More Than a Vessel: Women of The Walking Dead

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With Walking Dead starting up in a very short amount of time, I thought it might be interesting to dredge this post out of the archives. I have mixed feelings about the impending season, not only because of the way the prison was written in the graphic novels, but because I’m nervous to see how they will choose to portray women this time around. Last season, as you’ll see in this post, it got messy. What I want to see this season is a divergence from the tropes and stereotypes that nearly overwhelmed the last season. 

What do you want to see?

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!”


….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.


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? 


About Emmie Mears

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

Posted on September 29, 2012, in urban fantasy, ZAP and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 8 Comments.

  1. It goes with the sort of “Stripping the Veneer of Civilization” from the comic. Take away modernity and people revert back to their “true selfs” whatever that may be. Not saying that women are like that, under all circumstances, only that the author/writers feel that way.

  2. You’ve hit a frustration I feel when watching this! Andrea, Lori and Maggie are all strong women, even Carol, though having been downtrodden, shows promise and strength, yet they are all portrayed as needing to be looked after. In an actual apocalypse (of any kind) I feel the women would be a hell of a lot stronger and much more resilient than shown here! We should be well past the ‘little woman at home’ stage…and showing more equality.
    They get shown as whining, complaining and getting it wrong, and yet the men make many more mistakes and just keep going…in real life, the men would have had their backsides kicked at this point!
    Lori’s pregnancy could give the show a huge opening to explore the risks and miracles that could occur…but I worry that the pregnancy will just be portrayed as a side line that endangers everyone, and yes, a baby would be a huge risk with zombies about, but babies are a fact of life and would be big plot development.
    Still, I love the show and look forward to see how it does develop!

    • I think the show could really benefit from really utilising the strength of the women on the show. They’re only realising half their potential when they adhere to tropes like that.

      Also, it drives me nuts how many scrapes the men get into without being portrayed as idiotic. “Oh, look how funny it is when a woman gets a gun! She almost shoots Darryl, har har har, see, it’s funny cos she’s the SHARPSHOOTER.”

  3. I have the same frustrations with this show. I hope the writers sort out their issues with portraying strong women this season.

    • I agree. In the graphic novels, one character in particular could go either way this season, and I’m hoping she goes the Better Way instead of the trope-y one. Grr.

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