Feminist Criticisms of Women in Zombie Entertainment
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Women in Zombie Entertainment
After the resurgence of zombies in popular culture, the market is almost over saturated by their presence. Zombies just aren’t kept to the realm of film anymore. They are found in television shows, comics, video games, and novels. Other than the well known pop culture phenomenon, there is a plethora of material available to zombie enthusiasts. One of the lesser known zombie series is As the World Dies by Rhiannon Frater which has only 362 reviews on Amazon, despite being out since 2011 (Amazon). The story follows Jenni and Katie as they desperately try to survive the zombie apocalypse in a small fortified town, but zombies aren’t the only thing the women have to worry about. Their new world is filled with rapists, bandits, a vigilante, on top of their romantic and family endeavors.
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Feminist criticism on the zombie sub-genre has mostly been ignored for other horror sub-genres, particularly the slasher film, yet despite the small amount of research on the genre, there’s an even split between critics as to whether the zombie genre should be considered feminist or anti-woman. The critics who believe zombies to be feminist claim, “Zombie cannibalism serves to provide me with a space to revel in the unthinkable, in the undesirable, in the unspoken-a place where my body, as a thing, and not necessarily as a gendered body, is so evidently vulnerable” (Patterson 113-114). Patterson’s argument for why zombies are feminist is the escape that women can make from being vulnerable because they’re women to being vulnerable because they are human. By being vulnerable because of a shared humanity, women are freed from the patriarchy’s control over their life decisions. She later goes on to claim, “Thus, the function of the zombie film as a genre does not seem contingent upon reinvading gender binaries, or boundaries, for that matter… These particular zombie films open up narrative and visual spaces that create genderless identificatory viewing positions” (Patterson 114-115). So Patterson doesn’t only believe that zombie entertainment is feminist because every one is vulnerable, she also believes that anyone can relate to either the plight of the survivors or the zombies because there is no restrictive gender expectations. Another feminist critic, Stephen Harper claims the zombie genre is inherently feminist because, “Romero manipulates not only images of active women, but also traditional or normative images of women as nurturing and caring” (Harper 1). He later goes on to give examples of women who actively defend themselves, while at the same time have a nurturing, motherly side. He continues to claim that by keeping women in a somewhat traditional role, “Romero avoids the simplistic assumption that active (stereotypically masculine) representations of women are always feminist, while passive ones are always anti-feminist” (Harper 10).
Though there are a few zombie readings using a feminist lens, for the most part, the research as been strictly confined to just a few pop culture references, specifically Romero’s Dead trilogy and The Walking Dead. Because of the narrow field of analysis, many modern critics of the zombie genre claim that zombies are inherently feminist, but I must disagree. Though Romero’s Dead series might have an inkling of being feminist, many other forms of zombie entertainment, including As the World Dies by Rhiannon Frater, have several pitfalls, including: the roles women are given in the new society, the objectification of women, women being looked at under the male gaze, and the infantilization of women.
Women in the Kitchen, Men on the Battlefield:
Cooking, Cleaning, and Childcare in the Time of Zombies
By 2011, one would assume that progressive, first-world societies would have moved passed the repressive ideas that women are meant to be in the house doing domestic work, while the men were out doing the more dangerous, lucrative tasks, but John Greene points out that in AMC’s The Walking Dead, “Lori is also shown doing laundry, as are Andrea and Amy. The men, however, are stripping down cars, repairing equipment, fueling the generators, and securing water and food for the group” (Greene 68). Unfortunately, this isn’t an isolated incident when it comes to the zombie genre. In As the World Dies, mostly women are seen doing the domestic work throughout the series, while it is clearly pointed out that only men are protecting the fort, “Running down the stairs, Katie ran into a few other people, all men, who were also on their way out to help fortify the guards” (First 516). The situation approves minimally throughout the series, there are eventually eight women who actively guard the fort by the last book, Siege.
The women in the fort are only actively interested in fighting the undead hordes when their loved ones or children are in danger. This idea was made into the mama bear trope after Governor Sarah Palin said she would be a “grizzly mama” when it came to her son heading to war. Though it isn’t Jenni’s children in danger, she still goes into mama bear mode when she sees children in danger of zombies, “Clutching Amy’s children to her, Jenni pressed forward into the crowd. She fought harder, pushing her way through the crowd with renewed vigor” (Siege 496). Up until this point, Jenni was giving up on running from the zombis that had got into what was thought to be a safe place, but as the quote shows, when Jenni saw her friend’s children in danger, she was able to find more strength to get them to safety. Jenni eventually gives her life to distract the zombies, so the children would have a chance at life. This ties back into the role of women. In The First Days, Jenni runs and leaves her children behind to be eaten by their zombified father, so by giving her life to save someone else children, she felt she had finally fulfilled her role to protect children under her care, thus making her a “good” woman.
As the number of guards start to equal out in later books, one would imagine that women would be encouraged to take on more protective roles in the fort. Unfortunately, this isn’t the case. When the government finds out about the fort, the story takes an even more dangerous turn when it comes to the roles of women,”Women thirty-five to forty-four would be given a six month window to become pregnant, or they, too, would be sent out into the fields. Women, married or single, were expected to produce one child per year” (Siege 351). Luckily for the women of the fort, the government never takes over the fort, but the ease at which women’s rights are taken away is an eye-opening connection to real world women when it comes to how easy it would be to have reproductive rights removed. Sadly, there are other echoes of the real world struggle for women’s reproductive rights; a woman is behind the plans to turn other women into “breeders” (Siege 588). Unfortunately, a minority of women in the United States still stand against a woman’s right to control her own reproductive decisions.
It isn’t only at the fort that women are put off from being protectors, “The woman was holding the bullhorn and the old man the gun” (First 142). At first glance, this doesn’t seem to carry any sexist rhetoric to it, but only a handful of pages later, the reader learns the woman, Nerit, was a sniper for the Israeli army when she is younger. But despite Nerit’s past military history, the first time the couple are introduced in the series is the man handling the protection of their home because if a woman was introduced while holding a gun, she wouldn’t be as trusted. This is proven later in the book when a survivor goes toward the fort with little protection because,”A rifle may seem a bit too masculine for her to wield” (Siege 837). Even in the zombie apocalypse women have to worry about being seen as too masculine for fear of being rejected by society, even if the “masculinity” is needed for personal protection against the dead.
The last huge problems when it comes to roles for women is found in the lack of women in leadership positions. Once again, this is similar to The Walking Dead, “During the struggle for power, no women are considered for the role of leader” (Greene 70). When it comes to As the World Dies, the two choices the fort have for leaders are both men, and the council that comes after the election consists of four men and two women (First 559). The only change the in the council by the last book is the addition of one woman and two more men, so the portion of women in leadership positions is only half of that of men as leaders. Once again, this mirrors real problems that women face everyday. The lack of women in leadership positions leaves other women vulnerable to the will of men.
Am I a Woman or a Steak?
The Blatant Objectification of Women
On top of women having very little leadership in the fort, the women have to deal with frequent objectification. Women are not only objectified sexually. Women are the only people to ever be called bitches, and on top of that derogatory term, women are frequently not even called by their name but by their relationship to the men in their lives. At first, the objecification could be ignored some, but as the characters develop relationships, the women are even more objectified by their significant others. After the characters of Katie and Travis start dating, it is a normal thing for him to refer to her in sexual terms, “‘You’re kinda sexy when you’re feisty,’” (Siege 393). Travis uses this comment as a way to try to get Katie to stop talking about people choosing to leave the fort after the fort risked themselves to rescue them. Instead of hearing what Katie had to say, Travis brushed her aside by commenting on her looks to steer the conversation away from Katie’s feelings. This is far from the only time a woman is sexually objectified; throughout the entire series women are referred to as “pieces of ass” instead of actual people. This is reminiscent of the opening scene of The Walking Dead, “ He refers to the woman as a ‘pair of boobs’” (Greene 67).
When women aren’t being sexually objectified, they are being called a bitch. Throughout the three book series, women are called bitches over fifty times, yet the only time a man is ever referred to as a bitch is when Juan is jokingly teasing Travis about how they should date. After Travis laughs him off, Juan replies with, “What? I’m a sexy bitch” (First 568). This quote shows that being a bitch is strictly used to refer to more feminine people, and though Juan uses it as a positive word, the other uses of it aren’t as flattering, “Back off, Jewbitch. I don’t give a fuck what you say” (Fighting 199). The obvious hate in the term “Jewbitch” not only shows the word bitch is far from a positive thing in this book, but it also shows how truly disrespectful people mean for the word to be.
In a final example of objectification, the women in the series are frequently referred to by their relation to the men in their lives, “Ruthless men that had killed Ralph before Nerit, his wife and former sniper for the Israeli army, took them out” (Fighting 18). Though Ralph is now dead and Nerit is a main character, she is still referred to by his wife before it is mentioned that she was a sniper. Though being a sniper is much more important in the zombie apocalypse, the order of the words show that being a wife was more important than her impressive military history. Nerit is far from the only woman who is referred to by their relations to men than their name. The character of Stacey is referred to as Eric’s girlfriend three times in less than two pages, and that’s the only thing the reader ever actually finds out about Stacey. Her character is left as the two-dimensional side character, while Eric goes on to be a member of the council and the fort’s engineer.
I’m a Girl! Tell Me I’m Pretty!
Women’s Descriptions Versus Men’s
When comparing the descriptions of women versus men, it is clear that Rhiannon Frater, despite being a female author, writes about women from a male gaze. Anytime women enter a scene, there is almost a paragraph to describe what she looks like, “Jason looked up to see her standing over him wearing a bright red tank top, a knee-length cotton skirt with black abstract designs on it and sandals. Her long hair flowed loose around her face” (Fighting 177), but when it comes to men, they only get a quick physical description, “Juan was lingering at her side, his new cowboy hat looking far too neat on his tussled curls” (Fighting 177). These descriptions aren’t just on the same page, they are within lines of each other. Because women are considered to have little to provide other than looks, it is considered more important to describe the woman in great detail, while men are assumed to have much more to offer, their descriptions are much more lacking when they are described physically.
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Though men aren’t described much by their appearance, their personalities and histories are their main descriptions. For example, in the beginning of the first book, the reader knows almost nothing about Katie, but the reader already knows that her father, who is only in a part in the last book, is “the strong police chief of legend” (First 31) and “a Cold War warrior” (First 34), yet it takes much longer to find out much of anything about the two main female characters. In another example of how important it is that men are described by their personalities, right before a battle against zombies, Peggy describes Travis, who isn’t even there, “’Movie star looks, nice as can be, volunteering down at the senior center’” (First 414). Once again there is a quick bit of physical detail, and the rest is about his personality and past good deeds.
What’s my age again?
Women Being Treated like Children
One of the most striking ways that women are treated like children is women and children being emotional, while the men are shown to be strong and productive after traumatic events instead of being emotional. When Katie’s wife Lydia dies, Jenni remarks, “But last night, seeing Katie naked, sobbing, overwhelmed with grief, Jenni had seen that Katie was all woman, with a woman’s reaction to things, a woman’s emotions, a woman’s way of dealing with it” (First 231). By saying that being so overwhelmed with grief and sobbing is a “woman’s way of dealing with it”, Rhiannon Frater is already drawing a line between men and woman. The only other group who lose themselves in grief are the children, “the boy’s face crumpled and he fell against her and began to sob” (First 253). By using the term “boy” instead of the term “man”, it is clear that the person crying is not considered to be a grown man. When grown men do feel grief and sadness, they work despite of it to cover the feelings, “Now she was gone and he could find no beauty around him. Everything was gray and dark. So he was planting flowers for her. Something beautiful to remind him of her beauty” (Siege 784-785). Through showing that men are productive when they are grieving but women and children break down, there is a direct parallel between the actions of women and children.
One of the few women who don’t fall apart in grief and work instead is a black woman named Lenore. When her best friend, Ken, dies, she is more determined to kill the undead to avenge his death. She is shown as the “strong, black female”, but this can be a problem because, “This trope actively dehumanizes black women, contributing to their Otherness and hindering the identificatory permeability” (Brooks 467). In the novel, Lenore is never seen to have a romantic relationship and it is directly linked to her being seen as Other. Not only is she a black female, but she is a strong female who gets work done even when it’s hard to go on. The only sense of femininity that Lenore shows is after several fort members are lost, “Lenore leaned into Maddie, holding onto her and looking more emotional than most people had ever seen her” (Siege 364). By mentioning that people had never seen her so emotional, Rhiannon is trying to show a more feminine version of her, but she is quickly reverted back to the strong, black female by the end of the novel, “‘This is for Ken, fuckers,’ Lenore said further down the wall as her crossbow split zombies apart pouring their putrid innards onto the ground.” She is the only woman who is shown to be productive when grieving.
Finally, the last way women are infantilized is through the way men refer to them. There are several times that women are referred to as girls, the worst being, “‘Well, I think Jenni is a little girl who’s a killer shot and if she’s loca, I can deal with that’” (First 597). This shows that no matter how well Jenni does at defending the fort, she will always be seen as a child. By calling Jenni a “little girl”, she is being patronized and her achievements are belittled because it seems as if a child could do what she is doing. It’s not only in the dialogue between characters that infantilizes women, when women celebrate, they are referred to by childish terms, “Like schoolgirls, they hugged each other and jumped around laughing until they collapsed into a heap on the bed” (Fighting 143). By referring to their celebration as being like “schoolgirls”, Rhiannon Frater is making their emotions and happiness seem silly and childish in a way that is never shown in men.
In conclusion, there may be a few positive representations throughout the zombie lexicon, but it is easy to say that the zombie genre as a whole is far from being feminist. Through Rhiannon Frater’s treatment of women, from the roles they are assigned to the way women are objectified, described, and infantilized, it is clear that the zombie genre has a long way to go and a lot of changes before it could be considered positive for women.
- Brooks, Kinitra D. “The Importance of Neglected Intersections: Race and Gender in Contemporary Zombie Texts and Theories.” African American Review, vol. 47 no. 4, 2014, pp. 461-475. Project MUSE, muse.jhu.edu/article/577945.
- Frater, Rhinnon. Fighting to Survive. Tor Books, 2011
- – -. The First Days. Tor Books, 2011
- – -. Siege. Tor Books, 2012.
- Greene, John, and Michaela D.E. Meyer. “The Walking (Gendered) Dead: A Feminist Rhetorical Critique of Zombie Apocalypse Television Narrative.” Ohio Communication Journal, vol. 52, 2014,
- Harper, Stephen. “‘They’re Us’: Representations of Women in George Romero’s ‘Living Dead’ Series.” Intensities: the Journal of Cult Media, vol.3, 2008,
- Patterson, Natasha. “Cannibalizing Gender and Genre: A Feminist Re-Vision of George Romero’s Zombie Films.” Zombie Culture: Autopsies of the Living Dead. Ed. Shawn McIntosh and Marc Leverette. Toronto: Scarecrow, 2008. 103-18.
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