by Mia McKenzie
(If you haven’t seen the latest episode of The Walking Dead, you may want to stop now because SPOILER ALERT)
I like TV. And movies. I like lots of pop culture stuff. I’m also a person who watches with a critical eye for fuckery. It’s the only way I know how to navigate media. Liking something doesn’t mean I give it a pass. I love Harry Potter but I can spend hours deconstructing its sexist fuckery. I can enjoy problematic things (if I couldn’t, I really wouldn’t have much to watch), but not without fully recognizing and calling out why those things are problematic.
Since I like pop culture so much and since I like deconstructing fuckery so much, I’ve decided to do a weekly (or more) short pop culture deconstruction thingy for y’all. If I see something suspect on one of my fave shows or check out a movie that leaves me like: bitch, what? you’ll find out about it here. Let’s call it “BGD’s Fuckery of the Week Pop Culture Jawn”. Or something.
This week’s fuckery: The Walking Dead.
I’ve been watching The Walking Dead for a long time. I’ve seen every episode. I’m a fan. And there’s def some fuckery to be called out.
The fuckery in question? The fact that all the significant black characters on TWD die gruesomely, while the significant white characters tend to die more humane deaths.
Last week’s episode, where Noah had his face literally ripped apart by walkers, was the tipping point for me. Watching a character who was well-liked, even loved, be killed off in such a graphic, violent way, triggered me. Noah was a good guy. He was brave. He was kind. He tried to sacrifice himself for Beth. He was a nice kid. I thought about the other black characters who have died on TWD. From T-Dawg to Tyreese and now Noah, nearly every significant, liked, black character has been killed by walkers—and almost always brutally, gruesomely, and on-screen. While nearly every significant, liked white character has been either killed humanely by a loved one or, in the case of Andrea, killed by walkers offscreen—sparing viewers the gruesome tearing apart of her bloodied flesh.
This is the same approach to black suffering and death that allowed Quentin Tarantino to show an enslaved black person being ripped apart by dogs in Django Unchained, with no such grotesque killings of Jewish people in Inglorious Basterds. Even in a film that’s supposedly on the side of oppressed black people, there’s no hesitation about showing us being ripped limb from limb in IMAX detail. While at the same time understanding that Jewish victims in a holocaust movie deserve to have their deaths treated with dignity.
When I brought up this topic on Twitter, a TWD podcaster ran up in my mentions to assure me that it’s not racist because Hershel, a white character, had his head cut off (and also, Dale had his guts torn out, but I stand by the assertion that Dale was not liked by most viewers. Killing off an unliked character gruesomely isn’t the same as killing off a liked or loved one in the same way*). Yes, Hershel did have his head cut off. But he didn’t get hacked in slow-mo. He wasn’t seen screaming and writhing in pain while parts of him were torn off. By TWD standards, it was on the lower end of gratuitously gruesome deaths. For a decapitation, it was actually pretty tame.
You know what did happen in slow-mo, though? Hershel’s loved one’s reactions. The whole mood of Hershel’s death scene is emotional, devastating and human. The reactions of his daughters and friends have more screen time than the actual head-chop. Hershel’s death, even by decapitation, is treated with dignity.
Yet Noah, practically a kid, doesn’t get the same treatment. Can you imagine Beth having been killed the way Noah was? Can you imagine that happening to Carl?
To be clear, I realize there are lots of gruesome deaths on TWD. What I’m pointing out is the difference in the visual and emotional details. The difference in what you see, how you see it, what mood is created, etc. Those details either allow a character full humanity or they take that full humanity away.
If this seems like a small, nit-picky, it’s just a TV show! thing to you, I encourage you to think harder about media and the ways it influences the way we think about violence, victimhood, and who is deserving of things like consideration, compassion and dignity in death. Media influences how we view the humanity of marginalized people, and racism influences media. It’s not just a TV show. It’s never just a TV show, folks.
Black people are shown being gruesomely killed on-screen because, even when a black character is liked, their humanity isn’t fully recognized. The people running the show at TWD understand that you don’t show a liked or loved character having their face torn off by zombies in a close-up, because it will upset invested viewers. If the character is white.
If the character is black? Well. Not so much.
* I had Dale confused with Merle! I forgot that Dale ever existed. My bad. Okay, Dale was liked. And he did get his guts torn out. But he died from a humane shot to the head, by his loved ones, who cried and comforted him. His death scene was sad, not sensational, and it didn’t rob him of humanity or dignity. Quite the contrary.
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Mia McKenzie is an award-winning writer, a speaker, and the creator of Black Girl Dangerous. Bring her to speak at your college or community event.