Anti-Exceptionalism in "The Walking Dead"

Term Paper, 2012

15 Pages, Grade: 2,3


Table of Contents

I. Introduction

A. The Myth of American Exceptionalism

B. Anti-Exceptionalism in "The Walking Dead"
1 Symbols
2 Western
3 Higher Law
4 Frontier Thesis

II. Conclusion

III. Bibliography

I. Introduction

The third season of AMC's "The Walking Dead" is scheduled to premiere in October 2012. An American post-apocalyptic zombie television series which enjoys great popularity not only in the United States. The popularity of this show is reflected in the record-breaking number of viewers as well as the contemporary discourses it triggered. This makes it another milestone in the zombie genre and sets it apart from other zombie narratives in the, meanwhile, long list of books, comic books, movies, computer and console games, and likewise television shows that pick up on the zombie trope, whose popularity seems ever- increasing.

AMC's "The Walking Dead" is based on Robert Kirkman's graphic novel of the same name. Much like the comic book series, though not in every detail, the television show, which this paper will lay its focus on, follows the journey of Rick Grimes, who wakes up from a coma, and discovers that his world has been completely turned upside down by a zombie apocalypse. Flesh-eating undead walking the streets, looking for the living to feed on is daily fare. Deputy Rick Grimes and his group of survivors must constantly be on the watch in order to stay alive.

Throughout the existence of the zombie trope, regardless of the medium, the zombie has functioned as a variable, multi-faceted metaphor for many of society’s phenomena and anxieties. The synopsis of "The Walking Dead" provides fertile ground for many different kinds of analyses. In one way, which, however, will not be the primary focus of this paper, "The Walking Dead" can be seen as a Western. According to Udo J. Hebei, professor for American studies, movies and television series contribute to the glorification of the West in a variety of ways (cf. 324). In movies such as "Heaven's Gate" (1980), "Dances with Wolves" (1990) or "Brokeback Mountain" (2005) these dominant glorifications of ideals of freedom, masculinity and community are reverted (cf. ibid.). This is exactly what happens in the television series "The Walking Dead". This paper will deal not only with glorifications of the West but also with a widely varied glorification of notions and concepts of American exceptionalism. Or more precisely with 'anti-exceptionalism' as represented in a television show that, at first glance, is about armed, potential heroes who try to save "America" from a deadly threat. A story that resembles a familiar narrative similar to common action movies for example. A 'pro-America' adventure that glorifies the exceptional standing of the United States in the world. However, under the surface the show conveys exactly the opposite, which will be demonstrated in the course of this paper.

First of all there will be a general overview of the myth of American exceptionalism. To properly analyze the show then and prove that it is not just another narrative that glorifies American exceptionalism and its perpetuation, but actually depicts a stance which stands in stark contrast to this myth, some of the exposed key elements from the myth of American exceptionalism will be taken and juxtaposed in opposition to some significant scenes from the television series.

Whereas the comic book franchise by Robert Kirkman is concluded, AMC's television show is still ongoing. Consequently, the research cannot be applied to the whole narrative, and will furthermore, due to the scope of this paper, only deal with the two presently available seasons of the television series.

A. The Myth of American Exceptionalism

There are many different ways to cover this huge and multi-faceted topic. In this paper, however, and for the purpose of the intended analysis, there will only be dealt with a few general notions of this subject. The mere purpose of this chapter is to give an overview and to expose decisive key factors that will be vital for the upcoming analysis.

American exceptionalism is a myth based on symbolic representational systems of national identity (cf. Hebei 305). In the eyes of the French critic and semiotician Roland Barthes, these myths are "ideology understood as a body of ideas and practices which defend the status quo and actively promote the values and interests of the dominant groups in society" (Campbell and Kean 9). In the case of the United States, they would then serve as constructs for explaining the history of the country and for legitimizing socio-political actions and points of view (cf. Hebei 305). Other approaches to this topic involve notions of American exceptionalism as "clusters of absent (feudal hierarchies, class conflicts, socialist labor party, trade unionism, and divisive ideological passion) and present (a predominant middle class, tolerance for diversity, upward mobility, hospitality toward immigrants, a shared constitutional faith, and liberal individualism) elements that putatively set America apart from other national cultures." (Pease, "The New American Exceptionalism" 8).

Before going into detail with the parts that make up American exceptionalism, it is important to state that these myths are very deep-rooted and deeply engrained in the American culture and the understanding of their national identity. Someone who illustrated this is the author Ronald Wright - "Myth is an arrangement of the patterns [that] create and reinforce archetypes so taken for granted, so seemingly axiomatic, that we live and die by them" (qtd. in Campbell and Keane 9). So, these ideologies and constructions of identity and their cultural representations play a major role in the construction of national identity as well as for international recognition (cf. Hebei 303).

American exceptionalism is said to have originated in the 16th century when the first white settlers landed in North America and brought with them a belief of the fulfilment of European dreams, meaning a new beginning (cf. Pease, "The New American Exceptionalism" 7). The goal and at the same time the collective self-conception was to become a "new kind of people" (cf. Hebei 308) and a future-oriented nation as an independent alternative to Europe which had been considered old-fashioned and stuck in traditions, conventions and corruption - the so-called "glorious contrast" (cf. ibid.).

In the course of the 19th century then, political and salvation-historical components of the mission-conscious exceptionalism connected with a territorial expansion rhetoric, teleological belief in progress and an ethnocentric ideology of superiority (cf. Hebei 313). This started the "long-held belief in American history that the country had a special mission to fulfil" (Campbell and Kean 3). This belief, together with a worldview of a dichotomized world, had "legitimated U.S. global sovereignty" (Pease, "Exceptionalism" 111). In the 19th century this was paralleled by the belief in "Manifest Destiny". A term, which has been coined and propagated by the two expansionists John L. O'Sullivan and William Gilpin in the 1840s, representing the idea of a God-given task and commitment of the US-American nation (cf. Hebei 313) "to overspread the [North American] continent alloted by Providence for the free development of our yearly multiplying millions" (qtd. ibid.). Something that in this case has to be mentioned in the same breath as "Manifest Destiny" is the "Frontier Thesis" or "Turner Thesis", an argument advanced by historian Frederick Jackson Turner which describes the frontier as "the articulation of a complementary representation of American exceptionalism" (Pease, "Exceptionalism" 109). This representation of American exceptionalism can also be seen in many other attempts to determine the nature of the frontier. Hence, it is seen as the border between wilderness and civilization in the process of the United States' territorial westward expansion (cf. Hebei 320). In 1893 Turner declares the colonization and civilization process completed, but at the same time makes it the defining national criterion to master the challenges of the frontier (cf. Hebei 320 fi). This defining national criterion can also be seen in the description of the frontier as "the space on the map where lingering European influences were perfected into an absence through the inexhaustible wilderness promised to all the 'Americans' who answered the call of the wild frontier" (qtd. in Pease, "Exceptionalism" 109). Further evidence of how "Manifest Destiny" and the "Frontier Thesis" have helped develop, solidify and perpetuate an exceptionalist mindset is the description of the frontier as a quintessential site of Americanization. Here, political, economic and social institutions and practices that are uniquely US-American are developed. National characteristics and virtues emerge and prove successful (e.g. liberty, individualism, democracy, community spirit, pragmatism, ingenuity and pioneering spirit) (cf. Hebei 321).

Until the end of the 19th century, the United States' range of influence and reach of power exceeds the North American continent through global imperialism. Through literature and politics, the United States and their role as Anglo-American elite are positioned as a "nation chosen by God" and as "God's own country" (Hebei 314). The discourse of American exceptionalism comprises miscellaneous theological and secular assumptions that led to Americans constructing the myth of an archetypal nation, a status other nations strive to achieve (cf. Pease, "The New American Exceptionalism" 7). Even in the recent past one could witness exceptionalist references. For instance in 2001, when President George W. Bush referred to '9/11' as a "fundamental transformation о/history that took place in history" (Pease, "Exceptionalism" 112). With this reference he extended the myth of exceptionalism once more.

Bush associated the U.S. monopoly on the legal use of global violence with the intervention in human time of a higher law (what he called his 'higher father'). In doing so, he endowed the doctrine of American exceptionalism with a metaphysical and arguably theological supplement, claiming that the preemptive violence through which the United States would defend the globe against the threat of Islamic terrorism was metaphysically superior to that of other nation-states (ibid.).

Bush's connection between the United States' politics and 'a higher law' again showed the country's exceptionalist stance and even positioned them "outside the world of nations as the divinely ordained exception" (ibid.).


Excerpt out of 15 pages


Anti-Exceptionalism in "The Walking Dead"
Friedrich-Alexander University Erlangen-Nuremberg  (Institut für Amerikanistik)
Contemporary American Television Series
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ISBN (Book)
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anti-exceptionalism, walking, dead
Quote paper
Matthias Köbrich (Author), 2012, Anti-Exceptionalism in "The Walking Dead", Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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