A Post-Andrea Apocalypse: Why Can’t Women Survive on “The Walking Dead?”

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Where the film industry gives us one Ryan Stone, TV gives us twenty Carrie Mathisons.

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.

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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).

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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.

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2 comments

  1. While your thoughts on the actions held between seasons 1 and the first half of 4 on the role of women in the show are interesting. The show is about nothing more than the breaking away of society. The roles and positions we have acquainted ourselves with in our day to day lives are in fact meaningless in any other time and place. Andrea was not the great feminist archetype that you have embodied her to be. She like all others having her identity a lawyer and a sister and then death stripped away from her lead her down the path to reinvention. Her failure to be a fighter in season 2 is colored by necessity of that society for that position. The group had enough fighters at that time and place to fill that roll was pointless. In season 3 the roll of the wife and then the negotiator both failed because she had filled the roll from the previous season which she abandons seeking what can not be had. Basically she fails because she abandons her rolls for new ones. She was the counter weight a mirror of first what they needed to be and then what they used to be her problem she did it at exactly the wrong time. The walking dead isn’t about the destruction of what we are it is an affirmation of what we are or were and what we would need to be. The truth is in that world ideals of self are lost you are what you need to be to survive and for that character nobody needed what she was selling. Oh yeah in the comics shes a live and a hero because she was a go to person a roll filled by Daryl in the show.

  2. I know this is late and nobody will ever read it, but i will give my opinion about gender roles in an apocalyptic situation. I think that tv and movies have the gender issue correct. To be clear, i think that women are smarter than men. They are way tougher than men physically, though (in my experience) not emotionally. However, it has only been within the last hundred years that women have enjoyed the equality they deserve, that they always deserved but never had. Technology has been the equalizer, so logically, things would revert back to before we had it. In today’s world, my pregnant wife goes to work (makes about $50 more than i do a week), we split cooking and house work, and even work our garden together. On the other hand, in an apocalyptic situation, i would not let my pregnant wife scavenge, or hunt, or do anything that put her in undo danger. That leaves her with things to do around the house and small garden while i take on the dangerous activities of defense and scavenging for food. She is quite capable of everything i can do, but she is the bearer of our next generation. Even after the baby is born, her role will be around the house and garden. Lets face it, milk does not come from my nipples, however much i would want it to be so. And i imagine there would be precious little to eat, so i would consider it prudent to feed my wife first and ween children later than in today’s society. I have respect for strong women. I respect my wife more than any other being on this planet, especially my male friends. That being said, get ready to hate me. The greatest difference between women and men, besides physical strength, is logic. Forgive me, but women let their emotions guide their thinking much more than men. I KNOW this for fact. I am the youngest of eight kids, and the only boy. My dad died from cancer before i was three, and my mother took another woman for a lover who also taught me my values….so i was taught to respect women. But dammit, get nine women on their cycle together and logic goes out the window. Another proof, to me anyway, are these articles that disparage the roles of women in the post apocalypse. Logically, if man has been on this earth for many, many thousands of years, and women the world over have only had the equality they deserve for the last hundred or so (not even that), what in all hell makes anyone think that without our technology things wouldn’t revert back. Women, i think, don’t understand that what is natural to them now, with all of our technology, will not be natural without it. There will always be exceptions to any rule.

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