Olivia Hershman, Ball State University
The Walking Dead and its representation of post-apocalyptic humanity has made it popular since its 2010 premiere. With each new season, the writers of this zombified survival narrative push the boundaries of audience comfort and force their viewers to confront questions about humanity, gender roles, and the quest for survival. One of the show’s main characters, Carol Peletier, often works as the agent to raise such questions and blur the lines between the expected roles that women take before and after the apocalypse.
At the start of the show, Carol joins a group of apocalypse survivors from Atlanta, Georgia, along with her abusive husband and their young daughter. Carol is easily recognizable by her shaved head and skittish behavior typical of any battered woman. When her husband is bitten in a zombie attack, Carol is the one who delivers the blow to his brain, assuring that he does not come back as a zombie. From this point on, the audience sees Carol gain confidence and strength, becoming the independent and savvy post-apocalyptic woman she needs to be to survive.
After Carol’s daughter is lost and eventually succumbs to the zombie virus, Carol transitions from her role as biological mother to mother-like guardian and protector of her group. Throughout the series, Carol’s character refocuses her mothering instincts and simultaneously plays around with notions of post-apocalyptic womanhood. She protects and supports her group of survivors, while often walking the line between her pre-apocalyptic role of biological mother and cookie-baking women and the knife-yielding warrior she must become to survive the post-apocalypse.
For example, in the episode “No Sanctuary,” the group of Atlanta survivors has been split up, and several of its members have been taken captive by a cannibalistic group of survivors. Carol, upon discovering this, leaves the baby she had been caring for with a friend, picks up her automatic rifle and a bag of fireworks, and heads out to single-handedly save the lives of her friends. With camouflaging mud smeared across her face and a bloodied poncho on her back, this version of Carol is quite a contrast to the Carol of season one, who was afraid of her own shadow. This Carol has taken the space that the post-apocalypse has allowed her and has become a powerful woman who is capable of cleverly taking down an entire compound to save those she loves and protects.
We see another example of Carol taking up her post-apocalyptic feminine role in season five. By now, the Atlanta survivors’ group has shifted quite a bit, with several members gone and new members added. They have found and are living in a relatively safe compound called Alexandria. However, it is soon overtaken by a warring group and Carol, again, blurs the lines of who she was before and who she must be in the post apocalypse, proving that her character can do both.
In this compound that closely resembles a pre-apocalyptic world, Carol often finds herself reverting back to her pre-apocalyptic womanhood while babysitting, baking cookies for her neighbors, and wearing floral cardigans. However, once the murderous world of the post-apocalypse breaks through the compound wall and through the bubble of Alexandria, Carol again is in a position to take up her post-apocalyptic feminine role. She forgets the cookies in the oven and heads to the armory, picking up a disguise and a machete along the way. Dressed in a large black hoodie with a bandana over her face, Carol is responsible for saving the lives of her fellow survivors and is the reason that the Atlanta group regains control of their compound.
In instances such as this, Carol blurs the lines of femininity. She is comfortable playing the cookie-baking mother figure, as well as the aggressive warrior woman. Her liminality is part of what makes The Walking Dead so appealing and what keeps it so interesting and engaging for audience members. In many post-apocalyptic narratives, women are the victims of male violence and sexual assault, much like Carol was in the beginning of the series. However, the apocalypse seen in The Walking Dead is unique in that it provides women like Carol opportunities to fight back and take up roles they may have formerly been denied. Overall, Carol proves that women in the post apocalypse can definitely walk the line between the women they were before and the warrior women they must become to survive the apocalypse. While she is often seen handling the laundry or worrying about the emotional well-being of her group, Carol has no problem picking up a weapon and saving the day. Carol simultaneously embodies a feminine role typical of the pre-apocalypse, while she also takes on the post-apocalyptic role of protector and warrior, proving that women can do both in the post-apocalypse.
Frank Darabont, developer. The Walking Dead. Skybound Entertainment and AMC Studios, 2010.