Laundry in the Zombie Apocalypse

Until recently, my only exposure to The Walking Dead was its adaptations into other mediums (television and game, reviewed below) and whatever early issues were available for free through ComiXology’s Comics app for the iPhone. Now, I have finally clawed my way to the top of the library waiting list for the first two trade paperback (TPB) volumes, Days Gone By and Miles Behind Us. Upon reading them, two things are immediately apparent:

  1. The absence of Norman Reedus and his biceps.
  2. The existence of the same regressive gender binaries regularly trotted out on the show.

While there’s not much to say about the former (except that I hope he gets more to do next season), in the case of the latter, I suppose it’s to be expected. Granted, some sexism is always expected because it’s the unfortunate status quo, but The Walking Dead‘s television incarnation regularly teeters between carelessly sexist and outright misogynistic. (Somewhere at AMC, there is a whiteboard with “when all else fails, torture Lori” scrawled across it in blood.) It appears to be ingrained into its very framework; even before last season’s abortion snafu, The Walking Dead established most of its characters while the men were out hunting and the women were confined to laundry duty. The Walking Dead’s extreme separation of the realm of the feminine and that of the masculine would almost read as parody if the show didn’t take itself so seriously—or if it actually interrogated the segregation in a meaningful way. Imagine my surprise, then, when I found that the characters address its gender gap early in the source material. Of course, this surprise was quickly replaced by frustration when I discovered that, instead of using this awareness to interrogate the existence of sexism in a fragmented society, The Walking Dead was outlining a blueprint for the rest of the franchise.

Shortly after being introduced, one survivor remarks on being relegated to laundry duty:

I DON’T UNDERSTAND WHY WE’RE THE ONES DOING LAUNDRY WHILE THEY GO OFF AND HUNT.  WHEN THINGS GET BACK TO NORMAL, I WONDER IF WE’LL STILL BE ALLOWED TO VOTE.

Lori, the protagonist’s wife, shuts her down immediately:

ARE YOU SERIOUS? I DON’T KNOW ABOUT YOU BUT I CAN’T SHOOT A GUN… I’VE NEVER EVEN TRIED. TO BE HONEST… I WOULDN’T TRUST ANY OF THOSE GUYS TO WASH MY CLOTHES. RICK COULDN’T DO IT WITH A WASHING MACHINE… HE’D BE LOST OUT HERE.  THIS ISN’T ABOUT WOMEN’S RIGHTS… IT’S ABOUT BEING REALISTIC AND DOING WHAT NEEDS TO BE DONE.

And there you have it, folks: women in The Walking Dead don’t hunt because they don’t know how to use a gun, and men don’t do laundry because they just can’t understand those newfangled washing machines (did somebody say doofy husband?). There is no attempt to justify why either party should even attempt to learn these completely different skill sets; it’s just assumed that they would not be able to acquire them because of an unspoken gender block. What’s more, Lori’s speech doesn’t strike me as coming from Lori; it sounds like author Robert Kirkman breaking through the fiction to answer reader questions. Specifically, it reads like he or an editor knew that readers would recognize the strict divisions in labor along gender lines, and this was an attempt to address any criticisms early.

Maybe “address” isn’t the right word to use here; it acknowledges the existence of criticism with a solution that doesn’t absolve anything. In one fell swoop, Lori/Kirkman equates “being realistic” with “doing what needs to be done” and establishes it in fundamental opposition to “women’s rights.” The idea that learned, social constructs of privilege and oppression—in this case, patriarchy—are both “realistic” and essential is usually found in popular dystopian fiction. For example, Suzanne Collins’ popular The Hunger Games takes the struggle with racism and classism in the United States and both abstracts and explores it, slowly tearing it apart over the course of three books. So far, this is not the case of the The Walking Dead; by contrast, The Walking Dead lays down the social construct of patriarchy as law. There is no interrogation of why it is law in its broken society—how the relegation of laundry and hunting duties based on gender is somehow “realistic”—it simply is. Additionally, “doing what needs to be done” falsely concedes the importance of “women’s work” in The Walking Dead by explaining that even feminine, domestic duties are important to the group’s survival. The reality, of course, is that no matter how important either the characters or the author tell us the domestic sphere is, it’s not valued enough by the fiction to show after this scene. “Watching the children” or “doing laundry” become mythical places to which Kirkman can banish female characters he can’t balance.

On one hand, this is not at all surprising given the trajectory of the show. On the other, it’s a little disappointing after hearing so much praise about the series’ humanization of the zombie apocalypse. Or maybe I just haven’t gotten to the good stuff yet. I’m back on the waiting list for the third volume, Safety Behind Bars, so tune in next month for the shocking conclusion.

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