Tag Archives: post-apocalyptic 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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Ranting, Process, and White Girls in Dystopia: 4 Questions with Olivia A. Cole

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The amazing and talented Jenn Jackson (who recently interviewed Janet Mock) passed a blog tour baton to me, an exercise that is linking writers and bloggers together and provides their readers with a way to learn more about the people whose work they enjoy. This is timely, as I field a lot of emails from readers who want to know more about what I’m working on and why I write what I write. So here you have it: four questions, and four answers. Enjoy.

1) What are you working on?

The thing that takes up most of my writing time these days is the sequel to my novel, Panther in the Hive, which is currently untitled. I’ve had a lot of people ask when it will be finished, but that’s not a question that I can easily answer at this time. But I can say this: Panther took three years, and the sequel will take nowhere near that long. The storyline is mapped out through to the end and I’m about halfway finished writing the book itself. It’s coming!

Besides that, I do continue to write poems when inspiration strikes. In fact, a poem of mine is currently a semifinalist in the 21st Annual Gwendolyn Brooks Open Mic Awards. (If you’re in Chicago and want to attend the reading, it’s on July 23rd at the Chopin Theatre. Click the link for more information. I’d love to see you there.) Then, of course, there are my blogs. I try to do a blog a week but that’s not always possible. However, I love blogging and try to give it time and energy whenever I can.

Finally, I am working on a young adult series starring a female protagonist as well. That book has barely been born, but it stays at the front of my mind because I think it’s an important one to write. More on that soon.

2) How does your work differ from others’ work in the same genre?

Well, for starters, my characters are people of color, and generally that is hard to come by in the science-fiction/post-apocalyptic genre. There are, of course, geniuses working in that genre such as Nnedi Okorafor. But overall, non-white characters in apocalyptic settings are annoyingly rare.

I’d also venture to say that my writing takes itself far less seriously than a lot of post-apocalyptic fiction. While I explore themes of humanity, racism, and violence, at the heart of my work is a thread of fun and excitement. Writing is fun. The worlds I create are exciting. I think the sense of humor that works its way into Panther in the Hive, for example, is somewhat rare in its genre.

3) Why do you write what you do?

Oh, this question always makes me a little crazy because I never know how to answer it. I don’t set out to write the things I do, I just…do. It’s always been this way. That question needs to be more specific anyhow. Why do I write books that feature characters of color? Because almost all of my friends, heroes, and influencers are people of color. Besides, does the dystopian genre really need one more love-crazed white girl running around in it? Nah. Why do I write fiction that takes place in the future? Because the present depresses the hell out of me. Why do I write fiction that is strangely funny and references a lot of pop culture? Because I love comedy and pop culture.

Or, if we’re talking about the ranty blogs that I write, well, that’s even easier to answer. I write ranty blogs about movies, people, etc. because when something infuriates me—and so many things do—I have to write about it. It’s a compulsion, one I’ve had since a child. I’ve stopped trying to tell it no.

4) How does your writing process work?

If we’re talking about fiction, then usually ideas strike me like lightning. One minute they don’t exist, and the next minute they do. From there, I just….begin. I just have to begin. By the time the idea strikes me, it already has something of a body, so I write in its legs and arms and eyes and so on until it can walk a little on its own and then I see where it leads me. Then I keep writing. I force myself to write every day, otherwise it may not get done and then the thing sits on my back and guilts me until I return to it.

Once an entire draft is finished, editing begins. That takes a long time. Usually there is a lot of cutting because I’ve written a bunch of things that suck and need to be removed. Panther in the Hive went through about 100 different drafts. If not more. I’m sure its sequel will be close, although I’m a better writer now then I was then (I hope) so maybe it will be less.

As for blogs, they’re a lot easier. After I see a film like Transformers or Single Moms Club, the problems are very apparent and hang in my head like light bulbs until I switch them off one by one. This “switching off” can only be accomplished by writing the blog, addressing the issues point by point. I usually don’t have to edit much for blogs. Rants tend to enter my mind in a very complete form. That makes it a lot easier.

There you have it. Stay tuned later this week or next for another rant from yours truly. Until then, if you have questions about my process or work, feel free to leave a comment and I’ll answer as many as I can.

Finally, I will now pass the baton to two other writers who I respect. Danielle Koon is the first, a writer based out of DC who is working on her first novel, The Docks. The second, Maggie Gray, blogs over at Colorful Adventures of a Gray Girl, exploring themes of womanhood, sexism, and life. Looking forward to reading their responses to these questions.

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

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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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