Posts Tagged ‘Homosexuality’

Warning: all the spoilers for Teen Wolf. All of them.

Trigger warning: some discussion of suicide and sexual assault.

Length warning: this is literally a 10,000 word essay about Teen Wolf because I’m a fucking dork. Also it has a table in it. I’m not even sorry. SHUT UP. 

Let’s Talk About Teen Wolf

At a time when fantasy fans are spoiled for choice by the volume and variety of paranormal TV shows on offer, the cult popularity of MTV’s Teen Wolf is no mean thing. Since its debut in 2011, the show has built itself an enviably dedicated fanbase, and with the fourth season just wrapped and a fifth on the horizon, this seems like an ideal point at which to discuss its success. Under the direction of showrunner Jeff Davis, Teen Wolf has become part of the cultural zeitgeist, not just because of the enthusiasm of its audience, but because of the style and content of the narrative. Despite the title, Teen Wolf isn’t just a fantasy-action show about werewolves in high school: it is also an increasingly sophisticated dialogue on gender, masculinity, family, love and the cyclical nature of violence – and if any of that sounds like news to you, then I’d strongly suggest that you haven’t been paying attention.

First Things First

Like many shows, Teen Wolf keeps its first season comparatively simple, taking its narrative cues from a combination of classic tropes. In the first episode, protagonist Scott McCall is bitten and turned by an unknown werewolf while investigating a murder with his hyperactive best friend, Stiles Stilinski. So far, so familiar – as is Stiles’s unrequited infatuation with popular girl Lydia Martin, Scott’s burgeoning relationship with new arrival Allison Argent (the daughter of a werewolf hunter, natch), the snide antagonism of Lydia’s rich jock boyfriend, Jackson Whittemore, and the brooding, mysterious presence of Derek Hale, a born werewolf with a tragic past.

It would be a mistake, however, to take these elements at face value, because right from the outset, it’s also clear that Teen Wolf is bent on subverting them. Unlike Scott Howard, the hero of the 1985 movie, Scott McCall is biracial – as, indeed, is actor Tyler Posey – while Stiles takes Adderall and suffers from panic attacks, his quick intelligence a counterpoint to Scott’s steady empathy. Lydia, despite her bubbleheaded persona, has a genius-level IQ and aspirations of winning a Fields Medal. Jackson, rather than fitting the homophobic jock cliché, has an openly gay best friend, his angry posturing contextualised by deep-seated insecurities over being adopted. In addition to being clever, sweet and a skilled archer, Allison is also canonically older than Scott; a small detail, perhaps, but given our cultural obsession with pairing younger women with older men – an imbalance arguably personified by Bella Swan’s depression at turning eighteen and being physically “older” than her immortal vampire boyfriend – it nonetheless stands out. And then there’s Derek: a character given all the traditional trappings of aggressive male coolness, but whose backstory includes being sexually manipulated by an older woman while in his teens, their relationship expressly presented as toxic despite the deep-seated cultural fallacy that men, even young ones and especially tough ones, cannot be sexually abused or mistreated by women. 

Taken individually, these changes might seem minor, but collectively, they have the effect of transforming an ostensibly traditional setup into something else – and as the show progresses, this subversion becomes steadily more apparent. Not only does the show’s supernatural remit broaden to encompass kanimas, druids and kitsune, among other things, creating a coherent mythology that is equal parts original and borrowed, but the emotional content is solid enough to core a powerful narrative punch. Which isn’t to say that Teen Wolf is a show without flaws, or that the execution always matches the intent; far from it. But unlike so many other shows aimed at a similar audience, Teen Wolf is actively trying to engage on a number of significant issues, and more often than not, the results are fascinating.

R-E-S-P-E-C-T

In episode 1.1 – Pilot, an agitated Allison arrives at the veterinary clinic where Scott works, having accidentally hit a dog while driving in the rain. As she starts to calm down, she apologises to Scott for “freaking out like a total girl,” to which Scott, unphased, replies, “You are a girl.” His statement forces Allison to clarify, prompting the following exchange:

Allison: I freaked out like a girly girl. And I’m not a girly girl.

Scott: What kind of girl are you?

Allison: Tougher than that. At least I thought I was.

Scott: I’d be freaked out too. In fact, I’d probably cry. And not like a man. I’d cry like the girliest girl. It would be pathetic.

There’s so much to unpack in this snippet of conversation, it’s hard to know where to start. Though both Scott and Allison are distinguishing between “girly girls” and the other kind, with the former holding a negative connotation – a bias common enough to constitute realistic dialogue on both their parts – it’s significant that their interaction doesn’t actually reinforce the stereotype. Instead, we have Scott first reassuring Allison that there’s nothing wrong in behaving in a stereotypically feminine way – that she is a girl, and doesn’t need to apologise for it – and then, when she continues in that vein, admitting that his reaction in the same situation would be even girlier than her own. Allison’s own acceptance of her femininity – or rather, of the idea that it doesn’t negate her strength – comes later; that her struggle to reconcile these two aspects of her personality constitutes a significant part of her character development, rather than being treated as a throwaway line, is equally significant. Thus, in 2.06 – Frenemy, when her mother, Victoria, states that keeping away from Scott will make Allison strong, unlike all those “other girls” pining for a boy to take them to senior prom, her reply – “Can’t I be strong and go to prom?” – is not just a callback to this conversation with Scott, where she worries that being girly negates her toughness, but a sign of her increased confidence in the idea that it doesn’t.  

Returning to Scott’s actions at the clinic, however, at this point in the story, he’s already been turned into a werewolf, but doesn’t yet realise what he is: all he knows is that he’s stronger, fitter and more confident than before. While we have any number of paranormal narratives that focus on the physical aspects of such a transformation, especially in the case of previously nerdy or unpopular boys suddenly having the strength to stand up to bullies (Spiderman, anyone?), it’s noteworthy that Scott’s new confidence extends to being comfortable enough in his masculinity to code himself as feminine in front of the girl he likes

Which, all by itself, is rare enough to be damn near revolutionary; but even more telling about the show’s intentions is the fact that, during their very first encounter, Scott uses his inexplicable new powers to get Allison’s attention, not by being physically impressive, but by listening to her. From inside his classroom, Scott overhears Allison say that she’s managed to forget to bring a pen; when she finally comes in and sits behind him, he turns and offers her one. True, Scott still gets his chance to shine on the lacrosse field, impressing Allison and Lydia – and thwarting Jackson – with his sudden prowess, but what gets him the girl is the fact that he listens to her, is considerate of her needs, and doesn’t mock her for being stereotypically feminine, even when her own anxieties present him with a conversational opportunity to do so. 

Because Scott McCall, as a character, is fundamentally respectful of women. His relationship with his mother, Melissa, is not only loving, but considerate: Scott brings her dinner at the hospital when she’s working long shifts, is unembarrassed to kiss her and tell her he loves her, and doesn’t hesitate to seek or accept her romantic advice, which is a far cry from the usual depiction of teenage boys, and especially men of colour, as being either casually sexist or so hyper-concerned with their performance of traditional masculinity, even in private, as to constitute a form of emotional repression. But when Melissa gets dressed up to go on a date, Scott unhesitatingly tells her she looks beautiful, just as he’s unfailingly supportive of Allison and, later, Kira – because in Teen Wolf, being secure in your masculinity doesn’t mean disrespecting or devaluing women. Rather, it means being confident enough to care for and support them without worrying that the effort somehow diminishes you. 

This dynamic is also evident in Stiles’s relationship with Lydia. As I’ve recently said elsewhere, one of the most satisfying of Teen Wolf’s trope subversions is the steadily developed friendship between Lydia and Stiles. Under normal circumstances, the everyman character with a crush on the beautiful popular girl is inevitably rewarded with her affections, especially once her boyfriend is finally out of the picture. Instead, and while Stiles’s infatuation is still evident in his behaviour, he never shames Lydia for her rejection of him, nor does he try to police her sexuality or push her boundaries. Unlike so many of his predecessors, Stiles isn’t prone to ranting about what Lydia’s boyfriends have that he doesn’t, or indulging in bitterness at her treatment of him: though they do go on a couple of dates, neither Stiles nor the narrative encourages us to think that Lydia is leading him on, and when her preference for Jackson is reaffirmed, though Stiles is clearly disappointed, he respects Lydia enough to neither criticise her choices nor invalidate her feelings.

As such, rather than being narratively pressured into romance for the sake of form, Lydia and Stiles are allowed to develop a caring, platonic affection for one another: Stiles doesn’t compete with Lydia’s subsequent boyfriend, Aiden, Lydia becomes a friend to Stiles’s eventual girlfriend, Malia, and nobody exhibits any jealousy of anyone else. I honestly can’t think of another narrative where the everyman and the popular girl end up friends in a context that hasn’t explicitly situated the girl as choosing between two specific suitors, rather than simply exercising her romantic right not to be interested in him, let alone where the everyman never gets in a bitter, jealous snit about his rejection – and given that Stiles’s behaviour is the baseline for human decency, that really says more about our acceptance of romantic male entitlement, both narratively and within wider culture, than any of us should find comfortable. 

The men of Teen Wolf also demonstrate their respect for women in other ways. The fact that Kira’s father, Ken Yukimura, took Noshiko’s last name in order to preserve her heritage, struck me as a particularly realistic and respectful thing for the narrative to incorporate, especially given that one of my high school teachers did the same thing for his wife. Similarly, the fact that Kira is accepted onto the lacrosse team without any suggestion that her gender might be an obstacle, not only by Coach Finstock, but by Scott and her fellow teammates, is something which, despite how reasonable it is, I’ve never seen done before. Though there’s a touch of benevolent sexism to the logic underlying the Argent family’s decision to train its women as leaders – and while hunter culture is hardly a healthy environment – it’s nonetheless narratively satisfying to see a teenage girl be treated as a peer by her father, especially as Chris Argent doesn’t demand that Allison sacrifice her femininity in exchange for his approval. In small ways and large, Teen Wolfconsistently constructs its ideas of gender in a respectful, intelligent fashion, and in a context where writers so often plead “realism” as an excuse for uncritically supporting antiquated biases, that’s something I’m always going to appreciate.

Queer Representation and Unthreatened Masculinity

The overwhelming heteronormativity of TV shows, and especially shows with predominantly male casts, is a cultural default we’re sadly yet to alter. Even worse than the lack of LGBTQ representation in popular narratives, however, is the frequency with which queerbaitingqueer coding and outright homophobia takes its place. The latter problem isn’t even exclusively expressed through slurs (though of course, it often is), but is also evident in the use of a single, rigid presentation of heterosexual masculinity, straight characters with a no homo complex, and the casual use of feminine-as-derogatory-for-men. But in Teen Wolf, not only are there multiple openly queer characters in the form of Danny, Ethan, Caitlin and Mason, but we’re given straight men whose acceptance of homosexuality extends to their adoption of a totally unthreatened masculinity: that is, of straight boys who not only don’t use gay as an insult and who openly support their gay friends, but who are never shown to worry that their heterosexuality has been somehow compromised in the process.

Given his ostensible status as the stereotypical rich, white, bullying jock, it’s Jackson’s close friendship with Danny – an openly gay man of colour who’s also a lacrosse player – that arguably best personifies this fact. In any other narrative, Jackson would be cast in the role of an ultra-masculine homophobe; instead, when Danny jokingly asks Jackson, “You remember all the times I told you you’re not my type?” in 2.4 – Abomination,  Jackson easily replies, “I’m everyone’s type.” Jackson isn’t the least bit disquieted by the idea of other men finding him attractive – in fact, he’s vain enough to be insulted by the idea that anyone might not want him, regardless of whether he wants them. Similarly, when Stiles worries about whether he’s attractive to gay guys – even going so far as to ask the question of Danny – his worry isn’t that he is, but that he isn’t. While Stiles isn’t explicitly bisexual in canon, the fact that his first response to Danny’s joking offer to take his virginity in 3.4 – Unleashed is “That’s so sweet of you,” coupled with the fact that he doesn’t respond in the negative when Caitlin, who is canonically bisexual, asks if he’s attracted to guys in 3.16 – Illuminated, hints at the possibility of an eventual reveal (though in a purported director’s cut of the same conversation, he nods yes to liking boys). 

In either case, the (apparently) straight men of Teen Wolf aren’t remotely threatened by the idea of being attractive to gay guys – are rather, in the case of Jackson’s friendship with Danny and Liam’s friendship with Mason, happy to act as supportive wingmen, teasing about potential crushes as naturally as they would if the crushes in question were women. The importance of such relationships cannot be overstated, not only from the representational standpoint of having more openly gay characters on TV, but in terms of showcasing a positive iteration of masculinity and male friendships that isn’t belligerently heteronormative. Look at just about any other portrayal of teenage boys on TV, and you’ll encounter homophobic language as default – but in Teen Wolf, Stiles can suggest making out with Scott and just get a friendly eyeroll, Danny and Ethan can have an on-screen relationship that’s healthy, sweet and sexy, a manic lacrosse coach can be openly supportive of his gay players, and even Jackson Whittemore can take time out from being a jerk to suggest that Danny hook up with the cute guy in the library.

Stiles as the Anti-Xander

Given its impact on the genre, it’s somewhat inevitable that, sooner or later, every supernatural TV show be compared to Buffy the Vampire Slayer. In the case of Teen Wolf, this can yield some interesting results: there are strong parallels between, for instance, Scott and Buffy, Lydia and Cordelia, Melissa and Joyce, and Malia and Anya, and given the revelation in Season 4 that the Hale vault is located under the Beacon Hills high school, there are definite comparisons to the Hellmouth. But what interests me most is the comparison of Stiles with Xander, both of whom are snarky, non-superpowered, socially awkward best friends with a Chosen One – but where Xander is, in far too many respects, a stereotypical Nice Guy, Stiles is more enlightened. As the first season of Buffy is now nearly twenty years old, there’s a compelling argument to be made that Stiles is Xander for a new generation – so much so, in fact, that he’s almost an anti-Xander; which is to say, Xander minus the sexism, nerd entitlement, inferiority complex and homophobia.    

Like Stiles Stilinski, Xander Harris is an everyman with a romantic connection to a richer, more popular girl, Cordelia Chase; unlike Stiles, Xander routinely slutshames Cordelia, is jealous of her other partners, is dismissive of her intelligence, and only achieves a kind of parting equilibrium with her by buying her a dress she can’t afford.  Xander is also deeply insecure in his masculinity: despite the fact that his two closest friends are women, one of whom eventually comes out as a lesbian, Xander never quite loses the fear of being perceived as either feminine or gay, and when jock Larry comes out to him under the mistaken impression that Xander is also closeted, his reaction is one of appalled terror. There’s also a certain pettiness to Xander – and even, I’d argue, a cruelty – that tends to come out in stressful situations. This is exhibited, for instance, in his decision not to tell Buffy that Willow was trying to restore Angel’s soul, his threatening Buffy over Willow’s disappearance, his complete disregard for Buffy’s feelings after she returns to Sunnydale at the start of Season 3, the fact that he tries to magically roofie Cordelia into wanting him, his frequently dismissive treatment of Anya, and the proprietary interest he takes in Buffy’s romantic life.

Stiles, by contrast, is not only aware of Lydia’s intelligence, but in awe of it; as mentioned, he neither shames her for her sex life nor complains about how undeserving her partners are by virtue of not being him. In sharp contrast to Xander, Stiles is secure in his masculinity, neither intimidated nor scared by the prospect of men finding him sexually attractive, but actively – and even enthusiastically – curious as to whether or not they do. Where Xander casts a spell to try and make Cordelia love him, Stiles, when confronted with an affectionate, drugged Lydia, remains consistently mindful of her ability to consent, and leaves as soon it becomes apparent that she can’t. There’s also a strong parallel in their respective relationships with Anya and Malia, both of whom are new to being human and forthright in their desires; but while Xander is prone to mocking Anya and is often flustered or intimidated by her propensity to take control, Stiles is considerate of Malia’s learning and unthreatened by her directness.

Similarly, and despite being the token human in a crew full of supernatural creatures, Stiles responds to pressure with extraordinary courage, standing up to alpha werewolves, armed hunters, FBI agents, assassins and monsters alike. Which isn’t to say that Stiles can’t also be ruthless, or that Xander is never brave; demonstrably, they both have their strengths and weaknesses. It’s rather that, despite the many strong parallels between their characters, Stiles is comfortable in himself from the outset in a way that Xander isn’t. Where Xander Harris spends seven seasons trying – and, mostly, failing – to achieve the kind of stereotypical masculinity he simultaneously loathes and covets, Stiles, for all his unpopularity and insecurities, never feels emasculated by his status as an outsider. Even the loss of their virginities is comparable: when it happens, both boys are in the middle of stressful situations – Xander running from zombies, Stiles in Eichen House – and the sex is instigated by their respective partners. But whereas Xander sleeps with Faith, an experienced woman who doesn’t respect him and who kicks him out immediately afterwards, Stiles sleeps with Malia, who’s also a virgin, and whom he subsequently starts dating, a contrast which is arguably reflective of the esteem in which they initially hold themselves.

To put it bluntly, Stiles Stilinski is self-confident and secure where Xander Harris was self-hating and insecure, and while you can attribute a certain amount of that dissonance to their respective backgrounds – Xander struggles academically and has angry parents, while Stiles is bright and the product of a loving home – by and large, I’d attribute their differences, not to their origin stories, but to the fourteen years separating their creation. Stiles is a character who exists in large part because of Xander and other forerunners like him; he’s had the benefit – or rather, creator Jeff Davis has – of learning from Xander’s mistakes. If Scott McCall is Teen Wolf’s answer to Buffy Summers, then Stiles isn’t properly Xander, but a fusion of Xander and Willow: a still-flawed combination of their respective strengths, but pointedly minus the perpetual crisis of masculinity that makes Xander increasingly hard to sympathise with the further we get from 1997. Which isn’t to say that other showrunners aren’t still writing their own new Xanders exactly as is: if they were, then neither Teen Wolf nor Stiles would stand out quite so prominently. But given the still-extant problems of Nice Guy syndrome and male entitlement, the creation of characters like Stiles and Scott, who never saw their unpopularity and social awkwardness as an excuse for sexism, and whose subsequent development constitutes an evolution of positive masculinity rather than, as is more often the case, a capitulation to its more negative aspects, is not just subversive, but necessary.

Mentorship, True Alphas and Positive Masculinity

Though Teen Wolf plays host to a range of subtextual conversations, its portrayal of masculinity is arguably the most important, not only in terms of offering a positive alternative to the toxic, heteronormative manliness of old, but because it expressly codes this old-school approach as negative. Culturally, the term ‘alpha male’ has long since come to indicate the type of aggressive, successful and invariably sexist man that we’re all meant to either want to be or date; small wonder, then, that paranormal narratives which use alpha/beta/omega hierarchies tend to correlate alpha status with increased physical strength and social authority. And, to a certain extent, Teen Wolf follows the rule: alpha werewolves are bigger and stronger, they take their power through violence, and are the only ones capable of turning new wolves through the bite. But at the same time, we’re also given the concept of a True Alpha like Scott McCall: someone who achieves power through strength of character rather than killing, and who is, as a consequence, the strongest wolf of all. 

This being so, it’s not a coincidence that Teen Wolf routinely casts traditional alphas as the villains, with traditional alpha traits consistently shown in a negative light. In Season 1, Peter Hale is a murderous alpha out for revenge, and when Derek kills him and inherits his powers in Season 2, his attempt to be a “traditional” alpha – both in terms of werewolf culture and human masculinity – is consistently juxtaposed with Scott’s more pacifistic desire to do the right thing. As an alpha, Derek makes a series of bad decisions, not because he’s a bad person, but because his only template for alpha behaviour is one that manifestly doesn’t work. Confronted with the violence of Deucalion and the alpha pack in the first half of Season 3, Derek gives up his alpha power in order to save his sister’s life, a sacrifice that neatly parallels Scott’s burgeoning acceptance of being a True Alpha. In both instances, the best use of alpha strength is shown to be empathic and non-violent, rather than domineering and aggressive: Derek willingly gives up his status to save Cora, while Scott refuses to murder either Deucalion or the Darach and thereby lose his True Alpha potential. Similarly, after spending most of Season 4 in a state of increasing powerlessness, Derek’s metamorphosis into a full shift wolf in 4.12 – Smoke and Mirrors brings the analogy full circle. In Teen Wolf, the most powerful wolves aren’t physically violent alphas, but those who care for others before themselves, and who aren’t afraid to be weak – either literally, or in the eyes of others – if it means protecting their friends.

As such, there’s an important parallel between Derek’s treatment of Scott in Season 1 and Scott’s treatment of Liam Dunbar in Season 4. Though Derek doesn’t become an alpha until Season 2, he’s the only one available to try and mentor Scott after Peter turns him, and while Derek tries, he does a very bad job of it. In fact, there’s an argument to be made that Derek’s development across the first four seasons is one of recovery, not just from trauma, but from the expectations of toxic masculinity. In Season 1, Derek is a hunted character, mourning the death of his closest remaining relative while trying to stay alive, save Scott and find out who the alpha is. Given his backstory – the death of his high school girlfriend, Paige, and his subsequent manipulation and betrayal by Kate Argent – it’s no surprise that he reacts with hostility to Scott’s relationship with Allison: quite literally, Derek has no yardstick for werewolf romance that doesn’t end in tragedy. By the same token, he’s also convinced that the only way for Scott to control the shift is through anger, as per this conversation from 1.06 – Heart Monitor:

Derek: Getting angry? That’s your first lesson. You want to learn how to control this? How to shift? You do it through anger. By tapping into a primal, animal rage. You can’t do that with her around.

Scott: I can get angry.

Derek: Not angry enough.

Which, as it turns out, is the point: Scott doesn’t get angry around Allison because his love for her is what anchors him to humanity. By Season 2, when Derek is teaching his own betas – Isaac, Boyd and Erica – how to manage the change, he’s learned enough from his mistakes to try a different tactic. This time, he doesn’t insist they learn through anger, but asks that they find anchors like Scott’s: meaningful connections or memories to keep them steady. (Heartbreakingly, Isaac’s anchor is his abusive father. Shocked, Derek says, “Your father locked you in a freezer in the basement to punish you,” to which Isaac replies, softly, “He didn’t used to.”) It’s not until Season 3 that we learn Peter was the one to originally teach Derek control through anger; Peter, whose entire approach to life is one of grasping manipulation.

And thus, the necessary symmetry between Derek’s progression in the first two seasons and Scott’s development as alpha in Season 4, when he accidentally turns Liam. In trying to explain the transformation to his new beta, Scott falls back on the same things Derek originally told him – “We’re brothers now”, “The bite is a gift” – which, as it did with him, go down like a lead balloon. But Scott, unlike Derek, has the luxury of learning from Derek’s mistakes, and goes on to try a different, more successful approach. Even so, we’re given a shot from Liam’s perspective that shows a concerned, staring Scott in the distance, mirroring the way that Scott once likewise glimpsed a brooding Derek, and when Scott chases Liam through the woods behind Lydia’s lakehouse on the full moon, it deliberately echoes the way that Derek originally chased Scott. And both times, too, Chris Argent appears – but where, in Season 1, he was there to hunt werewolves, in Season 4, her’s there by request, to help Scott as a friend.

When it comes to learning control, however, Liam is far more reminiscent of Derek. In fact, he has diagnosed IED – Intermittent Explosive Disorder – and struggles to control his anger even as a human. But Derek has come a long way since Peter turned Scott, and is now much better placed to try and help. Peter himself, however, remains as wrathful as ever, his rage exemplified by his brutal murder of the Mute in 4.4 – The Benefactor. As he walks away from the body, this exchange takes place:

Derek: We’ve learned a better way!

Peter: I’m a creature of habit.

While Derek has evolved beyond his reliance on anger, seeking out new mentor relationships with men – like the Sheriff and Chris – who can teach him differently, Peter retains the aggressive mentality of a traditional alpha, which is how he still sees himself. Peter’s villainy is evident, not just in his consistently murderous actions, but in his refusal to try a different approach. Derek, by contrast, and despite the many mistakes he made during his own stint as an alpha, is actively trying to be a better person, and that makes all the difference.

This emphasis on valuing male compassion and empathy over physical aggression is evident in other aspects of the narrative, too. One of the most powerful examples of this comes in 2.11 – Battlefield, when Deaton and Scott show Isaac how werewolves can take pain from people and animals. Isaac, who has suffered years of physical and emotional abuse at the hands of his father, cries when he first relieves a dying dog’s pain, and as he looks between Deaton and Scott, it’s clear he’s expecting mockery or rebuke. But instead, Scott smiles at him and says, gently, “It’s OK. First time he showed me, I cried too.” Teenage boys emotionally supporting each other in non-toxic ways – and more, being mentored in that support by caring adults – is not something we see enough of on TV, let alone in contexts like this. Just as importantly, the lesson Isaac takes from this encounter is something he later passes on. In the wake of Allison’s death in 3.24 – The Divine Move, Isaac and Allison’s father, Chris, are left alone to grieve. Clearly struggling, Chris tries to make Isaac leave, prompting this exchange:

Chris: I appreciate the concern, but you don’t have to stay. I’ll be all right. I’ve dealt with this before. I have a capacity and… an ability to compartmentalise my emotions.

Isaac: I don’t.

It’s a simple, powerful admission, and one that allows Chris to step outside the harmful stoicism he’s trying to construct for himself. Instead, he hugs Isaac, and the two of them comfort each other. Nor is this the only time on Teen Wolfthat a grown man’s emotional withdrawal is questioned by the comparative openness of a teenage boy. After Scott’s father, Rafael, shoots and kills an assassin who was threatening Stiles, the two have a similar conversation about coping mechanisms in 4.8 – Time of Death:

Rafael: It’s not easy, taking a man’s life. Even when he forces you to do it.

Scott: How do you deal with it?

Rafael: You look at it logically, without emotion. You… you compartmentalise.

Scott: How do you do that?

Rafael: I used to do it by drinking.

Even without the added detail that Rafael is a former alcoholic whose marriage broke down as a direct result of his behaviour while drunk, it’s crystal clear from this exchange that unemotional compartmentalisation doesn’t work; that it is, in fact, a negative approach. Both these scenes stand as neat counterpoints to another father/son conversation much earlier in the show, between Sheriff John Stilinski and Stiles in 1.10 – Co-Captain. Having sneakily plied his father with alcohol in order to gain access to details of an ongoing police investigation, an already guilty Stiles becomes awkward when John tries to talk to him.

John: You know, I miss talking to you. It’s like we never have time –

Stiles: Gotta make a phone call, dad. Be right back.

John: I do. I miss it.

(Stiles gets up.)

John: I miss your mother.

(Stiles freezes.)

Stiles: What’d you say?

But John doesn’t answer, reaching for the bottle instead – only this time, instead of pouring him another glass, Stiles gently pulls it away. It’s a nuanced, moving scene: though Stiles’s mother has been dead for years, her loss is still an active part of both his and his father’s characterisation, and while (as this exchange demonstrates) they don’t always talk about her, the affection they have for each other is undeniable. Like Scott with his mother, Stiles doesn’t hesitate to tell his father he loves him, and even though they struggle at times, their relationship is always constructed as a loving negotiation: they might not always talk, but they both make an effort to communicate, which is ultimately the point.

Mothers and Daughters

For all that Teen Wolf makes an effort to engage in trope subversion and positive depictions of gender roles, it doesn’t always get things right, with the treatment of certain female characters being a case in point. The fact that Erica dies offscreen is a lingering source of disappointment, as is Allison’s final speech about how “perfect” it is to be dying in the arms of her “first love”. Both characters deserved better, and while Allison at least was given a nuanced, compelling emotional arc that neatly paralleled her development as a hunter, Erica was never really developed beyond her role as a teenage femme fatal. The end of Season 2 gave us a brief glimpse at her potential for complexity – her fear of how things had escalated, her desire to start over, and her relationship with Boyd, who was similarly underutilised – but it was too little, too late. That being said, and while it’s difficult to read between the lines, given that actress Gage Golightly was cast as the lead in a different TV show between the second and third seasons, it’s possible that her abortive arc – and, indeed, the sudden appearance of Cora, who fit the same place in the narrative – was the result of professional conflict rather than disinterest on the part of the writers. (This would also explain Cora’s midseason departure despite her family connection to Derek: Erica had always wanted to leave, and after Boyd’s death, it would have been natural for her to move away from Beacon Hills. But again, that’s speculation on my part.)

Erica’s role as an antagonistic blonde seductress stands as one of the more stereotypical things Teen Wolf has ever done, especially in terms of her attempts to “steal” Scott from Allison and her eventual fridging. However, with the exception of Erica – who is, if not quite a villain, then certainly not an ally, and for reasons completely unrelated to her sexuality – it’s notable that the other girls are never shown to compete with or belittle one another. The closest we come is in Season 1, when Lydia kisses Scott, but it’s never shown to compromise her friendship with Allison, who takes it in stride, extracts an apology, and carries on as normal. Girl hate and internalised misogyny are very real problems, both narratively and within wider culture, and it’s refreshing to find a show where, for all their different personalities and – at times – their conflicting romantic goals, Lydia, Allison, Kira and Malia are shown to be unfailingly supportive of one another. The fact that Allison and Kira in particular are shown fighting side by side, working as a seamless team, is especially important, as is the fact that Lydia goes out of her way to help Malia integrate academically.

Given the show’s frequent focus on male relationships, it’s important to note that female mentorship isn’t neglected, either. Though Allison’s relationship with both her mother, Victoria, and her aunt, Kate, is necessarily complicated, the narrative still paints them with the complexity and the respect they deserve, rather than reducing either woman to the role of straw villain. In 3.5 – Frayed, while Allison is struggling to calm down and stitch up a badly wounded Scott, it’s significant that she imagines Victoria talking her through the process. This vision of her mother isn’t bowdlerised, but every bit as fierce and demanding as we remember: whatever else Victoria Argent was, she inarguably had strength, and Allison draws on that to still her shaking hands. A parallel scene between another mother and daughter comes later, in 4.12 – Smoke and Mirrors, when a badly wounded Kira imagines her mother, Noshiko, teaching her how to jumpstart her kitsune healing. As with Victoria and Allison, the Noshiko that Kira conjures is just as calm and powerful as the original: these are warrior-mothers, and their daughters steady themselves by imagining, not their comfort, but their guidance.

The relationship between Lydia and her mother, Natalie, is of similar importance. Though a minor figure in the first two seasons, Natalie begins to make more of an appearance from Season 3 onwards, and after Lydia is strangled by the Darach, we’re shown a crucial moment between the two of them in 3.11 – Alpha Pact, when they contemplate Lydia’s bruised throat in front of a mirror:

Natalie: Okay, sweetheart. This is not a problem. Having gotten more than my share of hickeys in high school, I’ve developed some patented cover-up methods.

(Beat)

Natalie: You don’t want to go to school? You don’t have to.

Lydia: It’s not that. It’s just… Someone tried to strangle me. And I survived. I don’t need to hide that.

Natalie: No. No, you don’t.

By the same token, it’s noteworthy that we’re also given multiple mentorships that cross gender lines – women who mentor men, and vice versa, though narratively, the former is far less common. In a powerful scene at the start of 2.11 – Battlefield, we see Stiles confiding in the school counsellor and sometime emissary, Marin Morrell, about his fears and insecurities, while Scott’s positive relationship with Melissa frequently involves him turning to her for advice. In 3.13 –Anchors, when Scott is starting to lose control of the shift – partly due to the influence of the Nemeton, but also because of the permanency of his breakup with Allison, who used to be his anchor – Melissa gives him some of the best advice in the show:

Melissa: Sweetheart, let me tell you something no teenager ever believes, but I guarantee you is the absolute truth. You fall in love more than once. It will happen again. It will be just as amazing and extraordinary as the first time and maybe just as painful. But it’ll happen again. I promise. But until then, be your own anchor.

It’s excellent advice – and Scott, because he respects his mother, takes it.

Sex and Romance

Given Teen Wolf’s narrative emphasis on masculinity, the extent to which the show is nonetheless shot with the (straight) female gaze in mind is striking. While it’s understandable that a show about shapeshifters would feature a certain amount of obligatory shirtlessness, it’s noteworthy, not only that the camera routinely sexualises the male characters, but that it simultaneously declines to sexualise the women. We see far more male nudity than female, and the difference between, for instance, Lydia’s shower scene in 2.1 – Omega and Jackson’s in 2.7 – Restraint is clear: the camera is almost protective of Lydia, cutting and tilting to give her the maximum amount of privacy, while in Jackson’s case, we’re treated to panning, slow sweeps of almost his entire body. Nor is this distinction due to any meaningful difference in their personalities: Lydia, like Jackson, is an unapologetically sexual character, and in both scenes there’s an element of contextual vulnerability, with Lydia having just recovered from Peter’s attack and Jackson being controlled by Matt Daehler. Rather, the creators of Teen Wolf have seemingly made a conscious decision to take the female gaze as default, which is – like so much else in the show – unusual enough to be subversive.

It’s also worth noting that, when it comes to heterosexual romance scenes, Teen Wolf puts a subtle but significant emphasis on female pleasure. Given the ratings restrictions inherent in female top-half nudity, the virtual impossibility of pretending to touch someone’s breasts on camera without actually touching them and the fact that sex scenes featuring female orgasms are more likely to receive a higher rating, and you have a situation where sex and romance in TV land tends to fall into one of two categories: full-on, HBO-style nudity that’s overwhelmingly shot in the male gaze and oriented towards male pleasure, or encounters that start with kissing and end up under the (conveniently modest) sheets after an equally convenient fade-to-black, with the odd implied blowjob thrown in for good measure. As a result of this, the one thing you rarely see televised is foreplay: the kind of gentle-yet-sexy intimacy which, rather than reducing women to passive sexual subjects, paints them as the recipients of worship. But this is what Teen Wolf does, and does well. Without wanting to go into voyeuristic detail – which is, admittedly, difficult – the fact that we see Scott McCall kissing up his girlfriend’s neck in slow motion, touching her lightly, in shots that manage to highlight her enjoyment without objectifying her body, is almost as subversive a thing as seeing Ethan and Danny in bed together.

At the same time, we’re also given a cast of female characters who not only exhibit sexual agency, but who aren’t punished for doing so. Erica, whose status as an antagonistic bombshell makes her the most likely target for such policing, is never rebuked for her sexuality, but for her aggression and violence alone: whatever mistakes the show made with regard to her treatment and characterisation, slutshaming her was never among them. By the same token, Lydia, Allison and Malia are all allowed to take charge of their desires without criticism or censure, while Kira is never framed as prudish for appearing more hesitant. This positive acceptance of female desire is also what allows the show to distinguish Kate Argent’s treatment of Derek as abusive without making her sexuality synonymous with her evil, as is usually the case with sexy female villains. Thus, when Kate captures Derek in Season 1, he doesn’t banter with her about their past sexual relationship, as countless action heroes in the James Bond mode have done before and will doubtless do again; as though sex with a beautiful woman must necessarily be separate from her betrayal or abuse of him Because Men Love Sex Regardless Of Context. Instead, he goes quiet, his eyes and body-language screaming distress: he doesn’t want Kate to touch him at all, let alone sexually, and when she does, it’s arguably sexual assault on top of every other type of damage she’s inflicting.

Triskeles, The Threefold Death & Villainous Triptychs

From the outset, villainy in Teen Wolf is a complex thing. There’s never just a single adversary per season, and however clear someone’s motives are, there tends to be at least a smidge of moral ambiguity to keep things interesting. There is, however, a fascinating pattern to the show’s use of antagonists, and one that ties neatly into its thematic appreciation for threes. Derek’s triskele tattoo, we’re told, symbolises various threefold structures – alpha/beta/omega, mother/father/child, past/present/future – and in Season 3, the Darach’s ritual sacrifices, like those of so many ancient cultures, both come in threes and are executed using the threefold death. Similarly, the werewolf Sutomi trains her beta wolves to control the shift using a tripartite aphorism: “Three things cannot long be hidden – the sun, the moon, and the truth.” Triads are everywhere in Teen Wolf, and nowhere is this more apparent than in the show’s approach to its villains.

Because in every season – or rather, in every narrative arc, given the sharp division of Season 3 into two separate acts – there are three distinct types of antagonist: unambiguous monsters, those made monstrous by revenge, and those who have become the tools of monsters, their moral ambiguity subject to change and dependent on context. The pattern can be roughly broken down as follows:

Teen Wolf table

Beyond this outline, of course, the issue is more complicated. In Season 2, it’s arguable that Derek, Erica, Isaac and even Allison all count as ambiguous monsters at various times, given their fluctuating allegiances, while Victoria Argent’s strike against Scott and her unflinching support of Gerard arguably sets her alongside him, even though she plays a more minor role in the story. Similarly, while Noshiko originally summoned both the Nogitsune and the Oni in the second part of Season 3, and despite her threat to kill Stiles, the fact that she otherwise helps the protagonists suggests her character is more ambiguous than not; or at the very least, that it’s necessary to distinguish between her actions in the 1940s and her choices now. But while it’s possible to debate the specifics, the threefold nature of villainy in Teen Wolf is nonetheless clear, and constitutes a fascinating dialogue on the nature of victim/oppressor relationships and the cyclical nature of violence.

Because in every season, certain present conflicts are invariably shaped by historical crimes. Peter Hale’s revenge is monstrous – both in terms of his deliberate actions in Season 1, and the unintended consequences of his rage in Season 4 – but so are the crimes that were committed against his family. What Jennifer Blake does in her role as Darach is abhorrent, racking up the largest number of innocent victims of anyone in the series; but so, too, are Deucalion and the alpha pack, whose predations, past and future, she is trying both to revenge and prevent. Matt Daehler’s use of Jackson-as-kanima to take revenge on the people who nearly killed him is brutal and ugly and unforgivable, but the trauma he originally suffered at their hands was real, and all the more poisonous for going unacknowledged. And while Noshiko’s decision to summon the Nogitsune lead to the deaths of untold people, her desire to avenge the atrocities concealed at Oak Creek was wholly understandable. Especially given the latter’s connection to World War II, I can’t help but think of W. H. Auden’s poem about the same conflict, ‘1 September 1939′, and these lines in particular:

I and the public know

What all schoolchildren learn,

Those to whom evil is done

Do evil in return.

But for all that Teen Wolf is a show about different kinds of supernatural creatures, it remains consistent in its conviction that genuine evil is found in the absence of empathy; in the actions of those made radical by conviction or revenge, who don’t hesitate to end or threaten innocent lives if it gets them what they want. As Lydia says to Meredith in 4.10 – Monstrous, “Not all monsters do monstrous things.”

Evolving Roles

This being so, the fact that Teen Wolf allows its characters to move through various morally ambiguous states – to change sides, or repent, or relapse – is part of what makes it successful. As obvious as the theme may be in a show about werewolves, there’s a very real sense in which the narrative is primarily concerned with transformation: not just the bodily kind, but morally and emotionally. The shapeshifting concept first expressed in Season 2 – that sometimes, the shape you take reflects the person that you are – is more than just a literal conceit. At first glance, the wording seems to suggest that everyone has a set, predetermined nature: that your static, unchanging personhood reflects the kind of animal you become. But just as the colour of a werewolf’s eyes can change along with their status, so can a shifter’s new shape reflect their efforts at self-improvement. Thus, Jackson becomes the kanima because of his ugly nature, but transforms into a proper werewolf when his humanity is restored, while Derek becomes a full shift wolf by sacrificing himself for his friends, effectively gaining strength through his willingness to use it wisely.

Similarly, as the characters age and develop, the balance of power in their other relationships begins to change, too. In Season 4, Liam is introduced: a freshman whose anger, lacrosse skill and arrogance are deliberately evocative of the now-absent Jackson; as, indeed, is his friendship with Mason, a gay man of colour, which parallels Jackson’s relationship with Danny. As former targets of Jackson’s hostility, Scott and Stiles initially have a bad reaction to Liam – but where Jackson occupied a position of relative power over them, we’re very swiftly reminded that this isn’t the case with Liam, who is not only younger, but weaker, too. When Liam ends up injured after an encounter on the lacrosse field, Scott overhears him talking to his stepfather at the hospital, remorsefully stating that it was his own fault for going up against two older boys.

Particularly in terms of the persecution complex that traditionally accompanies characters like Scott and Stiles – that is, average, unpopular boys who only come into their strength after a certain amount of bullying and/or isolation – the fact that Teen Wolf explicitly shows the reversal of their circumstances is an incredibly powerful thing. However much Liam might remind us of Jackson, neither the audience nor the characters are allowed to think that this entitles Stiles and Scott to mistreat him out of some lingering sense of inferiority. And, to their credit, they learn the lesson quickly: instead of treating Liam as a rival, they try to support him instead, carrying on the show’s tradition of positive masculine guidance by becoming mentors in turn. Yet at the same time, the conflict that originally set them at odds – Scott’s fear that he’d lose the lacrosse captaincy to Liam – is addressed in a respectful way. As Scott frets over Liam’s injury in 4.3 – Muted, Stiles offers him necessary reassurance, not about his actions, but about the emotions underlying them:

Scott: If I hadn’t been so worried about being captain, he wouldn’t be hurt, either.

Stiles: It’s OK to want something for yourself once in a while – team captain, alpha werewolf. You’re still only human.

Just as Teen Wolf declines to perpetuate the idea of girl hate, so too does it decline to indulge the idea of toxic masculine hierarchies. Scott is allowed to feel threatened by Liam’s skill inasmuch as it potentially represents a loss for him, but this doesn’t mean he’s allowed to feel threatened by Liam himself – or that his fear entitles him to become to Liam what Jackson once was to him.

Race and Refrigerators

When it comes to death in Teen Wolf, there’s a niggling imbalance in terms of who tends to bite the dust. Of the five recurring, non-enemy-combatant characters who’ve definitely died – Allison, Victoria, Erica, Boyd and Aiden – three are white women, one is a man of colour, and one is a white man. Throw in the fact that several women with significant relationships to main characters have either died off screen or prior to the first episode – Stiles’s mother, Claudia, and his friend, Heather; Derek’s mother, Talia, and his sister, Laura; Malia’s mother and sister – and there’s an argument to be made that Teen Wolf has a women in refrigerators problem. At the same time, it’s important to acknowledge the show’s development in this respect: Allison’s departure from the main cast lead to the introduction of Kira and Malia as season regulars, and in a genre that usually privileges the resurrection of male characters while leaving women permanently dead, it’s not insignificant that the Season 3 finale saw Kate Argent return from the grave. That the show is steadily building a supporting cast of female characters – such as Braeden, Marin Morrell and Meredith – is another point in its favour, as is the increasing attention given to Melissa, Noshiko and Natalie. (And though it’s only a background detail rather than a point of active characterisation, I appreciated the fact that, as of Season 4, we know that Lydia’s grandmother was a computer programmer in a lesbian relationship with a woman who raced yachts. Sometimes, it’s the little things that make all the difference.)

Similarly, while the early seasons falter somewhat on the issue of race – Season 1 contains at least two cringeworthily stereotyped portrayals of black criminality that add absolutely nothing to the narrative – it’s an area in which the show consistently tries to improve, though with mixed results. The fact that it takes until Season 3 to officially confirm Melissa McCall as Hispanic and Scott as biracial, and then only fleetingly, can be taken either as an unnecessary delay or a minor detail, given that Scott is still being played by a biracial actor, and while both Braeden and Marin Morrell are compelling, powerful characters, the fact they both fit the stereotype of the tough, morally ambiguous black woman is a different problem. By the same token, your mileage may vary on whether Alan Deaton is a praiseworthy representation of black masculinity, in terms of being a calm, clever, highly intelligent and pacifistic character – which is also true of Liam’s stepfather, Dr Geyer – or if his status as an emissary and magical advisor to the protagonists needlessly evokes the magical negro trope. That Kira is a kitsune rather than a werewolf is arguably a respectful reflection of her Japanese heritage; the fact that she becomes instantly talented in fighting with a katana and nunchucks is less so. The fact that a not insignificant portion of the Season 3 plot involves active acknowledgement of the mistreatment of Japanese Americans during World War II is definitely a positive thing, historically speaking; and yet the WWII association remains firmly within the bailiwick of things which are common to Asian American narratives.

Yet at the same time, we also have unequivocally positive characters like Scott, Danny and Mason, who are not only active subversions of stereotype, but original, compelling individuals in their own right. Danny in particular is a warm, funny, complex person: an openly gay athlete who’s also a musician, good with computers and incredibly sweet to his boyfriend. Though his departure from the show is never explained, his final appearance with Ethan, in which he reveals that he’s known about werewolves all along, is both cathartic and touching, and one of my favourite moments in the entire series. Television needs more characters like Danny Mahealani, and hopefully his popularity will lead to the creation of others like him.

All of which is a way of saying that race, like so much else, is a complex issue. But although Teen Wolf stumbles at times, their overall efforts at creating a subversive, diverse and affirmative story are sincere – and while this doesn’t exempt the show from criticism, it does go some way towards creating a sense of trust.

Strength and Mental Illness

An area in which the show manifestly succeeds, however, is in its portrayals of mental illness, strength and disability. Throughout the course of the show, both Scott and Stiles are shown to suffer from panic attacks – Scott once, and Stiles repeatedly – and in every instance, their reactions are validated. In a show filled with alpha werewolves and evil druids, one of the most genuinely frightening episodes revolves around Stiles’s stay in Eichen House, a private mental health facility. The cruel, manipulative presence of the corrupt orderly, Brunski, is chillingly felt, while the depiction of institutional abuse is of power is all the more affecting for being realistic. The fact that both Stiles and Lydia are shown in counselling sessions with Marin Morrell – and, at least in Stiles’s case, making sincere use of them – is a testament to the seriousness with which the show treats mental health. Though more than one episode makes use of hallucinogenic visions as a means of revealing inner conflict, the idea of characters “going crazy” in these moments is never trivialised. Though Scott, Stiles and Allison all suffer from anxiety, nightmares and a variety of other symptoms in the wake of their interaction with the Nemeton, the fact that their problems have an ostensibly magical origin isn’t used to diminish or deny their genuine psychological impact, and especially in the case of Stiles, whose possession by the Nogitsune leads him to experience the same neurological symptoms of the dementia that killed his mother, it’s made clear that making pedantic distinctions between the magical, the physical and the mental is vastly less important than addressing the actual psychological consequences of their presence.

This same logic is evident, not only in the show’s refusal to either handwave Meredith’s instability as a consequence of her banshee status or to diminish its impact for the same reason, but in its handling of suicidal ideation in the harrowing 3.6 – Motel California. When wolfsbane poisoning causes Boyd, Ethan and Scott to all attempt suicide in a motel famous for the number of guests who’ve killed themselves while staying there, it falls to Lydia, Allison and Stiles to save them. The respective rescues of Boyd and Ethan are tense enough – Lydia uses fire to jolt them out of their trances – but when they encounter Scott, who’s doused himself in gasoline, it ends up being Stiles who talks him down, stepping into the danger zone in order to keep him safe. Though the incident is ultimately instigated by magic, the fact that Scott has suffered enough trauma by this point for his despair to be heartfelt is neither elided nor diminished. Stiles saves Scott, not by pointing out that his behaviour is being influenced by outside factors and getting him to ‘snap out of it,’ as is so often – and unhelpfully – the case in such narratives; instead, he appeals to the bond between them, and risks his life to affirm what Scott means to him.

Earlier in the same episode, and in a much less fraught conversation, Ethan asks Danny about the scars on his chest. It’s not just an idle question: as is the case with Scott’s chronic asthma and Erica’s epilepsy, turning into a werewolf has the ability to heal, not just physical injuries, but certain medical conditions. Though there was an element of physical seduction in the way that Derek persuaded Erica to accept the bite, it’s made clear on multiple occasions that her primary reason for accepting was to cure her epilepsy, and while Scott was bitten against his will, he nonetheless enjoys the benefits of no longer being asthmatic. This being so, the subsequent conversation between Ethan and Danny is an incredibly significant one, not only in terms of their respective characterisation, but because it constitutes an acknowledgement that disability and illness can be part of a person’s identity, and not something that everyone would necessarily want to have ‘cured’ or erased if the option presented itself:

Danny: It was surgery to correct misshapen cartilage I was born with. I had a metal bar put in when I was fourteen. It stayed there for two years to support my sternum so my lungs wouldn’t be crushed.

Ethan: What if there was a way they could disappear?

Danny: I don’t really want them to. I like them. They make me feel like a survivor.

Similarly, and as per the events of the previous episode, 3.5 – Frayed, it’s relevant to acknowledge that not even werewolf healing powers can protect against ailments with a psychological cause. Mistakenly believing himself to be responsible for Derek’s death, Scott is being steadily incapacitated by an injury his body refuses to heal. Typically, it’s Lydia who correctly diagnoses the problem:

Lydia: You know, it could be psychological.

Stiles: What do you mean? Like psychosomatic?

Lydia: Somatoformic. A physical illness from a psychogenic cause. Yes, it’s all in his head.

Stiles: Because of Derek. He’s not letting himself heal because Derek died.

Allison: Then what do we do?

Lydia: Stitch him up. I’m serious. Maybe all he has to do is believe he’s healing.

Which is a neat parallel to a similar incident in 1.8 – Lunatic, when Scott has a panic attack. On that occasion, it’s Stiles who figures out the solution, which is to give Scott his now-defunct inhaler:

Scott: I… I was having an asthma attack?

Stiles: No, you were having a panic attack. But thinking you were having an asthma attack stopped the panic attack.

Scott: How did you know to do that?

Stiles: I used to get them after my mom died. Not fun, huh?

In both instances, the fact that Scott has werewolf healing doesn’t prevent him from experiencing physical symptoms as a result of mental and emotional distress – and in a cultural context that all too often dismisses mental illness as illusory or as little more than attention-seeking behaviour, Teen Wolf’s treatment of the issue comes across as both respectful and validating.

Onwards to Season 5

For all its flaws and foibles, Teen Wolf stands out, not just as a compelling young adult paranormal show, but as a compelling show, period. With its strong ensemble cast, triptych antagonists, complex narratives and an ongoing commitment to diverse, respectful storytelling, Teen Wolf is a show I desperately want to see more of, and more like. With the Season 4 finale leaving just enough dangling narrative threads to whet the appetite – the as-yet unknown identity of Malia’s mother, the Desert Wolf; Derek’s newfound transformation; the supernatural holding cells beneath Eichen House; Rafael’s hanging request that Scott tell him the truth about Beacon Hills; the creation of Kira’s first tail – I can’t wait to see what the subsequent seasons bring. Teen Wolf is an engaging, remarkable, powerful show, and I’m indebted to Jeff Davis for creating it.

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A couple of years ago, I went with a friend to see a children’s show as part of the Melbourne Comedy Festival. It was based around the conceit of a magic pencil: there was an interactive screen where a digital cartoon character interacted with images the (male) comedian drew in real-time, with a pre-recorded voice providing one half of their conversation. At four different points, the comedian asked for child volunteers to come up onto the stage and have themselves drawn, with the subsequent caricatures becoming part of the show. It was a small audience mostly comprised of young children and their parents – my friend and I were almost the only exceptions to this – and whenever the call came for volunteers, a sea of eager little hands would stretch into the air.

Sitting directly in front of us was a pigtailed girl, aged about seven, who desperately wanted to participate. Each time she wasn’t chosen, she slumped down dejectedly in her seat, only to spring straight back up again at the next opportunity. There were easily as many girls as boys in the audience, with an equal parity in the number of hands raised; and yet the comedian never picked a girl. The fourth and final time her hand went ignored, the girl in front of us let out a frustrated sigh and exclaimed, ‘He’s only choosing boys!’ Both her outrage at this situation and her powerlessness to correct it were fully evident in her voice, and I felt myself getting angry. I’d noticed the same problem, and hearing it summed up by a child in tones that suggested she’d witnessed the problem before made me utterly disconnect from the show. I tried to think of reasons why the comedian had chosen only boys. Maybe he thought their facial features would make for better caricatures; or perhaps he was worried that the good-natured teasing with which he accompanied his drawings might be more likely to upset a little girl. Maybe he was simply picking the first hand he saw, regardless of who it belonged to. Most likely, though, he didn’t even realise he’d done it: whatever other planning he’d put into his act, the idea of trying to choose two boys and two girls for the sake of equality seemed never to have occurred to him.

When the show was over, I caught sight of the little girl on the way out. She looked forlorn and sad, which is hardly the reaction that a children’s comedy show is meant to provoke, and I left feeling dejected and furious that a seven-year-old girl had already learned that sometimes, it doesn’t matter how badly you want something or how high you raise your hand: just being female is enough to make you invisible. For whatever reason, the comedian hadn’t seen her or any of the other girls in the audience, and no matter how benign the reasons for that blindness might have been, it had unquestionably had consequences.

Earlier in the year, an eagle-eyed blogger used word clouds to illustrate the boy/girl gendered language of toy advertisements. A recent article discussing gender reveal parties hosted by expectant parents shows a sample invitation which reads, “Boy or girl? Astronaut or ballerina? Come spend the afternoon with us when we find out!” Then there are images of congratulatory cards for new parents, where baby boys are praised as brilliant, while baby girls are called beautiful. Children’s books are rife with male characters, but women? Not so much. No sooner is their gender known than children are defined by it: pink for girls, blue for boys, baby dolls for girls, action heroes for boys, kitchens for girls, tools for boys, ponies for girls, cars for boys, and God help any child who wants to play with both.

All this gendering, and then we have the temerity to act surprised and shocked when a seven-year-old girl can clearly and comprehensively identify when she is being discriminated against on the basis of being female.

Early in primary school, I had a friend called Ben. We’d hang out together at lunch and recess and sit together in class, which felt like a fairly normal thing to do. This was not, however, a universally held sentiment: one of the boys in the year above, called Tim, thought there was something deeply wrong with a boy and girl being friends – or, more specifically, he thought that we couldn’t possibly be just friends, and so took to seeking us out on the playground for the sole purpose of first declaring us to be a couple and then taunting us for it. Neither of us liked this, but it was harder on Ben than me. I have a very clear memory of us sitting down together one lunch, only to find that Tim was, as usual, heading straight for us. Ben looked at me and said, ‘I think we’d better split’ – both serious and sad. I nodded, and up he got, walking away to find someone else to talk to. Tim saw this and grinned in triumph, having  accomplished what had evidently been his mission all along: to split us up.

Tim was six when this happened; Ben and I were five. I very much doubt that Tim’s parents ever sat him down and explain that boys and girls being friends was wrong – it would be as ludicrous as suggesting that adults invented the idea of girl germs and boy germs (or, for the Americans, cooties). Nor do children instinctively police each other along gender lines; certainly, Ben and I never did. But we are not raised in a vacuum, and if, from minute one of their lives, you call half the children Blue and the other half Pink; if you dress them differently, give them different toys, tell them different stories, praise them for different qualities, rebuke them for different transgressions, encourage them at different activities and actively enforce all these differences on the basis of gender (‘No, sweetie, that one’s for boys!’), then the inevitable consequence of sending them off to interact in an environment where, true to form, all the Pinks are wearing dresses and all the Blues are wearing shorts, is that even a fucking five-year-old will start to think that boys and girls talking is wrong.

Nobody has told them this explicitly.

Nobody has had to.

Writing about this week’s controversy over gay characters being removed from YA novels (excellent summations of which can be found here and here), author N. K. Jemisin says, “As many have pointed out, we live in a world full of bigotry but no bigots. No one wants to claim their own little slice of the Contributing to the Problem pie, even though everyone should get a little.” Giving her keynote address at the recent Tights and Tiaras conference on female superheroes and media cultures, author Karen Healey talked about the cultural reasons why women who otherwise love SF, fantasy, comics, fanfiction and superheroes end up steering clear of mainstream superhero comics and comic stores – specifically, about the idea that the prevalence of sexism and objectification of women at the level of both the narratives of said comics and the creative processes which create them are, not surprisingly, offputting to female readers.  And at the end of last year, an American mother blogged about what happened when her five-year-old son dressed up as Daphne from Scooby Doo for Halloween; how other mothers attacked her for it, saying that I should never have ‘allowed’ this and thank God it wasn’t next year when he was in Kindergarten since I would have had to put my foot down and ‘forbidden’ it.

I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again – and will keep saying it forever, because it will never cease to be true: we are all a product of culture. Five-year-old children experience discrimination from parents, from their peers and from society –  because they’re boys who dress like girls, because they’re girls who want to be friends with boys, because they have the temerity to be different – but when the question of why comes up, we never consider that all those seemingly innocuous things like toy choice and clothing colours and storybooks might have something to do with it; that when you pile up all the individual molehills of culture, the end result really is a mountain. Most of us were raised this way, and we continue to raise more children along the same lines – because what’s wrong with girls being girls and boys being boys? Children are just like that. Well, of course they are, if that’s how you insist on raising them. And then those children grow up into teenagers, the primary demographic for so much of our culture, and while many of them are increasingly savvy about the subtleties of the gender biases that govern their existence, many more aren’t; and that means that they don’t question cultural output whose tropes are reflective of those biases. And after all, why would they be? Isn’t the world just like that? Well, of course it is, if nobody tries to make it otherwise.

And then publishing companies and advertising agencies and Hollywood and every other organisation who sells things for a living looks at the buying habits of the general, youthful populace says, It’s not that we’re bigoted, but books about gay teenagers don’t sell and neither do comic books where the women aren’t sexualised or films where the leads aren’t white. And I’m sick of it, because if all the excuse-mongering about demographics and target audiences by people who should know better is to be believed, then the whole of Western creative industry is made up exclusively of lovely, unbigoted people who are the friends of other lovely, unbigoted people forced by circumstances beyond their control to make books and films and comics and toys along bigoted lines, because apparently the entire creative monopoly of unbigoted editors, writers, agents, artists, filmmakers and producers constitutes such a powerless minority voice that they couldn’t possibly hope to change the standards they purport to hate, and anyway, it’s not like they’re in charge of our culture – oh, wait, it is.

The moral of this story is: don’t take culture for granted, because if there’s one thing it exists to do, it’s change. Our whole society is Theseus’ Ship, and the sooner we realise our collective power to tear down broken parts and replace them with things that work, the better. Especially those of us who tell stories; and doubly for those of us who tell stories to children and teenagers. To quote the Witch from Into the Woods:

Careful the things you say; children will listen. 

 

 

Recently, N. K. Jemisin wrote an excellent piece on the limitations of womanhood in fantasy.  Together with Kate Beaton’s take on Strong Female Characters, Kate Elliott’s discussion of gender and culture, and Overthinking It’s analysis of why strong female characters are bad for women, the essay illuminates an increasingly problematic disjunction in our treatment of femininity. The success of feminism means that women can now choose to live beyond the confines of their traditional roles; but despite/because of that freedom, there’s a fearful sort of disparagement reserved for women who still elect to be wives and mothers, or who shoulder the bulk of domestic duties. As though, somehow, feminism has made all such occupations redundant; as though a perfectly equal society is one in which nobody ever has to get married, give birth or do the washing-up. Doubtless there’s some who’d call such a world Utopia, which is fair enough. But here in reality, being a stay-at-home mother isn’t the same as being anti-feminist, and the definition of a strong female character is not exclusively one who eschews domesticity – or love, for that matter.

Commenting on Jemisin’s post, one woman remarked:

“Sure, the romance narrative is helping sell the books, and I freely admit I eat that stuff up, but… reliance on that central romantic narrative undercuts female power pretty dramatically. The entire story basically becomes a failed Bechdel test, even if it passes technically.”

Which is another way of saying that romance in narrative is innately anti-feminist. Frankly, it’s a sentiment which terrifies and chills me, not least because of the way in which it echoes the historical discrimination against working women who dared to get married. Find a man, this logic went, and you loose your credibility: married women should be (or are, depending on your preferred flavour of sexism) incapable of devoting time, effort and intelligence to anything other than marriage itself, and therefore can’t be trusted in the workforce. The modern version is subtler. In this scenario, women shouldn’t (or don’t, depending on your preferred flavour of feminism) need men to fulfill them; positive depictions of male/female romance contradict this tenet by linking happiness with heterosexual  romance, and are therefore anti-feminist. To be clear: the overwhelming preference of our culture for embedding marriage as the standard Happily Ever After is still problematic, as is the marginalization of happy non-hetero love and the idea that singleness is always the same as loneliness. What I’m objecting to is the idea that being romantically involved with men is, by itself, enough to undermine the feminist worth of female characters.

Imagine a group of macho men disparaging love as ‘chick stuff’ and an affront to masculinity, calling their married friends pussy-whipped and questioning the manhood (not to say intelligence) of any man who changes his lifestyle for the sake of a woman; the whole ‘bros before hos’ nine yards. Ugly, right? Then imagine a group of modern women disparaging love as a means of patriarchal control and an affront to feminism, calling their married friends submissive backsliders and challenging the feminist cred (not to say intelligence) of any woman who changes her lifestyle for the sake of a man; the whole ‘housewives and breeders’ manifesto.

Yeah. Still ugly.

To wax briefly lyrical, love is the great leveler: if you don’t lose your dignity at some point during the process, then I’d contend that you’re doing it wrong. Sometimes, and as treacherous an idea as it might seem to our sensibilities, loving another person does fulfill us in a way that nothing else can; nonetheless, love is not our only means of fulfillment, nor even – necessarily – the most important. Love is unique; it fascinates and enthralls. As countless narratives from Harry Potter to Pride and Prejudice have been at pains to point out, neither love nor loving is a weakness. Which isn’t to say that love is never destructive, ill-conceived, fleeting, hurtful, wrongheaded, violent or stubborn. It can be all that and more – but the saving grace is, it can also be exultant, glorious, unexpected and gleeful. Contrary creatures that we are, it can sometimes even be all those things at once. To quote e.e. cummings, whose wisdom in such matters is unparalleled:

‘and being here imprisoned, tortured here

love everywhere exploding maims and blinds

(but surely does not forget,perish,sleep

cannot be photographed,measured;disdains

the trivial labeling of punctual brains…’

That being said, I’m not about to issue a blanket indemnity for each and every romance ever written. Just as many real-world relationships are abusive, one-sided, airheaded and/or undertaken for all the wrong reasons, so too can narrative relationships turn toxic. The vital point here is whether the author intended the relationship to be positive or negative or somewhere in between, to what purpose, and whether or not they’ve succeeded. In this as in so many things, your mileage may vary; but more of that shortly. Assuming momentarily that adherence to feminist canon must always be the rubric by which we gauge the narrative success or failure of fictional relationships (it’s not, but that’s another post entirely), failure on that count isn’t the same thing as failure overall. By which I mean: a story which deliberately chronicles the ups and downs of a negative relationship is not automatically anti-feminist. But wait, you cry: weren’t you asserting only moments ago that positive relationships were the problem? Well, hypothetical reader, I’m glad you asked me that, because the sad fact is that some proponents of this view will have you coming and going. Negative hetero relationships are called anti-feminist because, nine times out of ten, they show women being mistreated by men, which – yes – is awful, but frequently on purpose, which is to say, the mistreatment is written deliberately to raise exactly this point; which is to say, a point that some commentators – not many, but enough to notice the pattern – persist in missing. But positive relationships are still called anti-feminist, too, because isn’t it just so contrived and backwards and cliche that a heterosexual woman might fall in love with a man, or want to? Why is it even necessary?

Look, you got me: it’s not necessary (or at least, not necessary to everyone). That doesn’t make it irrelevant, and it certainly doesn’t make it unrealistic. I mean, dragons aren’t necessary, and they’re still fucking awesome – but hey, if you don’t like dragons? Maybe read a unicorn book! Or something.

This is why I get irked when novels – or more specifically, their romantic plotlines – are reviewed in line with this somewhat warped version of feminism. To directly refute the Jemisin commenter, you do not fail the Bechdel test by having your heroine fall in love, even if it’s with an awesome, powerful dude; but perhaps you do fail at writing a feminist heroine if, for whatever reason, love turns her into a doormat and her love interest into a douche without any indication that this is, in fact, suboptimal. Similarly, to play something of a strawman argument – and without wanting in any way to suggest that lesbian relationships aren’t legitimate, beautiful, awesome things – having your heroine fall in love with a lady does not automatically make her more feminist than if she falls in love with a dude; so why would heterosexuality prove a feminist handicap? So often in these debates, I feel like narrative context becomes optional in assessing a story’s merits; we get hung up on whether or not the heroine is making the same choices we would under the same circumstances when the whole point is that the story’s not about us.

Returning finally to the subject of strong female characters, then, wives and mothers of any kind are no more anti-feminist than kickass warriors in skintight leather with multiple sexual partners are the feminist ideal. Suggestions to the contrary may well be a fault of terminology; despite appearances, the strong in strong female character doesn’t refer exclusively to physical attributes, but rather to strength of character – interesting, three-dimensional ladies with a range of capabilities, backgrounds and interests being, for my money, a far more workable and compelling definition than just ladies who can fight. But then again, I’m happily married, so I guess that means my life fails the Bechdel by default.

Rats. And I felt so strong, too.

Gina, in the scientific world, when they see that something is happening again and again and again, repeatedly, they don’t call it old hat. They call it a pattern.

John Clarke, The Games, IOC Man

Something that’s bothered me for a while now is the current profligacy in YA culture of Team Boy 1 vs Team Boy 2 fangirling. Beginning with Team Edward vs Team Jacob in the Twilight fandom and expanding rapidly to other series – such as Jace vs Simon and Will vs Jem in Cassandra Clare’s The Mortal Instruments and The Infernal Devices respectively, Daniel vs Cam in Lauren Kate’s Fallen, and Dimitri vs Adrian in Richelle Mead’s Vampire Academy, to name but a few – the phenomenon has arisen as a natural consequence of so many boy-girl-boy love triangles. Despite the fact that I have no objection to shipping, this particular species of team-choosing troubled me, though I had difficulty understanding why. Then I saw it applied to Suzanne Collins’s The Hunger Games trilogy – Team Peeta vs Team Gale – and all of a sudden it hit me that anyone who thought romance and love-triangles were the main event in that series had utterly missed the point. Sure, those elements are present in the story, but they aren’t anywhere near being the bones of it, because The Hunger Games, more than anything else, is about war, survival, politics, propaganda and power. Seeing such a strong, raw narrative reduced to a single vapid argument – which boy is cuter? – made me physically angry.

So, look. People read different books for different reasons. The thing I love about a story are not necessarily the things you love, and vice versa. But riddle me this: are the readers of these series really so excited, so thrilled by the prospect of choosing! between! two! different! boys! that they have to boil entire narratives down to a binary equation based on male physical perfection and, if we’re very lucky, chivalrous behaviour? While feminism most certainly champions the right of women to chose their own partners, it also supports them to choose things besides men, or to postpone the question of partnership in favour of other pursuits – knowledge, for instance. Adventure. Careers. Wild dancing. Fun. Friendship. Travel. Glorious mayhem. And while, as a woman now happily entering her fourth year of marriage, I’d be the last person on Earth to suggest that male companionship is inimical to any of those things, what’s starting to bother me is the comparative dearth of YA stories which aren’t, in some way, shape or form, focussed on Girls Getting Boyfriends, and particularly Hot Immortal Or Magical Boyfriends Whom They Will Love For All Eternity.

Possibly I say this because the prospect of having ended up married to, vampirised by or otherwise magically linked with any of the boys I crushed on and lusted after in high school is a grim and frightening one, even if they had all looked like GQ cover models and been in a position to shower me with riches. (They didn’t, and weren’t.) As a fantasist, I well understand the power of escapism, particularly as relates to romance. But when so many stories aimed at the same audience all trumpet the same message – And Lo! There shall be Two Hot Boys, one of them your Heart’s Intended, the other a vain Pretender who is also hot and with whom you shall have guilty makeouts before settling down with your One True Love – I am inclined to stop viewing the situation as benign and start wondering why, for instance, the heroines in these stories are only ever given a powerful, magical destiny of great importance to the entire world so long as fulfilling it requires male protection, guidance and companionship, and which comes to an end just as soon as they settle their inevitable differences with said swain and start kissing. Notable exceptions to this theme can be found in the works of Tamora Pierce and Scott Westerfeld (for starters), but they’re bucking the trend, not starting one. And that worries me.

As the creeper that girdles the tree-trunk

the Law runneth forwards and back —

For the strength of the Pack is the Wolf,

and the strength of the Wolf is the Pack.

– Rudyard Kipling, The Jungle Book

I’ve been trying to find a clear, clean word or phrase to express myself in this post, sadly without much luck. But what I mean to invoke is something of the danger of mob rule, only applied to narrative and culture. Viz: that the comparative harmlessness of individuals does not prevent them from causing harm en masse. Take any one story with the structure mentioned above, and by itself, there’s no problem. But past a certain point, the numbers begin to tell – and that poses a tricky question. In the case of actual mobs, you’ll frequently find a ringleader, or at least a core set of agitators: belligerent louts who stir up feeling well beyond their ability to contain it. In the case of novels, however, things aren’t so clear cut. Authors tell the stories they want to tell, and even if a number of them choose to write a certain kind of narrative either in isolation or inspired by their fellows, holding any one of them accountable for the total outcome would be like trying to blame an avalanche on a single snowflake. Certainly, we may point at those with the greatest (arguable) influence or expostulate about creative domino effects, but as with the drop that breaks the levee, it is impossible to try and isolate the point at which a cluster of stories became a culture of stories – or, for that matter, to hold one particular narrative accountable for the whole.

By way of demonstration, consider the following two articles: Women in Refrigerators, by Gail Simone, and Who Cares About The Death Of A Gay Superhero, Anyway?, by Perry Moore. Both pieces are concerned – legitimately – with the depowerment, torture and generally horrific abuse leveled at female and gay characters within the comics industry, by way of the comics themselves. Reading through the respective lists, there’s a grim inevitability to the conclusion that something, somewhere has gone horribly wrong. But when it comes to the reactions of creators whose works appear on the list, as Simone puts it in a conversation with Tom Peyer,

Every writer has jumped in with a defense of why they stuck THIS one in the fridge.

And the thing is, they’re not entirely wrong to defend their work, particularly if the aim is to counter the suggestion, however reasonable in the big picture, that they’re contributing to a wider, negative culture. Context is everything in both narrative and real life, and while the accusation is never that these creators deliberately set out to discriminate against gay and female characters, the unavoidable implication is that they should have known better than to add to the sum total of those stories which, en masse, do exactly that. And if the listmakers can identify the trend so thoroughly – if, despite all the individual qualifications, protests and contextualisations of the authors, these problems can still be said to exist – then the onus, however disconnected from the work of any one individual, nonetheless falls to those individuals, in their role as cultural creators, to acknowledge the problem; to do better next time; perhaps even to apologise. This last is a particular sticking point. By and large, human beings tend not to volunteer apologies for things they perceive to be the fault of other people, for the simple reason that apology connotes guilt, and how can we feel guilty – or rather, why should we – if we’re not the ones at fault? But while we might argue over who broke a vase, the vase itself is still broken, and will remain so, its shards ground into the carpet, until someone decides to clean it up.

In the end, it all comes down to individual preference and a willingness to change. I love a bit of romance with my stories, but when I look at the culture being created around true love in YA, it’s not something I want to be a part of. Even though I could explain, with eloquence and conviction, why the perennial woman in the freezer belongs in certain of my plots, having looked at it this way around, I don’t want her there. And so I go back to the drawing board and ask myself, how else can I write this story?

And the whole world answers: let me tell you.

Elsewhere on the internets, authors N.K. Jemisin and Kate Elliott (among others) have been speculating on the question of whether women write epic fantasy differently to men, and if so, to what extent that difference might be off-putting to male readers. A key aspect of this discussion hinges on sexuality – specifically, the question of the male gaze versus the female gaze. It is not unreasonable to assume that straight male writers are more likely to describe their heroines in sexual terms than they are their heroes, and vice versa in the case of their straight female counterparts: after all, most authors borrow from their own experience. This isn’t to say that straight writers never sexualise their own gender, but either consciously or unconsciously, some readers might well be gauging new books on the basis of the author’s chromosomes – and perhaps they’re not entirely wrong to do so.

Looking back on my own early introduction to epic fantasy, it’s easy to detect a pattern of preference for female writers. Beginning with Sara Douglass and Anne McCaffrey, I soon discovered the works of Robin Hobb, Katharine Kerr and Elliott herself, all of whom remain favourites to this day. Tolkien, by contrast, took me much longer: though I enjoyed The Hobbit as a pre-teen, it took me several abortive attempts before I finally finished the entire Lord of the Rings trilogy. Though (male) friends urged me to try David Eddings, Raymond E. Feist, Terry Goodkind and Robert Jordan, the results were mixed: I never got into Eddings, was frustrated by the extent to which Feist had cribbed his worldbuilding from The Silmarillion, hated Goodkind’s obsession with sexual violence and couldn’t push myself past the first book of Jordan’s mammoth series. Not that I eschewed all male-authored epics – George R. R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire and Tad Williams’s Otherland Quartet are both absolutely incredible. But though I’ve certainly disliked and/or abandoned epic series written by women, it seems my conceptions of the genre have been primarily formed by works which are either written in the female gaze, or which feature female POV protagonists who share equally in that role with men.

Possibly this makes me unusual, but I suspect not. There must be other women readers who discovered epic fantasy at a time when there were at least as many female-authored series on offer as male, and who gravitated towards those books, not because they were making a conscious decision to read within their gender, but because they were offered a choice, and simply found that those were the books they tended to prefer. But even given that bias, I still enjoy books written in the male gaze, Joe Abercrombie’s breathtaking First Law series and The Name of the Wind by Patrick Rothfuss being two recent cases in point. Despite how the previous paragraph might serve to characterise my tastes, I have no objection whatever to reading in the male gaze, provided the story itself has caught my attention (as, of course, all stories must, regardless of who writes them). But were I to conduct a thorough, honest assessment of my favourite novels and authors, though both genders would be represented, books featuring the female gaze would dominate. As I am not a robot, my predilections are not conveniently fifty-fifty, but because I don’t disqualify books from my reading list on the basis of probable gaze alone, I don’t think that’s a problem.

What is problematic, and what prompted Jemisin to write her own piece on the topic, is the number of male readers who find themselves so disquieted by the presence of the female gaze in epic fantasy as to question whether those stories qualify as epic fantasy at all, or who, at the very least, are hesitant to read them. After all, the genre was begun by a man, and many of its seminal works are written predominantly in the male gaze: surely this implies a certain heritage, a certain focus, which is less to do with gender than it is the definition of genre? Why, if I can admit my own gender bias, am I so concerned with the idea that some male readers might have a different one?

Regarding the first of those questions, I’m sympathetic to the idea that a certain percentage of the epic fantasy readership was drawn to the genre by what were, at least originally, a fairly specific set of narrative parameters, and who now see those strictures being undermined or ignored by later writers. In terms of how epic fantasy has been changing over the past few decades, gender is far from being the only relevant factor. Traditional high fantasy, sword-and-sorcery epics are, if not on the wane, then in increasing competition with grittier, darker, unromantic works on the one hand, and more complex, multicultural, morally ambiguous tales on the other. That’s not a perfect binary division by any means, nor is it a sliding scale,  but by virtue of being a comparatively subconscious consideration in all of this, it’s arguable that the gender question has become emblematic of the more obvious changes in epic fantasy. With extraordinary works like Jemisin’s The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms and Elliott’s Crossroads trilogy contributing to the move away from eurocentric mythologies, heterosexuality as standard and all-white casts, I can see how, for some readers, modern epic fantasy is not their epic fantasy – and as their epic fantasy came first, it must therefore be the true epic fantasy, an undisputed benchmark these other books simply don’t meet. Rubbing salt in the wound is the fact that they never attempted to do so.

I understand that. I do. But that doesn’t make it right. Because there is simply no such thing as a static culture – or rather, there is, and it is synonymous with dead culture. There is no law forcing these readers to like Jemisin’s work, or Elliott’s, any more than I’m required to like Terry Goodkind. But my dislike of Goodkind doesn’t allow me to claim his books aren’t epic fantasy, even though the themes and plot devices which characterise his work don’t line up with what I love about the genre, and which for me define it. And in fact, to return to the topic of the female/male gaze as specific to depictions of sexuality, Goodkind’s work provides a different kind of test case: whether or not a book which features descriptions of sex can still be described as epic fantasy. Having read the first four volumes of his Sword of Truth series, I can confidently vouch not only for their sexual content, but for the fact that those scenes are written firmly in the male gaze. Despite this, nobody has ever suggested that Terry Goodkind is anything other than a writer of epic fantasy. So the idea that the sexual content of Jemisin’s work (for instance) is enough to disqualify it from the genre seems ludicrous. The objection isn’t to the presence of sex at all – it’s to the idea of sex written from the female gaze, and while that might be a legitimate hurdle for some male readers, or to readers of any gender who object to reading about sex, it is firmly a question of individual taste, not genre.

Which leads us on to a meatier, more complex question: why, if this debate is really based on personal gender preferences, do I care about the intransigence of a particular set of male readers? After all, not only have I acknowledged my own biases, but I’ve stated a belief that having a perfect fifty-fifty split is neither automatic nor necessarily desirable. Well, yes – but to me, there’s something significant in the fact that, while women might prefer books written from the female gaze, we are also happy to read about the male gaze, too. In point of fact, we are allowed to do so, because it is, to a certain extent, expected. I don’t just mean that in the sense of early epic writers being mostly male, either. It’s that socially, a consequence of feminism has been the acceptance of feminine enjoyment of what used to be solely masculine pursuits. As a child, I was able to dress in blue, wear pants, play with trucks and aspire to be an astronaut if I wanted. I did experience a certain level of censure for my tomboyishness at various points, but by and large, society was on my side. Today’s girls can act like yesterday’s boys. But today’s boys cannot act like yesterday’s girls without encountering a much more extreme reaction. Any little boy who wants to dress in pink, wear skirts, play with dolls and grow up to be a ballerina will instantly find the world a more hostile place than I ever did. From the outset, his sexual orientation will be suspect. Because his behaviour runs counter to the social norm, he will be ostracised and declared unmasculine.

What does all this mean for male readers of books written from the female gaze? Simply this: that some may feel they lack the social permission to enjoy them. Arguably, the traditions and origins of epic fantasy make the male gaze an expected default, no matter the author’s gender – Robin Hobb’s Farseer trilogy, for instance, is written from the first person perspective of a straight male protagonist. It must therefore come as a shock to some male readers to encounter a book whose sexual moments describe, not the woman’s mouth or breasts, but the man’s arms and stomach. Suddenly, a scene which would otherwise be sexy or tame has turned radical, threatening. It is pornography in which the position of the camera is reversed, and when the intent is obviously to evoke emotion or create arousal, how are they to feel? Are they being feminised against their will – or worse, made to feel a glimmering of homosexual attraction? Are they allowed to submit to the author’s intentions and accept the scene’s sexuality, or must they try to resist it? Either way, and even if the reader doesn’t consciously pin down the source of his disquiet, he is jerked out of the story, and perhaps made to feel an intruder in his genre of choice.

If so, this isn’t something that can be overcome in an instant. It is part of a larger argument: the struggle, not just for female equality in traditionally male fields, but for male equality in traditionally female fields. Part of that inevitably involves male acceptance of the female gaze; but another component is also a change in the reigning definition of masculinity, not just in the minds of men, but women, too. Particularly in epic fantasy, I’m hard-pressed to think of many heroes who espouse traditionally feminine attitudes, are trained in traditionally feminine duties, or whose overt sexuality, at least in part, doesn’t derive from a traditionally masculine appeal. Two who do spring to mind are !Xabbu, a protagonist in Tad Williams’s Otherland Quartet, and the Fool, also known as Amber and the Tawny Man, who appears in three of Robin Hobb’s trilogies. While the former is a romantic interest for the lead female character, the latter is inferred to be gay. Be aware, the Fool is a favourite character of mine, but in this instance, he might serve to illustrate a wider problem: that male characters ascribed traditionally feminine values within epic fantasy are either gay or viewed as effete and sexually unappealing to the women with whom they interact. They are, in a word, fops.

This is a shame, as foppishness is our primary case study within epic fantasy for feminised but still heterosexual male characters. The stigma of fops and dandies comes from the idea that a worst thing a man can do is act like a woman, and the only fops whom literature – particularly romance literature – likes to redeem are those who, as per the Scarlet Pimpernel, turn out not to be fops at all. Perhaps more tellingly, the idea of the dandy comes from an exaggerated, stereotypical and negative perception of femininity to begin with: women who share a fop’s traits are equally one-dimensional characters, but they, at least, have the excuse of their gender. If that is their behaviour, then it cannot be helped, whereas a straight male fop must cultivate his persona, and is damned for it accordingly. This isn’t to say that fops – or rather, superficial, self-obsessed, world-weary, easily bored elites with more money than sense – are entirely unrepresentative of the human species; nor am I contending that we ought to find them attractive. Rather, it seems as though they are the only consistent example of straight male characters in epic fantasy to be portrayed with feminine characteristics, and as those characteristics are negative, it doesn’t do a lot for the idea that traditionally female attitudes are something that men (or male characters) either should or would want to adopt.

Thus, the female gaze in epic fantasy does not disqualify a work from being epic fantasy. If it undermines, it does so through no more radical an action than showing one half the populace what the other finds attractive; but perhaps it might also be used to posit what we could find attractive, if only society were a little bit different, and to suggest to the current readership that they need not go in fear of their own sexuality. Books no more turn straight men gay than being allowed to wear pants turned women into lesbians. What changes is culture – and what is culture, but the way we view ourselves? No matter how intent we are on standing still, the world will always turn around us. And with that in mind, the question for those of us who take pride in our enjoyment of stories set in different times and places must then become: do we seek to set a limit on that difference? Or can we find room in our infinite selves for something more?

Those are the worlds I dream about. So, yes. I think we can.

Consider the following story: the refusal of a Christian school to train a Muslim teaching student. Rachida Dahlal, of Victoria University, was knocked back on her application to undergo work experience at Heathdale Christian College on the grounds of her faith. The university’s acting vice-chancellor pointed out that Mrs Dahlal, a devout Muslim who wears the hijab, had already been ‘counselled’ about Heathdale’s policy of ‘taking those whose values aligned to its own’, while school principal Reynald Tibben rather contradictingly stated that the school’s position was not that they had ‘anything against her or her beliefs’, but rather that their education policy was ‘nominal, it’s actually what parents want for their kids’, and that  hiring a Muslim teacher would have been both ‘inappropriate’ and ‘confusing’ for students.

For those who might question Mrs Dahlal’s choice of Heathdale to begin with, her decision was based on the proximity of the school to her home, and its position as one of few institutions offering both French and mathematics, her specialty subjects. Given also that it was her choice, and made in full knowledge of the school’s denomination, Principal Tibben’s guff about her likely discomfort during morning prayers seems frankly condescending. Would he have been so concerned about hiring an atheist? Would a Jewish applicant have been equally off-limits? In Mr Tibben’s eyes, would the presence of such people have proven similarly ‘confusing’ to students? Or is it just the fact that Mrs Dahlal’s faith is visible through her hijab, and not merely an internal ideology? More and more, it seems, society is struggling with the notion of discrimination; but what this case exemplifies – and yet what few people are willing to acknowledge – is that any set of beliefs associated with a specific ideal is, by definition, discriminatory.

This is not something we can legislate away. The vast majority of human interactions are predicated on conflict: disagreements over a favourite film, the appropriate price of food, who has the greatest claim to which resources, which is the best way to discipline children, how the universe began. At the far end of the scale are grandoise religious and philosophical abstractions, while at the other are trivial matters, debates that no sane person would try to legalise. But the middle regions are often indistinct, a blend of all such concerns, and it is here we live our lives. Politically, socially, sexually and legally, we have moved forwards in recent decades, making headway against racism, sexism, homophibia, explotation of children and religio-cultural discrimination; and yet despite its presence at the forefront of many such debates – if not all of them – the discrimination inherent in religious systems has remained the elephant in the room.

Put simply: if a person believes that their own religion is unshakeably correct to the exclusion of all other systems, and then refuses to hire a worker on the grounds that they are living outside of God’s rule and will set a bad example to other employees, passing a law to prevent them from doing so becomes tantamount to declaring that the logic which underpins their faith is wrong. The same thing lies at the heart of all the legislative drama over gay marriage: how do you allow someone freedom of religion while simultaneously declaring that certain of their religious or ideological tenets constitute a violation of human rights? There’s not an easy answer. But to anyone who believes in the separation of church and state, different religious beliefs should be equally accommodated – or refused – under the law, be they derived from shari’a, the Talmud or the Bible. Defending the values of one faith on the basis of its historical relationship to the nation is neither objective nor helpful: instead, it only serves to embed a lopsided definition of discrimination and entitlement in our cultural identity.

Which brings us back to Heathdale Christian College, and the reason why, in our secular state, Reynald Tibben should be found to have acted wrongly: because although a fair state must allow the existence of both secular and denominational schools, it should have no vested interest in preventing overlap between the two. Just as state schools hire teachers of all faiths, so too should their denominational equivalents. The difference between such institutions should be purely a matter of extra religious instruction, not the individual disposition of their teachers. Because if things are otherwise – if we state that a school has the right to hire or fire teachers on the basis of their personal values – then we may as well say that other Christian principals are equally within their grounds to fire teachers for apostasy, for expressing agnosticism or for religious conversion. The fact that Mrs Duhlal practises Islam does not affect her ability to speak French or teach mathematics, just as the Christianity of her students should not affect their ability to learn. As the saying goes, it’s impossible to please everyone. At the most basic level, discrimination simply means choice: to differentiate between one thing and another. We load the word with negative connotations, conflating it with prejudice in all instances, but saying that our society disciminates against racism is just as valid a useage as complementing someone on their discriminating taste. Because discrimination, be it deemed neutural, positive or negative, figures equally in choice, legislation and religion alike. And the sooner we start to confront that fact, the better for all of us.

In her book A History of the Wife, Marilyn Yalom examines the history of marriage and its cultural evolution. “How,” she asks, “did the notion of romantic love, a novelty in the Middle Ages, become a prerequisite for marriage today?” Not having read the whole book, I’m not in a position to comment on its conclusions, but when I saw this article on corporate dating services, her query was the first thing that sprang to mind.

No matter your point of view, modern marriage is in a state of flux. Is it broadening to include homosexual couples? Might polygamy, as was recently asked, evetually become legal? Should our definition of the term remain purely religious? Is marriage on the out, as indicated by rising divorce rates and the attraction of remaning in a de facto relationship? Or is the union overdue for a revival? These are all relevant questions, but even accounting for wide gulfs of disagreement, most people would still acknowledge that marriage, more than anything else, should be about love. Socially, we disdain the notion of marrying for convenience, to the point where that phrase – a marriage of convenience – now carries negative connotations.

So how, then, does the Simply Drinks Exclusive Dating Agency fit with our perceptions?

In keeping with current social norms, the accepted schedule is to fall in love first and maybe get married later. But we baulk at the reverse: the idea of getting married for whatever reason, and only then falling in love. For reasons that might trouble us to articulate, it smacks of wrongheadedness. Why would we want to risk unhappiness? Isn’t it, well, cold to get married without any thought beyond pragmatism? And this, here, is the nub of it: pragmatism. For thousands of years, marriage was, for various socio-cultural, moral and religious reasons, a largely pragmatic institution. It was the done thing; and, more, a thing to be done by a certain age, or before any illegitimate children could enter the picture. It was how families made alliances, gained lands, played politics, ended feuds, claimed kingdoms and produced heirs, because these were the lynchpins on which society was founded. Love was all very well, as the troubadors sang, but in popular mythology and literature, it was frequently tragic.

Nowadays, our belief is that, what with women in the workforce, single and unwed parenthood being destigmatised and no societal pressure to get married at all, any idea of pragmatism in wedlock should be outdated. All you need is love, as the singer sang. But despite our deepest hopes, this isn’t the case. As a species, we aren’t that great at distinguishing love from lust, and psychologically, we seem troubled by the idea that fiery passion is, as a matter of course, transmuted over time. We want to believe that love will be enough, that any deliberate thought of pragmatism need not sully our hands: that we need no stronger foundation for wedded bliss than what we feel in the moment. Love conquers all, as the poet wrote.

But there have always been multiple considerations. What makes Simply Drinks different from other dating services is the level of screening that takes place: the idea that someone, somewhere is carefully vetting potential applicants in accordance with a list of desired attributes – not love, not lust, but basic physical acceptability, financial status, and a certain level of intellectual interest. And from a distance, the process resembles nothing so much as the marriage brokering of past centuries: entering into a relationship, not because of how you feel together, but because of what, potentially, that union brings. The fact that the service is tailored to the rich and, dare we assume, powerful only helps the comparison, as it was noble families who traditionally kept a closer eye on what (or who) a marriage would bring the clan.

Recently, Sam de Brito blogged about a phenomenon which is, in various permutations, becoming more and more common: perfect man syndrome, or the idea that today’s singles seem to be getting pickier about the qualities they look for in a potential mate. Previously, I’ve been content to shrug the issue off, but in light of Simply Drinks, I’m wondering if such high standards actually reflect a desire, however unconscious, to make pragmatic – and not purely romantic – matches.

If this is the case, then it’s easy to see where things fall down: society tells us that we must marry, first and foremost, for love, thus throwing a not-inconsiderable barrier in the path of would-be marital pragmatists. Just as older cautionary tales involve disobedience and recklessly marrying for love, their modern equivalents warn of the other extreme: marrying lovelessly, and the dangers thereof. To be trapped in a loveless marriage is one of our great social fears, and while I’m enough a child of my time to share the sentiment, it’s worth noting that on one level, the very phraseology suggests that the whole of marriage should concern love, and that if it dies, then only a shell remains.

Which brings us, in a very roundabout way, to Jane Austen. Beyond the fact of narrative quality, Pride and Prejudice is romantically timeless for one simple reason: by the end of the story, Elizabeth and Jane have married, not just for love, but with undeniable pragmatism. In Mansfield Park, Fanny is confronted with the prospect of opting, as her mother did, to marry poor for love, and the picure painted is a stark one: yes, there was love, but when it comes to feeding, clothing and caring for multiple children in Cheapside, money has something to recommend itself. The balance of each story, one feels, is a struggle to be both loving and pragmatic: fortunate for Austen’s heroines, in that they inevitably find what they’re looking for, but the dichotomy is real.

At the end of nine paragraphs, it feels like base commonsense to say that the best marriages should be founded on equal parts love and pragmatism. Day to day, there will always be practical considerations, and as most people have an idea of what they want from life, it makes sense to find someone who’s heading in the same direction. Personalities are all-important: just as some will inevitably find happiness in marrying purely for love, others are better off taking the path of Jeff Bridges in The Mirror Has Two Faces (only without Barbra Streisand). But unless we stop and look at the history of marriage in all our talk of renovating it, we’re in danger of moving from one extreme concept to another: privileging love above what it brings to the relationship, confusing balance with lovelessness and compromise with failure. Me, I’m happily married to a loving husband, but when we chose to tie the knot, it wasn’t just for love. We each have goals the other can help fulfill, and, more importantly, wants to help fulfill: we have plans beyond being in love. And if that degree of pragmatism makes me wrong, then baby – I don’t wanna be right.