Sunday, October 7, 2012

It's the End of the World as We Know It: More Considerations on Post-Apocalyptic Fiction

I just finished watching Season 2 of The Walking Dead, and the show is so interesting that I--unapologetic cable-cutter that I am--am actually going to buy the full Season 3 from Amazon so that I can (gasp!) watch it as it airs, something I haven't done for a long, long time (I'm a year behind in Mad Men and Bones, multiple years behind in Dexter, and finishing up the previous season of Parks and Rec just now). It's not that I don't think that television shows are worthwhile; I think they can be great pieces of entertainment and social commentary. I'm just so steeped in things to do, watch, and read, that it's usually no big deal for me to be culturally behind the times.

But The Walking Dead has sucked me in. I really, really like the questions that it raises about society and culture. It hits on all of the things that I frequently write and think about: the role of education and community, the changing nature of our own identities, and how much individualism matters to survival.

If you haven't seen it, Seasons 1 and 2 are available on Netflix Instant Watch and Amazon Prime. And you should consider catching up quickly because Season 3 premieres next Sunday.

Leading up to the premier of the new season, I'm going to be posting a series of blog posts this week that examines the way that post-apocalyptic landscapes in pop culture naturalize a certain view of humanity.

I already started toying with these ideas when I wrote "Sex and Laundry: The Role of Women in Post-Apocalyptic Landscapes," a blog post in which I examine the way that women are portrayed in The Walking Dead Season 1 and the film The Book of Eli.

I'd like to broaden that consideration in some ways and re-examine the question of equality after an apocalypse from a different angle. To that end, watch for three upcoming posts this week:

1) What's the Role of Intellectuals During the End of the World?- I'm interested in what our popular culture tells us about valuing intellectuals in times of extreme crisis. There are certainly different types of people that are continuously highlighted in end-of-days scenarios, and the intellectual heavy weights aren't always showcased very positively. What does that mean about society's value of scholarship and artistic pursuits? (Update: Here's the link!)

2) What's the Role of Art in the Apocalypse?- Connected to the first question, I'm curious to see how art (both high-brow and low-brow) plays a role in combating the end of the world. How do fictional characters facing the end of the world view books, television, music and paintings? How important are these things in their considerations? (Update: Here's the link!)

3) Is Feminism a Luxury?- Both of those above questions lead me to wonder about feminism. If feminism is seen as primarily an intellectual pursuit, what happens to it in times of crisis? Is it set aside as a lesser concern? Is equality less important than survival? If so, is this true of other equality movements, or is there something unique to feminism that makes it more vulnerable to this line of prioritizing? (Update: Here's the link!)

I'll be writing about these over the next week, but I'd love to hear your initial thoughts on these and how they're addressed in pop culture. Happy survival!


  1. My husband had read the first few books and was interested in the show. But I'm somewhat of a sensitive viewer. I like action and sex, but not gore and porn, so he thought I wouldn't like the series because he knew how violent it was. But after all the hoopla over the first few episodes, we decided to give it a try. I was absolutely hooked after the first episode. I am terrified of zombies, but the true humanity and realism of people put in a situation like this was so amazingly spot-on and intriguing that I had to keep watching to see what happened next. I never cried so hard for the death of a character as I did for Dale. I bawled so hard my husband asked if we needed to stop watching the show. But I had to see what happened next! It says a lot about the writing to make viewers connect that strongly with fictional characters.

    However, I am a bit dubious about season 3. The crew has lost their moral compass (Dale) and the appearance of the caped woman at the very end of season 2 makes you go "oh, right, this isn't real life, it's a comic book" which I think hurts the realism factor that sucked me in in the first place.

    But you can bet I'll be watching next week. Oh, yes siree!

    1. Dale's death was heart-wrenching. I think there are a few other characters who have the potential to fill in as the moral compass, though, and I hope to see them develop in a way that will fill that role.

  2. LOL, Amanda R., we're total opposites: I came for the zombies, I stayed for the stories and characters!

    I'm glad you brought up these three themes. My husband pointed out that I seem obsessed with post-apocalyptic books, movies, and shows (if you have the time and haven't read them yet, check out "Soft Apocalypse" by Will McIntosh, and "Blindess" by Jose Saramago). I joke that I'm just trying to learn survival skills for the upcoming robot uprising, but really, I think they are excellent takes on what happens when our basic way of life is so profoundly changed. In "Blindess," especially, we see what happens when something as basic as our vision is taken away, and yes, the role of women is very deeply and disturbingly examined.

    Like you, I've thought about the role of women in The Walking Dead. The conversation this season between Lori (whom I hate) and Andrea (yay!) especially touched upon an excellent point: do we keep it simple and revert to traditional gender roles, with the women tending the home and hearth (and laundry and children and cooking) and the men going out and hunting and keeping us safe (Lori's idiotic position), or do we choose roles based on skills and strengths instead, letting whomever can hunt, track, and use knives and guns take care of hunting and security, and everyone else take on the roles of look-outs, cooks, laundry, etc.? Basically I think the question boils down to this: simplicity vs survival. Sure, it would be simpler and easier to just revert, but that is not necessarily what's best for everyone. Andrea is strong, and determined, and she was trained by Shane, and that makes her more useful in a security role, not home doing laundry just because she's a woman. Glen, on the other hand, might be excellent at getting into and out of hot areas, but he blew it when it was his turn with a gun at the bar in town.

    Intellectualism, too, is an interesting topic. In the show "Revolution," a character who used to work for Google before the blackout observes how he was bullied as a child for being a nerd. Then he rose up to become a multi-millionaire, but after the blackout the world went back to a "only the strong survive" brute force mentality and he's back to being the low guy on the human food chain. But, at least in "Revolution," it's being implied that the geek shall inherit the earth once again, and despite the strong vs weak system in place, it is intellectuals who will once again save us from devolving into anarchy and chaos. In TWD, I think one of the most interesting characters is Darryll. He clearly has an inferiority complex about his low-brow redneck status in the group, but under the circumstances he's probably one of the most useful members of the crew, if not THE most. And he's certainly a lot smarter than he gives himself credit for, at least street-smart if not book smart. I think that TWD does a really good job of showing how both types of intelligence (assuming there are two, and they are mutually exclusive, which is not necessarily true) -- street smarts and book smarts -- are both needed in a post-apocalyptic world. You need the nerds and geeks for things like medical emergencies and car troubles, but you need the fighters, the street kids, the down-to-earth folks for the day to day survival, like hunting, farming, and killing zombies with a crossbow.

    I can't wait to read your posts!

    1. Great points! I, too, am no fan of Lori. Her doe-eyed "oh will someone please just tell me what to do" attitude coupled with the heir of superiority she hangs on everyone as the wife of the leader is nauseating. I don't think she's fair to Rick, either. She was the one who planted the idea in his mind that Shane was too dangerous and would need to be taken out (and because Shane was obsessed with her, no less), but then when Rick did exactly that, she acted repulsed by him.

      I also really like what you said about Darryll's character, and I hadn't thought about it that way before. He is a very intelligent person, especially when it comes to intuitively reading people. It's clear that this is a skill that he didn't get to use as much in his former life, and I think that's why he was so devastated by finding out that Sophia was dead; he had used his interpersonal skills for one of the first times and it left him vulnerable. There are definitely explorations of multiple intelligences in the show.

      I haven't seen Revolution, but it sounds really interesting.