Engendering Zombie Fiction


“Humanity is mind-controlled and only slightly more conscious than your average zombie.”1

The zombie figure has been used throughout a variety of historical contexts in order to represent different social anxieties, which include issues ranging from slavery to immigration. One of the more nuanced issues presented by zombie fiction connects with gender and societal concern against feminism. Using Critical Discourse Analysis, this essay will explore the development of zombie fiction in the context of changing constructions of gender in the United States and how these social changes were also reflected in historical shifts in gender relations at Swarthmore College.

In the early 20th century, emerging zombie films of the 1930s in the U.S. reflected a simultaneous fascination with, and fear of, the New Woman, as a trope of women who were pushing against societal limitations.2 These women were often well educated, expressed their sexuality more freely, and expected husbands to be equal partners. In short, they were the opposite of modest, obedient wives expected within Victorian-era gender roles. While some Americans welcomed or disapproved of these changes, many also claimed to fear for these women, thinking they would be taken advantage of or sold into sexual slavery by “white slavers,” often portrayed as Eastern European traffickers. This fear was clearly expressed in the 1932 film White Zombie, in which a young woman is turned into a zombie and controlled by two European men competing for her affections.3 In many advertisements of the movie, the woman’s transformation into a zombie was blamed on her beauty and desires. Consequently, all of the elements of the New Woman that intimidated men became symptoms of weakness that needed to be suppressed. As an extension of mainstream perspectives on gender roles, these film narratives sought to justify the curtailing of any power attained by the New Woman, and to discursively return this power back to the male species. We can observe this in the literal control and magical hold the key male characters exert over the New Woman as portrayed in White Zombie.

Many people regard Swarthmore College as consistently being ahead of its times, and historically it has produced a host of New Women. The college was founded as a co-educational institution in 1864, long before mixed-gender education became the norm by the end of the 19th Century. Indeed, in comparison to women at other college campuses across the country, Swarthmore women had substantially more voice and power when it came to campus-wide decisions (in accordance with Quaker values). In 1932, the same year White Zombie debuted, the Swarthmore College chapter of sorority Kappa Alpha Theta denied a student admission to their organization due to the candidate’s Jewish faith. Due to the systematic bigotry and discrimination exhibited by the sororities on campus, Molly Yard (class of 1933), who was a member of Theta, began a successful student campaign to abolish these societies and gained campus-wide support.4 It is hard to imagine such campaigns achieving success at other comparable colleges, as many institutions at that time had a much smaller female population and did little to address women’s issues and gender equality on campus.

After graduating from Swarthmore, Yard became involved in Democratic Party politics and later became president of the National Organization for Women from 1987 and 1991. Many Swarthmore alumni were trailblazers of social change, and the issue of women’s rights was especially paramount for numerous Swarthmore students. Swarthmore’s founders, including Lucretia and James Mott, Edward Parrish, Deborah and Joseph Wharton, and Benjamin Hallowell, were associated with the Religious Society of Friends and were involved in abolition, women’s rights, and other social movements. Helen Magill White, daughter of Swarthmore’s second president, was in Swarthmore’s first graduating class and, in 1877, went on to become the first woman to earn a Doctor of Philosophy (PhD) in the United States.

Of course, no discussion of women at Swarthmore could be deemed appropriate without talking about Alice Paul. Graduating with Swarthmore’s class of 1905, Paul became a major militant strategist for women’s rights activists and was instrumental in the passage of the Nineteenth Amendment to the United States Constitution, granting women the vote. She would go on to spend half a century as the leader of the National Woman’s Party and succeeded in having women included as a group protected against discrimination under the Civil Rights Act of 1964.5

All of these women were at the forefront of various movements in which constructions of gender were consistently being challenged. They fought back against systems of oppression and discrimination that sought to (and continue to) put women in disadvantageous positions, which forced them to be submissive to mankind. These very same ideas and manners of discourse can be located in the visual and spoken texts of zombie media.

The characters in Night of the Living Dead (1968) reflect and reinforce gender norms common in the time period.6 As Robert Alpert writes in “George Romero’s Night of the Living Dead and Diary of the Dead: Recording History,” “Barbra is the clichéd, hysterical woman, obsessively asking, ‘what’s happening?’ and later is catatonically silent” (Alpert 18).7 Barbra is practically lifeless and zombie-like in her insanity and inability to contribute to the group’s survival on that fated night. Her sole purpose in the movie is as the passive, confused, and helpless woman that needs to be rescued and taken care of by men. Likewise, the two other women trapped in the house, Helen and Judith, act according to contemporary gender norms. Helen, for example, introduces herself to Barbra saying, “I’m Helen Cooper, Harry’s wife.” As a housewife, Helen relies on her marriage with Harry to define her own identity. Even Judith, a younger woman married to Tom, obediently looks after Harry and Helen’s daughter downstairs and follows what the men are doing.

Meanwhile, the male survivors in the film, especially Ben and Harry, put their egos ahead of safety and compete to be leaders. Ben, after arguing with Harry about whether to stay upstairs or in the cellar, angrily tells him, “Get the hell down in the cellar. You can be the boss down there, but I’m boss up here.” Harry responds by saying that he will not let them in later if they change their minds. As Alpert points out, both are “blind-sided by their ‘maleness,’ since neither Ben nor Harry can perceive that the other is right. Both the upstairs and cellar prove to be vulnerable” (Alpert 19).

One could juxtapose the strict gender constraints put on the characters in Night of the Living Dead with the changing gender dynamics of Swarthmore College. In 1969, a year after Night of the Living Dead debuted, the Swarthmore Board of Trustees revoked curfew rules imposed on women and introduced co-ed dorms. While it needs to be said that the decision to introduce co-ed housing largely hinged on immediate circumstances (i.e. a shortage of men’s housing combined with empty rooms in women’s dorms), Swarthmore, along with Oberlin, became one of the first colleges to introduce non-gendered housing. To modern readers non-gendered housing may seem like a given norm of college campuses, but back when it was first introduced at Swarthmore and Oberlin, the idea was viewed as both a dramatic and potentially dangerous innovation. The fact that Swarthmore,8 as an institution, was willing to blur the gender lines that were previously used to segregate an integral part of the college experience speaks leaps and bounds of how ahead of the times Swarthmore was in regards to its response to student needs and changing views of gender.

More recent portrayals of the zombie have started to move away from traditional gender norms. In the movie Pride and Prejudice and Zombies (2016), for example, the Bennett sisters from Jane Austen’s classic Victorian novel Pride and Prejudice are reimagined as zombie-fighting warriors.9 Although set in a society with clear gender-based expectations, many of the film’s female personas are portrayed as strong characters able to defend themselves and save others during a zombie outbreak. The main male protagonist, Mr. Darcy, also falls in love with Elizabeth Bennett not only for her intelligence (as we would expect, having read the original novel), but also for her fighting abilities, qualities traditionally valued in men. Indeed, one of the final scenes involves Elizabeth and Mr. Darcy fighting against the outbreak alongside each other as equals shortly before they get married.

Yet, it is also true that for the women in the movie, marriage is continuously emphasized over zombie-fighting ability as a way to truly survive. Perhaps because of this need for women to marry (or perhaps to make the movie more profitable), the Bennett sisters are unnecessarily sexualized. As the sisters prepare themselves for the formal ball, for example, the camera focuses on the weaponry attached to their corsets and stockings. This shows that it is perfectly fine to have strong, independent female characters in movies so long as they are attractive and sexualized so that their external appearance is the crux of their character. While female characters in zombie fiction have long moved away from the weak and submissive woman that is portrayed by Barbra in Night of the Living Dead (1968), one should keep in mind the more subtle forms of gender oppression present in modern-day zombie discourse. Thus, the burden on the movie’s female characters to both fight and get married reflects similar demands placed on women today; unlike women in previous generations, women now are often expected to be both attractive and capable, agreeable and confident, compassionate mothers and career-minded women.

On the other hand, the TV show iZombie, first aired in 2015, features characters and plotlines that challenge both traditional gender roles and traditional zombie media in a more modern setting.10 The premise of iZombie is unique in that not only is the main character a woman, but she is also a zombie. In the show, Liv Moore (her name is also an entertaining pun) actively combines her medical training and zombie status to exclusively eat the brains of murder victims, and gains clues through visions from the victims’ memories she gains as a result of consuming the repository of their consciousness. Then, she teams up with the local detective to help solve murder cases. Occasionally, Liv Moore will even go into what she refers to as “full-on zombie mode,” which turns her eyes red and endows her with superhuman strength. In the first episode alone, Dr. Liv jabs a syringe into a patient to save his life, becomes a zombie, and risks her life to rescue women about to be murdered.

While Dr. Liv’s character certainly has flaws and insecurities, she is a likable, driven, and ultimately human character who creates a new life for herself by solving cases and helping people. By turning the main character into a zombie, the TV show reflects a need for people to become reanimated and live out their lives without limiting their own potential. Women, in particular, often experience self-fulfilling prophecies in male-dominated fields and industries like business and STEM due to stereotypes, even at Swarthmore. In iZombie, Dr. Liv’s character—a well-educated woman in a complex situation—thus reflects societal (becoming a zombie) and self-limiting (giving up her former life and isolating herself) pressures placed on women while simultaneously arguing that these limitations can be somewhat overcome.

It is clear that, at least here in the U.S., we continue to live in a society that discriminates against people on the basis of gender. However, as the genre of zombie fiction has shown, constructions of gender in every age change, more often than not, for the better. As alumni of Swarthmore College have underscored in earlier generations, it remains paramount that contemporary Swarthmore students maintain their sense of justice and equity particularly when it comes to issues of gender, lest we be relegated as relics of the past.

  1. Quote attributed to David Icke, famous promoter of conspiracy theories

  2. Kordas, Ann. “New South, New Immigrants, New Women, New Zombies: The Historical Development of the Zombie in American Popular Culture.” InRace, Oppression and the Zombie: Essays on Cross-cultural Appropriations of the Caribbean Tradition, edited by Christopher M. Moreman and Cory Rushton. Jefferson, NC: McFarland, 2011.

  3. White Zombie. Directed by Victor Hugo Halperin. Produced by Edward Halperin. Performed by Béla Lugosi and Madge Bellamy. United Artists Corp., 1932.

  4. Yard, Molly. “Getting Out the Vote” in The Meaning of Swarthmore, edited by Roger Youman. Swarthmore: Swarthmore College, 2004.

  5. Swarthmore Historical Society Archives. Accessed March 27, 2016.

  6. Night of the Living Dead. Directed by George A. Romero. By George A. Romero, George A. Romero, and John Russo. Performed by Duane Jones, Judith O’Dea, Marilyn Eastman, and Karl Hardman. United States: Continental Distributing, Inc., 1968.

  7. Alpert, Robert. “George Romero’s Night of the Living Dead and Diary of the Dead: Recording History.” CineAction, no. 95 (Winter 2015): 16-25.

  8. Webber, Elizabeth. “How Co-ed Housing Came to Swarthmore.” April 19, 1996 edition of the Swarthmore Phoenix. Accessed March 27, 2016.

  9. Pride and Prejudice and Zombies. Directed by Burr Steers. Performed by Lily James and Sam Riley. Lionsgate, 2016. Film.

  10. iZombie. Produced by Rob Thomas and Diane Ruggiero-Wright. Performed by Rose McIver. Netflix.