Thursday, February 16, 2012

Mr. WALKING DEAD & Ms. Ogyny

When my initial review of THE WALKING DEAD started running a bit long, I decided not to address some of the issues I had with the show. I reduced one--TWD's treatment of women--to a footnote, though I knew it merited much more prominent attention. After "Nebraska," this week's installment of the series, I'm compelled to finally pull it out of the basement, put it front and center and try to do it some little bit of justice.

I outlined the problem in my initial note:

"The writing of the women on the show this season has drawn charges of misogyny and, in fact, every female character has been presented as a Clueless Male caricature's negative caricature of women. They're selfish, cartoonishly over-emotional, bitchy, stupid, whiny, totally uninteresting and totally unlikeable. They're generally treated like children then written in such a way that justifies that treatment."

I left out several other traits TWD's writers impose upon the ladies--"completely irrational" immediately jumps to mind--but they all fall under that broad "negative caricature" heading. I outlined the case of Andrea. She tried to kill herself and the menfolk conspired to deny her a gun. Andrea bitched about this quite a bit. Finally, she gets her hands on a rifle, and

"draws down on what she takes to be a zombie approaching across a field. Her target is actually Daryl, one of the other survivors. She's facing into the sun at long range and can't even clearly see the target at which she's aiming. Another group of characters are between her and her target and could be hit if she fires blind. All the males tell her not to shoot but out to prove herself to the boys, she does it anyway and hits Daryl in the head, nearly killing him and confirming, in the most dramatic way possible the wisdom of the menfolk in having, earlier, parted her from firearms."

In line with the writers' habit of re-re-rehashing cliché storylines from other sources, Andrea is, this season, being put through a Woman Who Refuses To Be A Victim Anymore storyline, a tale that was already well-worn in movies and television before most people reading these words had even been born. This, of course, is a feminist empowerment narrative. Not the sort of thing one would normally expect from writers who seem to think so poorly of the fairer sex, and in fact their version of it looks exactly like one would expect a feminist empowerment narrative to look if written by people who are clueless about and contemptuous of women. It unintentionally plays like an ill-intentioned satire.

The shooting of Daryl was the most dramatic example of this. The writers seem to know they'd done something pretty ugly there. What I take to be their efforts to soften it only succeeded in making it worse. Dale was present for the incident and had told Andrea not to pull the trigger. In the aftermath, the writers have him tell her she shouldn't be too hard on herself and joked that everyone had thought about shooting Daryl at some point. Even Daryl himself, who had been through a grueling day before she shot him and whose most prominent characteristic is his hot-headedness, wasn't upset at all. When she apologized to him, he tells her not to fret over it. "You were defending the group." Viewers had been shown Andrea had been dangerously irresponsible in the worst possible way yet the writers have no one on the show itself offer her a harsh word. Can't have a feminist empowerment narrative if the boys make much of a fuss, so the boys just shrug it off and that's meant to give us permission to do the same, while still knowing the boys were right all along.

The boys will just have to set her straight.

In the next episode, that's exactly what they set out to do, putting Andrea on a shooting range under the harsh instruction of Shane. She doesn't do well at all with a moving target or under pressure but, hey, she's just getting started. Unfortunately, her big Empowerment Moment comes only minutes later and involves those very things. While exploring an abandoned neighborhood, she and Shane are swarmed by zombies. In an effort to get her to rise to the occasion, Shane refuses to shoot several of the creatures and to keep herself out of danger Andrea becomes an instant crack-shot. In the world of TWD, this apparently isn't an actual skill but merely something that comes naturally when one finds one's inner Powerful Woman.

I suspect few viewers who had managed to withhold a groan or roll of the eyes at this absurd scene bothered to show such restraint with what came next. On the car-ride back to the farm, Andrea, all hot and bothered in her newly empowered state, grabs Shane's crotch and the two pull over, jump one another and get jiggy wit' it fo' a while.

That's the capper to Andrea's big Empowerment Moment--getting screwed by a homicidal sociopath and would-be rapist.

And it only gets worse.

Andrea aligns herself with Shane from that point forward. She even admits she idolizes him. Dale, who is rather sweet on her, is, of course, horrified by this development. Dale knows what kind of "man" Shane is, and while some would no doubt argue that Andrea's lack of knowledge of Shane's true character could preclude any harsh judgment of Andrea's actions, that misses the point when it comes to TWD's treatment of women. Whether the character knows what Shane is about, the writers know. They've shown it to their audience and they've chosen to have Andrea's "empowerment" consist of getting in bed--both figuratively and literally--with this loathsome creature, who, of course, cares about no one but himself. At the same time, Dale, who genuinely cares for Andrea, expresses his concerns about this[1] and the writers have her treat him as someone she finds frustrating and barely tolerable. Totally dismissive of what he says. She tells him he has to stop looking out for her. She's a big girl and can look after herself now.

Just look at the great job she's done of it so far.

None of this was developed at any sort of reasonable pace--on TWD, it never is. Andrea goes from being suicidally depressed and terrified to proficient, fearless zombie-killing Shane sidekick (and side-fuck) in less than four days story time. The only consistent element is that she is always made, by the writers, to come off looking badly.

The same is true of all the other female characters. The creators of TWD have made a big show of publicly acknowledging the criticism they've gotten for the very unfortunate first 7 episodes of this season. They promised they were trying to reform the series. Unfortunately, if this week's episode is any indication, they must have missed the criticism about their treating the women like this.

In "Nebraska," Lori bore the brunt of their assault, as is often the case. In my initial critque of TWD, I spent a lot of time on Lori. She's the most prominent female character and the one that, arguably, has been treated the worst. As I wrote then,

" every scene the writers have ever given [Lori], they've gone out of their way to make her stupid, selfish, bitchy, totally unlikeable and totally unsympathetic... [S]he's never gotten a single scene or line of dialogue that gives us any reason at all to be on her side.."

This week, the writers were at it again.

In the aftermath of the barn massacre, Hershel hightails it to a tavern in town to reacquaint himself with the bottle after decades on the wagon. After he's gone, Beth, who may have been injured by a zombie, collapses and falls into some sort of shock-like state. As Hershel is the only one with any medical training (and Beth's father), Rick and Glenn set out to retrieve him.

Lori, incredibly, objects to this. Carl, it seems, had just told her Rick was right to shoot the zombified Sophia, and though anyone of any conscience would have reached the same conclusion as the boy, the writers have Lori decide this means Carl is becoming too "cold" and needs his father around to combat this. Apparently can't even spare him for the few minutes it would take to drive into town and retrieve Hershel, the only one who may know how to treat Beth.[2]

Rick and Glenn go anyway.

Within minutes of their having left, Lori decides she simply must go into town herself to retrieve them! There's no reason for this, it makes absolutely no sense, it won't get anyone back to the farm any faster and could, in fact, delay their return. She abandons her son to make the trip, the very thing about which she's just heaped guilt on Rick for allegedly doing, and she goes alone, which the series had already established is a big no-no but it seems the writers of the series had some more negative caricatures of women they wanted to indulge and it seems that, when it comes to making women look bad, damn the torpedoes, this is THE WALKING DEAD!

To this point, the writers had already heaped idiocy upon idiocy but the real jaw-dropper came almost immediately upon Lori taking to the road. Instead of actually watching where she's going, Lori, like all women drivers in the minds of those who don't like women, is reading while driving. She isn't also applying lipstick but that's the only part the writers left out. Lori, of course, runs off the road at high speed, smashing the car, inflicting as-yet-unknown damage on herself and setting up whatever melodrama the writers wanted to set up by manufacturing this stupid, stupid situation.

TWD would rarely be mistaken for a smart show and never by anyone who was actually qualified to render the judgment. Its treatment of women seems to me something uglier than its other many shortcomings though. Much uglier.[3] Its turning TWD from something that could be regarded as a brainless pasttime into something toxic, something far less pardonable. TWD just doesn't like women. Not at all. I do like women. I don't like that this series is treating them in this way.



[1] Though, in typical TWD fashion, the writers don't have Dale tell Andrea any of the things he suspects about Shane. He just expresses his dismay that she would want to be like Shane, and lets her think it's just because he doesn't like Shane.

[2] A few episodes earlier, Lori had berated Shane for tinkering with the idea of abandoning the search for Sophia, angrily dismissing as an "excuse" his rationalization that his primary concern was for her and not for the others. The parallel scene in the current episode, wherein she's adopting the very view she had earlier denounced and holding to it to the extent that, just like Shane, she's entirely willing to allow harm to come to an innocent for her own selfish reasons, just underscores the idea that the point is, in both cases, merely to show her being bitchy.

[3] Perhaps the best defense against the charge that TWD treats women badly is that it treats everyone badly. It's true there are no well-written characters on the show--the overwrought soap melodrama approach its creators have adopted this season precludes it. The difference is that the fellows, who are sometimes made to look bad, are also shown to be lots of other things. Brave, loyal, perceptive, amusing, thoughtful, badass, sympathetic, lovable, even wise. The women are always made to look bad.

[Cross-posted over at my comic blog]


  1. I personally don’t think you are overanalyzing at all. I doubt a lot of people are even noticing these short comings you’ve identified, I know I haven’t, but they are there and someone really should put them out, and you seem to be the one to do it. Although I’m risking playing myself up a bit, I like to consider myself the opposite case with the type of movies I write about; identifying the positive things that most people aren’t noticing.

    I think with The Walking Dead our critical thinking is being clouded by emotion, for instance when Andrea took the shot a Daryl, I was just like “Oh no, she shot Daryl” without considering that it really was a poor depiction of the gender.

  2. So as not to be misunderstood, I would say Andrea's shooting of Daryl just makes her look bad, not her gender. The problem is that, on TWD, she is always made to look bad, and so is every other woman on the show. They all look like those Clueless Male caricature's negative caricatures of women. The pattern is consistent. That's why I find it so problematic.

    I don't set out to find negative things in movies. Most of the time, I don't even really like writing straight movie reviews. Not very many of the articles on this site fall into that category. I generally prefer, instead, to write about issues related to movies (and sometimes tv). It's still film criticism, but it's an older breed of it, one that's nearly extinct these days. Part of the original conceit of this site was that it would be a place where I could dig up and pimp items I thought had merit, but that had been overlooked. Finding little-noted merits in highly visible things falls into that same category (before I wrote my first TWD piece, the 2nd-most hit-upon item on this site was my defense of Ang Lee's HULK from what I saw as several very unfair but popular--read: oft-repeated--critiques of it). I don't set out to bring up little-noted negative things. I just sometimes end up doing it.

    I really should get away from TWD. The last 15 months have been a nightmare for me. I've been able to write practically nothing, particularly anything of any real merit. Suddenly, this TWD stuff is pouring out of me, and I'm probably a little afraid to try to put a stopper in it.

  3. I have to disagree with you. Andrea might be a bitch but she can fight. Daryl I consider a male version of a bitch. Shane a male version of a bitch.
    Lori a good hearted, emotionally strong and smart woman.
    Maggie nothing wrong with her boy crazy character. Glenn is also crazy about her. Vice verse. Win win situation. Carl a emotionally strong boy. That's good.

    You need a variation of attitudes in every character. All the women have different attitudes and personalities. All the men have different attitudes and personalities.

  4. I agree with this wholeheartedly and searched online to see who agreed as my female friends think I'm being overly sensitive.

    There's loads of nice moments with all the guys to balance out the dumb mistakes they make (apart from T-Dog. He's another terribly treated character). With the exception of comforting Maggie that Glen's being unreasonable we only see Lori lie, bark orders or throw hissy fits.

    I hate that Andrea and Lori make irrational emotional statements and decisions.

    At least Maggie's neutral to vaguely likeable.