cupidsbow (cupidsbow) wrote,

Teen Wolf meta - Why is Derek an anti-hero?

As I've mentioned in several of my other posts about Teen Wolf, I'm fascinated and bemused by two elements of Teen Wolf: Scott's role as hero, and Derek's role as anti-hero. I was chatting with [personal profile] hope recently, and she called it the Scott Paradox, which is kind of perfect.

It boils down to this: I just don't understand why the show continually positions Derek as a villainous character, and yet lauds far worse behaviour in Scott.

In a situation like this, there are two likely explanations. The first is that the text is fundamentally flawed, and the authors don't know what they are doing. Let's discard that one, as I don't believe it's true. Which leaves the second likely reason: that there is some cultural ideology underpinning the text which is obvious to its intended audience, but not to people from another culture.

This second reason makes a lot of sense to me, and I have a pet theory about what that ideology is, and how it's working in the text. Beneath the cut, I'm going to talk about it, so fair warning:
  • As I'm making an educated guess about the connotative meaning of a text designed for people in a differing reading position, I may inadvertently say something which is offensive to North Americans. If I do, my apologies, and you are welcome to let me know.
  • There will be spoilers for both seasons.

How the text positions us

I'd like to begin with two examples of what I mean when I say that Derek is positioned as a villain, often despite of, not because of, his actions.

  1. This first example is canon-focused. On two separate occasions in season 1, Derek goes out of his way to make sure that Allison Argent is safe from Scott's out-of-control wolf. This is painted as creepy and sinister on the first full moon, because Derek is being set up as a bait-and-switch device -- we're meant to think he's the bad guy who bit Scott and is killing people.

    On the second full moon, when Allison and Jackson are sharing theories in the car, Derek is still given no credit for this save; it's positioned as all about Scott's angst at being a Teen Wolf.

    The only reason Allison was in danger in both of these situations is because Scott didn't take the advice of both Stiles and Derek. These two saves happen before we textually know about Derek's history with Kate Argent, but when viewed with hindsight, they are even more extraordinary.

  2. And now for a fanon-focused example, which shows how fans have picked up on this positioning of Derek and continue it, even in the face of strong counter-evidence.

    Derek bashes Stiles' head against the steering wheel of his car. There are many, many fics out there -- I've lost count of how many I've read -- in which Derek ends up seeing the error of his violent ways and apologising for this act.

    What's interesting about this example is that the context of this scene is rarely explored in fic. Here's the causal chain:
    • Stiles says, "You should trust me and Scott."
    • Derek breaks into Stiles' house to demand his help
    • Stiles asserts his dominance ("My house, my rules"), and Derek submits
    • Stiles pimps Derek's sexuality out to Danny, even though Derek clearly doesn't want to do so
    • Once outside Stiles' house (when Derek is no longer bound by Stiles' rules), Derek whacks Stiles (causing no visible damage) and says, "You know why."

    In contrast to all the fics about Derek's violence, I think I've read maybe two fics in which there's any acknowledgement that Stiles stepped over a sexual consent line.

    Again, this happens before we're aware of the backstory with Kate, but in hindsight we know that Derek has been exploited sexually, that it had terrible consequences for him, and in a later episode he is canonically sexually assaulted.

    Let's agree that Derek's violence against Stiles was problematic. Surely, however, Stiles exploitation of Derek's sexuality, when Stiles was in a position of power over him, is equally problematic?

    To me, this smacks of the easy dismissal of sexual assault that's common in rape culture, which I find far more problematic than Derek's whack. That said, I can understand why this element is commonly ignored in fic: Derek's personhood is elided from the text, over and over -- we don't know he's a survivor of sexual exploitation and/or abuse until two episodes later. We're given no context for why Derek reacts like this -- it just seems to be a random over-reaction to a fairly mild and useful bit of chicanery on Stiles' part.

In short, as these examples show (and there are many more of them) the text doesn't take Derek's side, and it positions us not to either. In season 1 this was largely part of the bait-and-switch plot thread, so that we'd think Derek was the villain. But it carried on in season 2, using similar kinds of techniques.

In contrast, Scott makes much stupider decisions, with far worse outcomes, and the text continues to take his side, and position us to do so too. For example, the kanima. Protecting Jackson from the pack once it's clear he's the kanima, without actually successfully helping him or stopping him some other way, means that Scott, Stiles and Allison become a key part of the causal chain in all the following deaths. No, they didn't cause those deaths; yes, they bear some ethical responsibility for them. However, the text seems to endorse the idea that Scott is ethical and heroic for wanting to save Jackson, despite the consequences -- it gives space to his reasons, hopes, and reactions.

Derek? Does not share this particular slice of responsibility for the kanima's murders. But we also don't find out much else about what he thinks -- how does he feel, knowing his bite did this to Jackson?

This isn't to say Derek is all sunshine and flowers. His plan to find the kanima and kill it was flawed and unethical, especially given Derek's bite caused Jackson's change. Derek had a responsibility to act, yes, but going straight to killing was a poor choice. However, if he'd been successful in his chosen course, many fewer people would have died.

Both Scott and Derek chose poorly, but Scott's decision resulted in a massacre. The text, however, focuses on Scott's positives and Derek's negatives.

Nowhere is this clearer than in the finale of season 2, in which Scott forced Derek to bite Gerard Argent, once again taking away Derek's agency, and resulting in him once again losing something he valued to an Argent.

My reading of this scene -- with Scott's secret plan working, and Derek rejected and on his knees -- is that we are meant to read Scott as a hero, and Derek as having received his just desserts.

As is probably clear to you by now, I'm not convinced that Scott deserves any praise for this. His plan has a creepiness factor worthy of an Argent, and I find it unethical, hypocritical and generally reprehensible.

This is the Scott Paradox.

Why is Scott the hero and Derek the anti-hero?

Having discussed the ways in which I find the text skewed in favour of Scott, usually at the expense of Derek, I'd now like to talk about what I think is hidden under the surface and driving this particular narrative.

At first I was really puzzled -- I just could not find the common threads of an underpinning ideology which would explain Scott's heroic position in the text. So then I started making lists, and as Derek seemed to suffer most for Scott's heroism, I focused on comparing and contrasting them.



  • Male
  • Teen
  • Attractive
  • At high school
  • Not white?
  • Single parent family
  • Lives in a house
  • Has a best friend
  • Wants to succeed at team sport
  • Doesn't care about grades
  • Has a girlfriend
  • Sexually active
  • Has a job
  • Rides a bike
  • Expects people to help him
  • Doesn't take advice
  • Male
  • Twenties?
  • Attractive
  • Education unknown
  • Not white?
  • One insane, murderous uncle
  • Homeless
  • Has a pack
  • Trains by himself / with pack
  • Doesn't care about education?
  • Has a stalker
  • Is sexually assaulted
  • Is unemployed
  • Drives a classic car
  • Expects people to hurt him
  • Asks for help

Once I'd put this list together, a few things jumped out at me:

Scott is on an upward path economically and socially. He's still at school and being encouraged by many people to do well (the coach, his mother, Stiles). He has a job. He lives in a nice house with a normal nuclear family set-up (interesting that solo-parenthood is now normalised). His girlfriend is from a wealthy family, and they are sexually active.

Derek is on a downward path economically and socially. He is separate from the capitalist mainstream, and no-one cares. He's unemployed. He's homeless, and tries to establish a non-nuclear-family lifestyle with a pack of non-related people. His sexuality is suspect (interestingly, not in the usual way of him being coded gay, but with him being coded as submissive to a woman).

My conclusions:

Scott is a capitalist.

Derek is a communist.

I don't mean this literally; I mean, these are the ideological positions they are evoking in their intended audience.


I think this needs a little more explanation. When I said I that capitalist/communist wasn't literal, what I meant (and don't think I made clear), is that these seem to map to a whole heap of other expectations in American culture, and it's that broad map of interconnected things which are being figured in the two characters:

Capitalist - individualism, democracy, heroism, meritocracy, self-sufficiency, knowing best, nuclear family, fitting into the mainstream

Communist - sinister cabals, autocracy masquerading as equality, terrorism, nepotism, group-think, social security, being an outsider

It's not that capitalism or communism are actually, in reality, defined by the things in these lists, but this is commonly how those things seem to map in film/tv representations that come from the USA.

These also aren't static networks of idea -- there's has been a lot of shift since both 9/11 and the global economic crisis. But I still see those clusters of ideas commonly being articulated through character and story arcs in American shows. It's entirely possible I'm reading them through a different set of filters, and have misunderstood some of the elements, but I don't think I've misunderstood the basics of the discursive practice at work here.


I don't pretend to be an expert on the nuances of American culture, but this pattern makes sense of the text for me. With the recent economic crisis and its impact on America, and the history of both capitalist and communist ideology in the USA, I can see how the unspoken cues attached to both Scott and Derek could tie directly into these usually invisible and unacknowledged discourses, and why one is positioned as positive and the other negative. I can understand why the text is skewed this way, reducing Derek to an unwanted monster in the shadows; and why Scott is the hero.

It also makes sense of why I don't buy into this expectation of how to read the characters. I live in a household which is a feminist collective of unrelated people, owning communal property. I find the victim-blaming of rape culture deeply problematic. I find Scott's expectation of privilege infuriating. I sympathise with Derek's downward economic and social mobility, and his isolation as a result.

I'm really interested to see where the text goes in season 3. I think it will continue to endorse Scott, because it must. I would like it very much if Derek was not the scapegoat once again, and I'd like it even more if we actually get some idea of what he thinks, feels, hopes; however, I doubt this will happen either.

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Tags: discussion, meta, teen wolf
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