SPOILERS BEHIND THE CUT
One aspect of The Walking Dead that has always bothered me, and has been commented on elsewhere [i], is the obvious stupidity of having a child within the zombie apocalypse. Season two will forever ignite me in anger because of Rick’s reaction to Lori’s wanting to end her pregnancy because she shockingly thought it might be a good idea not to pop out some more children now that they live in a zombie-infested world.
Well, flash forward to season six’s recent revelation of what I thought must be an eventual plot point of the show: Maggie is pregnant. I’m honestly surprised it took so long considering the logical scarcity of both condoms and birth control pills lying around amidst the zombie apocalypse.
Since we are now faced with another potential newborn brought into our core group of survivors, I find this to be an excellent time to consider the significance and meaning of children, specifically Judith, within The Walking Dead. Obviously, since she can’t talk or fight zombies yet, Judith doesn’t really do much in the show, yet the audience is constantly reminded of her presence by the frequent shots of her, even if it’s just Rick or another character holding her for a few seconds on screen. This makes Judith easily overlooked in commentary on the show, yet the symbolic embodiment of the child is highly significant in this post-apocalyptic society.
Frequently Judith is presented as an emblem of hope – recall, for instance, the season five premiere when Rick and Carl were reunited with her at the very end of the episode. Not only were pretty much all of the characters crying, but you probably were too; it’s a highly emotional scene. But why do we care so much about knowing Judith is alive and well? Why do we root for Rick’s ability to protect his family and provide some sort of life for them within the zombie apocalypse? In The Walking Dead, like many other post-apocalyptic films and television shows, the child is positioned both as the allegorical hope for a future and nostalgia for the irrevocably past social order—as well as upholding the nuclear family as an ideal. In this way, the child – in this instance Judith – becomes part of the fantasy of a restoration of what was before, the fantasy that the characters can in fact uphold past ways of living. [ii]
Additionally, children in the post-apocalypse “demand that we preserve for them the world as we knew it.” [iii] As I have argued elsewhere, the post-apocalyptic landscape of The Walking Dead provides a realm in which we can break down the social norms within our current society – aka their pre-zombie reality – and reconceptualize what ideologies such as race, gender, class, etc. can mean. [iv] Judith presents a barrier between this changing of societal norms and power dynamics in that she embodies a desired nostalgia for the old, pre-zombie, way of life and all of its inherent ideologies. Thus, the hope that Judith brings to The Walking Dead “is revealed to be not just a desire for a better future, but a desire for a specific type of future.” [v]
Implicitly, though not intentionally, Judith brings with her a hope for reinstalling gender, race, class, etc. norms because of the nostalgic attachments placed upon her by the other characters. They hope to see her, along with other children, be given the same romanticized lifestyle as that before the zombie apocalypse. Yet this lifestyle comes along with the social norms and power dynamics that inhered within that same previous life. As long as the survivors continue to idealize and yearn for the potential futurity embodied by the (female) child, then the social order will likely be continuously upheld and reinforced. The nostalgia for the past coincides with the upholding of social hierarchies. Maybe Judith has to die and childhood innocence destroyed (like it has been for Carl) for The Walking Dead to embrace a new political social realm in which gender, race, class, sexuality, and all other “zombie” forms of social identity, can be renegotiated amidst the demand for survival.
[ii] McGlotten, Shaka, and Sarah Vangundy. 2013. “Zombie Porn 1.0: Or, Some Queer Things Zombie Sex Can Teach Us. Qui Parle: Critical Humanities and Social Sciences 21 (2): 101-125.
[iii] ibid, page 114.
[iv]Bennett, Brooke. 2015. “The Rising ‘Tough’ Women in AMC’s ‘The Walking Dead’.” Post online at Bitch Flicks. [http://www.btchflcks.com/2015/10/the-rising-tough-women-in-amcs-the- walking-dead-season-five.html#.VjJzjbT0J0A]
[v] Grizzell, Trevor. 2014. “Re-Animating the Social Order: Zombies and Queer Failure.” In Zombies and Sexuality: Essays on Desire and the Living Dead, edited by Shaka McGlotten and Steve Jones, 123-139. Jefferson: McFarland. (Quoted on page 130)
Brooke Bennett is currently an undergraduate student and honors candidate at the University of Arkansas, hoping to continue her academic career in Film and Media Studies as a graduate student. She has written several pieces on The Walking Dead and loves to chat for hours about the cultural importance of all things horror. Her current favorites in horror are found-footage style films and zombie narratives. Brooke’s other work can be found on Academia and you can follow her on Twitter.