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The Culture of Poverty and Zombies

November 7, 2010 by and tagged , , , , ,

Since apparently, the culture of poverty argument (AKA: let’s blame the poor for their poverty based on their “culture”, meaning, they’re lazy, promiscuous, violent and lack self-control in temper, food and sex), I think The Real Doctor Phil has a point when he analyzes the zombie movie genre as reflection of bourgeois fear of the working class (“classes laborieuses… classes dangereuses!”):

“Despite burying the Soviet Union and having things their own way for 30 years (at least in Britain and the US), the end of history has proven to be a period as uncertain as any other. Far from ushering in a von Hayekian utopia, capitalism has been rocked to its foundations by a financial crisis few of its apologists saw coming. Keynes has been dug up and reanimated to get things going again, but at the same time the spectre of Marx has been disturbed and has taken to haunting their imaginations. On the one hand there’s the geopolitical challenge represented by the Chinese (communists!). And on the other the declining salience of mainstream political parties, the retrenchment of irreverence, and the uncertainty around the character popular opposition to the cuts will eventually assume make the dangerous classes … well … dangerous again.

Zombies as a horror staple are the result of some unfathomable biological or supernatural crisis that cannot be reversed. They are mindless. They are faceless. They are ugly. And they want to invade your home and feast on your flesh. If this does not work as an allegory for bourgeois attitudes to and fears of the working class, I don’t know what does.

(…)

But at the same time zombies offer an opportunity for asserting superiority, mastery, contempt, and individuality against the mass. Zombies are slow and stupid. Humans are quick and intelligent. Zombies are limited by their reach. Humans can use all manner of weapons. Provided they are not swarming in great numbers, humans run rings around them – lopping off a limb here, beheading another there, removing their teeth, chaining them up, what fun can be had! And all without a troubled conscience too.”

Which, of course, is highly reminiscent of the extensive torture visited upon non-White people by US / UK forces and their allies during the Afghanistan and Iraq wars. After all, zombies are a physically distinct bunch: not white (grey-ish and decomposing), grotesque looking and moving. They have the characteristics of the stereotyped poor: immediate gratification, mindless drive for bodily satisfaction (Braaaaiiins), shiftlessness and dumbness. Dehumanized in such a way, they can be killed in large numbers without concern.

As Phil notes, the surviving humans are the neoliberal individuals, surviving on their skills and wits. Unlike the zombies, the survivor plans ahead, waits for the right time to take care of his business and exercises restraint and cautions.

But there is another dimension to this. As Phil notes, zombies are created by catastrophes. The zombie genre is related to the disaster genre. And the disaster genre is heavily gendered. Think 2012, or The Day After Tomorrow, or the Tom Cruise version of The War of The Worlds, The Road, Mirrors. In all of these movies, the main character is a man who has lost his patriarchal status of leader. Look at Cruise or Cusack at the beginning of the film: their speech patterns and body language is defeated. They get humiliated by their ex-wives, outclassed by the men they have married and their children do not respect them.

But when disaster strikes, social norms collapse and this is their opportunity to reassert their patriarchal status by saving their wives and children. The new husbands conveniently die so they can reclaim their wives. Men can be real men once society lets them (by collapsing).

It is the society where women have options (to dump men and pick others) that has put them down. Once the feminized civilization has collapsed, then, these men reclaim their uncontested place. And every gender category regains its rightful place, women submitted to men’s leadership.

Zombies are non-gendered, they are an amorphous mass, with no order, no leadership, just a mindless, valueless bunch, driven by biological urges. Invariably, in the group of survivors, one or more men will take the lead (after some grumbling and male competition), by some feminine assistance. Militarized order and disciplined hierarchy will win the day.

So, white, de-classed straight men get to reclaim their patriarchal privilege once “unnatural” and illegitimate social norms that emasculated them (and led to collective disaster) have been eliminated. The responsible father and husband then steps in to restore the “natural” order, based on the patriarchal family, willing to sacrifice himself for his family. Zombies (and panicking crowds) are the opposite of all that.

The enemy then is no longer, as Phil noted, the zombie-as-communist but the zombie-as-irresponsible poor (you know, the ones who to took out mortgages they couldn’t afford because they did not plan ahead and went with their impulse).

Posted in Culture, Gender, Ideologies, Media, Movies, Patriarchy | 12 Comments »



12 Responses to “The Culture of Poverty and Zombies”

  1.   Dave Paul Grad Student Says:

    Hello,

    I would love to get your contact info. I would like to cite this piece in a paper I am writing on zombie cinema. Please contact me at dpstroh@gmail.com.

    Thanks so much and keep up the good work!

    -Dave Paul

    Reply

  2.   Fernando Says:

    You know in Night of the Living Dead, the first movie that started the modern zombie genre, the main hero and final survivor was a black man.

    That, I think is a good starting point for my criticism against this article. The entire piece talks about the zombie genre without ever mentioning anything about George A. Romero’s work and its social criticism, which was never about making villains of the working class.

    So, based on that I think the article starts on the wrong foot.

    Now, to address the unfair criticism (based on non-zombie movies), that the zombie genre is about white males restoring patriarchy, I’d like to recall other Romero movies.

    In Dawn of the Dead, Romero has a woman and a black man as the only two successful survivors, and in Day of the Dead, the main character is a woman, one of the few rational people in the group of survivors, and she manages to escape with a black man and a white man.

    In his next movies Romero was featuring white rich man as villains or capable female characters falling victim to sexism and ultimately overcoming it. Romero’s movies were not about “white, de-classed straight men” out to “reclaim their patriarchal privilege”, as you put it.

    But that’s just Romero. Although he is the father of the modern zombies, he does not represent the whole of the zombie genre. So let’s take a look at the modern zombie movies, since this is what this article is about.

    In 28 days later, the most capable character is a black woman who helps survivors escape London. During their escape, they rely on military men to help them. However, the (mostly white, IIRC) soldiers are actually the villains, trying to make the female characters into sex slaves. The main character (the white guy) helps her out and nearly dies, so she saves his life once again and the movie ends. For me, all of this seems the opposite of white man reclaiming patriarchy.

    In the sequel, 28 weeks later, the last survivors are a woman, a teenager girl and a teenager boy. In the climax of the movie, the teenager girl has to shoot her zombified dad to save her younger brother. At the start of the movie her dad fails to save his family, running away from a zombie attack. Later he recover his self esteem (and his manhood) by becoming a kind of super janitor to a building housing survivors. However it is exactly his new status of privilege that leads him to start a new zombie outbreak and kill everyone.

    I’m using the 28 series here because it was what popularized the zombie genre after 9/11. Mind you, I used the word “zombies” when talking about these two movies, but technically they aren’t living dead like traditional zombies, even though they function in the same way.

    The 28 series serves as a good example because it shows what happens in a lot of other zombie movies. The main characters and the events that happen in the new zombie fiction generally don’t make white upper class males as the heroes.

    If you look at other popular works of zombie fiction, you will find a lot of capable or leading female characters, like Jill Valentine from Resident Evil, Andrea from the Walking Dead, Ana from Dawn of the Dead. You’ll also find characters from all walks of life and not rarely you’ll find non-white characters as the most effective survivors.

    So, IMO, looking at the main characters in these works, I find hard to think that the general idea is about white man restoring privilege fighting the poor class.

    However, the entire article seems to point out that the zombies are meant as a metaphor for the poor. This could still happen even if the main character in a zombie movie is a poor black woman. But I don’t think that’s the case, and I also consider troubling that you think that’s what they are supposed to be in the eyes of the people creating zombie fiction.

    The zombies are mindless dead or sick people. Their main characteristics are that they are relentless, that they are the majority, that they don’t think and that they are disgusting.

    A relentless unthinking majority can serve as a metaphor as a number of things, poor people being the least obvious in my opinion.

    Zombies have been used to represent a number of things, like the effects of environmental degradation, human cruelty or the unethical work of large corporations. For an instance, in Dawn of the Dead they are supposed to represent consumerism.

    I find unlikely that the concept behind zombies can be pinpointed (or rather, reduced) to one specific thing (poor people) and I think it is even more unlikely that this specific attribute for zombies would be used as the main driving force for the genre.

    What I think is behind the idea of zombies is that they are a majority that can’t be reasoned with and they are out to get you. This can apply to a number of situations, but the same basic fear of being outnumbered and alone is what drives it.

    This characteristic of zombies is a good template for countless themes. Honestly, I can’t see why you would imagine that zombies would represent poor people. I’m yet to see one work of fiction that uses the zombie template to represent poor people, so I don’t know where you got that idea from. Which is why it seems so troubling to me, it is like you assume that dehumanization is synonym to being poor regardless of the context.

    Another important thing that you seem to misunderstand is when you say that zombies are faceless. Regularly in zombie movies some of the most terrifying scenes is when a loved one becomes a zombie. What makes zombies scary is exactly the fact that they have a face, they are someone you know and that does not stop them from trying to kill you. This fear of betrayal from your loved ones, and from society, only works because zombies have a face.

    Lastly, there’s the fact that zombies are disgusting, dirty, ragged people. This exists for a couple of reasons. One, zombies were born in horror movies and the gore is a traditional element of this genre. They are dirty because they are rotten, their clothes are ragged because they don’t take care of themselves, they are disgusting because a rotting corpse is disgusting.

    I felt like you were taking cheap stabs at a whole genre and it was odd that you didn’t care to specify a single zombie movie. The only movies you named aren’t even zombie movies.

    One last interesting fact: In Night of the Living Dead, the first modern zombie movie, the main character (and final survivor) was originally written as a simple working class man facing a massive change in society. The actor playing him decide to upgrade his educational level though, a decision made by the actor alone.

    Reply

    •   Fernando Says:

      Oh, just another thing I wish I had emphasized, the military often fails completely in zombie movies. The military either fail or are depicted as the bad guys. That happens in Day of the Dead, both movies in the 28 series, The Walking Dead TV show, the Left 4 Dead webcomic and The Rising.

      It is almost like the entire article was written without any knowledge of the zombie genre.

      Reply

      •   SocProf Says:

        Wow, way to completely misunderstand my (and Phil’s post).

        I could play the same little game and accuse you of only using Romero and the 28 series and derive a general idea from that.

        Most of the films we referred to were mainstream, somewhat blockbuster films (the disaster genre, which is different than strictly horror / zombie films, you missed that distinction).

        Also, let me reverse the barb: how much have you read on the topic of how the working class is depicted in the media in general and by the elites? I can guarantee you that thinking of the poor as huge, non-distinctive, potentially dangerous and uncivilized, is a very common mode of thinking, hence the willingness to shrink the state down and leave it with its 2 oppressive functions: police and military from the right-wing corner of the political spectrum. So yeah, the fear that Phil describes in his post is a long-established fact.

        The fact that you don’t see it does not mean it’s not there. You may very well have a blind spot on that one.

        And yes, arts (any form) is political. The entertainment industry churns out ideological products, not as part of some conspiracy but simply as part of tapping ideological narratives that are common in the culture.

        Reply

        •   Burton Says:

          “And yes, arts (any form) is political. The entertainment industry churns out ideological products, not as part of some conspiracy but simply as part of tapping ideological narratives that are common in the culture.”

          Political issue: Wealthy people finance scripts and help to re-write scripts. Usually the original authors are less well off.

          Issue 2: You start off saying art is political, and end your paragraph saying it is based on deep cultural narratives. Make up your mind.

          Reply

          •   SocProf Says:

            1. Wealthy and non-wealthy people live in the same culture, influenced by the same common narrative on gender, race, class, etc.

            2. It’s both and they are closely related. Cultural narratives are often based on political ideologies.

  3.   Fernando Says:

    Well, I did mention more than Romero’s work and the 28 series, even if just saying the themes the zombie fiction addressed. I didn’t go too in depth with all others because it would make my already large reply even larger and I would start mentioning less significant works of zombie fiction.

    But I don’t think it is accurate to talk about zombie movies using example from non-zombie movies. Zombie fiction is its own sub-genre, just because it happens to be a disaster doesn’t means it shares the same characteristics of regular disaster movies.

    What I didn’t understand is why bring these non-zombie movies into the discussion that is titled “The Culture of Poverty and Zombies”.

    I mean, in this paragraph, for an instance:
    “Zombies are non-gendered, they are an amorphous mass, with no order, no leadership, just a mindless, valueless bunch, driven by biological urges. Invariably, in the group of survivors, one or more men will take the lead (after some grumbling and male competition), by some feminine assistance. Militarized order and disciplined hierarchy will win the day.”

    You mix zombie movies with the disaster movies you mentioned. You start talking about the zombies and then says that invariably a men will take leadership and that militarized order will win.

    So this:
    “hence the willingness to shrink the state down and leave it with its 2 oppressive functions: police and military from the right-wing corner of the political spectrum. So yeah, the fear that Phil describes in his post is a long-established fact.”

    Is often not true for a lot of zombie movies. Like I mentioned in examples before, the military are occasionally portrayed as villains. In zombie movies the state isn’t shrunk, it is destroyed. State order, when present, is manifested through armed forces and has a tendency of being cynic, uncaring and incompetent.

    Police usually is seen under a better light, but not because the police itself exist, just because the main character is sometimes from the police. I would argue that this choice has more to do with trying to create a character that can wield guns though, but it is true that a more idealized view of the police force, “to protect and serve”, is sometimes incorporated into the characters making them authority figures.

    However, police protagonists aren’t close to being the rule. There have been as the main characters war journalists, housewives, students, lawyers, criminals, loggers, office workers, etc.

    Like I pointed out, there are plenty of examples of female characters or non-white characters taking leadership and in most zombie movies anything related to military order fails. It has to for it to work, actually, because most zombie apocalypses take as a premise that the government failed to respond the infaction.

    Also, there are plenty of independent female characters, leading or assisting, capable non-white characters taking leadership or saving the day. Like I said before, thinking about other examples of zombie fiction I have a hard time finding one that features the zombie in the way you mentioned and that has white men restoring privilege.

    The fact here is that I did present plenty of examples in that the plots of zombie fiction pointed at being either the opposite of what you mentioned or at having blatantly different themes from what you proposed.

    Given the origins of the modern zombie genre and all that has been done with it recently, I really can’t see how it is like what you are saying. Maybe I do have a blind spot, but based on all that I have seen your case and Dr. Phill’s is a hard one to sell.

    I think that in order to make an interpretation of an entire genre, it is important to take a thorough look at it, its history, its influences and its important works.

    I did make an effort to throughly explain my points and go through many examples of zombie fiction. If you’d care to mention some zombie fiction that works like you said or reintepret the ones I mentioned so that I could see your point of view, I’d like that.

    To be more complete and to point you to the works of zombie fiction I didn’t specifically name but indirectly mentioned, they were Let Sleeping Corpses Lie, Dead Rising, Hollowland, Severed, Zombieland and Left 4 Dead. I also mentioned two characters from The Walking Dead, but I was talking about the comic book, not the TV series. In the TV series the characters I mentioned either didn’t develop in the way I mentioned or haven’t appeared yet.

    Oh, and no, I am not familiar to the idea that the poor are usually presented in the way you described by the media. So you got me on that one.

    Reply

    •   Michael Says:

      I don’t watch zombie films but I can appreciate a well-reasoned argument and Fernando has done an excellent job of that.

      Reply

  4.   Yostibh Says:

    Really nice analysis, Fernando. The first comment alone should have been an article, as the article itself seems to be written more as an analysis of a preconception of the genre. There are plenty of actual zombie movies to use as references, the most mainstream probably being Romero’s big three (Night, Dawn, Day) and the Resident Evil movies. For me, zombie movies have always been about being an outsider, relentlessly hounded by an unreasonable society that only wants to devour you and give nothing back. Maybe one has to have been an outsider to see that side of it.

    On another note, I don’t think it’s very sound to base an analysis of one genre on examples from another. The main article reads like something I would have written about romantic comedies. I hate them, and I don’t want to watch them even for research purposes, much less give them an analysis that makes them positive in any way. In fact, I’m pretty sure the whole genre is about dehumanizing the poor.

    I mean, there’s often some not-as-attractive person who gets rejected, right? And if the guy doesn’t have enough money, he’s not good enough for the heroine, and it’s completely okay if she treats him badly. In fact, he might even be seen as a bad person because he can’t afford to buy her expensive things.

    Then again, I’ve only seen (maybe) 2 romcoms, and I didn’t like them.

    Reply

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  6.   kernal Says:

    Coming to this discussion a year later:
    I wasn’t wholly convinced by SocProf’s analysis, but then I read Fernando’s arguments and that pretty much got the point across. I have yet to see any zombie movie that does not glorify masculinity and traditionally masculine traits and values.

    28 Days Later: the story is about Jim, not Selena. Yes, Selena is initially the most capable character, making the necessary decisions to get things done and stay alive….normally a masculine role. The military they encounter puts her back in her place, sticking a dress on her and threatening her with sexual torture. Jim, who’s now changed from a sentimental survivor risking everyone’s lives to a big strong man capable of taking down an entire armed, trained, fanatical military outpost rescues her (and a child whose male protector has been previously done away with.) Yes, she may save Jim (albeit with a very simple act in comparison to her previous and his current abilities), but the movie ends with her sewing. A nice, safe, traditional female activity. Gender roles that were overturned have been restored, therefore, happy ending.

    28 weeks later, the male soldier sacrifices himself to save the others. He’s a big hero. The sentimentality of the female soldier gets the infected child out of Britain, spreading the infection off the island. Put this beside the sentimentality that causes the father to succumb to kissing his wife (and become infected – hey kids, women can kill you by kissing you!) and the teenaged girl shooting her father (lets destroy some manhood! Ready? GO!) and it does not exactly read like a celebration of female agency. It actually comes off as anti-feminist reactionary diatribe. For both 28 films, sentiment is positioned as a female trait that infects men, causing their downfall, or even the downfall of civilization.

    Zombieland: male stories are prioritized, male anti-heroes save the girls in the end. It’s female irrationality that puts them in danger in the first place. Oh yes, femme fatale trope, anyone? Off the top of my head, I count two.

    Honestly, I have not seen the Resident Evil movies beyond the first one, and I got irritated by it pretty quickly. That particular franchise is most definitely pitched entirely to men, to the violent exclusion of women. A one dimensional female character whose entire purpose is serving as a male fantasy object – I’d say that’s a huge heaping pile of male privilege. The Romero films, while I enjoyed them, definitely reinforce the roles of male-hero-against-the-world and competent-but-submissive-female.

    A disturbing aspect of always having a female survivor develops when you look at the romantic relationships that occur. You need to have a woman live, so the species can continue. Also, how is the man going to be a big man if he doesn’t have a woman to protect and be powerful over?

    As for bringing up other disaster movies, I think any movie which has scenes of a faceless, mindless, panicked mob causing tragedy on top of the existing threat is a valid example. In The Road, the behaviour of the gangs and the threat of cannibals definitely echo zombie themes.

    My own interpretation of the zombie genre is as an expression of the fear of dehumanization. Our society is taught to fear the violence strangers – and possibly our own neighbours – may inflict upon us at any time. We live by a certain code of behaviour, and when the terms of that code are suddenly and radically altered, it’s terrifying. Although themes of “the effects of environmental degradation, human cruelty or the unethical work of large corporations” or any others may be present, the films approach it from a position of privilege. The issue isn’t with the themes, it’s with the undercurrents. There is a certain audience that films are pitched at (18-34 year old white hetero males who can afford to see a movie, usually disenchanted with modern life), and I’d say this particular genre is especially bound by those rules. With some exceptions, I don’t think any of these films set out specifically to prioritize male values or demonize the poor, but they definitely regurgitate and reinforce the internalized views of the audience they’re marketed at. So internalized, in fact, that those elements aren’t even noticed. I can guarantee they do nothing to challenge those perceptions.

    But then again, maybe one has to be a woman/poor/not white/otherwise not in the target market to see that side of it.

    Reply

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