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‘The Walking Dead’ and the Real Diversity Problem On (Some) Ambitious Dramas

Aymar Jean Christian March 12, 2012 Television and Film 7 Comments
‘The Walking Dead’ and the Real Diversity Problem On (Some) Ambitious Dramas

Thanks to Racialicious and writing to transgress for re-posting.

UPDATE: The arrival of a new character signals a possible shift in season three.

It’s an old and uninteresting complaint: black characters on TV — and horror movies — get killed or written off too early. Clearly, that is what’s been happening on The Walking Dead with T-Dog. (For a good rant, head to Clutch).

I’m going to try to push the debate further, past “isn’t it a shame characters of color get short shrift.” The truth is the T-Dog Problem signals broader problems with The Walking Dead and some other prominent dramas. It’s a symptom of an ailment the writers might actually care to remedy, beyond appeasing black viewers.

First, the basics. Earlier this season T-Dog told Dale he was concerned about being black and a weak link in the group. This was an insightful moment from the writers, foregrounding the idea that being different after the apocalypse might be a problem — after all, in times of stress, people stick to their own — and an interesting meta-commentary on the fragility of being a black character on TV — T-Dog was a great candidate for a quick kill. Then T-Dog disappeared. I literally forgot all about him until last week, when he had one line that was almost comically interrupted. This week T-Dog was similarly marginal, leading Vulture‘s recapper to state: “By this point, the casual dismissal of one of two minority characters…on this show is feeling extremely suspect. The only thing saving it from being full on offensive is that the same treatment is being given to Hershel’s entire white family.”

The problem isn’t only about a tired debate over representation.

The real problem with T-Dog’s absence is it undermines the point of the whole show. Let me explain.

Viewers might forget that early in the series one of the hardest decisions the group had to make was whether to keep on Daryl’s racist brother (basically, in a nutshell). The overall narrative suggested that even a skilled manly man wasn’t worth having in a zombie apocalypse if he couldn’t get on with a diverse group of people. Good ol’ American values of equality triumphed even with bloodthirsty demons at the door. Walking Dead has always been about re-constructing the nation from scratch. The writers made us root for these people, in doing so we were rooting for America.

Since then, the cast of underwritten characters have become increasingly unlikable. The focus on the Shane-Rick-Lori love triangle, and the stagnant nature of every character — Rick is moral, Shane is evil, Lori is worried, Andrea is unhappy, Dale is self-righteous, Carol is sad — made all these white people seem self-interested and petty. Rick is a good guy but too caught up in family and friend politics. It’s hard to root for people so caught up with themselves and so uninvolved with each other.

The Rick, Lori and Shane story hobbled the show’s underlying point: this was about good people in difficult circumstances trying to rebuild society and find a moral code in a world without laws (that’s what the whole Carol-abused-wife thing was about too). Last week the show came back to this theme. But the group’s reluctance to stop Randall’s death made them seem short-sighted, mean and petty. Why should we care about their journey? At issue is whether they were still decent, whether they still cared about people who were different and outside their personal struggles.

Or whether they cared about each other! This is the point: the show’s limited perspective and singular focus on the nuclear family — underscored this week with what happened to Shane — has eclipsed the large cast. We don’t get multiple perspectives, or different characters interacting — what about Hershel’s family? Or Carol? What do they do? What are they thinking? T-Dog is only the most egregious and visible example because he’s the only black guy.

T-Dog’s invisibility is an extreme example of how the show has failed to include multiple perspectives, or to indicate any sense of mutual caring or consideration from the show’s characters. Other great shows about society — Battlestar Galactica, Deadwood, The Wire – did this well. They utilized a large and diverse cast to make a case about morality, humanity and its institutionalization.

The “big question” of Walking Dead is whether decency and civilization can survive without institutions. When Dale last week implored the group to save Randall last week, he was making the case for decency and compassion. This is (idealized) America! We don’t kill “others”! The writers killed Dale to force the group to get back on message. Yet they need to expand the scope of the show to its characters.

By giving more time to Glenn, T-Dog and the rest, the writers will find more heart and purpose. Because we are supposed to like these characters — Walking Dead is a moral show, not an antihero-driven soap like Breaking Bad or The Sopranos.

While I’m at it, there are a lot of shows that could benefit from this, not the least of which is Falling Skies, which started out diverse and quickly became a show about white guys and the women who love them. (Seriously, the black characters just kept disappearing!).

I checked out of Terra Nova when it seemed clear the “outsiders,” led by the terrific Christine Adams, had “gone native” in the cheapest way.

True Blood still has Lafayette, but, again, underwriting and mishandling Tara, now possibly dead, only made Sookie appear immature and too focused on her silly love triangle. What is True Blood, you know, about any more? Whatever it is, Sookie is at the heart, and she is best when with Tara, which I guess the writers finally remembered in the last episode by putting her in danger.

There could be other examples and counterexamples, but my larger point is that all these ambitious and expensive dramas purport to be about something ambitious (usually, America, capital “A”), which is why they are expensive. But it’s hard to be ambitious when you narrowly focus a sprawling cast on the concerns of a few (almost always white) characters. You have to show multiple perspectives and treat every character with respect. If you don’t, you risk sinking into the narrative sinkhole that trapped The Walking Dead, where the characters appear flat, uninteresting and unsympathetic to the concerns of others and each other. Doing that intentionally might actually make Walking Dead interesting, but clearly that’s not the point.

All this might be premature. Glen Mazzara promises more T-Dog. For the show’s sake, I hope he’s right.

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About The Author

Aymar Jean Christian is assistant professor of communication at Northwestern University. He writes about media and society for a number of publications. For more information, click the "About" tab at the top of the page.

7 Comments

  1. HomesickAlien March 12, 2012 at 8:30 pm

    I actually googled “Where did T-Dog disappear to?” and found this article. You hit the nail on the head. I was thinking exactly the same thing. Well written. great read.

  2. aintstudyingyou March 13, 2012 at 11:26 am

    May I sum up in two words? Do better! I like the way this is framed as not necessarily a “diversity” issue but, simply, an issue about characterization, theme, and development. I’ve tried to take that tack myself.

    The only place I take slight issue is “tired debate over representation.” I think about the achievements of the 1960s – 80s (from legal victories to black Miss Americas and The Cosby Show, etc.) Those achievements–even at the level of symbols and representation–have been rolled back with a vengeance. Therefore, it does seem that some of the things we are “tired” of discussing are back on the table (contraception?!?!). Perhaps our job as fancypants intellectuals is to find new ways to get at the heart of these matters, and this piece is definitely a contribution to that. I’m just saying I think there’s a difference between your tiredness and that of people whose inner monologue has to do with being tired of hearing about it, despite having not addressed the issue: “you marched and protested and got hosed and now you get forgettable bit parts so what else do you want you’re making me tired!”

  3. Aymar Jean Christian March 13, 2012 at 11:45 am

    You’re right, my fatigue over representation is slightly different. We’ve moved backwards on TV, but still remember the more colorful past, so we might need to temporarily reframe the argument so the industry can hear. It can’t just be about our need to see ourselves, because the execs who are tired of hearing complaints tell us “there you are! you have that bit part right there!”

    I’ve tried to reframe it around story here, but a core issue is labor. These little things affect the whole supply chain in Hollywood: the more writers of color, the more roles of color, the more actors casting executives can choose for bigger and bigger roles, the more power actors have the more they (and writers) can produce and direct, etc. This is the source of the industry’s “Will Smith” problem, but it’s their loss as much as ours: the franchises are dull (I think this past weekend’s John Carter is another example; who knew about Taylor Kitsch before now? Friday Night Lights, however much I love it, was not popular). Falling Skies is unexciting. Walking Dead is getting duller.

  4. elliot April 4, 2012 at 7:44 am

    this article is fantastic! what are your policies on re-posting? at first i just wanted to quote it, but there’s just too much good stuff. with your permission, i’d love to re-post the article in its entirety (with due credit, of course) on my blog. please let me know, thanks!

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