Danai Gurira and Laurie Holden in ‘The Walking Dead’/Image © Gene Page/AMC
It’s October. That time of year when the leaves start to change from green to golden browns and reds. Nostalgia is the dominant emotion as little kids dress up like ghouls and goblins. It’s certainly a season marked by change, and this year, like the last few years, people having been changing into zombies – or maybe we should call them walkers or biters. That’s right, "The Walking Dead" returns this fall (and on what more appropriate day than the thirteenth of October?) for its fourth season.
Aside from the exciting and terrifying things to come, as sneak-peeked in the trailer from Comic-Con, one of the most intriguing aspects of the AMC series thus far is that, according to Nielsen findings, more women watched the horror and gore in season three of "The Walking Dead" than any other cable show on television last year. What is it about a show – seemingly resurrected for men – that draws in female viewers? Some of the cast speculate that it is the hillbilly-with-a-heart-of-gold, a.k.a. Daryl Dixon (Norman Reedus), but maybe that’s the draw for the men; it’s likely who they feel represents them. If so, then what makes women want to dive wrists-deep into the guts of a zombie series?
Throughout the history of art, men have predominantly provided the patronage of and have led the movement of artists, and in our more modern western culture, that trend has continued. A sweeping generalization? Perhaps. But look back to the times of Da Vinci or Shakespeare. Heck, even more recent Hollywood examples such as John Ford and Martin Scorsese (to touch specifically upon the film medium) are all representative of what dominates art and culture. As for women artists, whether it be Jane Austen, George Sand, or even Sophia Coppola, women artists (no matter the medium) are typically found fewer and far between. In a country where women outnumber men, the representation of women in film and media is greatly outweighed by that of men. Doubt it? Select your source: NPR, USC, SDSU, The Washington Post. So what is the point of this? What does this all have to do with a zombie television show?
A genre born out of complicated times, where social unrest was at its peak in this country, the zombie film has become central for social satire. And "The Walking Dead" certainly has not fallen short of raising many questions about society, morality, and mortality, whether it be a conflict between The Prison group and Woodbury, the Governor (David Morrissey) and Rick (Andrew Lincoln), or simply the living and the walkers. And in society as in pop culture and art, women are still searching for representation -- and not just as token characters. Women want to be perceived as strong, independent characters who are as relevant as men. There could not be a genre any more appropriate in which this should occur than the zombie film – or in this case, zombie television show.
Specifically, this conversation can be built primarily around two characters: Andrea and Michonne (Laurie Holden and Danai Gurira, respectively). There is certainly an interesting array of female characters, but Andrea and Michonne take on some of the most attractive qualities for female viewers. Both are strong independent women, and individually, each stands apart from the men and groups in the series. Once being accepted into Woodbury with the Governor, Michonne interacts defensively with the Governor. She is stern and stoic, but always skeptical of him. In fact, the Governor’s epithet is derivative of what he represents – the government. And Michonne embodies a sensibility that is all too familiar in this day and age – a distrust of the Government; a fear of being spied on and having general truths and information withheld from the population. She seeks out the truth and discovers the zombies in the Governor’s closet and attempts to bring his demons to light, only to be stopped by the Governor’s unrelenting grasp and political power.
If Michonne is a searcher for truth, then Andrea is the searcher for humanity – in other words, the true identity of people (which she happens to believe to be generally good). Instead of reacting violently, she reacts more compassionately -- as well as sexually. She is intimate with the Governor, but in an attempt to understand his past, his life with his daughter and his family. She too searches for truth – of the emotional kind. The Governor is like everyone else in this new world. He is overrun with the living dead, this living hell, and the fact Andrea’s compassion reveals is that some people – the Governor, in particular – are weaker and unable to deal with the weight of the truth. The Governor cannot stand up to it, which is why he must deny it to everyone else. As for Andrea and Michonne, they take the truth head on. Their fearlessness is what makes them strong, and their trust in each other is what allows them to endure and rattle the establishment.
Together Andrea and Michonne represent the morality that Rick, for example, aspires to. Together, they form a strong bond in the cold of winter, amid zombies and an apocalypse. Set up almost as a throwaway scene, there is a flashback at the beginning of the episode titled “Prey,” wherein Andrea and Michonne are huddled together around a fire in the woods. Two jawless, armless zombies are chained to a tree for protection. Andrea asks Michonne if she knew them (the two zombies), and her response is affirmative, yet mute. Andrea apologizes, but Michonne responds, “They deserved what they got. They weren’t even human to begin with.” The scene resonates, both in terms of the bond between the two women, but also in relation to their roles in society. Men (The Governor and Rick) have been planning battles against each other, while the women were forging bonds based in humanity and compassion for each other.
As long as they stand together, the women are strong. However, when separated, they begin to falter. At the end of season three, having fought her last battle, Andrea says, “No one can do it alone now.” To which Darryl replies, “No one ever could.” This could not ring more true. Andrea’s famous last words bring out the irony of a society. We cannot live with each other, but we cannot live without each other. And Darryl’s response justifies that this is the way it has always been. Whether there has been a zombie apocalypse or not, we are neither more “civil” nor “humane” than we were before. When Andrea dies, part of the truth -- the compassion -- that she and Michonne aspired to maintain has died. Their will and search for truth, not just facts but emotional truth, is to be admired by all viewers -- not just the female set.