As the countdown to the season six premiere of The Walking Dead ticks down to zero, I thought it would be a good time to take a look back at some of the characters that made us fall in love with the series in the first place.
It made me realize that TWD is unique in the horror genre for giving a voice not only to women, but also to people of color. Although the show has been slammed in the past for how these characters are treated (and sometimes commodified), the simple fact that this ensemble show includes many characters that do not qualify as white, heterosexual or male is a feat that much of the entertainment industry fails to achieve.
I decided to take a look at how women and people of color are represented in the show in terms of the Bechdel test. If you have no idea what I am talking about, please take a look at where it all began here, an example of how it can be applied here, and the concept of applying the test to POC here.
Just in case you were too lazy to click the links above, the Bechdel test is a simple, three-part test that was originally written to highlight how few movies feature female characters. In order to pass the Bechdel test, there must be two named female characters who have to talk to each other, their conversation being about anything other than a man. The same test can easily be applied to POC. There have to be two named people of color, they have to talk, and their conversation has to be about anything other than a white person. As you can see, the test really doesn't measure character development or quality of dialogue, but it does help viewers to gauge whether or not these stories are being told from one monolithic perspective.
In fact, this test could be modified to apply to almost any minority group. Let's say you wanted to use the Bechdel test and apply it LGBTQ++ characters. Since we are talking about The Walking Dead, you could say that the show passes the test twice since Tara and and Alisha have a conversation about guns and Aaron and Eric talk about Eric's ankle as well as Aaron's license plate collection.
I went through episode by episode to see if/when the show passed the test. I promise to one day make a pretty graphic out of this information to make it easier to digest, but since I lack the funds to invest in Adobe programs, I will wait until season six is over and update accordingly.
If you would like to see my GoogleDoc with charts and such, feel free to view it here, but I will be analyzing it season by season below. Please keep in mind that I even included interactions that might only consist of one statement/question and a response. The quality of these interactions might not be particularly high, but since this show features a lot of action, many of the conversations are rushed anyway.
PLEASE keep in mind that there are some spoilers below. Read at your own risk if you have not watched The Walking Dead from the beginning!
Even though this season was the shortest with only six episodes, both the female and POC characters managed to break the Bechdel Test for three episodes (so 50% and 50%). The quality of all of these conversations was terribly low, but were still better than some movies. Only one episode ("Wildfire") did not pass either test.
The entire show begins with a conversation between Shane and Rick which is laced with gender stereotypes and generalizations, and it doesn't get much better from there. The Atlanta camp constantly bickers back and forth about the extremely gendered division of labor while Merle and Daryl Dixon make racist quips. When Shane meets with Lori in the woods, it is framed almost as if he were a predator stalking its prey. The divisions between men and women, white and nonwhite, are held in place even while society crumbles around them.
The only real highlights were interactions between family members. Morgan and Duane set the foundation for a story line that is so meaty and mesmerizing to watch that it's going to be explored further in season six. Even though I cheated slightly by including Felipe and his abuela, she was genuinely concerned and defended his character, showing that their family ties have not changed. Although it did not pass the test, Amy and Andrea's conversation about their dad was heartfelt and (kind of) shed some light on Andrea's later decisions. Making survival a family affair didn't work out for everyone, however, as Duane and Amy never made it past season one.
Season two was extended to thirteen episodes. The farm offered little in the way of outside interaction so the test-passing moments were usually centered around the same people. The simple fact that Glenn and T-Dog were the only two characters that could fulfill the requirements for the POC Bechdel test probably tells you just how tempting it was to give up this venture during season two. With the addition of Patricia, Maggie, and Beth to the group, the women passed the test nine out of thirteen episodes at 69% success rate. Glenn and T-Dog, however, only spoke to each other in three episodes which brought them down to a measly 23%. At least "Better Angels" was the only episode that did not pass either test. If only Glenn hadn't been busy gallivanting around with Maggie and T-Dog had actually BEEN PRESENT for all of these episodes!
Andrea's quote here jumped out at me because notice that Andrea only chooses to define herself as a daughter or as a lover. It is almost as if she is saying that there is no other space for her to occupy in a man's life, especially when that man exerts a controlling influence over her.
The whole exchange between Dale and T-Dog is fantastic. Yes, T-Dog was running a high fever and saying a lot of things he wouldn't normally tell to Dale, but T-Dog was also expressing a trope that The Walking Dead is not exempt from: black men do not last long in the horror genre. Did you notice that T-Dog only died after another black man, Oscar, was introduced?
Overall, the characters seemed to cling to the old power structure to their own detriment. The gendered chore assignments became even more obvious as Andrea struggled to find her own path. Lori was even nice enough to inform her that the men didn't need Andrea's help so she should go back to cooking and laundry. (Lori really was a winner). In fact, Lori wasn't alone. The women seemed even more willing to enforce traditional gender roles than the men. They even got together to marvel at how "nice" it was to be back in a real kitchen again.
Andrea and Lori's relationship became even more strained as Andrea began vying for Shane's attention. While shaming Lori for having a man on the side, Andrea made her position exceedingly clear when she declared herself as "Team Shane". The show paints these two women in opposition based on which male leader they support. The showrunners' decision to place the two couples in alpha and beta categories is animalistic and uncomfortable to watch. It oversimplifies the tensions between the two women while dismissing their fears for the future of the group as a petty cat fight.
For all its flaws, season two was still the first time that the show passed the Bechdel test multiple times in one episode. If you notice on my chart, there are some episodes that say "MULTIPLE INSTANCES" in rainbow letters. That means that the episode passed that specific test three or more times. There are five episodes in season two that passed three or more times for the women, but the POC had none.
The ensemble expanded rapidly in season three. Although the list of women who passed the test remained more or less the same, the list of POC characters that passed went from two to ten. The introduction of Michonne, the prisoners, Woodbury, and Tyrese and Sasha's group got the POC success rate to jump up to 43.7% or seven out of sixteen episodes. They also began to have episodes with three or more passing conversations as well. The women had a slight dip from the previous season with a 62.5% success rate with ten out of sixteen episodes. Even though it was largely successful, season three had a whopping five episodes which failed both tests ("Hounded", "When the Dead Come Knocking", "Clear", "Arrow on the Doorpost", and "This Sorrowful Life").
Not only did both groups pass the Bechdel test more often in season three, but the quality of conversations increased significantly. They talked for longer periods of time and had conversations of more substance. The focus of many of these conversations shifted from other people in the group to basic survival and overarching themes like grief. Season three marked a transition between the old way of life and the new as the characters came to terms with the fact that there was no going back.
Weirdly enough, the flu outbreak at the start of season four caused an uptick in the passable moments as people focused on the epidemic. The women maintained their 62.5% success rate with ten episodes, seven of which had three or more passing conversations. The POC test was passed 50% of the time with only three episodes that qualified for the "Multiple Instances" label.
The escalation of conflict with the Governor and eventual scattering of the survivors signaled a dip in conversations that could pass. Four episodes ("Internment", "Claimed", "Still", and "A") didn't pass either test which makes the high success rates even more impressive.
Season four also established and/or solidified the status of many of the newer characters in the group. Michonne got her own flashback sequence. Sasha and Tyrese became leaders in their own right. Tara and Rosita came on the scene.
One thing that makes this so interesting is that when Beth compared herself to stronger people in the group in "Still", she only listed other women. Yes, it's unbalanced as far as gender parity, but very few other shows can boast enough strong (physically and mentally) female characters to make that sort of comparison possible.
Season five finally broke the trend of seasons three and four by only having one episode that failed to pass the Bechdel test ("Consumed"). Both groups earned the right to a "Multiple Instances" stamp of approval four times. Not to mention, this season boasted the highest success rates to date. With only three out of sixteen episodes failing the test, the women enjoyed a 81.2% success rate. The people of color trailed behind at 68.7% with eleven episodes.
This season was also the first to have some conversations that double-counted. Michonne and Rosita trying to calm Sasha down in the woods of Arlington was not only important for character development, but also important because intersectionality is a step above combating a lack of representation for women or racial minorities because it fights for both simultaneously. Passing the "intersectionality" (in this case, women of color) Bechdel test means that the struggle for representation can include various backgrounds and experiences.
In "Try", three women of color came together to express their frustration towards a system which tries to mimic the old, which encourages (not all, but some) women to "be invisible again" after they had come to terms with being able to fend for themselves. Yes, they did this by fighting zombies. Yes, its a genre show. However, the fact remains that The Walking Dead has managed to wipe the floor with other, "more serious" shows and movies when it comes to including women and people of color and it is only on season six.