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.
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.
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.
The FemGeniuses greeted the day with a rainy walk to the U-Bahn and a stuffy, damp subway ride. Peeling off our wet jackets, we settled in for class. This morning, we were lucky enough to sit down with the editors of Winter Shorts, the latest installment of the Witnessed Series. It was a pleasure to hear from Sharon Dodua Otoo and Clementine Burnley, co-editors of the influential collection. Otoo, a London-born artist and activist, moved to Berlin in 2006 with her three sons (she now has four). She described the motivation for the Witnessed Series as a desire to use her international connections to create momentum, shared understanding, and support for Black German activism through writing. Burnley has been in Berlin for 6 years, and writes poetry when she isn’t working for MSO Inklusiv. In 2015, MSO focused its work on youth, Black, and Queer people of color communities, collaborating with organizations like Street Univercity, Jugend Theater Büro, Katharina Oguntoye’s Joliba, and the Initiative Schwarze Menschen in Deutschland. This year, they’re working with Wagenplatz Kanal, a Queer grouping within the Sinti and Roma community, a Black Trans organisation hosted by Der Braune Mob, and a youth organisation in Heidelberg.
Otoo and Burnley emphasized that Witnessed, the first English-language series about the experience of Black people in Germany, is not meant to replace anything already written in German about the Black German experience. Witnessed is, rather, a diverse collection, a reflection of the myriad experiences that comprise a Black German collective consciousness. Previous installments include The Little Book of Big Visions How to Be an Artist and Revolutionize the Worldedited by Otoo and Sandrine Micossé-Aikins (2012), Daimaby Nzitu Mawakha (2013), Also by Mail: A Play a Olumide Popoola (2013), and The Most Unsatisfied Town by Amy Evans (2015), which is based on the deeply controversial Oury Jalloh case. The original book launch and reading of this play was a collaboration with Roses for Refugees, a project Otoo developed that sought to engage with refugees living and protesting in Oranienplatz in Kreuzberg in order to improve the policies and discourses around refugees in Germany. A catalyst for activism, Witnessed also organized and hosted youth workshops in schools, along with performances of the play.
After Otoo and Burnley discussed their work, we asked questions about the texts we read for class from Winter Shorts, including Burnley’s “Boom,” and Otoo’s “Whtnacig Pnait (Watching Paint).” I found it interesting that Otoo explained that the latter was inspired by her son’s struggles with dyslexia. The protagonist hates school, in part due to this and also his new, unfamiliar home in Germany. Still, when the boy finds himself in a magical, secret safe space for people of color, he still feels somewhat out of place. This story, Otoo shared with us, was her way of saying “Look, I’ve been listening!” not only to her son, but also to all people on the margins of the Black community, estranged by forces like ableism, cissexism, and heterosexism.
I loved reading fiction for a change, and these stories were no disappointment, inciting rich discussions of racism, hegemonic narratives, and the role of art in activism. For example, I asked, “What role does autobiography play in your stories? How much of your writing is rooted in personal experience?” The answers I received were far more nuanced than I expected. Otoo articulated that, for her, even if she writes about something directly from her own life, that the very act of writing it down is interpretation. She is wary of the term “autobiographical,” as it may limit the interpretations of her work. Her stories are invitations for connection and inspiration, not simply narrations of disparate, specific happenings. Burnley responded, “I can’t write what I don’t know,” explaining that even though everything she writes is fueled by something she has seen, heard, or imagined, as soon as she’s written a story down, she no longer has anything to do with it. “What is more important,” she argued, “is what the person reading the story brings to it.” For Burnley, delineations of fact and fiction matter not: “Sometimes you write a story, and it’s complete factual experience, but for me it doesn’t make a difference. It’s still a story.” These responses made it clear, then, that no matter how connected to reality stories are, what matters most is how the reader can relate to the story.
As a follow-up, Heidi raised a concern that too often marginalized writers, especially Black women writers (the literary community she’s most studied) are assumed only to write autobiographical content, that they rarely considered to be creative. Otoo agreed and added that the literary perspective of white men seems to be the neutral perspective, rich in variation and creative freedom, while perspectives of Black women and other marginalized groups are seen as a specialized, specific and connected to the narration of their marginal experiences. She suggested that since the wealth of literature catered to the masses is written by white men, the small amount of writing done by PoC or QPOC is usually assumed to be simply nonfictional, and not creative. It seems that writers from minority groups have been affected by what Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie calls “the danger of the single story,” something that Burnley mentions in the introduction to Winter Shorts. When dominant narratives are written only by those in power, those without power suffer. Burnley actually touches on this frustration through one of her characters, Mimi, in “Boom.” Upon researching the Bab el Mandeb straits for a vacation, “Mimi was at once pleased and annoyed at the morbid romanticism of the language and the way it entirely avoided mentioning the slave trade and the more recent wars in the region” (47). Otoo, Burnley, and the writers of the Witnessed Series are all painfully aware of the danger of the single story, and aim to complicate limited narratives about the Black experience with their colorful collection of writings.
Talking to Otoo and Burnley this morning helped us see a real relationship between creating art and Black political thought. All the scholars in the room seemed to agree that this work against the danger of the single story, the Witnessed Series, is certainly political. Along these lines in the introduction to Winter Shorts, Burnley reminds readers of Toni Morrison’s insight: “If there is a book you want to read that hasn’t been written yet, then you must write it.” Burnley laments that capitalism has turned the appreciation of the arts into an elitist endeavor that many do not have resources enough to access. But she urged us today that her art, and subsequently her manifestation of political thought, is not always found in the high, abstract realm, “because we don’t always have the time or the money.” Among capitalist frameworks that commodify creativity and impose limiting structures such as genres, Burnley sees an opportunity for artful dissent. “That’s freedom for me,” she states in a matter-of-fact manner, “writing what I want.” Otoo agrees, “I like to write in a way that leaves room for interpretation…leaves room for dreaming.” Through their collections of art, Otoo and Burnley have invited their readers to dream of liberation. Through conversing with them and getting acquainted with their work, it is clear that they see art as a powerful political tool.
The curation of the Witness Series, including Winter Shorts, is a glimpse into the multiplicitous nature of the Black German experience, meant to engender awareness and solidarity for their movement towards liberation. Winter Shorts does a beautiful job of showcasing the difficult everyday moments in which multiple intersections of identity manifest. Clearly, in these personal stories, rife with racially charged struggle, is where the revolution is situated. Otoo and Burnley are uniting people with these stories and inviting collaboration and change to be made. As Heidi writes in her book-jacket praise for Winter Shorts, “The revolution happens in our hearts, minds, and spirits during moments when we might least expect it.” I want to thank both Otoo and Burnley for sharing their keen, revolutionary, and poetic minds with the FemGeniuses this morning.
Ivy Wappler hails from Long Island Sound and is grateful to spend her summers in New England, and her winters in sunny Colorado. She is a Feminist and Gender Studies major, and an Environmental Issuesminor. After school, she hopes to explore environmentally and socially responsible tourism. She may also end up reforming sex education. An avid foodie, Ivy is ready to experience Berlin through its food and drink when she’s not in class. You may find her taking walks through sunny streets, seeking out farmer’s markets and green, open spaces.