World War Z and The Lone Ranger and Tonto Fistfight in Heaven: Post-Apocalyptic fiction and Women

And unorthodox pairing, I know, but having read these two novels days apart from one another I saw a striking number of similarities. Both, I believe, fall into the post-apocalyptic category. In World War Z, the apocalpsye has swept the entire world. In Lone Ranger and Tonto, it swept through Spokane generations ago.

Both novels do what most fiction of this type does, and treat the idea of gender as largely redundant. The idea is that, in societies where gender dynamics were progressive pre-apocalpyse, in the face of survival gender roles will disappear. Being able to fight and to survive is more important than sexual equipment.

Alexie presents strong women, women without husbands, women who match their husbands drink-for-drink, women who are “warriors,” whose mere presence ends fights. Alexie’s book is filled with rage, filled with frustration at the reservation life. And, funnily enough, the reservations can be favorably compared to World War Z’s “safe zones”: places where humanity has retreated from the zombie hordes. After the zombies, large-scale populations have been forced to abandon the majority of their lands. After whites, Indians were herded into small scraps of land. Max Brooks’ women are also warriors, use guns or clubs to kill zombies as much as any man. Several of the military personel he “interviews” are women too.

That said, there are differences in the way men and women experience these post-apocalyptic societies, and those differences revolve around fertility. I once read an article that argued women in a post-apocalyptic society would never be warriors, but would rather be carefully protected because they were needed to restore the race. Losing a few men, reproduction wise, is evolutionarily acceptable, but losing women means the end of the species.

In Alexie’s book, men and women live equally on the reservation until white doctors show up. Two of only three female characters are sterilized involuntarily by the doctors who delivered their first children. There is a subtextual awareness of the importance of women to the survival of the tribe, and where Indian men are unthreatened by their women white doctors choose to end their reproduction. The apocalypse continues, quietly, in women’s wombs.

In Brooks’ book, women’s experience is rarely addressed. The survival of the race rarely comes up because often large proportions of the population successfully survive. Most planners focus less on ensuring reproduction than on securing large safe zones. Everything west of the rockies is safe in the US, so no one worries about babies. The only exception to this rule is the “Holy Russian Empire,” which after the end of its war drafts women of childbearing years to live in camps and reproduce as much as possible, with as many men as possible. The female “breeders” are an example of the ugliest results of the apocalypse, the victims of the new world order.

Although both of the novels touch on women’s experiences, both of them are distinctly masculine stories. Almost all of Alexie’s characters, and all of his POVs are male, as are the majority of Brooks’ characters. All the leaders Brooks writes about are men. Each author has different reasons for this: For Alexie, the story he is trying to reach, the story he is groping for, is how to deal with the loss of his past. He uses masculine generations to try to tell this story. Brooks, however, is writing about the depths to which humanity would sink if faced with a zombie war. Most, if not all, of his stories are about the grotesque realities, the horrific choices, and their individual impact on the men who had to fight re-animated corpses and the men who had to figure out how to fight zombies. The decision makers had to figure out how to save as many people as possible, and had to decide which of their citizens would die.

While many of the hand-to-hand zombie fighters are women, the decision makers are all men. I think this traces back to a discomfort with some of the nastier implications of equality. If men and women are equal, then we are both capable of the same horrendous acts, the same perversions of humanity. Brooks shies away from this idea of women, and falls back into the familiar male pattern. That said, he is portraying a world which is an extension of our own, and in our world the majority of decision-makers are men. Nonetheless, I think the novel could have benefited from a good villaness.

Read the hell out of World War Z: you’ll think about it for days.

Read The Lone Ranger and Tonto Fistfight in Heaven if you want: it’s an extremely angry, frustrated read.


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