|The Walking Dead|
When Lori finds out that she’s pregnant, she doesn’t know whether the father is Rick or Shane. No judgment; it’s a crazy zombie world and she’s been getting along the best she can. She contemplates ending the pregnancy and procures some emergency contraceptive pills in the hopes that they’ll do the trick. (Of course, morning after pills are not abortion pills, and both Lori and the show’s producers are aware of this. Yet that doesn’t stop them from perpetuating harmful misconceptions about emergency birth control, as Megan Kearns astutely points out in her Bitch Flicks piece on The Walking Dead.) But no sooner does Lori down the pills than she abruptly changes her mind and vomits up the offending medication. Only then does she confess the truth of her pregnancy to her husband Rick, who unequivocally declares the child his own, and is angry at her for even considering an abortion.
Let’s be frank. Lori’s choice not to end her pregnancy is not intelligent. It doesn’t make rational sense within the context of the show. Moral and emotional factors aside, having the baby is the least reasonable choice Lori could make. Being in the late stages of pregnancy will drastically diminish her chances of surviving a zombie attack. And what happens after the baby comes? A wailing, helpless newborn infant could be a potentially deadly liability. Lori has ample reasons to put aside her feelings and do the logical thing, for the sake of her own survival.
Of course, these difficult choices are never based purely on reason. The problem in The Walking Dead is that Lori is a frustratingly underdeveloped character. So it’s never quite clear exactly what other factors are contributing to her decision. What are her values, her priorities? All we really know about Lori is that she constantly changes her mind for no apparent reason. For example, at the very start of season 2, she firmly tells Shane to stay away from her and her son Carl (pretty justifiably, since at the end of season 1, the man did attempt to rape her.) Shortly after that, she’s angry at the same man for wanting to leave the group. It’s fair to say that Lori’s behavior is wildly inconsistent. It’s difficult to glean a distinct set of character traits or values from her actions. So when she chooses to reject the morning after pills, it’s impossible to know exactly why. Beyond the generic assumptions that “life is precious” and “babies are good,” there is no sense that Lori’s choice arises inevitably out of who she is.
So rather than illuminating Lori’s character or highlighting the moral and ethical dilemma she faces, Lori’s decision exists mostly to heighten the dramatic tension of the story — that is, to heighten the tension among the men. The pregnancy of uncertain paternity is a well-worn trope of high melodrama and a staple of the soap opera. In The Walking Dead, it’s used to deepen and harden the conflict between Rick and Shane, which is the backbone of the second season. The pregnancy provides a further wedge between the men, strengthening Shane’s belief in his own claim on Lori. It also motivates Rick to seek long-term refuge at Hershel’s farm. So Lori’s ultimate decision is less about Lori and what she wants or needs or believes, and more about creating melodrama among the men.
At its core, the rivalry between Rick and Shane is a regressively sexist contest for alpha male status. In her piece on sexism in The Walking Dead, Megan Kearns outlines the outdated gender roles depicted on the show, including how the characters openly and fiercely reinforce the gender-based segregation of labor. Men do most of the dangerous, active tasks, while the women of the group do the domestic tasks.
Now it does make a certain amount sense that either Rick or Shane would lead the group, since they both have experience as lawmen. The skills of a sheriff’s deputy would definitely come in handy during a zombie encounter. But what qualifies them to make decisions about where the group will go next, and what it will do in the long term? Being former sheriff’s deputies doesn’t provide them any special insight into the nature of the post-apocalyptic world. Yet the show operates on the unquestioned assumption that the group needs an alpha male to lead it, and that man will be either Rick or Shane.
But the clash between Rick and Shane isn’t just a contest over who can keep the group safe. Shane asserts repeatedly that on a deeper level it’s a struggle for possession of Lori, Carl and the unborn child. Making the rivalry fundamentally about custody of Lori and the unborn baby cheapens the conflict. There is potential for a thought-provoking philosophical dispute over the need to sacrifice civilization in the name of survival. Is survival even worthwhile if civilization must be abandoned? While the characters pay a lot (a very lot) of lip service to these issues, the potentially fascinating debate takes a back seat to shallow machismo when the writers distill the conflict into two men fighting over a woman.
Essentially, Lori keeps her baby so that the men have more to fight over, and The Walking Dead misses a real opportunity to explore a rich, provocative theme. Even without addressing the morality of abortion, Lori’s predicament goes to the larger philosophical conflict that supposedly drives the whole season. Can people fighting for survival afford to have morals? How do people react when their right-to-life principles are tested? In the real world, it takes a lot less than a zombie apocalypse for a pregnant woman in crisis to realize that her ideals and her reality may not blend well. But here we have a whole other layer of considerations, none of which get discussed or explored at any length.
How much more powerful and dramatic would it have been if Lori really wanted to keep the baby, but ultimately had to decide that she couldn’t? Or perhaps the opposite – maybe she could have initially been determined to abort, but decided that it would be better to risk death than give up on her ideals. At the very least there could have been an interesting conversation or two about it.
Instead, the show backs away from real-world controversy and gives us a lot of soap-operatic, male-driven melodrama. And once again, a woman’s very intimate predicament simply serves as fodder to motivate and drive the male characters’ stories.
Rebecca Cohen is the creator of the webcomic “The Adventures of Gyno-Star,” the world’s first (and possibly only) explicitly feminist superhero comic.