As you’ve probably guessed, I’m a huge fan of The Walking Dead.
It came as quite a surprise. The only reason I started watching in the first place was because my zombie-obsessed boyfriend had been hassling me about it for months.
I went in with a terrible attitude, just knowing it would be Dawn of the Dead and World War Z all over again: reasonably fun movies, but not nearly awesome enough to make all the attention paid to make-believe monster strategies seem any less crazy.
So one night, after finishing up Breaking Bad, Sons of Anarchy, and pretty much every other series we ever wanted to watch, he brought up The Walking Dead. Again.
Rolling my eyes, I finally agreed to give it a shot, though I knew I was going to hate it.
Boy, was I wrong. After a couple episodes, I was not only hooked, but went on to convince several very-reluctant female friends to give it a go.
Before we knew it, we were texting each other after every episode to talk about Shane’s latest atrocity or Andrea’s stupidity or how the prison crew could best defend itself against the Governor’s larger and better-equipped forces.
And it didn’t stop there. We debated general zombie defense strategies, including whether or not capture pits and fire could be effectively employed. Suddenly, we were sounding like every other zombie freak, drawing plans on napkins and improvising booby-traps.
How did this happen? We used to think those zombie podcast guys were nuts.
Thing is, it isn’t just us. The Walking Dead is the number one television show for women right now, which is blowing Hollywood’s mind. We are NOT the demographic that producers typically expect to follow a zombie saga, yet we are flocking to it in droves.
How is this possible? Well, I’m no media psychology expert, but given that I’m a female viewer who had no previous interest in the genre before this gold mine came out, I’m exactly the type of unexpected fan they are scratching their collective heads about.
So after considering what I love so much about this show, I came up with five reasons why I (and probably other women) find WD so appealing:
- We don’t have to sit through endless depictions of sexual violence against women
Gore and sexual violence usually go hard-in-hand, and women find rape scenes depressing. Whenever we watch a hardcore video game, movie, or TV series, we end up bracing ourselves for the inevitable scene where the helpless ingenue gets her clothes ripped off before being tortured.
It sucks, and it’s part of the reason I’ve had trouble getting into Game of Thrones. It’s kind of like if you had to watch a great show that was occasionally punctuated with scenes of kittens being set on fire.
Though WD occasionally hints at sexual violence (when Shane gets pushy with Lori at the CDC, for example, or when the Governor strips down Maggie), it never bubbles over into making us watch painstakingly-graphic depictions of sexual abuse. It also isn’t limited to women (remember when the scumbag gang nearly molests Carl?), so we don’t feel so singled out for humiliation.
2. There are plenty of badass female characters
Just as we hate being tortured in every action flick, we also resent always having to play the pathetically shrieking, hopelessly incompetent damsels while the boys get to perform all the cool stunts.
We want to feel badass too. We’re tired of endlessly sitting around, doing nothing apart from being half-naked eye candy while waiting for the good guys to save us.
Because that’s not fun for us. As much as I loved The Princess Bride as a kid, for example, some small part of me still dies every time I see Princess Buttercup whimper helplessly with a sword at her feet (apparently unsure which end is sharp) as a giant rat mauls the love of her life.
Action flicks are a genre of wish-fulfillment. By living through the characters, you can pretend to make amazing shots from incredible distances and swing around like a ninja acrobat while tossing out witty dialogue. You’re always cool under pressure (even if in real life you would run away, awkwardly squealing).
Realistic? Well, not really, but neither is crawling up a mountain bare-handed, twice, with crossbow bolts stuck your ribs (Daryl). Or beating a walker to death even when you’re unarmed and tied to a chair (Glenn).
We just want to play too. And we get to, whenever Michonne lops off multiple zombie heads with one swing of her samurai sword, or Carol dramatically flips back her hood before saving half the people of Alexandria from a Wolf attack.
3. And the female characters are more realistic
Typically, women in this genre (if there are more than one) are nothing more than uni-dimensional archetypes: the helpless princess, the temptress, the bad guy’s crazy evil wing-woman, or the long-suffering mom.
They’re either completely good, or completely bad, which is not a realistic depiction of a real human being. This tends to make female characters seem more like symbols of innocence and evil than actual people we can relate to.
The Walking Dead, however, shakes up tired stereotypes over and over again.
Maggie, for example, comes onto Glenn (not the other way around) then shoves him away, after the sweet lovin’, when he tries to have a romantic relationship with her. Yet she is in no way depicted as the slut, later becoming one half of the most beloved romantic partnerships on the show.
Lori is the unfaithful spouse (though she did believe her husband had died at least a couple seconds before jumping into bed with Shane), but is still portrayed as a devoted mother who bravely sacrifices herself in the most agonizing way to make sure her baby daughter is born healthy.
Carol starts off as a battered doormat wife, but slowly grows into a fierce warrior with deadly skills and an iron will. She even uses her “safe mom” appearance as a sort of camouflage in Alexandria, donning frumpy flowered clothes while talking about cookies all day, before busting out on a glorious wolf-killing spree when the time was ripe.
I could go on and on, but you get my point. These characters aren’t simple to pigeon-hole, having both positive and negative traits. Just like actual people do.
4. The women don’t wear stupid clothes
Women complain a lot about the kinds of outfits women wear in, say, dungeons-and-dragons-style games. Men are convinced we are jealous because the lady characters are sexy, but the truth is a touch more complicated.
Our irritation is not so much about feeling threatened by sexy outfits or abnormal physical proportions as the fact that these women flat out look stupid dressing in G-strings for a boss battle. Seriously, you’re about a buck o’five, soaking wet, but you’re going to wear nothing but pasties and undersized bike shorts to take on a team of grunting half-orcs with magical halberds?
It looks ridiculous, as does fighting with long hair swinging in your face (real women pull their hair back and take their earrings off before battle). Can you imagine guy fighters wearing ass-less chaps at a time like this?
We can forgive Princess Leia’s gold bikini in Return of the Jedi because it was situational and she was reasonably dressed for the rest of the trilogy, but should Morrigan really be sporting a cloth bikini top and sarong skirt for broadsword battles in Dragonage Inquisition?
Women’s outfits in WD make more sense, like they are actually trying to stay alive during the apocalypse. Their hair is messed up and their faces are dirty (perhaps in an artfully-messed-up way, but still realistically grimy), and they don tank tops and jeans like reasonable people would. They wear boots instead of stiletto heels (gorgeous boots, mind you. Maggie’s are awesome) and don’t bother with lipstick when dead people are trying to eat their faces.
The only real exception is Rosita Espinoza, who likes to wear hot pants, knotted-up shirts, and giant hoops (those catch on stuff, dammit), but since she’s part of a bizarre triad, including Abraham and Eugene, we expect strange behavior from her.
5. The story is well developed
There’s a reason men are into porn, whereas women love romance novels, but I believe it has less to do with a difference in visual vs mental stimulation instincts than the experts say.
Men like to save time by jumping straight to the “good stuff,” which means a straightforward focus on thrilling erotica and violence with limited backstories.
Women, however, usually need to give a crap about the characters for these scenes to mean anything. We need a good story. We want good character development and a reason to care when someone is threatened or falling in love, or else the whole thing feels like a giant snuff film to us.
And The Walking Dead delivers. The characters are detailed, the relationships are complicated, and everyone undergoes sophisticated psychological developments throughout the series.
In fact, you could argue that the focus of the show is actually more about dissecting human drives and social dilemmas than stabbing a zombie through the eye socket. The zombies are there to break down the social contract, providing an opportunity to explore how human beings act without typical societal controls or standards of morality.
Morality is complex in WD. Do the ends justify the means? Do we respect traditional values when there is no police force or justice system to enforce them? Do we follow an innocent-until-proven-guilty code or should we shoot first and ask questions later?
All in all, it’s damn good storytelling with multiple layers of meaning and well-crafted female protagonists.