A Zombie Ate My Baby! Social anxiety and the Walking Dead

March 28, 2016

As we all get ready for next week’s season finale of The Walking Dead it is understandable that our collective thoughts turn to zombies. I’ve loved the zombie genre ever since I saw the low-budget 1968 film Night of the Living Dead. It was at a midnight movie in Stone Mountain when I was 13 and I didn’t sleep all night. But as a parent, my consumption of zombie media has changed a bit. After the last Walking Dead episode I had a flash of stepping into the nursery and seeing a ravenous walker chomping on my daughter. Cozy had a look on her face that just said, “Daddy help me.” The horror. And if you know anything about the undead then you know by that point it’s just too late.

Let me point out before I go any further that there is no such thing as a zombie. Sure there are some people wacked out on bath salts or haunting 80s dance nights that might seem like they are zombies. And of course there are kids who “die” on the operating table and their parents convince them they went to heaven and should write a book that might technically be zombies for a moment. But other than some meth head that thinks your arm is a corndog, there are no zombies. So don’t waste a second worrying about World War Z.

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But the question remains; What is up with zombie-mania? And is there a feminist take on it? We’ve got movies, TV shows, video-games and comic books. You can buy zombie toys, costumes, t-shirts and even doorstops. We’ve gone zombie crazy! Are we hoping for the zombie apocalypse as a preferable alternative to a Trump presidency? Or is it perhaps an excuse to unleash our inner Rick Grimes and kill at will? What’s the appeal?

Not surprisingly a “sociology of zombies,” has been around for awhile. I would recommend Todd Platt’s “Locating Zombies in the Sociology of Popular Culture” (2013) for a recent overview. Usually, the explanation is rooted in some type of social anxiety, whether it was the Cold War and the fear of a nuclear apocalypse or now, in a post-9/11 world, it is a fear of the collapse of western society. We play out these “What If?” scenarios and imagine how we would respond when the shit hits the fan for real. Would we recreate a new authoritarian hierarchy, form a collectivist team response, or just devolve into every man for himself? (Women and children don’t usually fit anywhere in that last one, at least not in a good way.)

One of my right-wing pals told me yesterday that we don’t need illegal immigrants. And I said, “Who is gonna pick your food?” His response was that there was a time in America when most Americans worked on farms. I said, “Yeah, maybe 1816. In 2016 kids don’t even know what a fucking tomato looks like.” Face it, most of what we eat is processed. After your Kroger gets looted, next on the menu is your family pet. We would not do well in an apocalyptic setting where the food delivery app on your phone stops working.

So maybe the zombie thing is a reflection of our fear that society could collapse at any moment and we would be tested on our social survival skills. It seems like we are perpetually on the verge of the big flame out. Would you just blow your brains out or “man up” to fight the undead? Ah, there is a little clue to another explanation.

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I was in the Big Brothers/Big Sisters program and my little brother was a sweet kid who had a touch of the developmental disability. He loved video games and taught me how to play Halo (which I found infinitely boring). His big fantasy was a zombie apocalypse so he could kill thousands of zombies. He would go into great detail of how he would shoot them, behead them, and set them on fire. It became clear that the zombies were stand-ins for all the people in his life who he wanted to dispatch with a sharp blade or a shotgun blast. He had a whole list of people he dreamed about killing.

In war movies, we don’t kill human beings. They are nips, gerrys, gooks, and hajis. In Westerns it’s savages. Science fiction body counts are aliens and robots. And in zombie shows, films, and games it is the undead. Each one a less-human than human enemy that we have permission to kill. For its time it is the act of dehumanization that allows us to vent our violent bloodlust against those who threaten our world somehow. Indians and Muslims and Zombies, the infected. Much was written about how the westerns of the 1960s used Native Americans as stand-ins for African Americans who threatened whites living on the urban frontier. Guns and blades allow us to re-establish the white male order over the chaos of the “diseased” other. And if we can bring a few women and people of color (and Michonne) along, all the better.

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If you watch The Walking Dead, you know (and probably love) the character Daryl Dixon, played perfectly by Boondog Saint Norman Reedus. I’ll admit I have a man crush in Daryl and would give anything if my hair could be that greasy (without my under-carriage being equally rank). And here’s why. Daryl is the iconic strong silent type and on a steel horse he rides. He’s best on his own. He doesn’t talk about his feelings or much of anything. He squints and kills in a primal way. He is Clint Eastwood in the the first 20 minutes of High Plains Drifter (1973). He is everything that is right about a film or show set in an apocalypse. He is also everything that is wrong with masculinity in our culture. (And Norman Reedus is absolutely nothing like this fictional character.)

In the real world, men don’t need to kill, abandon the group (Oh, there goes Daryl again.) and keep their emotions buried deep behind their “I don’t give a fuck about you” (sultry) eyes. I love Daryl because he is who I was told I was supposed to be when I was a boy. I used to practice squinting like Clint Eastwood when I was a kid. I tried to be silent and menacing. It sucked (or I sucked at it). That way is pain and loneliness. Feminism gave me permission to be a human instead of a cartoon character male. I don’t want to ride into the sunset. I want to hang out with my friends and family. No slaughter necessary.

The same right-wing friend asked me what I would do if some guy called my wife a “cunt.” I told him I’d tell the guy that vaginas are awesome and probably let my wife take it from there. He (and a very confused female friend) were horrified. How could I not immediately respond with violence? What would Daryl do?

I will continue to be a zombie fan. I live for the post-episode discussions of The Walking Dead on reddit. TWD fans are brilliant and clever and can find humor in deep meaning in the handle of Carl’s gun. (Oh, Carl.) I just wonder how much of the appeal is based on the push to use of violence against those who would challenge the existing order. Maybe I should be rooting for the walkers. Just don’t eat my baby!

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Feminist Guilty Pleasure 1: Cowboys

December 22, 2014

As a “male feminist,” I face routine tests and conflicting impulses that pit my intellectual self against my (learned) emotional self. I did not watch the Victoria’s Secret Fashion Show. (My wife did.) And I only looked up at the screen to criticize it, I promise. (C’mon, Taylor Swift. If you’re a feminist, start reading The Beauty Myth.) I stopped watching Game of Thrones because it was too “rapey” and I threw out some old Maxim magazines so my daughter would never find them (the Beyoncé issue!). That was easy. More challenging is confronting my love of westerns.

As a pre-internet latchkey kid, my after-school activity 5 days a week was usually the Four O’Clock Movie. This meant that by age 13, I had seen every Elvis movie, Godzilla movie, musical, Jerry Lewis movie, war film and Western that any citizen should see to be culturally literate. I’m always crushed in my Criminology class when I reference West Side Story and find out that none of the students have seen it. (Damn you, Xbox!)

At age 12 I adopted Clint Eastwood as my spirit animal. Between A Fistful of Dollars and Kelly’s Heroes I had him down. I would practice squinting in the mirror. On the Woodridge Elementary playground (No middle schools in Georgia in the 70s), I would lean against the wall, sucking in my cheeks, silently observing, a sucker stick poking out of my mouth like a Marlboro. I was a goofy loquacious kid, so the “strong and silent” thing was essentially impossible. But he was my role model.

Of course there are a legion of problems with this. If you’ve ever watched the first 20 minutes of High Plains Drifter (1973), you know that, without uttering a word, he kills several men and rapes a woman (who seems to enjoy it) before we even know that he’s the “hero.” Long before Clint became a vocal conservative, talking to empty chairs, feminists have had issues with him and he has had issues with them.

Academics have had a go at him as well. One of my favorite film books is Acting Male: Masculinities in the Films of James Stewart, Jack Nicholson, and Clint Eastwood (1994) by Dennis Bingham. I read it when I was creating a fun summer sociology class at Portland State called “Hollywood Elvis: Post-War Masculinity Through Elvis Films.” I wanted a course that explored the evolution of screen masculinities from the 1950s to the 1970s. And I wanted the students to never ever have to say “Viva Las Vegas? Haven’t seen it.” again.

The class also allowed me to explore the literature on the Western genre. What was so appealing about it to me as a kid? If I wasn’t watching a John Wayne movie at 4 o’clock, I was watching reruns of The Rifleman or The Wild Wild West. Was it just the phallic gun usage that taught pleasure in shooting? Was it the taming of wild horses (as Elvis did in Charro!) as a metaphor for taming women? Was it Miss Kitty and her stable of hookers in the saloon? Was it the leather chaps?

There’s all kind of juicy stuff to dive into when untangling the Western. Many films from the 50s to the 70s were seen as allegories for the backlash to the civil rights movement. The western town was a bastion of civilization on the edge of the wilderness that required the taming of the “uncivilized” Indian. So that’s the civilized white suburbs on the edge of uncivilized black ghetto. The native people are portrayed as violent and hyper-sexual. Gee, where have we seen that before?

But the main thing is the creation of the iconic cowboy archetype. The cowboy is the ultimate symbol of male autonomy. He rides into down, without saying much, he does his thing (letting his guns speak for him), and then rides off into the sunset. John Wayne never talked about his feelings. Clint Eastwood never cared what women think (or probably anybody else in town). As a boy trying to stand alone from the tribe, how could that not be appealing? The reality of frontier life was much different than the screen version. Susan Faludi does a great job if explaining this in The Terror Dream: Fear and Fantasy in Post-9/11 America (2007).

As a child I learned that boys don’t cry and boys solve problems “like men” (with violence) in westerns. I learned to leave town before a woman ties you down. And I learned I could always take out my frustrations on the “injuns.” As a professor I dove into the list of the Top 100 Westerns of All Time list on americancowboy.com and saw the same pattern over and over again. I was saturated with cowboy masculinity. (And it resonated with my boyhood self.)

So the question is, do I share this genre with my daughter at some point? How do I frame it? As an artifact of a bygone era in gender roles? That might be true if Season 5 of Justified wasn’t on my Netflix queue. U.S. Marshal Raylan Givens, lead character on the show, is pretty much the 2010s version of Clint Eastwood (complete with the squinting but without the raping). But in a post-Ferguson world the idea that Givens’ relentless killing as “justified” because he is a marshall is a bit less palatable.

I want Cozy to know that just acting like boys, like cowboys, is not the same as female empowerment. I want her know that when some dude says somebody needs to “cowboy up,” it’s nothing but bad news. Most of all I want her to know that the men who ride off into the sunset are not happy. It’s the men who stay in town and build connections to friends and family that win the day.

These books are available at Powell’s independent bookstore by clicking the covers below.