Beards and Armpits: The Tired Sexism of the Walking Dead

walking dead sexism

The Walking Dead, like any show, has its problems. While it is one of the most diverse shows on television, many have criticized its revolving door of people of color: killing one off before adding the next, as if having too many non-white people onscreen at one time would be too much. And while there are lots of women onscreen—including women of color: Michonne kicks ass as well as kicking the ass of stereotyped writing—there is another small thing that continues to irk me when I tune in every Sunday.

Rick, Darryl, and the other dudes look fit for an apocalypse: their scruffy faces get scruffier every season, and flashbacks to the smooth-faced Sherriff Rick of Season 1 are almost shocking in their stark difference. It’s an effective plot device, really; a way of illustrating both the passage of time and the ways in which priorities/capabilities have changed. In last night’s episode, Rick finally says the title, admitting, “We are the walking dead.” And it’s true, they are. They collectively stagger down the road, zombie and living alike, both men and women: dirty, bedraggled, and weather-beaten. So why then, if the dudes are forced to wander the ruins of the United States with Castaway beards, do the ladies have underarms as smooth as Baby Judith’s cheek?

It’s a small beef, I know, but one that is repeated in too many post-apocalyptic, science fiction, and dystopian films to go unnoticed. BuzzFeed made a hilarious listicle last year cataloging the ridiculousness: 12 Female Characters Who Keep Shaving Despite Constant Peril. And it is ridiculous, the notion that with death around every corner, women would still take the time to slip away to the bathroom and shave their armpits. In last night’s episode of Walking Dead the group couldn’t even find water. You mean to tell me the women not only shaved—but dry shaved? No. I can’t believe that. I don’t think any woman would be that desperate.

This ridiculous hairlessness is confounding considering the lengths the show goes to be convincing in other aspects of the zombie apocalypse: sickness, zombie gore, hunger, violence. It’s bizarre that a show with a scope as wide as The Walking Dead’s can imagine many things, but women with armpit hair is not one of them.

Part of this problem is the writers: I could find reference to only three women writers in a list of over twenty credited for The Walking Dead. Much has been written about the mixed results of male writers penning female characters, and we see the results in the media we consume every day: female characters who are unrelatable and lacking in complexity…who shave their armpits during the zombie apocalypse. This is part of the reason so many—myself included—have latched on to Shonda Rhimes#TGIT shows: women! Complex women! Relatable, diverse women! It’s an oasis in a dry desert of missed marks.

But it’s not just the male writers, of course. Even many female writers wouldn’t stop and think, “Hey wait, the women should be fuzzier.” Our culture informs our media, and in a culture that both infantilizes and sexualizes women, it’s unsurprising that no one would consider the absence of body hair: we’re so used to its erasure (in advertising, in film, in television) that its absence is somewhat realistic: women don’t have body hair, we’re told. So when it’s missing—even in the most unlikely scenarios—we don’t even notice.

It’s disturbing that women in other realities (dystopian, post-apocalyptic, or sci-fi)—stories of which, unfortunately, are few and far between—are subject to the same sanitization that women in our own sexist world are. In the past I’ve written about the limits of the white imagination when it comes to imagining characters of color in fictional worlds, and the same is true for the collective imagination when it comes to women: our imaginations are stunted by the -isms of our time.

Perhaps this is why there are so few stories—books and film—that tell the stories of women and people of color in worlds beyond our own. The future, it seems, belongs mostly to white men, another reflection of the values we see in our day-to-day realities. Whether the scenario is alien invasion, zombie apocalypse, or government-gone-mad, the story tends to center on white men, with everyone else in their role rotating around them in their “proper place.” Hairless women. One black character killed off to be replaced by another. Would it be a stretch to point out that Glen in The Walking Dead is the least bearded of the men in the cast, a reminder of the traditional emasculation of Asian men in American media? Maybe. Maybe not. But it’s something to notice.

This is why I never stop hunting for science fiction and post-apocalyptic fiction that gives a glimpse at another vision of the future. Kenyan short film Pumzi is one. Upcoming sci-fi romance out of Ethiopia Crumbs is another. Anything by Nnedi Okorafor. Anything by Octavia Butler. Chang-rae Lee’s recent book On Such a Full Sea. There are others, but there are not enough.

Our sexism (and racism) is ingrained in us. It permeates the stories we tell and how we imagine the future. Many have called the apocalypse—in whatever form it arrives in—“the great equalizer.” The thing that brings all of humankind together against the thing that threatens our survival. But when I look at many of the stories we have that tell the story of our future—sci-fi or speculative—too many of them look just like the past.

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20 thoughts on “Beards and Armpits: The Tired Sexism of the Walking Dead

  1. Bleu says:

    Just reminded me of the qualms many had with The Hunger Games, if you are in such a society how do you manage to look well fed and striking beautiful…and yes hairless? I’ve always had a problem with the Walking Dead, and this is definitely a point “small” but worth discussing.

  2. lkeke35 says:

    Reblogged this on Geeking Out about It and commented:
    And this ties in to my ideas about such movies and books that PoC seem able to survive the apocalypse, but in more benign futures POC seem to be entirely absent. I mean im not sure what happens to us in those narratives but it makes me deeply suspicious in those futuristic narratives where PoC are missing. Where did we go? What happened to us?

    I remember asking my mother this question when I was about twelve. We were watching some scifi show. She said she didn’t know but she’s noticed it too.

  3. omarid513 says:

    Pretty sure that Andrea got was pretty dirty and grimy for as long as we knew her up until her death. Not like trashy looking, but we at least knew she’d been through some stuff.

    • oliviaacole says:

      Was this blog about dirt?

      • omarid513 says:

        I’m just saying that even though we didn’t see her underarm hair- can’t say I ever looked to pay attention to that- she was still pretty scruffy and scrapping looking as the show went on.

    • oliviaacole says:

      The point…I think you might have missed it.

    • Oh…right. aside from the writers outright assault on her script, her pantene curls and pink pedicure toes, desperately grasping the pliers to escape being bitten by Milton the walker? Of course she fails the task and dies to the utter glee of 75 percent of the viewers. The utter contempt for andrea was beyond sickening. She even received death threats in real life on social media. But…no biggie right?

  4. I wouldn’t blame the writers for this one, honestly. Stuff like costumes, hair and makeup, and general appearance-based direction is really not the purview of a scriptwriter. Unless it is somehow VITAL to how the action of a scene plays out, these things are never mentioned in a script. In fact it can be considered the mark of an amateur writer to be so specific about those details, as those decisions belong to other departments.

    You CAN feel free to blame either or all of the performers themselves, the episode director, or the showrunner. Unless they’re pretty casual about (or bad at) their job, the performers at some point must have considered how difficult basic grooming would be when constantly on the run in post-apocalypse America: in this scene, you’re short-tempered both because Daryl is on your last nerve and because you haven’t been able to bathe in ten days. So either the actors are not committing to that level of realism for their character (which would require running around unshaven in Real Life for several months out of the year, so given the cultural climate that wouldn’t surprise me); or they brought it up / tried it and it was given the kibosh by one or more of the guys running the show, for reasons of the above-mentioned cultural climate.

    Although there are practical limits to the realism they can / are willing to achieve in any case. The men must be finding some time to shave, too, since five years of beard growth would be much longer than the quarter-inch of hipster scruff we’re seeing, too. It doesn’t even look like they’re hacking off the extra length with their zombie-hunting knives. :) Nor will anyone, ever, discuss where you might find new underwear five years after manufacturing has stopped, or how one might handle menstruation without tampons.

    • lkeke35 says:

      Good points. I have seen other commenters address these issues at the website: In Case of Survival. These are things never addressed in apocalypse narratives. Tampons, hair washing, underwear, shaving, so much of the physical upkeep we all engage in in the real world.

  5. Mr. Perfect says:

    The women don’t have any depth. The last one who started to…Beth was quickly killed off. And the show is boring as hell without Tyrese. When the show kills off everyone who has a moral compass (shows emotional range)…expect a boring ass emotionless show.

  6. sjvernon says:

    I blame everyone… I bet the actresses don’t want to do it. I have read of actresses in period films (no, not THAT kind of period film) who didn’t want to go “natural” and forced the film to work around it.

    The props department probably would have a hard time making realistic stubble and armpit toupees (hey, there’s a product begging to be marketed by the way)… look how people make fun of Rick & his sometimes fake beard.

    Last, but not least… the writers and costume dept. In a world with zombies trying to bite you and no way to treat even many minor injuries… nobody should be wearing shorts or tank tops anyway! Long pants and longsleeve shirts should be on everyone. Yeah, it’s hot outside in the summer… but you’ll thank the extra layer of protection when a zombie lunges to bite at you!

    • lkeke35 says:

      Plus they’re all wandering around in the woods for long periods of time. You’d think they’d worry about insect bites, fleas and ticks, infected scratches. These are some incredibly hardy people to never worry about such things.
      But this is a digression, on my part. Sorry!

  7. I just read your post on HP and found your blog (love it). I was thinking the same thing when I was watching The 100. They are fighting to stay alive yet the girls are all perfect with plucked eye brows and light make up and they are all hairless! They do get smeared with blood and dirt a lot though. Oh and the guys all shave, I guess it must be the radiation that eradicates all unwanted hair.

  8. quelparis says:

    I had to consider if I was going to continue watching the show after they killed off Tyrese (I gave in), however I completely agree with your point that there doesn’t seem to be room on the screen for too many black faces at once. I do hope they redeem themselves as the story goes on.
    Its crazy that I did not even realise the clear ongoing beauty practices of the women, the sexism is so subtle I missed it. I used to believe the walking dead was so diverse but now I reconsider :/

    Enlightening article!

  9. sjvernon says:

    You know… after death the hair and nails continue to grow… so all things being equal, the zombie situation ought to be a bit more hairy than it usually is too… ;)

  10. ghostof82 says:

    You make a very good point. Its why I dislike so much television (and yes movies are guilty of it too). In most shows everyone, men and women, are so young and beautiful and perfect. And dress so well too. Not quite the reality most of us experience. I enjoy The Walking Dead and it does most things so well, but why not have an overweight woman or a balding middle-aged man as one of the survivors?

  11. RESTABILISE says:

    Oh nice never actually thought about this yet!!! Further supports the fact we really don’t question it when women are sanitised in situations where men aren’t. Will be interesting to see whether or not this happens in ‘the last of us’ which is in pre-production atm and is likely to be the biggest post-apocalypse zombie movie ever! The video game was super gritty with men and women alike looking pretty scruffed up. Let’s hope they do this right!

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