Category Archives: Zombies

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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People of Color DO Survive the Apocalypse: 5 Books You Should Read

post-apocalyptic people of color
It’s been written about before: the problem with mainstream post-apocalyptic and dystopian fiction and its absence of people of color. In the imaginations of so many writers of these genres, people of color don’t ever seem to survive the apocalypse, or somehow the series of events that led to the dystopian society that has banned smiling (or dreaming, or whatever the big “gasp” factor is) wiped out people of color along the way. Post-apocalyptic fiction is a craze, and not a new one: we have always, on some level, wondered what happens next, after we destroy ourselves, for a long time. (Think about it: the Bible’s versions of Heaven and Hell are a kind of dystopian fiction in itself. A book talking about what happens next if we keep f@&#ing up the way we have been? Just saying.) Yet somehow the versions of these stories that make it into the mainstream—and don’t get me started on Hollywood—almost invariably star white people, and especially white girls. But in case you’ve ever looked at the whitewashed array of dystopian and post-apocalyptic books that line the shelves and asked yourself, “Do people of color survive the apocalypse?” the answer is yes. Read these books.

Parable of the Sower by Octavia Butler

Environmental and economic crises lead to societal disintegration in Parable of the Sower. Lauren Olamina is the daughter of a minister who loses her entire family when the chaos of the outside world enters her home compound. She ventures out into the wasteland of America alone and what follows is her journey to a new future in the face of almost certain death. Octavia Butler was a genius and you should read everything she’s ever written. Pronto. You can buy Parable of the Sower here.

Who Fears Death by Nnedi Okorafor

The setting for this post-apocalyptic future is Saharan Africa, in a world that is ruined by rape and genocide. A young girl named Onyesonwu—which means Who Fears Death?—is raised in the midst of a society that hates her; a society that she must overcome if she is to 1) survive and 2) save the world from the evil that plagues it. She is not only extremely brave, but flawed, funny, and powerful, and the story involves magic, self-discovery, and analyses of racism and sexism. In short: it rocks. You can buy Who Fears Death here.

Panther in the Hive by Olivia A. Cole

Chicago hasn’t really gotten its fair shake when it comes to post-apocalyptic stories, and this book takes place in a Chicago of the not-so-distant future, following the story of Tasha Lockett, an oddball brown girl who finds herself alone in the city when a cybertronic disaster overcomes the States. It’s a coming of age story that takes on healthcare, racism, sexism, and political corruption. Oh, and I wrote it. Just throwing that in there. You can buy Panther in the Hive here.

Zone One by Colson Whitehead

If you like zombie novels, here’s one for you. Colson Whitehead isn’t known for genre work, but this book was a doozy. The story follows Mark Spitz, a survivor in a civilian sweeper unit who is clearing Zone One of straggler zombies. It’s deep, dark, and literary, and it will leave you thinking. You can buy Zone One here.

Brown Girl in the Ring by Nalo Hopkinson

Nalo Hopkinson has won too many awards to count, and you should really check out all of her work. But Brown Girl in the Ring suits the purposes of this blog, following the story of Ti-Jeanne, a new mother who finds herself alone in a Toronto that has collapsed into violence and gang rule, with the rich and privilege having fled the city and barricaded everyone else inside. A little bit of voodoo. A little bit of love. A lot of adventure. You can buy Brown Girl in the Ring here.

There are others: this is just five. Do you have a favorite that isn’t listed here? Share it in the comments. There’s a shortage of these stories in fiction, so let’s collect them here.

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The Battery: Even Zombies Can Be Sluts

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I watched a zombie movie with my coworkers yesterday: The Battery, an independent, low budget film that’s being applauded for its realism and blah blah blah. I watched it. It was pretty alright. I’ll tell you about something that bothered me, which is obviously why we’re here.

There is a part in the movie where one of the lead characters (a white, male, former baseball player) is asleep in a car when a female zombie makes her way across the field and starts trying to “get him” through the car window. She is wearing short-shorts, a t-shirt with no bra, and knee-high baseball socks. She’s dead and gray and…well, a zombie. The male character awakes with a start, freaks out, and then—to the audience’s dismay—pulls down his pants and underwear and starts masturbating furiously to the sight of the zombie’s clothed breasts pressed up against the car window as she tries to reach him.

It was actually pretty funny. It’s the zombie apocalypse and he hasn’t seen or touched a woman in months. He was desperate, lonely. It was absurd and silly and when his companion in the movie kills the female zombie and catches him jacking off, he laughs hysterically. Funny scene.

That’s not what bothered me. What bothered me was the cast list.

At the end of the movie, the zombie girl in the short-shorts was billed as “Fresh Zombie Slut.”

Oh?

It’s just like we see in real life, folks. We have a woman without a bra or wearing short-shorts, or just a woman in general, and we have the male gaze seeing her and sexualizing her—EVEN IN HER STATE OF DECAY—and yet she is the slut. She, in her natural state, who just happened to die while bra-less, is the slut. Not the ridiculously disgusting dude in the station wagon who sees decomposing boobs and feels obliged to masturbate to them. Her. The woman who, so sorry, didn’t stop and say “Oh, before I turn into a zombie I better put on some longer shorts and a bra,” is the slut.

This is misogyny. Even in death, women are subject to the whims of patriarchy and rape culture. I wish she had eaten him.

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Zombies, Hope, and the Easy Way Out

My fascination with zombie culture isn’t a morbid one. Zombie film and literature is exciting for its undead mandibles chewing through civilization, but it’s not the gore that keeps me entranced by what I call the Zombie Movement. The Walking Dead is appealing for what must be award-winning zombie make-up but that’s not what makes me turn to AMC every Sunday. It’s something else; something existential.

What fascinates me about zombie culture is the hypothetical after. I never get tired of different artists’ suppositions on what this world will look like, what our humanity will become, when something rocks our foundations and leaves us irrevocably changed. Because something will change us, and I am eternally interested in what it will be and how we will react to whatever it is.

Maybe I am just a misanthrope, and my curiosity about the After is a gruesome excitement for the end of human reign and the taking up of the torch by another supremacy; perhaps of a kingdom I like better—the reign of the platypus, perhaps, or the lemur. Maybe I like nature too much, because the idea of the Empire State Building covered in moss and vines excites me beyond all reason.

But maybe it’s because underneath all my cynicism is hope. I dread the idea that it would take a zombie apocalypse to bring out the good in us, but somewhere in the zombie fascination is the idea that if we could just start over, press the reset button, begin again, we could get things right. The zombies might eat more than flesh—they might eat capitalism, world war, colonialism.

But that’s the easy way out, isn’t it? We’d rather the undead eat all our problems than solve them ourselves? Typical. But it’s great as social theory.

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