Both The Walking Dead comics and the television show begin with Rick waking up in the hospital completely unaware that his world has changed forever. Though Rick interacts with many characters, there is never any doubt that this is his story and that as readers and viewers, we are to identify with his struggle and empathise with the way he is forced to change, based in the circumstances which he is presented with. From almost the moment he reunites with Lori and Carl and becomes a member of a group, Rick takes on a leadership role (especially when Shane is… disposed of. The unfortunate fate of anyone who challenges The Almighty Rick). People look to him for guidance and are willing to risk their lives on just about any plan he formulates.
Of course, it helps that Rick Is Always Right. Throughout the television show and in season six in particular, we have seen several examples wherein Rick makes a decision and then later on in the same episode, something happens in the plot to prove Rick right. In fact, simply challenging Rick’s ability or right to lead is enough for a character to end up dead, as we have seen with several Alexandrians in season 6 (I think Rick keeps a pack of pet Hit-Walkers to silence any dissent). Not only does Rick have plot immunity, he is in the enviable position of always being proven right. Rick isn’t just the leader, he is the alpha who makes the tough choices no one wants to make or is capable of making.
Strong White, straight, able bodied cisgender male leadership in a dystopian style show or book is absolutely commonplace. It seems that at the end of the world, writers and showrunners firmly believe that the White het, cis, guys will save world, whether they are competent enough to do so or not. This scenario necessitates the “depowering” of other characters, and especially marginalised characters. In the case of The Walking Dead, no matter who Rick interacts with, they will always in some fashion be less competent to lead.
A perfect example is Carol who, on the TV show, would be a terrifyingly excellent leader, a fact she has proven time and again. Yes, it seems the show is determined to present her as too damaged to lead: Carol being a survivor of domestic abuse and losing her only child, has been twisted in such a way that suggests that no matter how awesome her acts are, that damage outweighs her leadership. Having seen her daughter become a walker, it’s Carol. who takes it upon herself to teach the prison children how to protect themselves, even while mentally defeated Rick focuses on teaching Carl to farm. Carol’s interactions with children come to represent her damage. While Rick making similar ruthless decisions is seen as making necessary hard choices.
The Carol of the television show is quite different from the Carol of the comics. The Carol of the comics always remained dependent upon not only Rick, but everyone in the group. Eventually, she succumbed to the pressure of the world falling apart and tried to hug a Walker. There was never any hope of this incarnation of Carol ever challenging Rick for so much as a slice of bread, let alone leadership of the group, the Carol of the television show is absolutely the antithesis of her comic book version. Carol is not only strong and capable, she has shown the ability to make the tough choices. (“Look at the flowers Lizzie” has become infamous). Unlike Rick, when she lost Sophia, she didn’t decide to stop participating in the group and instead used her loss to steel her determination to survive no matter what.
It was Carol who made the tough decision to kill the sick in the prison. Let’s just face basic facts, if you crowd a bunch of people into an area with limited sanitation and access to medical care, people are going to sick and it won’t be long before a pandemic sweeps through the area. In this case, the prison population also had the misfortune of being surrounded by the dead and all of the diseases that come with rotting bodies. It’s not pleasant but what Carol did was triage. Rick however was sad because he had to kill his pigs, thus losing his ridiculous utopian fantasy of farming life. He had to be prodded into action by the group. In the end, Rick handled the situation by giving Carol her walking papers. He didn’t discuss what to do with the group, he unilaterally decided that he couldn’t have Carol around anymore. This is Carol’s punishment and it is made clear by Rick explaining that he simply doesn’t trust her anymore. Yeah, he’s all about taking the back seat until someone else steps up.
Carol returned to Rick’s good graces when she single handedly saved the group in Terminus. Rick didn’t apologise for exiling Carol, and simply bestowed his forgiveness and thanks like the dystopian era king that he is written to be. Since then, Carol has been in his good graces but Carol’s time away from the group has made her even harder. What’s clear is that Carol has leadership material all over her. When Alexandria was attacked, Carol wasn’t soft like Morgan, she knew the Wolves had to die. This doesn’t mean that she didn’t grieve over what she had to do but that she is absolutely always prepared to do what must be done. Carol was the central figure in the resistance to Wolf occupation in Alexandria, and thus far, we have not seen Rick bother to acknowledge this in the least. In fact, no one in the group has acknowledged this at all. Carol has all of the qualities needed to be a strong leader and yet for all that she does, and for all that she sees, no one even remotely recognises Carol’s abilities.
There are other notable, powerful women who could be excellent leaders of the group (and even stand out despite sharing the spotlight with Carol, the source of all things awesome) - Michonne and, in the comics, Andrea and even Maggie. Andrea of the comics is a far cry from Andrea of the TV series, being as lethal with her rifle as Michonne is with her sword. These characters are dangerous, courageous, powerful, smart and often see exactly what needs to be done. They have often brought excellent common sense and inspiration to go with their lethal abilities and both Michonne and Andrea, in their respective mediums, are notable for being people Rick can confide in - and even people who will call Rick out.
Unfortunately, this “strength” reveals their purpose - to be Rick’s adjutants. The idea of any of them stepping into a leadership position is alien and never even considered - they are there to support Rick, to be his weapons to call (in fact, being Rick’s soldiers is an all too common role for both of them - both of them are defined more by their martial skill than anything else) and to raise him up. They are there to speak up on his behalf against detractors, to support him when he feels doubts or fears and, occasionally, nudge him back away from the edge when his anger frays. Even when Maggie assumes the leadership of the Hilltop community, it is to rally the people in favour of Rick - of course opposing Nagan is the right thing to do - but the defining moment of her leadership, of her even claiming leadership, is to support Rick.
Not only does Rick go unchallenged by the potential female leaders in his group, but female leaders elsewhere don’t fare any better.
We’ve only seen three female leaders in The Walking Dead universe and none of them were capable of holding together their group. Dawn Lerner was the leader of the Grady Memorial Hospital group. We are introduced to Dawn when Beth is taken captive and forced to work off the debt she incurred when the Hospital group treated her injuries. Dawn barely holds her group of former cops together and allows her officers to commit all manner of brutalities against the people seeking shelter in the hospital. Like Rick, Dawn, came to power via a coup but, quite unlike Rick, Dawn’s rule is notable for her constantly having to look over her shoulder. In many ways, Dawn is leader in name only because she constantly has to turn a blind eye to something in order for the former officers to acknowledge her position. Dawn’s power is an illusion.
Even when Rick was wandering around the property outside of the prison after the death of Lori, while seeing visions of his dead wife, his group still looked to him for leadership though he was in no position to lead. Hershel even told Rick to step up because he believed that at that time, Glenn wasn’t ready to become a leader. Even when clearly having a mental breakdown the group never doubted their fearless leader. He didn’t have to make any concessions whatsoever. Sure, we can blame the difference between Dawn and Rick on patriarchy but let’s not forget that these stories are specifically written from the point of view that Rick will always lead and no woman thus far has gotten even close to the benefit of the doubt.
Glenn assumed that in the absence of Rick and Darryl that he was next in line to lead. My question is, why wasn’t Maggie considered? At this point, she had proven herself to be every bit as capable as Glenn but her name was never mentioned. Even when The Walking Dead makes brief allowances for Rick being incapacitated, it still cannot conceive of a woman being in charge.
Unlike Rick, Dawn constantly has her people ready to backstab her on a moment's notice. This is pressure that Rick never has to deal with. His group is always cohesive, even when they disagree with his tactics, like his tantrum on the streets of Alexandria because of the Alexandrians ignorance regarding the way that the world is now. Michonne thankfully knocks him out but never for a moment is there any doubt that Rick’s group will back whatever play he chooses to make.
Contrast this to Dawn, who finds herself having to cover for Beth Green constantly. At first, it appears that Dawn cares for the young woman when in fact, Dawn is only using Beth to eliminate the people she doesn’t trust slowly over time. Dawn constantly has to manipulate those around her and even metes out punishment to Noah in order to save face, though she knew that Beth was the one who administered the fatal drug. Dawn even allows Gorman to rape Joan repeatedly and turned her back when Gorman shifted his abusive eye in Beth’s direction. Dawn strikes Beth repeatedly to prove her toughness and instill fear. As viewers these acts are made to make us despise Dawn. Beth who is the innocent girl who took to her bed, sings pretty songs and is so very young is sharply contrasted against the older, more experienced and jaded Dawn. Whatever violence Rick participates in or allows is always seen as for the good of the group, while Dawn’s only serves to show her weakness. Despite all of Dawn’s compromises and acts of manipulation and violence, Dawn’s control remained shaky at best and in the end became her undoing.
Not once did Rick Grimes have to worry about losing face. When Rick decided to focus on farming and put down his gun, as though walkers weren’t constantly lining the prison gates, no one judged him. Sure he set up a council of leaders who made the decisions but it didn’t take long for Hershel to try to pester Rick into leading again. He knew that Rick was hiding from what he was meant to be and pretending that the apocalypse had gone away. The group was happy to pick up the slack that the power vacuum created without a problem. Rick never had to fear for his life and when he was ready to assume the mantle of leadership again, the power was simply handed back to him as though it were a birthright.
The other female leader of note is Deanna. When Rick and Deanna first met, it became quickly clear that while Deanna had big dreams, she basically existed in a bubble because shortly after the apocalypse started, Deanna was able to find sanctuary in Alexandria. Deanna’s big claim to fame is that she exiled three men which she conceives of as a death sentence. Deanna was smart enough to know that Alexandria needed to continue to grow and that they needed experienced survivors to deal with how the world had changed. The problem however is that the moment Rick and his group arrived, Deanna’s hold on leadership began to change. Yes, she took the time to interview each of them, asking critical questions of each of Rick’s group and assign them appropriate tasks; however, it quickly becomes apparent that Deanna is outmatched. Almost from the moment Rick enters the gate he creates a plan with Darryl and Carol to take the necessary precautions to take Alexandria by force if need be. It’s Rick who attempts to stop “Porch Dick” from beating his wife and children though his abusive behaviour had not gone unnoticed by Deanna. It’s Rick who eventually kills "Porch Dick" after he kills Deanna's beloved husband Reg. Finally, it’s Rick who comes up with a plan to steer the walkers away from Alexandria, even as Deanna becomes mute and lost in her grief. In the wake of the herd splitting off and Alexandria being surrounded, Deanna is ready to abdicate her power though it’s clear that the Alexandrians still look to her. Deanna is undone. There’s no doubt that moving forward, the best that Deanna can hope for is to become a figurehead while Rick makes the life and death decisions for the group.
Our third female leader can be found in the Walking dead books. Descent, covers what happens to Woodbury after the loss of the Governor. With Woodbury in absolute chaos, Lilly takes over as leader. After being deceived by the Governor, you would think that she would be circumspect about who she allowed to join her small group of stragglers but that is not the case. Everyone is welcomed in with open arms. Lilly doesn’t even bother to ask Rick’s famous three questions, or display any kind of caution.
After leading an unsuccessful coup to oust the Governor from his seat of power and finally gaining freedom after Philip’s death, Lilly should be desperate to hold onto power to assure that she never ends up in the same situation. Lilly is actually more concerned about her love life than what is going on in Woodbury. Contrast this to Rick, who clearly has the hots for Jessie in the show but never allows that to shift his determination to be the ultimate decision maker in Alexandria. Cal is actually in town for a New York minute before Lilly is inviting him to sit on the ruling council at Woodbury. Sure, a leader can delegate duties for the sake of efficiency but Lilly seeks to abdicate altogether. When the Reverend Jeremiah comes to town, Lilly immediately seeks to hand over the reigns of control. She knows absolutely nothing about him except that he professes to be a man of God. She doesn’t try to find a way to investigate his story or even interview him and his congregation because she is eager to hand over power. Throughout this time, her long time friend and co-conspirator Bob strenuously object to Lilly recusing herself and even leaves town in protest. Lilly could have had handed over the town to Bob, whom she knows and fought side by side with but instead she gives power to Cal, her lover and the fake Reverend.
When Rick gave up power in season four, he knew that the council was filled with competent people he could trust. Darryl even acknowledged that Rick was due a break, thus justifying his ridiculousness whereas there is no one to say that after everything Lilly has been through that she deserves the exact same courtesy. Lilly only has Bob advising her and still yet, she doesn’t have enough sense to be cautious and heed his advice, instead, she mocks Bob. Unsurprisingly when Lilly is betrayed by Cal and the Reverend, it’s Bob who comes rushing to the rescue. Not only does Lily get herself into this bind by abdicating her power, she is saved by a man.
To date, Lilly is the only female leader in the books. Not even Philip, who abuses his powers constantly and wages war on little provocation is as incompetent as her. Lilly fought for freedom and the moment she had it was unwilling to recognise that with freedom comes responsibility. Like a child, she just wanted to take her ball and go home.
I know there are readers who are now rushing to tell us that there are terrible male leaders in the comics, the books and the TV series… and this is true: but they are terrible because they are EVIL not because they are INEPT. This is the dramatic shift in tone, Dawn, Lily and Deanna fail as leaders because they are bad at it, incapable and weak. Whatever the Governor or Negan are, they’re not weak, they’re not incapable and they don’t really struggle to hold their groups together or to preserve their authority. They’re brutal, evil rapists - but they are not inept. When the female leaders are abusive - like Dawn - it is not due to sadism or viciousness, it’s because of their weakness and incapacity as leaders.
It’s also notable that there are non-evil failed male leaders (because no-one can compete with The Almighty Rick) but they are treated with far more dignity and respect than these inept women. Hershall’s compassion and naivety towards the Walkers was little different from Deanna’s but, once he accepted the One True Leadership of the Rickocracy he was brought into the group as a moral compass, respected, honoured and valued. Even King, in the comics the funny, crafty and deceptively skilled King was treated with dignity in his failure and held on to his crown - albeit under the authority of The Almighty Rick. Like everyone else, they are subservient to him - and occasionally have to be reminded that Rick Is Always Right, but they are respected and valued and even maintain leadership positions.
Sadly, we have long since been resigned to The Almighty Rick being the One True Leader and saviour of this series. But even looking past this infuriating pedestal, there is a dramatic difference in how male and female leaders - Rick’s competitors, challengers and the closest thing the Almighty One has to peers - are treated in this series. So far, women have either been content to step back from anything resembling a leadership position - or proven themselves to be almost laughably inept whenever they find themselves in charge (to such a blatant level it almost becomes a cautionary tale lest any other little ladies get ideas above themselves). Whatever other flaws they have, the men have, largely, been strong and capable in stark contrast to any woman who steps up.