Glenn of the “Walking Dead” is the best response to anti-Asian stereotyping on television

February 19, 2013

 

Steve Yuen portrays Glenn, the charismatic survivor of "The Walking Dead".
Steve Yuen portrays Glenn, the charismatic survivor of “The Walking Dead”.

Spoiler alert: I’m going to be talking about the events of Walking Dead up until Season 3, Episode 10. If you haven’t watched yet and don’t want the plot spoiled, don’t read on.

Hours after his reunion with long-lost brother Merle, Daryl has chosen his brother over his new family of survivors. After escaping from Woodbury with a banished Merle, Rick and Glenn are unwilling to bring him back to the prison; Daryl decides to strike out into the woods with his brother rather than abandon him to the wilderness. Blood, after all, is thicker than water, right?

But, it turns out, that after a year on the road with Rick and the gang, Daryl now shares less in common with his brother Merle than he thought. Upon hearing a baby’s cry in the woods, Daryl rushes to the aid of a Spanish-speaking (presumably Mexican) family about to be overrun by walkers. A flurry of crossbow bolts (as well as the best and most gruesome walker kill of the season thus far) later, and the family is safe although unable to communicate their confusion and gratitude to Daryl. Merle, who reluctantly jumped into the fray with his brother, immediately begins to raid the family’s car for food and supplies (as a “reward”), causing Daryl to threaten him with his crossbow so that the family can leave with their belongings intact.

Over the last few seasons, we've watched Daryl come into his own when outside of his brother's shadow. Following his reunion with Merle, Daryl's decision to confront his brother is pivotal.
Over the last few seasons, we’ve watched Daryl come into his own when outside of his brother’s shadow. Following his reunion with Merle, Daryl’s decision to confront his brother is pivotal.

It is this incident that helps Daryl realize a few things: 1) he is not his brother, and 2) he is innately a hero. A confrontation erupts between Daryl and Merle, and Daryl decides he must return to the prison. Merle, he hopes, will join him (after all, if Rick and company are his family, than they will have to learn to accept Merle, too), but he’s willing to leave Merle in the forest if needs be. Merle protests, arguing that there’s no way in hell that the survivors will accept him — they chopped of his hand, he fought against them as part of the Woodbury militia, he tried to kill Michonne, and he tried to kill “that Chinese kid”.

Which prompts Daryl to retort: “He’s Korean.”

The single exchange symbolized, in my mind, the spectacular characterization of Glenn in The Walking Dead and what his character has done to combat Asian American stereotypes in mainstream media. Glenn is a new class of Asian American character, one that I’m not sure we’ve seen on-screen before.

Unlike previous Asian American characters, Glenn is at once Asian American and incidentally Asian American. Conspicuous among other Asian American characters, Glenn’s racial background does not define or justify his presence. He’s not the computer whiz, the scientist, the intellectual, the geek, the doctor, the technician, or a host of other stereotypical roles typically relegated to the Asian token. Although it is implied that Glenn’s parents were strict, Glenn himself was a pizza boy prior to the zombie apocalypse and assumes the role of forager and fighter — not “medic” or “ninja”, two roles that might be stereotypically Asian yet fulfilled by other members of the group. In short, there’s almost nothing inherently stereotypical about Glenn and his presence in The Walking Dead

More importantly, Glenn’s thematic role in the group of survivors is striking. Glenn has repeatedly been described by many, including by the show’s executive producer Glen Mazzara, as “the heart of the show”. The Walking Dead is a show about losing one’s sanity in the face of insanity, and to tell that story, we witness many of the characters — Rick, Shane, Michonne, Andrea, Merle, and the Governor to name just a few —  descend into madness and barbarism as they slowly lose touch with their own humanity. But, Glenn is unique in this respect: he is intended to inspire the reader because unlike his fellow survivors, he has a strong connection with his own humanity and personal morality. Glenn’s attitude remains among the most recognizably pre-apocalyptic despite his post-apocalyptic zombie-killing environment. Glenn’s innocence and optimism — even in the face of grisly violence — is feel-good and inspiring, and the budding love he feels for Maggie suggests that happiness is still possible even during the apocalypse.

In short, while we as viewers are supposed to be compelled by Rick and his struggles with his personal demons, to root for Michonne and her samurai sword badassery, to be inspired by Daryl and his story of redemption, and to deplore the Governor and his growing sociopathy, we are supposed to identify with Glenn. Says Mazzara:

“Everybody loves that character; everybody’s rooting for that character. He may be tortured and sensitive, but he’s always a hero.”

Think about that for a minute. The Walking Dead is a TV show where the viewer is supposed to feel the closest kinship with Glenn, an Asian-American pizza boy in love with a southern belle.

The budding relationship between Glenn and Maggie has served to emotional ground the show in the face of otherwise incredible immorality and horror.
The budding relationship between Glenn and Maggie has served to emotional ground the show in the face of otherwise incredible immorality and horror.

In a genre that has long cast the Asian American as the villain, the foreigner, and the Other, Glenn stands in stark contrast. He is Asian-American, but his race does not define his membership in the cast. Glenn is an Asian American character, but he’s also an individual — capable of incredible heroism (like when he faced down a walker while tied to a chair, and emerged the victor) and profound emotional ugliness (like the rage he felt that Maggie, but not he, participated in the preliminary assault on Woodbury). He is a leader in the survivor group, assuming the role in Rick and Daryl’s absence, and his romantic relationship with Maggie is a thumbed nose to the stereotype of the desexualized Asian American male.

Television has historically treated its racial minorities much as Merle treats the non-White members of the survivor group: with disdain, irreverence and occasional downright racism. Merle is as dismissive as he is contemptuous of the group of “beaners” that he and Daryl saved in last night’s episode. Striking, then, that Daryl — who in Season 1 was little more than a younger clone of the racist backwater Merle — has spent the last eight months living and fighting alongside Glenn and the other survivors. He has come to see the humanity in Glenn, whom he referred to in Season 1 as “a Chinaman”.

The exchange between Daryl and Merle over Glenn's race in Season 3 Episode 10 hearkens back to a similar exchange between Daryl and Glenn in the first season.
The exchange between Daryl and Merle over Glenn’s race in Season 3 Episode 10 hearkens back to a similar exchange between Daryl and Glenn in the first season.

How far Daryl has come. At the moment of his climatic confrontation with his brother, he chooses to express his rebellion with the simple truth about Glenn: “He’s Korean.” Implicitly: He’s not “that Chinese kid”. He’s not what you assume he is based on the way he looks. It’s important to me that you know that he’s Korean, and it’s important to me that you know that he’s not just Korean.

We’re living during a time when Asian American characters seem more prominent than ever on television today: Lucy Liu as Watson on Elementary, Mindy Kaling on The Mindy Project, Jenna Ushkowitz and Harry Shum Jr on Glee, the bevy of Asian American actors and guest roles on Hawaii Five-O. Yet, while each character is remarkable and stereotype-defying in his or her own way, all remain explicitly racialized characters that fail to stray too far from their respective boxes. Liu and Kaling are both doctors, while Ushkowitz and Shum are specifically characterized (and treated) as the Asian kids at the predominantly White high school. Daniel Dae Kim and Grace Park are powerful and nuanced Asian American characters on Hawaii Five-O, but ironically they (and the many other Asian American guest stars who have appeared on the show) implicitly rationalize their presence by the show’s setting in Hawaii. Kim’s stilted use of pidgin Hawaiian in his early episode portrayals of Chin-Ho Kelly was a source of some specific chagrin in the blogosphere.

By contrast, it’s the quiet strength of Glenn that rings as the truest, most sincere portrayal of what it means to be Asian American on television today. Glenn is Korean, true, but he’s so much more than that: he’s a forager, a survivor, a hero and, above all, just a person. And it is that person — with all of his strengths and failings — whom Daryl through his time on the road with the survivors has had a chance to get to know, and to come to see, not as a “Chinaman”, but as family.

And that’s something television should aspire to do with all its Asian American characters.

Update: You Offend Me You Offend My Family makes a similar argument in favour of Glenn: Why Glenn on ‘The Walking Dead’ is the Most Interesting Asian Male Character on American Television

Did you like this content? Please consider becoming a patron of Reappropriate and get exclusive access to the brand new Reappropriate vlog!

  • Adonis

    Comment edited by Jenn to eliminate ad hominem attacks. @Adonis – Wow, you’re still here?

  • Adonis

    Yes

    Sincerly,
    Your #1 fan

  • Perhaps this time you can take the time to read and understand the comment policy of this blog.

    http://reappropriate.co/?page_id=486

  • That will be my last word here as that meme says everything about this blog.

    P.S. the fact that you remembered that i commented on this blog (when i cant even remember i commented) shows that you probably never get comments worth remembering. You’re welcome.

  • Surprisingly, your last comment is the only comment that can make it through the comment policy unscathed. Congratulations.

    Also, yes I remember you, Adonis. I have to personally moderate all of the trolls I get on my blog. Your efforts are nothing special; they are only remarkable in your determination to make it through my spam filters. You’ve posted so frequently and using so many permutations of your username and IP address that I must clearly be making some sort of an impact on you for you to be so determined to troll my site. I mean seriously, mad props to you for your tenacity.

    I certainly don’t have the time or energy to spend trying to annoy a total Internet stranger on their personal website for something they wrote last year, nor would I be particularly entertained by it after so long. But hey, whatever floats your boat.

    “when i cant even remember i commented” — Adonis

    Right. Which is why you’re still referencing the stuff that you wrote in your original comments to that post. Got it.

  • Keith

    With a username like Adonis you must have a very active social life as displayed by your constant harassment of site owner.

    @Jenn I really don’t get your taste in comics sometimes, but I can respect your take on the Walking Dead as it relates to the t.v. adaption of the original comic book material.

  • Pingback: “Lean In” and reflect | Myth Lab()

  • red pill

    i see theres too many k0rean producers involved.

  • Pingback: So, Let’s Talk about that “The Walking Dead” Episode that Broke the Internet | Reappropriate()

  • Pingback: Glenn of The Walking Dead is the Best Response to Anti-Asian Stereotyping | thenerdsofcolor()

Comment Policy

Before posting, please review the following guidelines:

  • No ad hominem attacks: A person's identity, personal history, or background is not up for debate. Talk about ideas, not people.
  • Be courteous: Respect everyone else in this space.
  • Present evidence: This space endeavours to encourage academic and rational debate around identity politics. Do your best to build an argument backed not just with your own ideas, but also with science.
  • Don't be pedantic: Listen to those debating you not just for places to attack, but also where you might learn and even change your own opinion. Repeatedly arguing the same point irrespective of presented counterfacts will now be considered a violation of this site's comment policy.
  • Respect the humanity of all groups: To elevate the quality of debate, this site will no longer tolerate (racial, cultural, gender, etc.) supremacist or inferiority lines of argumentation. There are other places on the internet where nationalist arguments can be expressed; this blog is not those places.
  • Don't be an asshole: If you think your behaviour would get you punched in the face outside of the internets, don't say it on the internets.
  • Don't abuse Disqus features: Don't upvote your own comments. Don't flag other people's comments without reasonable cause. Basically, don't try to game the system. You are not being slick.

Is your comment not approved, unpublished, or deleted? Here are some common reasons why:

  • Did you sign in? You are required to register an account with Disqus or one of your social media accounts in order to comment.
  • Did your comment get caught in the spam filter? Disqus is set to automatically detect and filter out spam comments. Sometimes, its algorithm gets over-zealous, particularly if you post multiple comments in rapid succession, if your comment contains keywords often associated with spam, and/or if your comment contains multiple links. If your comment has been erroneously caught in the spam filter, contact me and I will retrieve it.
  • Did a comment get flagged? Comments will be default be published but flagged comments will be temporarily removed from view until they are reviewed by me.
  • Did you not play nice? You may have gotten banned and a bunch of your comments may have been therefore deleted. Sorry.

I monitor all comment threads, and try to address comments requiring moderation within 24-48 hours. Comments that violate this comment policy may receive a warning and removal of offensive content; overt or repeat violations are subject to deletion and/or banning of comment authors without warning.

I reserve final decision over how this comment policy will be enforced.

Summary:

Play nice and don't be a jerk, and you'll do just fine.