I'm concerned about the dearth of role models for young women. The sad truth is, in the event of a zombie apocalypse, they have no fictional leaders to inspire them.
Luckily zombie fiction does offer a number of bad-ass Amazons. First and foremost, there's Alice, of Resident Evil fame. She's basically superhuman, she's not afraid of the Umbrella Corporation, and she will blow the head off of any corpse that blunders into her path. Planet Terror's Cherry Darling gets after the undead with her machine-gun leg. World War Z wasn't overflowing with female narrators, but one of the best sections features a female pilot whose plane goes down deep in Zack country. More recently, Boneshaker treated us to mule-stubborn Briar Wilkes and one-armed bartender Lucy O'Gunning, both of whom will straight waste a rotter. Even Miss Elizabeth Bennett has had a chance to test her martial prowess against the undead.
But zombie-slaying prowess does not make a leader. That skill set doesn't necessarily translate into an ability to unite panicked, argumentative survivors. The apocalypse makes it difficult to secure the basics like food, water, and shelter. There's the inevitable disagreement over how to get those things. Someone needs the moral authority to mediate those arguments. That doesn't even touch the problem of keeping everyone from succumbing to despair. Kicking ass is a piece of cake compared to this psychological stuff.
Lots of stories never even feature a female leader in the first place. Dawn of the Dead opens with Ana, who's cool under pressure and even has valuable medical training. But it's Michael who steps into the leadership role. Shaun of the Dead: It's Shaun's movie and Shaun's band of survivors, despite his planning skills being so poor he can't manage dinner reservations. The ladies of Zombieland manage pretty well until they reach Pacific Playland and abandon all good sense. Then it's up to Columbus and Tallahassee to bail the silly girls out. If you watch The Walking Dead carefully, the female characters spend an awful lot of time doing laundry. Eventually we'll discover that Andrea's a hell of a sharp shooter, but Rick is indisputably the group's hero and leader.
Perhaps an even more frustrating example is 28 Days Later. When we first meet Jim, he's in no condition to face the new world. Luckily, he's rescued by survivors Selena and Mark, and it's immediately clear who's the boss of that team. Selena catches Jim up to speed, says when it's time to move and dispatches anyone who's bitten. By the end of the film, she and Hannah have both become Jim's responsibility. He's the one who bursts into the mansion, rescues them from impending rape and reassures Selena that "It's not all fucked." Not exactly Father Knows Best, but closer than you'd expect from Danny Boyle.
There's a reason zombie movies default to heroes rather than heroines, and it's not just because studios won't greenlight anything with a female lead. It's reflective of the world we live in. If the rage virus swept across America tomorrow, lots of survivors probably would defer to the most competent man left standing, even if Hillary Clinton (or Condoleezza Rice, for that matter) were right there, dusting off her tattered pantsuit. Zombie narratives are about how normal folks respond to disaster, how you and your neighbors and your coworkers might react in the direst of situations. That's why they make such convenient vehicles for social commentary.
That's also why the lack of commanding women is so noticeable and galling in zombie stories. It's not like the rest of pop culture is burgeoning with examples. Even in science fiction, think of the eleventh-hour switch from Kate to Jack as the castaways' leader or Princess Leia's migration from diplomat to bikini-wearer. But this subgenre is about how average, unremarkable people react when crisis disrupts their lives and they're forced to improvise. It's maddening to think such conditions would give the upper hand to monstrous caveman like 28 Days Later's Major Henry West.
But it doesn't matter how such a social collapse would play out, because this is fiction, and fiction doesn't simply reflect reality. Narratives aren't just commentary. They shape the way we envision the world. Before we can elect a female president, we have to imagine a female president. In order to look to a female leader in a time of crisis, we have to imagine women can be leaders. This is especially important in the case of zombie stories, which are never simply allegories. They're thought experiments for how to react to real-world crises and a fertile place to suggest alternatives to the status quo.
I love zombies, and I'll keep cheering on the protagonists who slay them regardless of gender. That said, subgenres need stirring up every once in a while, or they'll stagnate. And this kind of character represents a golden opportunity to do something different in an increasingly overcrowded field. What kind of survivor group would choose a female leader? What does her "Live together, die alone" speech sound like? How does she enforce her decisions?
I'm not saying NOW needs script approval for every proposed zombie flick. But it would be nice to see the female equivalent of Rick Grimes at least once.