Race and Gender in The Walking Dead
In the midst of the zombie apocalypse, race and gender continue to play a huge role in fan perceptions of characters on The Walking Dead.
One would think that in a show about a zombie apocalypse—one littered with cannibals, sociopathic cult leaders, and crazed loners—that race and gender would be that last thing on anyone’s mind. Yet you couldn’t be more wrong [ 1 ]. In fact, many fans think that race and gender issues are handled very poorly by the writers of The Walking Dead. This can be because men still view the horror and action/adventure genres to be their exclusive purview as supposedly “masculine” entertainment, created both for men and by men. Such an assertion is, of course, patently false, but that doesn’t stop men from excluding women. It’s all too common to hear of women who do push themselves into the genres as creators or actors only to be quite rarely met with open arms from the fan community. These women instead have to fight twice as hard, be twice as badass, and overall be perfect in every way. You see this demonstrated time and again on The Walking Dead, and it’s what we’ll be discussing below.
Some of the most beloved characters that appear on the AMC adaptation of the popular comic book are also haunted by a large faction of fans that simply loathe and despise the character, as well. This isn’t just normal fandom discourse; it is often a deep, subconscious reaction to the race or gender of a character. A good example of this is the character Lori Grimes, wife to Rick and mother to Carl. She was on the show for the first three seasons and was venomously hated by a large portion of the fan base. The names she was called were appalling and the treatment the actor, the immensely talented Sarah Wayne Callies, was just as bad. People even went so far as to attack her, the actor, on social media because of the character she played [ 2 ]. This habit of conflating a character and the actor is a supreme annoyance at the best of times and a stupidly dangerous situation at worst.
Let’s break down the reasons for all the Lori hate. First, she slept with Shane, Rick’s partner, after she witnessed Atlanta napalmed in the wake of being told that Rick was dead. Shane had been a family friend for years and she had no reason not to trust him. No one should expect a widow to remain celibate and chaste to preserve the memory of her dead husband. Meanwhile, to Lori’s credit, as soon as Rick returned, she ended things with Shane. It was Shane that continued to goad and pursue her, going as far as assaulting her when the group was at CDC headquarters. Fans go as far as criticizing Lori for being assaulted—as if there was some way Lori could have prevented Shane’s disgraceful behavior.
Fan loathing of Lori doesn’t stop with misguided hatred of a woman doing her best to survive in an apocalyptic setting, however. Indeed, it seems that her character, and her actions, are blamed for every problem in the first two-and-a-half seasons of the show. She is blamed for Carl getting into trouble, even though Carl is the one who disobeyed his mother countless times. At one point, Lori asks a trusted friend to look in on Carl as she goes to find Rick, who has once again left the group to go play the hero. Feeling that she needs to find Rick and the others in order to help the group at the farm, Lori leaves Carl not with total strangers unequipped to watch a child, but with trusted friends.
From Sexism to Racism and Beyond
All this is the response to just one female character. The other women don’t fare much better. The women of The Walking Dead are called “slut,” “whore,” “basic bitch,” and other words I personally don’t feel comfortable repeating. One of these hated characters is Michonne, who joined the show near the finale of the second season. Viewers called her cold and bitchy. As Michonne is African-American, racism is threaded throughout the misogynistic hate that is thrown at her. Black women are rarely seen as leading ladies and are often shoehorned into stereotypical roles, such as “the independent woman who don’t need no man” or “the overtly sexualized queen.” In a later season, when Michonne and Rick enter into a romantic relationship—one that just happens to be an interracial one—the racism of viewers came into full view.
Danai Gurira is a beautiful, dark-skinned woman as well as a phenomenal actress. Despite this, many were angry about Rick and Michonne as a couple [ 3 ]. When asked why, people tripped over themselves while trying to explain why they hated the pairing without saying “she’s black and he’s white.” They covered this feeling with “I see them as really good friends,” or “She’s like his sister.” It’s subtle, but the racism is still there. People cannot imagine a dark-skinned woman with a white man. “It looks unnatural,” I have heard people say.
Sadly, there are times when fans’ racism is not so subtle as it is with their distaste for Michonne’s relationship with Rick. In fact, it often manifests as open hate for the black people on the show. While male characters like T-Dog and Tyrese are liked a little bit more, women like Michonne or Tyreese’s sister Sasha, played by the incomparable Sonequa Martin-Green of Star Trek: Discovery, are hated with a passion. They receive hate for things that white women are forgiven for; in the case of Martin-Green, much of this hate has traveled with her from her old role as Sasha to her new role of Michael Burnham in Discovery [ 4 ].
Michonne is a very divisive character; people either love her or hate her. People who love her tend to admire her strength and resolve. People who hate her tend to not have a reason beyond “well, she’s a bitch.” Yet her so-called “bitchiness” stems from the fact that she’s been traumatized by her experiences during the early days of the zombie apocalypse, leading her to be laconic and taciturn while living on her on her own with her two “pet” walkers for quite some time. Anyone else who suffered from such trauma would take time to be able to open up to the rest of the group.
Additionally, it’s not necessary for every female character depicted on a show such as The Walking Dead to be a bubbly, motherly image of the perfect woman. The character development that Michonne goes through was masterfully done, and she is one of the few female characters on the show who has received solid and consistent writing. It’s obvious in her character arc: when she first meets the group no one but Carl trusts her, but over time she gains the trust and love of the group. She becomes integrated into the family.
You’re Either Perfect or You’re Dead
Yet somehow, this simply isn’t good enough for some fans. It’s almost as if these fans feel that the women of The Walking Dead are seldom allowed to have flaws. They aren’t allowed to show weakness or have bad judgment. We see this after the fall of the prison when the group is splintered. Beth and Daryl escape together and try to find safety. Beth had just witnessed her father beheaded by The Governor and is separated from her sister, the only family she has left. She asks Daryl to help her find her a drink.
This one act has caused a rift in the fandom the size of the Marianas Trench. Many fans saw Beth’s “quest for booze” as insensitive and childish. Others notice the subtlety and sadness that Emily Kinney brings to her portrayal of Beth and view it as Beth desperately trying to not only understand what just happened but also come to terms with it.
Few people have a problem with Daryl during these scenes, even though he yells at Beth frequently and physically forces her to kill a walker with a crossbow that is way too heavy for her to wield comfortably. In the show, Beth is 18 years old, Daryl is at least 40. He should be able to compartmentalize and control his anger, yet he freaks out at a teenager over a drinking game.
While it’s true that Beth did overstep, she’s still just a child. A child who was recently traumatized and was trying to come to terms with the fact that she may never see her sister again. This is just one of the countless examples on The Walking Dead of men being allowed to be imperfect while the women are expected to be beyond angelic. Every action or decision made by female characters is critiqued and analyzed to the point where the women are never cast in a positive light.
While it is easy to blame the fanbase alone for the disrespectful treatment of female characters, we have to acknowledge that the series creators, too, are at fault. The writers frequently sacrifice the women on the altar of “man pain.” One of the best examples is Denise’s murder in order to further Daryl’s character development. The character of Denise does die later in the comic, but the circumstances of that death are much different, providing opportunities to show off her character development and personality.
Her in-show death was merely an event to cause Daryl to be angry and reckless. Likewise, Beth Green suffered a similar fate at the hands of Daryl’s pain. Meanwhile, the treatment of female characters, from Beth to Michonne to Lori and beyond, are likely to be heavily influenced by comic creator Robert Kirkman, who has gone on record as saying that “women are generally weaker” than men [ 5 ]. In other words, women are all universally flawed in this way.
Stoic Bitches or Broken Dolls
It seems as if Kirkman and the show’s writers have embraced this perceived universal flaw and have decided to only write two kinds of female characters: stoic bitches or broken dolls. If the stoic bitch ever shows any form of growth, she is sidelined for a male character. If a broken doll is written to learn to take care of herself, she is killed for someone’s pain and story arc. Even Carol, who is without a doubt a fan favorite, suffers from poor writing. Her character development could have been amazingly complex.
She was an abused wife who grew into someone with canny, well-developed survival skills and with the kind of proficiency with weapons that would put many trained military men to shame. However, the writers took her too far away from practical survivalist and too deeply into the realm of cruelty, providing characterizations that are closer to her being a ruthless murderer. This caused a problem when trying to reconcile her actions in relation to her personality. In essence, Carol’s character arc went from broken doll to stoic bitch back to broken doll. The writers failed to allow Carol to work through her trauma in a realistic way. There were only two modes for her: impossibly violent or impossibly broken.
What the writers fail to realize and enact with the female characters is that real humans are multifaceted and complex. They seem to do this well with the male characters and the men tend to have better, more-thought-out story arcs. Rick is allowed to be broken, happy, upset, and unsure. Daryl can express anger and fear. Even a character like Dwight is able to go from evil to sympathetic in just a few episodes. With a character like Maggie, however, it has taken years to become liked by the fans, with the biggest criticisms being “she’s mean” or “she’s a slut.” These comments, of course, are seldom heard in regards to a male character. Even a character as morally corrupt as Negan or The Governor are forgiven for their most grievous offenses. In fact, even though both of these characters are supposed to be villains on the show, they are regarded as desirable and “misunderstood.”
We owe each other as fans to support each other and treat the actors and the characters they portray with respect. By holding on to racist and sexist ideas, we are harming ourselves and others. It’s fine to criticize a character’s actions, but it is important to examine were these criticisms are coming from. It’s also important to ask yourself, “If the character was white or male or straight, would I have the same feelings about them?”
- “Sarah Wayne Callies, the actress who portrayed her, praised the character Lori Grimes for combatting gendered stereotypes and puritanical double-standards.” https://www.imdb.com/name/nm0915637/
- “Sonequa Martin Green, no stranger to harassment, has had to contend with a great deal of backlash both through TWD and Star Trek fandoms.” Photo Credit: GENE PAGE/AMC. https://ew.com/tv/sonequa-martin-green-star-trek-discovery-tales-of-the-walking-dead-anthology-series
Courtney is a writer, editor and videographer for Steam-Funk Studios. Passionate for fashion design with nerdy flair, her family has always nurtured her love for speculative fiction and creativity. Joining the firm as a writer, Courtney’s distinguished herself as editorial staff and as a production assistant for The Living Multiverse’s photography shoots. She has also participated in and acted as assistant troupe manager for our performers and panelists, at shows like C.O.G.S. Expo and PhilCon.
- Century, Sara. “Let’s Talk about the Women of ‘the Walking Dead.’” Bitch Media, Bitch Media, 15 Feb. 2015, bitchmedia.org/post/lets-talk-about-the-women-of-the-walking-dead.
- Koerner, Allyson. “‘The Walking Dead’ Star Sarah Wayne Callies Praises Lori Grimes for Fighting Gender-Based Double Standards.” Bustle, Bustle Digital Group, 20 Jan. 2016, bustle.com/articles/135179-the-walking-dead-star-sarah-wayne-callies-praises-lori-grimes-for-fighting-gender-based-double-standards.
- Sharon. “What Shipping Richonne Taught Me about Racism | Geekquality.com.” geekquality.com, Black Girl Nerds, 2 Mar. 2016, geekquality.com/richonne/. This blog post originally appeared on Black Girl Nerds, and was being cross-posted here with permission.
- Dicker, Ron. “Sonequa Martin-Green of ‘Star Trek: Discovery’ Shuts down Racist Trolls.” HuffPost, Buzzfeed, Inc., 23 June 2017, huffpost.com/entry/sonequa-martin-green-of-star-trek-discovery-shuts-down-racist-trolls_n_594cd95de4b05c37bb75b24b.
- Beck, Laura. “The Walking Dead Creator: Women Are ‘Generally Physically Weaker. That’s Science.’” Jezebel, G/O Media, 4 Apr. 2013, jezebel.com/the-walking-dead-creator-women-are-generally-physicall-5993704.