Let's Talk About the Women of “The Walking Dead”

michonne with a huge sword

Why isn’t Michonne the one in charge, again? Just look at that sword.

The most annoying character on The Walking Dead isn’t a zombie. It’s Rick Grimes. The man at the center of the hit show and best-selling comic book series is constantly undermining the women around him.

Both the TV and comic book versions of The Walking Dead include numerous female characters and some of them are even pretty great. But, in my opinion as a reader and viewer, the stories of the female characters are constantly given the short shrift while the male characters are allowed more emotional depth and ongoing plot-lines. Does someone want to do a tally of how many women in The Walking Dead attempt suicide, go insane, or give up their authority by deferring to men? Because every single female character does at least one of those things. Just giving you a head’s up.

As I was thinking about the numerous questionable writing choices made with these could-be-so-great female characters, I got to wondering, which medium is better for the ladies of The Walking Dead: the TV show or the comic? In other words, which one is less sexist?

I wrote up a short list of the main female characters that appear both on the show and in the comic to decipher the differences in how these women are written. These descriptions contain spoilers through season five of the TV show, because it’s impossible to write about The Walking Dead without talking about how people die all the time.

lori grimes is a white woman with reddish hair

Lori Grimes

Who? Lori Grimes is the wife and mother of Rick Grimes… just kidding, she’s just his wife, but she really does act like his mother. What’s her back story? I don’t know, but it seems limited in that she used to be Rick’s girlfriend and then evolves to become Rick’s wife. 

The Comic: To me, one of the most horrifying scenes of this gory comic didn’t evolve blood, guts, or death. It’s in the first volume, when a grinning Rick hands over his laundry to Lori and instructs her to scrub his clothes because they’re “getting funky.” She complies, because what else would she do? Is she not the woman? Is it not her job to comply? While she’s doing said laundry, Donna, an ill-fated straw feminist in this cautionary tale, brings up that she feels it’s regressive that the women are being delegated with housekeeping tasks. Lori snaps, “This isn’t about women’s rights!”

Yep. She went there. She did the anti-woman woman thing, and within the first three issues, too. You know, it’s hard to be kind to Lori, because the writers were never kind to her. She was used as a vehicle to develop Rick’s character all the way to her bitter end.

The Show: Lori is consistent with her comic book counterpart, which means that she comes off like the writers took a rib from Rick and created a woman out of it. She’s emotionally manipulative and often helpless, but Rick is just as bad: he clearly doesn’t value anything she says. When she gets pregnant, Rick gets all scary and shouty about it, and other characters shame her for trying to induce an abortion. And then she dies. The end. I was not a fan of how this all played out.

Overview: I didn’t hate Lori Grimes as much as most fans did, but even I’ll admit that she was a brick wall of a character. I do think Lori’s personality says a lot about her creator, and how this series treats female characters.

andrea is a white woman with a giant gun

Andrea

Who? Andrea Nolastname is a sharp dresser with an even sharper mind who comes THIS CLOSE to challenging the patriarchy time and again throughout the show and comic series.

The Comic: If we compare Andrea to the rest of the female characters in the comic version of The Walking Dead, Andrea does pretty great. Andrea is handy with a gun, and she holds her own with the men. Unfortunately, she also defers to them completely, seldom stepping forward to challenge Rick’s authority.

The Show: Andrea gets treated badly by the anti-feminist Lori on multiple occasions—she’s accused of being lazy because she prefers to keep guard with the men as opposed to doing household chores with the women. She has her judgment aggressively questioned by Lori, is treated with harsh mistrust by the men, and is basically just hassled by the whole group. At one point they also leave her to die and are unrepentant when she lives. To make matters worse, TV Andrea is not as good at anything as she is in the comics. She has to be told how to take the safety off her gun by Rick, and then has her gun taken from her entirely by Dale. It’s a baffling moment, because there is no reason for the man that takes her gun to have authority over her. Andrea used to be a lawyer, and she survived the zombie apocalypse so that some guy with an unbuttoned Hawaiian shirt could take her away her gun. Amazing. Meanwhile, we have an eleven-year-old boy running around with a pistol.

Overview: I liked the beginning of Andrea’s friendship with Michonne on the TV series. That looked really promising, but, looking back on Andrea’s character, she was a real missed opportunity for the writers to develop a fascinating anti-hero. Her death in season three, where she fails to free herself before being attacked by one of the undead, was absolutely absurd. In the comic, she fares a lot better.

michonne is a black woman with a huge sword

Michonne

Who? Michonne borrowed a sword from her neighbor’s basement and took to the streets with two zombies on leashes, then met up with the rest of the cast and proceeded to shame them with her awesomeness.

The Comic: Michonne makes consistently better choices than anyone else. On the other hand, in her first appearance, she performs oral sex on Tyreese just for kicks. Which is cool, girl, you do you. But she goes onto berate and body-shame Tyreese’s girlfriend Carol after they break up. Female infighting aside, there are a lot of instances where things happen to Michonne and we never get to see how they impact her—instead, over-emphasis is given to the feelings of the (white, usually male) people around her. For instance, when Michonne is tortured and raped by a power-hungry settlement leader named Governor, her ally Glenn Rhee is in the next room and is forced to overhear everything. When he gets free, Glenn claims that Michonne’s captors did it all just to torture him.

Before it’s all said and done, Michonne enacts a revenge fantasy all over the Governor and his men, and I can only say this: it figures. Solving violence with other violence is a pretty common theme, here, you may have noticed.

The Show: Michonne debuts on the show, samurai sword in hand, chopping zombies left and right. Good thing, too, because she did it right in time to save me from abandoning this series forever. She was immediately the best character on Walking Dead, and she has remained so through to the current episodes. I agree strongly with fans that say she is underdeveloped, and this is evidenced in many ways, not the least of which being the fact that the writers often just chose to leave her completely speechless throughout the third season.  Michonne talks a lot more in the comic than the show, and it doesn’t make her any less of an intriguing character. Her lack of lines is obviously problematic, but… once again: she has a sword. She kills zombies with it. If loving Michonne is wrong, I don’t want to be right.

Overview: Michonne is a fantastic character, but, there are issues. Her characteristics fall within the trope of the “magical negro”: she will do absolutely anything for the white people around her, no matter how many times they are proven to have extremely bad judgment, and with a complete disregard for her own safety. This loyalty is not reciprocated by the people around her and makes no sense, for a character who’s supposed to be a strong, loner warrior. Another aspect of this cliche that we see in Michonne is that her skills are so developed as to appear to possess a magical quality. Despite arguably being the best fighter, she’s forever subordinate to the white characters in the story, forever struggling to elevate them into a position above her own.

carol is an older white woman with short hair

Carol Peletier

Who? Carol in the comic and Carol in the TV series are two very different ladies, so to stick to the unifying character trait: she and her daughter met up with the gang early on, and she at some point had an abusive husband. That’s all I got.

The Comic: Carol is a fellow survivor who becomes Lori’s supposed best friend. I guess the development of that friendship all happens off the comic book page, because we don’t really see a lot of evidence of these two really liking each other or being at all compatible . Ultimately, Carol catches her boyfriend Tyreese cheating on her. They break up, and she promptly attempts suicide in front of her daughter. Her life is saved after “not suiciding correctly,” as women are known to do in both comic and show. After that, she tries to kiss Lori, then she’s tries to kiss Rick, then she tries to kiss Lori again, then she suggests the three of them live in a polyamorous relationship. None of which was reciprocated by Rick or Lori. Despite the fact that both of them rebuffed her advances at least twice, she just keeps going for it. She is basically criminalized for suggesting polyamory, sleeps with a teenage boy (?), and then attempts suicide again by straight up walking into a zombie while mumbling about how much the zombie likes her. What?! This is not my feminist take on things, this is me saying what actually happened in the pages of this comic.

The Show: Honestly, Carol was almost a non-entity in the show up until around season four, despite having been with the series since season one. Her early appearances are based around the fact that she is abused by her husband, Ed.  Early on, there is a sexist explosion from Ed, who yells bad words and jostles a lady around in order to let the audience know that he’s the worst ever. Ed’s over-the-top sexism makes the sexism of the other characters seem benign by comparison. Rick is the hero, but why? Well, because he’s less awful than Ed. Ed is then physically beaten into submission by another male character. It’s all pretty gross, but notice that we’re not even talking about Carol right now, and this is a description of her storyline. That’s how not-about-Carol this show is, that I can’t tell a story about her suffering domestic abuse without first telling the story of three male characters. We don’t see how Carol feels about being abused by her husband, but we sure see how Shane feels about Carol being abused by her husband.

In the first few seasons, Carol defers to men constantly. In season four, we begin to see Carol grow. She teaches the children she’s babysitting how to defend themselves, which she is harshly criticized for by Rick and Carl (once again, this is the eleven year-old boy that has more authority and privilege than any woman in the camp). Later, she kills two people that are nearly dead from a highly contagious virus and burns their bodies in an effort to contain the disease. For this, she is quickly kicked out of the group by, you guessed it, the most hypocritical character to ever walk the world of fiction, Rick Grimes. The decision is insane, not only just because she has been taking care of everyone’s children for several months, and not only because it’s basically murder, but also because if you compare Carol’s choices to Rick’s, Carol’s usually make more sense. Up to the season five break, Carol is rapidly becoming one of the best characters on the show, her advancements blocked only by Rick, who disagrees with her decisions arbitrarily as a way of keeping her in her place.

Overview: Carol is not the only woman abused by her partner in the comics or the television series. There is long list of women that are abused, and the solution to that abuse is consistently, “dude punches abuser, and thereby fixes domestic abuse… with his fists!” Sometimes The Walking Dead is kind of like Steven Segal with zombies. Carol in seasons four and five rules. Carol in the comics… is maybe one of the worst written and poorly-conceived characters of all time.

maggie is a white woman with short hair

Maggie Greene

Who? In both the comic and show, Maggie Greene is the only surviving member of Hershel Greene’s family, who lived on a farm and hosted the gang for a bit. They were prime figures in both the comics and the show for different reasons. She dropped out of college and assisted her father and siblings on his farm. We don’t learn much about Maggie ever, honestly, because she is usually seen through the eyes of the men in her life.

The Comic: In Maggie’s first appearance in the comic and the TV show, she propositions Glenn before she does pretty much anything else. That has been a fairly consistent aspect of her character, the fact that she is defined by her sexual activity with Glenn. She attempts to commit suicide early on, and must be saved by Glenn. If you’re playing The Walking Dead “women who fail at suicide and become dependent on male characters” drinking game I just invented, that means you take one shot. In the comic, Glenn is eventually killed, so Maggie is stuck having to become her own person. She is still defined primarily through the lens of motherhood (having become the adoptive mother of Carol’s daughter, long story), but she also takes control of a township, so that’s pretty cool. So, as of the last issue I read (#135), Maggie is actually living up to a lot of the potential we saw early on when she showed up to basically roll her eyes at her dad when he would go on ridiculous tirades mansplaining everything from religion to the ethics of the veterinary practice.

The Show: Maggie is another character that stays pretty consistent from comic to show, and, once again, that might be because they keep it pretty simple in both cases. Whereas in the comic, Michonne is raped while Glenn is forced to hear, on the TV series, it is instead an excruciating scene with Maggie, where she is forced to undress and is then thrown over a table by the Governor, who then walks away. It’s a really awful scene, and one could justifiably question its inclusion in either the comic or the show. One thing is consistent, the assault is ultimately more about Glenn than it is about either woman. Also consistent, Maggie is defined by her sexuality first, and her resilience and strength of character second. As of season five’s mid-season cliffhanger, she is the last survivor of the Greene family, after her ridiculously likeable sister Beth met a pointless death due to the scheming of your standard villainous female authority figure trope, this time in the form of corrupt cop Dawn Lerner. Beth never appeared in the comic, where Maggie’s siblings were barely given lines of dialogue at all before meeting their fates, but I feel it’s important to bring her up, not only because she was genuinely one of the most awesome characters on the show, but because of her importance to Maggie. Rather, it’s her lack of importance I would like to emphasize. While Maggie is freaking out and following faint trails to find Glenn throughout the end of season four, she seems to entirely forget her sister even exists, and shows up only to cry upon discovering her dead with the rest of the gang. Why wasn’t Maggie upset about Beth’s disappearance? Oh, right, because then the show would have passed the Bechdel Test, and that pretty much never happens.

Overview: I like Maggie, because of course I do. She’s a mostly optimistic and pretty girl with a good smile and a charming southern accent. Unfortunately, that description doesn’t truly say anything about who she is as a character, and she’s been oversimplified often as simply “Glenn’s girlfriend” or “Hershel’s daughter.” I personally think of her as “Beth’s less-rad sister.” The potential is there, but seldom utilized.

Which is worse in its portrayal of women, the comic, or the show? I don’t know, both of them? Is that an option? Meanwhile, despite their flaws, the zombies themselves are equal opportunity. There is no time for prejudices amongst the undead. Truly, the zombies have learned that we are all one.

Related Reading: What Happens When a Teen Girl Leads a Post-Apocalyptic Society?

Sara Century is the Joan Crawford of the avant-garde underground. You can follow her multi-media art experimentation at saracentury.wordpress.com.

by Sara Century
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Sara is an artist, writer, and filmmaker who is obsessed with most people, places, and things. She is good at speaking in public, working on art projects for most hours of her waking life, and saying quotable things in casual conversation. She came of age in the DIY art scene and throws her whole heart into everything.

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7 Comments Have Been Posted

I agree with you that women

I agree with you that women are often shafted for the deeper development of male characters, particularly Rick. I applaud your deconstruction. I always took the blatant sexism as an aid to the plot. For instance, Lori's death signifies the end of domestication. As the typical wife trope and the assumed "first lady" as Carol refers to her in the show, she was mostly annoying because she tried to hang onto those social norms as if she's hanging onto civilization herself. The apocalypse won't come at some far off point in time when sexism and racism are solved--we will bring our challenges as humans with us when we are killing the Dead. Andrea's character represents that struggle. She is, as you say, sophisticated and has a mind of her own, and yet she is belittled, babied and distrusted. She almost kills the Gov, but she chooses not to, until it's too late. Her death also seems to denote the end of ideals--when she goes there's no one left on the show who needs to fight for their ideological perspective. Merle and Michonne, perhaps, when he was about to deliver her to the Gov--but they were both in the position of pawns in the larger picture, whereas when Andrea argued for her "rights" that was to ensure her place in her group. While they used her character as "the difficult, crazy female," they did that to emphasize the primitive behavior humanity might return to and the way humanity progresses down that path. While I agree with your reading and deconstruction of the female character, I would caution against and, as a film critic, remind the audience that tropes and representations are only that. They are tools used for the greater point of the story, which may in fact be that it does not get better.

Thank you Micky S. for your

Thank you Micky S. for your comment.

I find the analysis above mostly misguided and biased. I do agree that female characters in Walking Dead are not treated at their best potential, but I would argue that male characters aren't treated better. (In my household, the show is nicknamed Walking Dumb). There are plenty of situations where the female characters excels, and most importantly, I think the original poster confuses representation with support of the character's actions.

yasssss

"The most annoying character on The Walking Dead isn’t a zombie. It’s Rick Grimes."

You had me at that and then the article just kept getting better

Yaaaaaaas!!

Can we also talk about how

Can we also talk about how Lori Grimes APOLOGIZES TO HER RAPIST SHAUN??? Like, I feel like I'm going nuts, was I the only one who saw him assault her and then later she apologizes to him?

You hit the nail on the head.

You hit the nail on the head. This is what happens when you have men attempting to write fiction about women. They are absolutely clueless and a lot of times, as with TWD, the misogyny shows through. The complaints you have against the comic and the show are legitimate. They ruined Andrea's character, Lori was just over the top anti-feminist to the point I wanted to slap her. Michonne and Carol are our last hope for this show to have believable strong female characters. If they screw them up, I'm not watching the show any longer. Great article!

The Walking Misogyny

I agree wholeheartedly with your views here, and felt for a long time that the show was predominated by a hyper-masculine, post-apolocalyptic male gaze that moved from the sexualization of some of the female characters to the newly-develop, end-of-times patriarchy we must support. For example, when Rick says at the end of the second season that their group is no longer a democracy, that it is a dictatorship of sorts, we are led to assume several things. The first is that Rick has legitimate concerns for his group, and as the only remaining member (I guess) who has military or police experience, he is in the best position to lead them. Secondly, we see the struggle of others to remove their autonomy and place their full trust in someone who (as his beard grows) becomes more and more psychotic. However, because of Rick's experience, the audience is led to realize that this new patriarch is the best thing for the group if they want to survive. Lastly, when Rick eventually relinquishes his "Ricktatorship" in favor of a council, the power is again held predominately by an all-male leadership. Carol is the only female on this council within the prison, yet her judgment is called into question after her attempt at preventing the spread of the plague. What I find fascinating about all of this is that we assume that this pre-modern patriarchy is 1) a natural development, and 2) the only system keeping this group together. By assuming such a stance, we are led to believe that our post-modern feminist leanings cannot "save" us in what is typically a male-dominated genre of post-apolocalyptic literature (i.e., zombie fantasy). I would like to see more of the strong female characters take on the lead roles in the show, but I fear that, should this happen, the male viewership will criticize this as being "unrealistic."

I likd this review

This review probably isnt for me because I hate this show and comic book series. I feel like it is only a show because it was the first survival zombie comic book and the show is big because it was the first in that genre on tv and if you like zombies it was pretty much the only game in town. Then producers and execs saw zombies got ratings and you get this insulting the intelligence of fans wave of zombie bullcrap thats been strong since 2010. I AM a fan of michonne however, she is the only good character in the whole show or book as far as im concerned. All the female characters and most of the male characters are painfully generalized. It is not at all believable they would survive a day in a zombie apocalypse with the exception of michonne. But she is still token as heck, keep in mind I have only read 5 or 6 issues with her in the story and I love when shes hacking up people. But she is stuck in a mundane world when it comes to walking dead so she is limited by mundane writing. I think the reason she has a mysterious past is because the writing is too boring to imagine a worthy back story for her, not that any character has an interesting back story. It is not so much a sexist problem for me as if this book was better I would be happy to see how sexist men treat women in a zombie apocalypse, if that is part of the story. I think it would probably be more realistic that women would be pushed back into stereotypical roles in a zombie plague situation, at least in the beginning. But I think you have a problem with wanting to like a simple (minded) show and so the sexism in it is much more frustrating because its like wow this show sucks AND the female characters dont make any sense and are just pawns in hack storytelling in top of that, throw me a bone here! Well michonne is the bone and I wouldnt expect too much more from this show or book. As for me I just collect the issues with michonne on the cover and posters and prints with comic artists drawing her in badass poses. I have stopped reading or watching the show because it always dissapoints me the way she is treated. She should be the leader end of story. But it aint gonna happen because the guy who writes it hasnt the imagination to see a female leader, it was never an option. All your critiques were spot on but its like you were expecting to find oil in a raw sewage drainage pipe. Yes, zombies are awesome, that doesnt mean THIS show with zombies is awesome.

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