Is AMC’s The Walking Dead Racist?

This article covers the first half of season 3. Looking for a season 4 version? Click here.

I’m going to take a break from politics this week to address something that must be addressed about the hit show, The Walking Dead.   The show on AMC is based on the comic by Robert Kirkman yet only loosely follows the original plot.  SPOILERS FOR BOTH THE SHOW AND COMIC will follow below.

The series first tackled the issue of race in the second episode, painting a redneck character as blatantly racist and thus being dealt swift justice by the show’s protagonist, Rick.  Hooray for people overcoming prejudice in the apocalypse, unfortunately the writers and producers haven’t come nearly as far.  In the opening of the second season we first started to glimpse that the show was unable to unshackle itself from traditional stereotypes.  The female characters provided all the source of conflict, being panicked, incompetent, stubborn, and leading some to label the show as sexist.  For instance, one of the first scenes of the second season involves the group encountering a zombie horde.  Andrea, at first oblivious to the danger, immediately starts panicking and only barely manages to fend off an attacking zombie, Carol begins exhibiting signs of hysteria and must be physically restrained, and Carol’s daughter Sophia runs off for no reason twice.  The first half of the second season was based entirely around Sophia’s disappearance and the drama between Lori, Rick, and Shane with Lori’s most notable contributions being her patented “deer-in-the-headlights” look and her inability to drive a car.  However perhaps I am being too harsh, for all the sexist fall-traps of the second season, by the third, the female characters have become strong and capable.  Furthermore, we are introduced to Michonne who is pitched as a badass zombie-slayer that completely reverses any instilled notion about gender and the ability to dispatch zombies.

However, the appearance of Michonne carries with it the realization that the writers and producers can’t handle black characters.  “Showrunner” Glenn Mazzara has already made it abundantly clear in interviews that he  values the show’s marketability much more than the show’s source material.  Given this consideration perhaps the writers are merely  reflecting a deeper consciousness about race that prevails in society rather than their own personal projections.  Nonetheless, this third season has been the most problematic in terms of race and like the sexism, would not necessarily be racist in itself, yet when compared to the comic, production and character decisions become much clearer and quite frankly, much more racist.  Let’s start with T-Dog.

First, the name T-Dog is problematic from the start having already successfully been mocked for its connotation in the 2005 film Waiting… where a young wigger called Theodore insists on being called “T-Dog, yo.”  Then there’s the whole T-Dog/Tyrese controversy.  Tyrese was a character from the comics whom Rick’s group meets early on in the series.  He’s a big black guy that quickly becomes Rick’s good friend and essentially (and perhaps more literally) his right-hand, if not the group’s leader altogether.  Tyrese has a relationship with Carol and his daughter is also in an interracial relationship yet both are absent from the show.  Tyrese is the one who goes on a zombie-killing rampage out of rage instead of Rick and plays the foil to Rick’s poor leadership at times.  In other words, Tyrese is a huge character in the comics.

Meanwhile, the show has insisted that T-Dog is a completely different character, yet the fact that Tyrese is absent, T-Dog is there, and both their names start with “T” is enough to raise some eyebrows.  In some sense Tyrese’s spot is also filled by Shane and Daryl, both appearing in the show when they are absent in the comics.  So there’s the first decision, a positive black character is replaced by either meek T-Dog with hardly any dialogue or two white characters.  When T-Dog inevitably passed, there were two main threads of comments on his character, one that you knew it was coming because T-Dog had an unusually large amount of dialogue that episode, and two, that as soon as he was killed, he was immediately replaced by another black character.  This has led to speculation that the “T” actually stood for “Token.”

And then there’s Michonne, a character far too big to exclude, yet quite possibly the biggest letdown of the entire series.  On last night’s Talking Dead, AMC’s never-negative self-review, black actress Yvette Nicole Brown compared Michonne to the Terminator, calculating and deadly, yet this is perhaps the most forgiving interpretation out there.  In the show Michonne is always angry, confrontational, and paranoid.  She is a killing machine no doubt, but her humanity is non-existent.  Even her implied friendship with Andrea never gets past the implied part.  Every discussion they have together Michonne is cold and stubborn, which might be a side effect from a zombie apocalypse, but a horrible trait when dealing with other survivors.  She lacks any sort of cunning or saavy, or any ability to hide her feelings.  Instead Michonne becomes the stereotype of a Zulu warrior – brutal, aggressive, and distrustful of others, certainly good traits for surviving zombies, but also pretty racist, especially compared to her character in the comics.  Michonne enters the comics as a lone survivor approaching the prison where all of Rick’s group is, including Andrea.  She came there for refuge, preferring to be in a community then left alone on the outside – the exact opposite of the show.

Michonne

Once inside the prison they take her weapon but she doesn’t seem to mind and treats everyone in a fairly congenial way (especially Tyrese), again the opposite reaction from the show.  As the story continues we learn that Michonne used to be a lawyer and will often hallucinate and talk to her dead boyfriend, something she and Rick bond over.  Later we even see Michonne feign interest at a dinner party, at least for a little while.  The Michonne of the show exhibits none of these traits and therefore her character comes off as racist.  Perhaps over time she will become more coy and trustful, but then we still encounter the racist narrative of the civilizing of the African savage and so at this point her character is too far gone to be saved from racial undertones.

Commercially successful shows must be based on familiar archetypes in society and therefore I don’t blame the show’s creators fully.  There is a serious problem with black characters in shows diverging from more positive portrayals in the source material.  Game of Thrones and Harry Potter both changed the race of characters out of convenience.  Shows not based on earlier works have a much harder time being labeled racist because they create their own characters.  Even if all the black characters in an original series have negative traits you could still explain it away as there being plenty of bad blacks in the world, the same way there are many bad whites and simply chalk it up as a coincidence of personalities that makes the show work.  Even while that is stretching to apologize for some shows, it takes an even farther leap to justify the choices surrounding the black characters in The Walking Dead.  When you take from source material you are forced to make very conscious decisions about the characters and the show’s creators were completely unable to provide any distance from the formulaic black character types.

Cornyn Amendment 2934 and How the GOP got Ahead of History

Five years ago David Petraeus was at the center of a political controversy.  In the run-up to the 2008 election, MoveOn.org took out an ad questioning General Petraeus’ leadership and whether he was dishonest in his calls for the US to continue the war in Iraq.  In the ad the group labeled him “Betray Us” and sparked strong condemnation on the right, including then-President G.W. Bush.  In fact, there was such an outcry that the Senate and the House passed bills explicitly condemning the ad and, “to strongly condemn any effort to attack the honor and integrity of General Petraeus.”  The text of the Senate bill actually lists seven different ways Petraeus is awesome before their condemnation to at least make it look like they did their homework.  The amendment was non-binding, or in other words, the Senate didn’t have to go out and condemn every attack on Petraeus, nor is it forcing them to do so now, despite the irony.  This type of resolution is just for show and has no meaning now other than for us to mock the hubris in hindsight.

Two notable Senators who didn’t support the bill were Obama and Clinton, calling the amendment an empty gesture purely for political purposes.  Surely many Republicans hoped that by putting forth this amendment for a vote they could force the then-candidates Obama and Hillary to choose between a more moderate position or an appeal to their base.  Well history has taken some strange turns.

While the congressional legislation was probably political, MoveOn’s response after the election of Obama certainly was. Obama decided to keep Petraeus as commander and bring him into his administration.  In response MoveOn scrubbed their website of the ad, giving the impression that their motivation all along was electing a Democrat rather than a genuine concern for the issues.

Meanwhile the GOP has done something quite remarkable, they have essentially withdrawn their previous support for the resolution, even before the latest Petraeus scandal broke.  They did this by setting new House rules when they took over in the 2010 midterms.  I should first acknowledge that Republican support for Petraeus didn’t really dwindle as he stayed on during Obama’s term and even this present controversy has drawn him plenty of support from the right (while plenty of blame for Obama of course).  Anyway, when the GOP took over the House they pledged to tackle a serious problem during the Bush years – utterly stupid and non-binding resolutions, like recognitions, commemorations, unofficial honors, and of course, condemnations.  The CRS found that in the 110th Congress, more than half of the bills introduced were non-binding like “Recognizing the rich and resounding impact of 50-years of Memphis-originating soul music.”  Under the rules of the 112th Congress the GOP promised to get rid of this nonsense and has so far kept its word.  I take this as a sign of regret at passing all those previous useless bills and as a sign that perhaps Congress is looking to get some work done, rather than some cynical political maneuver.  It also says that the Cornyn amendment was just some stupid useless gesture in itself and wouldn’t have been tolerated under this Congress.  In light of Petraeus’s recent scandal the GOP got ahead of history by rejecting these meaningless gestures before one could come back and make a fool of them.

The Two Emerging Post-Election Narratives

Well another election cycle is over and done; Obama got re-elected and the Democrats picked up meager gains in the Senate and House.  Now that the smoke is starting to clear and people are returning to their less partisan lifestyles there appear to be two election narratives emerging, not surprisingly dictated from the left and the right.  The left has pitched the election as a victory for truth, science, and math, painting the GOP and their supporters as stuck in a bubble or alternate universe while the right has portrayed the election as heralding a changed America with demographics shifting to a much more diverse and secular country.  Before tackling these two narratives let’s take a look at one other that will most likely be washed from history.

Before the election several, hell, damn near all, Republican pundits were predicting a Romney win, possibly with a landslide.  Now that that clearly didn’t happen they have had to find an excuse and most often they turn to Sandy, the “October surprise.”  Dick Morris, the now-hated scapegoat of false hopes, said that he was essentially right about his Romney landslide prediction as he made it before the hurricane hit.  Others have expressed similar views about the hurricane yet if you were following the polling data Sandy did not do too much.  Obama steadily built back his lead after the first debate and pretty much ended the election where they kicked it off.  When Dick Morris made his prediction Obama was leading in the polls, especially in the swing states, so he would have still been wrong.

Instead of following Morris’ lead and blaming the weather, most GOP talking heads have seen the election as being decided by urban and minority voters representing a demographic shift that the party must respond to in order to stay alive.  Within a couple days Sean Hannity came out in support of immigration reform to allow for amnesty, believing that this is the main issue for Hispanics.  Other Republicans have followed suit and only more time will tell if this will create a genuine (perhaps unbreachable) schism or whether it will truly become the party’s future.  Despite this seemingly shallow outreach, the pundits are correct, the GOP’s base is dwindling while the Dem base is growing.  They’re flat wrong however when they say that this is the culmination of changing demographics, instead it’s the changing policy of the GOP.  That’s where the left-wing narrative takes over.

Liberal pundits, and some conservatives, have for a long time put forward the idea that the right wing lives in an alternative universe.  In this bubble everything is seen through the lens of far-right mythology with perhaps the most obvious example being conservapedia, the right-wing alternative to wikipedia which they claim has a liberal bias.  Even the limits of conservapedia were tested however when Sarah Palin claimed that Paul Revere was riding to warn the British.  They chose to whitewash her statement rather than re-write history.  The bubble and reality however, did manage to converge on election night.  Pollsters like Nate Silver and Drew Linzer, doing basic statistical analyses of all the polls coming in pretty much nailed the outcome.  In the run-up however, conservatives insisted that their polling models were inaccurate by oversampling Democrats based on the 2008 turnout model as opposed to the 2004.  They insisted on a different reality instead based on a sort of soft conspiracy by the liberal media.  We learned that while the media may lean left, so does reality.

These two narratives are by no means mutually exclusive; in many ways they support each other.  The fact that Republican pollsters were insisting on the 2004 voter turnout model for more accuracy shows that they were out of touch with a larger demographic shift.  Furthermore, while the ethnic make-up of the country is changing, the Republicans have also radicalized to form their own world which is often quite exclusionary and lionizes an era of greater cultural and racial homogeneity.  By diverging from reality into the strictest ideals of their base they have lost track of what it actually takes to win an election in a two-party system.

Of course these narratives hardly explain the entire election.  There were a whole series of gaffes and triumphs from both sides that undoubtedly had some cumulative effect nor should the personalities and running mates of the candidates be completely tossed aside.  Of course the most important point here is how HBO will portray the election.  Recently they gave us “Recount” as the story of 2000 and “Game Change” for 2008 with Sarah Palin as the main focus.  What will be the focus of the movie for this election?  If you had asked me a year ago I might have said the super PACs but now I think it will be when universes collide.

2008 Obama Supporters Voting Republican this Election

With the election a mere two days away both sides are predicting a landslide victory for their candidate.  Republicans by selecting polls that show Romney up and Democrats by using statistics and looking at the average and trends of polls.  The omniscent nerdgod Nate Silver has all but called the election for Obama and stated that if Romney does win then the state polls have some serious bias.  Conservatives meanwhile have gone to conspiracy-like lengths to insist that the polls are skewed because they use 2008 voter turnout models that over-exaggerate voter enthusiasm for Obama and the models don’t take into account previous Obama supporters that will now vote for Romney.

Indeed, a common theme of this year’s election has been the disenchantment of Obama supporters and their switch to the Romney camp.  There was even a propaganda piece that specifically focused on this trend.  There’s just one problem with this narrative – it happens every election; a basic understanding of demographics makes it abundantly clear.  The media often likes to paint the picture, especially when an incumbent is running, that this year’s electorate is the same as 2008, simply making a second choice on the President.  Any change in opinion therefore must just be people changing their minds.  Did some people change their minds over the last 4 years?  Of course, but polls don’t go out and ask the same people what they think every election, they go by demographics.  The first-time voters this year, by definition, are not the first-time voters in 2008.

There is one truism for every election and that is that any individual voter who supported a Democrat is more likely to support a Republican this election rather than vice versa.  This is simply because older people vote more conservative.  If you voted in  2008 then you’re 4 years older today and therefore more likely to vote conservative than you were 4 years ago.  However, in the past 4 years about 3% (10 million) of our population has died and will (hopefully) not be voting in this year’s election.  Another 5% (16 million) will be able to vote for the first-time and will mostly vote Democratic.  Every election the Republicans lose votes to deaths in their base and pick up votes from an aging population while Democrats lose votes as people age to Republicans and pick up first-time voters.  This trend is simply a basic characteristic of the contemporary political system.

So yes there are many people who voted for Obama that are now supporting Romney but this might be nothing more than a natural effect.  If anything most of the dissatisfaction with Obama has come from the left rather than the center.  These voters are more likely to not vote rather than switch their vote to Romney just as they are more likely to vote against Romney rather than for Obama.  Many might recall Churchill’s famous quote that anyone not a socialist at age 20 has no heart and anyone not a conservative at age 40 has no brain – this statement resonates because there is basic truth in it, as we age we will likely get more conservative.  In turn, conservative values will change with the new generations coming of age.  And the way our political system works the political parties are more likely to structure their issues around these already established demographic groups rather than change their demographic support externally through groups shifting their support for a static party platform.