BEB #1: Gender in "The Walking Dead"

by Sienna Brancato

Note: This is the first post in the new "Bossier Editors' Blog" (BEB) series. The following piece may contain spoilers for "The Walking Dead" as well as "Fear of the Walking Dead." You have been warned!

As some of you may know, the midseason premiere of “Fear the Walking Dead” (FTWD) aired last Sunday night. I get a lot of surprised reactions, usually from guys, when I say that I love “The Walking Dead” (TWD) and FTWD. What, girls can’t like guts and gore and zombies? In response, I often try to justify my liking for these shows by saying, “They’re so much more about the people and the boundaries of humanity and sanity than they are about the violent aspect.” That’s all true, but I also just think zombies are damn cool and enjoy seeing some comic book-style violence every once in awhile. And there’s nothing wrong with that.

Liking TWD and FTWD doesn’t mean that I don’t also love more traditionally feminine TV shows. My family ritual used to be gathering to watch the latest episode of “The Walking Dead” every Sunday followed by the newest installment of “Downton Abbey,” a British soap opera. People need to stop pigeonholing women into categories of what they are allowed/not allowed to like. Both women and men can be fans of both traditionally masculine and feminine TV shows, movies, musical groups, etc. Pop Culture Police, take a seat.

Now that that’s out of the way, let's talk TV. Disclaimer: There are all kinds of racial and sexual politics and flaws at work in TWD and FTWD. Both shows have distinct blind spots with regards to gender-nonconformity and sexual orientation. I can’t possibly tackle every problematic or complicated aspect in one article, nor will I try to. I also can’t describe in detail about every badass female character, no matter how much I may want to. In this post, I will speak specifically about the differences in representation of male and female leaders in TWD and FTWD.  

For some context, FTWD is a spinoff of TWD, set in southern California and Mexico as the zombie apocalypse unfolds. Representation and inclusivity are at the forefront of FTWD, while both are sorely lacking in TWD. Well-developed, rich, multifaceted storylines centering around PoC, specifically Latinos and Native Americans, compose the backbone of FTWD. FTWD incorporates frequent use of Spanish. Most notably, an episode earlier this season aired almost entirely in Spanish with English subtitles, refreshing amidst so much ridiculousness in film and TV involving people in various parts of the world (played by white actors) somehow all speaking to each other in English.

TWD asserts white heterosexual male dominance in a way that FTWD certainly does not. While white men take center stage in TWD, the white men in FTWD are overwhelmingly portrayed as weak, obnoxious, racist, or incompetent. White male dominance isn’t natural or destined. It’s just a system that has been in place for a long time, but that doesn’t mean it shouldn’t be challenged or deconstructed, particularly in post-apocalyptic fantasy worlds in which social structures are being reconfigured anyway.

TWD is the epic story of Rick Grimes, a middle aged, white, heterosexual, father of two and former police officer, an “everyman” type of guy. In contrast, FTWD is Madison Clark’s story, a former high school guidance counselor and strong-willed mother of teenagers Alicia and Nick. She frequently puts herself in dangerous situations to protect her children and loved ones.

Madison is a peacemaker, rarely advocating violence unless absolutely necessary. However, she possesses a very Machiavellian, ends-justify-means perspective. Like many women in our world, she allows men to assume more “legitimate” authority roles, while perpetually working behind-the-scenes to influence events in her favor. Therefore, she is able to exert power without as much scrutiny. Even though men might be the “official” leaders in FTWD, most people look to Madison for true guidance, wisdom, and leadership.

Now, I want to discuss how feminine strength is portrayed on TWD and FTWD. On TWD, women generally exhibit strength through extreme physical prowess and emotional coldness. Michonne, despite noticeable character evolution, was first introduced as a mostly silent, emotionally damaged, katana-wielding zombie assassin. Carol, one of my favorite female characters, starts out as meek and unassuming, gains strength and physical prowess over time, and then uses her motherly appearance to deceive enemies into believing she’s not a threat. However, in a highly disappointing and unsatisfying storyline, Carol tires of killing to survive and completely shuts down emotionally, retreating into a literal cabin in the woods to avoid human contact.

In the world of FTWD, female characters display strength by enforcing peace, influencing events in their favor, and dealing with their own flaws and weaknesses, rather than ignoring them and repressing their emotions. Madison often expresses emotion and always comes through as a problem-solver in the end. Alicia, Madison’s daughter, hides her emotions frequently, yet admits to herself in Sunday night’s midseason premiere that she’s tired of being “the strong one.”

Before writing this article, I talked to my parents about their favorite characters from both shows. I’m not going to call them out on unconscious biases or perform intense linguistic analyses on their responses, but I do find certain opinions of theirs worth taking a second look at.

My mom’s favorite character from TWD is Rick based on his strength and ethics. Her favorite character from FTWD is Madison due to her strength and ability to protect her children. “I love how she breaks stereotypes and is willing to do what is needed no matter how brutal,” she said. She admires both characters for their strength, yet emphasizes Madison’s motherly role despite the fact that Rick is a father of two and is fiercely protective over both his children. Rick, no matter how often he risks himself to protect his children, will always be perceived primarily as a leader. On the other hand, Madison’s status as a mother defines her, not necessarily as a negative, but in a much more apparent way.

When I asked my dad how he rates Madison and Rick’s respective leadership styles, he responded that he “doesn’t always like” Madison, a common consequence of being a woman in a position of power. She is “devoted, which I respect, but often does rogue things which cause bad consequences…Rick—overall wants to do the right thing, but it’s really tough to be everyone’s choice—especially in such a fragmented world they are in.” He acknowledges that both leaders often falter, but he thinks “Rick can negotiate better, and has less of an ego. But again, also has negative points.”

When talking about both Rick and Madison’s strengths and weaknesses as leaders, fundamental differences emerged. Rick’s failings were explained away with various excuses. He lives in a difficult and fragmented world. He’s doing the best he can. Whereas Madison frequently “goes rogue,” all with the goal of protecting her children. Rick upholds the social order, which he himself established, while Madison frequently transgresses against the accepted hierarchy, making her unpredictable and less likable.

I’m sure my parents know me well enough to realize the angle I was trying to get at with the questions I asked them before writing this article, although I tried to keep them as neutral as possible. Their perceptions of both leaders don’t come out of nowhere. I completely agree with their assessments of Madison and Rick, which ultimately reveals a deeper point about the messages the showrunners and scriptwriters convey with their portrayal of female leaders.

I have a lot of love for both shows, and I have faith that the women in FTWD will evolve and develop as this season progresses. But I guess I’ll just have to wait and see.

For a more in-depth dive into the racial and sexual politics at play in TWD, click here and here