How AMC’s Fear the Walking Dead Reinforces U.S. Cultural Hegemony

1280px-flag_of_the_north_american_free_trade_agreement_standard_version-svgCultural Policy Series, Part 5 of 5

AMC’s Fear the Walking Dead is a product of the shifting economic and cultural landscape in Mexico, with production carried out in Mexican studios, casting of Spanish-speaking actors in lead roles, and exploration of Mexican cultural issues in a television series created by a U.S. organization and for a U.S. audience. Although the series—whether consciously or unconsciously—has broken new ground in the television industry, in its stereotyping of Mexican characters and cultural issues, Fear the Walking Dead has proven to be the product of a dominant U.S. media industry leveraging its free access to the Mexican market for its own gain. As one example of U.S. cultural dominance in relation to Mexico, the series underlines the need for re-evaluation of Mexican policy to both protect and promote Mexican cultural symbols and values.

In “Public priorities and research on cultural diversity and television in Mexico” (2006), Jose-Carlos Lozano notes that “mass media (radio, television, and film, in particular) have become the arena where cultural supply is structured and where cultural identities are depicted and shaped.” As a result, mass media is responsible for creating, distributing, and promoting cultural symbols and values. Fear the Walking Dead is an interesting example of how a U.S. television series creates, distributes, and promotes symbols and values for American viewers in a Latin American context—and whether such a production can be successful in its blending of two worlds. In “Cultural policy in a free-trade environment: Mexican television in transition,” Kenton Wilkinson (2006) notes that Mexico’s Federal Radio and Television Law—designed to protect and promote Mexican culture and values in these media—is often violated and rarely enforced. For example, article 73 of the legislation “mandates the promotion of Mexican artistic values and stipulates that a majority of Mexican nationals appear in programming.” For a U.S. program to not only be produced in Mexico—it is one of only two U.S. series to do so, the first being Tremors (2003)—and inadvertently address this mandate, at least in part, is unique.

Fear the Walking Dead also airs in Mexico via AMC Latin America, which is available by pay TV broadcast from telecom organizations like Izzi. This is not unusual in that U.S. television programming has a strong presence in Mexico—a study from the 1990s, for example, revealed that even then 48% of programming was imported during prime time, of which 70% was from the U.S.—and Mexican telecom providers have entered into direct partnerships with U.S. networks. As of 2014, the U.S. represents 82.2% of the entire broadcasting and cable television market in the Americas, while Mexico, despite continuing to see growth in this sector, represents 2.8% (“Broadcasting and Cable TV in Mexico” 2015).

Fear_The_Walking_Dead_title_cardWhat is different is the series’ production location, casting of Spanish-speaking actors, and exploration of Mexican cultural issues in a U.S. series that is also aired in Mexico. In “How shooting in Mexico is making Fear the Walking Dead a better TV show” (2016), Tom VanDerWerff suggests that Mexico has “never before served as host to an American television show, at least to this degree.”  Producers have typically looked to Vancouver, British Columbia, as a cost-effective and experienced production center. Fear the Walking Dead films at Baja Film Studios in Rosarito, Baja California, and relatively close regional locations, including Tijuana. The studios have been used previously—for Tremors, as noted, as well as several film productions—and were originally built for James Cameron’s film Titanic (1997). Television and film production at the studios has increased in recent years as fears regarding drug-related crime and security in the region have lessened. For Fear the Walking Dead producers and viewers, filming in Mexico has provided the location and atmosphere needed to differentiate it from its parent series, The Walking Dead, and other similar series. Co-creator Dave Erickson has said of the location, “‘The benefit we have is just by geographically being further away and in a different locale…I’m also intrigued by the idea of the show becoming progressively more bilingual.”

This bilingual element—much of the dialog between Mexican characters occurs in Spanish with English subtitles and sometimes no subtitles if the meaning is implied or the words are being translated by an actor as part of the dialogue—highlights the show’s attempts at honouring and exploring Mexican culture in the series’ production. Efforts have been made to cast Spanish-speaking actors, although Patricia Reyes Spindola, who plays Griselda Salazar, is the only Mexican national. Ruben Blades (Daniel Salazer) is Panamanian, Elizabeth Rodriguez (Liza Ortiz) and Paul Calderon (Alejandro Nunez) are Puerto Rican, and Danay Garcia (Luciana) is Cuban, and all play key roles in the series.

Daniel’s story is one of the most interesting, as we track his haunting by the deaths he caused as a torturer during the civil war in El Salvador at the same time he is fleeing the living dead with the rest of the cast. Significant themes from the series are also intertwined with Daniel’s story, in particular fear, madness, family, and obligation. From the moment Daniel and his family are introduced in Season 2, he is depicted as insular and suspicious, yet with a fierce commitment to the protection of his family and love for his wife and daughter. In Episode 4, we start to learn more of his background and the story is one that is almost archetypal in Latin American history (though not exclusive to Latin America): a young boy, who is a victim himself, forced to violence in a country gone mad. After the government comes to Daniel’s village and takes men and women away, he describes what his father said to him that day and what he learned:

[He said], ‘Don’t worry, they always come home.’ And they did. I was standing in the river, fishing, just a boy, and I found them. All of them. All at once. All around me in the water. My father told me not to have that in my head. He said that men do these things not because of you, they do evil because of fear. And at that moment I realized my father was a fool for believing there was a difference.

Daniel’s wife dies in the following episode, far away from her husband and daughter, and we learn that she knew of Daniel’s past and loved him anyway. In a powerful monologue delivered entirely in Spanish, almost a kind of death chant in part to Daniel and to God, Griselda recounts her past and her choices: “All those nights, my husband and I together, waiting for them to break down the door. The faces of the disappeared, waiting to curse us…I loved who I loved…Now I know your nature. Now you know mine” (Episode 5).

By the Season 2 mid-season finale, the story comes to a tragic end. Daniel becomes increasingly obsessed with the ghosts of his past and believes the land on which they are staying—a vineyard in Mexico in which he and the other characters have sought refuge—is unholy and infected by the dead. The vineyard leader has, in fact, kept the living dead in the wine cellar because she believes they are holy and deserving of respect. Daniel is eventually “reunited” with Griselda—whether hallucination or ghost—who incites him to burn the dead along with the victims from his past. “No, my love…the first victim was you,” she tells Daniel before he burns the vineyard and the walking dead to the ground (Episode 7).

This storyline from Fear the Walking Dead is an example of how the series’ creators and writers have attempted to incorporate culturally-specific issues into the series plot. Mexican-specific examples also abound, such as Luciana’s reference to real-world conditions in Tijuana—“We have fared better here than out in the world. Better than we fared even before this all started. For most of us, this is the first time we have a place, a family” (Episode 14)—and the menace the drug-gangs play in the post-apocalyptic nation (not much different than the real-world, it turns out, except now there is no law at all to hold back the violence).

Unfortunately, these efforts are often overshadowed by the stereotyping of Mexican culture that occurs throughout Season 2. Luciana, for example, belongs to a death cult that lives among and honours the walking dead, believing that they are the “chosen ones” and “the children of the resurrection” (Episode 9). This kind of mysticism, while arguably plausible given the context of the series, recalls the depiction of Mexico in early U.S. film. As Christopher Fraying suggests, “Mexico simply provided colourful exteriors…and a fashionably ‘Third World’ atmosphere” (qtd. in Stephanie Fuller 2013). The ‘Third World’ Mexicans have reverted to a primitive kind of spirituality of which Nick, one of the main American characters, is initially enamoured with but ultimately rejects.

To be fair, Fear the Walking Dead does not present all of the American characters in a superior light. Two refugees taken in during the season finale object to staying near the Mexicans—“Mexcrement” and “border bandits” are two of the slurs bandied about (Episode 15)—and are frowned upon by the main characters, but tolerated until they are revealed to be murderers. Even the main characters are not immune to creating a divide, albeit mild in comparison, between us (the Americans) and them (the Mexicans), as when Alicia says, “They cook everything here in lard. It’s pretty delicious” (Episode 14). There is a recurring feeling that the American characters are simply tourists in Mexico during the zombie apocalypse, and the characters seeking shelter in a Mexican beach hotel for a significant part of Season 2 further reinforces this concept.

The conclusion of Season 2 does not offer much hope of a further or deeper exploration of Mexican culture. The season ends with Nick leading the remaining members of the death cult from Tijuana across the border into the U.S., where they are shot at by what appears to be the U.S. army or American militia (revealed in Season 3 to be a members of a survivalist group carrying out experiments at a satellite location). Producer Dave Erickson has said, “I’ve always wanted to do a border story”—and there was certainly a great sadness and inevitability at seeing a close-knit Mexican community of men, women, and children gunned down at the border by what appeared to be U.S. soldiers—the exploration of these issues is short-lived and limited primarily to the perspective of the American characters. In fact, only two of the original lead Spanish-speaking cast members remain alive at the end of the Season 2. While Season 3 also resurrects Daniel and revisits how his past continues to haunt the present, the focus of the season shifts to land conflict between the survivalists and local Native Americans.

So, while Fear the Walking Dead has made history in its choice to produce in Mexico with Spanish-speaking actors and to explore Mexican cultural issues, it ultimately falls flat and tends to reinforce the hegemony of U.S. cultural symbols and values. As one example of how the U.S. continues to dominate the media relationship with Mexico, Fear the Walking Dead, demonstrates that more work must be done if Mexico wants to maintain its cultural strength and manage the depiction of its culture in U.S. media products. With the duopoly in the Mexican audiovisual industry and the dominant flow of U.S. cultural symbols and values into Mexico, it is clear that there is a risk to the vitality and sustainability of Mexico’s indigenous cultural industries. While there may be some economic gains from the free trade agreement with the U.S., the Mexican government should consider new policies to better safeguard its culture in the future.

See also: Cultural Protectionism in Canada (Part 1), Canadian Culture: New Policies and Approaches (Part 2), Internet Streaming and Canadian Content (Part 3), Cultural Policy in Mexico: NAFTA and Beyond (Part 4)

References

Broadcasting and Cable TV in Mexico.” June 2015. MarketLine Industry Profile. Web. 3 Sept. 2016.

Fuller, Stephanie. “‘Filmed Entirely In Mexico’: Vera Cruz (1954) and the Politics of Mexico in American Cinema.” 2013. Journal of Popular Film and Television, 41(1), 20-30. Web. 3 Sept. 2016.

Kirkman, Robert and Dave Erickson, creators. Fear the Walking Dead. Circle of Confusion, Skybound, Valhalla Entertainment and AMC Studios, 2015-2016.

Lozano, Jose-Carlos. “Public policies and research on cultural diversity and television in Mexico.” Sept. 2006. Journal of Broadcasting & Electronic Media, 467-481. Web. 3 Sept. 2016.

VanDerWerff, Tom. “How shooting in Mexico is making Fear the Walking Dead a better TV show.” 29 August 2016. Vox.com. Web. 3 Sept. 2016.

Wilkinson, Kenton T. “Cultural policy in a free-trade environment: Mexican television in transition.” September 2006. Journal of Broadcasting & Electronic Media: 482-501. Web. 3 Sept. 2016.

 

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