It’s no secret that I love zombie movies. Not just the stone-cold classics of the genre, or even the flawed-but-interesting – I’ve gotten entertainment of some kind from the absolute dregs of zombiedom, your Hard Rock Zombies and your Nudist Colony of the Dead; the very words “zombie movie” guarantee my unconditional interest. So I was excited last year when I heard that AMC was bringing long-running comic book series The Walking Dead to the small screen. The wonderful World War Z proved that zombies can be artistically and commercially successful in book form; surely this would do the same for TV. A digestible six-episode first season? Directed by Frank “Shawshank” Darabont? On the network that gave us Breaking Bad? BRING IT ON.
I really, really hated it.
My biggest issue with The Walking Dead season one is that it was boring as shit. Maybe it's my fault for being too well-versed in prior incarnations of the living dead, but nothing about the plot or situation was new to me. I'm not asking zombie filmmakers to reinvent the wheel; just do one little thing I haven't seen before. If you're not doing anything new or interesting with your zombies, then do something new and interesting with the setting or the characters. Unfortunately, TWD failed on this front as well. The show was all about your standard boring white cis dude and his boring white heteronormative family, and because all the zombie stuff was so tedious I had nothing to distract me from the steaming garbage pile of sexism and racism that accompanied it.
Okay, so white dudes have these two totally beloved tropes of theirs, which I call “sleight-of-hand sexism” and “slight-of-hand racism”. Here's how it works.
Our protagonist is a white dude. He is not racist/sexist because he does not use the n-word or the b-word. Our antagonist is another white dude, but he is racist/sexist. You can tell because he uses the n-word and the b-word, and is cartoonishly over-the-top in his proclamations of the inferiority of women/POC. The women/POC are terrified by Overtly Racist/Sexist White Dude, but luckily our White Dude Messiah is on the scene to save them! Racism/sexism is denounced. White dudes feel good about themselves (because they would never use the n-word or the b-word, and therefore they are not racist/sexist). Everyone's happy.
Oh yeah, except the women/POC. You know, the people who have been denied agency? Who have to be rescued by the White Dude Messiah because they are so helpless in the face of oppression? Whose only role is to show how awesome the White Dude Messiah is, because he nobly rescues them from the other white dude?
In its second episode, TWD featured a textbook example of sleight-of-hand racism. In its fourth episode, there was a scene of sleight-of-hand sexism. Both of these scenes, intended to show us how totally not-racist and not-sexist the show is, serve only to accentuate (to those with the slightest understanding of systemic oppression) just how racist and sexist the show in fact is.
Where else is it sexist? Take the opening scene of episode four. Two women are having a conversation. It's not only horribly written (stilted and unrealistic), but it also fails the Bechdel test. It feels like a scene written by the kind of jerk-offs who say they just can’t write women characters (because they see them as women first, characters second).
Where else is it racist? Apart from throughout, what with the foregrounding of our unspeakably boring White Dude Messiah protagonist and the silencing of POC, I actually shouted at the screen in episode six: “OH, WAY TO KILL OFF YOUR ONLY WOC, SHOW.” Of course the show's only WOC was fridge stuffing. Why would I think she could be anything else, in a show written by and about white dudes?
Ultimately, the show's attitude toward people who aren't white dudes is encapsulated in the White Dude Messiah's words to another white dude in episode six: “Your wife didn’t have a choice. You do.”
Say it with me: because she's a woman!