Who Knew Flesh-Eating Kids Could Be So Radical?

By Alethea Tyler

Upon first viewing The Girl with All the Gifts, I was overwhelmed by the premise of the movie: a unique zombie film featuring Melanie, a young child who possesses both zombie and human qualities. While the movie presents a dystopian storyline utilizing gratuitous violence, it also contains radical representations of complex inequalities and confronts stereotypes. Through examining the portrayal of age, gender, and race, the confrontational narrative and radical alternative representations within The Girl with all the Gifts become apparent.

Melanie is a young girl, an identity commonly associated with weakness. The theme of youth and incompetence is disputed as Melanie is not only the central character, but by the far the most powerful character in the film. As a “second-generation hungry,” the zombies do not see her as prey as she too, is prone to consuming flesh. And unlike other “hungries,” she possesses the ability to resist zombie cravings. This defies ageist assumptions by making her a superhuman who exists as an immune, omnipotent leader.

Melanie’s identity as a girl is not particularly emphasized in the film, but it nonetheless serves to challenge gendered stereotypes. Melanie’s clothes and haircut remain uniform, replicating a traditionally male or gender neutral presentation. If it weren’t for her feminine name, she could easily pass as one of the boys. This ambiguity, combined with Melanie’s insatiable curiosity and superior intelligence, confronts the common correlation of intelligence and masculinity. According to Judith Lorber, “The social construction of gender not only produces the differences between men’s and women’s characteristics and behavior, it also produces gender inequality” (2012). As a result of remaining outwardly gender neutral, Melanie challenges assumptions pertaining to gender. Her character is many things at once: fierce, intelligent, selfish and selfless. She is an independent protagonist who remains fearlessly female.

The most important stance this film takes is on race. The cast is predominantly white, marginalizing the few characters of color. The film uses this marginalization to radicalize the plot. The end of the film illustrates Melanie not only as a hero, but also as the destroyer of the old world. Intentionally, Melanie sets the zombie pods on fire, causing the virus to become air-borne and infect all living people. This act of defiance positions Melanie as a savior to the zombies and a destroyer of white culture. This racialization of the main character serves as an emphasis on the shocking ending: white people do not always win. As Lorber (2012) writes, “The subordinate group is always less influential unless it can turn the dominant values upside down” (pg. 233). Through Melanie’s act of defiance, she turns the “dominant values upside down,” addressing the question of why someone else’s life is more important than her own. Through this provocative narrative, Melanie directly confronts the idea of valuing White over Black.

Due to the provocative nature of The Girl with All the Gifts, the film presents a truly radical narrative. The film seeks to confront traditional narratives by diverging from stereotypical roles regarding age, gender, and race. As claimed by Lorber (2012), “Change does not come easily, because many of the foundational assumptions of the gendered social order and its ubiquitous processes are legitimated by religion, taught by education, repeated by the mass media, and enforced by systems of social control.” When media is used to present radical narratives, the perpetuation of social control is directly challenged. Through the presentation of empowering, intersectional identities, the foundation of racism, sexism, and ageism are questioned, therefore invalidating the very existence of inequalities.

The Body with All the Gifts

By Ryan McLauchlan

In Professor Heidi R. Lewis’ First-Year Experience Introduction to Feminist and Gender Studies course, we screened and discussed The Girl with All the Gifts. The film is about humanity being plagued with a fungus that gives people the desire to eat flesh. This post-apocalyptic zombie movie takes viewers on a journey with a young, black, half-zombie girl named Melanie (played by Sennia Nanua), and her white fully-human teacher on their quest to save humanity. Upon watching the first few scenes, I was excited to see a young, black girl cast as a central character in a movie that’s not explicitly about race. However, it became clear that though Melanie’s protagonist role seemed progressive, the use of a black main character is purposely exploited to please a white audience.

The role of Melanie was appropriated in a way to make the mistreatment of her character more digestible to white viewers. As viewers continue to watch the movie, it becomes clear in the plot that the only way to save the human race is to kill Melanie, and create a vaccine from her half-human, half-zombie DNA. Melanie’s partial-zombie status invites the audience to dehumanize her, which is easier for people to do to racialized bodies. In Margo DeMello’s “Racialized and Colonized Bodies,” she claims that “African-Americas were not just thought of as animals; they were treated like animals.” DeMello asserts that if people view racialized bodies as animalistic, it is easier to treat them as such. Along these lines, while it would seem radical to have a black girl as a main character, she is actually cast as the protagonist so that the audience can be more comfortable with her mistreatment in the movie.

Another way in which the creators of this movie take advantage of Melanie’s black body is through the relationship she has with her white teacher. While some would believe that the relationship between a white and black character in a movie diffuses racial tension, in the movie it actually reinforces racial stereotypes. In Kumiko Nemoto’s “Interracial Romance,” she presents the idea that “seemingly oppositional or counter-normative behaviors in fact reveal the logic of domination more than they represent the logic of protest or resistance to the system, much less the logic of liberation.” The white teacher’s white privilege is clear in that she has all the power in the relationship. Moreover, she is seen protecting Melanie when no one else will, which allows viewers to feel good about her role. Their relationship seems not to be about Melanie and her needs, but about how to make the white teacher a hero.

Melanie’s character presents as a powerful, young, black woman, in charge of her own story. But while Melanie has a lot of agency in the film to choose her own path, her presence is not a resistance to white culture, it is rather is an accessory to it. Because Melanie is black, the audience more easily accepts the fact that her body is constantly being dissected in the movie. The audience also gets to avoid feeling uncomfortable in their whiteness by seeing whiteness in the movie cast in a hero’s role. As the film industry and American pop culture in general are moving towards more progressive narratives, creators of film, and we as viewers need to be extremely careful in how we intercept racialized bodies, so that we can start sharing truly progressive narratives.

Bodies as Commodities of Inequality

By Molly Maier

The Girl With All the Gifts is a futuristic story of a teacher, a scientist, and a young black girl named Melanie. A fungus has turned almost everyone into mindless, flesh-eating zombies called “hungries,” whom the few remaining humans are furiously trying to escape. Melanie is part of a special group, the second-generation hungries, who still eat flesh, but also can think, learn, and interact like normal humans. The film opens in a military bunker where the second-generation hungries like Melanie are being kept under close military watch to be studied by Dr. Caroline Caldwell. Near the end of the film, Dr. Caldwell asks Melanie to sacrifice herself so that she can finish developing a vaccine against the fungus. Melanie responds, “Why should we die, so that you may live?” Her question is applicable to more than just the fictional hungries as we examine the historic use of minority bodies by white researchers for scientific experiments.

Take Henrietta Lacks, a poor black tobacco farmer. Cells from her cervical cancer tumor were taken without her knowledge in 1951. The cells have been bought and sold by millions, and have since been used for the development of the polio vaccine, in vitro fertilization, cloning and gene mapping. Her cells, called HeLa cells, are one of the most important scientific discoveries of the 20th century, but today, Henrietta Lacks’ family cannot afford health insurance (Zielinski).

Take the development of the oral contraceptive pill by Dr. Gregory Pincus and Dr. John Rock. After the hormonal medicine had successfully been tested on rabbits in the US, the researchers needed to conduct a larger-scale clinical trial. In 1955, they went to Puerto Rico, and gave close to 1,500 women the medication. Framed as saving them from too many pregnancies, the women were subject to unexplained, dangerous side effects. Carmern Sanjurjo, whose mother participated in the trials, commented, “They always used us Puerto Ricans as guinea pigs.”

Take the cheek cell culture taken from a Guaymi women. Her samples were taken and patented as part of a sampling program through the Human Genome Diversity Project. Researchers discovered that a virus contained in her blood stimulates the production of antibodies, which will turn out to be very profitable in treating leukemia and AIDS. She will not be profiting from these sales (Hawthorne).

Under the guise of research, many minority and ethnic bodies have been exploited. Like Melanie asked, why is it that those are the people who have to die, those the bodies that suffer for a “greater cause.” When looking for answers, our attention turns back to the complex social hierarchy of gender, race, and class. Discrimination has taken the form of biopiracy, stealing pieces of bodies and reducing minority women to lab rats. As science continues to advance, we must ask who we perceive as human and sub-human, must constantly examine who is dying to benefit whom.