Glenn of The Walking Dead is the Best Response to Anti-Asian Stereotyping

In honour of The Walking Dead‘s upcoming season 4 premiere this Sunday on AMC, I am re-posting this post, which originally appeared on Reappropriate in February 2013.

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.

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 [former] 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.

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 the season 3 episode “Home.” 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.

How far Daryl has come such that, at the moment of the climatic confrontation of 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-0. 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-0, but ironically they (and the many other Asian American guest stars who have appeared on the show) implicitly rationalize their appearance because the show is set 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

Update (October 2013): So, this happened.


26 thoughts on “Glenn of The Walking Dead is the Best Response to Anti-Asian Stereotyping

  1. The fuckin asian kid needs to fuckin dietoo much of the story line has him speaking I hate his voice and his face he’s the most dUllest character on TV worst actor playing the part as well I wish you would f****** die a slow zombie death ready

    1. Well assuming they stick to the comics glenn does die. In a very violent way.But it is a good ways off.

    2. White dude jealous that asian american men are being properly represented LOL. sad.

    3. Man you are stupid, you see its the people like you in this world who makes the world fucked up. Do as a favor keep your comments to yourself and go fuck yourself

  2. Glenn is the worst character on the show. The funny thing is that he could totally be “not asian”. He’s just the “pizza delivery guy”, that kind of useless character to make people feel atached to someone who isn’t particulary interesting – everybody identifies with this. The only thing he has in the show is the relationship with Maggie (and now she’s just the pizza delivery guy girlfriend). They’re young and they have sex, that’s all. Glenn is the kind of character this show doesn’t need.

    1. Except that he is almost key to every heist mission to the group. I fail to see your reasoning. You just seem mad that he’s asian. If he was some other white hunk you would not be saying this. Be more mad, it’s 2014 and not everyone’s white in America.

    2. “Just the pizza delivery guy” Oh, okay. And Daryl is “just some dirty, stupid backwoods hick”. Carol is “just some previously abused housewife”. Glenn is the man who brings that bit of human caring to the show that a lot of the others are losing. Rick needs someone to bring him down when he starts to lose it.

  3. Personally I think Glenn isn’t dead. Because If you watch the scene back you can clearly see that Nicholas fall on top of Glenn so the Walkers are ripping up Nicholas not Glenn. Also I don’t think anybody has a chest that high up. Although people may argue with me that he was screaming/shouting and that’s what anyone would do if you were being ripped open but I don’t know about you but I would be screaming/shouting if someone on top of me was being ripped open. So my point is it could go either way, Glenn isn’t dead and he was screaming/shouting because someone on top of him was being ripped open or Glenn is dead and we found out that Glenn has a really high chest and was screaming/shouting because his really high chest was being ripped open. However, if Glenn is alive many people will be wondering how he gets out I think he is going to cut a Walker open then put the guts over him (like he did in season 1) to disguise his self as a Walker. Then slowly make his way back to Alexandria. Or he could pull himself underneath the bin and leave the Walkers to feast on Nicholas’ body. *-*COMIC SPOILER BEGINNING*-* But I think many comic readers will be disappointed on the way Glenn dies (If he is dead) because of the way he dies in the comic which is by being hit around the head with a baseball bat (that has nails sticking out of it) by Negan. *-*COMIC SPOILER OVER*-*. Anyway if Glenn is dead I wonder how Maggie would react/feel because she has lost Beth, Hershel, Her Mum, Her Step-Mum, Jimmy and many more people close to her. Many members of Alexandra and Rick’s Group will be devastated due to the death of Glenn. Please don’t let Glenn Rhee be dead if so, I will riot. But this mystery will soon be solved because of what Scott Gimple had said “In some way, we will see Glenn, some version of Glenn, or parts of Glenn again, either in flashback or in the current story, to help complete the story.” Let’s all hope we see him alive in the current story.

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