The Gender Politics of Survival: The Walking Dead and The Hunger Games
Sophie Stringfellow (2013) Media Magazine – April
Fantasy fiction provides an imagined landscape in which to deconstruct conventional ideas about gender, yet the fight for survival in dystopian narrative often seems to bring about a return to more traditional gender roles. Sophie Stringfellow explores constructions of masculinity and femininity in The Walking Dead, a continuing TV series, in comparison with Suzanne Collins’ more hopeful gender perspective on the other side of the dystopian revolution represented in The Hunger Games.
Could the fight for gender equality be maintained if people were required to fight for survival? I am going to consider this question as I look at the presentation of gender in two different types of survival narrative.
Post-apocalyptic and dystopian literature, film and television have become particularly popular over the past couple of years, with the zombie genre making a notable comeback. The Walking Dead, a series of graphic novels and an acclaimed TV show, is located firmly within the zombie cannon. It is post-apocalyptic in the sense that it concerns the collapse of society during and after an outbreak of plague. The television adaptation of The Walking Dead can usefully be compared alongside another successful literary adaptation, The Hunger Games film. The Hunger Games is unmistakably dystopian in its vision of a future society which, in aiming to prevent disaster, ends up becoming the primary threat to many of its citizens. Both Robert Kirkman and Suzanne Collins have rewritten our reality within a fantastical framework; yet gender is constructed very differently in the survival situations that they depict.
Constructing gender – contrasting ideas
From the first episode of The Walking Dead, gender is flagged up as a central concern. As Rick navigates his way through his new alien environment, he sees what he presumes is a living child, and calls out to her: ‘Little girl? I’m a policeman. Don’t be afraid’. This patronising form of address, and the gendered reference to his job title are rendered ridiculous when the camera focuses on the ‘little girl’ and we discover that she is in fact a ‘walker’ – a predator for whom human beings are nothing more than food. The director has thus chosen to begin the series with the important lesson that simplistic assessments and assumptions based on previous experience are useless now that their frame of reference has been destroyed.
With Rick’s worldview thoroughly shaken, we cut straight to a flashback of the period immediately before the plague outbreak. A misogynistic exchange takes place between cops Shane and Rick in their patrol car, which sets up a backdrop of macho camaraderie. The symbols of their status as police officers also create a link between masculine authority and sexism. Shane begins with the rhetorical question, ‘What’s the difference between men and women?’ and goes on to rant about women’s carelessness. We hope for a more enlightened attitude from Rick, yet he demonstrates an old-fashioned sexism of his own by claiming that the difference lies in women’s cruelty. As the director juxtaposes the conversation in the police car with the ‘little girl’ scene in which Rick’s masculine privilege is undermined, we are made to consider the possibility that gender roles are constructs rather than essential truths, contingent upon culture and subject to change.
In contrast to the machismo on display in the first episode of The Walking Dead, The Hunger Games gives us an all-female domestic scene in which Katniss comforts her sister who has woken from a nightmare. The director quickly establishes multiple personas for our protagonist through facial expressions, costume and her varied interactions with Prim, Gale and the family cat. From early on in the film, it is possible to discuss her heroism, a stereotypically masculine quality, as she volunteers to take her sister’s place at the reaping. Characters move between roles and responsibilities fluidly, without suggesting that any transgressions are based on their gender.
Peeta is another complex character whose contrasting skills in the arena are brute strength, and the ability to camouflage himself effectively using cake-decorating techniques. We discover that Peeta is uncomfortable with the idea of losing his identity in the arena, whether to protect or to survive, and prefers to use cunning to create some distance between Katniss and the career tributes. Unlike many of the hyper-masculine characters in The Walking Dead, Peeta also demonstrates a clear sense of self-preservation. We see this towards the end, when he is gravely injured and hides himself, instead of attempting any feats of bravery. Characters in The Hunger Games have access to a spectrum of ‘ways of being’ and any restrictions on their behaviour come solely from the particular rules of the dystopian society, rather than expectations based on gender.
In The Walking Dead, however, the characters’ opportunities to take on diverse identities are severely limited by gender. After hearing Rick on the radio, Lori wants to make a contribution by erecting a sign to warn people away from the city, and begs ‘just give me a vehicle’. As Shane refuses Lori’s request on the grounds of safety, her frustration is palpable and the audience wonders why she has to ask permission to act. Furthermore, a car would symbolise freedom of movement, but this is something she does not have. Later we learn that the women are relegated to domestic tasks regardless of their skillsets or previous careers. Jacqui draws our attention to the unequal division of labour as she asks ‘How did we get stuck doing all the Hattie McDaniel work?’ and Amy replies ‘The world ended. Didn’t you get the memo?’ It is clear that in The Walking Dead, survival means a return to traditional roles and the end of equal opportunity. After Andrea learns how to shoot, she suggests that she would be more useful performing watch duty than domestic tasks, but Lori attacks her for overstepping her boundaries. Unlike Katniss, whose shooting prowess is celebrated, Andrea is viewed as self-serving for wanting to use her skills. The fact that female characters in The Walking Dead are pressured into ‘keeping house’, even when they are capable of protecting the camp, shows that the stereotypical gender roles fiercely championed by the characters are rooted in ideology, rather than what is necessary for survival.
Protection issues – care or control?
The representation of protection in The Walking Dead and The Hunger Games demonstrates a contrasting approach to gender roles. In The Hunger Games, love and protection are bound up in the symbol of the Mockingjay pin, which is passed between Katniss and Prim ‘to protect you’. The powerful sisterly bond represented by the pin drives the plot and helps to spark a revolution, as we will see in the next two films in the tetralogy. The relationship between the two sisters is also mirrored in the arena with Katniss and Rue, whose poignant interactions show girls who are capable of looking after each other. This is not to say that Katniss receives no help from Gale or Peeta. Indeed, Gale supports Katniss’ family in her absence, and Peeta helps her to create an appealing public persona. In The Hunger Games, protection between male and female characters is based on mutual care which never calls the strength or capabilities of the women into question.
In The Walking Dead, however, protection is inseparable from control, and this control is almost entirely one-sided. As we have already seen, Shane restricts Lori’s movements, saying ‘I’m not putting you in danger’. He also attempts to extend his protective arm further by proving his menace to the rest of the camp. In a disturbing scene of domestic violence, Carol is attacked by her husband Ed while the women do laundry. The other women’s complaints are completely ineffectual, and the entire group is presented as being weaker than one abusive man. They are left floundering – until Shane uses extreme violence upon Ed. Although Shane appears to break the cycle of abuse between Ed and Carol, his heavy-handed approach ensures that he is seen as the Alpha male without whom the women would not be able to survive.
The influence of genre
We are given two strikingly different presentations of gender in these disaster narratives; I would argue that the writers’ uses of genre lies at the heart of the contrasts I have observed. As a zombie story, The Walking Dead takes social fears and makes them real, physical and deadly. Right from the beginning, the series places gender at the forefront of the viewers’ minds and goes on to problematise the relationships between men and women living at crisis point throughout. Although the presentation of sexism makes for uncomfortable viewing, the post-apocalyptic genre is at its most effective when it takes a convincing version of our own society and plays with the horrors of what could be.
The dystopia of The Hunger Games, on the other hand, allows more flexibility for the writer to change the rules and focus on personal primary concerns. In an interview for Scholastic, Suzanne Collins tells us why she chose to write science fiction:
Telling a story in a futuristic world gives you this freedom to explore things that bother you in contemporary times. So, in the case of The Hunger Games, issues like the vast discrepancy of wealth, the power of television and how it’s used to influence our lives, the possibility that the government could use hunger as a weapon, and then first and foremost to me, the issue of war.
Collins has used The Hunger Games as a vehicle to explore certain social problems – but gender relations is not one of them. Both The Walking Dead and The Hunger Games provide a compelling vision of a crumbling society. But whilst Collins gives men and women a level playing field upon which to tackle wider social concerns, Kirkman warns us that prejudice which may appear innocuous in a stable society can soon become domination when transposed to a society in chaos.
Follow it up
The Hunger Games (2012)
The Walking Dead Season 1 (2011) and Season 2 (2012)
Scholastic interview with Suzanne Collins: http://www.scholastic.com/teachers/article/qa-hunger-games-author-suzanne-collins