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.

Queer People of Color in Sausage Party

theresaBy Carlie Gustafson

One of the issues that came up quickly while watching Sausage Party was the depiction of Teresa (the taco) as an intensely sexualized woman of color. But while I continued watching the movie, this depiction became only part of the issue, as her character simultaneously perpetuated the idea of queer aggression while reducing her character to simple heterosexual eroticism of lesbian relationships. In this way, it remains clear that queer people of color are threatening to the straight while male culture, which is why they are often reduced to a fetish.

The idea of eroticizing women of color is not new. In “Racialized and Colonial Bodies,” Margo DeMello writes, “Even today, non-white women are often thought to be more sexual, erotic, and exotic than white women” (87). Teresa is clearly depicted in a much more sexualized way than Brenda (the bun). For example, Teresa is initially introduced as a sexy character, but once her sexual desire for Brenda was revealed, it became her defining characteristic, whereas the other characters have more depth. As described by Devon W. Carbado in “Privilege,” her “homosexuality signifies ‘difference’ – more specifically, sexual identity distinctiveness” (142). This distinction is enough to define her character, whereas heteronormative characters are afforded something more to describe them.

On top of the fact that she is eroticized and reduced to a mere sexual orientation, she also perpetuates an idea of queer aggression. White men have been threatened by men of color stealing their women, as illustrated when DeMello writes, “For many whites, African Americans are still considered to be threatening” (83). Sausage Party depicts a similar pattern in being threatened by queer women. Teresa is very forward and aggressive in her pursuit of Brenda. It really isn’t mutual at all. Brenda remains the prize and Teresa must compete with Frank and other men to “win” her. In this way, she presents a threat of beating Frank and stealing Brenda from him. There is no conversation about Brenda’s sexual orientation she is simply a body to be fought over.

It seems odd to think about the fact that a queer woman of color would be depicted in a film clearly created for male hegemonic audience until you actually see the movie and realize that she has been totally skewed and simply put there to entertain the male gaze. Her relationship with Brenda is not a hopeful representation of lesbian relationships in mainstream media. Instead it plays into the idea that lesbians relationships are for the pleasure of the male viewer. Much like lesbian porn clearly created to viewed by straight men instead of actual queer women. Teresa’s character is not helpful to the community she represents as she is shown in a very shallow way that does nothing but perpetuate negative stereotypes.

NOTE: This essay was written by a First-Year Experience (FYE) student in FG110 Introduction to Feminist & Gender Studies taught by Professor Heidi R. Lewis. FG110 teaches students how to examine power, inequality, and privilege along the lines of gender, sexuality, race, socioeconomic status, age, physicality, and other social, cultural, and political markers using multi-, inter-, and transdisciplinary approaches. Near the end of the block, the students visited a local theater to screen Sausage Party, and this essay was written in response.