Michonne or Maggie? Race, Gender, and Rape on The Walking Dead TV Series
The Walking Dead TV series exists in a universe apart and separate from the comic book. Season Three's storyline with The Governor has reinforced this fact. However, both of these stories are a version of "The Walking Dead." As such, they provide an example of what Culture Studies types call "intertextuality." Here, the comic book and TV series reference each other, while also signaling to other examples of storytelling in the zombie genre.
[For example, the TV series character named "Milton" is a clear allusion to Dr. Logan's character in George Romero's classic film Day of the Dead and his "pet" zombie Bub.]
As I wrote about here, The Walking Dead TV series has little to no interest in developing its African-American characters. The graphic novel has several black male characters who are integral to the story, and are not sideshow stand-ins that are included because of a sense of multicultural political correct noblesse oblige. By contrast, the AMC series has (the now dead) "T-Dog"--a character that was a glorified black man servant chauffeur to the white characters, a black gollum mute with few lines, who lived only to serve and protect the other survivors.
Michonne, a fan favorite, and a richly developed, full, interesting, and challenging character in the graphic novel, was first introduced as a black caretaker and best friend/magical negro to Andrea on the TV series.
There, this iconic character is a black pit bull warrior, unfeeling, laconic, and damaged. Michonne, has a few more lines of dialogue than T-Dog; but she is dangerously close to being a two-dimensional figure whose only plot purpose is only to serve as a weapon to be unhinged at the command of Rick, the leader of the intrepid group of zombie apocalypse survivors.
In future episodes, I would suggest that it will be even more clear that Michonne is only a slightly more under control version of the X-Men's Wolverine for Rick. Wolverine was Weapon X; Michonne is a Samurai sword wielding loyal negress.
Glenn is the Asian fix it man, former pizza delivery man, and loyal friend of the white men in the party. Glenn is a post apocalyptic version of the model minority myth. Glenn is not a full "Hop Sing"; however, he is very close to that archetype.
To point. For two seasons, he remains "feminized"--"sneaky, evasive, and stealthy"--until being forced into "manhood" by Merle's interrogation in the most recent episode "When the Dead Come Knocking." Glenn's loyalty to Rick, and the system of white male patriarchal authority he embodies in the show, was symbolically "rewarded" by the former's sexual union with Maggie, a white woman.
In The Walking Dead universe, upward racial mobility would seem to have its "perks."
The Walking Dead TV series is ultimately a story about how white male authority is enduring in a world populated by the undead. As a premise, this is a fine, interesting, and potentially fascinating framework for genre storytelling (I wonder how many viewers understand that this is the not so subtle subtext of the series?).
As further proof of the continuing dominance of white masculinity in a world where the dead now walk the Earth, this season's villain has also surrendered to the white racial frame, where The Governor, who was originally Hispanic in the graphic novel, has been rewritten as a white character.
I can accept that The Walking Dead TV series occupies its own universe and narrative space. I can also accept that people of color are peripheral in this universe, and as such, the roles played by them will be different than the vision offered by the graphic novel. But, I am less forgiving of how a character such as Michonne has been robbed of her power and complexity. My claim is a challenging and provocative one: if you love a character and respect them, then you, the author/creator, must at times let bad things happen to your beloved creation.
Suffering and loss are often part of an iconic character's arc and (eventual) greatness. To allow these moments is to respect both the character and the reader.
Michonne, who was brutally raped by The Governor in The Walking Dead comic book series, has to suffer in order to have her revenge and triumph over him. Michonne is made by pain; it tempers and refines her like an alloy or fine blade of steel.
If you remove her personal challenges, tragedies, and triumphs, you remove Michonne's power in The Walking Dead. This is disrespectful to the character. Considering that Michonne is one of the most compelling characters in any recent comic book, and who also happens to be a person of color (a group marginalized in graphic novels), the insult is very much magnified.
The centuries of sexual exploitation, rape, and violence suffered by black women in the United States as human chattel, also as free people, and later as full citizens, are socially and politically combustible elements in our public discourse. This history and present are not be treated lightly. The racialized and gendered body--to be both female and black--occupies a very potent, and in many ways precarious location in the body politic.
I am unsure if the writers of The Walking Dead TV series are either cowards, or if they are just afraid of controversy. Perhaps, they are both? The White Gaze can do wrong even as it explains itself by an appeal to "kindness."
Michonne has to suffer at the hands of The Governor so that she can evolve and grow into an even more essential character who is (at least) as important and capable a leader as Rick. Michonne's role is doubly important because Tyrese, who in The Walking Dead comic book is every bit the leader and masculine authority figure as Rick (if not more so), is not present in the story.
[This will finally be corrected. Tyrese, has been cast. He will be portrayed by Chad Coleman, who played Cutty on The Wire, in the next episode.]
There is a deep fear of black justice and righteous revenge in America's collective subconscious. Is Michonne's character hamstrung and neutered by this anxiety? Or alternatively, are the writers, directors, and producers of The Walking Dead TV series (where at least one of them is African-American) afraid that characters such as Michonne and Tyrese will discourage white viewership? Are white audiences really that fickle? Are strong and dignified black characters that off putting?
In all, The Walking Dead TV series is operating under a logic that I am unable to fully comprehend.
A white female character such as Maggie can be threatened with rape, and quite likely allowed her revenge. Michonne, a black female character, in a society which systematically devalues people of color, and black women in particular, is not raped by The Governor.
Is this progress? Political correctness run amok? Lazy writing? Is the suffering of a white female character noteworthy, and the rape and abuse of a black female character anticlimactic and uninteresting? Are matters really that (ironically) retrograde?