The beauty of genre television, and by this statement I mean TV that focuses on the themes of science-fiction, fantasy, and horror – the stories of aliens, starships, exotic planets, dystopian parallel realities, impossible phenomena, werewolves, vampires, and zombies – the everyday and hidden stories of humanity – it that the different or Other is given another context for expression. What I demand as a viewer of contemporary genre TV are characters and stories that make me question, rethink, and reinterpret the world around me. A simple reflection or reproduction of the societal status quo is not enough for my continual viewing of a certain show. With this being said, I will be examining how one television genre – the zombie narrative, in two permutations, AMC’s The Walking Dead and BBC Three’s In the Flesh respectively reinforce and resist heteronormative media entertainment strategies.
To set the stage for this argument, I can cite one heteronormative sci-fi narrative of the past, the original Star Trek. Courtesy of the fan-generated phenomena of slash fiction, the show’s ostensibly heterosexual leads, Captain Kirk and Mr. Spock, via their characterization, dialogue, and actions depicted over the space of the original series and subsequent movies, have been appropriated by primarily female fans and reimagined as a subtext for their sexual fantasies in the form of. As discussed by media scholar Henry Jenkins in Textual Poachers (Routledge 1992), this form of fan resistance materialized in the mid-seventies, at Star Trek conventions, where K/S fans as they deemed themselves, distributed and traded zines depicting Kirk and Spock in erotic narratives.
Thankfully, what was once a cultural zone of fan fantasy and frustration – queer couplings in genre television – would later be given predominant airplay in the WB’s series, Buffy the Vampire Slayer, and the BBC’s Doctor Who spinoff, Torchwood. Although both narratives depicted well-rounded, stable queer couplings through the romantic pairings of the witches Willow Rosenberg and Tara Maclay and the immortal Captain Jack and mortal Ianto Jones, both narratives end with one of the lovers being killed – Tara and Ianto. Recently, this problematic tragic resolution for a televised queer romance has been replicated with the conclusion of In the Flesh, when Kieren’s lover, Rick, is killed by his own father.
Before I continue with my discussion of that questionable endpoint for Kieren and Rick’s briefly resumed relationship during their second life as sentient zombies, I wish to foreground the importance of the zombie narrative to queer studies. As a cultural metaphor, the decay, often disfigured, and deceased yet animated figure of the zombie offers an imperfect body that may be situated as queer. For instance, if one regards gay men with AIDS as walking cadavers voraciously willing to inflict their potentially terminal disease upon the living, or even the unwilling hetero man, then the zombie metaphor is in full operation. In a similar fashion, the image of the monstrous, dangerous zombie could be substituted in certain viewers’ minds for the “flamboyant homosexual,” the “militant dyke” or the physically ambiguous transsexual they encounter in society. With the central queer coupling of In the Flesh, however, these metaphorical and literal fears are mutually embodied, a fact that makes the show a significant challenge to the heteronormative zombie narrative found in The Walking Dead.
With regard to the topic of diversity, The Walking Dead presents females and minorities in both heroic and villainous roles. As for its depiction of romantic couplings, by the end of its current third televised season, we have witnessed the tedious Rick-Lori-Shane love triangle, Glen and Maggie’s biracial romance and Andrea and the Governor’s twisted relationship, all heterosexual pairings. More egregiously, not one character has been depicted as queer or possessing an ambiguous sexuality on the show, and, regarding two gay characters from the Prison storyline featured in the original comic book narrative, Derek and Andrew, only the latter was, for a short time, depicted onscreen. Of course, slash fiction connoisseurs could find fertile narrative ground in examining the unscreened extended three-month survival friendship shared between Michonne and Andrea, but this narrative rewriting would have to work with the vague interstices of the pairs’ dialogue and unspoken glances in order to have sustainable material for queering the characters. Perhaps the show’s fourth season, with the inclusion of the surviving denizens of Woodbury joining Rick’s group at the Prison to form an extended community will offer the show’s writing staff more possibilities for including a queer character in their episodes…
For further reading on this controversial issue, see:
And to view the trailer for In the Flesh:
By way of contrast to The Walking Dead’s heteronormative post-apocalyptic narrative, where the living dead apparently run rampart all over the United States, In the Flesh presents a scenario set in Great Britain, where a zombie outbreak has been contained and a medical cure discovered, allowing the undead to rejoin society. A politically correct name has also been given to these former flesh-eating citizens who suffer from being undead: Partially Deceased Syndrome, or PDS. At this point, I could analyze PDS as operating as a metaphor for people who suffer from PTSD or AIDS. In a similar fashion to the latter group, those afflicted with AIDS or HIV, PDS sufferers receive medicine to keep their condition from deteriorating into a feral state. As for their visible physical decay, they are supplied with contacts and cover-up mousse to produce a life-like flesh tone.
One of these patients, Kieren Walker, the post-deceased eternal eighteen-year old lead of In The Flesh, makes an awkward reentry in his home and the (fictional) village of Roarton, England. Kept behind closed doors by his parents in order to hide him from villagers who may instantly execute him, Kieren is both dead physically and socially. More specifically, the villagers who would potentially kill Kieren comprise the HVF (Human Volunteer Force), the militia group that successfully fought the uprising of the unliving and still patrol to hunt any “rotters” who may be roaming in the local woods. Included in their ranks are Jem, Kieren’s sister and their leader, Bill Macy, who expresses the opinion that a “rotter is a rotter, drugs or now drugs.” Representing the stolid, uncompromising, militant face of human prejudice against PDS sufferers, Bill, on a metaphorical level, could be seen as a gay basher, who actively prowls on queer victims walking in a social space. Moreover, he takes commands from Vicar Oddie, which hints at a larger organized religion condemnation of corrupted PDS sufferer’s bodies, thus echoing modern Christian religions’ prejudicial attitudes towards AIDS (i) patients and queer people. Bill’s hatred of PDS sufferer even leads him to execute one “rotter,” Maggie, who is neighbor Ken Burton’s wife, in the cul-de-sac before her home. This allegorical reading is given literal grounding when, by the end of the first episode, we learn that Bill’s son, Rick, who died in Iraq, is likewise a PDS sufferer.
When Rick returns to his family, displaying facial scarring evidence of the deadly bomb blast that ended the mortal part of his existence, Bill acts as if his son did not die and was subsequently resurrected. He is also obviously dismissive of Rick’s sexuality. His son’s untouched room, furthermore, displays all of the typical heteronormative emblems of a “straight” young male: sports trophies, a soccer jersey, and a poster of a lingerie-clad woman alongside the wall near his bed – clearly framed in proximity to Rick in long and medium camera shots as he talks and shares a manly” beer with his father (ii). Rick himself perpetuates his father’s image of him as a heterosexual, living, fighting machine who willingly will assist him in hunting down rotters. We even learn, via Kieren reading an old postcard from Rick, that his covert lover could not stand up to his father in order to announce his homosexuality as evidenced in the part of the postcard that reads, “This shite with my dad. I’ll sort it. Swear I will.”
Nonetheless, when sitting alone with Kieren in his truck, Rick expresses his heartfelt outrage upon learning that Kieren committed suicide after hearing that he had been killed in action in Afghanistan. As for an understanding of why Kieren would give up his life for Rick, who ran from their love affair by enlisting in the British Army, we can turn to Michel Foucault. In The History of Sexuality, Volume I: An Introduction (Vintage 1990), Foucault writes, “The Faustian Pact, whose temptation has been instilled in us by the deployment of sexuality, is now as follows: to exchange life in its entirety for sex itself, for the truth and sovereignty of sex. Sex is worth dying for. It is in this (strictly historical) sense that sex is indeed imbued with the death instinct” (156). For Kieren, his homosexual sexual couplings with Rick, hidden from the town of Roarton and greater society, in its clandestine presence, represented a happiness greater than his own life, which he terminated through slashing his wrist in its absence.
In a positive fashion, however, the return of Kieren to Rick’s life helps him reconnect with his deadened, fragment identity when Rick stands in front of Rick’s gun to stop him from shooting the feral man and little girl whom they have found in the woods while his father eggs him on to shoot them. In particular, Kieren’s dialogue has a powerful effect upon Rick: “They can be treated, with the same medication we are being treated with. Do you understand? They’re like us….They’re like me. Are you going to shoot me as well?” Reestablishing an empathetic bond with Kieren through these words, Rick decides not to shoot the zombies (iii.) What is gained at this moment is Rick’s recognition that he is not aligned with his father’s heteronormative culture of pure racial values and war but rather with the queer subculture by listening to his lover’s pleas and with his fellow marginalized, tortured PSS sufferer’s subculture, with which he shares an infected bodily disorder.
In the midst of all of this suffering, Amy Dyer, who was part of Kieren’s feral undead hunting pack and whom he encounters once more in episode two, offers a positive, uplifting message on dealing with being a PDS sufferer. As the two reconnect at the Fun Fair amusement park, Kieren touches upon the subject of their past, asking, “Don’t you have any remorse?” to which she answers, “Nah, back then we were in survival mode, out of our minds.” In contrast to Kieren, she is comfortable with her PDS body, as later in the episode, in her words, she goes au naturale, deciding to walk around Roarton without contacts or cover-up, thereby exposing her corrupted body for public spectacle. That evening, when she unexpectedly shows up at Kieren’s home, she shocks Kieren and his family with her carefree behavior, prompting this exchange in his bedroom:
KIEREN: You can’t talk to my folks like that!
KIEREN: Because they…don’t…like…admitting that I’m–
With this slight pause, if this television narrative were depicting a youth struggling with admitting his homosexuality, Amy’s response would specifically reference the issue. Instead, since this is a zombie narrative, this is how their conversation continues:
AMY: What? The undead?
AMY: Shouldn’t they start getting used to it?
AMY: Shouldn’t you start getting used to it?
Kieren’s homosexuality, however, is later directly addressed as he and Amy are about to walk into the town pub, Rick hesitates in entering the establishment, telling Amy, “The people in there – they hated me before I was like this.” When Amy asks him why, he replies, “’Cause I wasn’t like them.” Through her friendship with Kieren, which eschews any societal boundaries of gender or sexuality, she encourages him to reconnect with Rick. She also displays her sexuality (iv) when she sleeps with Philip, who works for Vicar Oddie. But then her interest in the message of the Undead Liberation Army (v) , a curiosity shared by Kieren, pulls her toward that potentially terroristic commune and away from her friendship with him.
Returning to the conflict of Rick and his father, with Kieren positioned in the middle, it reaches a terminal point in episode three. Wishing Kieren dead, Bill tells his son, “He’s not a person, Rick. He’s an animal – worse than an animal. He might walk or talk, but rotters are evil.” Again, if one were to substitute the word “homosexual” for “rotter,” Bill’s repressed homophobic feelings toward Kieren stand revealed. This viewpoint is given further credence when he asks Rick concerning killing Kieren, “Do you want to be in the good books or the bad books?” – once more aligning his narrow-minded views on queerness with the conservative, heteronormative religious right. At this point, to gain better access to Bill’s oppressive mindset, once can argue that he subscribes to Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick’s definition of the heteronormative entity of the family, which she outlines in “Queer and Now,” her introduction to her book, Tendencies (Routledge 1994). Bill, then, believes that he shares the following family-defining strictures with Rick, which, as Sedgwick states, are “meant to line up perfectly with each other”: “a surname…a circuit of blood relationships…a system of companionship and succor…the prime site of cultural consumption…a unit in a community of worship…a site of patriot formation” (6). Acting as if subscribes to these values that are encoded in his father’s language, Rick apparently agrees with Bill’s commands, but then he leaves a message on Kieren’s answering message warning him of his father’s arrival. Later, he removes his facial makeup, display his pure, undead state to Bill. His dialogue is most telling at this moment: “I don’t want to hurt Ren. He’s me best mate. If Ren’s evil, Dad, then so I am I.” This rejection of his makeup, and his exposure of his raw disfigured self, representing Rick’s socially-distorted queer body, serves as his reaffirmation of his, in Sedgwick’s words, “open mesh of possibilities, gaps, overlaps, dissonances, and resonances, lapses and excesses of meaning” (8). Within this all-inclusive yet deliciously contradictory list, we can play with language, saying in Rick’s context, the following terms constitute and are at odds with his identity formation: dead, alive, warrior, monster, zombie, and queer. Bill, however, claiming to understand Rick, replies, “You’re trapped, are you? You know something’s not right, and you want out.” Once more, Bill’s rhetoric equally applies to Rick’s undead state and to his queer identity. In the face of this statement, Rick tragically agrees with Bill, giving his father the skewed moral certitude to take his own son’s life.
Kieren soon finds Rick dead in front of his garage with his father’s knife wedged in the back of his head. The not-so-subtle spray-painted words on the garage door, PDS, framed by the camera behind the dead Rick, can thus figuratively represent a queer term such as “fag,” placing Bill’s taking of his son’s life in the hate-crime, gay-bashing context. In addition, when Kieren finally confronts Bill in his living room, we learn that Bill initially banned Kieren from this home since the teenage made a mix-tape for Rick. Rationalizing his decision to kill Rick, Bill tells Kieren, “The dead are going to rise again. But this time only the good dead are going to come up, the right dead. Not imposters like you and that thing.” Yes, on one level, Bill is referencing his religious appraisal of PDS sufferers, but, on the other, his language malevolently couches his vile homophobic assessment of Rick and Kieren’s relationship.
As unsettling as Bill’s words resonate at this moment (only a few minutes before he is satisfyingly shot by a vengeful Ken Burton), the more upsetting reality, within the greater framework of the depiction of queer couples in genre television, is the replication of the idea that a gay lover must be sacrificed in order to relay a poignant message of the dangers of intolerance to the viewers. Consequently, TV genre narratives that transmit messages of horrific acts being perpetrated upon the ostensibly corrupted body – be it witches, vampires, or zombies – may ultimately be more allegorically monstrous in the fact of perpetuating the stereotype that queer romances will end tragically.
i. Simultaneously, the AIDS metaphor cannot be as clearly established with In the Flesh, since we learn at the conclusion of episode two, that a bite from a still-feral zombie, unlike other undead narratives, does not result in the victim being infected.
ii. Kieren’s room, by way of contract, contains several self-portraits, including one of him standing next to his father. As he stares at the paintings, which is relayed through POV camera shots, the viewer is provided a reminder of his happier mortal life and his artistic exploration of how his image is relayed to the world and how his queer identity is partially shaped by his heterosexual dad, who always appears accepting of his son’s sexuality.
iii. His father, moreover, cannot finish the deed as his shotgun jams, which could be viewed as symbolic of his swaggering yet ultimately impotent hyper-heterosexuality.
iv. Zombies have been sexualized before, in the form of Zombie Strippers, a 2008 film most notable for featuring porn star Jemma Jameson:
In this film, the zombified strippers are posited as darkly comedic sexual objects. At this point, unfortunately, due to the fact that I do not currently have access to the film, no serious reading of these fictionalized sex workers as oppressed (or perhaps empowered) and mutilated bodies body will be offered. I do, however, wish to incorporate a discussion of this film when I expand these musings into a conference paper or potential chapter for my upcoming dissertation on fan cultures.
v. The Undead Liberation Army’s leader, calling himself “the Undead Prophet,” dresses in a skull-faced hoody and broadcasts over the Internet his militant group’s message to anyone who was resurrected in 2009. Some of his rhetoric could be readily applied to any queer or AIDS-infected person who have been marginalized, oppressed, and killed: “We know how you feel. We know how you feel because I was once where you are now: Frightened, confused, filled to the brim with guilt. I was like you, but then my heart was opened, and I no longer felt ashamed because I finally understood we have a purpose.” From this point, the Undead Prophet goes on to claim that their purpose is divine in nature, which may be applicable to any activist queer group as well who believe in the pure, or genetic superiority of being born gay. (I would like to further research this point…)