Look! A Zombie! Race and Passing in ‘iZombie’

Rukmini Pande

iZombie’s “passing” narrative complicates its broader racial politics.


Airtime: Tuesdays 8pm
Cast: Rose McIver, Malcolm Goodwin, Rahul Kohli, Robert Buckley, David Anders
Network: CW

As the fall season of US TV swings into gear, the CW’s undead caper iZombie seems poised for an interesting second outing. Helmed by Rob Thomas (of Veronica Mars fame), the show’s first season was received well by both critics and audiences, and was quickly renewed.

To recap briefly, the show follows Olivia (Liv) More (Rose McIver), a driven MD whose life is turned upside down when she is turned into a zombie. Now working in a morgue, Liv finds out that the brains she eats give her memories of the deceased persons' lives, specifically, murder victims' memories.

She teams up with police detective Clive Babineaux (Malcolm Goodwin) to track down various killers, while also attempting to find a cure for zombie-ism (with her ally/boss, Ravi Chakrabarthi [Rahul Kohli]). She also has to try and outwit Blaine (David Anders), an ex-drug dealer turned zombie who has created a new business out of infecting influential people and controlling them through their desire for brains.

The show has garnered kudos for its interesting plot and diverse casting -- Ravi is British-Indian, Clive is African-American, and Blaine has a number of non-white accomplices -- yet its narrative choices end up complicating its broader racial politics.

The central conceit of the show revolves around Liv’s fear of being “outed” as a zombie. This fear drives her to make significant changes in her life, from changing jobs to isolating herself from her loved ones, including her family and her fiancé, Major Lilywhite (Robert Buckley). This fear also animates (pardon the pun) the other zombies, and represents the source of Blaine’s power over them. To be identified as a zombie means certain (permanent) death, and therefore those who are able to “pass”, both through access to brains and controlling their appearance, are privileged in the narrative. As the show spends considerable time examining the markers of zombie-ism in the case of white characters, it's especially galling that this has not extended to a comparable consideration of how these would translate across non-white bodies.

Passing and Survival

The practice of passing is a complex one but may be broadly seen as occurring when, as Brooke Kroeger explains, “people effectively present themselves as other than who they understand themselves to be” (Kroeger Passing: when people can't be who they are. New York: Public Affairs; 2003: 7). This is a deliberate fashioning of identity presentation and has been practiced across demarcations of race, gender, sexuality, and sometimes religion. While the reasons that people attempt to pass are diverse, it's most often a “strategy for managing stigma” (Einwohner, Rachel L. “Identity Work and Collective Action in a Repressive Context: Jewish Resistance on the “Aryan Side” of the Warsaw Ghetto.” in Identity Work in Social Movements. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press; 2006: 121–139.126) and is employed in situations where being “outed” carries heavy consequences.

Interconnected to this is the acknowledgement that the ability to pass depends on various factors, including physical appearance, income, and community relations. As Alyson Hobbs writes in A Chosen Exile: A History of Racial Passing in America (2014), to pass successfully a person must distance themselves from their community, and the community in turn must do the same. All these factors play into the narrative of iZombie at various points, but by making this a conversation about white bodies, it ignores the historical conditions of that construction, especially in America. In a culture where the raced body is always the one under scrutiny and most likely to suffer policing, the effects of structuring a narrative that places white bodies into that space without adequate critical engagement is dangerous.

iZombie’s mobilization of the notion of passing is a deliberate one. When asked about his future plans for Blaine, who has been cured of zombie-ism in the season finalé, Thomas notes:

He loves not being a zombie. That said, it’s not good for his business model. In fact, I think we’re going to have a lot of fun next year with Blaine trying to pass for zombie with his clientele. It will be a very dangerous position to be in if his zombie customers are no longer frightened by him. If much of season 1 was about trying to pass as human while zombie, for Blaine in season 2, he’s going to try to pass for zombie as a human (Abrams, Natalie. ‘iZombie postmortem: What’s next now that Liv’s secret is out?’ Entertainment Weekly. 9 June 2015.)

In another interview, Thomas specifically refers to Blaine having to “put on whiteface” (Bucksbaum, Sydney. ‘Uh-oh, iZombie Boss just revealed some major season 2 plans that are equal parts hilarious and horrifying.’ E! News. 9 June 2015.) in order to conduct his business. The phrase “whiteface”, of course, immediately brings to mind the racist practice of blackface and minstrelsy that haunts the history of American popular culture. Whiteface as practiced has been used especially in indigenous theatre as a form of critique. Helen Gilbert points out that as a form, “there is little doubt that it affords indigenous performers a rare opportunity to burlesque white characters, white theatrical forms, and whiteness itself, for the (dis)pleasure of (mainly) white spectators” (“Black and White and Re(a)d All over Again: Indigenous Minstrelsy in Contemporary Canadian and Australian Theatre.” Theatre Journal. 2003;55(4):680).

It's possible that Thomas invokes this aspect knowingly and will use it to make a larger commentary on passing and privilege. However, this possibility is undercut a conversation that, in large part, leaves out non-white bodies. In this context, it becomes crucial to see how these dangerous stakes affect characters in an even more tenuous position.

Zombies and ‘Magic’ Make-up

When infected, white zombies like Liv and Blaine undergo significant changes, as their skin turns incredibly pale and their hair goes white. Before embracing her new look, Liv purchases large amounts of tanner to conceal her identity. Indeed, the fact that Liv can embrace an “emo” look at all, complete with a noticeable pallor, is a function of her whiteness. Blaine has access to high-level make up professionals to conceal his “true” self, and discusses the difference it makes with one of his (white) minions who expresses her admiration.

This concealment is precarious in some cases. For example, Lowell (Bradley James), a sometimes romantic partner for Liv, identifies her immediately as a zombie on the basis of her white hair and pale skin. This is a function of the fact that Lowell, being a zombie himself, knows how to read the markers on display. Liv is surprised by Lowell’s revelation of his own zombie-ism saying, “But your hair is dark!” Lowell responds that he dyes it, as he would look “freaky” as a blonde.

The narrative clearly sets up a set of distinguishable physical changes that need to be dealt with if the infected person wants to avoid comment in the larger community of “normal people”. This is also affected by community knowledge and income levels. This is true across even species, as seen in the rats that Ravi experiments on in the process of finding a cure. The “zombie rat” is identified as such when it turns completely white, and identified as cured when turns back to brown. This is one of the many instances in which the plot of the show underlines the physical effects of zombie-ism; it’s not a nitpicky issue that could be handwaved due to the exigencies of making TV shows.

White characters dwell on the nature of these changes and combat them in various ways, including make-up, even as this is played fast and loose with in some cases. For example, Lowell’s “reveal” as a zombie means that his magic make-up has to fool Liz and the audience for a while. However, the changes to his appearance and the lack of traditional zombie markers are commented on. In this context then, the lack of attention to the ways in which the zombie virus affects non-white characters can only be seen as a deliberate, and, in effect, racist choice.

It should be mentioned here that iZombie does critique the racist structures of American society in other ways. The plotline that follows the young at-risk boys that Blaine is killing in order to keep his business running is perhaps where this critique is sharpest. That most of the boys that disappear are black, and that no one notices or cares about their disappearance for an extended length of time is not a coincidence. While the show’s depiction of Major as the only character who does care, over and above Clive, is a little problematic, the overall metaphor of young, black bodies being literally consumed by rich, white zombies is unmistakable.

Indeed, iZombie’s awareness of the effects of societal prejudice and its enforcements by institutions like the police and the media in this case make it a much stronger show. However, as discussed, much of this critique is simultaneously undercut.

Diversity Matters

Ironically, it's function of iZombie’s willingness to incorporate a diverse cast that highlights this racism. Sarah Nilsen and Sarah E. Turner have identified this strategy as “diversity casting”; a strategy by TV producers to deflect charges of racism by picking a multiracial cast but ignoring socio-cultural differences completely in show plots (Nilsen and Turner. The Colorblind Screen Television in Post-Racial America. New York: New York University Press; 2014). In iZombie, the non-white zombies have to be “outed” specifically to be identified as such, and seem to enjoy universal access to the “magic make-up” that the white characters do not.

There's only one exception to this rule so far: the character of Marcy Khan (Aliza Vellani). Marcy is a fellow medical student of Liv’s who invites her to the fateful boat party that serves as ground zero of the zombie infection. She is presumed dead after the party, but it's eventually revealed she was also infected. However, unlike the other zombies, she was not able to gain access to brains in time to stop mental and physical deterioration. Marcy is the only zombie that we see in this advanced stage -- a full zombie who is mindless and seemingly beyond a cure.

As can be seen, Marcy’s hair is more grey than white and her skin looks necrotic (but still identifiably brown) rather than the still healthy white that is seen with Blaine and Liv. It's significant that the only time we see the effects of zombie-ism on non-white bodies is when those bodies are abject and beyond saving.

The case of Marcy also makes clear that within the logic of the show, non-white zombies do go through enough changes for them to be “othered” and therefore identifiable, arguably much more so than the white zombies. Unfortunately, the implications of this are left unexplored in all the other cases. In terms of plot, this appears to be a deliberate choice, as it adds an unpredictability of the narrative: anyone could be a zombie. This is seen in the case of Lieutenant Suzuki (Hiro Kanagawa), Clive’s boss and head of the police department, who is an Asian-American with salt-and-pepper hair. The gradual reveal of his zombie-ism involves cleverly placed clues concerning his eating habits and grumpy demeanour that the audience “catches onto” in retrospect. None of the clues involve his appearance.

It's significant that within the show, it is the white bodies that are most clearly marked as “other”, while the non-white bodies tend to be able to “pass”. This runs counter to real-world dynamics where it's the non-white body that cannot “fade into whiteness”. The hypervisibility of the non-white body in America is experienced in many ways -- from the hate crimes experienced by Muslims and Sikhs, to police violence against black Americans. In such a context, what would happen when those bodies became even more “dangerous?” It's a question that would significantly complicate the show’s plotline.

It is, however, also a necessary one. To erase these differences while focusing on the physical metamorphosis and subsequent consequences faced by white characters is to, in effect, undercut and devalue the real-life risks faced by those who cannot pass in a hyperviolent world. Much in the same way as the Rachel Dolezal case shows, placing white bodies at the centre of conversations that should be about raced bodies is a special sort of narrative violence. As season two kicks off, it will be interesting to see if this erasure is dealt with, or whether the show continues to be a conversation about “allowable” bodies without taking into account those that inevitably face the most risk.

Rukmini Pande is currently avoiding writing her PhD thesis on fan communities the University of Western Australia. Apart from using TV shows as effective procrastination tools, she is interested in analysing intersections of identity in them, especially around the axes of gender, race and sexuality. Her critical work has been published in Fic: Why Fanfiction Is Taking Over the World (ed Anne Jamison) and various scholarly journals. She has also written about Empire's provocative first season at The Conversation. She can be found on Twitter @rukminipande, usually ranting about That Show You Like.

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