Gender Roles in the TV Series "The Walking Dead". What is the Impact of the Post-Apocalyptic Setting?

Term Paper (Advanced seminar), 2013

15 Pages, Grade: 2,0



1. Introduction

2. The Concept of Gender

3. Andrea: A Representative of Masculinity and Male Gender Roles

4. Lori: A Representative of Femininity and Female Gender Roles

5. Do Gender Roles Change in a Post-Apocalyptic World?

6. Conclusion

Works Cited

1. Introduction

The American horror drama television series The Walking Dead is based on the same-titled comic book series by Robert Kirkman, Tony Moore and Charlie Adlard. It takes place in a post-apocalyptic world which is helplessly exposed to humans who turned into flesh-eating zombies and cannot be controlled by the state in any way. The series tells the story of a group of people from Atlanta who survived the zombie apocalypse and aim to find a safe place to stay without being attacked by the “walkers”, as the zombified humans are called in the series.

The first episode opens up with the police officer and main character Rick Grimes who awakens from a coma in a hospital. He is unaware of the zombie apocalypse and wants to leave the abandoned building but on his way home he already sees some “walkers”. Slowly he realises what happened and instantly wants to find his wife Lori and his son Carl. After a tough way through zombie-dominated places he actually finds his family who is accompanied by other survivors. Rick becomes the leader of this group and from that point onwards they fight together against the zombies and try to manage their new life. As the series progresses numerous characters fail in the fight against the “walkers” but also in the new-ordered social constructs.

This term paper will examine how gender roles are represented in the post-apocalyptic television series The Walking Dead by analysing two opposite female characters, Andrea and Lori. After briefly summarising how the concept of gender developed historically, I will clarify important terms and aspects which concern gender roles, masculinity and femininity and stereotypes about gender. Accordingly I will argue that Andrea represents an almost masculine character while Lori depicts a stereotypical, feminine character. In order to prove this thesis I will analyse the named characters in detail by using significant film sequences.

Furthermore I will analyse how the depiction of female gender roles in the series is connected with the fact that it is a post-apocalyptic series. For this purpose I will argue that female gender roles change to more masculine ones in a post-apocalyptic environment.

2. The Concept of Gender

Although the study of gender is a wide-ranged field in social sciences nowadays, it was rather unexplored until the middle of the 20th century (Risman & Davis 735). The interest in sex differences started with psychoanalysis at the beginning of the 20th century and its findings about the Oedipal and the Electra complexes (734). Also physicians like endocrinologists were interested in the field of gender and began to justify gendered behaviour by sex hormones (ibid.). But this assumption proved to be false when further research discovered that both sexes showed evidence of oestrogen and testosterone (ibid.). In the late 1950s and early 1960s theories emerged which claimed that the brain was responsible for sexual differentiation as well as sexual orientation and gendered behaviour. Brain sex theories of the 21th century still assume that the brain is the link between sex hormones and gendered behaviour (735).

During the boom of functionalist sociology, family sociologists were also interested in sex and gender. Parsons and Bales e.g. wrote in 1955 about women as the ‘heart’ of families with male ‘heads’ (ibid.). The description of women as the ‘heart’ of families with male ‘heads’ reveals that women were associated with emotional connotations, whereas men were considered as ‘heads’ of families and therefore were associated with rational thinking and intelligence. Representations of women and men of this kind might have led to persistent gender stereotypes which are still present until today.

During the middle of the 20th century there was only little research or theoretical writing that focused on gender or the inequality between men and women but this changed when women entered the academy (736). Especially the second wave of feminism promoted the movement of women into science and serious attempts to study sex and gender (ibid.). Therefore theoretical understandings of gender have changed dramatically over time; first, research was limited primarily to biological sciences, then social scientific research developed.

So when sociologists began to specialise in gender, the focus on how individuals internalise gender was problematized and as a result two different theoretical alternatives developed: the ‘doing-gender’ paradigm and the ‘structuralist’ paradigm of gender. The ‘doing-gender’ paradigm is based on the same-titled article from 1987 by Candace West and Don H. Zimmerman in which they argue that “[…] gender is something we are held morally accountable to perform, something we do, not something we are.” (738). The ‘structuralist’ paradigm of gender aims to create gender-neutral conditions without fulfilling social roles (739).

Toward the end of the 20th century gender was defined as a social system that restricts and encourages patterned behaviour (743). Although Lorber argued in 1994 that gender norms can be challenged and even deconstructed (ibid.), it proved that gender concepts and norms are remarkably resistant to social change because many norms are learned at an early age and disliked norms can be transmitted across generations (Davis et al. 5). Although every society does have a gender structure, (Risman & Davis 743) gender is associated different across time, space, ethnicity and social institution (741). But apart from the fact that gender concepts have changed dramatically over time and still differ between cultures, it is beyond debate that gender is a complex cultural and social construct (Carothers & Reis 387).

On the one hand the concept of gender structures social life by creating gendered selves. But on the other hand gender does create cultural expectations that shape stereotypes about women and men. “A stereotype is a view held by one or more individuals and applied to a group of individuals […]” (Bryson & Davis 163). The problem with stereotypes is that whereas some people benefit from them, others are disadvantaged by them (Epstein 150). Furthermore stereotypes involve cultural logics that shape what we expect from each other but also from ourselves (Risman & Davis 747). It is generally assumed that stereotype knowledge is already acquired early in childhood, highly learned and relatively resistant to change (Banse 298). But with development children also recognize that gender stereotypes are flexible or improper (299). Despite the knowledge that stereotypes might be incorrect it can influence spontaneous behaviour (ibid.). So even if people have acquired the mental knowledge to reject a social stereotype, it can still influence how they behave towards others.

Although children have a basic knowledge of gender stereotypes at the age of three years (ibid.), it is during adolescence that stereotypes have a special impact because during this phase of life boys and girls have to define their identity regarding roles, goals, etc. (Nunner-Winkler et al. 29). In this situation boys and girls face different role expectations which are conveyed in gender-specific stereotypes (ibid.). Stereotyped gender perspectives are generally unintentional and based on personal beliefs and experiences (Heller Levitt 72) but nevertheless they reflect the predominant gender roles of a specific culture (Bane et al. 299). So in contrast to stereotypes, gender roles tend to rely on socially rather than personally constructed images (Hoffman et al. 477) and can be defined as follows:

Gender roles provide guides to normative behaviours for each sex within certain social contexts. Roles gain power as they are learned through socialisation, elaborated in cultural products, and enacted in daily life. The repeated experience of performing gender roles affects widely shared beliefs about men’s and women’s attributes and one’s own sense of identity. (Gender Equality and Development 8)

The conventional female gender role involves nurturing, competence in relationship skills but cultural incompetence whereas the male gender role involves protection, being the ‘breadwinner’, physical prowess and cultural competence (Gross 10). Specific gender stereotypes reflect those mentioned gender roles, e.g. the stereotype that women are held responsible mainly for family care and men for assuring a livelihood (Nunner-Winkler 29). Further gender stereotypes are that women are more egalitarian in their orientation, more affectionate and sensitive to the needs of others and morally favourable whereas men are rather ruthless and more often ascribed morally unfavourable traits (ibid.).

Further important terms concerning the concept of gender are ‘masculinity’ and ‘femininity’. Until the 1970s there have been psychological measurements of femininity and masculinity which general assumption was that masculinity and femininity consisted of a list of traits and interests (Hoffman et al. 476). Traits which were associated with femininity were passivity, weakness, pathology and irrationality; in contrast to strength, aggressiveness, leadership and rationality which were associated with masculinity (Davis et al. 359).

Masculinity and femininity were seen as opposite ends of one dimension until the concept of androgyny unveiled that there was something beyond what was stereotypically feminine or masculine (ibid.). Researcher defined androgyny as “the integration of traditionally feminine and traditionally masculine characteristics within a single individual […]” (Hoffman et al. 476). The androgynous approach was meant to liberate men and women from the traditionally prescribed focus on gender roles so that women and men could express their masculinity or femininity or both more freely (Heller Levitt 67).

To sum up, it can be said that gender is becoming more egalitarian since the feminist movement. Traditional gender roles and stereotypes have also shifted to more liberal gender attitudes but they do still exist nowadays. And it is noteworthy that gender role attitudes have only changed little since the mid-1990s (Cotter 259). Reasons for this ‘post 1994 stagnation’ can be found in the antifeminist backlash in the popular culture since the mid-1990s which has put pressure on women to choose between careers and motherhood (260).

Although a recent lack of change in gender attitudes can be observed, there is obviously no reversion to the gender tradition of the 1950s but the development of a new cultural frame which combines support for housewives with a continued feminist rhetoric of choice and equality (261).

3. Andrea: A Representative of Masculinity and Male Gender Roles

In the series The Walking Dead Andrea is a main character and survivor of the zombie apocalypse. During the initial outbreak of the apocalypse she and her sister Amy were saved by a man called Dale and eventually joined a group of other survivors. It is revealed that Andrea studied law and worked as civil rights attorney before the apocalypse broke out. In the course of the series she undergoes development but always remains a character with a strong personality and rather masculine character traits.

Andrea is first introduced to the series in the episode “Guts” of season one when Rick and Glenn enter a department store. She immediately points a gun at Rick, pushes him and insults him saying “Son of a bitch I kill you!” (The Walking Dead 1 season 1, episode 2) because he previously attracted walkers unintentionally who are therefore surround the store. Andreas’s aggressive and threatening behaviour towards Rick represents typical traits which are associated with masculinity: aggressiveness and strength (Davis et al. 359). Although she doesn’t know Rick at all, she is brave enough to instantly express her feelings about his recklessness and does not calm down until Jacqui and Morales talk insistently to her. After Andrea has put down her weapon, she starts crying and says “We’re dead, all of us” (TWD season 1, episode 2). This reaction is contrastive to her previous behaviour: first she threatens Rick in an aggressive manner and therefore appears to be strong, but then she starts crying and is being pessimistic about the survival of the group what expresses weakness, a feminine character trait (Davis et al. 359). Later in this episode Andrea apologises to Rick for pointing the gun at him but also says that it was not unjustified what shows that she adheres to her behaviour. Subsequently Rick tells her to take the safety off the gun next time. So it becomes clear that Andrea at this point of the series does not know how to use a gun and therefore has to take Rick’s advice. It can be summarised that in this first scene in which Andrea is introduced, her behaviour is rather androgynous because she represents masculine as well as feminine traits.

In the third episode (“Tell It to the Frogs”) of season one Andrea’s character and attitude towards gender roles is further unveiled. She, her sister Amy, Jacqui and Carol are doing laundry outside and have a talk when Ed walks over smoking and tells the women they should focus on their work. Andrea is annoyed by Ed’s attitude and tells him that he can do it himself if he has complaints about the laundry. She begins to stand up for herself but also for the other present women because she is again brave enough to confront a man and because she is the only woman in this scene who has the courage to speak out what she thinks about Ed’s behaviour. While passivity is associated as a feminine trait (Davis et al. 359), this scene clearly shows that Andrea is not a character who passively endures injustice but provocatively defends her views. In this scene she provokes Ed by tossing him his laundry and asking if his job was smoking cigarettes and sitting around. This also reveals that Andrea does not agree with the division of labour in the camp because the women have to do the laundry while e.g. Ed is doing nothing, Shane is catching frogs with Carl and the other men are hunting walkers. So it is clear that the survivors attempt to rebuild traditional gender roles in their camp (Pye & O’Sullivan 109). But Andrea does not go conform to those traditional gender roles and expresses her grief about it in her argument with Ed.


1 Hereinafter cited as TWD

Excerpt out of 15 pages


Gender Roles in the TV Series "The Walking Dead". What is the Impact of the Post-Apocalyptic Setting?
Ruhr-University of Bochum  (Philologie)
The Apocalypse in American Culture
Catalog Number
ISBN (eBook)
Gender Roles, Gender, Masculinity, Femininity, The Walking Dead, TV Series
Quote paper
Katharina Zeiger (Author), 2013, Gender Roles in the TV Series "The Walking Dead". What is the Impact of the Post-Apocalyptic Setting?, Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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