Harmful Tropes: A Look Into The Walking Dead

The Walking Dead, a long running TV show, plays on many tropes of zombie culture. Slow, tattered, partly eaten zombies roam the world posing a threat to those not yet infected. It’s a common theme of this particular genre. Most wouldn’t think of it as anything, I know I didn’t when I’d sit and watch episode after episode with my family.  

Within The Walking Dead is another trope-the taking of “trophies”. One character, a member of the good guy group, named Daryl creates a necklace of severed zombie ears, cutting them off after killing them. These ears are “trophies”, a show of his kills, his toughness, an element to the badass persona he presents. Daryl is not the only character to do this. The Governor, an antagonist, keeps the severed heads of the living dead in jars filled with water. Because only destroying the brain will put the living dead back to dead, these heads are still very much alive.  Those heads, like Daryl’s necklace of ears, were the Governor’s trophies, a show of his skill and sociopathic nature. Now, I saw a difference in them. Daryl was just taking ears, the ears of random dead people. It was icky, but not concerning. The Governor, was much more concerning, as he was making the undead suffer, instead of putting them out of their misery. A class discussion made me realize, that no, at a fundamental level, both are very wrong. No matter if it is Daryl or the Governor, both are ignoring the bodily autonomy of those who they use for their trophies. Those who they take from are people, they were living, breathing people, just like Daryl, just like me. With that I began to understand that the trope of mutilating dead bodies in order to take trophies has been a reality, not a trope, for many years. 

In my Native American Literature class with Dr. Woidat, I learned about the Sand Creek Massacre. This was an event in history even my AP teachers had neglected to teach me about. Simon J. Ortiz notes in his book from Sand Creek (buy it here), that the Native tribes living on the shores of Sand Creek believed they would be protected by the American Flag they had been given, saying “The People had been assured they would be protected by the flag.”(pg. 8), however they were not. Lead by John Chivington, the village was attacked by 700 armed men. 700 armed men who killed 105 women and children, and 28 men (pg.8). The men after massacring the village then took their own trophies. They took the body parts of the women, the children, and the men, mutilating and humiliating the bodies of these peaceful people. The men took these body parts, from ears to fingers to genitals, and pinned them to their hats, a show of their kills. A show of how inhuman these men saw Native Americans. (For further reading: Witness Accounts from The Sand Creek Massacre and The Sand Creek Massacre-The Smithsonian. I will warn you both articles talk of the cutting of bodies, however the Witness Accounts are very graphic, so please be aware of that if you choose to read it.)  This is not the only time in history this has occurred. 

Harriet Washington in her book Medical Apartheid addresses the issue of the nonconsensual mutilation of one’s corpse. In 1846, Dr. Pray started medical school, feeling bad for a “poor, despised, and disregarded” African American girl, who he then began to dissect. A year later, the same man would take enjoyment in scaring women with a piece of a dead African American person, a piece of someone he had saved from the dissection table (pg. 112-113). Dr. Pray used this poor person’s body, this unnamed person, as a trophy. A person who seemed so capable of understanding, a good guy, taking a trophy and having such disrespect for another’s body. Yet this not far off from the actions of Daryl. This didn’t stop here. Grave robbing was a common practice, and medical schools prided themselves in being able to get these bodies, as if taking these bodies gave them some form of trophy, a sick sign that they were better than colleges with less stolen bodies (pg.132). These bodies were subjected to postmortem racism, by being taken from their final resting place and being illegally smuggled into a college basement. From there they would be dissected, their bodies subjected to being taken apart in front of a group of students. A trophy for their learning, a mutation of the body to those taken.  

The Walking Dead is not the only work of fiction to touch on the taking of trophies. Colson Whitehead’s novel Zone One is another zombie story, however it gives us a new look at the taking of trophies. Mark Spitz has a disliking for the living who mutilate the bodies of those suffering from the plague. On page 142 Whitehead gives a glimpse into Mark Spitz’s thinking, saying: “He had a particular dislike for No Mas, who bragged around Wonton about his scrapbook of straggler humiliation.” then again when the Lieutenant says: “No, you’re right. Mustn’t humanize them.” (pg.195). Both of these quotes show that because of the lack of humanization people have found it acceptable to take trophies from people. Sure, these are zombies, but they are still people, people whose bodily rights should still be respected. Mark Spitz has humanized the skels and stragglers, the living dead who he sees as deserving of this respect. Contrasted with the systematic dehumanization of the skels, Whitehead is able to show the disrespect that comes with mutilating dead bodies.  Mark Spitz serves as a reminder that even after death, one should see the person, not just the body. There should be no taking of trophies, no using the body for experiments, instead the body should be treated with respect and laid to rest properly. Unfortunately The Walking Dead only shows this when a main character loses their life. Not a bad guy and most certainly not a random zombie.

The taking of trophies comes from a lack of acknowledging that even the dead are people, be it through systematic dehumanization or through an individual’s own sadistic behavior. To understand how this trope is so harmful one should remember that these tropes have a history, a brutal violent history, behind them. They are not a badass zombie survivor trope, they are severed ears of Indian chiefs at Sand Creek, they are stolen bodies from African American graveyards. Tropes can hurt, and I hope that I can be more aware of this and the history behind it. I’ve said this a lot but I keep feeling the need to remind myself, if we don’t learn from history we will be doomed to repeat it, and that goes for the history behind our favorite shows.

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