Race + The Walking Dead: Why Michonne Matters

“The Walking Dead’s” Michonne, as played by Danai Gurira (L) and portrayed in the original comic. (R)

By Guest Contributors Renee and Sparky

At the end of season two, The Walking Dead finally introduced Michonne, a character who fans have highly anticipated. Without doubt, Michonne is a favorite of fans of the original Walking Dead comic-book for her fearlessness, fierceness, and sheer strength of will.  Though she does have her moments of vulnerability, Michonne can always be counted on to have [our hero] Rick’s back and to be a staunch ally.

SPOILERS FOR THE SHOW AND COMIC ARE UNDER THE CUT

Given that the show has thus far erased Tyrese, one of the main characters in the comics, a black man and co-leader of the group, and replaced him with the ineffectual T-Dog, at this point, it’s absolutely imperative to have a strong character of color.  Keep in mind that up until now, the only woman of color in the TV series was Jacqui, and the team was more than happy to leave her to die at the CDC when it exploded, while Dale stayed behind to guilt Andrea, a white woman, into leaving.  Everyone ran out of that building without giving Jacqui a second thought, and no one has thought about her since.

Though Glenn, an Asian-American man, has been there from the beginning, he is treated far more like [zombie] bait than an actual member of the team, and this continues in the comics until issue 100. If Michonne’s character is done properly, that would make her the only fleshed-out and active character of color in the series, moving it from white people sitting on a porch looking concerned, to something that barely resembles the population demographics of the area where the show is set.

In the comics, Michonne arrived at the prison where the group was staying, dragging two walkers behind her. This indicated that Michonne had found a way to survive on her own, even as Rick, the leader of the group, had been losing people along the way.  So much for safety in numbers, eh? Michonne is also an educated woman who worked as a lawyer before the zombie apocalypse. Though she is clearly suffering from PTSD and is intensely private, Michonne reveals her disability to help Rick in a time of self-doubt. This must have cost her, and yet she did it to help another. What makes Michonne so fascinating is that she is a multi-layered character with a history that is slowly revealed. She is passionate and strong when she needs to be but is not afraid to make herself vulnerable, even though what she has lived through is nothing short of absolute horror.

But while we’re looking forward to the introduction of Michonne, we are worried about the changes showrunners will make to her in comparison to the comics. Especially after we have seen the shifts they have made in the previous seasons of The Walking Dead, when it comes to marginalized characters.

We’ve already mentioned T-Dog replacing Tyrese. T-Dog has no role in the show. He may as well be called Token Black Inclusion No.1. He hangs around in the crowd scenes, basically serving only to make them less white. Contrast that with Tyrese, who was as much of a leader and fighter for the group as Rick. His role was divided between Shane and Daryl (A character who, to add insult to injury, is painted as a redneck racist). Shane had a relatively brief role in the comics before dying, and Daryl didn’t exist in the comics at all. Both are white men.

Similarly, Andrea, a white woman, suffered some severe changes from the comics to the TV series. In the comics, she is the best shot of the group. She is the sniper–the one who would give you covering fire in even the most dangerous situation. When it came to front-line warriors at the beginning of the comics, it was Andrea, Tyrese, and Rick, without question. She is deeply involved in the group, connected emotionally to the other characters and a major asset to all of their survival.

Then look at Andrea of the TV series. She’s a passable shot at best. She’s a partial outsider and, while she does argue against the men getting the guns while the women clean, she manages to shoot one of her group by mistake, which almost seems like a cautionary tale: “See what happens when women get guns? Get her back in the kitchen before she kills someone!” Again, Daryl and Shane (two white men) replace Andrea as the group’s warriors.

In the cases of the Andrea and Tyrese characters, the traits that made them linchpins of the group were stripped off and given to a brand new white male character or white male characters with expanded roles, while the black man and the white woman took a lesser, background position. We fear the same will happen to Michonne. How much of the powerful character we have come to know from the comics is going to stay with her and how much will be passed on to an unnecessary white male stand-in?

If they do have to change things from the comics, there are certainly some events we would prefer to see gone, as Michonne’s story line can be problematic.

First and foremost, we do not need her brutal and graphic rape at the hands of the Governor, a local dictator setting up his own brutal kingdom in the zombie-filled world. Even with her revenge, it’s still a graphic and unnecessary scene that seems to exist only to establish the evil of a character whose evil is already beyond doubt. And we cannot ignore the racial dynamics there, with Michonne being the only black woman and the only woman without someone looking out for her and caring about her. Michonne is kept in chains by a white man from the deep South and repeatedly raped and abused. That’s not a subtext that can be ignored, nor is it something that adds anything to the plot or character development.

We always support when a woman can be sexual and not slut-shamed in pop culture and this is indeed the case with Michonne; however, who the character partners with and how the partnering occurs raises questions. Every time Michonne meets a black man, it’s not long before she decides that she has feelings for him and hops into bed. It is such a regular occurrence that one cannot help but wonder, whenever a new black male character is introduced, how long it will be before Michonne declares him her property.

It’s interesting that even in the dystopian world, a black woman still chooses not to date interracially. In this case, because the story has been written by two white men, one must wonder if their failure to widen the dating pool for Michonne has anything to do with the belief that black women are less attractive or are all committed to intraracial dating. Somehow the writers had no problem putting Andrea together in a romantic relationship with Dale, an elderly white man several years her senior, but a black woman dating interracially and being seen as desirable by any man she happens to run across who is not black is just unrealistic, even if society is crumbling and the dead are walking the Earth.

We cheered when we saw Michonne was joining the cast and we hope for so much from her and did a minor happy dance that they cast beautiful dark-skinned woman to boot. But, at the same time, we’re worried–the show doesn’t have the best record and we can’t help but wonder what are they going to do to her? Will she remain the multi-layered character of the comics, or will we see everything that is wonderful about her usurped by white men? It seems that no matter how desperate the situation is, when it comes to the most popular fantasy of our time, white men are still expected to be the only leaders and the only source of real strength. This by definition would mean that the Michonne that we have come to love would never make a real appearance on the show.

  • Donella

    Also agree that the rape of Michonne is gratuitous and exploitative within the comic, questionable from a political standpoint, and not necessary to reveal the strength of her character or the evil of the Governor.

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  • Gemsteel

    Minor flaw in argument about Jacqui. Near the beginning/middle of season 2. Lori and someone else (maybe Andrea or Carol) said maybe Jacqui was right to stay behind as they had doubts about their future. But that bit where Dale stayed for Andrea and no one “fought” for Jacqui is infamous w/in the fandom.

  • Kole Kash

    I Strongly disagree with this assessment. Honestly Michonne is alot like Storm from the X-Men. Superduper strong black woman who exists primarily as a weapon for the needs of the white characters. She literally says this on many occasions in the Comic and points out how frustrating it is that Rick never asks her about how she’s doing it’s just “Michonne kill this or kill that.” The notion of interracial dating is also rather preposterous when you consider the circumstances. First, societal attitudes haven’t changed just because there’s a zombie apocolypse going on and “dating” as it were, is the LAST thing on the minds of most of the survivors. It has nothing to do with her having to be validated by white men wanting her, or her ‘loyalty’ to black men, it’s HER preference. Why problematize black women choosing what is known and comforting to them. To be honest, the entire relationship between Michonne and Tyreese is worth noting in in this regard. The only people who have really sought out new romantic relationships in the comic are women seeking a protector, otherwise people are just surviving. I just think you’re way off on this character…

  • De’Liyuon

    I have some hope for Michonne. The producers mentioned that they will stay true to her as far as the comic is concerned..but they also said that there will be a big jump AWAY from the comic so anyone is ups for grabs to die. Also, I would like to add that in one of the comments of a comic in a reply to a reader, Kirkman mentioned that T-Dog was not a representation of Tyrese. So maybe he will make a appearance this season. *Comic spoiler* Tyrese being beheaded was an intense scene and could possibly be tied into the show. I saw in the preview Axel so they are keeping some characters from the prison scene but how the prisoners v. Grimes group situation will play out without some key characters will be interesting to see as well as how Gov’nor is portrayed.

  • Keith

    The Michonne character is racist anyway she’s walking around with 2 black dudes with chains around their necks. It’s like the dudes who wrote the walking dead were mad at Harriet Tubman about freeing slaves and wanted to get even.

  • http://twitter.com/Ellington3 Rhonda Yearwood

    Nice article! Thanks for explaining the differences between the comic characters and the tv show characters, I did not know any of that!
    I look forward to seeing how they do handle MIchonne. I hope that it is not a let down.

  • http://twitter.com/SignalFire90 Kat

    Yeah, as much as I love the comics, I’m really reallyyyyy hoping they leave out the rape stuff :( I just won’t be able to stomach it. I think they will though because it’s AMC. I’d except a network like HBO to go for it, but I think it would be too graphic for AMC’s standards. Also, in the comics, Tyrese was in a relationship with Carol and that was pretty early on. Tyrese’s daughter was in an interracial relationship too. So I don’t think that RK has a problem with it. It could just be that it is simply one of Michonne’s character traits to prefer black men but I can’t say this for sure (psychologically, it would make sense if you consider her history with men and the fact that she keeps her ex and his best friend attached to her as walkers). It’s more important for them to present the interracial relationships in the show though since they completely eliminated Tyrese’s character and his relationship with Carol, as well as his daughter. Plus, I’ve always had a soft spot for Michonne/Rick x)