Wednesday, October 2, 2013

The Marginalization of Women in The Walking Dead

My husband has been trying to get me to watch The Walking Dead for the longest time, and recently, I finally agreed.  But before starting I had to ask my husband if there were good women characters on the show because there are a whole slew of shows that he likes that have fantastic male characters but every woman character is horribly weak and annoying.  It drives me nuts to the point where I just can’t watch the show.  He had to think about it for a moment, but he eventually reassured me that there were some good female characters.  After watching the first two seasons, I disagree.

Don’t get me wrong, I have no problem with a weak female characters here and there in stories.  They do exist in real life just like weak males exist in real life, but when every female character falls into this category, I’m going to think that the writers have women issues.  There are plenty of post about sexism in The Walking Dead because it is rampant, and there are some countering arguments as well.

But I’m not really going to talk about the sexism, but focus more on how writers can undermine characters and make them annoying and even hated by the audience.  I think it is important to check ourselves to make sure we aren’t doing this to a group of characters who are different than us in some way whether it be gender, race, sexual orientation, or political or religious views.  If every character of certain type is being undermined in some way, we may have to consider our own biases towards that group (and let’s face it, we all have biases).
I really had to think about this for a long time.  Why did the major female characters annoy me so much more than the male characters?  When I really thought about it, all the characters are kind of stupid.  So it wasn’t because the women did stupid things because the men did stupid things too.  I’ve decided that this show is really about how not so bright people try to survive the apocalypse, and somewhere out there in this zombie-infested land is a group of savvy, intelligent people who have realized that by planning ahead and abiding by some very crucial rules, they can rebuild a society.  Let’s just hope that these morons in the show don’t stumble upon them and ruin it.
I’m just going to give a few examples of the stupidity of this group, and there will be minor spoilers so feel free to skip this if you haven’t seen the show and plan to.

You think the cars of people who died
 trying to get out would clue him in that the
city is a death trap.
1.  They seem to forget that lights and noise draws zombies near at times.  Now the character Morgan Jones and his son in the first couple of episodes got it right.  Be quiet and keep the lights off especially at night because zombies are drawn to light and sounds.  But the main group seems to forget these rules over and over again.

In the camp in the first season, they are laughing around a fire at night, and they are shocked to be attacked by zombies.  Really?  Dark woods, camp fire, loud talking and laughing?  Any zombie in the vicinity would be drawn to them.  Also, the farm house in season two is always lit up at night when zombies are found in the woods all the time.  Morons.

Sometimes they are careful about using guns, but other times they just fire away.  Is it really wise to waste ammo and risk bringing the zombies down on them for target practice?  Also the barn scene (if you’ve seen it you know what I’m talking about) all that shooting.  I just cringed the whole time.  Why wasn’t the farm swarmed with zombies after that incident?

2.  They never have any sentries or look outs.  They should, always. In fact, they should take shifts and always have people securing the perimeter, and not just one old guy on top of the RV during the day.  How is he supposed to see an attack coming from the other side of the farmhouse?  Didn’t anyone learn anything from the camp attack?

3.  Which brings me to number three, they never learn anything.  They discard good ideas that worked and never try them again (yeah it’s gross to be covered in zombie guts, but they totally walked right through a mob of zombies with no problem until it started to rain.  Why not use that tactic again?), and they make the same mistakes over and over again. They never seem to learn from their successes or failures.

4. They always send just a couple of people on missions to zombie infested areas, and no one ever stays with the get a way car.  Another mistake they make over and over again.  They always get trapped with no way to get back to the car.  Hey, if you leave someone in the car, they might be able to drive the car to get you.

5. They never have any back up plans or really any plans at all.  It might’ve been a good idea to have planned a safe meeting place just in case the camp or farm gets swarmed with zombies, just a thought.

I could go on and on ranting about the stupid things they all do, but I need to get back to my real point (sorry about the detraction but I’m not editing it out because I feel the need to share my frustrations).

Anyway, my point is that although at first it seemed to me that the male characters were smarter than the female characters,  upon deeper examination, I don't really think that is true. It is the way the story punishes or ignores the female characters that make them seem that way, and as a result they come off as weak and annoying.  
Here are some ways women characters are undermined in The Walking Dead. Note:  I’m going to try hard to do this without any major spoilers, but there will be some.  Also, I’ve only watched through season two, so I have no idea what happens in season three (fingers crossed that it gets better). Another Note:  I could easily write another post on how black characters are marginalized in The Walking Dead as well, just something to think about.

1.  Make them inconsistent.  I understand that there can be conflicted characters, and I think they can be awesome characters, but there still needs to be consistency.  I think when there isn’t consistency, the readers get a little annoyed because they don’t have a good feel for the character and they perceive the character as wishy-washy, and the character becomes annoying.
(Spoilers) I’ve read that there is a lot of hate for Lori on the show, and honestly, she is a very inconsistent character especially in dealing with Shane (stay away, no don’t leave, it’s not your baby, it could be your baby, Rick you have to do something about Shane, I can’t believe you did that to Shane), but in other things to (pregnancy and raising Carl or not raising him).  She comes across as a person who can’t make up her mind about anything, and that annoys readers.

In a lot of ways, it feels like she does whatever the plot wants her to do to create conflict between Shane and Rick.  I’m not sure if she is a real character or just a plot device, not that there is anything wrong with character plot devices (Prim in Hunger Games), but they really should be minor characters.  When you move them to the forefront, their lack of characterization can make them frustrating to read about.

(More spoilers) Maggie too is a very inconsistent character, but she is a lot more minor.  Still it is worth pointing out.  At first she rides in on a horse and chops a zombie’s head off.  It was awesome, but later she is squeamish about killing zombies (if you’ve seen the show you know why).  She also goes to town all the time to collect supplies.  I figured she knows how to handle herself against zombies because she must’ve run into one or two from time to time, but no.  When she gets attacked by one zombie in the pharmacy, she completely falls apart and Glen has to save her.  She acts like this has never happened to her before.  How is that possible?  She was so awesome in the beginning what happened?  These inconsistencies are annoying, and they make her annoying.
2.  Make them pointless.  So much of the time the women do nothing while the men run around and solve all problems.  I’m not sure there is a more pointless character than Carol (other than for her to cry about Sophia, what does she do in season 2? I haven’t gotten to season 3 yet, so she may do something eventually). 

Even when the women do finally do something, their actions are pointless.  (Spoilers) Lori takes a car to try to save Rick and gets into a car accident, and Shane goes to save her.  It seems like it could be a good plot thread, but it ends with nothing really accomplished.  No added tension no effect on the plot.  It was just a meandering plot point which could easily have been removed from the story.

(More Spoilers) Same thing happens when Andria shoots Daryl.  First of all, it was a stupid thing to do, but it also was pointless.  It didn’t really harm Daryl or attract any zombies or even increase tension between any of the characters.  It was another meandering pointless plot point.

I think these pointless plot points are annoying to viewers.  They do not move the story forward but stagnate it, but the annoyance transfers from the story to the character involved, and when it is usually the female characters who are stagnating the story, they are the ones who are going to get the hate.

White men doing things pretty much sums
up the whole story.
Nothing the women ever do moves the story forward.  I’m trying to think about what choices if any that the women in the story make that moves the plot forward. All I can think of is Lori sleeping with Shane, and yes that is a big one, but the major conflict it instigates is between Rick and Shane.  Neither holds Lori responsible, and she becomes the prize in their tug-of-war and not actually apart of the conflict itself (like I said, Lori is a plot device).  I think we have already established that Carol does nothing, and Andrea struts around with a gun, but doesn’t really help much.  The only thing I can think of is her suicide plot and assisting Maggie’s sister with a suicide attempt, but both of those were more meandering pointless threads that had no bearing on the overall plot arc of the story.

The more interesting characters are always going to be the ones who move the plot forward.  In The Walking Dead men make mistakes, they do dumb things, but the consequences of their actions good or bad for the most part feed into the plot.  The Women make mistakes, they do dumb things, but they are neither rewarded nor punished for their actions.  What they do is unimportant and marginalized by the choices the writers, and that makes them as characters unimportant and uninteresting. 

3.  Have their actions contradict the themes of the story.  I can understand why my husband thought that there were at least some strong women characters because Andrea actually can come off as strong.  She makes some bold choices, but the story usually undermines her choices and in the end makes her seem foolish.  (Even more spoilers) She decides to end her life at one point, and Dale forces her to live on by saying if she stays to die, he will too.  Andrea later gives a really interesting speech about how he didn't save her that she saved him.  She talks about how brutal the world is, and how he had no right to take that choice from her.  It's an interesting speech, and it presents a moral dilemma.  Is suicide a valid choice in this brutal world?  What are they surviving for? 

But the narrative undermines her conviction and ultimately proves that Dale was right.  She, herself, finds the will to live and later fights with all her might to survive.  Plus the themes of not giving up and holding on to hope are constantly running through the story. Four out of seven (~ 57 %) of the women characters contemplate suicide or consider death to be a valid option when only one (and he is a very minor character in only about two episodes) of the ten plus male characters (< 10 %) ever even think about giving up.  When taken all together, how can it not seem like the women are just mentally weaker than the men.

When the thoughts and choices of the characters go directly against the themes of the story, the readers/viewers are automatically not going to side with them and see them as weak.

I need to end this post because it is ridiculously long, but I think we should consider what messages are being sent when a certain group of people are being marginalized in a story and what that suggests about them in real life (give you a hint, women = incompetence).  Yes, some characters can be plot devices or pointless or have minimal impact on the plot, but when every female character or every character of a certain race or beliefs falls in this category, there is a deeper problem here.

I know our proser readers are awesome and I doubt any of you would marginalize a group in this way, but just in case, I hope these points I've made might be useful to diagnose such shortcomings.

One more point before I go.  I know I have been pretty harsh on The Walking Dead, and I just want to say that it has done a lot of things right.  I burned through seasons one and two and do plan on seeing season three.  There is a lot of good story telling here, and powerful, heartbreaking moments, and a tension that pulls you through.  I just wish they would have taken more care with the female characters.  I'm hoping season three will be better.



  1. I watched a couple of episodes with my son. But even though it was interesting, I kept thinking, "Why don't these people takes turns doing patrolling the perimeter of the farmhouse and barn?" It got to me after those few episodes and I stopped watching.

    1. I'm finally watching season three, and they do get a little smarter (better job at patrolling), but they still do a few stupid things here and there that drive me nuts.

  2. I think the most profound thought from this post, for me anyway, is, are your female characters influencing the plot of the book?

    I'm going to be carrying around that questions from now on.

    Provoking post, MaryAnn.

    1. I do think that is the most important thing. I'm a minimalist when it comes to characters. They all have to affect the plot in some way or they are axed. It is really sad to think that all or at least the vast majority of the female characters could be removed with very little affect on the plot. That right there should be a sign to the writers.

  3. Yup. I watched three episodes before I realized I was rooting for the zombies rather than the humans. Now I'm glad I didn't get any farther in the show.

    Excellent analysis.

    1. LOL, yeah the characters really don't get much more likeable (usually less likeable), so that was a good call on your part. :)

  4. The thing is, I LOVE ZOMBIES...but I can't watch this show anymore. I can't follow a story when I don't like any of the characters. I can't relate to them, their decisions piss me off, and for the most part, I dislike them. That's a no go for sticking with any story.

    1. I usually like stories with strong characterization, but sometimes plot pulls me through. It has to be the plot that keeps me watching because I agree with you that the characters aren't very likeable. There is maybe two I like, but most of them are poorly developed or just plain annoying.

    2. I stopped watching Walking Dead in the middle of second season. There was no point to go on if I was making up excuses NOT to watch it. I didn't analyze it all the way like you, MaryAnn, but I agree with what I just read. Now I'm thinking how my own stories might be suffering from such problems and I don't even know it...

    3. I worry too that I might be doing this too (not to women but to other minority characters). I think it is good to try to be honest and aware of the possibility. We are all imperfect people in some way.


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