The Walking Dead – Patriarchy & Guns (S 1-2)

It’s intolerably bad. The Walking Dead tries to be a straight drama with zombies, but fails to deliver any character development. The action becomes quickly repetitive and tiresome and the moral dilemmas constituting the plot are dealt with superficially. All characters refer to zombies as ‘walkers’ betraying total detachment from the Western culture they inhabit. This undermines further the plausibility of the story, prevents characters and story from tapping into popular culture and knowledge of zombies and sounds incredibly silly. The series is an NRA advert celebrating patriarchal machismo.

Plot: The show is set in the picturesque countryside outside Atlanta. It begins with a cop, Rick Grimes (Andrew Lincoln), who gets shot and falls into a coma. After what maybe months, he wakes up and is ready to jump around and fight zombies. Zombies are fine, the ridiculous premise lies in someone waking up from a coma and being able to talk, walk with no brain damage or muscle waste. Our hero makes it and joins a group of survivors, which includes conveniently his wife, son and former police partner. They later find their way to a household belonging to Herschel (Scott Wilson) and his extended family. The first season is thankfully short, but, already after a few episodes, you wonder whether all the action is confined to the protagonists being attacked by zombies. It is!

The Patriarchal Family & the Cult of Guns:

The ever-present family of American TV (as argued here) dominates in the most sinister and reactionary way in The Walking Dead. The family is here unbelievably patriarchal. Each group is led by a man (no, no chance of democracy) and, specifically a father, despite the fact that people unrelated to Rick belong to his group. “You’ve got to do what is best for our family” is the mantra, which places the family well over and above the common good. Herschel thunders “I control my people, you control yours”. There is no a trace of democracy, even though most of the decisions are life and death decisions.

Women need to submit to the authority of the father. They are regularly patronised and dismissed. Women do the washing and cooking dutifully and have babies. The possibility of abortion for Lori is brushed aside quickly and never really thought about it seriously. Rick’s wife, Lori (Sarah Wayne Callies) comes after her male child in the pecking order. The son is allowed to participate in the search for a female child, who couldn’t even find the way back to the group.

The trite motif of Romantic survival and fight against evil nature fluctuates between old-fashioned sexist machismo and an NRA commercial. The worth of a man lies in his ability to shoot and kill. The physically weak die or are simply a burden. In a cringing rite of passage moment, he becomes a man by being initated to hunting and shooting. Masculinity is constructed through violence, which is justified on the basis of a very weak premise of survival. Women need to kill too, but they are always property of a man or the clan. [Update: this is just a reminder of the 994 mass shootings in the US in the last 1004 days]. TV shows and movies reflect our culture, but also provide us with frameworks of reference. The relentless depiction of masculinity through violence and, specifically, a man with a gun ‘protecting his family’ shapes a powerful, yet flawed, normative narrative that influences how people think of themselves and the world around them. This is perhaps why about half of Americans do not see the need for stricter gun controls; what about the other half?

The series doesn’t explore community building and group dynamics in an extreme situation, preferring to celebrate the macho father ruling above all. This is empirically flawed. As sociology of disaster shows, it is certainly the case that in disaster situations, people tend to follow gender lines and applying a division of labour, but disaster and its aftermath tend to be limited in time. In contrast, people under extreme circumstances quickly establish normality and organise. Shantung Compound, Langdon Gilkey’s memoir of his time in a prisoners’ camp in China during WWII, is a brilliant testimony of how prisoners organised the camp, elected their leaders, and engaged in everyday activities that belonged to their pre-war lives. In reality, people always attempt to re-establish normality. They co-operate and seek to make decisions through consensus. Like in Sunshine, the writers of The Walking Dead fail to grasp this.

In series 3-4 The Walking Dead gets ridiculous, here is my comment.

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This entry was posted in democracy, family, fantasy/supernatural, gender, good & evil, horror, patriarchy, romanticism, The Walking Dead, TV and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

5 Responses to The Walking Dead – Patriarchy & Guns (S 1-2)

  1. I’m told it picks up in season 3 … I’ll have a think whether I can put myself through it. If so, another post might follow!

  2. Dave says:

    No disrespect intended, but I think this is a bit silly.

    Depicting a harsh fictional world is not the same as endorsing what the characters do. In fact an ongoing theme in the show/comic is the characters being faced with choices to be compassionate or be ruthless when in extreme situations. For example in one episode Rick drives past a survivor who is walking along the road, even as he tries to flag them down. Later they drive back and bits of the man are lying on the road after being eaten by zombies. This was a callous decision, but depicts how hard they become due to the world collapsing around them. Later they have a change of heart and they take in people who need shelter.

    Saying this is an NRA commercial doesnt make any sense. I think America’s gun culture is insane, but if someday the world ends up being overrun by zombies then I will take a different view. Applying zombie apocalypse logic to today’s non-zombie-infested society is not a fair comparison.

    In relation to dominant father-figures and the absence of democracy, this is not portrayed as either good or bad in the show/comic. Its just how the characters react; at least for a while. You mention one study of prisoners of war in China is if that proves all social collapse everywhere must always lead to cooperation. But if you need examples of social breakdown leading to ruthless men taking control then just look at any warzone or failed state in modern day Africa: men with guns run the show. That it happens doesn’t mean that it is good. In fact in the Walking Dead these male leader types half the time turn out to be brutal sociopaths, e.g. the governor.

    Also the show has loads of very independent, tough female characters that you seem to have missed: Michonne is clearly one of the most badass characters on TV right now, then there is Andrea, Maggie and so on.

    So the male lead has a family, including a wife and kid. So what? Many people have families, so they want people to relate to the show.

    Again, depicting people acting a certain way in a fictional world is not the same as endorsing their actions. In fact the most interesting stories are those with morally ambiguous character arcs. Breaking Bad did not endorse gang violence and drugs; Game of Thrones does not promote beheadings, and the Walking Dead does not advocate picking up a gun and killing your neighbour in case he eats your family.

  3. Dave, it’s really a bad idea to say an analysis is silly when you don’t get the analysis. Your reading and viewing is incredibly simplistic and superficial. I’m afraid I really don’t think there’s any point in me trying to explain it again.

  4. Dave says:

    Well my apologies for calling it silly, that was unnecessarily argumentative. It is a well-thought out and well written piece.

    But still your point seems to be that because they depict unpleasant stuff on screen they probably endorse it. You apply that same logic to other shows as well, and I think this is missing the point.

  5. It’s a lot more complicated than that. The show is not saying that killing is good. It tries to grip very clumsily with moral dilemmas. The problem are its cultural underpinnings:
    1. This fall into (or return to) a ‘state of nature’ of Darwinian memory, where physical strength counts rather than cooperation. It is flawed scientifically. Human beings are highly cooperative, especially compared with other species.
    2. It is not like this never happened in history! Think of the fall of the Roman Empire, the plague which killed off most of Europe, total wars … People keep going. Institutions keep going.
    3. The ‘state of nature’ narrative justifies male supremacy. The show is incredibly misogynistic.
    4. The show is patriarchal. It’s not about having a family! It’s about status and hierarchy.
    There’s a lot of literature on all these topics.

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