Month: October 2012

Andrea and the Boys; Analyzing One of the Most Hated Characters on Television

The natural order of life gives birth to the structural order of society; an infinitely dichotomous relationship forming between free-flowing chaos and streamlined rigidity. When flesh-eating zombies are thrown into the mix, however, the man-made confines of civilized society fall victim to the “natural” order of patriarchal dominance—if we’re using the ideological outlook of AMC’s The Walking Dead as a playbook for the end of the world, that is.

While it’s hard to know just how the societal cookie will crumble once humanity is faced with the actual apocalypse, The Walking Dead seems to think men have the upper hand in a broken down, flesh-eating fantasyland. The series sees a group of survivors (about equally comprised of men and women) fighting their way through metropolitan Atlanta in the midst of a zombie infestation (Epidemic? Outbreak? Have we deemed an appropriate term for this by now?), reverting largely to the hunter-gatherer state of living we all remember learning about during the Neanderthal unit in elementary school. Rick Grimes (Andrew Lincoln) leads the pack with an iron fist and a soft underbelly; He’s authoritative but level-headed, with his go-to “veep” Shane (Jon Bernthal) nipping at the heels of his newfound authority. Both men are former police officers, typical posterboys for a male-dominated field synonymous with control, power, and brute force.

The women of the group, most notably Rick’s wife Lori (Sarah Wayne-Callies) and middle-aged mother Carol (Melissa McBride) take on a much more passive role; cooking, mothering, and all-around homemaking in a world devoid of homes or families to fit within them.

One woman, however, doesn’t take kindly to her would-be role as submissive camp servant; Andrea (Laurie Holden) is the black sheep of the female survivors, rejecting any notion that she’s there to serve anyone but not entirely free from patriarchal constraint, either. It seems that, for these very reasons, the public’s relationship with the character has been tumultuous at best. She can’t even find solace in the confines of online message boards. Endless posts ragging on her “whiny” episodes, her unwillingness to “shut up,” and her inability to “stop being a bitch.” But, do these fears represent a genuine dislike of the character or a subconscious self-hatred for contributing to a society that’s made Andrea the conflicted, restless, emotionally unstable woman that she is?

When I say “emotionally unstable,” I hope not to conjure images of a hysterical numbnut. Andrea’s lost a sister, a protector, her “old” life and, as of Season 3, her newfound “family” (the group left her at the farm, assuming she was dead). Andrea never really “fit in” with the hierarchical scale of the survivors in the first place. The constant power struggle between Rick and Shane intensified in Season 2, leaving little room for female characters to “butt in” to the conversation. Lori, the “First Lady” of the group was, at best, Head Housewife of Season 2. Let’s face it—Lori embodied passivity and stereotypical womanliness that a single television character can. A doe fought for between two hot-heated bucks, Lori was the sexual and emotional “prize” in the feud between her husband and Shane. She was knocked up, had to be “saved” by her husband multiple times, and spent the majority of the season rounding up the other women to do chores and housework around Hershel’s farm.

Andrea, on the other hand, was busy getting over Dale’s decision to “save” her from her decision to end her life during the finale of Season 1. An independent “person” (gender has no room to talk, here), Andrea was able to decide for herself that she no longer wanted to passively endure the hand she’d been dealt. Her sister now a flesh-eating zombie, the rest of her biological family dead, and seeing no clear reason to continue, Andrea chose death. In essence, a much bolder decision than Dale’s to forcefully insert himself into another person’s problem until he gets what he wants. We see him do this again in Season 2 when the group ponders the fate of an “intruding” survivor they’re holding as prisoner in Hershel’s barn. Dale kicks, screams, and makes a fool of himself stomping around the farm like a five-year old until someone agrees with his wishes to keep the man alive versus the majority decision to kill the prisoner. Andrea is bitter for Dale’s “intervention,” and rightfully so.

Things don’t go much smoother when Dale bars Andrea from using her own gun out of fear she’ll use it to kill herself. Shane and Rick agree, although Andrea wants to help them protect the group instead of folding linens and looking pretty in the RV. Again, the patriarchal societal structure keeping her one step behind the men in line with the other women.

Andrea’s presence in the community can best be described as a challenge to the male authority that controls it. She’s the only woman (save for Maggie and Michonne in Season 3) that take any sort of active role in protecting the group; Andrea learns to steadily wield a gun in Season 2 (after Shane effectively plays her emotional chords) and becomes what the men clearly view as a “third-rate” asset to their defensive team; she’s ultimately used for “keeping watch” on the farm.

While Andrea is treated as an afterthought for most of the men, she actively inserts herself into the role of sexual object during a key moment in Season 2. She and Shane embark on a small road trip to search for Sophia. After an hour or so of successful zombie slaying, Andrea—seemingly “turned on” by her exploits as an active member of their small militia—initiates a sexual encounter with Shane. She forcefully grabs his crotch out of left field, instigating a romp in their vehicle unlike anything else we’ve really seen before on The Walking Dead. It might seem out of place, but for a woman on this show it’s a moment from the heavens. Andrea chooses to seduce the man not to gain anything from him other than his penis. She’s not sleeping her way up the chain of command, but merely satisfying her own sexual craving. The moment of passion is barely referenced again throughout the rest of Season 2, indicating yet again that it means nothing more than a momentary brush with ecstasy amidst a world of terror and despair. She breaks from her would-be role as passive female, placing herself at the forefront of her own desires, taking the man (and our perceptions of female sexuality) along for the ride. Her ride.

For me, Andrea’s shining moment comes when Hershel’s daughter, Beth, teeters on the edge of suicide and is placed under house arrest by her family. Andrea agrees to take watch, only to whisper sweet nothings of reality into Beth’s ear. She tells her if she wants to die, there’s nothing wrong with that; the decision is hers and hers alone. Neither persuading her to die as Dale persuaded Andrea to live nor hoping to scare her into living, Andrea gives Beth perspective. She levels the playing field instead of building against for or against her; just because Beth is a young female doesn’t mean she has to submit to the overarching control of her family’s desires. Her decision to die is her decision alone. And, of course, Andrea’s name is besmirched yet again once Beth chooses death.

Beth is ultimately saved from her decision, just as Andrea was last season, but Andrea is forced to deal with the aftermath alone. Beth is “clearly” a victim of Andrea’s manipulative ways, when all the latter did was gently open Beth’s eyes to another perspective, not having to pry them open with a crowbar as forceful as Dale’s. Lori in particular is hard on her, saying that Andrea has barely done anything to help the other women construct the façade of the homespun fantasyland Lori so unrealistically seeks to maintain. Lori is a woman blinded by the weights around her ankles grounding her in a sort of post-feminist world which sees her as a safety net for the men to fall back on—sexually, emotionally, and for simple peace of mind. She preserves the comforting “image” of the nest while Andrea actively seeks to physically keep it—and its contents—alive.

My biggest problem is that The Walking Dead and its characters never seem to acknowledge Andrea as anything more than a tag-along pain in the ass. As an audience we’re given pieces of a puzzle to solve and make connections here and there on our own, but Andrea becomes a case for study on our part while the inter-character conflicts remain diegetic. I’m not sure if the show is making a case for women’s rights by attempting to funnel the audience’s perception of this post-apocalyptic societal breakdown in a negative light. We’re clearly meant to understand that this is a world driven by brute strength, cunning, and power—things none of the women on the show have. Society, for them, has devolved into a primitive state of man-before-woman, the male characters taking clear control over each of the major survival groups we’ve seen so far and will continue to see in Season 3 (The Governor, I’m looking at you). The women have “accepted” their passive roles thanks to an unspoken, almost preconceived veil of inferiority following them around from pre-zombie society; Carol was an abused housewife, Lori was a mother living in the shadow of her powerful husband. Is the show critical of this way of life the characters seem to have simply fallen into without question? Do the creators of the series genuinely believe the world will revert to this sort of primitive existence in the face of such apocalyptic events? Or are we meant to see this sort of power structure as archaic as a result of our own notions of right and wrong which still exists outside the lore and fantasy of The Walking Dead?

The answer to that question lies within Andrea. We’re supposed to see her as a woman fighting back against the “inherent” societal structure which succeeds on male activity and female passivity. Andrea is forced to deal with backlash from a public audience who deem her as insignificant and a waste of space. I welcome an existentially-questioning character in a show like The Walking Dead. She’s conflicted far and away above the other characters, and perhaps that’s part of the problem. I have no doubt in my mind that the majority of people watching this show don’t want to entertain the effort that’s required to fully appreciate Andrea’s character. Her history on the show is complex and tainted by her insistence on merely existing as she sees fit, not on anyone else’s terms—especially not the men who see it necessary to revert to primitive hunter-gather, active-passive binaries based solely on gender. Andrea is flawed, but beautifully so; in a post-rules, post-structure, post-logic world she’s merely regaining her consciousness as an independent female fighting against a tragedy-induced society of patriarchal command.

Argo: A Mixed Bag of Conflicted Ideals and Smooth Action

Americans love watching other Americans win; whether it be at the Olympics, cheering on a pissed off housewife as she berates a retail worker for an extra 20% off, or in a power struggle of Western values against Middle Eastern opposition. Countless international conflicts, thirty-three years, a fake film, and six would-be-hostage escapees later we have Argo, an ambitious (if problematic) two hour wank to a “winning” America from director-star Ben Affleck. If you find yourself complaining about the “spoiler” just revealed, chances are you grew up with a “Jem” lunchbox and/or didn’t pay attention in history class; you’re not Argo’s target age demographic, and shame on you for being a waste of space (and tax dollars) in mid-80s elementary school.

Turmoil amidst foreign affairs in the Middle East lingered as the Vietnam War ended, the purple haze of the hippie generation wafting away, the legacy of the 1970s lingering as the dust settled; The stage for Argo is set amidst an era which ushered in a uniquely aggressive American perspective on foreign affairs and the United States’ role in international crises, one that’s hardly containable within a white picket fence crafted with optimism and a neighborly “hello.”

This post-“American Dream” America serves as only a pseudo centerpiece for the glorious buffet of cultural critique Affleck initially serves up. The bulk of the film is a systematic retelling of the “Canadian Caper” rescue mission of 1979, the remaining course a condemnation of America’s world presence as a vigilant virus of socio-cultural-politcal domination. Burka-clad women snacking on KFC, inept Government employees, and a nation easily distracted by the celluloid escape/fandom fantasy of Hollywood come to mind as pieces of the diverse American identity Argo seems to hate.

Affleck spends plenty of time attempting to convince us that America—Hollywood in particular—is filled with capitalistic, power-tripping pigs, but by the same token the artifice of the film industry is credited as the saving grace of the six American lives stranded in Tehran after a Revolutionary mob storms the U.S. Embassy, the Canadian Ambassador agreeing to shelter them in secrecy. C.I.A. specialist Tony Mendez (Affleck) enlists the help of movie industry power players John Chambers (John Goodman) and Lester Siegel (Alan Arkin) to craft an elaborate plot to “fake” the production of a film (press kits, magazine articles, table reading and all) which will scout locations in Tehran, allowing the six potential rescuees to pose as members of the crew for their secret extraction. Still, capitalist Hollywood/blood suckling America rears its ugly head; “If I’m going to make a fake film, I’m going to make a fake hit,” Chambers asserts.

Much of the action revolving around the rescue itself is exciting, if rather formulaic. There’s no doubt Affleck is a skilled filmmaker. His ability to harvest thick wads of newfound suspense from historical molds with well-known, pre-established outcomes is a testament to his precision and tact as a director. But, after the smoke clears, I’m left clawing for traction, searching for an auteuristic mark amidst the sheen of suspense for suspense’s sake. It makes for a fun ride but a muddled message—especially when the outcome is already rooted in the history of reality.

Affleck breaks the “Tell me something I can’t look up on Google” rule with Argo, but ultimately the biggest problems I have with the film are its wishy-washy, conflicted values. On one hand scenes of increasingly hostile, violent tension between the United States and Iran pepper the film with a sense of impending doom. On the other, it’s a film hell-bent on assuring us that as long as you live in America, everything is going to be OK. The sentiment is inspiring, but simply doesn’t bode well–especially with the climate of contemporary foreign affairs. Scenes of Iranian officials declaring revenge upon all parties (including Canada) for their involvement in the rescue are sprinkled throughout the closing moments of Argo, bringing the reality of worldwide conflict crashing through the dream veneer the celebratory comfort the success of the mission provides. For a moment you find yourself thinking that this is a film that finally gets it; a film which touts happiness as the fleeting, momentary emotion that it is. The world is not perfect, and Hollywood processes real-world conflict into spectacular fodder for a willing audience. In the ideal world of Argo Mendez returns to his home, embraces his wife, reunites with his son, and all is right after a wave of Uncle Sam’s magic wand. The biting reality Affleck dangles over our heads for the majority of the film, however, proves problematic as it begs to reroute that sappy conclusion at all costs.

Argo is a ultimately a prelude to contemporary American sentiment, to the War on Terror, and to every ignorant New Yorker who smashed the windows of Persian-owned restaurants after 9/11. It’s a film that fully acknowledges that the world isn’t full of rainbows and sunshine—never has been, never will be. It’s a stark reality mainstream film tends to generalize far beyond the scope of any real-world implications. Glimpses of such critique are present in Argo, but the overarching, influential hand of Hollywood control destroys any effects it might have had thanks to a hokey ending and melodramatic tricks. Argo ultimately falls victim to too many fantastical “fixes” that force the film out of touch with the reality it so desperately seeks to correct. Argo might end with a macho movie icon embracing a hot blonde while the American flag flies conspicuously in the front yard of their suburban home, but reinforcing the traditional pageantry of idealized American values means nothing in the face of those pissed off Iranians whom actually informed the world that “Canada will pay.”