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

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.

On the Other Side of the Closed Door

We do get to witness some of their closed-door interactions, however. In “Killer Within”, we gain more insight into their relationship — or what is left of it. Andrea stretches out across the width of their bed as Michonne sits up but leans towards her, mapping out plans to leave. They share a physical closeness even as they start to disconnect from each other. Yet the decision to leave is what drives the conflict between them. Pre-Woodbury, their decision-making process was almost symbiotic. At Woodbury, they are divided.

Andrea diminishes Michonne’s plan to set out for the coast: “Then what do we do? Just grow old, live off the sea by ourselves?” That used to be enough. But within these walls, Andrea’s needs are taken care of by others. She does not need to be self-sufficient. If we read the lesbian subtext and consider the issues of race, class and gender, then Andrea’s motive for staying could be the protection of white, capitalistic, patriarchal heterosexuality. Picturesque shops, pregnant women, not a lot of people of color, a man at the helm: welcome to Woodbury.

Michonne (Danai Gurira) & Andrea (Laurie Holden)

As an empowered black woman who does not present as heterosexual in her dress, manner or outlook, it’s clear why Michonne wouldn’t trust this world. But Andrea’s privilege doesn’t allow her to comprehend that. She thinks her only dilemma is convincing Michonne to accept this place as her own. But it’s more than that. Michonne would have to renounce everything that she is in order to be there. In addition, she would have to adhere to certain rules, accept that some knowledge is off-limits, and that only select questions would be answered. Michonne senses these expectations from their first night in Woodbury, and never submits to The Governor’s authority.

Not to say that Andrea doesn’t observe the power structure at work. When they first arrive in town in “Walk with Me”, The Governor states that the people of Woodbury came up with his nickname. Andrea remarks: “Buzz is a nickname. Governor is a title.”

Yet despite her initial circumspection, Andrea ends up forfeiting a lot of freedoms without even knowing it. She literally imbibes the town—comforted by the charm of having tea with her meal, taken in by the pleasure of ice-cold lemonade on a hot day, seduced by the lull of whiskey (which eventually leads to her seduction by The Governor). She slowly gives herself up without resistance.

Meanwhile, Michonne refuses to relinquish any part of her being. No safety or comfort is worth that. She realizes this when The Governor confiscates her katana, the physical embodiment of her power. When she steals back her sword in “Say the Word”, it’s like she takes back her own body. It’s not surprising that one of Michonne’s first acts is one of defiance as she walks through the restricted areas of Woodbury and frees a cage of zombies. As she kills them off, her gratification is unmistakable. It affirms her own worth, how she can take care of herself. She needs no walls for protection.

When her act of rebellion is discovered, she is taken to The Governor to be reprimanded. It leads to a stand-off between the two of them with Michonne wielding her katana against The Governor’s throat. In an interview with FEARnet, Danai Gurira discusses this scene: “She can see how he’s taken other people in and made them obey him. To her, that is deeply disturbing and is something she would rather die than do… he’s inviting her to be a part of them. To her, that’s like he’s trying to enslave her… It’s like, ‘I’d rather die than that. Let’s go. Let’s duel right now.’ He doesn’t expect that because that’s not a usual response.”

In many ways, the character of Michonne is revolutionary as she is—that she actually exists within The Walking Dead patriarchy is astounding. She is ready to challenge the patriarchy. Yet is she consciously creating this challenge or is she just fighting for survival? It can be both—but because The Walking Dead has a history of limiting the characters who are people of color and/or women, Michonne may be seen as an anomaly — the “one” who stands out. This can lead to the insistence that we can’t possibly critique The Walking Dead for not showing enough stand-alone narratives for people of color or women. How can we question this when there is Michonne? Obviously, we can and should. One person is never enough representation. But since The Walking Dead does not openly acknowledge the structures of power at work — the racism, classicism, sexism and homophobia that continue to set the rules — Michonne’s actions against The Governor are not political. They stay personal.

Both The Governor and Andrea place Michonne into the role of lone outsider, the “one” who can’t fit into the system. Andrea defends her, but only on the basis of her individual reactions. On taking back her katana: “She can’t steal something that’s hers.” On why she drew her sword on The Governor: “[s]he wouldn’t do that unless she felt threatened.” Yet The Governor also stays in the realm of the personal when discussing Michonne: “She makes people uncomfortable.” That shuts down any further defense from Andrea because The Governor has placed the needs of the many over the individual. Later, when Andrea confronts Michonne, she takes on The Governor’s interpretations as her own: “You’re freaking people out. You’re freaking me out.” If the personal isn’t political, then the personal can be dismissed as crazy.

In “Hounded” and “When The Dead Come Knocking”, Michonne and Andrea are separated. Although Michonne has left Woodbury, she is hunted in the woods by The Governor’s group. They feel threatened by her even when she’s outside of their protective walls. Within the confines of the town, Andrea becomes The Governor’s paramour and supposed confidante. Throughout these episodes, Michonne and Andrea are living out the roles acquired in Woodbury: outsider, community member.

Yet in “Hounded”, an injured Michonne witnesses from a distance the capture of Maggie and Glenn by The Governor’s agent, Merle (Michael Rooker), who also happens to be Darryl’s brother. As she watches them drive away to Woodbury, she most likely recalls her own experience when Merle captured her with Andrea and brought them to town. Maybe she identifies with Maggie and Glenn, an interracial couple who clearly has a connection, and may mirror her closeness with Andrea. Their peril as well as her own injuries motivates her to seek out Rick (Andrew Lincoln) and his group at the prison. Yet she could also be trying to find a way to end things in Woodbury on her own terms, to not walk away, to fight. And she needs their help to do this.

Another scene in “Hounded” that speaks to Michonne and Andrea’s relationship is when Andrea requests to be one of the guards on the wall. As she and the other guard, a young woman named Haley (Alexa Nikolas), share how they killed relatives who turned into walkers, they form a tentative bond. But it is broken when a walker appears. Haley fails to meet her mark with her bow and arrow, so Andrea jumps down to the other side of the wall and uses her knife. “That is how it’s done!” she exclaims. But Haley disapproves of Andrea’s obvious enjoyment: “What is wrong with you? This isn’t a game.”

One can envision the same scene with Michonne, a partner who would have encouraged Andrea’s pleasure as she also sought her own satisfaction. In “Hounded”, Andrea reflects the contentment that Michonne experienced when she killed the caged walkers in “Say the Word”. It’s clear that both of them are in their element when they are in control. From this perspective, Andrea’s smile in “Seed” is imbued with even more meaning. They have shared the joy of fighting back the chaos, but one should recall that Andrea first responded sexually to Shane in season two’s “Secrets” after a particular good zombie-kill. Considering the emotional and physical closeness of her relationship with Michonne, it’s not farfetched to think of Andrea acting on her sexual impulses with her friend after one of their own fights with walkers.

This may be why we never see Michonne and Andrea fight zombies together—the lesbian subtext would be too obvious. At the very least, their empowerment would be in direct opposition to The Walking Dead’s underlying message that a woman can’t find a place in this world without a man.

In fact, the only time Michonne and Andrea brandish their weapons at the same time and place is when they turn them on each other in the season three mid-season finalé, “Made to Suffer”. Michonne has killed The Governor’s zombie-daughter Penny (Kylie Szymanski), and when she and The Governor fight, it is brutal, rooted in their relentless hatred of each other. Michonne recognizes The Governor’s tyranny, The Governor knows Michonne’s resistance is justified. There is no relationship between them that doesn’t end in destruction. The Governor slams her into his collection of zombie heads in glass jars, which shatter across the floor, and Michonne stabs him in the eye with one of the shards of glass. This is the scene of near annihilation that Andrea walks into. Her sympathy is with The Governor, and Michonne realizes there is nothing she can say to convince her otherwise. For now, they have lost their connection, and it is not without remorse. But this is how patriarchy works. It turns women, particularly strong women, against each other.

Whether Michonne and Andrea have a sexual relationship is unknown. The writers have left it nebulous. They may have decided to play up the lesbian subtext when Holden did not approve of an openly lesbian storyline. Yet maybe Holden anticipated that these writers would turn the story into a cliché. If they are willing to manipulate the audience with subtext, what would they have done with actual lesbian characters? How would they have exploited that story? As it currently stands, the writers and producers are able to introduce the lesbian subtext whenever it seems to work for them. Then they can either support or negate the perception of viewers who discern what is happening beneath the surface. Just another day in The Walking Dead patriarchy.

If the writers could be trusted with a bisexual storyline, it could prove to be a more honest and complex narrative than the lesbian subtext. But as it stands now, the representation of bisexuality could be a problematic, because Andrea falls into The Governor’s bed too fast after Michonne leaves Woodbury, reinforcing a negative stereotype of bisexuals being noncommittal. Of course, it would be different if Andrea was bisexual and desired open relationships with both genders, while Michonne wanted a monogamous relationship. Then the conflict could center on whether each woman’s sexual and emotional needs are fulfilled. But never mind the zombie apocalypse. That exploration could only exist in a post-patriarchal world.

We are only halfway through season three, so we don’t know what will happen to Michonne and Andrea when The Walking Dead returns. The story could take a different direction. The writers could turn subtext into substantial narrative by developing characters and building on what has already come before. But it’s uncertain whether The Walking Dead writers want to work outside of subtext.

For those who continue to be hesitant about the nature of Michonne and Andrea’s relationship — why should it be more unlikely than any other pairing on The Walking Dead? Another relationship, one that has been acknowledged as a possibility, is 13-year-old Carl Grimes (Chandler Riggs) and Hershel’s daughter Beth (Emily Kinney) who is 17. Adolescent Carl, the perfect heir to The Walking Dead patriarchy, has already claimed his woman. In “Seed”, he stares at Beth when she sings during their first night at the prison, and later tries to move into one of the cots in her cell (and is promptly ushered out by Hershel). They are completely out of each other’s age range, but executive producer Robert Kirkman seems to think a relationship between an adolescent boy and young woman is perfectly reasonable. After all, it’s only a boy’s first crush.

But two adult women in love with each other — two women in a relationship — out in the open, without subtext or clichés, dealing with issues of power and privilege that continue even in a post-apocalyptic world — that’s stranger than zombies.