Stranger Than Zombies: Power, Privilege & Lesbian Subtext in 'The Walking Dead'

Michonne (Danai Gurira)

The premise of The Walking Dead provides many opportunities to study privilege. Who lives on the farm vs. who lives in the RV? Who sleeps in the woods vs. who drinks the Woodbury tea? Who can two women love, if not each other?

Note: This article contains spoilers for The Walking Dead: Season 3

In October 2012, GLAAD (Gay and Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation) released its 2012-2013 Where Are We on TV report, and found 35 scripted LGBT series regulars on mainstream cable as well as 26 recurring characters. Lost Girl, Modern Family and True Blood are a few examples of mainstream television shows in the US that feature LGBT characters.

So, one would think that lesbian subtext is passé.

Apparently not on AMC’s The Walking Dead.

This past fall, the first half of season three brought us back into the closet with the characters of Michonne (Danai Gurira) and Andrea (Laurie Holden). But when you’re on a show where women characters are seen only in relation to men -- does a lesbian even have a chance? Let alone a same-sex interracial couple?

Straight white women find it difficult enough in this version of the zombie apocalypse -- and not just because of the apocalypse. One of these women, Carol (Melissa McBride), loses her abusive husband to a walker attack -- but it's a short-lived liberation, because she soon loses her daughter, too. By the end of season two, she has no traditional familial connections in the group. One of the men, Daryl (Norman Reedus), also lacks these connections. Yet during an altercation, he lashes out at her: “You’re afraid because you’re all alone. You got no husband, no daughter. You don’t know what to do with yourself. And you ain’t my problem!” A man can be alone. But in the patriarchal realm of The Walking Dead, a woman needs someone else to give her life meaning.

Not only that -- a woman without a man is vulnerable.

In season one, Andrea lost her sister to walkers and also has no family left in the group. But in season two, she resurrects herself and fights alongside the men, and (surprise) becomes more direct in her purpose and desires. Whether it's her sexual pursuit of Shane (Jon Bernthal), her rebuff of Dale (Jeffrey DeMunn) as a father figure, or her defiance when Lori (Sarah Wayne Callies) admonishes her to help out with laundry, Andrea is a woman who knows what she wants -- and in the manly world of the undead, that is dangerous. When Hershel’s (Scott Wilson) farm is attacked by walkers, Carol rides away on the back of Daryl’s motorcycle. Andrea -- without a man -- is left to fend for herself in zombie woods.

Not that she doesn’t kick ass. When Andrea runs out of ammo, she uses everything from the pistol grip of her gun to her hands, and finally has nothing but rage to throw at the undead.

Enter the hooded stranger who intervenes with a katana sword, and leads two armless/ jawless zombies on chains. The hood obscures race and gender of this character, so whoever saves Andrea initially exists outside of The Walking Dead patriarchy.

Season three starts with “Seed”, which takes place about seven months later. On a drugstore run, katana in hand, the stranger is revealed: Michonne, a black woman with the hardened stare of a fighter, who methodically kills zombies, then shakes their blood off her blade. Yet her demeanor changes when she returns to Andrea who lies sick in a game cooler. As Michonne administers aspirin, the hardened stare transforms into a look of concern.

In television, film and literature, a black woman acting as caretaker for a white woman (or anyone white) is a potentially racist trope. The character can become one-dimensional, seen only in relation to the white characters. Unfortunately, the trope fits into The Walking Dead patriarchy where people of color are often voiceless or only heard when they connect to white characters.

Consider whether Glenn (Steven Yeun), an Asian man, would have a story without Maggie (Lauren Cohan). Consider why T-Dog (IronE Singleton), who for a while was the only black man in the group, was never given a story at all (unless you count his death as a story). Consider Oscar (Vincent Ward), one of the prisoners, who is also black. He survives until the mid-season finalé, but ends up being killed on the rescue mission to Woodbury. Is there a limit to how many people of color are represented in the zombie apocalypse? The season three mid-season finalé did introduce two new characters who are black: Tyreese (Chad L. Coleman) and his sister Sasha (Sonequa Martin-Green). But unfortunately, their presence doesn’t ensure that their voices will be heard.

At the start of season three, there was hope that maybe the relationship between Michonne and Andrea could open up an exploration of race, particularly because Andrea somewhat challenges Michonne’s caretaker role. She reminds her: “I can take care of myself. I saved your ass all winter, didn’t I?” Rejecting the idea that Michonne should die for her, Andrea pushes for equal ground, likely driven by the same forces that shaped her previous life as a civil rights attorney. She may also be motivated by her need to survive on her own terms, to not take anyone down with her, and to hold her own. Michonne likely shares this stance, which probably contributed to their survival. Despite Andrea’s illness, they decide to leave their location together, so the walkers do not catch up to them.

But the post-apocalyptic world has not eradicated racism (or classism, homophobia and sexism for that matter). If Andrea really wants equal ground with Michonne, then she must keep confronting her privilege. Yet outside of their first scene, she fails to do this throughout the first half of season three.

The premise of The Walking Dead provides many opportunities to study privilege. Who lives on the farm vs. who lives in the RV, who sleeps in the woods vs. who drinks the Woodbury tea -- you can have comfort, freedom and peace, but at what cost? The scene in the game cooler provides only a brief view of what Michonne and Andrea’s relationship might have been if the writers had continued to develop a relationship that questions privilege. Alas, that seems to be the revolution that never was.

Still, they continue to have an intense relationship. Does that mean they are lesbians? Or could one or both of them be bisexual? That could be even more plausible. Yet maybe it's asking too much of mainstream television to consider different sexual orientations outside of straight and gay, to view the exploration of sexuality not as an “enticing twist”, but something as real as two people -- of whatever gender identity or sexual orientation -- falling for each other.

Some could argue that they are two straight women with a strong, albeit non-sexual connection. Isn’t it radical enough to have any kind of friendship in this chaotic new world? In an interview with MSN Entertainment, Laurie Holden, the actor who plays Andrea, discussed with apparent exasperation how viewers assume that “if Andrea and Michonne are close, it must be a romantic relationship. Not that there’s anything wrong with that but it really is a pure, best friendship between two women who love each other like family.” However, she then added that “at the beginning of the season, I sat down in the writers’ room and they were toying with that idea [of a romantic relationship between Andrea and Michonne]. And I said to them, ‘I don’t have a problem with it but I think it’s a cliché.’ ”

A woman of color and a white woman in love on a critically-acclaimed television show with millions of viewers would not be a cliché. It would be progress.

Holden’s interview uncovers why this relationship is portrayed with such ambivalence—the writers may not have entirely given up their intention to make them a couple. And viewers have sensed the “are they or aren’t they” dynamic. Yet when executive producer Robert Kirkman was interviewed by TVLine in October 2012, he provided an open-ended answer on whether there was any sexual tension between Michonne and Andrea: “There’s certainly not any indication of that thus far, but that remains to be seen. You never know.”

However, when we listen to the dialogue or observe the characters’ physicality or take note of the inflection of their speech or watch the way they look at each other, we do know. Their story does not read as “straight”.

I saved your ass all winter. In “Seed”, a feverish Andrea smiles weakly at Michonne. That smile reveals their emotional bond, how their relationship is about more than survival. Michonne, who is forever vigilant and wary of everyone and everything, stares back at Andrea with a look of completion, a look that speaks familiarity and comfort. Despite the surrounding chaos and the traumatic nature of their existence, despite being in the throes of illness, Andrea’s smile uncovers a shared experience of pleasure between them. They have built something with each other.

There is also a strong physicality between the two women, particularly in the episode “Walk With Me”. Michonne caresses Andrea’s back when she coughs. At one point as they watch The Governor (David Morrissey) and his group survey the helicopter scene in the woods, Andrea places her hand on Michonne’s thigh.

When they are captured and taken to Woodbury, their physical connection and emotional closeness is apparent to others, because they are given one room with one bed. The Governor escorts them to this bedroom. It's a test: a way to see how much they trust him, what they will say, what they will reveal on this first night. He doesn’t get far. Michonne is quick to shut the door on him. The problem is (and the writers know this) that door also shuts out the audience. We do not see what happens behind closed doors -- how they make sense of that first night or how they connect to each other in that room.

Instead, we are given a scene during the day with Michonne and Andrea walking past quaint shops through the lively streets of Woodbury. What better place for the writers to infuse subtext, because there’s so much we say and don’t say when others may be listening.

As they walk, it’s clear that Andrea has already benefited from the Woodbury system because she has healed from her illness. This eases her transition from outsider to community member, as she effortlessly takes her position of unquestioned privilege. Unlike Michonne, Andrea doesn’t even ask what this comfort and safety may cost them or what it may cost others. When they argue about whether they should stay for a day or two more, Andrea takes a righteous approach. She is the one who has completely opened her life to Michonne. But Michonne has stayed closed. “Have you ever trusted anybody?” she asks. Andrea doesn’t show any interest in why she may not offer the same openness. Instead, the inference is that Michonne needs to change in order to stay in Woodbury. The burden is on her.

Yet Michonne implies that there are good reasons for not being forthcoming: “You know enough.” She doesn’t maliciously speak these words. She just expresses her limits. But she appears hurt that Andrea cannot acknowledge what has been given, and seems taken aback by the mention of trust because if she has ever trusted anyone, it was Andrea.

What used to feel safe to Andrea was her world with Michonne -- both of them in the fight together, that was her protection. Now Andrea is experiencing a world where she doesn’t have to fight in order to feel safe. It feels good, so she doesn’t want to question it, even though she needs to. Andrea’s perspective is limited to that of a white woman with entitlement.

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