By Steph Post
Okay, let’s talk about zombies. And girls. Girls killing zombies. And gender equality. Wait, what?
Even as I put those two words together — “zombies” and “girls” — I feel like I’m inside some fourteen-year-old fanboy’s wet dream. But in reality, I’m here to talk about what AMC, whether intentionally or not, is saying with its beyond-popular television series, The Walking Dead.
A few disclaimers first: Though I am a loyal fan of the show, it’s certainly not my favorite hour of television. Truth be told, I tend to spend more time getting pissed off and yelling at the TV than I do enjoying the show. I’m pretty critical when it comes to television shows and, in my opinion, the writing in The Walking Dead has a long way to go. The quality of the show has wavered from season to season, and even week to week, in an endless quest to establish the identity of the show. Perhaps this is because, in five seasons, the show has blazed though three showrunners and a revolving door of writers. I’ll also go ahead and point out that I haven’t read the graphic novels, written by Robert Kirkman and illustrated by Tony Moore and Charlie Adlard, though I’m certainly planning to one day.
So, back to gender equality. This year’s season opened up with one of my favorite characters, Carol Peletier, singlehandedly taking out the Terminus compound and saving Rick Grimes and the others from a community of psycho cannibals intent on turning the group into human jerky. This wasn’t a case of a hero/princess reversal; this wasn’t the girlfriend helping the boyfriend out of a scrape. This was a one-woman army smeared in guts, wielding an assault rifle and setting an entire tribe of zombies on fire. She was courageous, undaunted, and brilliant. And, quite frankly, it was one of the more badass moments I’ve seen on The Walking Dead. There’s a reason I spent the week after the episode aired telling everyone that I wanted to be Carol when I grow up.
But let’s not forget how Carol entered the stage, way back in season one. A timid, battered housewife and mother, Carol earned our sympathy when we saw her bruises and earned our respect when she told Daryl Dixon that she must be the one to take a pickax to her dead husband’s head. She saves Ed from the fate of becoming one of the walking dead, but also unleashes years of pent-up rage. She begins to come into her own, but has a long way to go before she’s slinging around AK-47s with ease.
Indeed, in these first episodes, it is clear that even though the world has come to an end, 1950s gender roles still apply. While Ed stands by to supervise, Carol, Andrea, Amy, and Jacqui do the camp’s laundry in the river. Daryl hunts. Shane strides around in combat boots. Glenn steals a car. Even Dale is in charge of weapons. And Carol irons.
Throughout the first two seasons, the female characters not only occupy typical female societal roles, which may be understandably realistic given the circumstances, but the writers box them into typical female character types. Maggie is tough, but the love interest of Glenn. Lori creates a love triangle with Shane and Rick and ultimately comes between them, destroying the harmony of the group. Andrea tries to one-up the boys, but sleeps with Shane, shoots Daryl by accident, and spends way too much time bitching and moaning about everything. Beth is sad and tries to kill herself. And Carol does more laundry and offers to cook supper.
Flash forward to season five. Carol may be the biggest badass in a pinch, but Michonne still rules the day. Not just because she’s the one swinging the samurai sword, either. She’s calling the shots for the group right alongside Rick. In episode 5.11, “The Distance,” Michonne makes the decision to take the group to Alexandria. She doesn’t ask Rick; she tells him. By this point in the progression of both the group and the show, the female characters are coming right up alongside the male. Maggie and Glenn are still together, but don’t stay side by side. They go on different patrols and have different jobs. Sasha is one of the group’s best shots, and Rosita, while appearing as a sex symbol in season four, has proved herself to be tougher and more competent than Abraham. And after the Governor and Gareth, the spokeswoman for the Alexandria community is now Deanna Monroe. She is just as ambiguously terrifying as her predecessors.
It’s not just that the female characters have become tougher, they’ve become, well, just characters. They’re not trying to prove something to the men; they’re just surviving alongside them, on equal footing, in equal roles. In the zombie apocalypse, only the strong survive.
So here’s where I think the writers got it right: It was realistic in the beginning to have women revert to typical, if submissive, roles. As much as it turns my stomach to think so, I think that in the event of a survival crisis, this is what probably would happen. We would grasp on to what shreds of humanity we could, and in doing so would set ourselves back quite a few decades. But zombies seem to be equal opportunity flesh consumers, and so, between corpses trying to munch on your brains and megalomaniac leaders doing much the same, there would be no time to argue about who is supposed to be out hunting and who is doing the dishes. In running from one catastrophe to another, there is no time for weakness. This is why Sasha makes it when Tyrone doesn’t and why Michonne stands tall next to Rick. It’s why the most badass character of all is invisible in sweaters and can hide behind cookies.
I’m not sure how well I’d do if a real zombie apocalypse hits us one day. I think I’d have a shot and be able to scrape my way by. I’d like to think so anyway. For now, though, I’m content sitting back and watching the brains explode on TV. The Walking Dead may just be a zombie show, with the special effects outweighing the storyline at times, but I have to give the show writers, as well as the writers of the source material, credit where credit is due. They’re daring to depict a future where the strong weed out the weak, and at least half of the strong are women. The female characters of The Walking Dead are brave, they’re resourceful and, most importantly, they are genuine and complex. Maybe the end times won’t be so bad after all.
Steph Post is the author of the debut novel, A Tree Born Crooked. Her short fiction has most recently appeared in Haunted Waters: From the Depths, The Round-Up, Stephen King’s Contemporary Classics, and in the forthcoming editions of Foliate Oak and Vending Machine Press. She currently lives, writes, and teaches writing in St. Petersburg, Florida.
Post originally published on 3/24/15