The Zombies Will Eat You, White or Black: Depictions of Race in The Walking Dead

Rick Grimes

[This is an essay I wrote for my Media Criticism class. I am posting it here because I am submitting it for a few things, and the people I am submitting it to would prefer to see it online. It’s a bit out of character in terms of my normal tomfoolery, but I hope you enjoy it.]

“My zombies will never take over the world because I need the humans. The humans are the ones I dislike the most, and they’re where the trouble really lies.”

– George A. Romero, interview with Time magazine

George A. Romero does not despise the zombies of his fiction; he appreciates them. Zombies do not discriminate because they have no axe to grind. They are equal opportunity flesh-eaters. Rather, it is the humans that preside within the now popular zombie-narratives that Romero loathes, and it is through them that he tells his stories latent with social critiques. Today, zombie culture is no longer contained to the obsessive minds of comic book readers; the use of zombies as a platform to tell a story has grown exponentially in recent years with the success of Zombieland, World War Z, and The Walking Dead. The public’s infatuation with zombie culture has spread almost as fast as the virus itself, and in this changing landscape of zombie media, it is important to consider the way these texts present society, especially with regard to race.

The Walking Dead on AMC is a mainstream hit. Based on the successful series of graphic novels of the same name, the show has capitalized on the public’s obsession with horror/apocalypse stories in a post-9/11 world (Canavan, 2010). However, the show has made some drastic deviations from its source material, specifically in regards to the depiction of race within the world of the undead. This is an important development to take note of, especially when thinking about the layered interpretations of zombie-related media texts. Zombies have been used as a metaphor for the purposes of social criticism in many forms; whether examining our obsession with consumerism or technology (Dawn of the Dead and Diary of the Dead, respectively), or representing the “other” of our everyday lives, the idea of the “zombie” is no longer a mindless creature in search of human flesh. Instead, zombies are loaded statements within media texts, whose meaning and representation are interpreted by scholars (Lauro & Embry, 2008).

Due to this emergence of zombies as metaphors in popular culture, it is important to recognize how race is depicted within media texts, as it directly relates to our layered interpretation of the text. In this essay, I examine the reestablishment of a white patriarchy within the post-apocalyptic universe of The Walking Dead canon, as well as differences in racial representation between the television show and the graphic novel.

The Current State of Zombie/Horror Media With Regard to Race

Before addressing specific racial implications within The Walking Dead, it is important to understand past uses and interpretations of the zombie metaphor within media. The concept of the “zombie” is rooted in voodoo and Haitian folklore, according to which a Bokor, or voodoo priest, can bring the dead back to life (Lauro & Embry, 2008). Because of this history, race and zombies were inextricably linked after the appropriation of zombies for use in American popular culture.

This link was strengthened by George A. Romero’s influential film Night of the Living Dead, which featured Duane Jones, a black man, as the main character. Black leading men were hard to come by in American cinema circa 1968. But the cultural implications of this film go well beyond the inclusion of a black actor; critical theorists have described Night of the Living Dead’s depiction of both zombies and Jones’ character Ben as an “other” (Lightning, 2000).  In the film, Ben is repetitively shown as a man of action, working to sure up defenses of the house while many of the white characters argue about matters fairly unimportant in their given zombie-ridden circumstances. Further, the white characters in the film are presented as more vulnerable than Ben; not only are all of the reanimated creatures white, the living characters have a tough time fighting the undead in closed combat, while Ben kills off several with relative ease (Romero, 1968). The lack of aggression of the white characters in the film towards zombies is odd when one considers the manner with which they handle Ben- pulling a gun on him and repeatedly beating him (Lightning, 2000). All of these aspects of Night of the Living Dead further cemented the union of race and the metaphor of zombies within popular culture.

While not tied to a zombie narrative, Wes Craven’s Scream movies offer an interesting perspective on race and gender roles within the horror genre. The films, with their meta self-referential approach to storytelling, make blatant statements about the roles of different groups within a horror story, as well as defining the “rules” of surviving a clichéd slasher flick (Wee, 2005). The opening sequence of Scream 2 addresses race rather directly. An African American couple, Maureen and Phil are discussing the horror genre, with Maureen saying that she is uninterested in “dumb-ass white movie[s] about some dumb-ass white girls getting their white asses cut the fuck up” (Williamson & Craven, 1997). This comment speaks to another horror trope related to the reestablishment of white patriarchy, the classic image of a damsel in distress- a white girl in a white dress running through a dark forest as a killer chases after her. At some point, her shoe falls off, she trips, and her aggressor gains ground on her. The existence of this archetype makes it problematic for women to be presented as powerful within horror/apocalyptic narratives, as they are tied to the archetype by their gender (Wee, 2005).

As the scene continues, the couple is killed while attending a showing of the fake film Stab, which was based on the murders that unfold in the first Scream. While Stab is playing on the big screen the audience is chaotic, with the mostly white audience yelling at the screen, hurling popcorn, and generally making a ruckus. Maureen is attacked amidst the madness, and her agony goes unnoticed by the audience that is enthralled with the murderous action onscreen. There is a visceral shot of Maureen screaming before falling dead, and the audience slowly realizing the seriousness of the situation. The scene reads as a criticism of a white audience cheering on the demise of a character while watching a horror film; the fact that some are turned on by the sight of it, and are cheering for the killer to have his way (Thornley, 2006).

Additionally, the opening sequence of Scream 2 addresses a horror trope that The Walking Dead has held rather true to- the killing off of minority characters, specifically African Americans, and their tendency to be the first ones to die. This notion is supported later in Scream 2 which features a black cameraman named Joel who is assigned to help cover the murders.  He mentions, almost off-handedly, “Brothers don’t last long in situations like this.” In the self-aware context of the Scream franchise, this is a loaded statement.

With these ideas in mind, one can better appreciate the implications of the depiction of race on The Walking Dead television show, and the significance of the creative differences between the show and the graphic novel.

White Patriarchy In The Walking Dead – How Does This Keep Happening?

Rick and the Gov.

Take a moment to think about the reality that The Walking Dead is set in. The structures of basic human culture are destroyed; there is no police force to keep the public safe, no government to help subdue the pandemic, and the difference between your survival and death comes down (in many cases) to your ability to kill. This falls in line with the overall theme of the graphic novel; in a world where the dead walk, it is the living that are the “walking dead.”

Within such a universe, it seems illogical for a white patriarchy to be uniformly reestablished. Any social/economic/general advantages that white men have in reality are completely extinguished while being attacked by zombies, or attempting to survive with other people who fear being attacked by zombies. Yet despite this, the two warring communities of The Walking Dead, Rick’s prison gang and the Governor’s Woodbury, are both led, almost without question, by white men.

Additionally, in both the television show and graphic novel, many of the “disposable” characters, such as the Governor’s soldiers and the group locked in the prison when Rick and company arrives, are minorities. In a world without social order, what inspired all of these people of different ethnic backgrounds to treat the word of this crazy white “Governor” as gospel?

Not only do these white male characters hold the power positions within The Walking Dead, but they also hold on to them after showing some fairly unredeemable qualities in terms of leadership. Rick often hallucinates, and in the show, spends two full episodes wandering around the woods chasing the ghost of his dead wife like a crazy person. And yet, once he returns to the prison camp, he is reinstated to his leadership position in a fairly swift manner, despite the clear presence of others with leadership potential in the group. The most likely candidate for leadership (due to Daryl’s concern for his brother at the time and the show’s diminished portrayal of Tyreese to be discussed later) is Glenn, an Asian American who has shown his bravery and dedication to the group’s survival on countless occasions. But he struggles with the weight that decision making carries in a world filled with zombies, and hands the reins back to Rick as quickly as he can (Beattie & Mann, 2013).

Too Black for TV? – Discrepancies between the graphic novel and show

As is true with any adaptation of a story from one medium to another, things will change. This is true for The Walking Dead the same way it is true for fans of Game of Thrones, namely that the nature of the medium makes it almost impossible to include every detail from the source material. Further, The Walking Dead television show has made no bones about their existence as a separate extension of the franchise, not simply a recreation of the stories that Robert Kirkman has already told. This became clear as soon as Daryl and Merle appeared on the show early in its first season, two characters that do not exist within the graphic novels (Cannon, 2012).

While the creative minds behind The Walking Dead franchise have every right to change and adapt the story to the one that they wish to tell on camera, it is worth acknowledging the inordinate amount of the discrepancies between the graphic novel and the show are centered around racial issues.

The most glaring of these racial differences in the transition of The Walking Dead from graphic novel to television show is the absence of Tyreese in the show’s first two seasons. In the graphic novel, Tyreese is a central character. He first meets Rick and his crew of survivors on the road that eventually leads to Hershel’s farm after the group leaves Atlanta. He immediately proves himself as both honorable and indispensable, and his strength becomes an asset to the group for the purposes of moving wreckage out of the path of their RV and killing zombies with a hammer (Kirkman, Issue #7). In later issues, when the group decides that the burden of leadership is too heavy for Rick to carry alone, Tyreese becomes one of the people trusted with helping to make decisions for the good of the future of their community. He even has a relationship with Carol, a white woman, an important detail within the critical analysis of a television adaptation’s depiction of race (Kirkman, Issue #19).

It seems like this would be a character that would make television writers salivate. In the graphic novel, Tyreese is a well rounded character with a rich back-story and enough internal struggle with the terrifying reality that surrounds him to have made him one of the most compelling characters in the show’s early stages. Instead, Tyreese was seemingly pushed aside in favor of the oftentimes mute Theodore Douglas, known more simply as “T-Dog”. In fact, Tyreese did not make his debut on the television show until Season 3, an introduction conveniently timed close to the death of T-Dog, ensuring that the show would not have the burden of pushing two minorities into the background.

T-Dog was not a character in the graphic novel, and his presence in the show in addition to Tyreese’s absence gave viewers the impression that the show runners had simply replaced one token black character with another. Tyreese, in the graphic novel at least, was much more than “the token black guy,” but T-Dog filled the role perfectly: he never made a fuss about decisions made by his white leaders Rick and Shane, and he diligently kept watch over the fields from the roof of the RV while the camera followed other characters that actually had lines.

The co-leadership position that Tyreese had within the group in the graphic novel was given to Shane and later Daryl for the television show, two more white men. Additionally, Shane’s character dies much earlier on in the graphic novel than on the show. The show made an explicit decision to extend the storyline of a white character, but has also made similar decisions to diminish the importance of black characters, such as Tyreese (Taormina, 2012).

The character of Michonne is also depicted in a different light by the television show. One important aspect of her character within the graphic novel is her sexuality; Michonne seduces Tyreese away from his relationship with Carol, and is also brutally raped by the Governor (Kirkman, Issue #29). Both of these details contribute greatly to the audience’s understandings of her character and motivations in the graphic novel. However, these parts of her story are left out of the show, giving her more time to stare, silent and brooding, at her surroundings. Michonne’s post-apocalyptic sex life is reduced to vague allusions of a homosexual relationship with Andrea that is never fully told. Beyond this, the plotline of her raping at the hands of the Governor was reimagined with the white, southern bell Maggie as the victim of a much less intrusive encounter (Renzulli & Sackheim, 2012). Here, it appears that the show is making conscious choices to not only limit the screen time and development of its minority characters, but also appropriate handpicked compelling storylines from the minority characters in the graphic novel for white characters within the show.

Further evidence of the show’s independence from the graphic novels is the presence of Daryl and Merle, two characters who, like T-Dog, were created for the show and never seen in the books. Unlike T-Dog, however, Daryl and Merle have been central characters within multiple storylines on the show. Daryl, the crossbow-wielding, motorcycle-riding, former hick has become a fan favorite, and his brother Merle, while starting out as a racist, is redeemed before his ultimate demise on the show.

The addition of Merle to the television adaptation of The Walking Dead is an odd choice with regard to its racial implications. Not only did the show runners choose to neuter the two strongest minority characters of their source material, but they also chose to add one black character that would get walked over for his entire life on the show (T-Dog) as well as two white characters, one that would eventually become Rick’s confidant akin to Tyreese’s character in the graphic novels (Daryl) and his racist brother (Merle). This seems like a creative choice that was fueled, at least in some part, by race.

The respective deaths of Merle and T-Dog on the show also merit examination. Merle, after a lifetime of backstabbing and betrayal, gets an entire episode dedicated to his redemption, filled with crafted monologues explaining his sometimes-heinous behavior that gets the audience on his side. Then, in a selfless act of drunkenness, he grabs a loaded gun and a pack of walkers with the hopes of killing the Governor. He fails, but all of his racism and bigotry is forgiven in the eyes of the viewer because of his heroic demise (Gimple & Nicotero, 2013).

T-Dog, on the other hand, passes almost as quietly as he came. While lost in the dark hallways of the prison, T-Dog gets bit, and dedicates the time that he has remaining to getting Carol to safety. When Carol expresses her concern for him, T-Dog replies “This is God’s plan. He’ll take care of me. Always has” (Kim & Ferland, 2012). This line, intended as a bright perspective on dark circumstances, comes off as forced, as T-Dog’s religion had never been a plot point on the show before. Had the audience of The Walking Dead had the chance to get to know T-Dog on a more intimate level, it is possible that his death could have been just as dramatic and compelling as Merle’s. Instead, he serves his purpose of saving the white damsel in distress who lost her shoe while being chased by zombies, and dies without making a fuss about it.

One final discrepancy between the show and graphic novel is the character arc of the Governor, specifically with regard to his death. The Governor, a closet megalomaniac set free by the rise of the undead, has two vastly different plotlines. In the graphic novel, he is killed by his own men during the attack on the prison (Kirkman, Issue #48). His soldiers, unsure of the reasons for the attack in the first place, change their views on the Governor when they realize that the prison is being defended not by a fearsome army, but rather women and children. This is important because it shows a white patriarch losing his power because of decisions that he alone made. In the show, the Governor still led the attack on the prison, but when his forces retreat, he proceeds to slaughter the majority of the civilians he recruited into his makeshift army with an assault rifle. And despite all of this, the few remaining men that he spared still agree to follow him (Mazzara & Dickerson, 2013). David Morrissey has already signed on to continue his role as The Governor when the show returns, proving once again that it is not easy to kill a white patriarch in a televised zombie narrative.

Conclusions

The differences in the depiction of race within the two mediums through which The Walking Dead is served are glaring. While AMC has a right to produce the show that they want to produce and tell the stories that they want to tell, the overt deviation from plot and the invention of white characters at the expense of the screen time of black characters is blatant enough to warrant a discussion. The white patriarchs, namely Rick and the Governor, appear free to make whatever mistakes they wish without having to fear losing their role as a leader. They seem almost exempt from the judgment of their peers. Meanwhile, the roles of strong minority characters that were a vibrant aspect of the graphic novel are greatly diminished in favor of dedicating more time to white characters that were invented for the show. Regardless of the reasoning behind these decisions, it is important that the audience is aware of the racial implications of the zombie narrative.

Works Cited

Beattie, N. (writer), & Mann, S. (director). (2013). Home. The Walking Dead. AMC.

Canavan, G. (2010). We are the walking dead: race, time, and survival in zombie narrative. Extrapolation, 51.3, 431-53. Retrieved from http://gateway.proquest.com.libproxy.temple.edu/openurl?ctx_ver=Z39.88-2003&xri:pqil:res_ver=0.2&res_id=xri:lion-us&rft_id=xri:lion:rec:abell:R04533474

Cannon, J. (26 Oct. 2012). Top 3 differences between AMC’s the walking dead and the comic book series. Retrieved from http://sterlingsatellite.com/info/top-3-differences-between-amcs-the-walking-dead-and-the-comic-book-series/

Gimple, S. (writer) & Nicotero, G. (director). (2013). This Sorrowful Life. The Walking Dead.  AMC.

Kim, S. (writer) & Ferland, G. (director). (2012). Killer Within. The Walking Dead. AMC.

Kirkman, R. (2009). The Walking Dead: Compendium One. Image Comics. Print. #1-48.

Lauro, S., & Embry, K. (2008). A Zombie Manifesto: The Nonhuman Condition in the Era of Advanced Capitalism. Boundary 235(1), 85-108.

Lightning, R. (2000). Interracial tensions in night of the living dead. Retrieved from http://www.thefreelibrary.com/Interracial+tensions+in+Night+of+the+living+dead.-a030001357

Mazzara, G. (writer) & Dickerson, E. (director). (2013). Welcome to the Tombs. The Walking Dead. AMC.

Renzulli, F. (writer) & Sackheim D. (director). (2012). When the Dead Come Knocking. The Walking Dead. AMC.

Romero, G. (writer and director). (1968). Night of the living dead. Continental Distributing, Inc.

Romero, G. (2010, June). 10 questions for George Romero. Time.

Taormina, A. (2012). The walking dead: Kirkman talks differences between comic & season 2. Retrieved from http://screenrant.com/the-walking-dead-season-comic-book-tv-show-differences/

Thornley, D. (2006). The ‘SCREAM’ Reflex: Meta Horror and Popular Culture. Metro. pp. 140-147.

Wee, V. (2005). The Scream Trilogy, “Hyperpostmodernism,” and the Late-Nineties Teen Slasher Film. Journal Of Film & Video57(3), 44-61.

Williamson, K. (writer) & Craven, W. (director). (1997). Scream 2. Dimension Films.

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One Response to The Zombies Will Eat You, White or Black: Depictions of Race in The Walking Dead

  1. Michael R. says:

    A well-written essay…apart from the variations from the books (and your own insights), you did not really discuss the “racial implications” that you mention in your conclusion, implications that I was eager to hear…one thing I would want to know (not having seen the series) is: are all the zombies white people (as in most classic zombie films)? Why are zombies rarely if ever (undead) people of color ? if there are genuinely racial over-tones to zombie cinema, how to explain this fact of most all (the evil hordes of) zombies being Caucasian? Is the apparent fear of outsiders (immigrants, displaced persons, foreigners/minorities, etc.) that we assume is the driving force behind these narratives, being consciously cloaked by these all-Caucasian zombie armies? Something to ponder.

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