More Than a Vessel: Women of The Walking Dead

English: Intertitle from the AMC television pr...

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I’m a huge Walking Dead fan. Spouse and I watch it every week, and we both read the graphic novels. We watch Talking Dead after the show and both coo at Chris Hardwick‘s charm and geekery, and we laugh at the “pause face” that inevitably happens at some point during the show.

Last night irked me, though.

I’ve had a few peeves with both the comics and with the show in regards to the portrayal of women, and a couple this season that have sat like an expanding pebble in my shoe. Last night I was able to put my finger on the problem and pry it out of of my shoe.

Within one episode, a formerly abused widow got bashed by the man who is apparently her new love interest, Lori (who is pregnant) managed to fight off two walkers after a car accident only to have Shane swoop in and lie to her, Shane then pulled the classic “You know you have feelings for me” litany, and then at the end of the episode, Lori was portrayed as the manipulative shrew.

Not to mention that pretty much every bad decision made by the men on the show got blamed on the women. “I love you, and it made me freeze when the menfolk needed me and almost got everyone killed!” “I love you, so I murdered living people in a world of zombies!” “I love you, so I lied to you!”

I’m sorry. What?

In the previous episode, a human outsider who stumbles across Rick, Hershel, and Glenn asks lecherously if they “have women” at their camp, like you might ask someone if they have any beer in their fridge.

As disturbing as it is in the context of the show, what disturbs me more is that it doesn’t seem so far-fetched for things to revert to the “caveman-esque” sort of thinking. “Me man! You woman!”

*Bonk.*

….at least that the macho men would do that.

What I find utterly unbelievable and irksome in the show is that most of the women just swallow it. In the graphic novels, they went as far as to justify keeping the women out of the decision-making by saying that the women didn’t want to be involved.

Uh-huh.

Without trying to slip any spoilers into the mix here (though if you’re not caught up…uh, here be spoilers), let me describe a couple of the scenes that got under my skin and explain why it affected me. At this point, Lori and Shane carried on together for a time because Shane had told her that her husband Rick was dead. Rick wasn’t dead, and when he showed back up, Lori rightly ended the relationship with Shane and eventually told Rick (who seemed to already know). This pissed Shane off in a mighty fashion, to the point where he got drunk and tried to rape Lori. He’s also convinced that her baby is his. He’s also off his handle and shot a guy in the knee as zombie bait.

So when Lori survives the car accident (how that came about is another beef to be discussed later) and saves herself from walkers, Shane shows up and tells her that Rick is safe at home to get her to come back. Rick, of course, is no such thing as safe or at home. When Lori gets back, Shane’s lie is obvious, and he sits her down to try and justify it.

“You shouldn’t have gone out there on your own. You’re pregnant. I had to get you to come back somehow.”

He then goes on to say that what they had was real and should still be their future, while she denies it. And he ignores her, insisting that she loves him like he loves her, and that her husband is just in the way. He ignores that, too. Including the thousand-yard stare going on in the region of her face.

The episode ends with Lori telling Rick about this conversation and surmising (correctly) that Shane murdered Otis (the guy he shot in the leg and left for zombie bait).

Here are the reasons all of this rubbed my fur backwards:

1. Lying to someone “for their own good” is morally reprehensible in my opinion. 

What it says to me, essentially, is that the liar in this situation has decided they know better than the person they’re lying to. With children involved, sometimes they don’t need certain information, but when you look an adult in the eyes and lie to them because you’ve decided the truth is too painful or dangerous, your actions say that that fully sentient adult has no ability to deal with the truth.

It strips them of their choice in the matter, especially if it is information that directly pertains to them or may influence their actions or behavior — like telling Lori her husband was alive and safe when at the time that was in question. Yes, she would have wanted to go after Rick. But considering they had guns and Rick at the time was getting surrounded by walkers? He could have used the backup.

My issue with this scene is because I’ve seen it so many times in regards to women. That women don’t know what’s best for them or can’t handle themselves — especially if they are pregnant. Everyone seems to take it upon themselves to protect her baby, when that’s her job. And part of Lori’s job to bear that child is to protect Rick, too. But of course Shane just thinks it’s Lori who needs protecting, so he tries to invalidate her fury at his lies by saying he did it for her and the baby. He blames her for his moral lapse, which we all know has ulterior motives.

2. It espouses the concept that women are incapable of acting alone.

This was part of the issue I took with Lori’s car accident as well. When the women of the Walking Dead go haring off after someone who’s in trouble, they get punished. When Andrea saw what she thought was a walker coming, she shot at him against all the men’s advice. It turned out to be Daryl, and she clipped his head. That was her punishment, a not-so-subtle way of saying that the men know best and that women are irrational. Don’t try to fight zombies, Andrea — you might shoot your friend. The sharp-shooter couldn’t tell it was Daryl? Okay. Sure.

Lori asks Daryl to go after Rick and Hershel, but he refuses because he’s having a hissy fit. So she goes after them, and what does the show depict? A brainless woman trying to read a map who ends up hitting a walker and rolling her car.

Then when she alone manages to fight off both that walker and the other who tries to force his face through the broken windshield, her ability to take care of herself is immediately called into question by Shane when he arrives — he essentially calls her stupid for going off alone and makes no mention of the fact that she killed two walkers at point blank range — one with a screwdriver. No. She’s told she can’t decide for herself, he lies to her (bonk), and takes her back to the cave farm.

3. It says that women don’t really know their feelings.

I’ve seen this trope countless times in media. (And to be fair, I’ve seen its reverse as well — though not as much.) The trope is this: big macho man gets his feelings hurt because the object of his affection chooses someone else or just plain dumps him. He decides she doesn’t really want him to go away, so he pushes himself into her life and tells her that he knows she loves him. She says no, go away, you’re stupid and I don’t love you. And he says she can’t admit her own feelings. And on and on and on. If someone says no, it doesn’t mean keep trying. It means back off.

4. Women are portrayed as manipulators who risk the lives of others.

The last scene this week showed Lori whispering Iago-like in her husband’s ear about her conversation with Shane. Why do I have a problem with this? Because had they just positioned the actors differently in the scene, the entire feel would have been different. They could have showed it as a conversation, and instead they chose to make her into a trope.

Every single thing Lori said was true. Shane is in love with her. Rick killed the living to protect himself for his family, so Shane might be willing to do the same if he thought it would gain him Lori and her son (and unborn child). She thinks Shane killed Otis (which he did). She thinks Shane is dangerous — great galumphy Zeus, of course he is! He unleashed an entire barn of walkers a couple episodes ago! He’s nuts and obsessed with her, and that’s not hot, sports fans. That’s creepy and dangerous, and she is right to tell her husband.

But instead, they had her whispering it in his ears like Iago to Othello, or like some shrew trying to come between two bros a la Lady MacBeth. And all they could talk about on Talking Dead after the show was her being manipulative? Excuse me? Not Shane for lying to her. Not Shane for trying to re-start his affair with his best friend’s wife. Not anyone else in the show — Lori. The woman who keeps fighting to show her strength when the writers of the show keep conspiring to undermine her. (To Chris Hardwick’s defense, he did try to say that others were being manipulative, but he got cut off due to time constraints.)

And to ice the cake, when Glenn returns he goes off on the woman who confessed her love to him, saying that her love for him made him freeze in combat and endanger himself as well as Rick and Hershel. Right. Let’s make that Maggie’s fault.

Even if they don’t mean to do it, this show is seriously demeaning women and reinforcing the stereotypes that women can’t fight (except Andrea, who keeps getting punished for fighting because the men try to take her guns away from her), that women are emotional and weak, that women can’t decide for themselves. I love the characters of this show, but the biggest weakness of the books for me seems to be leaking onto the show, and that’s the portrayal of women as either spineless weaklings or manipulative home-wreckers.

There is much, much more to women than that, just as there is much more to men than bonking a girl over the head to drag back to a cave. For a show so determined to focus on a character-driven story in a zombie apocalypse, they’re neglecting half of the depths they have to plumb: women.

Why couldn’t Lori have hared off in the car, had a close run-in with the walker but missed him, gotten to Rick, and saved his ass right as the horde closed in on Rick, Hershel, and Glenn?

Because she’s a woman.

What do you think? Do you watch The Walking Dead? Have you noticed this stuff at all, and does it bother you? Why do you suppose writers of shows like this don’t generally depict women as equals? 

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About Emmie Mears

Saving the world from brooding, one self-actualized vampire at a time.

Posted on February 20, 2012, in urban fantasy and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 20 Comments.

  1. I watch The Walking Dead and would like to see the women featured more and in stronger roles. Unfortunately ‘caveman’ mentality exists and if the world as we know it were to end tomorrow, law and order would break down, chaos would reign and it would be back to survival of the fittest. Men are physically stronger, making women immediately the more vulnerable sex. I think this show doesn’t know how to portray normal women who aren’t Buffy but who aren’t helpless either.
    I was furious last week when Lori drove off the road; it just reminded me of all those horror films where the girl is trying to outrun her attacker & trips and falls and you’re yelling at the screen. I was delighted to see her fight the Walkers off and save herself.
    As for women being portrayed as not knowing their own feelings, I don’t think anyone doubts that Lori means exactly what she says, except for Shane who the majority of viewers are sure to see now as a thoughtless and dangerous brute.

    • That is EXACTLY how I felt about the car wreck scene — it made me think of every time I’ve seen a woman run upstairs and hide in a closet or open a door when a creepy-ass dude is telling her to. I loved seeing her show competence and then got even more angry when that competence was brushed off.

      I thought the same as you about Lori’s thoughts on Shane until I read an interview with Glen Mazzara where he said that she really does have feelings for Shane and that Shane was right. Again undermining her ability to assess her feelings (or even admit to them) in line with that trope. According to that article, they’re actively trying to make her into a Lady MacBeth, and that just…disgusts me. From what we’ve seen of her so far this season, she doesn’t want anything to do with Shane (Mazzara seems to think she’s fine with Shane’s attempted rape at the CDC), so to have a major show exec say that Shane is actually right both seems disharmonious with her behavior and characterization and makes me think less of the writers for their depiction of her. Mazzara also said, “It’s very interesting because she is clearly playing one man against the other, and she favors things in both men.”

      I don’t think she’s played them against one another AT ALL — she keeps telling Shane to get lost, but he won’t listen. That’s not a mind game; that’s Shane being a jackass as per usual.

      Anyway. I’m not going to stop watching the show, but I really hope they will start breaking some female stereotypes someday.

  2. I love The Walking Dead too, but I agree with you 100%. This show takes the whole zombie thing to a new level and has some really great character building, but they just can’t let the women rise up. I know it is nice if you can set someone up to need saving, but does it always have to be a woman. I also can’t believe they would talk about her being manipulative. There is some serious manipulation going on with some characters in that show. She isn’t one I would have laid it on. I’m glad I don’t watch Talking Dead, I would have been really pissed.

    • I agree with you 100%. Whenever one of the characters takes off and does something stupid, it’s a woman. Even little Sophia. In my opinion, that’s weak writing. I know many of the writers are women, but that doesn’t mean they can’t be sexist.

      That whole final scene got my back up. They could have shown it for what it was: a woman informing her husband (who is the leader of the group!) of a known threat and voicing legitimate fears. Instead they made it into a scene of insidious manipulation just by how they positioned her character and tone of voice. Instead of her looking like a woman who is both self-aware and aware of dangers to the group, they made her look like she was planting seeds of dissent. Ugh. It made me so mad.

  3. I haven’t seen this show, but it seems like that’s the norm for shows (except Joss’). I’m rewatching The X-Files and I’ve been rather apalled at how Scully is portrayed in the beginning. It does get better as the show progresses, but even though she’s one of the main characters, she still has to be saved. A lot.

    • Yeah, I noticed that a lot when I did an X-Files rewatch a couple years ago. She’s constantly getting kidnapped, tied up, and having her boundaries crossed time after time.

      The Walking Dead is a phenomenal show — I think what made it so popular is the fact that it is character driven in a normally rather “shallow” character genre (I say that loosely, because there are some zombie movies/books/etc. with great characters). But if they keep going this direction with their portrayal of women, I’m going to get pissed. Er. Pisseder.

  4. I agree with you slightly. I too read the comics and watch the show. Just about everything you said is true. I would just have to add that just about every character in the show is good and bad. Yes your typical Hollywood troups are on full display here but I can’t help but think as a male watching the show it’s that Shane hands down is the biggest clown on the show and everything he does border lines on insane. When I watch the show I can’t help think about how shane makes everyone look like saints .
    When I’m watching the show and is saw the famous crash the car scene, I couldn’t help but think how exciting man or woman in that situation pitted against zombies without weapons. If she did the ideal thing there would be no conflict and thus no fun. We call that in the film world fat so it needs to be cut. But what I did learn is If every I’m stock in a no weapons limited room to run situation with this female character she will survive and that gives me hope. I didn’t look at how rick talked to her after wards and think yeah rick I was thinking, what a jerk. He should have been proud she could take down walkers. But again If We wrote it that way it would have been way to many positive happening back to back and it would ended up on the editing room floor. because it’s boring to watch him praise her at that point.
    Just because two nerds at the end of the show want to discuss there views on the show don’t make what the say what most men feel about women of this story correct. Clearly these to clowns have very little understanding as the deeper craft of writing and film making. I do feel women should be written much stronger in all things on par with men. But in a show where all characters are stupid and smart for most of there choices is a bit of a stretch. I dont agree with rick trying to survive with the man that had sex with his wife and indangers everyone around himself including himself. so I have been questiong that since the show began. But If nothing else Shane is entertainment and that’s why they hadn’t got rid of him like they did in the comics.

    • Yeah, I agree that characters have to have flaws. What I take issue with is that the flaws they keep assigning to the women are very, very stereotypical flaws. It would make for much stronger conflict and writing if they were to go outside the box a bit on that. On a show where they’ve smashed a lot of preconceptions about the genre already, I don’t see where their massive blockage comes from in regards to doing the same with the women on the show.

      I was thrilled to see Lori go to town on those two walkers, but I think they could have made a tense, suspenseful situation out of her decision to go after Rick without putting on their trope shoes.

      I think Shane is great for tension on the show as well — I just think that they need to change the way they write the women.

      Thanks for stopping by and taking the time to leave a comment!

  5. I agree with that as well but for black folks it cant possibly more off putting as this story takes place in one of the largest black communities in america and strangely enough we are grossly misrepresented in the story by simply not being in the story at all. I just have a hard time believing these are the group of survivors during a major zombie take over in Atlanta. Cast one black dude and a black lady. But yea your right they can write better for the women in general on this show. They need to look into it with character in mind not gender. Or they keep using gender related story solutions not people related story solutions.

    That’s where you can come in and create a show or comic that tackles that issue with characters that just make since. With writing so good you don’t see gender and your just sucked in. But alas your idea because it didn’t come out of a studio executives mouth will never be funded. It sucks when great ideas are brought down by corporate greed. At any rate keep the rant going Emmie and we will keep reading.

    • Oh, man — I hear you as well on the under-representation of black people in the story as well. I can’t remember the last time T-Dawg was given more than two lines in an episode. And the only new black dude got his face eaten in the last episode soooo…yeah.

      I hope they fix some of their issues, for sure.

  6. I agree with Larz up above… if a show didn’t come out of the Whedon-verse, there’s a good chance the portrayal of women will be pretty sketchy.

  7. I’ve noticed it too, and I don’t care for it. The pregnancy subplot made me groan. I understand it’s a dramatic way to raise the stakes, but I could do without it, personally. Not that it changes Lori’s character that dramatically; even from the beginning, she’s been portrayed as needy and dependent, glomming onto Shane the second Rick is gone. So now Lori’s character has been completely reduced to “which man can protect me better,” which I find eyeroll-worthy.

    The development of this series has actually made me like Andrea quite a bit more — although I was irritated last season when she wanted to stay behind and die and the old dude had to inform her how she felt about stuff. Whatever.

    I still like the show well enough, but I do wish more of the female characters were stronger.

    • I agree — it’s gettin’ nice and annoying. I don’t see a choice between Rick and Shane, though — since Rick got back, all I’ve seen her do is try to get rid of Shane, but he seems to have a blind and deaf spot when it comes to that. Regardless, they haven’t shown her strong at all really.

      I’m liking Andrea too, with the exception of shooting at Daryl in that episode.

  8. Hey, I thought very hard and came up with a couple of shows that don’t make the main women damsels in distress. Fringe. And also Castle, mostly.

  9. Interesting. Reading this blog makes me want to go to my blog and write a piece about women, and the war that is being fought in this country over their body. You bring out all the things that I keep saying about women, and how they fail to see what is happening. I wrote a piece on my blog after the Susan G Komen incident. How women are blind to the war that is being fought by men over women’s bodies. If they are not blind, then they certainly do not seem to care that much. I do not watch this show. But reading your post it sounds like they treat women exactly the same as most elected officials prefer to treat them, as a piece of meat. I assume that is what the walking dead would use them for.

  10. *minor spoilers!*
    I feel the same about the show & was almost relieved to read this post & know that I am not alone!

    Watching season 2 it started to dawn on me that most of the female characters in the show were depicted as helpless, incapable and also so so moany (most of them are unlikable as far as I’m concerned). None of the female lead characters seem to have any say in major decision making or really want to have any say either- with Lori often deferring to her husband saying ‘If you believe that’s right then I believe it too’. Women have no voice in this series.

    What particularly irked me this season was on episode 16 (’18 miles out’) when Lori & Andrea are arguing in the kitchen and Lori tells Andrea to stop running about defending the camp and do some laundry!! Apparently women doing laundry offers the camp ‘some stability’ oohhh-kaay.

    Lastly in ‘Better Angels’ Lori actually apologises to Shane over everything that’s happened because she feels guilty…she is actually apologising to the guy who tried to rape her…I mean, I was speechless at this. As you rightly pointed out, Lori is often depicted as manipulative too.

    I loved your article & it points out to me the stereotypes that women today are constantly having to battle against…they can even be hiding under our noses, in our favourite tv shows for instance. I wish that the writers of this series could read your article!

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