In her legendary New York Times interview with Rihanna, Miranda July notes that she hesitated to ask Rihanna what it is like to be a powerful young black woman: anxious that the pop star would be put off by the question because, perhaps, Rihanna felt herself post-racial. When July finally, cringing, brought herself to ask a timid and diluted version of her question, “did you suddenly feel aware of race in a different way when you moved to New York?” Rihanna articulated an unapologetically honest answer which, I hope, shamed July for assuming that Rihanna would be as squeamish to talk about race as she was.
The interview, “A Very Revealing Conversation With Rihanna” is undeniably well-crafted, engrossing and charismatic, even moving. It also largely ignores, or at least shies away from the racial difference between its characters. I would say that this is a similar predicament to that of AMC’s zombie apocalypse drama, The Walking Dead.
The Walking Dead, despite its almost freakish popular success (being the fourth most watched show on television in 2015, trailing only behind some things with “NFL” in the title), and exploration of similar themes to prestige darlings like Mad Men, Breaking Bad, Fargo or House of Cards, is a show largely excluded from conversations about the “golden age” of TV. This is potentially because it’s just not as good, but is also likely, at least in part, a result of its science fiction branding. However, something critical besides its comic book origins distinguish the show from these characteristically similar series. By its sixth and latest season, The Walking Dead has slowly and quietly assembled one of the most diverse casts ever seen on mass-viewed, critically acclaimed television.
It is important to point out that this was not always the case. The Walking Dead’s current representative cast took four or five seasons to truly develop. The absence, weak development, and frequent deaths of the shows first several seasons of black characters — particularly black men, and the pattern of killing off a black guy, then adding one the next episode (RIP T-Dog, Oscar, Andrew, Big Tiny, and Bob) — brought The Walking Dead under fire for having “quotas” of dispensable characters of color, written with less nuance and significance.
However, over the past two season, characters of color — including Korean-American Glenn who defies all stereotypes of nerdy, asexual Asian men, friendly samurai African-American characters, Michonne, who (after a couple of seasons shut down by PTSD), emerges as one of the group’s leaders, guru Morgan, who philosophically denounces killing, moral dad and resident softie of the show Tyreese, his impulsive sister Sasha, and struggling alcoholic Bob, and tough, perennially chill Latina (although questionably sexualized) Rosita from Texas — have been many of the shows most compelling and beloved characters: fleshed out individuals with their own anxieties, values and perspectives.
I am not necessarily praising The Walking Dead for this, or at least, I’d rather not. The show takes place entirely, (until season six, when it treks into Virginia) in Atlanta and the surrounding Georgia countryside: an area that’s population is upwards of 50% black and 10% Latina/o. In an ideal world of course, casts that reflect the demographic realities of their settings would not be of note, let alone something to pat directors on the back for. However, in a moment where television taking place in diverse areas is still usually dominated by pretty white faces, casts — particularly casts watched by almost 16 million viewers — accurately populated with minority characters is still a somewhat radical feat of representation. This is a good thing. The Walking Dead is a formidable example of how having a cast that actually looks like America is good for TV storytelling, and business alike.
However midway through season five, something unsettling began to nag at me: despite people of so many different races interacting so intimately on the show, race is never addressed implicitly, or explicitly. Newly encountered groups and communities look like college brochures and no one seems to notice. Seventy-year old white Christian, southern farmers have no apprehensions when their daughters fall in love with Asian guys. Black and white characters date each other without seeming to notice their different skin colors. No hostilities, discomforts or power differentials exist between white and black characters on the show.
There is a subtle difference between the ways that white and non-white characters’ narratives are developed. Notice that viewers are largely in the dark about most characters of colors’ backgrounds, and that their past experiences seem to have little to do with their post-collapse lives. Meanwhile, we know quite a lot about white characters’ Rick, Carl, Daryl and Carol and Maggie’s backgrounds, and their pre-collapse social identities and positions quite obviously, profoundly determined their narratives over the course of the show. Rick is a cop, a white male comfortable in a position of authority, Daryl was from a poor, emotionally and physically abusive rural family, Carol was beaten her husband, and Maggie grew up religious and sheltered on a farm.
While I find characters Michonne and Glenn to be dynamic and intriguing, I notice that much of their character development occurs over the course of the show — as they become group leaders and pursue relationships with other characters — rather than through flashbacks or telling their own stories to other characters. By developing characters of color in real time on the show, rather than presenting their fleshed out pre-apocalypse lives, the creators conveniently avoid having to potentially address the significance of their ethnicities in their original communities.
The easy explanation for this phenomenon, (and as show creators have said in response to questions about race on the show) is that The Walking Dead is not supposed to be polemic; That, at the end of the world when everyone’s central concern is survival, racial difference, like wealth or occupation would fall away along with civilization. This post-racial apocalyptic utopia surely is a dreamy picture. However, it is as appealing as it is simplified and foolishly idealistic. Racial identities, privileges and prejudices, are so deeply internalized and natural to us that these dispositions — potentially more than ever in such high-stakes situations where trust and power are dwindling resources— profoundly impact the characters’ relationships and communities.
There are compelling precedents of incorporating the nuances of identity into apocalypse literature. Take, for instance, many of prolific science fiction writer Octavia Butler’s end of the world narratives, which often reflect explore how systems of power and privilege based on race, class and gender, last well beyond the end of civilization. In the post apocalyptic world of Parable of the Sower, for instance, interracial couples traveling together are in more danger than others, the wealthy and white have more resources for survival, and interracial tension and distrust are a part of what tear safe communities apart. In Butler’s writing, the world is just as messy a place after it ends, filled with same identity politics and racial wounds that define it today — rather than the alluringly tidied up landscape of The Walking Dead.
Identity and representation are always polemic: and when the creators of popular culture refuse to admit this, they are going to fuck up. I believe this carelessness and neglect of race on The Walking Dead is what, in the first several seasons, lead to issues of problematic and insufficient representation.
I am not insisting that the show had to delve into contemporary conversations of race, or that its characters had to be either more racist, or stereotypically racialized. However I think that The Walking Dead denied a necessary specificity of experience to its characters. To write truly convincing and compelling characters, the complexities of racial identities have to be considered, and represented. We live in a world where race continues to define how we are perceived, and how we perceive ourselves. This is why there is a strangeness to watching such diverse cast talk, eat, sleep, kill for each other, fall in love with each other, do horrific things for and to each other in order to survive, and yet never acknowledge the differences of their experiences — or actually, even have different experiences before the end of the world, and after.
If we learned anything at all in the year of 2016, it’s that race still matters; that race always matters: whether in an interview with a pop star or at the end of the world. Let’s learn how to talk about it.
Jael Goldfine is a junior in the College of Arts and Sciences. Objectivity Bites appears alternate Wednesdays this semester. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.