The Walking Dread

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The Washington Post has been running a number of stories on the rising death rates of rural white women, including "Why Death Rates..." and "'We Don't Know Why It Came to This".  Such articles echo similar recent reports on the rising death rates of rural white folk generally, and all of them tend to note the role that a diminishing belief in the reality of the American dream plays in the declining lifespans of rural and working-class whites.

At the same time, I've been seeing a number of Washington Post columns about the TV series The Walking Dead, including Daniel Drezner's “Why I'm Quitting the ‘Walking Dead’ Franchise”, all of them complaining that the series (and those like it) seems to have abandoned its original dedication to nuanced storylines and character development in favor of ever-more ramped-up violence and mayhem.  Goodbye Mad Men Meets the Apocalypse and hello Georgia Chain Saw Massacre.

The thing is, I don't think that these two Washington Post article trends are unrelated.  Here's why.

In the eighth edition of Signs of Life in the U.S.A., I observe that The Walking Dead, like Game of Thrones, constitutes an example of what are often called "the new Westerns."  Whether in movie, television, or graphic novel form, the new Westerns represent an evolution in the history of the genre, abandoning the "cowboys and Indians" scenarios of the past while maintaining the fundamental setup involving perpetually armed people struggling for survival in some kind of lawless (or nearly lawless) wilderness.  One might say, in effect, that zombies are the new Indians.

This shift, of course, can be explained by the culture industry's belated recognition that the Western's tradition of demonizing and dehumanizing Native Americans just won't do anymore.  Movies like Little Big Man and Avatar changed the narrative simply by turning it upside down and making the "white man" the bad guy, but The Walking Dead's thinly disguised revival of something suspiciously like the old cowboys and Indians shtick suggests that something more than evading old stereotypes is going on here.  What we are seeing, in short, is what happens when mass culture has given up on the future.

Look at it this way, for better or for worse (and you are perfectly justified if you think "worse") - the old Westerns reflected a fundamental Anglo-American confidence in tomorrow.  "How the West Was Won" was not only a famous movie title, it was a fundamental cultural ethos.  Manifest Destiny meant manifest "westering," which was equivalent to manifest economic opportunity.  Bleached bones may have littered the trail, but victory was always in sight.  In contrast, there is nowhere to go and no victory to achieve in the new Westerns.  All you can do is fight for basic survival, and you are likely to fail in the end, as the regular killing off of major characters—quite in contrast to traditional Westerns—demonstrates.

Such stories reflect a culture not only in crisis but also in despair.  Seeing little hope for themselves, large numbers of Americans, especially rural working-class whites left behind by economic restructuring and international trade deals, are apparently responding to fantasy narratives that present them with a vision of people who are even worse off than they are (misery not only loves company, it also wants to see someone even more beaten down).  But at the same time, these victims of the apocalypse all are embarked upon a vast adventure and are having an exciting time.  Instead of worrying over where the money for the next rent check is coming, they're fighting back, carrying weapons, blowing away the enemy.  And did I mention guns? 

In short, there's something exhilarating in fantasizing about losing it all (including the law) for a culture that has always leaned towards a kind of conservative anarchism anyway.  It's all open carry here, and if you can't win, at least you get to shoot back. This is a long cry from the era of Gunsmoke and Bonanza, when working-class whites who were rising with the tide of American prosperity could enjoy Westerns that wrote "law and order" into the narrative.  Today, in the dismal aftermath of the Great Recession, some folks feel that they are being eaten alive, and it's a comfort to imagine that, with enough ammunition, you can resist.  In reality, however, a lot of people are dying young.

About the Author
Jack Solomon is Professor Emeritus of English at California State University, Northridge, where he taught literature, critical theory and history, and popular cultural semiotics, and directed the Office of Academic Assessment and Program Review. He is often interviewed by the California media for analysis of current events and trends. He is co-author, with the late Sonia Maasik, of Signs of Life in the U.S.A.: Readings on Popular Culture for Writers, and California Dreams and Realities: Readings for Critical Thinkers and Writers, and is also the author of The Signs of Our Time, an introductory text to popular cultural semiotics, and Discourse and Reference in the Nuclear Age, a critique of poststructural semiotics that proposes an alternative semiotic paradigm.