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.