Friday, February 15, 2013

Problematic Motherhood on 'The Walking Dead'

Motherhood means life, so in some ways it is not surprising that a show where the dead rise and walk the earth, contains problematic treatment of motherhood. Despite all of the running, hiding and struggle to survive, motherhood has actually featured quite largely on The Walking Dead, the problem is that each instance in which motherhood has been an issue, it reveals not only the strong gender roles that The Walking Dead has enforced since the very first season, but an idealized form of motherhood.

The first mother we were introduced to was Lori.  She escaped the city with Carl and Shane (thank Gods he’s dead).  Lori’s main motivation was keeping Carl safe, when she wasn’t engaged in subsistence labour. It is Lori who sat down with Carl and forced him to continue his studies. It is Lori who tried hard to establish discipline and order in his life. Lori’s only real identity for the bulk of her appearance on the show was to nurture. The one time in which she chose to reject this limitation because of the impact that it would have on her life, she was shamed. If a woman can’t choose to have an abortion during a zombie apocalypse when food, and shelter are scarce, then when can she?  Her life essentially meant nothing if she was not fulfilling her role as a mother.  When she went to Hershel with her fears, she was given the “there there” treatment and sent on her way.  Even in the best of situations, labour can mean death but for a woman who had serious issues with her first pregnancy and now faced labour without any modern medical intervention, it was an absolute surety. In the end, Lori paid for her motherhood with her life.

Lori’s death did not however convince Rick to take on the nurturing role for his family. This duty was instead passed to Beth. Before taking on a role as primary caregiver to the newborn, Beth’s greatest claim to fame was lying down in her bed and giving up. Yes, in this day and age, The Walking Dead actually had a young woman take to her bed. With a child to care for, Beth is suddenly reinvigorated and taking an active interest in life again, she has even gone as far as to talk about how she always wanted to be a wife and mother. These are certainly admirable goals but the fact that she didn’t have other aspirations as well, speaks loudly about the role that women are expected to take on The Walking Dead. As young as Beth is, she is already being constructed as a mother type figure with no other discernible traits. Even Carl, who is several years younger than her is walking around with a gun and entrusted with protecting the prison. Though Judith is his sister, Carl’s involvement in her daily life is minimal at best. The only other caregiver we have seen look after Judith is Carol, despite the fact that Beth chose to claim Darryl as the reason for Judith’s survival and Rick chose to thank him for his contribution.  The efforts of both Beth and Carol have gone unrecognized.

Beth and Maggie’s mother is deceased and this of course happened off screen. Hershel is their parent and yet it is Maggie who does the nurturing work for Beth. There can be no doubt that a loving relationship exists between Hershel, Maggie and Beth, but again, their roles are strictly defined by gender.  By default, it is Maggie who takes on the role of parental figure, though this should absolutely be Hershel’s responsibility.  

Hershel’s general lack of parental duties is hardly unique - anyone googling “Lori where’s Carl” can find a huge internet meme of all the times Lori has lost track of Carl - it’s a running joke and, yes a funny one. Yet, where are the memes for Rick? He put a gun in Carl’s hand, but he isn’t expected to play the same role in Carl’s life that Lori does and no-one is laughing at him for Carl’s frequent wandering off. We haven’t actually had a depiction of really involved fatherhood since Morgan and Duane Jones back in season 1 - and that, conspicuously happened not only after Duane’s mother died, but also in the complete absence of any female characters. Is that what it takes for men to step up for their children in The Walking Dead? No women at all?

One of the most telling indications of mothers on The Walking Dead being defined solely by their motherhood is Carol. In our reviews and recaps of The Walking Dead season 3, we have come to really love Carol as a character. She has changed and grown so much in this season - gaining confidence and strength and ensuring she is an asset to the group. She has learned how to use a gun, she has learned medical skills from Hershel, she was even ready to perform a caesarian on Lori, by practicing on walker to. She has grown by leaps and bounds, grown stronger, grown harder and grown as a person, with some excellent discussions on abuse with Beth and even an intriguing relationship with Daryl. Rarely have we seen a character grow so well.

And it all happened this season. Now, that could be an element of both grief and time free from an abusive relationship that is allowing her to grow and change, but it’s also telling that she started to become a more realised person once she stopped being a mother. Before Sophia died, Carol was a mother. That was her role - abused wife and mother, that’s what she did, it was what she talked about, what she was involved in. Her actions revolved around caring for her husband and child and, when Sophia was missing, grieving for her. It’s hard to ignore the pattern when both of the mothers on this show are defined almost entirely by their mother hood. At least those who appeared for more than a few episodes - does anyone remember Miranda Morales? Even then, Miranda and her children were more silent additions to their husband and father (similarly, this is all we know about the deceased Annette Greene, Hershel’s wife).

It’s hard to avoid the messages of this series. Mothers in The Walking Dead exist to be mothers far more so than they exist to be people or characters in their own right. So overwhelming is this duty to mother that abortion, even in the face of such a risky pregnancy, is treated as abhorrent and unthinkable. Caring for the children is the sum total of these women’s existence - and certainly far eclipsing the roles of any fathers on the show (where are the “where’s Carl?” memes for Rick?).

Motherhood is not only their main defining feature, but their only defining feature.