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Is Tyreese "Made to Suffer"? In The Walking Dead TV Show There Can Be Only One Black Male Character


The Season 3 midseason finale of The Walking Dead was an exciting, well-crafted, and tension filled hour of programming. The much anticipated  fan favorite character Tyreese, who happens to be African-American, was finally introduced...with trusty hammer in hand.

Rick and his party assaulted Woodbury in order to free Glenn and Maggie. The Governor's house of horrors was finally revealed to his lover Andrea. Michonne would seem to get a little bit of revenge--as compared to the full castration and various other amputations she suffered upon the Governor in The Walking Dead comic book--for his sentencing her to death several episodes prior.

The first obligation of popular culture is to entertain. By this measure, I would suggest that Made to Suffer was a splendid success. However, while we may choose to acknowledge how the politics of pleasure are not always neat, progressive, redeeming, or "positive," this does not mean that a given work of popular culture ought to be spared difficult questions about the ideological work it is doing, or the values which it represents and reinforces.

As I have written about on several occasions, The Walking Dead TV series is extremely problematic in terms of how it has negotiated the politics of race and representation. The show is also offering up a very conservative view of gender relations where The Walking Dead is ultimately an exercise in reinforcing how white masculine authority is natural, normal, and in the Age of Obama and the Great Recession, in many ways imperiled.

While The Walking Dead is set in a post-apocalyptic fictionalized present where zombies walk the Earth, like all popular culture, it is actually a mirror for our current social anxieties.

The Walking Dead TV series is also part of a long Hollywood tradition in which black people have been depicted according to standard tropes where they are racially stereotyped and depicted as "magical negroes," subservient maids, butlers, and house servants; as confidantes for white characters; or as hyper-sexual and/or violent brutes. As we have seen in The Walking Dead to date, black characters are also subjected to being made either invisible and mute (T-Dog) or omnipresent because of their "blackness" (Michonne as the magical negress zombie killing machine).

In "reading" The Walking Dead TV series (or any other type of popular culture text) it is important to keep in mind a few foundational concepts.

Film and TV teach the audience how to watch it by working within certain storytelling rules and assumptions. As an example of the zombie genre, the audience of The Walking Dead knows to expect horror elements, social commentary, and a running reference to George Romero's foundational idea that when the undead walk the Earth, it is the living who are the true monsters.

Popular culture contains various cues or "codes" that viewers of a film or TV series may not be consciously aware of. Likewise, the creators of a given type of popular culture have (usually) also internalized the same values, ideas, and sets of societal assumptions as their audience. Consequently, in terms of how race, gender, sexuality, and other socially significant identities are represented, these concepts may be doing social and political work in ways that range from the obvious to the subtle and implied.

Popular culture communicates meaning to the viewer; however, not all viewers buy into its themes in the same way. In the United States, popular culture has historically been dominated by the White Gaze. As a result, people of color are marginalized, and the particular (and peculiar) racial logic which locates white folks as both the universal and unstated audience, as well as subject of mass entertainment, is taken as the norm. Considering that upwards of 95 percent of the creative and executive positions in Hollywood are filled by white men, this type of racial myopia should not come as a surprise.

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