A Woman of Action: Carol Peletier and Feminism on AMC’s The Walking Dead
Please welcome another awesome guest poster, Laura!
The Walking Dead is not a show that has a history of being kind to women. I won’t go so far as to say it’s intentionally misogynistic, but when you look at the numerous character deaths over the four and a half seasons, there’s definitely something problematic happening. Women’s deaths, at times their whole story arcs, often service the emotional journeys of the male characters. Lori Grimes (Sarah Wayne-Callies) was killed off so that her husband (the show’s lead) could have a several-episode long emotional breakdown. Andrea (Laurie Holden) was killed off at the end of the third season in a death that culminated half a season of completely ridiculous behaviour because of an affair. More recently, Beth Greene (Emily Kinney) was killed off during the season five mid-season finale in what was one of the most bizarre and poorly conceived “showdowns” I’ve ever seen on TV.
Yet, in spite of the mountain of evidence to the contrary, I would argue that The Walking Dead is one of the most important feminist shows on television right now. The reason for this, and the sole light in a dark tunnel of poorly treated women, is the groundbreaking character of Carol Peletier (Melissa McBride).
Carol is one of the “Atlanta Five,” the only characters still remaining from the first season of AMC’s hit zombie drama. She is also the only woman remaining from that time. The journey of her character since her original appearance rises above the often inconsistent writing of the show and presents a story arc that is unparalleled for its respect and representation of women on television today. Carol is allowed to be weak and emotional.These traditionally feminine traits exist alongside a practicality and near ruthlessness that isn’t often allowed of women without punishment. She’s also a middle-aged woman (McBride is currently 49, though Carol’s age is never explicitly stated) with grey hair and a non-sexualized presentation. Most importantly, Carol’s journey and her emotional development are handled with respect that this show has previously only given to its male lead.
In the first seasons of The Walking Dead, Carol is largely a background player. A quiet woman with a young daughter and an overbearing husband, Carol performs traditionally female jobs at the camp (cooking, laundry). Her husband, Ed, is both verbally and physically abusive to her, and while the show goes out of its way to make it clear that several other characters know what’s happening, none of them are doing anything. Willful ignorance to Carol’s abuse (and the implied abuse, or impending abuse of her daughter, Sophia) is an uncomfortable mirror for society’s blind eye to domestic violence. It culminates in Ed smacking his wife in front of several other characters, one of whom steps in and takes out his own problems on Ed’s face. A harrowing moment, as Carol cries and reaches out to protect her abuser. McBride’s performance is heartbreaking.
Ed is killed by zombies soon after this, and both Carol and Sophia come out of their shells with the group. The world they live in is a dangerous one, however, and Sophia is separated from the group while they hide from zombies. The first half of season two is structured around the search for Sophia and Carol’s largely passive role in it. She remains at the farm while others search for her daughter. She prays and she supports, but she is not an active participant in the search.
I remember being so angry with Carol when I first watched these episodes. This is your daughter, I thought, you should be out there looking for her! You should tear apart the woods to try and find her! Conditioned by years of abuse, Carol fits easily into a passive role, unable to channel her fear and worry for her daughter into anything other than tears and inaction. When Sophia turns up as a zombie, Carol’s heartbreaking attempt to run to her and embrace the monster that wears her daughter’s face is like a punch to the gut. She is held back and Sophia the Zombie is taken out, but the sound of Carol sobbing on the ground is the last thing the audience hears before season two takes its mid-season break.
I won’t pretend to know if the change in showrunners is the cause, but since Scott Gimple took over The Walking Dead at the start of season four, Carol has become one of the most important female characters on television. The season premieres with the survivors living in a prison, a community growing as more and more survivors are taken in. Carol sits on the council that runs things, she is a leader and her opinion is respected. She is shown helping with the domestic tasks and taking out zombies when some get inside the prison. She is not limited in her role and while, yes, she largely stays within the prison walls still, she is more than someone to hold the baby in the background. There is a confidence to her that McBride brings to the screen in everything Carol says, in the way she carries herself. Later, she will describe this period in her life this way: “At the prison, I got to be who I always thought I should be. Thought I should’ve been.” Carol has found herself in this ugly world and she’s no longer afraid to act.
So when tragedy strikes, Carol takes matters into her own hands. Her decision to kill two members of the community who are infected with a sickness and pose a danger to the rest of the survivors is far outside of the Carol who watched passively as other people searched for her daughter. Carol isn’t going to watch anymore, she isn’t going to sit back with inaction. This decision puts her at odds with the show’s lead, Rick (Andrew Lincoln) and he exiles her from the prison. Much has been said about this episode, and whether or not Rick’s decision was just or if it was even his decision to make (I am of the mind that no, it was not. To either question.) Yet, despite what can only be described as a betrayal of Carol’s trust in the way he executed this decision, she stands by her actions.
Carol never hides from the ugliness of what happened, nor does she apologize for the choice she made. She takes Rick’s banishment with her head held high, walking away as a woman who doesn’t question herself any longer. She has found herself in the prison, found the confidence and sense of purpose that had been denied to her by her husband and has come into her own as a leader and a decision maker.
Rick takes all of this away from her. In explaining his decision to Carol’s closest friend, Daryl, Rick tries to sell the idea that Carol had become cold and heartless. Daryl dismisses this with a confident, “That ain’t her,” acknowledging that there’s a grey area in things, that even if he doesn’t agree with Carol’s decision it wasn’t Rick’s place to just throw her out.
She is offscreen for most of Season four, but when the prison is overrun by zombies and the survivors are forced to flee and scatter, Carol is reunited with Tyreese (Chad L Coleman) and three young girls he had in his care. The resulting episode, 4×14 “The Grove” places them in a horrifying situation, forcing Carol to make a decision so upsetting that I don’t even want to detail it. The episode is beautifully written, directed and acted by all parties, with McBride shining so brightly as to bring the show a flurry of positive press for her acting. She went on to win a Saturn Award for Best Supporting Actress in a Television Series for her performance and many major media outlets called her lack of an Emmy nomination an absolute tragedy.
Carol’s choice ultimately saves Rick’s daughter’s life and she comes back with a vengeance in the fifth season premiere, single-handedly rescues everyone else from the cliffhanger they found themselves in. Sure, she “took a level in badass” as the tropes say, but Carol’s journey has never felt one-note. She is hurting from the events in “The Grove” and she is hurting from Rick’s banishment. She tells Daryl that she doesn’t think they get to save people anymore.here’s an entire episode in Season five dedicated to Carol fighting to keep the people she cares about safe risking her own life in the process.
Gone is the woman who allowed others to search for her daughter, gone is the wife who was nothing but a punching bag to her husband. On the other hand, the woman who was a confident and even happy leader at the prison is gone, too. Forged in the grim realities of the zombie apocalypse of The Walking Dead, Carol Peletier is a woman who tells us that you don’t have to be a sword-wielding badass to save everyone’s life. Hard decisions, careful planning and a few careful shots with her rifle are her weapons for saving everyone from cannibals. She may not think they get to save people anymore (a fact that Beth’s death in the midseason finale sadly solidified) but that isn’t going to stop her from trying. She is complex and emotional, yet still calculating and careful. She is no longer just the mother or the wife or any of the traditional roles of women in media. Carol cannot be compartmentalized so easily, and it has been a fascinating evolution to watch.
The Walking Dead still has a lot to make up for in its treatment of female characters, but if they show even half of the amount of respect they have given Carol’s emotional journey to the rest of the women, the zombie apocalypse will start looking like a feminist utopia.
At least, other than the zombies.
A Canadian expat in the US, Laura doesn’t remember a time she wasn’t involved in fandom. From her start as a pre-teen Harry Kim fangirl, to her current preoccupation with all things Bioware, fandom culture has been a very formative force in her life. She spends her free time playing video games, reading, watching TV and forgetting to update her website: http://www.ravishedpages.com
(images from The Walking Dead on AMC TV)