cupidsbow (cupidsbow) wrote,

Racism and Teen Wolf

There's a conversation going on over on Tumblr about the nature of Scott's werewolfness in Teen Wolf. I have problems with the way the show is presenting this due to the clear race analogy that's been set up over the seasons, and wanted to re-post my thoughts over here on DW, as they fit in with much of my other meta this season.

Warnings for a discussion of the gross racism in season 3.

Spoilers for all seasons, up to 311

I have a problem with analysing the idea of the True Alpha in Teen Wolf as something that’s just about Scott and his psychological journey. This is not because Scott's psychology is not worthy of analysis, or not interesting enough -- he's the main character, so that's not in doubt at all. Rather, it's due to the philosophy of the show, which is clearly using werewolves as a parallel to real-world racism.

My problem with looking only at Scott’s internal journey into True Alphaness is that it buys into the idea that individuals who are strong enough, awesome enough, good enough can “solve” systemic prejudice.

Let me be clear on my position here: No, individuals cannot win that fight in the real world, and the way the entertainment industry keeps presenting these kinds of issues as something an individual hero can “win” really bothers me.

Scott in this text is a werewolf (of colour, although admittedly passing as white), and werewolves in this text at this stage of things are clearly part of a coded race narrative. Werewolves are the race upon whom a genocide is being committed, and the hunters are the bigots justifying it because their victims are (according to hunters) less than human.

It took a while for me to accept this racialised reading of the text as deliberate commentary on racism, because the show doesn’t present it with much nuance a lot of the time. I've discussed my reasons for accepting this reading in more detail here: Teen Wolf and The Big Lie. Now that I’ve accepted Teen Wolf as a show using genre conventions to talk about the real-world issues of race, it brings some real-world baggage with it despite the fantasy premise.

Of most relevance here: blaming individual werewolves for their failures as werewolves in a world were they are considered a lesser race and being hunted to extinction is buying into the idea that racism is always the fault of individuals, and doesn’t have a systemic cultural component.

Blaming a werewolf for being a bad Alpha werewolf in this text is like blaming a woman for not being a good enough leader to become a CEO; and blaming werewolves for being hunted is like blaming women for being sexually harassed.

It’s not that individual werewolves can’t be more or less competent, or more or less good/evil, innocent/guilty, etc, it’s that individual werewolves of any rank cannot overcome systemic oppression within the Teen Wolf world, and to expect them to is ridiculous. It’s just as ridiculous as expecting it of people of colour or women or other oppressed peoples in the real world.

When Scott’s struggle was primarily an everyman’s coming of age story, I didn’t have a problem with his rejection of werewolfness or his sympathy for the Argents’ position, because it’s reasonable for an individual to question or reject aspects of their identity. Basically, I thought he was misguided, but that not understanding his own nature or how it fits within the politics of the wider world was realistic of a teen's journey to adulthood. In other words, his journey was not necessarily making comment on other werewolves; it was reasonable to analyse his journey from his perspective alone.

But now that he’s positioned as a special werewolf who somehow potentially symbolises the best of werewolfness, it's really fucking problematic to laud him for his struggle as an individual who is potentially becoming an Alpha, while dismissing the other Alphas we've seen as merely a series of bad individual examples of werewolfness without any acknowledgement of the toxic culture those werewolves were living in.

There’s a reason so many werewolves are failwolves in this text — they are set up to fail. That's how racism works. Then hunters can go: “Look, I told you all werewolves turn into feral killers and deserve to be put down,” conveniently ignoring that they killed off their entire packs, social systems, support structures, etc, thus ensuring they did go feral and/or become poorly socialised werewolves with little understanding of their own nature or culture.

Racism is not merely about individual acts of meanness, it's a systemic problem that makes it near impossible for normal people to live happy, fear-free and successful lives. Racism sets up those who are Othered for failure, and those who are not for success. Individuals navigate this situation with more or less ability, depending on their own circumstances, but the playing field does not start out equal for all players.

So to focus on Scott’s solo successes as a werewolf is like saying, “Well, this one woman became a CEO, so any woman can, and the fact no other woman did is clearly because they’re not good enough.”

No. No, it’s not.

That’s one of the reasons I’m finding the werewolf Jesus plot especially awful. There are other reasons too (like it being boring and cliched), but making Scott werewolf Jesus, no matter if he accepts or rejects it, undermines the central themes about race that the show has been at pains to establish. It makes the coded-racism something a single hero has agency over, which moves the race commentary from somewhat clumsy but potentially worthwhile, to really ugly and potentially normalising (rather than questioning) real-world racist discourses.

The readings of Scott’s journey to Alpha that make connections to the Ubermensch or Triumph of the Will work better for me than psychological approaches, because they acknowledge the kinds of race discourses that are clearly embedded into the Teen Wolf narrative.

But no matter the analytical approach taken to Scott's journey, the werewolf Jesus idea itself is deeply problematic when tied to the race narrative being told. In short, it's racist.

In particular, Derek, the born werewolf, has been positioned as Scott's opposite in all ways to do with werewolfness. We've been shown that Derek is fundamentally doing werewolfness wrong -- this has reached such epic proportions now that it's no longer even believable (and I wish I thought that was on purpose, in order to point out the absurdity of racism, but the text does not seem that self-aware). Nonetheless, it's going to be hammered home a bit more -- the teasers for next episode suggest Derek is going to give up his Alpha power for the greater good. If that does come to pass, Scott as werewolf Jesus is being positioned as the White Man, coming to fix the Natives' (Derek's) problems by doing werewolfness better than they do.

It's the story of the White Man's burden, re-told as werewolves and very ironically cast.

Do I even need to explain how that is racist?

The only way I can see to reclaim this narrative from racism now is if there's a flip at the eleventh hour, in which Derek, by giving up his Alpha power for the greater good, wins the day and is shown to be the better werewolf, and Scott, by lying to and betraying his pack, is shown to have taken the wrong path and has unintentionally become a villain.

If, however, Scott wins the day and gets to become Derek's Alpha, the show will have, in effect, endorsed the narrative of the White Man's Burden yet again.


ETA: In comments on the DW post, there's a link to an alternative race reading of the text, which posits that it's invalid to argue this story is a re-working of the White Man's Burden. I think it's a strong argument in many ways, and raises an important parallel race narrative in the text which I didn't touch on in this essay -- chiefly that positive representation is important, and if people of colour see Scott as positive representation then he is.

I'm not going to stick to an academic reading of the text in light of that, so I retract what I said about the story arc's commonality with the White Man's Burden. However, the central tenant of my argument stands -- ie. fighting racism with the tools of racism isn't a victory for anyone, and constructing a (solo male) hero's journey to counter societal oppression is a problem.
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Tags: feminism, meta, racism, teen wolf
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