Monday, October 24, 2016

Questions of Race, Gender, and The Walking Dead Season 7 Premier

Wow. The season 7 premier of The Walking Dead was powerful--you can take that to be a positive or a negative. Since the show debuted several years ago, I have offered comments here and elsewhere about The Walking Dead (television show and graphic novel) and questions of race and representation. I recently had a chance to speak with Salon's television critic about the season premier, Negan, violence, race, and gender. The conversation is posted below. What did you think of Negan's debut and the one and only "Lucille?"


AMC’s top-rated series “The Walking Dead” returns for its seventh season Sunday at 9 p.m. with the answer to what may be one of the cruelest cliffhangers in television history. Back in April, the drama’s sixth season finale ended by giving us the first glimpse of the nefarious Negan, a key villain in the comic books brought to life on TV by Jeffrey Dean Morgan, beating a beloved character to death. Before we found out which member of Rick Grimes’s loyal group of survivors had made his or her final run, the lens went bloody and the scene faded to black.

It’s a nasty business that’s fueled countless headlines and stories. But once that moment has the shock has subsided, executive producers have teased, the show’s universe with noticeably expand. But as soon as Rick’s people and the story itself resume their usual scrabbling to Just Survive Somehow, how much will that matter?

The audience for “The Walking Dead” is a devoted one and includes two Salon staffers, politics writer Chauncey DeVega and TV critic Melanie McFarland. But a viewer’s loyalty and passion for the show aren’t always present in equal measure. “The Walking Dead” is a survival tale at first blush, but over the years it has also fomented discussion and debate over its depictions of race, class and gender, especially in terms of the group’s power dynamics and the producers’ choice of which characters’ storylines receive deeper attention.

As viewers brace themselves to find out which characters are safe and who’s out, we took stock of our feelings about the series itself, debated its thornier issues and flaws and, naturally, traded speculation as to which survivor fell.

Melanie McFarland: The return of “The Walking Dead” has been hyped since, well, the sixth season finale. Everybody is looking forward to the true introduction of Negan beyond a few minutes of posturing with his barbed-wire-wrapped baseball bat Lucille.

It’s extraordinarily sadistic for any drama to get so much mileage out of making its core audience wait for six months to find out which one of their favorite characters was brutally murdered. But let’s explore that later. Right now I’m wondering if you’re looking forward to tonight’s premiere of “The Walking Dead.” I’m not sure if I am. And what are your general feelings about the series at this point as it goes into season 7?

Chauncey DeVega: As a fan of the comic book and an ambivalent viewer of the TV series, I am excited to finally see the introduction of Negan. The universe of “The Walking Dead” has many defining moments that will have great implications going forward. Negan is one such stop. There are moments of dialogue when Negan is introduced in the comic in which — and I think the comic has been very transparent about this — questions of race and identity and gender are so salient and raw that I hope AMC and the show’s writers and producers have the nerve to include.

My feelings about the comic and the series up to this point in season 7 are pretty much aligned — how much longer will these characters have to suffer? We know that in the zombie genre — one that I love and have so much affection and appreciation for going back to the godfather of it all, George Romero — that it is the people who are the real threat, not the undead. Rick (Andrew Lincoln) and the survivors are in many ways the real monsters, and the true “Walking Dead,” in this universe. What comes next? Negan is that test. There are bad and dangerous people in “The Walking Dead.” Negan will show Rick and his band of survivors just how great those threats are. They will be humbled and I can’t wait to see how it plays out.

What are your thoughts on the show? Have you read the graphic novel? Has the show made you more or less likely to? Of course I would recommend that you do so. The TV show and graphic novel are quite different in some important ways.

MM: Had you asked me a few seasons ago I would have told you that “The Walking Dead” is one of my favorite series, if not my absolute favorite. I’m not a huge horror movie fan, but I’ve always been fascinated by Romero’s contributions to the genre, and I love zombie films in general. I’ve only read the comics as far as Negan’s arrival, because by then they had degenerated into a draining experience for me.

To me, reading comic books and graphic novels should be a joyful experience, even when the subject matter is incredibly grim. There are story elements artists can better illustrate on the page than on a movie or television screen. That’s why I’m glad that AMC’s series has diverged from the action in the comic books — it keeps everyone guessing.

Along with the show’s underlying implication of living humans being the true danger in an undead world, what once appealed to me about “The Walking Dead” was the way the first few seasons explored themes of kinship and survival, and the extremes to which a person would go to protect their own people. Of course, those ideas are facets of the overarching motivator behind everything in this world, which is hunger. The events leading up to season 7 are the result of what happens when hunger moves beyond satiety — a point that Rick’s group reached once they integrated into Alexandria — and into gluttony. In a sense, they were all better people when they were hungry, and they took down many overly confident gluttons in their journey.

While Rick was probably correct in guessing that Negan would have come to Alexandria’s gates eventually, his first strike tactic seemed like a terrible idea from the start. In theory, new challenges and villains are what keep a story like this going, but this was an obviously idiotic stumble. And now it just feels like we’re watching misery porn.

You mentioned that the comic addresses issues of race, identity and gender that the series has yet to deeply examine. I do agree with you, in that I think they let Merle (Michael Rooker) carry the role of the out-and-out bigot through the season with The Governor (David Morrissey). The writers have for the most part buried that element of the story and of survivalist culture since then. How do you think the series should tackle those issues from this point on? And how would you grade it on its representation of race relations, both intentionally and subconsciously?

For example, I’ve long had problems with the series’ habit of under-developing every black male character besides Tyreese (Chad L. Coleman) and Morgan (Lennie James) before killing them off. At least Morgan is still alive. But for the most part, it’s as if they exist to allow the white characters they leave behind to feel additional remorse. The sacrifice of T-Dog (IronE Singleton) is the perfect example of this. Granted, he did it to save Carol (Melissa McBride), and who doesn’t love Carol? However, from the perspective of this country’s history of racial dynamics, it was not a good look.

CD: Popular culture reflects the power relationships of the society that produced it. This is unavoidable. Racism, sexism, heteronormativity, and other understandings of identity will be reproduced on both a subconscious and conscious level by the people who create a given type of popular culture and those who consume it. Of course, the public also resists the dominant meaning too — see how people of color have been reading themselves back into films, TV shows, and other examples where we have been “erased” since the beginning of the medium.

Merle was an easy and predictable character to create. A cartoonish white bigot is the default in a “post racial” “colorblind” society because it erases how white racism and white supremacy are reproduced structurally and institutionally by otherwise “good” and “well-intentioned” white folks who would be outraged by the suggestion that they are racists. There have been many moments where what we call the “white gaze” is omnipresent in “The Walking Dead.”

There is the informal rule and running joke among many black folks and others in “Walking Dead” fandom about how only two black men are allowed on the show at any given moment. You have to kill one — T-Dog — to introduce another in Tyreese , who is never allowed to develop into a rival leader for Rick as he did in the graphic novel. T-Dog was a joke, a pitiful character whose name we don’t actually learn until much later after his introduction and who is a glorified chauffeur and protector for the white characters — especially white women.

The show is also about guns, survivalist culture and white masculinity. Rick is the leader. His son Carl (Chandler Riggs) is heir apparent — a child who takes a gun and chases a grown and powerful black man, Tyreese and his group, away from the safety of the prison in an earlier season.

In America, gun culture is synonymous with a particular type of white masculinity — with non-whites, predictably, being denied the same type of political and cultural power by virtue of gun ownership. “The Walking Dead” is part of that cultural tradition.

Moreover, in terms of emasculation and gun culture, the character Morgan refuses to use a gun because he was taught “inner peace” through aikido and counseling by a white doctor. Morgan was also imprisoned. This cannot be separated from slavery, mass incarceration and how African-American men were and are over-diagnosed relative to whites with schizophrenia and other mental illnesses under “medical apartheid” during Jim and Jane Crow and through to the present. Again, themes of race, emasculation, cowardice and mental health loom large in “The Walking Dead” for people of color. Michonne (Danai Gurira) is more complicated. On one hand, the character treads dangerously close to being the wild dangerous black woman, to then reveal her inner complexity, self-control and intelligence.

I don’t really deal with intentional versus unintentional racism in how racial ideologies are (re)produced or not. Too easy an out. I give “The Walking Dead” somewhere between a C+ and B- on questions of race and representation.

MM: I’m going to go the improv school route here, with a “yes, and.” Yes, what you say about survivalist and gun culture being synonymous with white masculinity is absolutely true. Just look at any Boy Scout with a merit badge in rifle shooting.

I also think that looking at the show — and most of television — purely from that perspective would be absolutely aggravating. I did want to offer my view of Morgan’s conversion to aikido. I didn’t see it as emasculation at all. As someone who studies martial arts, his choice of the warrior’s path signifies an element of strength that Rick and the others don’t have. He survived on his own for a very long time.

Morgan had guns. He had survival knowledge and supplies, and none of that saved his young son. So he went insane and came back, not just through the love and care of a doctor who happened to be Caucasian, but via a specific path. It’s significant that the writers chose this particular form of martial art because of its principle of “unifying with life energy.” A focus on life in a world of death. The adherence to a code of not killing in this “hunt or be hunted” universe offers a storytelling challenge for the character. A code that, by the way, he had to break to save Carol in the finale. At least he’s safe and busy, far away from the Negan mess. Plus, guns need bullets, and bullets are in short supply. Morgan can always use his staff.

I also agree to a point with your interpretation of Michonne, but so many of the visuals from the moment of her introduction in the series – which, I think, mirrored the comic – were straight lifts of frames from spaghetti Westerns and Japanese dramas about wandering Ronin.

I never saw Michonne as a figure on the verge of going feral. Rather, she has a samurai’s practicality — her discovery that keeping “pet” zombies nearby allows her safe passage through hordes. Her light hold on possessions, save for her sword. All of that is indicative of someone who is strategic and measured. Not wild at all. The katana is an elegant weapon, a mindful choice on her part to maintain a grasp on the graceful, ordered life she had before all of this. It represents safety to Michonne, but it’s also her link to civilization in a deadly wilderness.

And as a fellow black woman, I give her props for being able to keep up her dreads in the zombie apocalypse. That is not easy at the best of times! My plan is to shave my head and keep it clean, like Skin from Skunk Anansie.

CD: Michonne is one of my favorite characters. I appreciate the Ronin allusion — Mifune for life. Her origin story as printed in Playboy magazine is a great read. “The Hagakure” is one of my favorite books, by the way. I also understand your observation about Morgan. All that can be true. However, these questions of race and representation have history. We cannot easily dismiss and remove them from the broader context of a black man in Morgan being locked up by a white psychiatrist in a cage as a means to teach said black man about how to be properly “civilized.”

MM: I’m not suggesting that a viewer should completely divorce herself from undertones of racial stereotyping and signifiers from what we see on television, especially in this show. But “The Walking Dead” is enough of an emotional vampire even before we zoom in on those elements.

To me the larger message of that season 6 episode in which Morgan was jailed, “He’s Not Here,” is one of psychological and spiritual rebirth. A person can see the denigrating image of a black man being incarcerated by a white one. That’s impossible to miss. A viewer can also see it as someone who is mentally unwell breaking free of that ailment and stepping back into the world.

On to the big question: Who do you think bought Hershel’s farm in the season premiere?

CD: So who does Negan kill? Perfect world: He kills Rick and this moves the story forward in some provocative and challenging ways. He could kill Abraham (Michael Cudlitz) as well, given that character is already dead in the graphic novel at this point. Thus, it is an easier choice. But again, still not satisfying. Glenn (Steven Yeun) and Daryl (Norman Reedus) are other easy choices. We shall see.

MM: I’ve been weighing the importance of each character to the series by their race and sexual orientation to determine which character is most expendable which, again . . . ugh.

It’s highly unlikely that Rick, Daryl or Michonne were killed. I won’t spoil what happens to Glenn in the comic books — there are many places online where people can discover his fate for themselves — but he is fan favorite on the TV series. Steven Yeun has been with the series since season 1. So the producers could kill him off to save money, since he’s likely earning more than the newer additions. But then again Glenn is one of the highest-profile Asian-American characters on TV. Television is not exactly brimming over with Asian actors featured in prominent roles.

Negan could kill off Rosita (Christian Serratos), but she’s also the only Latinx character that’s been developed in any significant way. Killing off Aaron (Ross Marquand) would create another distressing entry in the “Bury Your Gays” trope, which the show has been steadily expanding. And so it goes. It’s a bit disgusting to think about any television series’ storyline in such a way. But this is where the damn show has taken us.

Do I want to find out? Of course I do. Nevertheless, what a downer.

CD: I don’t have the expectation that television or other types of popular culture should always uplift me or otherwise leave me reaffirmed emotionally, spiritually, or the like. For me, I want to be challenged and entertained intellectually by good writing and storytelling. Hopefully, “The Walking Dead” will do some great things this season and Negan will be the impetus to get the series back on the solid footing it began with during the earlier seasons. I don’t want to be pandered to. “The Walking Dead” is a mean and cruel world. Negan is the man to deliver that message with his beloved baseball bat Lucille . . . and I hope he swings for the fences in the season 7 premiere.

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