Strong Female Zombies: More Than One Way to Eat the Living

I’ve been writing a lot about zombies lately, so I was going to change it up this month and write about some great comics I’ve been reading. But then I read this strange review of the new Netflix Original Series, Santa Clarita Diet, (SCD) from Esquire by a woman named Katie Van Brunt, and frankly, it demanded a response.

Briefly, Santa Clarita Diet is about Sheila Hammond, played by Drew Barrymore, who briefly dies after a catastrophic illness and wakes up a zombie. (Or as her neighbor and closest thing to an expert, Eric, prefers, the undead.) She and her husband, Joel (a wonderful and surprising Timothy Olyphant) and daughter Abby then have to figure out just what to do about that. I’m two episodes away from the end of the season and it’s a great show, groundbreaking in a lot of ways. So what’s my problem with Van Brunt’s piece?

If you don’t want to take the time to click the link above and read the article, entitled “Finally, the Strong Female Zombie TV Protagonist We Deserve,” well, the title is a big clue. Van Brunt’s premise is that SCD is a great feminist show, with a diverse and well-used cast, strong acting, and great writing, which are all true. What’s problematic is that she states that SCD is the first zombie story of this kind, the first to put a woman at the center as a sympathetic zombie instead of as a sidekick to a male zombie-killer. I think my fellow iZombie fans can see the problem with this argument.

As I pointed out in the review I did of that show, it does everything Van Brunt claims for SCD – the woman is truly the lead, not a sexy sidekick (it can even be argued that the men on the show are her sexy sidekicks). The diverse cast are not treated as jokes, nor reduced to their ethnicities. Zombieism, while a problem to be solved, is likewise treated as disease to be studied and cured. Yes, SCD does them too, but iZombie did it first.

What’s frustrating to me about this omission isn’t just the apparent lack of research, it’s that I think there are more interesting points to be made at looking at both shows and the different choices they make that allow them to tell two very compelling stories about women that are, yes, entirely unique.

For Liv in iZombie, as a gorgeous med-student 20-something, dying and being reanimated is a threat to the perfect future she’s imagined for herself – something she wasn’t necessarily going to get, anyway, but feels like has been taken from her. Her response is to cut everyone from her past out of her life (at least initially) and to create a totally new life, one in which she’s a morgue attendant and an amateur detective; she is less perfectionist and more empathetic due to her literal consumption of other people’s experiences.

Sheila, on the other hand, is a 40-something mom. (Still gorgeous, since it’s tv, but believably so). Being undead can’t ruin her hypothetical future – she’s right in the middle of her very real life, the one she chose when she was a 20-something, and she decides that she has to figure out how becoming zombie is compatible with that life. It adds a new, messy layer to trying to “have it all.”

What’s refreshing about how SCD presents this is that it’s one of the first shows I’ve seen about a middle-aged mom where the whole family seem entirely happy with the lives they’ve ended up with prior to the catastrophic event. Sheila and Joel have a rock-solid marriage and a partnership based on trust. Sheila immediately tells Joel and Abby what seems to be happening to her, sparing us the tired drama of trying to keep a huge secret from the people who live in your home. (There are plenty of others to try to keep it from, but at least that makes sense.) It feels pretty groundbreaking to actually see a depiction of a 40ish couple in the suburbs who are happy with how their lives turned out.

Instead, the tension comes from the other big departure from iZombie’s model – rather than brains with a side dish of memories, like Liv, Sheila needs to eat raw, human flesh, preferably recently killed. She can’t just set up shop in a morgue and eat the conveniently already-dead; she must be willing to take lives, often messily. Besides being a secret really worth keeping, this change presents real problems for Sheila and her family, both ethically and logistically. In many ways, her life, both the one she had before the change, and the one she’s stuck in now, isn’t sustainable. Despite the fact that SCD is a comedy, that’s a great recipe for real drama and heartbreak; a metaphor for the choices women have to make about what’s best for their families and what’s best for themselves.

So, I kind of wish Katie Van Brunt had written about all of that, but in overlooking the other female zombie show, she lost the opportunity to do so. Personally, I’m excited to see more stories like this being told, and while I hope they won’t all literally be zombie stories, I’m ready to see more women getting be the heroes of their own adventures, in many different ways. (I’ve got to tell you all about Crazyhead soon.) Not everything has to be the very first – doing something in your own way is pretty great too.

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3 comments

  1. tinydoom

    I am 100% into this show! I really like how unapologetic it is, letting a lady be gross, and crude, making the decisions that work best for her. It also makes me laugh, a lot.

  2. itsthegoog

    The opening of SCD almost made me stop watching, I think the initial character (the woman neighbor, still don’t like her much) did not set the right tone for the show, but once we got to the end of the episode I was seeing what they were trying to do and I was in.
    Also, off the top of my head, Day of the Dead has a woman main character that is not a sidekick and Tom Savini’s remake of Night of the Living Dead has Barbara become the hero, that’s two off the top of my head. I’m sure with a bit of googling, I could come up with a few more.

    • The Red Menace

      Right, I will say that Van Brunt’s piece was focused on a female zombie protagonist specifically, although (besides the fact that it’s erroneous) she could have articulated that point better. There is at least one other example of that, but I haven’t seen it, an Australian movie called Wyrmwood from 2014.

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