The Problem With Turning The Walking Dead Into a “Post-Racist” Story
Posted on Thursday, July 24 @ 14:00:00 Eastern by gil_almogiThe way the last character died just doesn’t sit right with me.
***SPOILERS FOR THE WALKING DEAD. SPOILERS FOR THE WALKING DEAD. SPOILERS FOR THE WALKING DEAD. *
The Walking Dead is one of those special franchises to me. Not only is the tale emotionally haunting and gripping, but the decisions you are compelled to make as Lee and Clementine in Season 1 are rough. In this world, there is no good or bad, just surviving, and every choice you make is expected to be in the interest of doing just that. Maybe it’s the dire circumstances—everybody just wants to live to the next day—but one of my favorite aspects of the series so far was its inclusion regarding gender and race. However, something in the most recent episode of the second season, “Amid the Ruins,” fractured the lens I was using to view the tale.
At the end of Episode 4, Rebecca, a black woman who has just given birth to a baby, dies slumped over and wearing a Confederate coat. Like all characters in The Walking Dead, she then becomes a zombie. In order to prevent the threat to her baby and the party, the player is asked to make Clementine shoot her or call for help, in which Kenny quite coldly does so in her stead. Coupled with the larger indignity of the situation, for the next decision to involve a “justified” shot to her head also felt strained against the context.
Rewinding a little, the reason she’s even wearing the coat is because it’s found while Clem, Mike, and Bonnie are searching through a nearby ruined Civil War museum for supplies. While the coat is pristine despite the surrounding destruction and neatly folded on the corner of a display, the team expresses reservations about bringing Confederate memorabilia to assist Rebecca in giving birth. They decide to use it as a blanket, which I was mostly okay with; after all, covering a symbol of hate and oppression with the afterbirth of a freely born black child comes with its own symbolism. But the coat wasn’t used as a blanket, instead being offered to Rebecca to keep her warm. Mike apologizes to her about what it is, and she snaps that she doesn’t care. The black people in the scene have gotten over it, so we, the players, are expected to do so as well.
To be honest, the fact that there’s a Confederate coat in the game doesn’t bother me in and of itself. Rather, it is the way in which the narrative self-justifies giving it to a woman of color, only to guide her to die in it that feels awkward. Taking the setting in, truly immersing oneself in it, the moment begs a short “Oh. Damn.”, and little else. But the fact remains that there’s a larger context for that coat, that of the brutally enslaved black people in the United States.
The story here wants to use the fact that nobody’s been concerned with race so far, so it’s supposedly no big deal now what with bigger fish to fry. The series has up until this point fixated on telling personal stories, allowing characters to slowly but inevitably reveal very personal facets of themselves, resulting in greater compassion from the player. Why aren’t the black characters in the party given the opportunity to discuss the meaning behind this coat in front of Clementine, a young girl of color who has been deprived the opportunity to learn anything meaningful about America’s past until now? The Walking Dead’s narrative is rife with parallels that can be drawn: the zombies as a pursuant and oppressive force, being viewed as consumable and "other" despite all efforts, and the irony of crossing the lands of Virginia on the run to stay safe or hide.
But the subject is dropped as quickly as it’s brought up, and I feel like that is harmful. "Games must move beyond historicized, uncritical hurdles that only see racism in the atrocities of the past,” says Sidney Fussell in his article on racism in video games. Rather than utilizing an opportunity to make this game richer, it dies on the shoulders of a woman of color. She literally dies wrapped in the uniform of the oppressor. It almost feels like a perfect metaphor for the struggle of modern-day women of color, who make less than their white or male counterparts and are expected to stay quiet about it, not that it’s an issue anymore in this zombie-ridden world.
Admittedly, all players would rather play games as an escape and not be confronted with actual issues that serve to undermine and disenfranchise themselves. To that extent, I do actually appreciate game narratives where people don’t spend time focusing on race, gender, sexuality, gender identity, or otherwise. Yet somehow that becomes an implicit excuse to ignore actual problems with representation as if the fact that nobody’s bigoted means nothing bigoted could possibly be happening. That flawed sort of thinking leads to characters like Letitia in Deus Ex: Human Revolution, the “post-racist” future’s own version of a crow from early 20th-century Dumbo. Just because Adam Jensen doesn’t treat her different because of race or gender identity doesn’t mean the game makers haven’t done so for him.
That Clementine is given the option to shoot Rebecca also comes with problems. I understand that she turned and needed to be put down, but the tale of a disgraced woman of color who becomes a monster who must be stopped to save a child has been done before. In Bioshock Infinite, Daisy Fitzroy, leader of the minority-populated Vox Populi, threatens an innocent child and has to be stopped as far as the narrative is concerned.
As Soha El-Sabaawi puts it in her account, “The Girl Without a Land,” “I believed in Daisy. I believed she had a right to this land as much as the Founders of Columbia, and suddenly I was forced to put her down.” Contrary to the important racially complex story we were promised through previews, the writers found an excuse to vilify the last remaining woman of color in its narrative. Worse, Elizabeth, who is every bit as incorruptible as Clementine, takes it upon herself to put Daisy down for the better good. This kind of justifiable homicide within the purview of a racially charged scene further dismisses the historical struggles of people of color. It embraces situational context over real-world context, relieving the player of complicity in a systemic problem regarding representation in gaming. And it happens whether you like it or not.
I wish it wasn’t necessary, but I must express that I am absolutely not calling the Telltale Games writers or team racist or bigoted in any manner whatsoever. That’s not the point of this editorial in the least. Rather, I think it’s important to consider how games that put all people on equal societal footing can still create offensive and problematic issues for players. And these issues echo real-world problems minorities deal with every day, hampering immersion and escapism. Players of The Walking Dead should only be confronted with the deep, meaningful choices the characters have to make, not the actual ones from daily life.
There’s one more episode left in this season. By all means, the next episode could address how shitty the circumstances of Rebecca’s death are, not just because it’s sad to lose someone you care about but also because of the coat and its meaning. The deep conversations could be yet to come in Episode Five. The fact is that I do not know for sure. What I do know is that this is how Telltale chose to cut and edit the episode for us to consume, likely two months before the next. I only have this episode’s merits to assess the story upon until then. So it goes.
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