Government power cuts are a major issue in my country. When deprived of electricity and all the modern technological luxuries that we take for granted, I cope by fantasizing that I’m a survivor of a zombie apocalypse.
So in light of the South African power crisis, I felt an overwhelming desire to re-examine the genre of the zombie apocalypse and both its relevance and failure as social commentary.
The modern concept of the zombie was largely defined by the works of George A. Romero.
His zombie movies were almost always told from the perspective of the social underdog, the disenfranchised. As society crumbled, so did the established role of the white male as society’s leader and George A. Romero exploited this to showcase different kinds of protagonists.
Night of the Living Dead (1968) broke from the conventions of the time by having an African American lead. Ben, played by Duane Jones, triumphs over the undead only to be tragically killed by gun-toting lawmen.
Dawn of the Dead (1978) reflected society’s growing awareness of feminism . Francine, a pregnant protagonist, proves herself to be as able and intelligent as any of the male characters. The film’s other main protagonist is Peter, an African-American Swat officer. Due to race and gender, both Francine and Peter are the social underdogs in the era in which the film is set. Yet between them, they have the emotional fortitude and skill set to ensure their survival.
Both white male protagonists, Roger and Stephen, die in the course of the movie. Their deaths are brought on by acts of arrogance – Roger is bitten through an act of recklessness and Stephen becomes infected when he needlessly confronts a biker gang.
Outrage that the gang have temporarily invaded the protagonists’ sanctuary, a mall. The gang are the unwashed masses, the barbarians at the gate, and Stephen , who has come to regard the mall as his fiefdom, is outraged at their presence there.
The setting of the mall itself is relevant. It is a temple to capitalism, a system which enriches the few while exploiting the many. It’s no wonder that Stephen, a major beneficiary of this system, considers the mall his property.
However, recent zombie offerings have been less subversive.
The Walking Dead offers character interaction in place of social commentary. Personally, I am a fan of character development and applaud both the comic and series for its depiction of deep, believable characters.
However, the premise seems to be a step back for the genre. Rick Grimes is the usual white straight male protagonist. It would have been fascinating to see how he coped in a world where his gender, sexuality and race no longer offered him any form of privilege.
But rather than take that route, The Walking Dead often operates on the premise that the privilege and responsibilities assigned by gender and race are inevitabilities rather than social constructs. As summed up by this post at Fantastic Fangirls:
The book revolves around Rick, and even if he does contribute to the long tradition of straight white males at the center of Western narratives, that in itself isn’t the problem.
The problem comes up when issues of gender inequality are present, questioned within the text, and then summarily dismissed.
Having a straight white male protagonist shouldn’t be an issue in itself – I’m not endorsing the common internet belief that every story has to showcase every race, gender and sexuality. There are many stories which err of the side of political correctness and are still terribly executed.
But as the zombie genre became more popular, it also became more and more mainstream. The Dead Rising franchise featured white male protagonists and while Lollipop Chainsaw, an enjoyable but mindless game, featured a female protagonist, the game itself showed little or no awareness of the deeper subtext of the zombie genre.
I wouldn’t go so far as to label the examples here as sexist. Sexism and misogyny are words thrown around too lightly these days.
But these examples are lacking in self-awareness. They offer the same kind of protagonist, the safe bet protagonist – the empowered white male or the objectified white female. In doing so, they reinforce social and fictional conventions rather than deconstruct or challenge them.
This doesn’t necessarily come from a place of malice or some desire to enforce certain outdated ideologies. Rather, it comes from a belief that the consumers, like zombies, are a mindless horde only willing to consume the same fare over and over again.