While I sweat into a hoodie that protects my delicate lady shoulders from the heavy hack squat machine, PDDs announces: ‘I am going to start having nightmares after watching The Walking Dead series that you recommended.’ ‘Raaah!’ I respond, grunting out my last rep. Stepping off the platform, I remark: ‘Oh I am already having them. Last night I dreamt that my neighbour was hanging from a noose inside the communal laundry room. I screamed for help and tried to support his legs, but then I considered that those vulnerable appendages might taste quite delicious, like chicken.’ PDDs nods and continues: ‘I thought it was terrible when the guy who is kind of cute but has a big nose shot that fat guy in the leg, just to save himself. I don’t think I could ever do that, no matter what the situation.’ ‘I would do that,’ I flatly declare, feeling my endorphin rush subside. ‘I know,’ says PDDs. ‘Remind me not to be around you when the zombie apocalypse comes.’ I laugh and formulate an ingenious plan: ‘Actually, I think we should train for that inevitability. It’s good to have goals. You could start by learning to outrun me.’
That is the official origin story of our zombie apocalypse workout. Trademarked, branded, marketed. Done. Want to get into shape? Here is a new, fun way: after paying a hefty registration fee, proceed to your local Zombie Den where team leaders Queen Tormento and Princess Pandemic (i.e. FFG and PDDs, because one can never have enough nicknames) will awkwardly motion you through an obstacle course requiring you to leap over fetid corpse-filled ponds, stop drop and roll under abandoned cars, lunge forward while stabbing smelly rotters in the eye, and then remove pointy arrows from your own pulsating spleen without crying like a little girl. Such physical survival skills will hardly suffice once the undead come a-callin’ so we will also teach you how to do the following: quickly fashion a hard boiled egg into a grenade, steal a ruck sack full of loaded rifles from an underling, and select the man most likely to save your ass now and supply you with fresh squirrel meat later. [Aside: Sensing a pattern, you might be asking yourself ‘does FFG have a vendetta against squirrels?’ I grew up in south western Ontario, where rodents are big, mean and smarter than humans, so the answer can only be yes]. As PDDs and I realized, those male qualities that might seem appealing to a straight girl in these pre-end-of-the-world days, such as intelligence, respect for women, and attractive calves, would drop by the wayside once the voracious raggedy flesh machines appeared. The following characteristics would suddenly rise to the top of the he-hunk list: caveman-like behaviour, don’t fuck with me facial expression, and ownership of a sports utility vehicle. Any survival-minded lady would do a 180 degree turn, latching on to a self-appointed masculine protector of ‘weaklings’ otherwise known as women and children. Despite these obvious truths, PDDs chose Glen ‘the Asian boy’ as her mate, while I more wisely sidled up to that redneck Darryl, slowly but surely earning his semi-trust. Guess who lived longer?
Something just occurred to me: maybe some of my magnificent readers have never seen or even heard of The Walking Dead, and are feeling a bit left out. Not to worry for zombies really are everywhere in our contemporary popular culture. Good to think with, zombies challenge such binaries as living/dead, human/non-human, while expressing our anxieties about, among other things, the current state of health care, proper role of government, and potential for home-grown terrorism. What’s more, the premise of this particular AMC series is standard. Think Lord of the Flies, Lost, or any other story in which the rule of law is absent and bullies are present. It’s the same old shit really, based on the usual ho-hum conundrums: What is the nature of civilization? What does it mean to be human? Is there a god? Blahbity blah blah. Not only is The Walking Dead conventional, it is also very conservative, which leads me to wonder why I enjoy watching it. The Walking Dead is obsessed with outsiders, defining as a potentially weak or dangerous monster anyone who is not a white and legally married father. Yet at the same time, the show is what cultural theorist John Storey would call an ‘open text,’ with a flexible narrative that allows people with differing interests, world views, and identities to find their own meanings in it. While some may enjoy the unquestioned sexism (which man should be in charge?) and racism (‘the Asian boy’), I keep my eyes peeled for the following themes: 1) embedded critiques of traditional gender roles; 2) definitions of what constitutes fitness, and 3) close-up views of glistening entrails.
‘Oh crap,’ you might be thinking, ‘is she now going to go through each of the themes listed above, pompously elucidating each one?’ Of course I am. Got a problem with that? Feel free to speak more loudly into the ‘who gives a fuck’ microphone. 1) Despite the gratingly andro-centric nature of The Walking Dead, it focuses on the precariousness of masculine identity. When men lose their recognized roles as police officers, farmers or what have you, they desperately search for new ones, typically using women as the basis for this endeavour. Acting as ‘others’ in need of protection, women provide men with a reason to live. These ladies are in turn responsible for all cooking, cleaning, emotional labour, and reproductive services. In contrast to my favourite childhood TV show, Charlie’s Angels, none of the spineless female characters in The Walking Dead hold any interest for me. Hey unimaginative AMC writers, go fuck yourselves! My six-year-old niece crafts more complicated female characters with her Barbie dolls.
2) According to The Walking Dead to be fit is to be independent. A real survivor will be a no-nonsense country boy or at least former member of the boy scouts, able to catch fish and survive the odd stabbing. For the most part, cities are associated with disease and hidden dangers in this program, reviving antimodernist tropes of the nineteenth century when urban life was thought to soften the human race, potentially turning men into girly-women. Cities were furthermore considered dens of iniquity deserving of god’s plague-happy wrath, but that’s where The Walking Dead parts ways with the hackneyed past.
3) For me, one of the most compelling aspects of The Walking Dead is its fascination with the fleshliness of the human body. Not being a big fan of horror films, I have never seen so many skulls explode, with brain matter flying this way and that, and lower intestines evacuating. This show wallows in abjection, going even farther than the plethora of recent television programs like CSI, which are based around the corpse. During the early modern period, people would have witnessed public executions, seen dead bodies rotting in the streets, and viewed anatomical dissections. They may well have used mummified remains in leg poultices, or ground up bones to drink as a cure. In other words, they had an immediate, physical relationship with the dead, one that most of us currently lack. And oh how we miss our corpsey encounters. We want that metallic taste of blood in our mouths, that straining of viscera in our bellies, that festering wound allowing us a glimpse of our own insides. Without leaving our comfy sofas, of course. This The Walking Dead delivers, in spades.