Tag Archives: dystopian fiction

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 Factory–A Short Story

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“First time to the Factory?”

Mr Thomas turns. It’s a man in a black suit, whispering, eyes the same color as his clothes.

“Yes, it is,” Mr. Thomas says shortly, and begins to turn back to the front before he changes his mind.

“Do you work there?” Mr. Thomas asks.

“Lots of us do.”

 

Its lawn is green and geometric. Some hand not present has mown overlapping circles and squares into the grass and Mr. Thomas stares at them as he approaches the entrance. The man in the black suit is gone. He’d gone another way, a way Mr. Thomas could not follow.

“Name. Business. Time.”

The man at the desk says these things abruptly, a wind-up machine.

Mr. Thomas writes the required on a pad of bright yellow paper sitting on the black desk like a flame.

“Sit.”

Mr. Thomas sits.

 

Sitting, he can observe the Factory. He is in a cavernous hall, removed from the front door through which he’d entered, where he’d had his eyeballs scanned, his finger pricked, a sample of his hair taken. He hadn’t asked why. The ceiling is as high as a church, cast in shadow. The chair is straight and black, the floor an astonishing expanse of white marble. He stares at it, looking for dust, a dimple. There is none. It is flawless.

“Thomas. This way.”

It’s the man at the desk, away from the desk. He beckons Mr. Thomas stiffly with his arm. Mr. Thomas thinks he must need grease.

 

He is walking up then he is walking down. The passageways wind like snakes and Mr. Thomas begins to think they are underground. The air feels close like a burrow. Yet he thinks they’re walking uphill. The effect is dizzying.

“Are we walking up or down?” Mr. Thomas asks the man at the desk, who is leading him.

“Both,” the man says, then turns his head slightly to look back. “Dizzy? It will pass.”

It does pass. The smooth white floor levels out and the corridor widens. It should be dark, Mr. Thomas thinks: there are no overhead lights, no sconces, no windows. Yet the hallway is lit. The light doesn’t come from anyplace; it just is.

“Sit,” the man at the desk says again. There’s a chair by a door.

Mr. Thomas sits.

 

Waiting. The perfect white floor. The light that comes from nowhere. Then a command. “Come,” a door opening with a sound like snake’s scales.

 

“Sit,” and Mr. Thomas sits again, but he has to grope for the chair. Its silhouette is fuzzy, the light from nowhere is nowhere and the room is dark.

“Forgive me,” the voice says, and there is light, too much, and Mr. Thomas sits down blinking.

Before him is a man in a pale suit—Mr. Thomas can’t tell if it’s white or beige. Perhaps a faint gray. He is leaning against a massive desk, piled high with papers.

“Did you bring the paperwork?”

Mr. Thomas nods, and reaches into his briefcase. He hasn’t put it down since he’d picked it up this morning and he flexes his fingers, which ache. Inside are the papers. He draws them out and hands them to the man in the pale suit.

The papers shuffling are reptilian coils in the bright, dry room. Too bright. Too dry. Mr. Thomas feels thirsty and tired.

“You are here on behalf of Schadcorp,” the man in the pale suit says, eyeing the papers.

“Yes,” says Mr. Thomas.

“And what is the problem Mr. Schaden is encountering?”

“There is…there is some bad press.” Mr. Thomas swallows, searching for the words. “Mr. Schaden had an…indiscretion with an employee. She is pressing charges. People are…very angry. The photographs of her injuries were leaked. Mr. Schaden would like a solution.”

“Ahh.” It’s all the man in the pale suit says. He stands and walks behind the massive desk.

Mr. Thomas watches him. His eyes feel very dry. He puts the briefcase down again, for it it’s suddenly heavy.

“Mr. Thomas,” the man in the pale suit says, “would you like some water?”

“Yes…yes please.”

The man in the pale suit points. Following his finger, Mr. Thomas sees a cart with a pitcher and tall slender glasses. He hadn’t noticed it before; he’d only seen the man and the desk.

Mr. Thomas rises and goes to the water. The pitcher is cold in his hand. When he drinks, he tastes cucumber.

“Mr. Thomas, how serious would you say Mr. Schaden’s situation is?”

“Serious? Well…very serious. The news crews are outside his house and headquarters all day and night. Sales are down. Boycotts in Chicago and New York. I’d say it’s…it’s very serious.”

“Alright,” says the man in the pale suit. “Let’s get down to business. Sit, Mr. Thomas.”

 

Mr. Thomas sits.

 

The man in the pale suit looms above his desk, shuffling papers, looking. He finds a book and opens it.

“How would Mr. Schaden like to handle this little problem?”

“I think Mr. Schaden wanted to know some options,” says Mr. Thomas. The glass of cucumber water is too cold.

“Well,” the man in the pale suit says, flipping through the book. “Let me see what I have available.”

A moment of silence, just shuffling paper.

“We haven’t had an e.coli scare in awhile,” the man says. “Will that do? Oh, what about African bees? The media loves things with ‘African’ in their names. That’s always good.”

Mr. Thomas sips absently. His eyes are still dry.

The man in the pale suit looks up to see Mr. Thomas’s reaction. He looks slightly disappointed.

“No? Alright. What else…” Flip flip flip. “How about we have Arizona consider a bill banning…oh, I don’t know…interracial seating arrangements in classrooms. I could let our lobbyists come up with something better if you don’t like that. Or,” his voice peaks a bit with excitement, “we could have a meteor land in Minnesota. We have old footage that CNN wouldn’t recognize. That would be good.”

Mr. Thomas finishes his water. He wishes he had brought the whole pitcher over to the chair.

“No, you’re right,” the man in the pale suit says, looking crestfallen. “Too much, too much. We shouldn’t use it all at once. We might need to save the meteor for down the road if our Mr. Schaden runs into trouble again. Mr. Thomas, are you alright?”

Mr. Thomas feels like a frog drying out in the sun.

“I…I think I’m alright,” he says.

“It’s your first time,” says the man. And he looks tender. “Forgive me. You must. So insensitive of me. Let me get you more water.”

Mr. Thomas drinks another glass.

“The Factory,” he says, feeling a little drunk. “What do you make here?”

The man in the pale suit leans against the front of the desk, his expression gentle. He doesn’t respond.

“The Factory,” Mr. Thomas says again. “Surely you must make something. A factory creates, manufactures. What do you manufacture?”

The man folds one hand into the other, his eyes pale.

“Do you need me to tell you, Mr. Thomas?”

Mr. Thomas feels the sweat from the glass slide down onto his fingers. The water sinks into him.

The man in the pale suit pushes off from his desk. He pauses for a moment, studying Mr. Thomas, before he goes behind it again. He shuffles more snakeskin papers.

“I think a rapper should do it,” he says to the air.

“A rapper?” asks Mr. Thomas, only barely curious. The empty glass in his hand feels unbearably heavy. An anvil.

The man looks up from where he’s bent over the desk.

“A rapper, yes. Some controversial lyric. We’ll pull all the appropriate strings. It will be quite captivating.”

“A rapper…” says Mr. Thomas.

“Yes, that always seems to do the trick.”

Mr. Thomas feels quite faint. The glass seems ready to slip out of his hand but he manages to slowly, slowly lower it to the floor. It comes to rest by the leg of the black chair with a gentle click.

“Mr. Thomas,” says the man in the pale suit, removing his glasses. Had he been wearing glasses all along? His face seems to have changed. “Are you certain you’re alright?”

“I am…not.”

The man sets the eyeglasses down on the desk where they blend in with the nests of papers.

“Let me see you out, Mr. Thomas. I can take it from here. A rapper will do just fine. Here, take the paperwork. Inform Mr. Schaden that he’ll have his solution. No later than Thursday.”

“What day is it today?” the world seems very far away.

“Today is today,” the man says.

“Today is every day,” says Mr. Thomas without knowing why.

They’re at the door. It seems too small to walk through, a Willy Wonkian door. Outside Mr. Thomas knows there is fresh, cool air. Water. Light that has a source. But the fear is heavy. He hadn’t realized it until the moment he laid eyes on the door—the fear has been sliding its hands all over him since he sat down in the chair. It’s had its fingers in his mouth, its hands around his throat.

“But…but…” the door will bring freedom, but he shrinks from it.

“It’s alright, Mr. Thomas,” the man says, guiding him. “This is your first time. The truth is a little hard for everyone at first.”

“The truth.”

“Yes.”

“That’s not what the Factory makes.”

“No.”

They stare at one another. The man’s face has changed again.

“Out you go, Mr. Thomas,” says the man, gesturing.

“But I’m afraid.”

“Yes.”

.

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