Gender Stereotypes in Zombie Films

By: Josh Keller

Zombies were and still are a big hit in popular culture. Countless films, video games, and more have been released depicting a mass infection resulting in dead bodies “rising from the dead” and returning to life as flesh-eating zombies. I recently watched George A. Romero’s classic zombie film Night of the Living Dead (1968), in which multiple characters attempt to survive a zombie outbreak in a rural Pennsylvania farmhouse. Through their interactions in the film, gender stereotypes become prevalent within the character’s enclosed environment. Romero’s Night engages cultural ideas of gender roles and stereotypes of men and women in society.

Barb, a blonde, thin, female character in the film, is introduced early in the film when she is running from a pursuing zombie. She finds a farmhouse and dashes inside, hoping to find refuge from the zombie. Barb’s stereotypical blonde female gender is evoked after she meets Ben, a strong African American male, in the farmhouse. She sits and stares in disbelief and does not speak a word to Ben, even when Ben asks her to help find wood to board up the windows and doors; she doesn’t communicate with him in any way. Her inability to help and uselessness to Ben display and establish her stereotypical blonde female character in the film. Barb’s stereotypical female character is yet again emphasized by her wardrobe and makeup. Her hair is styled and almost perfect in appearance, despite just running for a flesh-eating zombie for an extended amount of time, as well as her clean outfit, symbolizing her role as a housewife. Except for a brief moment where Barb helped Ben gather wood, she is rarely seen helping out throughout the film and spends most of her time laying on the couch. This inaction and inability to move symbolizes her stay-at-home housewife nature. Helen, another female character who finds refuge in the farmhouse, is also a character of note. Unlike Barb, Helen is more of a doer, seen through the care of her daughter Karen, who is sick. Despite Helen’s helpful nature, this nurse-like attitude displays her femininity and her stay-at-home housewife nature just as much as Barb’s inactive nature. When Helen and Harry, who is her husband, get into an argument, she asserts her position, symbolizing the women’s rights movements during that time period in society. Helen is depicted as the loud, semi-rebellious woman who is not afraid to speak her mind. Judy, a female teenager in the film, is portrayed as a rebellious teenager type. Romero accentuates this by clothing her with a leather jacket and jeans, making her appear unruly and possibly disobedient, and giving her a “biker” nature. However, Judy’s rebellious nature is laid to rest when Helen asks her to watch over Karen. This role reversal depicts Judy’s “graduation” of sorts into the housewife nature of the female adults. The gender stereotypes of the women in the film are mainly displayed with housewife personalities and stay-at-home demeanors. This results in their inability to perform masculine tasks, allowing them to cling to the house life of the farmhouse.

Masculinity’s stereotype is dominated by power and control in Night. The men in this film attempt to exert their power and control among the others in the group. Romero portrays Ben as the dominant male character in the group. The audience sees him as the first male figure in the farmhouse, signifying his importance within the farmhouse and the film as a whole. Ben immediately starts to show off his confident, power-driven character on Barb, asking her to help him gather pieces of woods to board up the house from the zombies. Romero focuses the camera on his hands, implying his masculine strength and usefulness to the situation. Harry, Helen’s husband, is another male who tries to exert his dominance in the group. Once he decides to leave his family from the basement and move upstairs with Ben and others, the dynamics of the group as a whole begin to change. Viewers witness a drastic change in the attitude of Ben and his relationship towards Harry. He rants on about how the safest place to be is the basement, to which Ben immediately refutes. Ben becomes enraged by this sudden introduction of another male presence in the farmhouse and feels threatened by Harry’s presence on the middle floor, which Ben seems to claim as his own territory (Harry’s territory is the basement, seen through his arguments to make the basement the hiding place). As Ben and Harry constantly fight back and forth about which is the safest place to hide from the zombies and for male dominance, tensions arise between them. Harry feels threatened by the sudden presence of another male bossing him around on the middle floor (Ben’s territory) and Ben feels that his dominant male presence may soon come to an end. Despite Ben’s uncertainty, Harry seems to submit to Ben’s orders and demands (not without a struggle, however), portraying his degradation from ruler or “king” of the basement to “slave” of the middle floor, an ironic twist considering that Ben is an African American and Harry is white. Harry’s dominance and power is also lowered by his wife Helen, who does not submit to him or agree with him on staying in the basement. Ultimately, as the struggle between Ben and Harry escalates, Ben murders Harry in cold blood, simply because he was becoming a thorn in Ben’s side by not obeying his commands. Being a dominant and power-controlling male leads to Ben’s isolation and destruction when he is mistaken for a zombie inside the farmhouse and killed by one of the zombie-hunters.

Gender stereotypes become prevalent in George A. Romero’s film Night of the Living Dead when analyzing the interactions among the survivors in the group, portraying the male figures as dominant and powerful, and the female characters with a housewife nature. Romero utilizes society to portray gender roles and stereotypes throughout his film. These gender stereotypes are still around in today’s society and are seen constantly in popular culture.

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