In an age where quality roles for women in film are drying up, it only makes sense that another medium would harness the opportunity to showcase strong female characters on a large scale.
Thanks to television, we have the likes of Alicia Florrick on The Good Wife, Leslie Knope on Parks & Recreation, Hannah Horvath on Girls, Selina Meyer on Veep, and countless other characters on network and cable which reflect the diverse palette of female representation streaming into our homes night after night.
The Walking Dead, one of the most successful shows of the decade, has seen a viewership increase of nearly 10 million (up to 16.1 watching its Season 4 premiere) since its first airing in 2010, soaring in the key demo week after week. It’s popular. It’s the perfect blend of fluff-fun and narrative beauty. It’s also a show which fiercely defies the progressive environment for women the contemporary television industry has blossomed into by pitting most of its heavily-developed female characters against death in a losing battle.
Season 3 of the hit series saw the demise of Andrea (Laurie Holden), a character who was never really given the privilege of being taken seriously beyond what the audience wanted her to be, thanks to the public’s never-ending hatred for her seemingly ill-informed decision-making. Andrea’s arc on the show was, to me, some of the most compelling character development I’ve ever seen (read my initial analysis before the start of Season 3 here.)
What began as a throwaway, cliched take on a down-and-out woman ready to take her own life evolved into a fruitful, satisfying examination of reversed will, clear mind, and determined spirit. We watched Andrea evolve from the brink of death (nearly by her own hand) into a woman actively rejecting a reversion to gendered hunter-gatherer society that would most likely emerge in a real-world post-apocalypse.
We most clearly observed this transformation during the bulk of Season 2, where Andrea’s superficial “failures” can only be seen as byproducts of her victimization by a world which can no longer tolerate feminism, as truly evolved “society” has crumbled and become far too advanced for those surviving in Andrea’s group. Though their version of “society” very much reverted back to the demeaning, gender-specific hunter/gatherer delegation of responsibility that predates contemporary life, most of the women seemed comfortable taking a backseat to the men throughout Seasons 1 and 2.
Lori, Beth, and Maggie took pride in keeping Hershel’s farm tidy and functional, preserving what little shred of normalcy they could, albeit inadvertently bringing an intangible dream to the group’s fingertips, though their hands could never close upon it. Fresh-baked bread and a pitcher of lemonade on the table for the men returning from a zombie slaugtherfest became a fantasy merely teasing of a way of life that had long since disappeared.
And thus the show evaporated the place of the woman within its world. Carol, worse so than the women bustling to maintain the state of the home, was defined purely by her maternal responsibility; the first half of Season 2 is dedicated almost entirely to finding her lost daughter, Sophia. Though emotionally-crippling in its revelation, the discovery that Sophia was amongst the imprisoned zombies in Hershel’s barn (she’d been dead the entire time) came as affirmation that women could no longer retain their natural roles as mothers, let alone foster some sort of domestic mirage Lori tried to uphold inside the house.
Andrea, however, rejected these roles. Always the independent, she fought for her equal place among the men. She made countless mistakes along the way (accidentally shooting Darryl being the most glaring), but these only worked to solidify her status as second-class in the eyes of the men. A girl playing catch-up, if you will. Should it have gotten to the point where Andrea felt the need to try so desperately to win male praise that her judgment is clouded, allowing her to mistake one of them for a zombie?
This sort of gendered acceptance issue wasn’t present in the other female characters, and that’s what made Andrea interesting. Season 3, however, shows us that within the confines of The Walking Dead ideology, womankind has no place in this zombie-infested post-society. The fact that Lori dies after giving birth comes as confirmation that nurture has reverted to nature.
Lori is the epitome of a passive, secondary citizen woman in this archaic era of reversion. We can even look at her sexual exploits in contrast to Andrea’s and see that her fate was sealed from the start. Throughout Seasons 1 and 2, Lori is sexualized by Shane and lets the desires of the men, whereas Andrea sexualizes Shane herself by initating the act. Lori takes pride in taking care of Hershel’s house with the other women while Andrea resists it, and spends the rest of her time pregnant. The result? Immediate death upon the fulfillment of her “duties” as woman.
On the other hand, Andrea comes to represent the death of the feminist woman in this era, albeit after a struggle for acceptance. She only dies once she relinquishes her independence as she succumbs to the pitfalls of affection and enters a dangerous relationship with The Governor of Woodbury, becoming the sexual, emotional, and psychological property of a male tyrant amidst her own struggle for independence and power. She submits to what she wants most. The Governor’s power trumps her rejection of “natural” role. Her death at the end of Season 3 solidifies the end of the powerful woman in a society that reverts to a “natural” or primitive social structure which relegates women to second-class status.
Her death is the death of the independent woman, and we’ve yet to come across another female character with this kind of symbolic importance.
What we have now is a mish-mash of female characters who are either shoved to the forefront of our attention because the other previously-developed women have died (Carol), or placeholders merely filling their roles as “sister” (Sasha), “girlfriend” (Karen and Maggie), “caretaker” (Beth), or even death itself (the female hiker who kills herself in front of Rick in the woods).
Our sole hope at this point lies in the hands of Michonne, whose femininity has only come into play at one key point throughout her entire arc on the series. Last week, Beth placed Judith in the hands of a reluctant Michonne. In these few moments, we watched her face grow from bitingly angry to hopeless. In these few moments, we’re able to see the pain’s origin, and a glimpse of the person Michonne used to be. Did she have a daughter? A child she was close with and lost in the zombie takeover? Does she long to return to her own days of innocence as a child relying on the care of others?
We saw Michonne not as the tactical, cold defender that she is, but for a moment as a human. Intentionally ambiguous, the reason for her tears isn’t–and hopefully, won’t be–fully-explained. The mystery of her origin is meaningless, as being a “woman” is meaningless within the society of the survivors. Women fulfilling “duty” are killed, and women resisting it are eventually put into place.
Whether this is intentional or merely an exerted analysis may never be known. Whether the show’s reluctance to let the female “win” in this post-society world is brilliant commentary or lazy regression remains to be seen, but at least with Michonne we have a (re)starting point to piece together what Andrea started.