Friday, February 24, 2017

The Walking Dead: Rick and his Fan Club

Image result for rick and father gabriel

There's never been any doubt that Rick is the protagonist of this show.  There are times that for whatever reason, the writers seem determined to drive home the White, cis, het able bodied male will save the world narrative and Hostiles and Calamities is just one such occasion. The white man will save us was laid on so heavily and enforced by one of the four black male characters that I found myself wanting to simply turn off this episode.  The racial dynamics at play seem lost on the writers who are determined at all cost to set Rick up for victory.

The Walking Dead has essentially erased race from the conversation as though a dystopian setting would suddenly bring up about the equality that is so sadly missing in our civilised world. In seven seasons, there have been two conversations about race. The first occurred between T Dog and Dale in the second season.  T Dog expressed his concern about travelling with two white police officers only to be quickly shut down by an incredulous Dale as though police officers abusing their authority to actively harm Black men isn’t a historical fact. This conversation only existed to affirm the goodness of Rick and, at the time, Shane.  T Dog’s legitimate fears were deemed meaningless because the purpose of shows like The Walking Dead is to have power coalesce into the hands of white men as though their leadership guarantees success for all. This is an abject negation of the fact that men like Rick have been the primary cause of violence, rape, starvation, physical brutality of communities of colour since First Contact.  

The second conversation was between Daryl and his older brother Meryl. After leaving the group for a time to be with brother, Daryl decides to return. Meryl makes it clear that he cannot go with Daryl because he “damn could have killed that black bitch and damn near killed the Chinese kid”.  Daryl simply replies to Meryl, “he’s Korean”, in reference to Glenn, before walking away. This moment is meant to stand out because it represents Daryl’s redemption train. By turning his back on Meryl and going back to Rick and the group he is signalling that he is choosing to live in a community rather than relying upon comradery based solely on a homogenous identity of whiteness. Darryl’s redemption train is short  because it is assumed that his racist beliefs are a victimless crime and that having seen the light that he should be afforded the benefit of the doubt. That this approach simply doubles down on the white supremacist attitude that the writers are trying to divorce Darryl from seems lost in the desire to offer a redemption to allow a popular character to not only rise in the ranks but to fully integrate as a trusted member of the group. It is a subtle dismissal of white supremacist beliefs by having them dismissed and ignored so easily

Darryl has made no apologies for his former belief system, there was barely even a nod towards them. It has simply been erased as though it didn’t permeate his formative years thus greatly affect his sense of self. Darryl’s moment of epiphany isn’t based on the morality as much as it is based in a need to survive in this new dystopian world. That it comes with a reward of increased status and the ability to be seen as valued is simply glossed over. It’s a convenient change of ideology that is both self serving and disturbing in its ability to erase the harm of white supremacy on communities of colour. Glenn is a friend and coupled with a need to survive, it now costs Darryl nothing to admit his humanity.

At very least it’s a rather waste of a storyline - actually having Darryl grow, change, confront his beliefs and understand the full impact of how terrible they were and trying to move on from that would have been an interesting, developed, character building and respectful way of not just adding flesh to some rather dull seasons AND respectfully addressing racism.

Race as an issue on The Walking Dead is either silenced or simply a part of the elevation of White supremacy.  The Walking Dead routinely divorces its characters of colour from any distinct cultural markers.  They don’t congregate at anytime to discuss how their experiences or situation might well differ from that of the white characters; there is no closeness based in difference, they barely interact at all. Surviving the threat that zombies pose along with the threat from out group individuals is used to tie people together.  Whatever disagreements may occur between individuals never come down to racial disharmony, they are always about something else.

Most recently, we’ve seen tension between Sasha and Rosita who represent fifty percent of the women of colour on this show.  It’s telling that the source of the antagonism between these two women is the very white and now dead Abraham. In Rock in the Road, Rosita makes it clear that she and Sasha aren’t friends and only slept with the same dead man.  Keep in mind that there are several men of colour on The Walking dead currently and yet 50% of the female cast of colour are grieving the death of a White man.  That these men weren’t even considered to be viable love interest goes a long way in The Walking Dead’s narrative purpose of setting up White men as the epitome of masculinity and desirability. Masculinity in The Walking Dead’s work is always hyper aggressive and is continually rewarded.

Even as The Walking Dead erases race it has no problems having Father Gabriel, a one time coward and pastor extol the virtues of Rick. In New Best Friends,  Father Gabriel even went as far as to claim that Rick can do anything.  Even though this scene was set in a junkyard, for all of the racial implications at play, it might as well have been set in antebellum south during the heart of slavery in front of the big house.  What did Rick do to earn such high praise? He simply didn't kill Gabriel when he had the chance.  Gabriel’s job is is to extol the virtues of White, straight cis able bodied hyper masculinity and die at the altar of it if necessary. Gabriel has elevated Rick to God like status, incapable of harm, benign to the righteous and swift in his might revenge.  Akin to the burning bush, Rick makes pronouncements and provides hope to the downtrodden as long as they conform to his commandments.

There is never any doubt that when Rick finally confronts Jadis, the leader of the new group, that he will emerge victorious. So sure is Rick of his victory that he smiles when he finds himself outnumbered and surrounded.  Rick claims that Gabriel taught him that enemies can become friends to explain the arrogance of smiling in that moment. Rick can afford to smile because as the protagonist he has plot armour, but what is perhaps more insidious is the fact that said armour exists to prop up his leadership.

For much of the season to date we have seen Rick humbled by one more powerful than him. Rick has been forced to cast his eyes downward. He’s had to beg and cry and work in the service of another. Rick has been humbled. But look at the tone - when Rick is humbled, he is the leader, the mighty one, brought low. It is a set back on his road, our hero is on his knees - but we all know he rise up again to his rightful place; we know this is just a stepping stone on his road to triumph. But Father Gabriel himself has been repeatedly humbled - by Rick, by Carol - he has been shamed, degraded, properly chastised: but this humbling was never about him rising up after a set-back or learning and growing. Instead we had Father Gabriel Learning His Place. This wasn’t about him growing, it was about him shrinking appropriately into his lord’s shadow.

We see this again and again with Rick whose humbling could not be allowed to continue.  Beating Negan isn’t just about getting out from underneath an oppressive cruel man but Rick bolstering his fractured ego. This, of course, must be accomplished by Black fluffers before the deed can be accomplished.

Much of Michonne’s characterisation has been silent.  She’s been the one ready to pull out her sword and fight.  Michonne has been Rick’s weapon to pull out when necessary. We have rarely seen Michonne smile or engage in any kind of lengthy conversation.  Many in fandom went into absolute squeals of delight when Richonne became a thing.  And why not? Michonne is a fan favourite from the comics and with Andrea dead on the show, there’s no real reason not to fill her spot with Michonne.  It seems like a natural fit and an easy way to pander to the fans.  Such a partnering however is not without its problematic elements because once again, it serves the larger narrative of uplifting Rick.  

In the comics, Andrea remained a vital member of the team just as Michonne is today.  As part of a couple, Andrea worked hard to provide reassurance for Rick in moments of self doubt just as Michonne is today. Unlike Michonne, Andrea was never simply a silent weapon and so now, when we see Michonne speaking in multiple sentences at a time for the first time since entering the show, it’s to provide support for Rick.  This pairing doesn’t create equality, nor does it uplift Michonne because it makes her Rick’s personal cheerleading section. Let me say that again for clarity. Michonne didn’t start to have extended speech on The Walking Dead until she started reassuring Rick.  Pause for a moment and consider the racial implications and how problematic this is.

The whole elevation of Rick as the supreme leader, especially on the TV Show, is all the more clear when we look at how the show has actually treated other Black characters and Black male characters. Most have been sacrificial, often characterless and replaceable - there’s a reason why we named the T-Dog Chain after this show. The few characters with any kind of characterisation are often damaged, weak or otherwise incapable of taking a large - or, more tellingly - dominant role (Bob fighting alcoholism and Morgan with his zen retreat). Though even this contrasts unfavourably with Rick who is allowed a time out to play farmer Rick before rightfully taking up the crown again. No Black character is allowed to recover from their trauma and step up in a leadership role - their trauma limits them and defines them, at best, as a lieutenant (and that is generous)

But none of this can be more glaring than Tyrese. Because Tyrese of the comics was competition. Tyrese of the comics was a peer. Tyrese of the comics was a man who thoroughly deserved to stand alongside Rick. While Tyrese of the TV series was introduced far far later, achieved very little, spent more time looking after a baby than leading adults and was casually and cruelly killed off for no good reason. Tyrese wasn’t just not allowed to be Rick’s co-leader; he wasn’t even allowed close, we weren’t ever allowed to even briefly see him in that role despite it being well established in the comics.

Even Rick’s most fierce and dangerous enemies - the Governor and Negan - are White. The dangerous, true threats to his Majesty’s reign could only ever be other cishet white men. Again, this is something pushed further in the TV series than the comics - because in the comics, the Governor was Latino

From the beginning the stage was set, a cishet White Male protagonist was centred to be the leader and that has only been reinforced by never allowing any POC come close to his role, not even to the limited amount it was allowed in the comics. This white supremacist choice is only exacerbated by never ever allowing the idea that it could be different - and only reinforced by having a cadre of POC serve, fawn and cheerlead his awesome white leadership and generally serve has his chorus, backing group and faithful followers. Even when he has argued with his group, the challenges have never truly arisen from the POC; they know better than to leave their place

All of this comes from a TV series that has already caused us to write so many posts about race (and that’s just the direct posts, not those general posts about race that use The Walking Dead as an example): from the blatant tokenism to disposability to serving as little more than background decoration, The Walking Dead has always had a problem with race and a fanpoodling Gabriel only rubs salt into the wound.