Zombies and the Male Culture
The American Male is under siege. Beneath our calm national visage, we are succumbing to a virus of apathy and lethargy. One by one we are joining the slow march toward whatever shiny new object marketers instruct us to admire. We are sacrificing our independence, our strength, our culture and we are co-conspirators in our own demise. Somehow, this is all about the zombies…
Men’s culture is being assaulted. The role of man in American society has been fundamentally altered over the last half-century. Traditional roles of provider, protector, and progenitor of familial legacy have been outsourced to women, corporations, and laboratories. Globalization devalued our physical labor and shipped our middle class employment overseas. The national consciousness rebelled against the bias of our male-centric world order, supplanting our individualist dominance with a committee of softer, gentler, kinder consensus-builders. We lost a public relations war. We were branded as sexist, racist, elitist, egoistic, immature, and petty. Today, the definition of man, a man in society, and American male culture lacks clarity. Somehow, this is all about the zombies…
Early popular film and television culture relegated the undead to the fringes of entertainment. They were tolerable in the campy B-movies of 1950’s science fiction, but no serious man would dare indulge in the gratuitous carnage of slaughterhouse pictures. A generation of boys raised on comics, cartoons, and those hokey B-movies began infiltrating the world of Serious Adults in the 1970’s. They had more money and free time than any previous generation of American men and their nostalgia for the simple pleasures of their childhood created a market for more nuanced, thoughtful stories involving the violent death of hordes of the undead. A new generation of writers, directors, producers, and publishers was eager to meet the growing demand for ghouls in escapist entertainment. When Michael Jackson was reanimated as a bloodthirsty dancing werewolf-panther-zombie-thing in his iconic red jacket in John Landis’ groundbreaking “Thriller” long-form video, zombies became a permanent resident in mainstream pop culture.
“Zombies have been used to personify society itself, a slow-moving but deadly force of soul-crushing and mind-eating assimilation: you know, like, malls and skinny jeans, and stuff.”
The Internet Movie Database lists over 1,400 movies, television shows, and video games tagged with a zombie descriptor, dating all the way back to 1929. Nearly 80% of those have been released since 1990. Currently, AMC’s most popular show (in terms of total viewers) is “The Walking Dead”, based on Robert Kirkman’s lauded comic series of the same name, which resumes on Sunday night. Zombies overtook four seasons of Don Draper and three seasons of Walter White in a scant six episodes. A film version of Max Brooks’ critically-acclaimed 2003 novel, World War Z, starring Brad Pitt, will invade theaters in 2012. The renowned Call of Duty video game franchise features a popular side game which involves killing endless waves of zombies with an imaginative array of weaponry (in the most recent edition, gamers could even play as JFK, holed up inside the White House situation room). Our brief and unfortunate fling with vampires aside, there is no disputing the drawing power of a well-crafted zombie apocalypse yarn.
The prevalence of zombies in our popular imagination has prompted much debate about our current national awareness, specifically, how zombies represent the things we fear. In a post-9/11 culture, zombies have been likened to our image of the anonymous terrorist, hiding in plain clothes, poised to wreck our way of life indiscriminately and dispassionately. A regrettable association with illegal immigration has been made, recasting the plight of people seeking to escape extreme poverty and oppressive government regimes with swarms of thoughtless destroyers, eager to consume our flesh (read: jobs, resources, tax dollars). They have been used to personify society itself, a slow-moving but deadly force of soul-crushing and mind-eating assimilation: you know, like, malls and skinny jeans, and stuff. French philosopher Jacques Derrida used zombies to symbolize a state of duality, man existing between binary opposites – in the case of the zombies, not quite dead, and though animated, not quite alive – and describing the paradoxes of modern society.
“We, like the zombies, are neither dead nor alive, milling about in search of meaning, gnawing on the ever-present distraction of sex, entertainment, and pursuits of instant gratification.”
The zombie myth takes on particular significance for men’s cultural crisis. Forces of change have been slow moving, but powerfully destructive to the self-image of the American Male archetype. We used to see the Marlboro Man as the definitive symbol of male aspiration – substantial, strong, fearless…Free. The cowboy shtick now feels dated. He is a nostalgic relic from an era of childlike idealism. Society’s reliance on the strength and independent spirit of men as explorers, settlers, builders, and protectors has dwindled as we have grown more dependent on care-givers, service-providers, managers, and financial market manipulators. The ability to bend steel inspires less awe, generates less income, than the ability to win hearts and minds or sell pharmaceuticals for problems we never knew we had.
Men’s cultural predicament is self-inflicted as well. Large segments of men-dressed-as-boys have embraced the hippy, Office Space philosophy of freedom – the ability to do nothing at all. Jeans and t-shirts symbolized rebellion against the stuffy pretenses of an elitist upper-class, until they just became another uniform. We eschewed formal attire and with it, formal attitudes. We doubled-down on dumbing down; scoffing at the ‘effeminate’ pursuits of higher education and skill diversification, certain our physical might would always be the nation’s most valuable and abundant natural resource. We, like the zombies, are neither dead nor alive, milling about in search of meaning, gnawing on the ever-present distraction of sex, entertainment, and pursuits of instant gratification.
Instant gratification, like the discarded carcass of the zombie’s latest victim, is a fleeting pleasure. Substantial fulfillment is the pursuit of a lifetime, not the indulgence of momentary whim. Earlier this year, the USA Today reported college graduation rates are skewing substantially towards women (57% vs. 43% nationally). The Brookings Institute mined employment figures from the Department of Labor’s Bureau of Labor Statistics and found men are earning less money while doing less substantial work than their comparators from 50 years ago (full data here). The observed anecdote is a generation of slackers smoking weed and playing video games, slackers in their early 20s becoming slackers in their late 30s. The importance of creating a work ethic, contributing to the betterment of society, conducting oneself in a dignified fashion, and building the legacy of a life well-lived has been subjugated by a dispassionate pursuit of diversion.
The quiet desperation of the situation is an appropriate backdrop for contextualization within the zombie mythology. In the fictional narrative, any form of recognizable social order cannot bear the zombie’s existence. All rules of conduct, class hierarchies, and behavior-governing conventions are discarded under the threat of violent zombification and the extinction of humanity. These conditions immediately elevate the primacy of the distinctly male traits society has neglected. A new world order emerges with muscularity, endurance, and the will to withstand the carnage and chaos of war as the defining traits of masculinity. Killing zombies does not require advanced military tactics, there are no rules of engagement; the zombies come ad infinitum and the ultimate law of the jungle reigns: kill or be killed. The science fiction element of the narrative is both escapist and nostalgic. During a zombie invasion, the Marlboro Man is our heroic, shotgun-wielding savior come to protect the distressed damsels and defenseless children. A Man restored.
The catharsis of a clean-slate carries great appeal, as evidenced by the popular demand for more zombie stories featuring men being men in the most traditional definitions. Perhaps the majority of viewers are satiating a bloodlust and producers are only too eager to churn out the low cost zombie flick to meet the demand; the fact does not diminish the literary and philosophical value of the genre. A dignified man does not turn away from an opportunity to reflect on his society, his place, and the symbolic manifestation of his fears because it comes creeping and clawing, clad in blood-soaked tatters, mindlessly pursuing the sweet satisfaction of his flesh.
Men’s culture is at a crossroads. We have endured movements and protests, stand-ups and sit-ins, marches and campaigns against our traditional machismo values. Our hereditary lands are fallow; our great war rages internal. Many of us are little more than cultural zombies, mindlessly mining the internet and television for the next fad to consume, ever unfulfilled. Zombie fiction plays out our collective fantasy of shredding the oppressive social fabric we perceive forming a noose around our masculine heritage. It also instructs; confronted with an undead mob bent on our extinction, the male hero rises to meet the challenge. His quest is neither desired nor pleasant, but he stands resolute, bends his will to the task at hand, and overcomes. The world we live in has a new set of priorities, it is time to adapt. A dignified man does not wallow in self-pity when confronted with adversity, he does not opt out of society, he does not settle for second-class citizenship. Gentlemen, it is time we earn our distinction. Somehow, this is all about the zombies…