you.
Alyx Gorman quotes her friend in a good deconstruction of the latest Australian advertising beauty campaign to condescend to women (aimed at women, but just as insulting to other people who have periods). The ad pretends to “get real” about women’s bodies by using the word “vagina”, feeling pleased with itself, thank-you-very-much, for being so honest. The ad features a thin, white, naked and conventionally attractive woman talking about “that bit of discharge” in the middle of a woman’s menstrual cycle. The ad then usefully offers women a solution to our dampness/wetness problems: we should wear panty liners every day! Hooray and thank you!
Gorman does a great job of showing that this ad is part of a long line of advertising that pushes a product most people do not need and manufactures it as a solution to our (non-existent) problem. This is a stock premise of advertising: it creates problems and solutions for consumers to guilt or shame us into spending money. The issue here is that the message is twisted: vagina is not a dirty word, says the ad – it’s just women’s bodies that are gross.
To all those hurt we say sorry… We apologise for the lies, the fear, the silence, the deceptions. We hear you now, we acknowledge your pain and we offer you our unreserved, sincere regret and sorrow for those injustices… We seek to reconcile the South Australian community with these people who have suffered so much.
South Australian Premier Jay Weatherill delivers a public apology to the parents, children and communities affected by the State-sanctioned practice of forcing unwed mothers to give up their babies. It is estimated that 17,000 children in South Australia were adopted before 1980 “and some of these were forced adoptions.” Forced adoptions were a common practice around Australia between the 1950s and the 1970s, affecting around 150,000 unmarried mothers across the country.