Posted on February 3, 2016

Short Cuts: Morgan in Chains

Elizabeth Erwin

Perhaps because of my higher than usual comfort with horrific imagery, I’m usually not the best at anticipating what images will be labeled as triggering (a word I loathe but that’s for a separate post), and so my immediate reaction to this image as problematic was a surprise. Excited to be ahead of the curve for once, I immediately went to the interwebs to see how people were responding—only to be met with silence. It’s an obvious cliché but in this case the silence truly was deafening.

And so in today’s Short Cut, I want to spend a little time unpacking why I find the image troubling and posing a few questions I hope people will weigh in on. While I fully expect many will argue it is just one image and of little consequence, I truly believe that the popular culture we consume greatly influences our beliefs and perceptions, even if we aren’t fully aware of it.

I want to acknowledge from the outset that clearly this image does not exist within a vacuum. As viewers, we know that Morgan’s captivity is a consensual act negotiated between the two characters in an attempt to ward off The Wolves, who are violently attacking the community. We recognize that the intent of this moment is about subterfuge and not enslavement. For viewers in the moment, the distinction is clear.

And yet, the image itself is inescapably racially charged. As a pre-episode released still, the image initially existed without any context. We aren’t privy to Morgan’s state of mind and we don’t know the identity of the person with him. To those experiencing only the isolated image, it is simply that of a black man in chains being led by a white person. Is it possible to see this depiction and not think of slavery? Given the way slavery has been mediated in American popular culture, I’d argue not.

Complicating the issue is the unique history zombie texts have with depictions of slavery. From the undead Haitian slaves in White Zombie (1932) to the African slave backstory in I Walked with a Zombie (1943), the cinematic association of zombies with slavery is far more entrenched than in any other horror subgenre. And so seeing this image and immediately connecting it to slavery is not that great of a leap.

We also don’t know that the person leading Morgan is Carol. In fact, her disguise is specifically constructed to give the allusion that she is a white male. How then does the awareness that it is a white, female in front and not a white male change the image? Or does it?

One possible reason that the image may not have prompted any sort of backlash (as opposed to the fury that erupted online with regard to Michonne and her pets) is likely attributable to the positioning of the characters. Although chained, there is nothing in Morgan’s stance to convey subservience. On the contrary, his head is held high and his eye contact is direct, neither of which was allowed under the brutal regime of slavery. Similarly, his lack of struggle and apparent walking in tandem with Carol suggests a lack of coercion that is at odds with his bondage. And so even if we are to assume that the person leading Morgan is male, everything about Morgan’s countenance, as well as that of the person leading him, indicates that the two are equals. The only things that disrupts this reading is the presence of the chains. So does one negate the other? I’m not actually sure.

Reading the image as representing two equals does reflect a popular trope within American horror. Given that (all) women and African-American males are often cast as Other (and don’t even get me started on the depiction of African-American women who historically have been ignored and/or fetishized), having a white woman lead an African American man in chains is both revolutionary and not at the same time.

On one hand, there is a substantial body of criticism about the horror genre that suggests white women and African-American men only survive to the ending credits if they work with one another. Consider the cases of A Nightmare on Elm Street 3: Dream Warriors (1987), House on Haunted Hill (1999), Halloween: Resurrection (2002), and 28 Days Later (2007), in which it takes teamwork for both to survive. In this image, that is exactly what Carol and Morgan are doing. They are teaming up so as to thwart the bloody coup being attempted by The Wolves.

Conversely, white women are still privileged over African American men when it comes to who is most likely to survive to the ending credits of a horror film. There is a reason why the trope of the African American male being killed off first exists and that’s because it’s usually overwhelmingly the case. This is an especially resonant issue in The Walking Dead: many a think piece has been written about the show’s treatment of African-American men. Is this another example of a white woman being privileged? Or is it a representation of equals? I suppose the answer may very well reside in who is viewing the image and to what degree he /she is privileged.

My guess is that the lack of furor over the image may have a great deal to do with how viewers feel about these two characters. It isn’t just any woman leading Morgan, it’s Carol. We’ve witnessed her go from abused housewife to tormented, avenging angel, and there is a significant amount of pathos built into her storyline. Audience empathy, coupled with an awareness of the precise planning exhibited by the character, makes it easier to bypass any initial unease over the image because we know Carol always has a plan, and that looks could very well be deceiving.

I will say that I do find it interesting that while there was so much internet anger over Morgan’s physical violence toward Carol (and with which I definitely agree) in the midseason finale, there has been silence regarding this scene. Yes, the dynamics at play in both scenes are radically different, but, when just considering the stills released by the show, there is a similar power dynamic at play.

In the end, I don’t exactly find this image problematic but it did give me pause. Yet, I do think it evokes enslavement and, considering the show’s somewhat questionable history with race, it deserves to be discussed.

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