Wednesday, November 17, 2010

The Walking Dead follow-up: tracking some gender issues

I'm going to do a quick post on gender relations in The Walking Dead, the AMC series that's recently aired its third episode.

The Walking Dead holds true to the atmosphere of the comic, which is good enough for me; I believe an artist has some responsibility to their source when adapting something, but I'm not a purist. Darabont's series treats Kirkman's protagonists lovingly, it adheres to the tone and intensity of the comics, and it remixes these elements to form a great parallel product. It seems to me that most of the new material -- the racists and the domestic abuse, the additional action and escape scenes, the return to Atlanta -- are mostly added in order to keep up with the pacing needs of television. I find this acceptable, even if these additions aren't as graceful as the original writing tended to be.

However, there are a few ways in which AMC's changes effect the tone of Robert Kirkman's narrative. One of the most jarring is the way the TV series handles its females, at least in these first three episodes. Now, I know there hasn't been a lot of development of the secondary characters, but real quick, I'll mention a few of the details that come into play when you talk about gender roles in The Walking Dead.

The first conversation in the TV series is between Rick Grimes and Shane, his best friend. After Shane offers some half-baked female-bashing guy talk, Rick unpacks some of his frustrations with his marriage to Lori, his wife, and he basically argues his side of the argument unilaterally: she undermines him emotionally, right in front of their son. Shane's only answer is to reassure him that this is just a phase marriages go through. This exchange is NOT in the comics; take that as you will.

Later in the same episode, we see Lori, just for a short sequence. She has a minor fight with Shane in front of Carl, and it becomes clear that Lori and Shane have started a relationship, since they both suspect Rick might be dead. Again, this conversation was invented for the show. In light of the previous exchange, it gives us a sense that Lori might be a bit self-righteous and hysterical (a "nag" is one word that springs to mind). This would naturally come as a point of contention for critics with a feminist awareness, such as, for instance, Nathaniel of Film Experience Blog.

But what I think is really happening here is that the writers are filtering these first two to three episodes through an explicitly male point of view. These are Rick's story, following the total collapse of his domestic life, and all the plot points introduced are related to this collapse. He was struggling with his relationship with Lori; now he's been replaced by Shane (though he doesn't know that yet). He's confronted with the unvarnished love and camaraderie between a neighboring father and son. If this unilateral point of view takes over the whole TV series, I'll take issue with it, as the comic is notably subtle and objective in its tone.

In the second episode, there is still a conventional gender divide, but it becomes more complex. Andrea is a presence in episode two, acting courageous, if a bit frantic, in the face of disaster in inner-city Atlanta. Again, there is a sense that she's a bit hysterical, and that should rightly raise some hackles. However, she also shows signs of becoming a strong, assertive female character, confident with a weapon and willing to take action. Her personality dominates the males around her, until the arrival of Rick, who derives most of his authority from the fact that he's a sheriff.

Through these two episodes, the male point of view remains fairly coherent. Rick and Shane are the strong, grounded, controlled leaders of whatever company they keep. The female point of view is kept at arm's length, at least somewhat. Lori and Andrea seem to linger in conventional modes: frantic, over-emotional, and motherly. Happily, in the third episode, these essentialisms break down further.

In Episode Three, "Tell It To The Frogs," Rick is finally reunited with his family. There are already power-struggles fomenting among the survivors, and they seem to ignite when Rick arrives. Lori viciously reprimands Shane for acting as a father figure to her son, since her husband has returned; meanwhile, the other women of the group step up to an abusive, misogynistic husband over the distribution of duties in the camp. Both of these are highly charged events, the cracks in the gender wall that the show has erected.

Lori's angry move to reclaim her family -- especially her son -- from Shane's paternalistic aura is rather jarring. It seems like nobody has even discussed this uncomfortable love-triangle situation, and she's acting like Shane's moving in on her kid. From the rationalistic, "let's discuss the issues" standpoint of a male viewer, her behavior may seem unreasonable, but it's probably appropriate in the circumstances. We've already seen how this post-apocalyptic world has brought out the territorial, the brutal, and the reactionary in its shaken residents. Lori has rediscovered her solid ground, and she takes this opportunity to stake it out.

The sequence that immediately follows justifies her aggression, at least partly. Shane "heroically" steps in to punish the domestic abuser of the group, effectively asserting his own status as the benevolent patriarch and punisher of injustice. However, you can see in the faces of the women he's defending: his reaction is excessively violent and self-indulgent. Read in isolation, Shane's outburst is a gesture of benevolent masculinity. However, seen in the context of his situation -- his sudden loss of a potential mate and protege -- it hints at dangerous reactionary instability. As the law-officer/husband/father patriarchy unravels, it starts to show something sinister underneath.

These are the first hints of something I hope continues through the rest of the season, and the series: the exploration of gender at the horizon of the apocalypse. Georgia has been converted, almost overnight, into a place governed by desperation, paranoia, and scarcity. This could devolve into pure vicious patriarchy (I understand something like this happens in the movie/book Blindness?) but in the hands of the writers and directors at work here, it should become something far more complex. Alliances will certainly be shifting over the next few episodes, and gender struggles will be balanced against familial loyalty and group solidarity.

Ultimately, it will be worth considering the writers' treatment of evolution and regression: do our human natures endure the trial of a desperate, wasted world? Do paranoia and desperation break down the barriers between us, or do they reinforce them beyond repair? If the writers are half as good as the other people writing for AMC, the gender issues will feed into these broader questions, rather than distracting from them.

1 comment:

sewerfairy said...

Very interesting post! I am actually planning on examining some of the gender issues in The Walking Dead myself but I thought I'd wait until the first season has completely aired and one can have a look at the bigger picture. I have also not read the comic book, so I didn't quite know where they are going to go with this. I still remain unspoiled about most events in the comic book, so I'll try to keep it at that for the time being so that I have a sort of "immediate" and "unfiltered" input from the series.

My initial reaction to the conversation of the two cops in the car in the beginning of the series was "Okay, maybe you'll get what is coming to you, huh?" That conversation really bothered me, especially because it is practically the first thing you see. And it's not just some girl-bashing talk where the viewer is supposed to roll their eyes and say: Oh, what a sad guy. The main protagonist of the series actually reinforces that viewpoint. Not only that he doesn't just not challenge his colleague's viewpoint that women are stupid, he furthers it by saying women are cruel and "men would never do this". What starts out as a "kind of funny" anecdote turns into a dead serious conversation about women being more cruel than men could ever be. Okay. Not a good beginning to a series.

Anyway, I'm going to follow this series and I do enjoy it and am always looking forward to seeing new episodes! People always think that just because you are criticising some aspects about a product of popular culture you can't be a fan or something. I'm really looking forward to how The Walking Dead will develope. Only 2 episodes to go!