Make Sure Your Face Is Clean Now, Can't Have No Dirty Dead: Race, Gender, And “The Walking Dead”
CAUTION: Here there be spoilers.
Maybe it’s because I don’t want to keep harping on it in my weekly reviews. Maybe it’s because by giving it its own article, I can somehow make myself realize that I’m not just being a smooshy lame overly sensitive liberal-type about these things. Maybe I just need a full article to get it off my chest. But seriously, folks: There’s something wrong with “The Walking Dead.”
Everyone pretty much knows about my love/hate relationship with AMC’s juggernaut show, now in its third season. It’s a show of lows and highs and little in-between. When it’s bad, it’s frustrating and repetitive and stupid and annoying. But when it’s good — sweet zombie Jesus when it’s good, it’s goddamn sublime. Except that there’s always this… this thing in the back of my mind. This thing that tells me that the writers and creators of this show don’t have a clue what they’re doing when it comes to race and gender. It’s worth noting that despite being set predominately in Atlanta and elsewhere in the Southern USA, there are two black main characters.
One of whom we met two weeks ago.
The other of whom just died.
On the one hand, are Kirkman and company to be applauded just for including major characters who are women, and black, and Asian? It’s a sad statement on modern television, but this is not the norm. These things are rare, and so I suppose it is laudable that we even have a Glenn or a T-Dog or an Andrea and even, yes, a Lori. Yet the thing is, when you make a conscious decision to integrate your cast so deliberately, swinging and whiffing on it makes the tokenism that much more painfully obvious.
And that’s where the show has been utterly failing, and continues to do so. To be fair, these missteps started with Kirkman’s novels, which tended to (Michonne and Tyrese (who didn’t make the cut for the show) excepted) give the lion’s share of the action to his white male characters. Go ahead and list your favorite characters. Aside from Carl (and maybe that’s just me, because I hate Carl), the weakest and most poorly written characters, the ones the fans hate the most, will invariably be either women, or black… or both, in the case of our newest addition.
Let us start with women, and we’ll make a list. There have been essentially the following major roles for women:
I’m not including Beth or Amy, because the former has yet to do anything relevant and the latter was barely on the show, and really only served to be a dramatic rallying point for Andrea. And chances are you don’t even remember Jacqui, the other black woman who opted for suicide at the end of Season One, a cast member who doesn’t even get a spot on the AMC cast page. Yay, diversity!
So what have we got? We’ve got Lori, easily the least popular character on the show not named Carl. She’s seen as shrewish, manipulative, passive-aggressive, and generally unpleasant. Lori’s shifting moral compass and dodgy loyalties have, instead of making her a determined woman, wife and mother, resulted in a Machiavellian dumbass who alienates when she should be rallying, an unkind, often-miserable, misunderstood woman perceived as a negligent harpy, one who symbolizes all manner of female television tropes and generalizations. In their efforts to create a strong maternal figure, they’ve instead created a caricature, a woman who whispers, Lady Macbeth-like, in her husband’s ear to try to get things to go where she wants.
And when that blows up in her face, we’re left with Season Three Lori, a woman who spent her time apologizing and self-flagellating for her supposed failures as a mother and a wife — without really ever being recognized as anything else. Lori was a character defined by three things: mother, wife, and adulteress, and nothing else. It wasn’t even really Sarah Wayne Callies’ fault — that’s simply the straw the writers so shallowly drew for her, failing to give her any depth or traits beyond those core ideas. Yet the show allowed her some form of redemption, wherein she finally showed some rather breathtaking displays of motherly love… and then promptly died.
You will see how this becomes a trend.
Maggie Greene gets a pass, because she’s genuinely smart, interesting, and funny. Mercifully, her character is decent and well-rounded, and her rapport with Glenn is one of the show’s few bright and positive spots in terms of interpersonal relationships, and more than any other couple thus far, their connection feels real and is actually quite captivating.
Andrea, on the other hand, is another unpopular character. She’s the one who is on the surface portrayed as a strong, assertive woman, yet is also the one who accidentally shot Daryl due to some breathtakingly bad decision-making, one who tried to hitch herself to Shane’s crazy train, and now, appears to be making similar moves on the not-so-secretly-crazy-as-fuck Governor. Andrea initially seemed like one of the more well-realized characters, yet she still is incapable of making an independent decision without male input, and her development hinged on the lessons taken from Rick and Shane and, yes, poor departed Dale. The show runners have tried to give Andrea the appearance of the strong, independent woman, but the fact remains that she attaches herself to whatever alpha male appears to be the toughest and then sticks with him until he dies or she realizes the error of her ways. It’s a weak, insulting attempt to show strength by osmosis, as if Andrea is incapable of an adult decision without a man to point her in the right direction.
The other side of this co-dependent coin is Carol, a simpering mess of a woman for most of the first two seasons, one who was abused by her oafish husband, then obsessed with her daughter, and then, only when she wins the attention of Daryl, does she finally emerge from her shell. Carol actually has a bit of personality now, and emotions beyond “sad” and “really sad,” yet one can’t help but see that her character evolution was similarly male-dependent.
Michonne, however, is a conundrum. From all I’ve heard, Danai Gurira is a supremely capable stage actress and award-winning playwright (full disclosure: she’s a good friend of my sister). Upon learning of this, and hearing about her cast as Michonne, I was ecstatic. The character in the books is spectacular and a fan favorite, so I expected good things. What we got was a character who has uttered few lines, who apparently has a face permanently set on “scowl,” and whose attitude upon entering Woodbury is completely single-minded, capable of only suspicion and increasingly petulant demands for her weapons. Right as she may be, the writers have already shoehorned her into an unfortunate position as someone who is incapable of anything other than defensiveness and suspicion. And while the character is the strong, silent type in the comic books, there was always a deft intelligence and cunning behind her actions.
Michonne’s intelligence was more on display this week, yet there’s still a lack of emotion, a monotone, disaffected and robotic tone to her that makes the character less appealing to many. My only hope for her is that since she’s the one to question the governor (however tactically unsound such a challenge may be), so she’s clearly sharply clever. What makes her arc more frustrating is that the relationship between her and Andrea doesn’t really stand up, almost as if Michonne was a stand-in for Andrea’s savior until a man showed up. What’s more distressing is the very nature of the way the episodes have been shot — all of a sudden, Michonne was relegated to the background of every shot, dark and unfocused, as Andrea — vibrant and glowingly blond — suddenly took center stage, despite being at death’s door hours before. It is, quite honestly, puzzling, frustrating, and somewhat infuriating.
There’s really no need to make a list of the male minority characters, since the only other ones are Glenn and T-Dog (I’d love to include Morgan Jones, except we haven’t seen him since the early days of Season One and I doubt we will again). Oh, wait, that’s not true. We also have one Latino convict, a handful of black convicts, and waaaay back in Season One, a group of kindly Latino gangbangers. Thanks, “Walking Dead,” for subverting those stereotypes so fiercely.
But here’s an interesting bit of additional fact for you: both T-Dog and Daryl are new characters, invented for the show. T-Dog is the token black guy, killed after an empty and pointless existence. In the comics, there was a character named Tyrese, another black character, who developed a relationship with Carol. And apparently, the writers decided to replace him with Daryl. And as much as I love Norman Reedus’ Daryl, that still chaps a bit. Herein lies the larger problem, in some ways. “The Walking Dead” is lousy with women, and terrible with minorities.
Where shall we begin?
Glenn is, of course, a fan favorite, and rightfully so. My only issues with Glenn come from him being so specialized a character — need someone fast and sneaky? Send in the Asian guy! And don’t worry, he’s pliable and compliant, and will do whatever the leaders say. And even when Glenn begins to develop, it’s once again not a self-realized, self-actualized development, but rather at the urging of his new ladylove.
But nothing is more aggravating, no character more frustrating, no token more overt than T-Dog. A character who’s been with us from the beginning, he’s been given nothing. Zero. Nada. No backstory, no episodes to center on his character, no flashbacks. He hasn’t grown, or learned, or developed any relationships. He follows Rick, though only in the sense that he’s in the same scenes. To even give him as faint praise as to call him a follower implies that he’s made the choice to follow, and there’s no evidence of him even doing that. T-Dog’s character was an empty vessel, without thought or opinion or emotion or ideas. He’s a blunt instrument, a big, bald, black club used by the gang to fight their way out of the tough spots, but without any personality aside from the occasional flat one-liners. For those who are curious, someone actually compiled all of his lines from Season Two. The video is four minutes and fifty seconds long, and much of it still includes other people talking.
This week featured the most meaningful dialogue T-Dog has had so far, and it was mainly him sympathizing with the convicts. And then? He dies. Some will be tempted to call it a hero’s death, and while it was perhaps heroic, the overall character arc was little more than an insult. He finally gets a moment to shine, and it’s the moment that kills him. I’ve heard rumor that Irone Singleton was a difficult actor to work with, and was thusly phased out. I don’t know if I buy it. I do know that killing off a secondary character is always a crowd-pleaser, and that’s what happened this week. Because make no mistake, despite being in every episode, T-Dog was a secondary character, a glowering, dark-skinned table lamp that managed to find its way into every shot. And in hilariously poetic fashion, he’s swapped out for another token character — the black convict. This was the show’s final insult. T-Dog 2.0 was conveniently waiting in the wings, an easy replacement, another brother just trying to survive this apocalypse who can feel indebted to Rick and be another heap of cannon fodder. I can only hope that T-Dog 2.0 (or 2-Dog, as the Internet has already dubbed him), will get more than a couple of “aw hell naws” to work with.
The truth is that T-Dog was an embarrassment, worsened by the fact that he was created specifically for the show, making his tokenism that much more overt. He was awful, and it’s hardly Irone Singleton’s fault. I have no idea if he’s a good actor or not, because the show stubbornly and infuriatingly refused to let him act. He was weapon-wielding window-dressing, and not even a consistently good one. If anything, he was a jive-talking prop at best, a halfheartedly politically correct afterthought at worst. If there were a competition to see who got the least dialogue, T-Dog was just barely ahead of the walkers themselves.
So there you have it. Proceed to punch as many holes in it as you like, but one can’t escape the fact that “The Walking Dead” most definitely has race and gender issues. It’s ugly, and it’s obvious, and it’s mostly just stupid. I applaud the desire for a diverse cast, but the trick to having a diverse cast is to have those people all share the load proportionately. That’s not what we have. We have a core cast of white men — Rick, Shane, Dale, Daryl, even Hershel — and a series of women whose characters revolved around those men, and a series of minorities whose characters simply occupy the secondary spaces nearby them. Wake up, writers. You’ve got actors with talent to burn. Use them, and use them equally.