cupidsbow (cupidsbow) wrote,

A Unified Theory of Teen Wolf by cupidsbow

A Unified Theory of Teen Wolf: Davis, Racism and the Use of Theme

In this essay, I’m going to talk about the theme of racism in Teen Wolf and why it continues to interest me. I’m going to discuss some of the elements of this theme that I think Davis has done well, and some that he has done poorly.

Something I’ve noticed in meta throughout season 3 of Teen Wolf is a refrain of criticism directed at Davis, which blames him for all the things people don’t like about the text, and credits him with none of the things they do. I don’t actually have a problem with this. Mostly, the criticisms are directed at the text and at Davis as the text’s creator, not Davis as a person. It doesn’t seem to have any homophobic elements. Even the Tumblr tag, “Jeff Davis is not a gift” is a commentary on the fan refrain of “Jeff Davis is a gift” that was used in seasons 1 and 2, rather than a personal attack on Davis.

I point this out not as a social justice issue, but rather to frame the conversation I want to have about one of the things I find compelling about Teen Wolf. I think as a creator Davis has several weaknesses, and he hasn’t always been good at getting help in order to strengthen those areas. I’ve actively disliked quite a few things about Teen Wolf over the seasons, especially the proportion of women and characters of colour who have died. However, I’m still watching because there are some things I am engaged by, even if I dislike other aspects. And yes, some of my favourite elements are clearly the contributions of the actors, but not everything. Some of it is clearly Davis’ work, and the biggest aspect that interests me -- the show’s commentary on race -- is something which has to be Davis’ work, because it’s so consistent across all the seasons.

To preface, I've written a lot of meta (here’s my Dreamwidth meta tag) trying to understand the themes I was seeing play out in Teen Wolf, but never felt I got it quite right. The meta I wrote on Derek as anti-hero (Teen Wolf meta - Why is Derek an anti-hero?, also posted on AO3), for instance, was predicated on a fundamental misunderstanding. I thought Derek was a victim so often because of his role as anti-hero, but in fact, he was the anti-hero because his main role was as a victim. Realising that was a big part of the “a-ha!” moment. This essay would not exist without those previous essays, nor without the discussions within fandom. I’ll link to my earlier meta where relevant, just to give a sense of how my thinking has changed over time. I can’t link to most of the meta by other people which has influenced me, because Tumblr is a terrible platform for keeping track of things, and I stupidly didn’t bookmark it on Diigo. I would still like to acknowledge that I am indebted to many clever people for reaching the conclusions I have in this essay -- thank you for your inspiring discussions. One of the more influential pieces, was this meta: An Arc in Shadow: Derek Hale and Assault by magess, which helped flip my thinking about what was cause and what was effect.

I first became aware of the theme of race very early in my watching of Teen Wolf. I actually started watching with season 2, but to draw a more chronological analysis, the discussion below will begin with season 1.

Season 1: Subverting our Expectations

In season 1, we are introduced to Kate Argent, who looks very like a grown-up Buffy. Given this is a story set in high school, and focused on “monsters”, this is not a coincidence, I think. We are meant, at least at first, to wonder if she is a good guy, if she is Buffy, come to save the town from the evil alpha. We have been trained by shows like Supernatural and Buffy to think of the hunters as heroes rather than murderous vigilantes. Very quickly within the Teen Wolf narrative, it’s made clear that our expectations are being subverted -- Kate is no Buffy. She shoots first and asks questions later (using manacles, electricity and torture), but there’s still some ethical grey at the start, because it’s Derek she shoots, while he was chasing the evil alpha. Not only could she have been aiming for the alpha, or thought Derek was working with the alpha, we’ve been positioned to suspect Derek of evil motives due to all his lurking and black leather.

A simple inversion of the usual hunters=good, monsters=bad would have been delightful enough, but Kate’s narrative does not end there. We discover, bit by bit, that she seduced a minor, and murdered a family of, we presume, innocent people. And she did it because of their race. To her, that was justification enough. Werewolves, in her eyes, are not human.

Here we have a clear articulation within the text that hunters are racists. They kill because of race first -- they don’t kill human murderers, and they don’t try to help or save werewolves who are feral for reasons beyond their control, which would solve the problem just as well. They hunt, and they use the word “hunt” to make their victims animals; their weapons include animal traps and torture devices. They justify it to themselves by calling those they kill “feral”. Their reasoning goes:
correct racial identity + committing violence = excuse to torture and kill
And the evidence they require that a werewolf is committing violence is pretty damn thin.

Kate, however, rips the disguise right off the underlying racial motive. Her actions are so extreme it paints Chris in a good light by comparison, but even the more moderate Chris has no moral qualms about killing people, or threatening teenagers. He is also a racist.

By the end of season one, what I saw was a narrative about a group of othered people being murdered by a group of organised vigilantes who merged into mainstream society and nearly always got away with it. Given this narrative came from America, it seemed fairly obvious to me that this was an analogy for African Americans and the Ku Klux Klan.

I thought there would be a lot of discussion of this aspect of the text within fandom. What I found instead was silence. And not just silence, but a policed silence. I wish I’d kept the links, but I read several metas back then which said it was insulting to conflate people of colour with the werewolves. I agree with that, by the way, I think it’s really problematic, especially as the Hales are white. However, finding it insulting doesn’t actually mean it’s not in the text. Refusing to recognise it gives Davis a pass on doing something problematic. That said, I will give him credit for genuinely attempting social commentary in his goofy show about teenaged werewolves. While it lacks nuance and there are issues with it, the message the text shows us is: racism fucks shit up for everyone. I don’t know about you, but I’m okay with that message. Yes, I have problems with how that’s articulated, but I do agree with the sentiment, and think Davis told the season 1 story with quite a lot of cleverness, genuine tension, pathos, and a grittiness I did not expect from this genre of show.

However, given the silence within fandom, and the dismissals I read, I started to doubt myself. Did I really understand enough about the American context to have read the text correctly? Could the race narrative not exist, or could I have read it in a way not intended? These were questions I couldn’t answer, and I wasn’t ready to raise them given the request not to. I saw no benefit in hurting people if I was grossly wrong.

Season 2: The Poison Spreads

After watching two seasons, though, I was pretty sure I wasn’t imagining the theme. Because in season 2 it escalates. In season 2, Derek is a failure as an alpha. However, this is not because he’s intrinsically bad at it. It’s because his entire support network has been destroyed and he has no one to turn to and no one to teach him, and then he is attacked by organised vigilantes again.

This is the second generation of damage the hunters and their racist murders have caused. There was a lone survivor of their first attack, and he tried to re-establish his community. And he failed, as any lone survivor would. However, this time, the poisonous consequences of the Argents' actions started leeching into the wider Beacon Hills community.

Victoria literally tries to poison Scott, and that poison is metaphorically transferred to Allison via Scott’s silence. Allison is further corrupted by Gerard, who makes racist violence sound like the answer (“final solution”) to the werewolf “problem”. Victoria commits suicide rather than become what she hates.

Jackson (previously traumatised by something we never see canonically, but he has all the signs of it, especially his abusiveness which is clearly learned) is poisoned by the bite itself, and why this is so is never entirely clear -- I suspect it was a planned plot point in 3a before Haynes moved on, and we would have found out hunters were responsible for his pre-adoption trauma. Matt (previously traumatised) is “poisoned” by the kanima and becomes something he might otherwise have avoided or outgrown. Jackson and Matt spread the poison to other people in the town via the vengeance killings.

The poison is still in Peter, who passes it on to Lydia.

Three marginalised teenagers (Isaac -- child abuse and survivor’s guilt, Erica -- girl of colour and epileptic, Boyd -- boy of colour and survivor’s guilt) team up with Derek, another survivor, hoping for a new chance, and a new life. But they can’t escape being hunted by the Argents.

There’s no adult support network for any of these kids, not only for Derek, but for Jackson or Matt, or Isaac, Erica and Boyd. No adults (who aren’t hunters) ever notice they are in trouble or try to help them, except the Sheriff and Melissa, who misunderstand the situation and inadvertently make it worse. The kids can’t go to the authorities because they wouldn’t be believed -- a great metaphor for many of the toxic aspect of our culture kids end up dealing with alone out of shame or because they think they won’t be believed.

Then Gerard swoops in and takes advantage of Jackson, Derek and Scott, in addition to Allison. And because the racist poison is now spreading beyond werewolves and hunters, he murders Matt and kidnaps and tortures Stiles too.

In season 2, this wave of poison is spreading out from the hunters in ripple after ripple; the Argents and their actions are the first point in the causal chain of everything which happens. If Kate hadn’t destroyed the Hale pack, Derek would not have tried to form a new pack. If Victoria had not tried to poison Scott, the kanima would have been captured, Victoria wouldn’t have committed suicide, and Allison would not have become Gerard’s tool. If Gerard hadn’t set out for both revenge and unethical personal gain, all the rest of season 2 wouldn’t have happened.

So this? Is reaping what you’ve sown. The hunters have sown hate and death, and the ripples get bigger and bigger and bigger as they spread throughout the whole community.

After watching and re-watching season 2, I was much surer of my reading. This was definitely a deliberate commentary on the evils of racism. On the ways in which people are allowed to silently get away with it and the victims are blamed. The way the poorest, least powerful, sickest, and youngest are made to pay the price when communities end up ravaged. How it doesn’t end with one generation, but poisons the future as well.

I wrote meta about this at the time, focusing on the role of the “Big Lie” (Teen Wolf and The Big Lie), and how lies, evil and racism went together in the text. Throughout the season the lies compound and make everything worse, but the biggest lie of all is that werewolves are monsters, and that lie is silently endorsed by the characters within the text in the same way racism is silently endorsed in the real world.

Even though the text never comes out and says, “racism is bad,” it’s clear enough that Davis is condemning racism via his theme. This time he's not just condemning vigilantism, but communities standing by in silence and allowing it to happen. This is a quite complex and nuanced use of theme, but it’s undercut by continuing issues with problematic casting (the white Hales) and the way whiteness is unproblematically depicted, as well incidental racism (like Boyd having hardly any lines). Not to mention issues with gender, which is a whole other post.

I was actually pretty impressed by this use of theme, despite my criticisms of the problematic aspects. But at this stage I still didn’t understand the true scope of what Davis was planning, and I thought it was mainly a clever inversion of the usual genre stereotypes (ie. hunters=good, with maybe a smidge of moral grey as the seasons go along; monsters=evil, with a smidge of good as the seasons go along).

I was really interested to see what Davis would do with this theme in season 3. I wondered how he would escalate it.

Season 3A: Problems With the White Saviour Trope

As we all now know, season 3a was terrible. And one of the worst aspects of it was the way it seemed to invert the previous anti-racist theme. Instead of condemning racism, the ham-handed use of the white saviour trope in Scott’s arc actually seemed to say, “See, this one werewolf can be good, so all the others are failing due to their own weaknesses, just like the hunters have been saying, and it’s not due to the toxic culture they live in after all.” I was really angry about that, and I wrote meta saying why I thought it sucked (Racism and Teen Wolf).

However, having now seen a good chunk of 3b, I think Davis intended to continue his previous theme, and the larger problems with the season (the move to California, three actors leaving, their main plot points being jammed into other character arcs, and slo-mo filling in the gaps), meant that the text went from “sometimes problematic, but genuinely trying to comment on the evils of racism,” to “ham-handedly undermining the race themes so they actually said the exact opposite of what was intended.”

The reason I think this is because there is an escalation of the race theme again in both 3a and 3b, and 3a takes on a different light in the wake of 3b so far.

In 3a, we see Deucalion’s fall which is directly linked to Gerard destroying not just one pack, but several -- a whole community at once. And not just a whole community, but one which was trying to sue for peace. Now we’re into a genocide narrative, which sheds new light on Kate’s actions in season 1 -- her act was not one single act of madness or meanness. It’s part of a larger pattern. Again, there are problems with this, because the imagery of the nematon and Talia as a full wolf, when joined with the genocide narrative, invokes Native Americans. I won’t go into why that’s problematic, as the Twilight fandom meta has covered it very well. Also, the Hales are still white, as are most of the other wolves we see at the wolf moot, and whiteness is still being offered to us unproblematically as a neutral default. In a race narrative, that’s a problem, and a big one.

Anyway, due to the destruction of the werewolf community at Gerard’s hands, Deucalion goes power mad, and his Alpha pack’s killing spree creates the Darach. So here’s the escalation, not only do we now see the hunters as more than a vigilante group with the community turning a blind eye to their actions, now we see the hunters as committing genocide, over more than one generation of werewolves, and the ripples are not just affecting the mundane human community of Beacon Hills, but the supernatural world as well. Murderous Darachs and Alpha packs are forming in the wake of the Argents’ actions. Waking evil nematons. Kids committing ritual suicide. The white saviour narrative being deployed by a fanatic druid in order to manipulate a confused kid, and thereby justifying the demonification of other werewolves as “lesser”.

This is where one of the biggest problems with the Teen Wolf race narrative really comes into play. Casting Tyler Posey was both a stroke of genius and gross. Posey plays Scott as an innocent, who doesn’t understand he’s being corrupted by outside forces. He believes that if he does what he thinks is right, he must be right. It’s what saves the character from being an utterly unlikeable douchbag. So that’s genius. But on the other hand, Davis is telling a sustained narrative about the evils of racism, and he’s cast white man as the main victim (Hoechlin as Derek), and a person of colour as the catalyst character through which we see the ways institutional racism can corrupt even the most innocent of people (ie. Posey as Scott). In this narrative, it’s no accident that Scott is filling the “white saviour” role. It’s no accident he was complicit with Gerard in degrading Derek in season 2. It’s no accident he thinks Derek is an asshole and Chris is okay. It’s no accident he gets the credit for other people’s actions, and Derek gets the blame for Scott’s mistakes. That’s all part of exploring the theme of the evils of racism, as played out by these two characters.

There’s some really clever writing in that characterisation, but here’s where it’s really gross, too. Posey is great in the role, and I do not wish him not to have the lead in a show. But it’s intrinsically problematic to have a character of colour in the role of the white savior. The white savior archetype is awful, condescending, and racist. Casting a person of colour to play a character who demonstrates the evils of racism in a way usually played unironically by white characters (the white saviour) is just… I don’t even have words. I CANNOT EVEN EXPRESS HOW GROSS I FIND THAT.

Another consequence of Posey’s casting when juxtaposed with this theme of race is that it’s divided fandom. People who see Scott as a hero of colour just want him to be great (fair enough, too). There was a lot of angry meta about how Scott couldn’t be the white saviour because the analogy doesn’t hold -- he is not only a character of colour, but a genuine member of the werewolf community, not a human adopting the racialised/marginalised identity and doing it better (as the white savior usually does). It’s a great point, and I really wanted it to be right. But within the larger narrative the text is clearly making on race, it doesn’t hold. Scott is meant to be read as an ironic commentary on the white saviour trope given his position in this particular narrative, despite it being an inconsistent analogy, and despite his own racial identity.

I’ve read a lot of meta about Scott and the white saviour trope which basically said, “You don’t like him and don’t want him to be a hero because you’re racist.” The irony, it BURNS. Because, yes, it’s racist. But it’s not the fans who point out the problem who are racist in this particular case. It’s the show. It’s Davis’ casting and writing. It’s so racist, and so ironic because of the anti-racism theme underpinning the whole show. Did Davis not know Posey was a person of colour when he cast him? Or did he cast for irony? I have no idea, but I find it so offensive.

What I’m hoping for as endgame in canon is that Scott will have a dark turning point when he’s been led down the racist garden path far enough; that he will actually do something irredeemably evil; that he realises what he’s become, and then he will become a true hero by saying, “Fuck you,” to the hunters and all those who have been complicit in the racist oppression of werewolves. And he will start on the hard journey of actually becoming a member of a pack and doing the everyday hard work of being decent -- not the alpha either, but just a guy, supporting his community, and doing what good he can. In my eyes, that would actually make this narrative work, and it’s pretty much the only end-game that would make the racism inherent in Scott’s character arc somewhat okay.

Season 3B: America, Land of the Free Racists

Anyway, moving on from Scott, we have 3b. This season has another escalation of the theme. You thought genocide of the natives was bad? Ha! Now we have the American government condoning and institutionalising racism against supernatural beings, both within Echo House (worst asylum ever, and no wonder Morrell is there to oppress anyone who disturbs the precious balance), and three generations ago in the internment camp, which has been whitewashed from history, and was full of the banality of evil -- racism and greed on a scale even Gerard could only dream of. What we are shown are white American soldiers and doctors, working under the mandate of the Government, deliberately not doing their duty, and instead working for their own self interest, and they did it to the detriment of people/supernaturals of colour they had power over, and they did it not expecting to be caught or punished -- and they were right.

Further, the implication has now been strongly laid that the poison that affected the nematon and started the whole sequence of events in Beacon Hills was set in motion by the racist acts of these white human soldiers against Japanese/supernatural POWs in their care.

The state-sanctioned actions of those soldiers (and it was tacitly sanctioned -- they got away with it) was the first link in the causal chain of all the terrible events in the show. That is the implication. Racism. Racism underpins everything.

I mean. Wow. I don’t know about you, but that is not what I expected from my cheesy show about werewolves in high school.

I know there are serious issues with representation of Japanese and Korean culture in these characters and scenes, too. Oh, the stereotypes! Without allowing them to pass unrecognised, I will say that I think Davis has taken this route for at least one reasonable reason. I think he’s responding to fandom’s complaint about the lack of major characters of colour and women of colour, and he’s created not only a new main character, but a whole backstory that’s central to both the season’s plot and the theme of racism. I’d be very surprised if Kira is killed off -- she’s awesome and positioned to be a new regular, which equalises the genders of the main cast, and improves diversity, just as we asked for. And while he has made painful use of stereotypes, he’s shown us a whole heap of them (Yakuza, POW, kitsune, go-player, 40s red-lipped women, etc), which is a shorthand way of giving a sense of history, depth, community, to these new players. It’s still not great storytelling to rely on stereotypes this way, but on the other hand we have gained two new characters of colour with actual depth (Kira and her father), and one with potential (her mother). I really like Kira and her father, and I love Tamlyn Tomita and hope she gets to shine. So I’m giving Davis some credit here -- he has given me characters to love, and I do, and he seems to have actually listened to our complaint and made more than a token effort to do something about it.

Until the final episodes of the season have aired, I can’t tie this commentary up neatly. So I will end by saying that Davis has made mistakes and we should discuss them and name them, and some of those mistakes include racist scenes/characters/casting. Davis has also written three seasons of an escalating anti-racist narrative of a type I’ve rarely seen before in mainstream TV. It sometimes lacks nuance and contains (probably unintentionally) racist aspects which undercut that theme, but it is also surprisingly complex. It effectively portrays the way in which what people say and what they do often don’t match up, especially when it comes to trying to hide their own bigotry. It shows us what institutional racism does, not only to individuals, but to a whole town, a whole society and its formal institutions. It shows us the damage racism causes -- the intergenerational nature of it; the victim-blaming and endless harassment, manipulation and exploitation Derek endures; the way Scott is caught between identities; the toxic silence of “good” people standing by to let racists get away with it; the way their own racism kills hunters too; and most of all, it shows us the endless ripples of collateral damage, turning up where no one would expect it (like inside Stiles).

I watch the show primarily for the characters I love, but the thing that keeps me hooked is not the plot, it’s the theme. Davis may not be a gift, but his work is ambitious, even when it fails. I wish it didn’t fail so spectacularly and in such racist and sexist ways. I do not give him a pass for those failures -- he needs to work harder on those aspects. That said, lots of shows fail in these particular ways. It doesn’t make Davis’ failures less terrible, but it does put them into context. He is part of our toxic culture too. What those other shows rarely do, is slowly reveal institutional racism at every level of society, past and present, corrupting everything, and turning America into a horror story in which the othered are not really the monsters at all. And for that? I am grateful to Davis. It’s a story I have sorely wanted to see.


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Tags: essay, link, meta, racism, teen wolf

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