“Allegory does not reinforce reality. It obscures it,” Hugo Award-winning science fiction novelist N.K. Jemisin wrote in a recent Twitter thread. Her point in the thread is that science fiction writers have often invested in allegories about racism and oppression. Mutants are persecuted in fiction just like black people or gay people are persecuted in real life; aliens colonize Earth like the UK colonized other countries. Yet, Jemisin says, there are still few characters of color and fewer writers of color in the genre, while on the big screen, mild calls for greater inclusivity are met with backlash and outrage.
People who want to confront bigotry and hatred need to be direct, Jemisin concludes. They should be writing “prominent characters who are members of marginalized groups, describing realistic examples of bigotry, and calling it bigotry when it appears.”
That’s part of what’s so exceptional about about Netflix’s ongoing fantasy-horror series Santa Clarita Diet, which recently released its third season. The description “zombie sitcom” doesn’t suggest hard-hitting social commentary. But the series is unusually forthright in its politics, and while it does use analogies, it sinks its teeth into real-life bigotry as well.
The series focuses on realtor Sheila Hammond (Drew Barrymore), who abruptly discovers she’s a zombie who needs to feed on human flesh to survive. She and husband Joel (Timothy Olyphant) spend the rest of the series grappling with the implications for their marriage. Pro: Sheila’s sex drive has increased mightily. Con: she keeps murdering the neighbors.
Since George Romero invented the modern genre in 1968’s Night of the Living Dead, zombies have been analogies for outcasts and marginalized people. That’s the case on Santa Clarita Diet, too. In season 3, Sheila gets angry when people refer to her as a zombie, which she thinks is insensitive. And she gets angry when she thinks Joel finds her diet, and her not-quite-living body, disgusting and gross. The prejudice she faces could be read as an allegory for LGBT life, or living with a disability, or as a minority. “Anytime you’re telling a story about monsterhood, you’re playing around with ideas about otherness and alienation,” actor Liv Hewson, who plays the Hammonds’ daughter Abby, explained in an interview.
But using metaphors to address bigotry can be inherently demeaning. Given that LGBT people aren’t flesh-eating murderers, drawing lines between those groups can seem condescending or offensive. And, as Jemisin suggests, viewers who find ways to sympathize with fictional undead people, and accept that it’s wrong to discriminate against them, won’t necessarily translate that empathy to real classes of people.
But Santa Clarita Diet has buttressed its allegory with open politics. The show includes a number of LGBT characters: the Hammonds’ neighbor, Lisa (Mary Elizabeth Ellis) is bisexual, and dating Anne, a sheriff’s deputy who thinks Sheila is on a mission from God. It also includes LGBT actors. Natalie Morales, who plays Anne, is queer; Drew Barrymore is bisexual herself; and Liv Hewson is nonbinary. Having queer representation in front of and behind the camera helps make the analogy less presumptuous. (There are a number of secondary characters of color, including Anne, but the show could undoubtedly do better on that front.)
Santa Clarita Diet also confronts bigotry, though, by outright making real-life bigots its villains, and its prey.
Co-executive producer Tracy Katsky Boomer told The Verge that the show creators weren’t necessarily focused directly on talking about real-world prejudice or discrimination. But, she says, “Sheila has to find people to kill and eat, which gives us lots of opportunities to discuss what makes a bad/good person.” Showrunner Victor Fresco noted in a Buzzfeed interview last year that Sheila and Joel were looking for “a young, single Hitler” — someone nobody would miss.
At first, Fresco says, this was just “an interesting philosophical argument.” But in season 2, the Hammonds did actually encounter Nazis. The Nazis make horrible, bigoted comments about Jews and people of color, as Nazis will. Then Sheila tears out their throats and eats them.
In season 3, Fresco’s team moves on from Nazis to men’s rights activists. They find a man who hates women and boasts about tormenting his ex-wife and stealing her cat. He mocks Sheila, not because she’s a zombie, but because she’s a woman. Bigotry against zombies isn’t real, but bigotry against women is, and Santa Clarita Diet isn’t afraid to temporarily set the first aside to talk about the second. The guy sees women as disgusting. He mocks their weird bodies and their eating habits. He sees their needs as alien and monstrous. That’s not an allegory — it’s a form of misogyny that’s increasingly familiar online. The fantasy isn’t the bigotry. It’s that someone gets to tear the bigot apart.
While Joel and Sheila are usually the ones smiting smug jerks, the show also manages to question the couple’s own prejudices on occasion. Gary, a zombie severed head, lives in the Hammonds’ basement and helps them set up their own realty business. At first, they take his help for granted — what else does a severed head have going on in its life, anyway?
But Gary eventually demands better conditions, more appreciation, assurances about his future with the company, and more money for his niece. He’s disabled, but he insists, he still deserves respectful treatment and fair compensation. As Boomer told me, “Everyone should get fair pay! Everyone wants to at least have a sense of their future. Even an undead severed head living in a vase.”
In Gary’s case, the zombie analogy lumbered into real issues of discrimination almost by accident. Treating zombie Gary as human means treating zombie heads as human. And that speaks fairly directly to the humanity of people who have lost the use of part, or all, of their bodies.
Santa Clarita Diet opposes bigotry in part because the creators care about their characters, and see humanity even in zombies. But it also, and perhaps more importantly, takes a clear stand against prejudice because it says, repeatedly, that prejudice is wrong — and not just when it’s directed against the undead. Hatred, like zombies, can be hard to kill. If you’re going to confront it, you need to go directly for the head, or it will come back to bite you.