“World War Z” More Feminist-Friendly Than the Book

WWZMax Brook’s massively successful book World War Z: An Oral History of the Zombie War ultimately suggests the only way to survive the zombie apocalypse is by all-out war. His previous work, The Zombie Survival Guide, a mock-guide based on World War II survival manuals, proffers a similar message–that once zombies are in the picture, the only recourse is to amass weapons and be prepared to kill or die.

The film adaptation differs from these texts in several major ways. First, it gives us a central character to route for–Gerry Lane (Brad Pitt). In the WWZ book, this character narrates the vignettes that make up the novel, but we do not know any details about his personality or life. He functions in a quasi-investigative-reporter role, detailing his findings about the world post-zombie-apocalypse in detached, omniscient fashion.

In contrast, Gerry in the film is framed as a loving father and husband, a cooker of pancakes and a collaborative, tireless champion who wishes to save others and the world rather than just kill as many zombies as possible. He does not play a hyper-masculine, domineering or savior role, in contrast to so many other recent zombie texts and their male leads, such as Shane and Rick in The Walking Dead, the military father in Warm Bodies, or the gun-loving “nut up or shut up” Tallahassee in Zombieland (Woody Harrelson). On these grounds alone, WWZ  is far more feminist-friendly than many zombie flicks.

Additionally, the film (again, in contrast to the book) features several strong female characters. Mireille Enos, as Karin Lane, is as central as her husband Gerry in helping their two daughters escape to safety near the start of the film. And though it’s true that, as claimed in this review, “This Hollywood movie is content to cast her as a standard-issue Dutiful Wife,” at least it does so in a way that does not render her a teary-eyed weakling. Once Gerry must leave the safety of the U.S. Navy vessel so that his family can continue to be housed there, Karin remains strong and capable, not reverting to a comatose dummy (as the character Barbara infamously does in the iconic Night of the Living Dead) nor into a crying, hysterical damsel in distress (as do so many women in films when faced with horrific circumstances). Further, the fact Gerry has to go and “fight” (chase after a cure for the pandemic) or his family will be kicked off the military ship can be read as a sly critique of militarism’s failure to result in safety. Iif families can’t be saved by the military and are viewed as a “burden,” as suggested in the film, who exactly is rampant militarism “protecting”?

Another significant woman character, Segen ( Daniella Kertesz), becomes Gerry’s right-hand-woman, even after he amputates her hand after she receives a zombie bite. As if her fearlessness, skill, and stoic determination to survive and aid Gerry in his mission were not enough to make any feminist zombie-film lover ecstatic, she does all of this WITH ONE HAND! The best part? Near the end of the film, when the plan is to try and find a “cure” for the zombie apocalypse by entering a zombie-infested area of the World Health Organization, she is one of three sent on the mission, even though there are men with two hands who could have accompanied Gerry. I applaud the film for not only creating a central female character the book lacks but for insisting that she is the best “man for the job.”

Finally, at the World Health Organization, one of the lead doctors, played by Ruth Negga, keeps her calm and remains optimistic when it looks like all hope is lost. She is the emotional anchor during the gripping close of the film, the person who refuses to give up. And (SPOILER ALERT!) she administers the life-saving shots to Gerry. She is no scientist on the side, as with the character of Carol in Star Trek: Into Darkness, nor are there any gratuitous booty shots. Thank you, WWZ!

As for Pitt in the lead role, various reviews, as here, argue he is too perfect, or, as here, that

He’s every other character played by Robert Redford in the 1970s and ’80s: noble, brave, calm in a crisis, endlessly resourceful, kind to his spouse and children, respectful of authority but not slavishly so, independent-minded but not arrogant; a snooze.

Sad that being brave and kind are seen as such a “snooze.” Alas, such responses are of the kind that give us the overblown, hypermasculine, modern-day-Rambo types. I prefer a hero or heroine that is more Gerry Lane than Tony Stark. Come to think of it, could Gerry be related to Lois Lane (recently played by Amy Adams)? They share the same indefatigable spirit, the same fearlessness, the same lack of arrogance. Yeah, how b-o-r-i-n-g. And, though it’s true that we know from the outset Gerry is going to be the undefeated hero–or, as this reviewer quips, “The first rule of Zombie Fight Club–nothing too bad can happen to Brad Pitt”–isn’t this true of most films with a movie star hero?

While some reviewers argue that straying from the content of the book takes the film “in a conventional direction,” lamenting the fact that the “oral history” component of Brook’s novel is lost, the film is not conventional zombie fare in ways that make it more feminist and thus less conventional.  It does not delight in the killing of zombies; rather it savors what makes humans human–interconnection, empathy, love, the will to live. It does not champion militarism or display deep nostalgia for war (as do Brook’s texts). It does not focus only on male heroes whose main heroism comes from killing but gives us men and women who are heroic because they are willing to face death to save humanity.

While one review claims that “This is a zombie movie for people who don’t normally like zombie movies,” I would argue that this is a zombie movie for people who don’t like movies that are so dang anti-feminist. Yup, this is one for those who love Alice in Resident Evil, who enjoy the political-critique side of Romero, who dig the critique of rape culture and militarism on crack that 28 Days affords. This one is not just for zombie fans or horror fans, but for those who appreciate more than gore, more than schlock, more than chest-pumping nut-up-or-shut-up bravado. In short, it’s for people with B-R-A-I-N-S.

 World War Z photo by HD Wallpapers




  1. You talk a lot about how the movie portrays women in empowering roles–and I won’t deny that it succeeds in doing that. But I take real argument that the book is somehow “not feminist-friendly” in it’s lacking of strong women. How long ago was it that you read the book? In the months coming up the the film’s release I decided to go back and read the novel a second time and I say this with full conviction–there are a lot of empowering women in that novel. Sure, there is no woman president. There is no woman general. But neither are there any women in such high-profile societal roles in the film adaptation. So that hardly counts as “less feminist-friendly”. Both are the same on that count.

    Yet the book has characters like Mary Jo Miller–an average housewife who, in mere seconds, goes from a self-obsessed surburbanite to zombie-killer extraordinaire. And Maria Zhuganova–a member of Russia’s elite military during the war. Jesika Hendricks–she may have been a child during the bulk of the war but every year since it’s end she has tirelessly worked to rid the world of the remaining threat. And most importantly characters like Christina Eliopolis who, following having her plane crash in the zombie-infested Rocky Mountains manages to fight her way alone over many miles surrounded by the enemy to reach a risky extraction point barely on time–all the while working with a shattered ankle.

    Again, the major thing the book lacks is women in important leadership roles which is something Max Brooks definitely should have included. But the movie lacks that distinction as well. So, please, tell me where in the book is it less “feminist-friendly”? All you did was talk about the empowered women in the film while conveniently ignoring the important women included in the novel.

    • I’m actually reading it right now. And out of maybe 30 stories, you’ve named all 5 of the ones that feature women in prominent roles. It’s so incredibly disappointing,

      • Hmmm. So I should be upset that classically Africa was demonized yet again in a white dominanted world? Or that there wasnt a black general or president? Or even better; the great savior of south africa was a white supremisit. Get a grip. The book was neither sexist or racist. As for the movie? Seemed pretty classically gender orientated. Women are in the military and especially in Israel where every citizen above 17 is strongly encouraged into the army this seemed more natural than a play at women’s equality. As for the wife…crying Gerry and obsessively calling his phone didn’t strike me as very strong but hey, at least she didn’t need a slap from some man right?

  2. Brian Mark says:

    Let me start off by saying that the World War Z movie was a big disappointment for me. I had read the book before the movie was even in production, and I loved it. As a fan of George Romero films, I love seeing how people would behave in a zombie-infested world. The book did that perfectly. Speaking of reading the book, you seem to have missed a lot. As the the person above me mentioned, there is no shortage of strong female characters in the book. The book also is not just about killing zombies, seeing as straight up war failed to work at the Battle of Yonkers. Much of the book was devoted to the time countries spent reorganizing to combat the threat, it wasn’t just mindless killing. The movie had great special effects, but that’s the only good thing I can say about it. The characters were weak and the story was filled with holes. I believe you are reading too far into the movie, which doesn’t have as many strong female characters as the book does. That scientist you mentioned was not a strong character, she actually was a scientist-on-the-side. Her ability to stare at a computer screen and hope for the best does not make her a strong character. I do agree that Gerry’s wife was a strong woman, but her only purpose was to provide motivation for Gerry. By the way, the movie never makes it clear why Gerry is so important. It is mentioned that he is a survival expert, but so are the Navy SEALs. This movie was not made for people with brains, as such people would notice all the inconsistencies throughout the movie, such as the time it takes a person to turn (First it’s twelve seconds, then the CIA operative says the longest he saw was ten minutes, yet this is never revisited). This was a terrible movie, and really is not worth seeing. If you want a good zombie movie with strong women in it, watch Romero’s “Day of the Dead”.

  3. Absurd. In the movie the women are all supporting characters for the masculine gunman. In the book women frequently take over as main characters, traveling on their own, entirely self sufficient.

    • I thought that with the exception of Segen the movie painted women terribly. Every huge disaster was the result of a woman. His wife was the quintessential useless supporting character. She needs to be rescued in the grocery store. She wife hangs around being “nonessential” on the boat and has nothing better to do than call him at the least convenient time, putting her husband in danger causing a dozen men to be killed at the Korean base. The woman in Israel can’t help herself and grabs a microphone, causing zombies to spill over the wall because she made too much noise. They are all blameless actions, but this is exactly what movies do to female characters all the time. The male hero must be the one to save the day.

  4. Really? REALLY? Reviewing WWZ from a feminist perspective is like reviewing a Transformers film for its relevance to the Russian peasants’ struggle to survive under the Romanov dynasty. It was a dumb action flick with token females in the usual irrelevant roles allocated to them in low-risk, broad-demographic blockbusters. The wife was present solely to motivate Brad whoever-his-character-was to act, because apparently saving humanity from zombie annihilation isn’t enough to get him out of the house. The Israeli soldier was there solely as a plucky sidekick, and to give the movie a water-cooler moment (“and then HE CUT HER HAND OFF! AWESOME!”). A female character was chosen to show Brad at his nurturing female-protecting best (” He can cut my plague-infested hand off any time!”) And really, ’emotional anchor during the gripping close’? Pitt’s ’emotional anchor’ at the end was a can of Pepsi!
    You’re right: films have come a long way since women were the hysterical ankle-twisters. But WWZ didn’t move the process along one jot. The women (and the men) were scenery, and foils to Pitt’s wintry bearded charm. It’s not feminist-friendly; it’s feminist-neutral. It’s also suspense-neutral, surprise-neutral and pretty-much-everything-else-neutral. Stop looking for patterns in tea leaves.

    • Indeed. Looking at World War Z (the book, in my case) in a “who gets the better roles, men or women?” way … does kind of miss the point that it’s humanity that matters in the end, you’re either human or a zombie. Not a man or a woman. Indeed, part of the whole central ‘rebuilding’ aspect of the book was that previous society roles didn’t matter to the survivors, it was all about how useful you could be in the survival game – to the overall group. Man or woman, didn’t matter.

  5. Who gives a fLying crap,seriously get over yourselves, your all pissed off because the movie doesn’t portay women as gun toting jarheads with machine guns defending themselves from the tyrrany of men and zombies or in positions of power making the decisions that will save the world!! do you get shitty when you see a world war 11 movie or a vietnam war film that doesn’t show women in combat regardless of the fact women didn’t and still don’t serve in combat roles!! why do you get so hot under the collar about this subject, war is an obscenity so WTF are getting jealous about, you will think this sexist but women inherently do not like violence and aggresion and war is the most violent aggressive act of man, why would you want to be a part of that, justs because your not allowed too so you want to! so you can be equal, excuse me but thats bullshit!!!

  6. I think Gerry’s self righteous wife called him way too much while he was out trying to “save the world” she wasn’t appreciative of the fact she is safe on the navy ship……she has to call the man every 5 seconds

  7. I thought this might interest you http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=mI1yYL2D8Tg I disagree with you in many regards particularly in that I think the film was rubbish, but we are in total agreement on the issue of feminism.

  8. I just walked out of the room we were watching the film of this on Netflix, specifically because Gerry’s wife is portrayed as a typical useless woman. The first 30 minutes of the film being made up of screaming girls and his wife being semi-competent at best (the car breaks down briefly when she gets him to pull over and tries to take over the driving because of course it does). When it got to the scene where the plane is about to leave and she can’t help but to call him, I had enough and walked out while she was still fondling the phone.
    I’m all for competent female characters, but I can’t handle female characters that exist simply to be a millstone around the male lead’s neck and mess things up with their endless stupidity. It’s the same reason I didn’t make it through Season 3 of Sons of Anarchy. I’d much rather have no female characters than suffer through cinema and TV where they’re simply useless twats.

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