Monday, November 26, 2012

Michonne or Maggie? Race, Gender, and Rape on The Walking Dead TV Series


The Walking Dead TV series exists in a universe apart and separate from the comic book. Season Three's storyline with The Governor has reinforced this fact. However, both of these stories are a version of "The Walking Dead." As such, they provide an example of what Culture Studies types call "intertextuality." Here, the comic book and TV series reference each other, while also signaling to other examples of storytelling in the zombie genre.

[For example, the TV series character named "Milton" is a clear allusion to Dr. Logan's character in George Romero's classic film Day of the Dead and his "pet" zombie Bub.]

As I wrote about hereThe Walking Dead TV series has little to no interest in developing its African-American characters. The graphic novel has several black male characters who are integral to the story, and are not sideshow stand-ins that are included because of a sense of multicultural political correct noblesse oblige. By contrast, the AMC series has (the now dead) "T-Dog"--a character that was a glorified black man servant chauffeur to the white characters, a black gollum mute with few lines, who lived only to serve and protect the other survivors.

Michonne, a fan favorite, and a richly developed, full, interesting, and challenging character in the graphic novel, was first introduced as a black caretaker and best friend/magical negro to Andrea on the TV series.

There, this iconic character is a black pit bull warrior, unfeeling, laconic, and damaged. Michonne, has a few more lines of dialogue than T-Dog; but she is dangerously close to being a two-dimensional figure whose only plot purpose is only to serve as a weapon to be unhinged at the command of Rick, the leader of the intrepid group of zombie apocalypse survivors.

In future episodes, I would suggest that it will be even more clear that Michonne is only a slightly more under control version of the X-Men's Wolverine for Rick. Wolverine was Weapon X; Michonne is a Samurai sword wielding loyal negress.

Glenn is the Asian fix it man, former pizza delivery man, and loyal friend of the white men in the party. Glenn is a post apocalyptic version of the model minority myth. Glenn is not a full "Hop Sing"; however, he is very close to that archetype.

To point. For two seasons, he remains "feminized"--"sneaky, evasive, and stealthy"--until being forced into "manhood" by Merle's interrogation in the most recent episode "When the Dead Come Knocking." Glenn's loyalty to Rick, and the system of white male patriarchal authority he embodies in the show, was symbolically "rewarded" by the former's sexual union with Maggie, a white woman.

In The Walking Dead universe, upward racial mobility would seem to have its "perks."

The Walking Dead TV series is ultimately a story about how white male authority is enduring in a world populated by the undead. As a premise, this is a fine, interesting, and potentially fascinating framework for genre storytelling (I wonder how many viewers understand that this is the not so subtle subtext of the series?).

As further proof of the continuing dominance of white masculinity in a world where the dead now walk the Earth, this season's villain has also surrendered to the white racial frame, where The Governor, who was originally Hispanic in the graphic novel, has been rewritten as a white character.

I can accept that The Walking Dead TV series occupies its own universe and narrative space. I can also accept that people of color are peripheral in this universe, and as such, the roles played by them will be different than the vision offered by the graphic novel. But, I am less forgiving of how a character such as Michonne has been robbed of her power and complexity. My claim is a challenging and provocative one: if you love a character and respect them, then you, the author/creator, must at times let bad things happen to your beloved creation. 

Suffering and loss are often part of an iconic character's arc and (eventual) greatness. To allow these moments is to respect both the character and the reader.

Michonne, who was brutally raped by The Governor in The Walking Dead comic book series, has to suffer in order to have her revenge and triumph over him. Michonne is made by pain; it tempers and refines her like an alloy or fine blade of steel.

If you remove her personal challenges, tragedies, and triumphs, you remove Michonne's power in The Walking Dead. This is disrespectful to the character. Considering that Michonne is one of the most  compelling characters in any recent comic book, and who also happens to be a person of color (a group marginalized in graphic novels), the insult is very much magnified.

The centuries of sexual exploitation, rape, and violence suffered by black women in the United States as human chattel, also as free people, and later as full citizens, are socially and politically combustible elements in our public discourse. This history and present are not be treated lightly. The racialized and gendered body--to be both female and black--occupies a very potent, and in many ways precarious location in the body politic.

I am unsure if the writers of The Walking Dead TV series are either cowards, or if they are just afraid of controversy.  Perhaps, they are both? The White Gaze can do wrong even as it explains itself by an appeal to "kindness."

Michonne has to suffer at the hands of The Governor so that she can evolve and grow into an even more essential character who is (at least) as important and capable a leader as Rick. Michonne's role is doubly important because Tyrese, who in The Walking Dead comic book is every bit the leader and masculine authority figure as Rick (if not more so), is not present in the story.

[This will finally be corrected. Tyrese, has been cast. He will be portrayed by Chad Coleman, who played Cutty on The Wire, in the next episode.]

There is a deep fear of black justice and righteous revenge in America's collective subconscious. Is Michonne's character hamstrung and neutered by this anxiety? Or alternatively, are the writers, directors, and producers of The Walking Dead TV series (where at least one of them is African-American) afraid that characters such as Michonne and Tyrese will discourage white viewership? Are white audiences really that fickle? Are strong and dignified black characters that off putting?

In all, The Walking Dead TV series is operating under a logic that I am unable to fully comprehend.

A white female character such as Maggie can be threatened with rape, and quite likely allowed her revenge. Michonne, a black female character, in a society which systematically devalues people of color, and black women in particular, is not raped by The Governor.

Is this progress? Political correctness run amok? Lazy writing?  Is the suffering of a white female character noteworthy, and the rape and abuse of a black female character anticlimactic and uninteresting? Are matters really that (ironically) retrograde?

40 comments:

Steven Augustine said...

Why waste time on this profoundly-limited,and limiting, crap, as though it were written by anyone greater than glorified hacks who have to answer to the trivial narrative commandments of A) Mammon B) the hacks' own normative psyches?

On the other hand: the cited text by Foucault was an eye-opener when I was a young-ish reader): the state as vengeful psychopath was still a new concept to me then!

Srsly, CdV: the idiot box (basic or premium) is *not* there to enlighten any of us, and the "entertainment" it pushes comes at a catastrophic price. Why do you pimp the damn thing? What do you think enforces The Shape of All We Rail Against here.... The Church? The Church was the slave-days enforcer... Media done took over. Why patronize that chancre-ridden kootchie at all? The feedback-loop should stop *here*.

chaunceydevega said...

@SA. Popular culture is one of the primary ways that people are socialized into political values. If we want to fully understand hegemonic power we need to engage culture.

Steven Augustine said...

CdV: but if we "engage" it on its own terms, to what extent do we maintain enough distance to effectively critique it? The first step in understanding Hegemonic Power is to admit how cleverly seductive... no, *addictive*... its propaganda now is. And isn't "I'm in control of it, it's not in control of me" the rallying cry of the Citizen Addict?

My Thesis (laugh) is that being a Fan Boy... and being a Fan Boy of BHO... are one-and-the-same condition! The last thing you should do, while being hypnotized, is stare at the shiny bauble!

chaunceydevega said...

@SA. Obama fan boy sounds like a porn title with black studs and white twinks who worship the great O. Sorry, couldn't resist.

Steven Augustine said...

CdV:

If it isn't already, it will be! laugh

Steven Augustine said...

"Blowbama Girlz"? (Now I really *am* sorry)

Steven Augustine said...

BTW: The Semi-Non-Sequitur Hour:

I've just discovered that THE COLLECTED WORKS OF ABRAHAM LINCOLN are a Searchable Online Resource! In honor of the Spielberg Photoshop-Job on Honest Abe they're busy shoe-horning into our minds this holiday propaganda cycle, do a "simple" search on the word "nigger"... speaking of Hegemonic Power and its Foundational Media Myths.

Caveat: the people who formatted the site have rendered many of Lincoln's ugliest pronouncements sort of ambiguous (in one case, he *mockingly* quotes an editorial that advocates Black and White political equality... if you don't notice the faint, important colon before Lincoln's citation of the editorial --and the fact that they don't bother to close the quotes after: accident or not?--, you'd think they were Abe's beliefs: quite the opposite!)

Razor said...

Both CD and SA make salient points about the convergence of words, images and narrative when combined with one's attention, rapt or otherwise, and the power that is gained over it's subjects. That is what a television set is. A hypnotist's captive audience.

CD is right, it is one of the main influencers of popular culture. Because it is able to manipulate you with both audio and visual stimuli it is dynamic in manifold, complex, subtle and imperceptible ways. You watch it often and long enough, you will want things you shouldn't want, didn't want, wonder why you ever wanted it, don't need, and if your lucky, regret ever having let the silly thought having entered your mind. Fortunately for CD, given his critiquing and reflective nature, he is probably not nearly as susceptible as most persons would be on a personal level.

But then, that is where SA is right. Because of the above, it is more than just an "idiot box", though that phrase will suffice for the initiated and sophisticate.

However, CD, the culture critic extraordinaire, must get a pass, and be permitted to assess and critique this blatant display of white power/privilege throwback arrogance in the post-racial post-Obama age. It is informaive and worthy of shining a bright light on for the poor saps who may be watching the show, but who had not read the comic book. However, though I don't watch the show, as usual, CD is far more forgiving than I, and appears to be truly able to set aside his differences and appreciate the full extent of the art that is in front of him.

chaunceydevega said...

@Razor. Have you ever seen the experiments with brainwave patterns when subjects are shown passive stimuli such as TV versus active stimuli where they are asked to read? TV and film produce an almost hypnotic state. The herd needs to be managed, and mass media, especially film and TV, are among the best ways to do so.

The brain is also altered by Internet use and social media such as facebook as well.

Every society has to reproduce itself--a consumerist "democracy" needs new consumers to buy crap they don't need. The iphone, ipad, and ipod etc. are masterful examples of false needs. Fashion is also a great example of capitalism creating false needs and the dream merchants at work.

Hell, look up how the colors are chosen by the CYM people (or is it CYK?) each year and then disseminated down to the masses as the new "in" thing.

We now have children who are addicted to cell phone's and suffer withdrawal like heroin or coke addicts when they are not allowed to use their toys for even a short amount of time.

I love the movie They Live. In keeping with the truth of that powerfully subversive work of art, along with Videodrome, I have gotten in the habit of watching all of the sheep on the bus, train, etc. plugged into their happiness machines and numb to the world around them. Pathetic and sad.

We are all being manipulated. The trick is to be in denial about it.

Bruto Alto said...

@ Steven Augustine

Back up a bit, if you read any walking dead comics then you would better understand CDv's view of the show. The edge in the comics has been dulled for the show.

Dexter/Fire and Ice/30 days of night/Sin City/ Dark Night Returns (Nightfall too) were fun reads that are OK movies/TV

While I read, I also enjoy TV as an art. There are things to learn from everything.

nomad said...


"We are all being manipulated. The trick is to be in denial about it."

To be in denial about it? I'm not sure what you mean. Is it better for the manipulated to be in denial? Or do you mean that it's better for the PTB for the manipulated to be in denial?

I've never seen "They Live" but read an interesting analysis of it on Vigilent Citizen blog. It seems to me that the Internet is kind of like the 'magical' glasses the protagonist finds that enables him to see the manipulators. All the things that are normally concealed by the gummint and its propaganda machine, the MSN. All sorts of hidden agendas. But, unlike the TheyLive glasses the Internet glasses don't seem to work for everyone. To most it is merely a more powerful vehicle for consumerism and socializing. I identify with that TheyLive character trying to wake people up to something that is in their midst but which they cannot see. There is a certain phenomenon, which shall go unnamed, I have observed and pointed out to people. They do see it but they simply dismiss it; the equivalent of denial. Strange. The thing about denial is that it's contagious. If everyone around you denies what apparently only you can see, you begin to deny it too. Baaa.

mgmt339 said...

I appreciate your critique of race in the show. The graphic novel does do interesting things with Michonne and Tyreese among others.

They made an unwitting foreshadow when T Dogg in season 2 tells Dale he won't last long...

I hope they get their heads out of their asses and write some good Black characters. I think the new Oscar and the hint of Tyreese at the end of episode 7 MAY suggest they are gearing up for that.

FWIW, all the killer zombies seem to be pretty white too...

nomad said...

I've mention Abe Lincoln Vampire hunter. It was a nice conceit in that movie to have the Confederacy allied with a confederation of white vampires interested in maintaining chattel slavery for the sake of feeding upon the South's abundant and disposable supply of tasty Negroes. White confederate vampires; hunted by the man with the stove pipe hat.

chaunceydevega said...

Obvious error. I wrote: We are all being manipulated. The trick is to be in denial about it.

should be to "not be in denial" about it.

nomad said...

@CD
Obvious? I dunno, man. But glad that it was an error.

Razor said...

CD, I recall either watching or reading, or both, about the kind of experiments which you are referring to.

Marketing and propaganda are top-end applications of the sum of the social sciences. One need have deep respect for the object of their attention lest they be led astray. Particularly in America where most adults and their children are becoming thoroughly programmed consumerists of merchandise and manipulative information, non-independent thinkers or as someone aptly termed sheeple...which is very dangerous as a society.

Yes, we all are being subjected to manipulated to some extent, by something or someone, most of our waking moments. The first step is to understand the level of your susceptibility. Most people don't. Second is to know how and when to short circuit the manipulation. Most people don't know that either.

I will have to find the movies They Live and Videodrome.

fred c said...

It begs the question: what is a well written Black character?

Sidney Poitier in "The Bedford Incident?" A good character, for sure, but probably just a Black actor dropped into a part written for a White man, like Ripley in "Alien" was a woman dropped into a part written for a man.

Or does it require a Black dimension, a Black ethos to the motivations and actions of the character. I'll admit, my feelings about this alternative are somewhat ambiguous. Different races have different experiences, different instincts, and different reactions to things, and that must be acknowledged in written characters, but after all, aren't we all substantially the same?

Anyway, I like the show, and your points, as always, are well taken.

chaunceydevega said...

@Fred. You must be psychic. I was thinking of that great and under appreciated movie the other day. Magic happens sometimes--Ripley being an example of it. your questions are ones that we have grappled with from the New Negro to the present...and still have not resolved. What to do?

How have you been?

Steven Augustine said...

"Different races have different experiences, different instincts, and different reactions to things, and that must be acknowledged in written characters, but after all, aren't we all substantially the same?"

Sorry, Fred, but that's the *core* of the Racist Argument (Liberal Version). The word you need, in place of "Races", is *Individuals*.

Thought experiment: a character on the Nostromo must react to a Face-Hugger's advances... as an acting exercise, please describe how a White actor's response should be categorically different from a Black, or Asian, actor's response, on the basis of... Race? What, the Black actor is more plausible if he questions the chastity (or butt size) of the Face-Hugger's mother? Or if his/her eyes bug out? Is the Asian actor more likely to embrace her/his Oneness with the Face-Hugger... or do Kung Fu on it?

Discussing any *populations* (grouped by gender/race/weight/shoe-size/ navel-convexity/ favorite comic book ) you're forced to deal in statistics. Individuals vary far more than the "Races" do... which is what the sane part of your cited comment (the last clause) points at.

It's not your fault; we're all brainwashed to think that way. That's why that preposterous comment (esp. the "instincts" bit: yipes!) slipped through, unmolested, in the first place.

Steven Augustine said...

In fact: that's David Duke's kinder, gentler new hook: Racial ”Bio-Diversity.

Steven Augustine said...

PS I'm not saying there are "no races"... I'm saying the taxonomy we use now is a social construct heavily influenced by class (as a tribal artifact) with sloppy, folky definitions. Yes, there are races... thousands of them. Perhaps tens of thousands. More?

If you're a seriously scientific racialist (vs a spittle-flecking, hate-filled quack with a nasty agenda) I think it's time to bring Eugemics up to speed and start working out the complex charts required to describe the myriad *subtly* classifiable morphological variations between 7 billion descendants of the same primeval parents.

This defining Race with the "I know it when I see it" bullshit will no longer suffice.

Steven Augustine said...

erratum: "Eugenics"! laugh

fred c said...

Steven, as usual you have seized upon some small thing in one of my innocuous comments and used it to prove that I am a horrible, typical White racist. The small thing, as usual, is a thin reed on which to hang this judgment.

When you do this, all that you prove is that you have a blind spot. Your "instinct" is to find racism behind a White face. You are obviously a very smart guy, I'll freely admit that you appear to be smarter than I am, I've read all of your comments since you came on board herein. But you have a blind spot.

By the way, I would heartily endorse an "instinct" in Black Americans to keep a careful eye on any and all White Americans, and to watch their deeds closely, and to never accept their verbal protestations of racial neutrality on face value. But please try to save the baby while you are correctly flushing the bath water.

fred c said...

I'm fine, Professor, and thanks for asking. It's our cool season over here, a joke really, but the temps do moderate a bit. We're just starting our semester number two, and it's all good. All systems go; everything nominal; no untoward oscillations.

Have a great Christmas.

Steven Augustine said...

"Steven, as usual you have seized upon some small thing in one of my innocuous comments and used it to prove that I am a horrible, typical White racist."

Fred, as usual, you didn't read my comment carefully enough (to understand it) before responding. The last sentence of the first comment went:

"It's not your fault; we're all brainwashed to think that way."

So I'm not singling you out by race, weight, density or curvature. And "some small thing in one of [anyone's] innocuous comments" is usually where we find evidence of the internalized ideologies that govern our outlook/behavior, no?

Feel free to lash out at that one unthinkingly, Fred! Laugh

"By the way, I would heartily endorse an "instinct" in Black Americans to keep a careful eye on any and all White Americans..."

Just as long as no one says anything about what they observe, right, Fred?

Anonymous said...

Excuse me, what? The Governor was Hispanic in the comic? Where did you get that? It's pretty clear he was a white southerner, and his name was Phillip Blake.

Second, your declarations about Glenn are absurd. Where the rest of us see a great character who thinks on his feet and is more creative and intelligent than anyone else on the show, you see some sort of supposedly "feminized," servile token Asian man.

Where you see some sort of perverse "reward" for "serving the white man," we see an Asian man who defies all Hollywood stereotypes by not only getting the girl, but getting The Hot Girl, and more than earning the respect of her rigid, traditionalist father.

Where the rest of us see our hero, Glenn, standing up to an evil torturer, you see some sort of imagined ritual where only white men can bestow masculinity.

I also notice you don't like to mention the fact that Rick and Shane were police officers in the pre-apocalypse society, and I'm sure that's because police officers are by definition authoritarian, which is not convenient for your theory about the Authoritative White Man symbolism.

Also: Tyreese will be in the live-action series, and he's played by an excellent actor.

And if you watched the preview for the next episode, you will see Michonne finds The Governor's daughter and, not realizing the girl is a "walker," Michonne sheds her tough exterior and you can see she's terrified for this little girl she thinks has been held hostage in a closet. All that build-up of the strong, silent Michonne will be shattered with that emotional moment.

You choose to see racism where there is none, and couch your absurdity in the guise of academic analysis. If Glenn hadn't endured the beating from Merle, you'd have said the show was reinforcing the weak Asian stereotype. If Glenn hadn't hooked up with Maggie, you'd say the show won't allow Asian men to have any sort of sex, like so many movies and TV shows.

And with T-Dog, no one is going to pretend he was a well-developed character, but I honestly believe it was a case where T-Dog served the plot in the very first hours of the first season, and the writers didn't know what to do with him after that. That happens all the time in serial television.

chaunceydevega said...

@Anon. Do pick a name. So you want to play in the big kid's pool? Fun.

It is very telling that the two men most aligned with State authority are white. That actually furthers my critique about the show a narrative about embattled white masculinity.

The novels about the Governor suggest that he is Hispanic. There is actually an interview with the writers of the show where they discuss making him "white."

"And with T-Dog, no one is going to pretend he was a well-developed character, but I honestly believe it was a case where T-Dog served the plot in the very first hours of the first season, and the writers didn't know what to do with him after that."

Exactly. Mighty interesting how white writers and others simply have this habit of not knowing what to do with non-white characters. Hell of a habit ain't it?

This is not a game for casual players. If you want to engage in this type of analysis there is much work for you to do, reading to be and, some basic understandings of myth, folklore, semiotics, literary theory, etc. you need to work on.

You are good fun. Try some more later. I like the practice.

Will said...

chaunceydevega, man, you're reaching... I give your article ten thumbs down.

chaunceydevega said...

@Will. Are you going to give me the courtesy of a reach around? Full metal jacket joke. Do you have specifics?

Anonymous said...

Michonne showed emotion when she saw that Walker in the Govenors room?! GIVE ME A BREAK

You'd get more emotion out of a plank of wood. Sure you can say that T-Dogs character ran its course I'm actually glad T-Dogs gone because he was such a clumsy idiot. No way you can say that for Michonne who is a main character in the comics.

Its season 3 and we still don't know a damn thing about her. Where as Daryl who is an original character and one of the most well received characters in the show gets more?

idunno said...

While I totally agree that the black characters are under utilized and written one dimensionally, I make the argument that this is the case with every character on this terribly written show.

Leroy Gray Jr said...

I think it is a good thing that the graphic novel and the television series have the same characters reacting to a different script.
Experiences in life make mental pictures in the mind when we read about the exploits of fictional characters.
On screen characters ARE visible and their experiences are also visible.. How the character "thinks and feels" is the focus.
That's how I enjoy this series and Star Trek : Voyager..

RJ said...

You're upset because they chose not to have Michonne raped by the Governor? What kind of sick freak WANTS a woman to be raped to prove any point? Oh yeah, YOU, you sick freak.

Brian L. said...

You obviously love to write, so write your own show. Otherwise, you are just another hapless critic devoid of talent and drive. You critique others for doing something that you lack the courage to do on your own.

Tomas said...

Trying to hard

Sensitive RAB Guy said...

you're a moron.

Treez said...

I like how he said all that, and you just say "you're a moron". Obvious rapist answer...

Ceara said...

I can't even believe your ignorance. Michonne didn't need to get raped for her to have a good character. She had plenty of internal struggles from the Governor stealing Andrea away from her. Plus she has the internal struggle with trying to get away from her past and trying to move on from the death of her son. Tyrese is in the show. If you would have just given the show time you would have seen that. Glenn is not an Asian stereotype any more than Tyrese or Sasha are. He's a smart, tough, quick-thinking SOB who has saved the groups ass more than Rick has. And T-Dog was one of the most loved characters in the show and he was given the most honorable death in the series thus far. Honestly, I never thought I'd live to see the day when a black woman NOT getting raped would be called racist. And it's even more insulting that you treated this like a scholarly article when you didn't even do any real research. Confirm your facts before you write and maybe you won't look like such an uninformed twat.

TWDfan said...

You like practice failing at debate? Do demonstrate again, I'm taking notes.

Obi said...

What the fuck am I reading, you're really fucking sick in the head faggot. Stop forcing your stupid social justice into everything. I literally laughed out loud reading this:

"To point. For two seasons, he remains "feminized"--"sneaky, evasive, and stealthy"--until being forced into "manhood" by Merle's interrogation in the most recent episode "When the Dead Come Knocking." Glenn's loyalty to Rick, and the system of white male patriarchal authority he embodies in the show, was symbolically "rewarded" by the former's sexual union with Maggie, a white woman."


Pathetic, but hey, you do what you can to get more clicks right?