Sunday, March 18, 2012

(Race)ing Popular Culture: Is "The Walking Dead" TV Show Racist?

The season finale of The Walking Dead airs on AMC this evening. There have been some great discussions online about how race and identity are operative in the series. The dominant question about the show is a simple one: is The Walking Dead TV series "racist?"

As someone who thinks a great deal about questions of race and popular culture in my professional life, and also because I am a ghetto nerd who loves The Walking Dead graphic novel, I have followed this conversation with great interest. The zombie genre is one of the most compelling and powerful ways through which to meditate on the relationship(s) between politics and identity in society. If politics is about popular culture, and if popular culture is indeed "political," there are few narrative devices more potent and ideologically rich than the big "what if?" that is life after the rising of the dead.

George Romero taught us that zombies are stand-ins and mirrors for human society. In keeping with this premise, The Walking Dead comic and televsion show highlights how the zombies are a manageable threat--the real "walking dead" are the living; the big question then becomes, how does humanity choose to adapt (or not) to living in a new world, one that is a veritable state of nature.

I am not particularly interested in if The Walking Dead TV series is "racist." Such a question is flat and uninteresting to me. Instead, I would offer the following intervention: how do we begin to think about The Walking Dead and its relationship to race and the reproduction of racial ideologies? How do we go about asking these types of questions? What is the process? This framing pushes us beyond simple "yes" or "no" answers, and by doing so, leads us to a terrain which is much more productive and rich.

To that end, let's work through some questions.

1. Is The Walking Dead TV show racist? If one accepts that the United States been been made post civil rights and post racial by the election of President Obama, then the answer is "no."

However, if we work from a different prior, that race is still significant, and American society remains influenced by white supremacy, then The Walking Dead cannot help but be a "racist" show.

As I suggested above, neither of these conclusions are productive or particularly insightful. Together, these answers may reveal something about The Walking Dead: but such findings and conclusions do not dig deeper than the superficial. The more compelling and interesting question is "how?" and "why?" and "in what ways?" could The Walking Dead be communicating meaning(s) about race? In addition, how do other identities such as class and gender relate to race in The Walking Dead?

2. What are the broader politics of The Walking Dead? What is The Walking Dead revealing about American society in the post 9/11, Great Recession, perpetual War on Terror, and neoliberal moment? How do these fears relate to more basic questions of race, citizenship and inclusion? Whose hopes and fears are foregrounded by The Walking Dead? Whose social locations and identities are made central to The Walking Dead's narrative?

3. The Walking Dead is a text with characters, plots, symbolism, visuals, and other elements that should be analyzed both in isolation, and as a part of a coherent whole. To this point, the story (in the television series and graphic novel) has been many things. It is a moral parable, a road story, an action adventure, an exercise in the horror genre, and an exploration of how people negotiate a new normal in a dystopian reality. The Walking Dead is also a work of speculative fiction. Specifically, the TV series uses the device of the zombie uprising to think through questions of (white) male patriarchal authority as Shane and Rick (and to a lesser degree characters such as Hershel, Daryl, and Dale) try to maintain control over the group as a whole, and the individual women in the community.

The Walking Dead TV series has also repeatedly emphasized debates over child-rearing, domesticity, and family. While there are men of color on The Walking Dead, Glenn and T-Dog, they are peripheral and ancillary. Both are largely submissive and obedient to Shane, Rick, and Dale. If we are examining the particular intersections of race and gender in The Walking Dead, these are critical points that cannot be overlooked. In total, questions about authority, race, and gender are inherently "political."

4. The Walking Dead TV series also offers some obvious and problematic examples of how race is related to gender and masculinity. T-Dog, the only black male character on the show, is silent and subservient. He also goes by a nickname, thus further signifying how he is denied a full and complex personhood. In all, T-Dog is a zombie TV version of the magical negro. He is a helpful, harmless, assistant for the white characters on the show.

The tensions which exist around masculinity, race, authority, and sexuality between black and white men is an old trope in American popular culture. From Huck Finn to The Lethal Weapon movies, the solution is to either neuter the black male character, reduce him to comic relief, or render him silent as a means of removing race or racism as problematic elements in a given story. This choice reinforces the normality of whiteness and the white racial frame. In turn, white audiences are made to feel comfortable, safe, and secure. If black men, and men of color more generally, fit a set of carefully proscribed roles relative to Whiteness, then the racial hierarchy remains safe and secure--even during the end of the world as depicted in The Walking Dead.

Glenn, an Asian American character, is also a complement to T-Dog. As an Asian-American male, the character struggles with being "feminized" in the white popular imagination as asexual, looked at as a perpetual outsider, and being deemed a "model minority." Glenn fulfills many of these roles. Unlike T-Dog, he is "granted" the "privilege" of being with a white woman in an intimate relationship. However, Glenn is also one of the few, if only, male characters to confess his fear and terror at living in a world overrun by zombies--thus, playing into the cowardly Asian stereotype.

5. At this juncture, it is also helpful to consider explicit discussions of race by the characters in The Walking Dead television series.

The opening episodes set up a simple binary where racism and "the race problem" were explicitly discussed, and then easily resolved. One of the great "white lies" of post civil rights racial discourse is that racism is now uncommon and the exclusive domain of "rednecks"--as well as other stereotypical bigots. For example, Daryl's brother Merle is a stock character who hates T-Dog because he is not white. In much the same way that the movie The Help presents a fictitious world wherein white racists were rare, and most white folks good (or at least bystanders) during Jim and Jane Crow, The Walking Dead television series immediately sets up white racism as an anachronism: the colorline is not a realistic concern in a time of crisis, loss, chaos, and upheaval. Merle is a throwback, too old school and bigoted for a place among good, tolerant, white folks in this new society.

Continuing with this theme, in the episode "What Lies Ahead," race is introduced in a conversation between T-Dog, who is black, and Dale, an older white character, where the former suggests that both are expendable because they are "outsiders" and "different." Given the history of racism and ageism in this society, T-Dog's observation is a realistic one. However, in the narrative frame offered by The Walking Dead, T-Dog is presented as unappreciative of the kindness and support offered by the white characters, an unreasonable bigot, playing the "race card," and introducing race to a situation where it is not relevant. The narrative is critical here, as T-Dog, an African American, later apologizes for holding such a "ridiculous" and "unfair" attitude about white people.

This move is more than typical colorblind, Orwellian, conservative, racial newspeak--it is an embrace of the notion that blacks commonly hold anti-white attitudes. In addition, the black community's many decades and centuries of life experience, and reasonable concerns about white racism as channeled by T-Dog, are presented as somehow bizarre and conspiratorial. Racism is dead in The Walking Dead TV series because the white characters, with the complicit agreement of people of color such as T-Dog, say it is. This is a common fantasy of Whiteness, one that offers a raceless world on terms which are agreeable to white people.

Glenn, in keeping with the model minority myth, complements a conservative, colorblind view of race, identity, and citizenship. Hershel, who at first disapproves of Glenn's relationship with his daughter, eventually discusses the matter with his soon to be son-in-law. There, he extends a hand of friendship and discusses his progressive views on immigration and community with Glenn.

As an Asian-American, Glenn is a perpetual foreigner, "the alien" in the midst of the body politic. His identity as a full and equal American is taken as less than authentic. In keeping with the model minority myth, Glenn is "good enough" for Maggie because of his "character" and hardwork. By implication, other people of color have not earned such a distinction. They are unassimilable, anti-citizens, and not worthy of either honorary whiteness or full civic inclusion.

Gender and race matter here as well. As Jess d'Arbonne deftly highlighted, black women are expendable on the show. For example, Jacqui is left to commit suicide at the end of the first season because she is "weak." Her character, semi-nameless and peripheral is not discussed again. By contrast, when Beth, a white character is contemplating suicide, this moment is treated with serious concern. The implication is clear: black women are expendable; if domestic order and bliss are to be recreated, white women's lives must be valued, protected, and saved at all costs.

In addition, the Latino family from the first season also disappears from the narrative with little comment. Again, people of color are peripheral and tangential to the story in terms of plot. The question of race and inclusion is metaphorically coincidental to how a predominantly white group of survivors are going to recreate society and its "natural" order.

In keeping with one of the recurring themes in classic sci-fi and speculative fiction, the future--even one that is dystopian--is one where the "race problem" is solved by eliminating black and brown people (either literally or figuratively) from the narrative frame.

6. The Walking Dead TV series is rich with symbols and metaphors. The politics of popular culture also operate on a subtle level, where aesthetic and plot choices reveal a good deal about the ideological work being done by a given text. For example, in this "raceless" world, how are "black" zombies and their victims depicted in the television series?

As I described here, one of the most powerful moments in regards to the semiotics of race in recent broadcast television history was a scene in which a black zombie virtually "raped" a white female character. In the episode "18 Miles Out," one of the most surprising and dramatic zombie attacks to date was that of a black "walker" who fell through a window, and by doing forced the two white protagonists to stop fighting one another (a symbolically potent moment of race and reunion), which in turn set into motion a series of events that almost led to the death of Shane, one of the show's principle characters.

The black, living, human body is also not to be spared from suffering: one of the most gruesome kills by the undead was inflicted upon a nameless African American character who was torn limb from limb, disemboweled, and eaten alive. Here, the black body is sacrificed as a means of foreshadowing what would eventually happen to Dale, one of the central, white male characters. Given the dark history of lynching, racialized violence, and slavery, this is a symbolically potent moment because crimes against, and violations of the black body, have long been a way of validating white political and social power in American society.

7. The Walking Dead TV series exists in relation to the graphic novel. While they are separate "universes," the latter does inform the former in many ways. Unfortunately, by comparison, the graphic novel is far superior in how it deals with the complexities of race, gender, and identity. Race (and gender) is central to the comic series without being overwrought or overstated. It simply exists as a variable that works between the lines, in subtle ways, that challenge the reader. The Walking Dead graphic novel features a range of black and brown characters. Most notably, this includes Michonne, a samurai sword wielding African American woman, as well as Tyrese, a former football player who famously uses a hammer as his weapon of choice to dispatch the living dead.

These characters are central to the dynamic of the group. Both have rich internal lives and important storylines. They are also indispensable to the group and are primary to the decision making processes of Rick and the other white male characters in the graphic novel. By writing Michonne, Tyrese, and other characters of color out of The Walking Dead TV series, an opportunity for rich and provocative story-telling is lost.

8. The Walking Dead TV series is a product, designed to make a profit, written by white people, for a white audience, and featuring white actors. This is not a comment on its entertainment value, nor on the ability or capacity of people of color to enjoy the joy. It is a statement of basic fact. Popular culture, in its "commercial" varieties, is profit driven. This limits the range of possibilities that can be offered by a text. There is a significant amount of research which suggests that white audiences will not watch movies or television shows with too many black characters. These shows, regardless of their quality, are stigmatized as "black"

In addition, white non-Hispanic men make up less than 20 percent of the American public, but they control upward of at least 95 percent of the senior creative and executive positions in Hollywood. Mass popular culture is a mediated reality, one that is limited by a particularly "white" worldview. In a highly segregated society, it is in fact white people who are crafting the images of black and brown people which are consumed by the global public. This racial myth making helps to create "reality." In turn, it recycles some very problematic stereotypes about race and personhood in the process.

My claim is not that there is gross malice or even overt racism or hostility at work in how black and brown people are narrowly and problematically depicted in popular culture, generally, or The Walking Dead TV series, specifically. Rather, given the dynamics of race in this society, I am concerned with how white writers can even develop characters that are outside of their social milieu, identity, and location if they are not going to actively and self-consciously make an effort to do so. Can the average white writer develop fully evolved, rich, and complex characters who happen to be people of color?

In regards to The Walking Dead, the lack of strong and robust characters who happen to be people of color eliminates some great narrative possibilities. Michonne's absence removes tensions about gender and race. In addition, her confidence and strength is a contrast to a relatively "weak" version of white femininity that has been common to the TV series through to the end of season two.

Likewise, Tyrese is a strong, confident, intelligent leader in the graphic novel. Because The Walking Dead TV series is an exploration of white male authority, he would immediately challenge the paradigm. While the graphic novel maturely deals with this issue, one must ask how would the viewers of The Walking Dead TV series respond to an African-American male lead who is a rival for Shane and Rick? While there may be a black President, are viewers of The Walking Dead prepared for an African American male character who works as an equal, and is key to remaking human society after an apocalypse?

9. Is The Walking Dead a "racist" television show? I am unsure. But, The Walking Dead is a television series designed to make white audiences feel very comfortable. In doing so, it validates the lies of Whiteness and reinforces the white racial order. Is that racist? I will leave that answer up to you.


Improbable Joe said...

Interesting ideas all around, and I'm sure I'll be interested in discussing some of them in greater depth.


It is important to make sure we're not reading too much into an incredibly poorly written TV show. Sometimes there's racism and sexism, and TWD displays an excessive amount of both. And sometimes there's just really bad writing... as you note, the graphic novels put people of color front and center and handle issues of race in a sensitive and intelligent way. Assuming the TV show is written exclusively by white men, it should be noted that not even the white men are written with any particular depth or subtlety.

Where the show is sexist, it tends to be explicitly so. Where the show is racist, it tends to be in the "whitewashing of the apocalypse" where non-white people are simply erased or marginalized to the point of invisibility. Or, in the case of Glenn, declared an Honorary White Man and we'll never mention his Asian heritage again.

chaunceydevega said...

@Improbable. Bad writing does race work too ;)

Don't be too nice.

The show is set of one dimensional characters--ironically, this makes the race and gender work being done even more obvious inmao.

Anonymous said...

Chauncey, I heart you and agree with you and the articles you linked 100%! However, the writers are white so is it unreasonable to have realistic expectations for the show? I mean most white people have people of color in their peripheal view which means the writers are displaying their world as they know it. The writers and the show should be critiqued but are people of color really surprised about the lack of character development? The truth is, white people are insane and in complete denial of reality, good character development on a show is not going to change that. Agian, not saying your critique isn't valid but we have to consider the source.


Anonymous said...

CD, I heart you and agree with you and the articles you linked 100%. However, lets consider the source...white men. White people are insane and are in complete denial of reality. I'm not saying we shouldn't tell the truth just because they deny it but are we really surprised with the writing of this show? The show represents society and generally speaking, white people always keep POC in their peripheal view. I'mm irritated by the lack of character development but I just remind myself that white people are insane and all of them have internalized racism so why should I be surprised when their ills are on display.

Improbable Joe said...

Well... there's a difference between "obvious" and "easy to read in whether it is there or not"? :) Of course there's racism here, we agree on that. I'm just willing to be careful as to where I assign it, and so are you when you think about it. Scalpel instead of chainsaw, am I right?

My main issue with T-Dog, other than he doesn't have an adult's name and was probably called "Shizzle" in the first draft of the pilot script, is that he's not there for any reason. It is like the writers and producers literally said "Let's avoid problems with the NAACP by adding a black character. He'll stand in at least one scene every episode, and he gets one line and someone says hello to him at least once. Problem solved... can we work a homo into Season 3, just to be safe?" Everyone else on the show has a thing, and a bad-writing-buddy. Even Carol, who is like a instant mashed potato and mayonnaise sandwich on white bread, has some sort of relationship with Daryl. T-Dog serves no purpose, has no "thing" that he does, and doesn't ever interact with any of the other characters besides "T-Dog, grab this thing and come over here!"

And I love the conversation between Snoop T-Doggy Dog and Dale, because it was so aware of the problem... and then I hated that the writers never solved the problem they laid out. Dale was the old guy, and then Herschel was the old guy so Dale died. As soon as Michonne or Tyrese show up, T-Dog is T-Dead, because we just need a random colored person and not a real character to fill the slot.

And please, call me Joe?

VertigoXX said...

the show producers have already stated they're anxious to introduce the character of michonne. she doesn't show up in the books until far later than where the story is at, but they've said they're going to move the arc that introduces her up so she comes in during season 3. i agree that t-dog's barely been there this season, but anything they do with him now is outside the source material, as he's already gone from the books at this point in the story. i do find it odd that so many of the characters are caucasian, with the show being set in southern states that should have a larger hispanic population.

MilesEllison said...

I don't know if it's racist. I do know that it's bad.

chaunceydevega said...

@Vertigo. The demographics are a symptom of a bigger problem. Black and brown folks simply are not central to the imagination of most white TV writers. Even if it leads to piss poor writing. But at least we got Michonne, and the prison, and The come.

Suhayl Saadi said...

In the UK, we're just approaching the end of Season 2. I agree with the article, though I think (I am told by my US pals) that (African-America character) Michonne will appear and possibly play a substantial role very soon. The character T-Dog is so deeply - and increasingly - embarrassing and (for me) enraging, I don't know how the writers can live with themselves as writing professionals, let alone anti-racists. He has become virtually silent (one, throwaway line in how many episodes) and - like a real dog - simply is the recipient of barked orders from the dominant white males.

In white supremacist institutionalised racism, it is primarily black males who are deemed a threat (black females are seen as whores or witches). So, we might well see a mystical 'African voodoo' black female doing magical things. But will we see any rational, powerful black males who interact on an equal level with their white counterparts? It's not set in the Yukon, it's in Atlanta, for crying out loud!

Anonymous said...

Walking Dead does a disservice to white folk. Shane, Rick and Beth are all melodramatic idiots. The only one I'd follow into battle is the redneck with the crossbow.