Friday, November 4, 2011

The Race Problem on the Walking Dead

'365-026' photo (c) 2010, miss_millions - license:

It is hardly surprising that the AMC series The Walking Dead is so incredibly popular given that comic series itself is popular. Going into this series the one thing this show had going for it was an absolutely solid fan base. Part of the problem with developing a television show from an already popular text is that you are given two choices, stick to the script with limited changes a la Harry Potter style, or slightly alter the script adding new elements, while enlarging, or eliminating characters altogether, which is the path chosen by Alan Ball on his work on True Blood. The Walking Dead has chosen to go with the latter which raises the question about whether or not the changes have been positive or negative.

One of the most glaring issues with race we see is the contrast between the original comics and the show. In the comics there were several characters of colour who were active members of the group and in fact, at times, were put into leadership positions. The same cannot be said of the television show, however, and this is evidenced by the absence of Tyreese.

In the comic series Tyreese is a co-leader with Rick. He’s one of the main fighters of the group, he’s one of the people the rest of the group look up to. He is respected, he is honoured, he is a valued and highly contributing member of the group. In many ways he fulfills the role that Shane fulfills in the television series - only without the arseholery that makes us wish for Shane to become a chew toy every episode. Most importantly, Tyreese could be counted upon to share the burden of leadership with Rick, matching him walker kill for walker kill. Tyreese is so skilled that upon being locked in a gym with walkers, her emerges unscathed with scores of kills to his name.

So where is Tyreese? Well, he is very conspicuous by his absence. But we do have T-Dog who doesn’t exist in the comics. If we contrast these two characters we see a marked difference.

What has T-Dog done? Actually done the whole series? In season one, his single action was to be attacked by Merle, and then drop the key that would open Merle’s handcuffs. His one action the whole series was to be abused by a racist and then fumble. In season two? He has cut his arm, was saved by Darryl three times (twice physically and with medicine) and otherwise hung around doing nothing. His injury even rendered him unable to look for Sophia.

Contrast that with Tyreese, the character he replaced. Tyreese was awesome. When Rick needed someone to confide in - his worries, when he was upset, when he needed support, when he needed a second, it was Tyreese he turned to. When there were Walkers to kill, Tyreese was there, with his hammer. When people were upset, Tyreese was who they could always rely on and lean on. He was the backbone of the group - he could literally go into a small room crowded with Walkers and bring them down. Tyreese kicked arse and was an amazing character.

But also contrast T-Dog with the other characters in the series. None of the men are close to as useless as T-Dog. Shane and Rick are leaders and crusaders who protect the group, advise, reassure, plan, save people etc - these two are the glue and hub of the group. They are soul and centre. Darryl is a fighter with impressive survival skills and a silenced ranged weapon. Glenn was useful in the first season for his considerable knowledge of Atlanta (though in season 2, again we see Glenn reduced to a hanger on). Even Dale knows how to use a gun, and is often left on watch, as well as having some maintenance skills to keep the cars going. The only people still alive who contribute as little to the group’s survival are Carol, Andrea (and even then she can fish), Lori and the children (and it’s another trope about sexism that needs addressing there).

T-Dog is an ultimate hanger on - and because they gave Tyreese’s role to Shane and, to a lesser extent, Darryl; they stripped T-Dog of any useful contribution and recast him as a constant victim - and any positive abilities he had were given to white men who were non-existent in the books. This is of course complicated by the fact that percentage of people of colour who have survived the plague (or whatever turned people into zombies) is exceedingly small in relationship to the actual population. Let’s face it folks, this story is set in Georgia and that means that there should be plenty of people of colour.

Another aspect we have to consider is Merle. Now, Merle was an utterly racist character and he was always framed as a deeply hateful character as well - his racism wasn’t the problem, because it was challenged and he faced a nice smack down for it. However, in some ways Merle serves as such an extreme example of racism, it sets the bar. Just as we have people who say that they’re not being racist because they didn’t use a slur or who aren’t a member of the KKK, despite there being any amount of every day racism that is still damaging but not as blatant; so we have Merle, an example of extreme racism for people to point at while more subtle racism goes unchecked (such as Darryl’s language). This seems to be emphasised in Series 2, Episode 2: Bloodletting when T-Dog, delirious from infection, talks about his concerns of being the only black man in his situation - and his fears are not only dismissed as ridiculous by Dale (who stepped in quickly to silence T-Dog for his lack of proper gratitude to his white saviour), but presented as having no basis in reality as well (after all, he only says them when he has a fever). After all, none of the characters are acting like Merle, right? So they’re not racist.

Yet, his concerns are hardly invalid. He’s a black man, surrounded by predominantly white people from rural Georgia - including two policemen and a man who uses racist language. No matter hos nice Rick and Shane appear to be, it should hardly be denied that po po is no friend to the Black man, thus making his concerns extremely relevant.

And, of course, there’s the declining numbers. When series one began, I was pleased to see the number of POC in the survivors group - and there was Morgan and Duane as well. It seemed like a very racially diverse cast, but then the countdown started.

Morgan and Duane don’t follow Rick, though it should be noted that in the comics, Morgan and Duane do make a reappearance and the show has yet to reach that far in the series. The Morales family decides to solo jaunt to Birmingham (just setting off alone and leaving the group). Some unnamed POC are killed in the zombie attack and Jacqui commits suicide at the CDC. We’re very quickly reduced to two. Morales’ were the only POC to have any family present (if you consider his family to be characters) or any links with the group - all the other POC are single, have no family and no strong relationships. And how much more glaring can this be than with the suicide of Jacqui and the attempted suicide of Andrea. Andrea had Dale who loved and cared for her, enough to risk his own life to save her. Jacqui? Well they said goodbye, waved to her as they ran out the door.

This decline is especially problematic when we consider that all of these characters have had a considerably smaller role in the series than their White fellow travellers. How much screen time did Jacqui get, or Morales before randomly deciding on a cross country tour? (and does anyone remember the name of his wife and kids? Did they have names? Or speaking roles?) T-Dog I’ve already talked about - but after a good start in season one, Glenn has been pretty much a hanger on in season two. In some ways, the representation is reminiscent of the crowd scenes in The Secret Circle, or The Vampire Diaries, where we see unnamed black students in the background - silent tokens who are barely involved in the plot - there to fill an inclusion quota but always on the fringes of the actual storyline.

Finally, we have to address a disturbing element in the Walking Dead fandom. If you look through the fandom posts what you will find is that Darryl is overwhelming the most popular character. Some of this can be ascribed to the fact that Norman Reedus who plays Darryl Dixon is far from hard on the eyes. It would be one thing if they separated Norman from the character that he plays but such is not the case. What we end up with people fan poodling over a character that is clearly a racist. Simply because he does not express himself in the same manner as his brother Merle does not make him any less racist. The idea that the good ole’ redneck boy is the bomb, because he is an excellent survivalist reveals the degree to which people are ready to excuse racism.

Again we are presented with the fact that mere presence of minority characters doesn’t make for unproblematic portrayals or a series that is free from isms. And, sadly, the problems we’ve seen make us fear for Michonne if the writers should decide to include her. We’ll probably be introduced to a delicate little flower and her big strong white friend with a sword.