Thursday, May 01, 2014

Are Zombies a Racial Formation?

In my "Macrosociological Theory" class we are reading Omi and Winant's Racial Formation in the United States. They argue that races are constructed when physical differences can be made to coincide with differences in group interest.  In particular, when one group can economically and/or politically subordinate another, they are likely to try to justify that domination on the basis of supposed or slight physical differences.

I have been puzzled by the resurgence of interest in zombies.  I think the main reason is that dramas have run out of groups that can be villains without nuance or redeeming features.  Zombies work well as villains because they are sub-rational, endlessly malevolent, and, conveniently already dead.  Permanently kill-worthy.

So I have been thinking about how well the enterprise of elaborating on the idea of zombies fits Omi and Winant's vision of a 'racial project'.  On the one hand, the physical difference between zombies and humans has been readily adapted to justify treating the whole group as worthy of domination - corralling, caging, experimenting on, even killing.  On the other hand, the zombie stories I know of do not show humans trying to get work out of zombies.

Perhaps that is the next screenplay.

I would say that the construction of zombies is mostly an example of what Omi and Winant mean by a 'racial formation' - but not entirely.

Maybe robots fill the bill better?


Nate Kratzer said...

Robots certainly make for better movies and TV shows. Have you seen Battlestar Galactica? I think an analysis of human and cylon relationships would be a good fit for this theory.

Gruntled said...

I have not seen "Battlestar Galactica", but have heard enough about it to have an idea what you mean. Often the robot plot is the Pinocchio plot - can I become human? - which sets up a very close parallel to the real stories of subordinated races fighting for equality.

Victoria Wheeler said...

I am intrigued by your theory, but I am equally intrigued by the recent spate of movies that actually do smash all of the stereotypes you mention. For instance, Warm Bodies (2013) is all about humanizing zombies (albeit I believe it's going for a much larger metaphor), and the film Fido (2006) is indeed about extracting work from zombies.