Thursday, October 18, 2012

Michonne and Her Zombies

 The season opener of walking dead brought us our first sustained look at Michonne. For fans of the comics and fans of the series itself, this was a much anticipated moment.  Because this character is a fan favourite the producers of the show made sure to give Michonne her Katana and of course her zombie honour guard.

In the comics we learn that the zombies Michonne who escorted everywhere were ex boyfriend and his best friend.  Watching her walk with the men in chains, without arms and the jaws hacked out is truly macabre; however, it reveals exactly how intelligent Michonne is. In the first season, Rick covered himself and Glenn with zombie intestines and as much body fluid as he could to walk through a crowd of  zombies in order to get to a vehicle to escape. Because they smelled and moved like zombies themselves they went unharassed until it started to rain.  By dragging zombies around with her, Michonne was basically doing the exact same thing.

Being obsessed with The Walking Dead, I pretty much read everything I can about it.  When I came across a recap on Racialicious suggesting that Michonne’s zombie escort was racist, I truly had to pause.

Two Black Men With Missing Limbs in Chains Isn’t At All Racist…Right?

Joe: Wow, we’re going to have to look at those two bizarro Venus de Milos every week?
Jeannie: Took me a second, but I just understood your reference! Haha, gross.
Joe: Eugh. Like … I know who they are (I won’t spoil it for those who don’t know,) and I know that it makes sense to use chain to keep them secure, but…you know? If there was ever a loaded image, it would be the jump cuts of those two jawless, armless black zombies, looking like a file photo from the end of the Civil War. It’s a lot different seeing this in real-person form rather than a comic book drawing. It doesn’t bother me that much, but it takes a lot more pointed forms of racist imagery to do so. However, no matter what is in the comic books, or the fact that a black woman has (owns?) them, I’m finding myself narrowing my eyes a bit. I’m pretty sure there are going to be quite a few offended by it.
Jeannie: I also have been reading the comics and did not think anything of it when they appeared on paper. But last night, I was definitely making my trademark skeptical face.
Liz: Umm…yeah her own zombie slaves? Have we figured out why she has them in the first place? Trophies? Accessories? Gross. Oh, and weird, too.
Carly: I know nothing about the comic books or any outside info, so all I can say is I definitely gave my husband the side-eye about the whole set up. I’ll be interested to see where it goes. And also it is so nice to see Andrea. And to have someone else who would also look at Lori like she was a fool for suggesting she’s behind on her laundry duties.

When it comes to the problem of race and The Walking Dead, there are certainly very legitimate issues which can and should be raised, but I don’t believe that Michonne’s zombie escort rises to that level. This is the problem that comes when one is not familiar with the originating text.  Often times when a show is based on a text there is a level of assumed knowledge because the source material has already been widely disseminated as is the case with The Walking Dead.  Those familiar with the comics know a lot about Michonne already and most certainly more than those who have only watched the show.

We realise that not everyone who watches The Walking Dead will be familiar with the comics that inspired them. Nor do we feel it is essential - albeit it is preferable - since we shouldn’t rely on explanatory notes to justify or explain various problems. But at the same time it is worth remembering there is more information out there and, perhaps more importantly, there is more that information that will be shown on the show.

Even on programmes where we don’t have a book or comic source, we always hesitate before making assumptions - or, at very least, we include provisos like “so far” or “has yet to be explained” or even “this could be redeemed.” This is why, often, our criticisms of erasure in a programme don’t start until the sixth episode or even the season finale (unless we’ve already watched ahead). If, as the season progresses, there is no explanation as to who these two zombies are or no exploration of how, for example, she talks to them to alleviate her loneliness and to try and connect to the men she loved that she lost (as she does in the comics) than there will definitely be something to say. But after such a bare introduction, it feels hasty to cast this judgement at this stage.

We further felt that this criticism missed the mark because the issue was clearly that two Black men in chains were being led by a Black woman.  Had the criticism been grounded in the fact that The Walking Dead universe was created by two White men, then and only then could they potentially have a point. The image in and of itself is not offensive because it is clear that she has made this decision to protect herself from an imminent threat. What they missed in their complaint is the absolute ingenuity of her action. This is why it is important to consider all of the information when making a decision as to whether or not a show is displaying bias.

It is far too early to be worried about this issue, especially when The Walking Dead has shown itself to have several relevant racial issues to date that need discussion. Michonne’s zombie entourage may be uncomfortable to look at it, but they are a well established part of The Walking Dead universe and go a long way into explaining her backstory.