Friday, March 9, 2012

Sex and Laundry: The Role of Women in Post-Apocalyptic Landscapes

I just watched Season 1 of The Walking Dead. Yes, yes. I'm behind the times. It is my lot in life to always be a year behind everyone else in pop culture even as I clearly am obsessed with analyzing it. I'm like some modern-day Cassandra, the gift to analyze media only after everyone else has stopped caring about it.

Anyway, I've only watched Season 1 so far. Don't spoil it for me, please. (And if you haven't watched it, you should stop reading because I will likely spoil it for you).

There's a lot to like about the show. It has a lot of potential to explore some of the big questions in life: What makes us human? What happens when the systems of order break down? How do survival instincts fit into individualistic and collectivist mentalities?

Gender Roles in a Post-Apocalpytic Setting 

One of these questions that The Walking Dead brings up involves gender and gender roles. These issues are particularly apparent in Episode 3, "Tell it to the Frogs."

This episode revolves around a group of survivors from a zombie apocalypse. They have found a safe haven in a camp outside of Atlanta, a city that has been completely overrun with the undead. For most of the first two episodes, we were faced with brute survival skills. There was running, jumping, and copious amounts of beating zombies in the head. People in those kinds of fight or flight situations don't give us much insight into the human social condition. But everything slows down in this episode. Even with the fear and surrealism of their situation in the background, there's some time to fall into a rhythm of their new lives.

And that rhythm appears to be that the men get to splash around in the water or lounge at the campsite while the women do laundry. As the women work, one of them says "I'm really beginning to question the division of labor around here." She goes on to ask "Can someone explain to me how the women ended up doing all the Hattie McDaniel work?"

Then there's a scene of joyful sisterhood. As the women sit side by side scrubbing zombie blood out of everyone's clothes, they laugh and joke about how much they miss their vibrators. In this way, they have recognized the inequality present in their division of labor but have simultaneously found a bond in it and used that bond to undercut men's dominance, albeit subtly.

Immediately following their sisterly laughter, however, one woman's husband comes over to break up the fun. He chides his wife for not focusing on her work and threatens her with physical violence. When the other women come to her defense, he threatens them as well. Eventually, his threats come to fruition as he slaps his wife, nearly knocking her off her feet.

As the physical violence escalates, the women try to protect the man's wife by shielding her and ineffectively slapping at the man with wet laundry. Everything from the music in the background to the way the man physically towers over the women because of the slant of the hill they're standing on suggests that he has the upper hand. Despite being outnumbered four-to-one, this man is in control of the situation and the women are powerless to overcome him. 

In comes Shane, one of the alpha males of the group. He beats the man to a bloody pulp without so much as taking a punch himself. He then tells the man that if he ever lays a hand on his wife, little girl, or anyone at the camp again, he'll kill him. Meanwhile, the women stand huddled, frozen in place. The wife sobs as she watches her abusive husband get a taste of his own medicine. 

Here's a video going "behind the scenes" of this episode. Check out around the 3:10 mark.

Here, executive producer Gale Anne Heard has a voiceover as the laundry scene plays out. She explains that this scene is an example of "human nature" being "far more dangerous than the threat of the zombies."

Sex, Sex, Sex

Of course, women aren't only good for doing laundry. They're also good for sex. This comes up as Lori, wife of the main protagonist of The Walking Dead unwittingly becomes an adulteress when Shane tells her that her husband is dead and the two begin a sexual relationship. When her husband returns, she is enraged that she has been tricked in this way and blames Shane.

A place where we see women's sexual worth in a post-apocalyptic landscape more clearly is the film The Book of Eli. In this post-apocalytpic world, women become pawns in plays for power, and their primary role is to be sexual seductresses. This is demonstrated by the group of hijackers that use a woman to bait passers-by into stopping long enough to be robbed and killed. Her job is to act pitiful and harmless while scantily clad and cowering on the side of the road. Once the passer-by is distracted, the rest of the all-male gang will jump out.

Women's sexual value is also demonstrated through the main character of Solara (played by Mila Kunis). When she first meets Eli, she is offered to him as a prostitute to help make his stay in the town more comfortable. She begs Eli to accept her sexual offers because it is the only way she can protect her mother, another woman who has become a sexual plaything in exchange for shelter and protection. Solara, who does not want to perform sexually with strangers as they pass through the town, recognizes that sex is the only bargaining tool that she has, and even that is being controlled and parceled out by another man. 

When Eli refuses to exploit her, the audience is supposed to view him as a noble hero. And, yes, it's great that he didn't rape this young woman, but isn't that setting the bar pretty low?

The Protection of Men

Just like in The Walking Dead laundry scene, The Book of Eli presents us with a moment where a woman asserts herself as powerful. Solara leaves the town and sets out on her own, determined to escape her life of sexual servitude and male domination. As she leaves, she encounters the decoy woman from the hijacker gang and attempts to help her. When the woman sees that it is a young girl, she tries to warn her to leave (further demonstrating that the woman's role as decoy is a forced, unwanted one). It's too late, and the gang of hijackers grab Solara and prepare to violently rape her. 

She is saved by Eli just as the group of women doing laundry were saved by Shane. Eli demonstrates that the violent oppression of women will not stand by enacting violence of his own. He kills the gang and saves Solara. 

Powerful Women, but at What Cost?

Both The Walking Dead and The Book of Eli demonstrate that women can be powerful. Solara goes on to become a protagonist of the film, and--by the end--she is the primary hope for the future. She's able to defend herself from violence several times, and demonstrates herself to be capable and determined. 

Some of the women in The Walking Dead demonstrate similar levels of competence and determination. Later in Season 1, the woman who is beaten by her husband is shown bashing his about-to-turn-zombie body in the head with calm focus. 

But both of these films go out of their way to demonstrate that those women had to first be saved by a righteous man. In order for women to become competent and determined, a man had to first stand up and make a space for them. Until a man appeared as savior, the women were doomed to be physically overpowered and sexually exploited.

Naturalization and the Apocalypse

The thing that bothers me about this representation is that it makes it seem as if women's liberation being dependent upon men is just a natural part of human nature. 

When we naturalize an ideology, we speak about it in such a way as to shut down alternative viewpoints by demonstrating our way to be "natural," inevitable, meant to be. A post-apocalyptic setting is an excellent platform for naturalized narratives because it purports to rip away all of the advances of technology and social order. When we put a group of people together without any modern conventions and with the need to fight for survival, how will they act? Those actions, the stories say, are our "natural" responses, a way to get at "pure" human nature. 

What does it mean that these displays of "natural" human activity suggest that women can only progress if there is a man to first clear the path for her? 


  1. This is really interesting. I read the first half of the graphic novel Walking Dead and mostly hated it. I thought it was sexist, flat, and beyond depressing. I've considered tuning into the show because a lot of people I know and respect really enjoy it, but I'm still not sure we're all getting out of this exploration.

    I'll be following your blog from now on! I'm also a mom, almost-former grad student, feminist, teacher person.

    1. Thanks for reading! I was just looking at your blog and feel like we're kindred spirits.

    2. I agree that the first half of the Walking Dead comics can be seen as sexist but female characters begin to play a larger role as the comics progress. I don't think it is the intention of the author (Robert Kirkman) to portray his comic that way but I think when you have the protagonist Rick Grimes who (as a police officer) is used to dealing with violence and dangerous situations and a former NFL linebacker in Tyrese who is a physical man opposed to house mothers, a lawyer (who happens to be female) or a female student it would be, in a hypothetical sense, unrealistic for them to just go from normal lives to apocalyptic-style living. At least to date in the comic series (issue 96) there are two females who are not only taking on male roles but one is Rick's appointed deputy. There is also the fact that a few male characters in the series take on a less-than-masculine role throughout.

  2. I am a 56 year old woman who is a prepper.

    While I don't think we will have a "Mad Max" scene as in the above, I do know we are in for a VERY difficult time economically.

    On some of the prepper sites, you can read where some of the men want to "take it back", and be "real men" and make women serve them again (see the MRA sites too).

    I would hope that women who are prepping out there keep that in mind- we may be helping each other out in ways other than sharing shampoo.

    And for those tempted to censor this cuz you think it's outside of your closed feminist worldview, I would suggest you read some sites that give you the math and history as to what's coming.

  3. Hello I am rely fascinated by the way you broke down the events in the TV program. While I am very impressed and entertained by your blog and many more to come I hope, I can’t say I agree with the tone. I am a 27 year old Muslim Arab male. I in no form or way am I saying women are only good for laundry and sex, in a Post-apocalyptic world. I truly believe, and history is on my side. Men are always capable of more violence. I am also speaking from a combative athlete point of view. When I compete, its personal to me I want to win fairly at any cost. Ill sacrifices bone and blood to achieve my victory. Up to the fact where I emotionally and physically resent my adversary and I wish to end him. I never see the level of aggression from my female athlete friends. My point is women play the most important role nurturing and recreating life. So it would be reckless on males to place women in harm’s way. My mother is the most influential person I know, my father worked so much. My mother taught me my values. And she raised a fighter in mind and spirit. Just so you understand my respect for women, 100% thanks to my mother. Men are shown in TV to be taking charge, but think for a second they don’t have a future without women.

  4. Thank you for discussing this without the usual extremest perspective.

    I think it is interesting how these stories take the male/female gender as the primary deciding factor for who gets to be the "Alpha". (Self governing)

    I have been a martial arts instructor for 30+ years. I have also taught survival courses, and have been to more countries than the US has states.

    I can say without reservation that women almost always make better students, but NOT necessarily better fighters. This changes as training progresses.

    Fighting is Awareness, Speed, Focus, Strength, Timing, and determination. Men typically excel at two.... Strength and determination.

    It is not that women cannot be strong or determined, but it has been my experience that they are usually not conditioned for that in their upbringing. Whereas, culturally, many males have been.

    In the last decade or two things have been changing. Women used to be students mostly when their boyfriends/husbands were students, and their participation was connected to that relationship. Now, I have many times when 1/2 or more of my students are female. and in most cases are single.

    I have trained many males who thought that because they were "guys" that they naturally would be good at fighting, and many women who assumed that they can't "really" do this.

    Through the training, they find out that their presuppositions are wrong.

    The ability to have the "courage" or "determination" to engage in combat seems to be much more about how they were raised and what they were exposed to. (obviously in a "post collapse" scenario, motivations will change...)

    THAT is what determines what they believe that they can do, and belief is usually the main factor in their becoming skilled.

    BTW, I teach Kung-Fu ("soft" and circular in nature) and Kenjutsu (Hard and linear, the combative form of the sport Kendo, Japanese swordfighting)

    1. Thank you for the thoughtful comment. I will say as a teacher (of writing, not fighting), I see the same thing in my students: "belief is usually the main factor in their becoming skilled." I think that people have to believe in their own abilities to learn a thing or it's going to be very, very hard for them to learn it. And I think you're right to point to our cultural upbringing as the place where most of those beliefs are formed (or not formed).

  5. I'm curious...What do you think of the current role of women, especially with the success of Mad Max: Fury Road? (I've blogged on the role of the woman in the Mad Max series, by the way, here: