Thursday, December 9, 2010

Night of the Living Dead (1968): In defense of Barbara

Judith O'Dea as Barbara in George Romero's Night of the Living Dead

Never let it be said that I am less than chivalrous. I am stepping in to defend the honor of a lady -- namely the character of Barbara in George Romero's original 1968 Night of the Living Dead, as portrayed so brilliantly by Judith O'Dea. First, here's a quote from Danny Peary's classic 1981 book, Cult Movies which puts her character nicely into perspective:
"Barbara [is] one of the few movie heroines who is not required by cinematic convention to get over the loss of a loved one in five minutes of screen time."

Let us dwell upon a certain ugly truth about human nature: some people are just no damned good in a crisis. They panic. They shut down. They freak out. And I'm not just talking about in horror movies. I'm talking everyday life. I know because I'm terrible in crises. I panic easily and am quick to freak out even in relatively mild situations. I have not once had a successful public speaking experience, and the trauma I suffered during all-school spelling bees could keep a therapist employed for years. If shit ever gets real -- i.e. tornado, fire, flood, hurricane, earthquake -- I will be of no use to you whatsoever.

That's essentially Barbara's situation in Night of the Living Dead. Shit gets real, and she shuts down. Not because she's a woman. Not because it's 1968. It's just human nature -- specifically her human nature. Movie characters don't know that they're characters. They don't know they're being watched by us (the audience), so they don't give a damn about being our role models. Barbara doesn't stop to say to herself, "Hey, if my life is ever made into a movie, women in the crucial 18-49 age demographic wouldn't find it very empowering if I lost my cool right now. For their sake, I'd better get my act together." That would be bullshit. But I think we're so used to pandering, false encouragement from our entertainment that we can't quite process it when Barbara freaks out. I don't know how it happened, but somehow over the years we've expected movie characters to be not only our role models but our imaginary friends and idealized surrogates as well.

Female characters are especially tricky because they operate under what's called the "burden of representation." Let's face it -- most characters in American movies are straight, white, and male. For that reason, you can pretty much depict straight, white males any way you want. Positive, negative, whatever. Your choice. But for anyone other than that, there's the unspoken assumption that any female or minority character is a representative of his or her entire demographic. If Romero depicts Barbara freaking out, therefore, it's taken as a slander against all women. No wonder so many female characters get what I call the "female Rambo upgrade" in sequels. It happened to Ripley in the Alien franchise. It happened to Sarah Connor. It even happened to Princess Leia. And I'll argue that if you trace the progression of female heroines from Night of the Dead to Dawn of the Dead and finally Day of the Dead, you can see that they get progressively "stronger" -- which essentially means more masculine. Even Barbara herself got the "female Rambo upgrade" in the 1990 remake of Night of the Living Dead.

What makes all this necessary is the under-representation of women in film. There are (by far) fewer women than men in movies, so leading female characters especially have to try that much harder to be positive role models. This is a shame, in my opinion. I look forward to a day when characters of both genders are allowed to be themselves, to be human, empowerment be damned.

By the way, to illustrate how badly women are underused in film, I want you to look through your DVD collection and see how many of your favorite movies pass the Bechdel Test, named for cartoonist Alison Bechdel. Here are the criteria:

  1. Does the movie contain at least two women?
  2. Do these women talk to each other?
  3. Do they talk about something other than a man?

I don't know how well your movies did. Mine didn't do so hot.

Either way, here's the original Bechdel Test. Note the reference to Alien.


  1. EXCELLENT point! I've never found Barbra offensive as a women. I think she's just, as you say, one example of how someone might act in that kind of crisis. It bothers me on the flip side that Romero now INSISTS on filling every one of his later films (Day, SUrvival, Land) with a ridiculously go get 'em heroine who feels more like a symbol/apology than actual character.

  2. Thanks, Emily! I recognized a lot of Barbara's behavior patterns because, frankly, they're my own. There's one moment in particular when Ben tells Barbara to go get pieces of wood that he can use to close off the doors and windows. Barbara returns, having only collected small pieces of wood which would be totally useless to Ben, and we see her sheepishly hiding them -- like a kid who doesn't want his homework to be graded because he did it on the bus on the way to school. It's a subtle moment, but it's devastating because it feels true to life. I think I know how Barbara felt at that moment because it's probably a lot like the way _I_ felt every time my dad asked me to help out with some project around the house when I was a kid. I could go on and on about Barbara and how Romero carefully and thoughtfully sets up her character right from the first line of dialogue (her complaint about the time change), but I suspect I'd be preaching to the choir.