Race and Gender Politics During the Zombie Apocalypse

At first, I thought this article at Salon was an April Fool’s joke:


But I guess it’s for real. Of course, every cultural product is fair game for critique—even TV shows about the zombie apocalypse—and the author makes some interesting points. On the other hand, it’s a TV show about the fucking zombie apocalypse!

Some of the comments below the article were fascinating:

mikill330399: How do people live based on seeing nothing but classes of people? I dont live that way and therefore this column offends me. I have white/black/asian/indian friends and I dont see or treat them any different. I dont even notice their ethnicity. To me it is racist to classify everyone and see them as different. Needing to be portrayed a certain way means you dont see them as equal. Im surprised the author is not fighting for the Zombies as an opressed class.

Carlos H: If you “don’t even notice their ethnicity,” how do you know you have “white/black/asian/indian friends”? Maybe, they are just all white or all black. Please. The 1970’s called, it wants its “know-nothing” rhetoric about race back.

CitizenRob: It is possible to not notice a person’s race. Oprah and Colin Powell are two people who I didn’t realize were African American until they themselves, or somebody else mentioned. It wasn’t that I didn’t SEE their ethnicity, it was that somehow their personalities never gave me a chance to actually notice their ethnicity until they themselves brought my attention to it, (or in the case of Colin Powell a newscaster mentioned it during a story.) My only wish would be that it were possible to always approach all people this way. (See the person they are before their race/ethnicity.)

I’ve heard people say this before (that they don’t notice race or ethnicity), and honestly, I’ve always found the claim difficult to believe. I suspect humans are hardwired to categorize the people they see on a number of axes, including gender, age and race—despite the fact that the categories are fluid and/or meaningless to some extent. Isn’t the important thing what you do with that information?

[X-posted at Balloon Juice]

Posted by Betty Cracker on 04/02/13 at 06:36 AM • Permalink

Categories: Television

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Let’s just leave aside for the moment that a) it’s the freaking apocalypse, and with the collapse of civilization, assholes run most things specifically by the weight of being violent and terrible, and b) Michonne, one of this season’s central characters, is an African-American woman who loathes the concept of being “protected” by anyone, and skip right to the Big Question this article caused me to ponder…

How is Pareene writing under the same flag as doofi like Berry?

Ya know what solves this shit? Get rid of cable. On the other hand, even if I had cable this is not a show I would watch. I don’t find fucking zombies interesting, I don’t understand the zombie craze and the idea of dead people rising to eat some motherfucking brains makes as much sense as Easter.

Shitty TV leads to shitty writers opining about that shitty TV and this is what we end up with. Fucking zombies ... WTF?

Now get the fuck off my lawn.

Personally, I can buy that people don’t see race in some forms of media.  I’m about to nerd on, but here me out here.

I grew up on a diet of junk sci-fi TV, movies, and video games.  When I watched or played those, I often identified with someone on the show or a character in the game.  It didn’t matter if that character was the Predator in Predator, a Japanese man in Ninja Gaiden, or a (whatever the fuck he is) Link in Legend of Zelda.  That’s who I identified with and I never really saw a difference.  Hell I still play a ton of street fighter which has characters that are all a racial and gender stereotypes in the hilarious way only the Japanese could get away with and… while playing the game I just don’t notice it. 

Now, I wouldn’t hold this true for all media I consume.  I watch hard drama’s as well where the race or gender is a plot device and it’s critical to what’s going on.  But for something like the Walking Dead, which is pop culture… yeah sure I can completely understand not seeing race and gender and just viewing the characters on the screen as rough avatars of human beings.

I guess that’s hard for some people to grasp.  But when you grow up on diet of media where the characters fly all over racial, gender, and even species lines it just becomes a blurred mess.  And I think for nerds on a nerdy subject (zombie invasion) most of us go into that odd mode of throwing normal conventions out the window and rooting for the next shotgun blast.

Hi Betty,
yes, I am indeed your old friend Formerly Amherst. I rarely comment here these days, but I do sort of try and keep up with the progress of our old friend Strange.

I find the zombie craze to be a strange cultural artifact.  I understood why the idea of vampires was intriguing. Vampires are powerful, supernatural creatures. They have mysterious powers that manipulate the physical universe. They can transform themselves into fog, bats, wolves—an altogether remarkable group of enigmatic processes.

However, their power is not ubiquitous. And as a consequence they cannot be seen in exactly the same category as Spiderman or Superman.  They have to use human ingenuity to keep their coffins secret.  To manipulate and con humans into letting them pass over the threshold for the first time. They have to do all their banking at night. If they need to go to the supermarket for some Tabasco and lemon juice to go with their blood shots, it necessarily will be a 24-hour supermarket.

Well, OK. Enough about vampires.  Suffice it to say I get the dramatic possibilities in the Anne Rice -type creatures.

But zombies? They have no powers. They are not enigmatic. They require no ingenuity. They are simply these brute, undead one-dimensional characters. It is almost as if a tree uprooted itself and wandered about hitting people on the head. There’s just nothing interesting about them in and of themselves. 

There are no Lestat zombies revealing their tragic, tarnished autobiographies. Zombies are more like politicians removed from their offices, wandering about like tree roaches with nothing to do aside from leaving destruction in their wake.

As for the ethnic question, I agree with you. I think today whatever echo of our racial past still remains, it has been manipulated by different forces in order for political utility to be employed.

In a discussion with a black friend of mine, we both agreed that today the more vivid issue is class, not race.

Of course, we all see ethnic differences if we are not disassociated.  Otherwise we need to visit our optometrist or our psychiatrist.  Has the world become so Orwellian that now social constructs will determine whether we see people who are tall or short?  Sometimes I wonder…

@mike w/ a mic Great comment! especially fascinating about your perception of the impact of video games on culture.

Let me guess: you’re under 40?  And your comment rings very true.  I truly believe that younger generations are going to be the ones to bring about a post racial world and I hope very much to live to see it.  So get cracking.

@ Mike w/ Mic—Interesting comment about avatarization. I can buy that in the context you outline. Where I don’t buy it is when people claim not to notice race/gender, etc. in real life. In the post I quoted, the writer claims he or she didn’t realize Oprah was African American until it was pointed out for him/her.

I don’t buy it, and furthermore, I don’t think the alleged colorblindness is necessarily a virtue. I guaran-damn-tee you the person who wrote it is white, and since his/her skin color is default “normal,” he/she can afford to disregard the importance society still attaches to melanin content, much like rich people can say money doesn’t matter.

@ Amherst—how the hell are ya? You’re right about zombies’ lack of panache, but perhaps they’re a metaphor that can help us sort out something real. Sort of how vampires make a good metaphor for people who drain the life and vitality out of others. Maybe zombies represent undead ideas and lifeless philosophies that nonetheless have us in their grip?

@ Betty nice of you to ask how I’m doing. In fact, I normally answer this question by saying that I am trying to get richer, younger, and better looking, without success.

Actually, I got the line from a Ross McDonald novel. When Lew Archer runs into a beautiful girl and thinks to himself that he wishes he were younger, richer, and better looking.

I like your speculation in reference to zombies being metaphors for dead ideas.

Occasionally I think a little about this, and I have a speculation as well.

If you go back to the X Files and Millennium programs that aided and advanced conspiracy theories, you had an interesting projection on the world.

In X Files, the world was filled with suspicious conspiracies that transcended ordinary economic and political dimensions.  Different forces of competing aliens with some unknown agenda that regarded humans as simply dismissible objects whose presence only existed to get around in order to achieve these unknown goals.

Human society was basically controlled by forces completely beyond a human being’s ability to even understand. I think that was the outlook.

Then you move into television’s changing perception of culture with the vampires. I’ve always been amused that in the early episodes of Buffy the Vampire Slayer the focus and source of all evil was called a “hellmouth” that existed directly under the high school.

I suspect that a lot of kids probably see that as a reality.

But still, as you pointed out, vampires are not exactly conspirators. They have a need for humanity. However, their need is strictly a food source for their blood eating disorder. In the vampire scenario we are simply breeding stock for forces more powerful that we to suck the lifeblood out or us.

So vampires are Nietzschean, beyond good or evil. Humans do have relationship to them, but only the relationship of a good beefsteak. And that is the way the culture was seen in that period.

Now television looks at our culture and apparently sees zombies, hollow men filled with straw, to borrow from TS Elliott.  Not secret conspiracies transcending Franz Kafka’s bureaucracies. Not supernatural evil like vampires, but blind, ignorant forces of destruction without any purpose or objective or any animating principle. Just a world of unrelenting killers who do not even possess any enjoyment of their own natural, predetermined impulse to wander about destroying anything in their way.

So my hypothesis is that if these programs really do mirror to some extent the way people are unconsciously feeling about the forces in culture, then we have to try to understand why today the evil is seen as unfeeling, unthinking, banal, apolitical, amoral force of destruction with less activating dynamic than an insect’s.


I saw the first couple of episodes of the show and gave up because I thought it was crappy, but race seems to have been an issue early on for the show itself.  Plot point even.  And if you’re gonna go that far…

Anyway, as a fan of any apocalypse that comes along, zombies are more than just blank killing machines, they’re a lot more rich.  They can be retributive ghosts from your past or a representation of consumer society (ha ha, but Dawn of the Dead) and the heroes of the zombie apocalypse are the few paranoid weirdos battling against brain-eating conformity.

I don’t watch the walking dead because I find zombies boring—but I don’t think that a post apocalyptic world has to be dull, or has to have the same race/gender roles as the regular one. That’s just because the writers are dull themselves.  The really interesting thing is probably that all new relationships and all new aspects of old personalities/races/genders would have to come to the fore. People would not be the same after a zombie apocalypse as they were before. Different skills are required for survival, for co-operation, for life itself.

There’s a very old movie, whose name I can’t remember at the moment, about what happens when a british cruise ship is wrecked on a tropical island. The butler and the lady’s maid turn out to have the most skills and rise to the top of the new hierarchy formed by need, while the former masters of the universe (his aristocratic employers) find themselves at the bottom of the new hierarchy.

There’s no reason to believe that in a post apocalytpic world class or race or sex would operate the same way they did before. Just lack of imagination and a desire to reify these things into something more than what they are: historically and culturally contingent.


Zombie craze?  What do you mean?

I find zombies boring

Hey now.

Actually, TWD is a character study of people after the strictures of society are smashed apart.  I don’t find it particularly surprising that people habitually work toward the same kind of structure they knew before, or that particularly crazy and/or immoral jerks rise to the top by being the biggest dick around.

The zombizzles just serve to ratchet the pressure up a little bit.  Everything has to be done a little bit faster when there’s a shambler creeping up on you.  Also, food becomes a problem since hunting and agriculture become much more constrained activities.

On the other hand, it’s a TV show about the fucking zombie apocalypse!

I’m with Lowkey here- I think the very appeal of an apocalypse is to authoritarian, patriarchal types who long for a world in which their violent tendencies are useful, and their authoritarian yearnings are feasible.

I notice it, I just don’t treat anybody any different because of it.  Unless there’s a cultural thing I’m aware of like bowing to say thank you to people from some Asian countries.

This whole race/gender blindness thing is both really interesting and really infuriating. I used to be—when I was a teenager—extremely unobservant about people and also quite unaware. For instance my family had had several name changes between coming over from Russia and the form our name took. I was unaware that other people’s names served as a clue to their ethnic background. I was growing up in the Boston area, for fuck’s sake, surrounded by out and proud O’Brien’s and O’Malley’s and I didn’t realize that their names were a constituent part of, and a clue to, their ethnic heritage.

I also grew up surrounded by WASPS but thought everyone was an unobservant Jew, like us.

And I memorably and to my embarrassment thought it was laudable and significant that I limited my grasp of blackness to curly hair—if you didn’t have curly hair I didn’t “see” you as black. And that’s right—I didn’t have any insight into your social history or your culture or your experiences.  That didn’t mean that I revealed myself to be a racist or anti black, far from it. But that in itself is kind of insulting—I mean it doesn’t bother me that people don’t know I’m Jewish but it does bother me that they don’t grasp that Jews are everywhere and that we have a certain history with the world. So I think its insulting to treat “Blackness” as though its an on again off again category of being which principally matters if white people can identify you at twenty paces. 

I heard on NPR recently that Germany, in a laudable (?) attempt to explore something about jewish people for its 80 million non jewish population decided to do a museum show with a jew in a box who could answer questions for the regular people.  I have no objection exactly to this horrific and prolonged trolling effort—since the volunteers in the box may not know anything more about any particular facet of Judaism than the person querying them. But I wish the person asking the questions as a “normal” German would have to step into a box himself, a box labled “Normal German 2013” and experience himself and his questions in as objectifying a way as the Jew in his box does. I think that would be salutory.

I also laugh hysterically when I try to reverse the implicit naieve non racism of “I don’t see races” or “I don’t see gender” and have that applied by non whites or women or gays to a situation. Because it doesn’t happen. You instantly know the race, gender, and class status of the people around you—sometimes you have to know in order to avoid being killed.

Since race, gender, and sexual orientation aren’t exactly optional to pretend that they are, or to pretend that many (not all but many) of our relationships in mixed company are governed by the history of our race/gender/sexual orientation experiences seems almost abusive, like a kind of erasure. Its like you walk into a room and you say “Hi, my name is Anna” and the other person says, sublimely “Oh, that’s ok, I’ll just call you Joe. I love the name Joe and I think it makes everything simpler. Joe, then.”


I think people can miss it in real life as well.  Both Powell and Oprah are outsized personalities because of things other than their race and gender.  When I think of Powell I think general, infantry man, victor of the first Iraq War, and Secretary of State.  And while I’m aware that he’s black and a man, that’s not really what comes to mind when I think about him or hear him speak.  Unless of course he or someone else injects that into the conversation.  When I think of Oprah I think of her as a gigantic larger than life, force of nature and media mogul.  Not really that she’s a black woman.

But both of those picks are sort of unfair.  Because the sheer force of their personalities, accomplishments, and global stature sort of over powers everything else.

@Bette Noir

Yes I’m in my 30’s.  And I think a large portion of my generation whenever race, gender, or whatever cultural politics gets dragged up around certain forms of entertainment starts screaming “why can’t you fucks just leave this bullshit out of my video games/movies so I can get back to blowing up spaceships with giant robots piloted by space elves for Christs sake, you people ruin everything”.  We just sort of figure the world will get less crazy when all the baby boomers die off so we don’t have to refight the 1960’s over every piece of pop entertainment that comes out.  It gets old.

Yes I’m in my 30’s.  And I think a large portion of my generation whenever race, gender, or whatever cultural politics gets dragged up around certain forms of entertainment starts screaming “why can’t you fucks just leave this bullshit out of my video games/movies so I can get back to blowing up spaceships with giant robots piloted by space elves for Christs sake, you people ruin everything”.

Really? You think that a white 30 year old guy can speak for all the 30 year old women, non whites, and other minorities in this country about how they like their video games pure and unaffected by all that “culturey” stuff? You think that your experience is the same as their experience?  You haven’t really noticed how very welcome women are, as women, in science, in technology, and in the atheist/sceptic movement or in video games, have you? You haven’t got the slightest fucking idea about how tired people are of the built in racism and sexism in so much of the popular culture thats marketed to us?

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