“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




Natalie Wilson is a literature and women’s studies scholar, blogger, and author. She teaches at Cal State San Marcos and specializes in the areas of gender studies, feminism, feminist theory, girl studies, militarism, body studies, boy culture and masculinity, contemporary literature, and popular culture. She is author of the blogs Professor, what if…? and Seduced by Twilight. She also writes the guest columns Monstrous Musings for the Womanist Musings blog and Pop Goes Feminism at Girl with Pen. She is currently writing a book examining the contemporary vampire craze from a feminist perspective. Dr. Wilson is also part of the collaborative research group that publishes United States Military Violence Against Women and is currently working on an investigative piece on militarized sexual violence perpetuated against civilians. She is a proud feminist parent of two feminist kids and is an admitted pop-culture junkie. Her favorite food is chocolate. Visit her online at NatalieWilsonPhd.