Posts Tagged ‘Masculinity’

I’ve heard it said that “little boys just love things with wheels”, as though it makes any sense at all that one gender would have an inherent predisposition towards a particular human invention. In defence of this argument, people usually point to things like Hot Wheels, the Cars movie – all these films and franchises that little boys clearly love, as though the fact that many girls also like these things is merely incidental.

Here’s the other side of it: can you name a single TV show, game or toy line whose wheeled characters are predominantly female? No? Me neither. Plenty have one or two female characters, but every example I can think of is male-dominated, their merchandise sold and marketed almost exclusively in the boys’ aisle of the toy store.

But imagine, for a moment, that this wasn’t the case. Imagine we suddenly saw a glut of anthropomorphised car-and-wheeled-machine shows whose character lineup was 80-90% female – and more, if this fact was clearly emphasised in accordance with current gender colour-coding, the characters predominantly pastel-coloured, white and pink and blue and purple. Imagine if everyone who says “boys just love cars” was suddenly forced to account for why little girls were enjoying those shows and toys, while many (but not all) boys eschewed them.

The usual pat answer in such instances is, “oh, but girls love ANYTHING if it’s pink!”, as though this sort of innate colour preference makes any more sense than the idea of boys inherently loving vehicles, never mind the fact that pink being coded as a feminine colour is, historically speaking, a new development, less than a century old, and not some holdover from Time Immemorial. What we’d be seeing, rather, is evidence of girls enjoying feminine cars and boys enjoying masculine ones – meaning, in other words, that the initial divide had nothing to do with cars, per se, and everything to do with how cars were perceived.

At this point, people usually snort. “So girls like girl things and boys like boy things? We already knew that!” Except that, by changing the social coding, you literally just turned a boy thing into a girl thing – or at least, created a valid feminine permutation of it – with no harm done to anyone. “Boy things” is not an immutable category, but a social construct. We market cars exclusively to boys, then act as though it’s a biological inevitability that boys prefer cars. We segregate toy aisles by gender, making damn sure pink things only appear in the products meant for girls, then claim innate feminine colour-preference as the reason why girls play with them.

Here’s the thing about gender colour-coding: we don’t always do it on purpose, because it’s usually deeply internalised, so when it gets brought up in relation to kids, we assume it doesn’t matter. We assume, wrongly, that children are being more objective in their assessment of colour and meaning than we are as adults; that seeing stuff coded as being “for boys” or “for girls” has no impact on their choices, and that they’re acting instead on some deeper, intrinsic instinct.

So, let’s consider – is there other social colour-coding we expect children to tacitly notice, understand and act upon, even if we only ever explain it briefly, or in passing? Some other practice or practises to act as a reasonable yardstick against which to compare the gendering of their toys and clothes?

Yes. Yes, there is.

By the time they start school, we expect little kids to understand that green means go and red means stop, that a yellow light means wait but that flashing yellow lights mean a warning, but also, in different contexts, that red means low battery, green means full and yellow sometimes means charging. Whether through films or real life, they likely also know that black clothes are for serious things, and that white is a wedding dress colour – that’s if they’re Western, of course; they might just as easily know that red and gold are lucky colours for important days, and that white is the colour of mourning. At school, they might belong to a house with its own colour; at the least, they’ll know the school colours from their uniform, distinct from those of neighbouring schools at various sports competitions. They’ll know the colour of their country’s flag, and maybe the country’s colours, if they’re different (Australia’s flag is red, white and blue, but our colours are green and gold), and if they follow a sport, they won’t just know the colours of their own team, but that of rival teams, too.

So why is it so hard to imagine they’ll also learn that pink means girl and blue means boy – especially when it’s reinforced by the gender-balance of characters in particular toys and narratives – and react accordingly?

At the shops two days ago, my toddler wanted to try out a tricycle. A pink model sat beside a blue one; after a moment of deliberation, he chose the blue – and when he was done, he went straight back to the pink one, wanting to try them both. Given that he’d already had one ride, it would’ve been an expedient shortcut to say, “No, that one’s for girls,” and use that as an excuse to move him on, except that, no, that’s bullshit. It’s exactly those sorts of small remarks that teach kids about gender colour-coding: even if it’s not expressed as a negative, it tells them there are some things, or some variants of things, there’s no point asking for in future; that they can only ever have the one version. Instead, I told him, “Yes, the pink one’s nice too, isn’t it!” and let him look it over again before we continued onwards.

Even in toy shops that don’t overtly name their aisles according to gender, look at how the colouration works. There are pink aisles, and then there’s everything-else aisles. Pink Lego isn’t sold alongside the regular kind, nor pink-dressed dolls beside action figures – until you start mixing the colour placements, they’re always going to read as coded, because that’s exactly what they are. And increasingly, the problem persists, not because we’re worried about girls turning into tomboys – although there’s certainly still pushback on that count – but because we’re deathly afraid of feminising boys. On some deeply sexist level of the social backbrain, the logic seems to go, we can understand girls wanting to branch out into masculine fields, because masculine is better. But boys wanting to go the other way is viewed as regressive at best, and transgressive at worst – as though the real goal of equality is the eradication of the traditionally feminine and not, as is actually the case, its destigmatisation.

Cars aren’t inherently masculine. Pink isn’t fundamentally feminine. We’ve merely coded them that way – and until we acknowledge how easily kids interpret and internalise that code, we need to stop pretending their choices are happening in a vacuum.

Content warning: all the spoilers for Dragon Age: Origins, Dragon Age 2 and Dragon Age: Inqusition. 

Trigger warning: some discussion of slavery and sexual abuse.

Late last year, due in no small part to the visibility of its online fandom, I finally discovered the Dragon Age games. Seeing that there were three of them, I started – as is traditional – with the first one, Dragon Age: Origins. Unsurprisingly, given that both were created by BioWare, the gameplay mechanics reminded me of nothing so much as Knights of the Old Republic – morality engines, dialogue trees and a politically diverse circle of supporting characters engaging with a mute (to the player) protagonist; being attacked in temporary arenas between one map and the next; even the battle menus and combat style felt similar. Though underwhelmed by the ridiculousness of the female body types on offer (NOT EVERY NPC NEEDS THE SAME IMPLAUSIBLY PERFECT BOOBS REGARDLESS OF AGE OR HEIGHT, OH MY GOD), offput by the smattering of bizarre (both contextually and as a narrative choice) misogyny and lukewarm on the general DNDishness of the setting, I nonetheless found myself getting sucked in.

My first Warden was a Dalish elf, Lyna Mahariel. I fell into romancing Alistair with her almost by accident, which is precisely why the relationship was so compelling: it felt natural, a slow-burn progression from comrades to lovers, and despite a brief flirtation with Zevran, Lyna stayed with him. Yet even when the ease of the connection made me think the game was subtly engineered to give Alistair and the Warden a happily ever after, the plot itself proved satisfyingly more complex. Depending on my actions and despite being romanced, Alistair could still become a wandering drunk or the king of Ferelden, assuming he didn’t stay a Grey Warden – and even with that particular outcome, Morrigan’s actions at the finale were an unexpected complication. Though I ultimately stalled out on the final battle – as is typical of me when first playing a game, I’d largely ignored such vital things as weapons upgrades and advanced tactics in favour of the emotional storyline, and thereby left myself critically underpowered – the franchise had won enough of my favour that I moved straight ahead to Dragon Age 2.

And fell instantly, brutally in love with it.

Ordinarily, when given the chance to make a custom game protagonist, I stick to women, not because I dislike male characters, but because I’m so rarely offered the choice to play as anyone else. Years ago, in a deliberate departure from this norm, I rolled a male Jedi in Knights of the Old Republic. Despite having played the game three or more times by that point, I’d never realised Bastila was a potential romance option: I’d only ever played as a woman, and while I’d always found her more compelling than Carth, it honestly hadn’t occurred to me that a male protagonist would get different dialogue options until I saw it mentioned online. But when I tried to play that way, I was shocked by how quickly I became bored. There are so many stories about talented, exceptional men taking command in a crisis that the game itself felt vastly less original than when I played as a woman: those opening scenes, instead of being revelatory, felt utterly cliché. At the time, I’d encountered so few visibly queer narratives in any form of media – and none at all in video games – that I couldn’t even articulate the problem as one of homophobia in KOTOR’s construction. Instead, there was just a nameless sense of frustration, exclusion: why should I have to enjoy the game less in order to access more of it? Why couldn’t I romance Bastila as I was?

Despite winding up in a hetero romance in Origins – I never quite warmed enough to Leliana enough to want to pursue her, though Isabela, in her brief appearance, charmed the hell out of me – I appreciated the visibility of queerness as an option. Going into DA2, however, I knew that Anders was a male romance option, which I hadn’t known initially about Zevran or Leliana. In fact, that was almost all I knew: I’d seen fanart of some other characters online, but for whatever reason, most of what had crossed my path involved Anders. Armed with this knowledge, for the first time in over twenty years of gaming, I chose to play a male character in direct anticipation of the fact that he could – and would – be queer. Like me, I thought, hands gripping the controller. Hawke is queer like me. And what was more, the game itself was going to let me prove it.

An invisible detail, at least at the outset. But knowing I could act on it – knowing it mattered – made the story new for me in a way I hadn’t expected; made it intimate, powerful. My warrior Hawke, who looked like Aragorn and snarked like Sam Vimes – who could’ve passed for any one of dozens of fantasy heroes in films and books and TV shows – was queer, not just because I said he was, but because the game agreed. I had no idea who Anders was, but goddamn, was I ready to find out.

And then it happened. Or rather, Fenris did.

Given a paucity of options, scraps can feel like a banquet. Possibly I knew, in some habitual mental recess, that Anders wasn’t the only queer romance option available to me, but starting the game, that’s certainly how it felt. I never imagined that all four love interests – four, not five; I haven’t yet played with Sebastian – would be accessible regardless of Hawke’s gender, let alone that I’d be tempted by all of them. (Though Morrigan is straightlocked, she and Leliana struck me as having more and better chemistry than either did with my Warden.) But having begun the game with a specific option in mind – an option which already felt revelatory, even before I’d met the mage – I didn’t expect to be so comprehensively swayed by an alternative.

I can’t pinpoint the precise moment I sold my soul to Dragon Age, but it probably involves lyrium tattoos and the voice of Gideon Emery, is what I’m saying.

Fenris, as a character, isn’t easy to woo. By turns, he’s defensive and laconic, prickly and aloof. If I had to pick the single biggest failing of Origins as a game, it would be the Warden’s silence: it’s hard to get a solid read on character reactions when half of every conversation is rendered without body language, inflection, tone. But Hawke, however you play them, is an undeniable presence – a character whose foibles exist, not just in the player’s mind, but on screen. I’d meant to romance Anders, but his intensity soon proved far more unsettling than even his spirit possession. “I would drown us in blood to keep you safe!” he vows, at a point where Hawke has done nothing more than flirt while exhibiting kindness to mages. It was – and is, I believed, intended to be – a red flag, hinting at the tragic events of the game’s finale: a violent, possessive promise whose fervency is utterly disproportionate to the not-even-yet-a-relationship to which it refers. And besides, I was fascinated with Fenris, a character whose trope-riddled construction ought to have undermined him – he is, in every literal particular, a touch-starved amnesiac elven ex-slave with magic tattoos, waifu combat prowess and impossibly white hair; the archetypal broken bird in every way but gender – but which only served to make him more compelling.

Seventeen hours into the game, having bungled all my initial interactions with Fenris, I quit and restarted in order to romance him properly. Even though I was playing through the exact same levels back to back, I never lost my interest.

Right now, I’ve just embarked on my second, also back to back playthrough of Dragon Age: Inquisition. (I’ve also got a new Origins game on the go – romancing Zevran, this time – but while I’m having fun, I’m enjoying Inquisition more.) The third game confused me when I first tried it, not least because the combat and controls are so markedly different to those of DA2. The jump button is contextually ridiculous, the open world slows the emotional pacing – doubly so in my case, as I’d assumed personal quests would trigger automatically, and so missed many pertinent conversations -and it’s easy to miss the subtleties of the war table. Almost, I gave the whole thing up after the first few hours. But given how much I’d loved DA2, I decided to stick around, if only to give Inquisitor Callum Trevelyan the chance to romance Dorian. (In this new game, I’m Asha Adaar, and flirting with everyone I meet. It’s glorious.)

But the thing is –

The thing is, I meant for this to be a post about Thedas itself: about the politics and problems of the various games, where I stand on mages and templars, and how this all impacts my love of the characters, whose backgrounds and personalities are, with a few notable exceptions, overwhelmingly well-constructed. And we’re still going to get to all that stuff: the real meta is forthcoming. But what I had to say first – what I want to make clear – is how fucking important these games are to me, in their exploration and open acceptance of queerness. As I’ve said before and will doubtless say again, the extent to which I currently overidentify with Krem Aclassi and Dorian Pavus cannot be measured by your human science. Dragon Age is the first time I’ve ever played as a queer character in video games, at a time when I badly needed exactly that sort of representation, and for that gift, I will love it forever, flaws and all.

Which is why – or one reason why, at least – I feel profoundly irritated by criticism of Dorian’s portrayal in Inquisition: specifically, the idea that his companion quest is badly written because it’s about his queerness. This is a position for which I would maybe have some sympathy if Dorian was the only queer character in Inquisition, instead of – as is actually the case – one of six (or seven, depending on your Hawke). Even if we discount non-romanceable characters – and I’d rather not, frankly; the fact that the Inquisitor can’t sleep with Krem or Hawke or Leliana doesn’t make their presence in the narrative any less important – we’re still left with Sera, Josephine and the Iron Bull, none of whose arcs are contingent on their sexuality.

Nor, despite hinging on Halward’s rejection of Dorian’s queerness, is his quest unrelated to the main plot. In a narrative driven by a Tevinter magister’s misuse of blood magic, Dorian’s arc serves as a poignant microcosm of the whole: where Corypheus attempts to forcibly remake the entire world, Halward Pavus attempts to forcibly remake his son. In a game where the Inquisition allies with the mages at Redcliffe, this comparison is rendered even more devastating by the actions of Alexius, Dorian’s mentor, who similarly abuses magic in an attempt to save his own son, Felix: an awful, inverted parallel to Halward’s actions, but with far greater repercussions. Just as pertinently, the inclusion of what amounts to magical conversion therapy in Thedas – we’re never told exactly what “change” Halward meant to affect, but the implications are universally frightening – is powerful all by itself, not least because it doesn’t end in tragedy. Off the top of my head, I can think of exactly one narrative that engages with queer conversion and still has a happily ever after – the 1999 film But I’m A Cheerleader – and while there are doubtless others, that doesn’t detract from their rarity.

What irks me most about this dismissal of Dorian’s arc, however, is the way in which it implicitly categorises Sera, Bull and Josephine as not queer enough. This might seem paradoxical, given the nature of the original complaint, and yet we have an unfortunate cultural tendency, in our discussions of queerness, to situate gay men as being somehow more queer than anyone else; or at least, more significantly so. In this context, I’m thinking particularly of bi/pan erasure: left to their own romantic devices, Bull and Dorian end up together, and yet every complaint I’ve seen which cites this as part of Dorian being an obviously queer character neglects to complain likewise of Bull.

Oh, but it’s not like that! Dorian is flamboyant, and Bull isn’t! Dorian draws attention to his sexuality, and Bull doesn’t! Listen, I don’t know what game you guys were playing, but it’s Bull who initiates all the early flirting and sexual banter: he’s open about his queerness from the outset, whereas Dorian takes a long time to be anywhere near so comfortable. By the same token, the fact that Dorian is cultured and witty doesn’t make him flamboyant, and even if we’re talking about his clothing choices, Bull’s the one who goes around top-half naked except for a leather harness, joking about his pecs. I’ve often seen Dorian criticised along such lines, but never Bull – even, or perhaps especially, when such observations more rightly apply to him.

It’s like a kind of straw pareidolia: the seeing of stereotypes where none exist, the better to criticise them. Nor is it the only such example of what I’m coming to think of as the DA fandom’s peculiar meta-blindness: a sort of, if not exactly wilful, then stubborn oversimplification of culture and context. Which isn’t to say that I’ve never read any good DA meta, or that the franchise itself is somehow flawless – neither of those things are remotely true. Rather, I suspect, it’s a reflection of confusion in the source material. As a franchise, Dragon Age is intensely invested in discussing the politics and ramifications of fictional axes of oppression (mages, elves) in a setting that borrows heavily from historical axes of oppression (slavery, aristocracy), but which frequently stumbles when it comes to current axes of oppression (race, gender), all of which intersect with each other in various complex ways.

The practical upshot is that, as the creators have a tendency to neglect the current implications of their fictional and the historical elements in unfortunate ways, fans are correspondingly quick to confuse creation with endorsement: that is, to conflate the deliberate inclusion of particular fictional or historical injustices with the unconscious perpetration of current prejudices. This loss of subtlety can be particularly vexing when it comes to historical (or historically inspired, at least) axes, which are most often a synthesis of the fictional and the current, though in one particular instance, I have every sympathy as to why.

I want to tread very carefully here, but given how integral the concept is to the morality problems of DA2 and Inquisition in particular, I don’t think it’s possible to unpick the world of Dragon Age without addressing slavery. And so – carefully, carefully – I’m going to try.

Right off the bat, it needs to be acknowledged: slavery, with all its awful, degrading consequences, is a theme more current than historical, no matter how much some of us pretend otherwise. That being so, the issue – the concept – is vastly more personal to some than others, and for a number of different reasons. Because of my privilege, I’m not one of those people, but that doesn’t make me magically objective on the topic: it just means that, no matter how abhorrent I find the particulars, I’m not going to hurt myself by discussing them, though I may well, despite the best of intentions, hurt others in the attempt. As such, I’m going to try and situate this analysis firmly in the context of Thedas itself, drawing on historical comparisons only if absolutely necessary.

In DA2, the primary conflict is between mages and templars, with Anders and Fenris acting as mirrored exponents for the extreme end of each position. Anders, a human apostate escaped from the Circle, is outraged by the abuse and captivity of mages, seeking to free them by (almost) any means necessary. Fenris, an elven slave escaped from Tevinter, which is run by magisters, doesn’t believe that mages can be trusted without oversight. Anders compares the Circle to slavery; Fenris, who has been a slave – and subject to considerable, horrific abuse in that capacity – disputes the comparison. It’s also pertinent to note that, whereas Anders belongs to a human majority, Fenris is an elf, which makes him both a minority and a member of a race specifically targeted for slavery. Further compounding this from a player’s perspective, although this element isn’t discussed in-game, is the fact that Anders is white, while Fenris is brown.

What’s also deeply relevant, in terms of how magic works in Dragon Age, is the fact that mages are oppressed along a fundamentally fictional axis. By this, I don’t mean to say that mages aren’t hurt in realistic ways, or that their treatment has no real-world parallels: they are, and it does. But as with the various supernatural creatures of True Blood – a show which made overt and frequent comparisons between, for instance, anti-vampire sentiment and the historical persecution of black and Jewish people – the fundamental, inborn quality which sees mages classed as dangerous isn’t just a racist myth of inferiority, but a thing which actually exists in context. Namely: mages have magic, which grants them access to the Fade, where demons live. Mages can be corrupted or possessed by demons, either accidentally or willingly. Mages have the capacity to use blood magic, some of which discipline is merely stigmatised, but much of which involves material hurt to others, and all of which, if mishandled or poorly executed, can result in demonic release or possession.

This being so, all mages, trained or untrained, regardless of their intentions, are at least potentially dangerous by virtue of what they are: the seed of fear used to justify their oppression is, at base, true. In fact, the Dragon Age system of magic is one of the more damning and punitive I’ve ever encountered in fiction. In other settings, for instance, it’s common for mages to be dangerous only when untrained: accidental harm can be clearly distinguished from intentional harm, making rational caution of mages easier to distinguish from irrational fear. But in Dragon Age, whenever mages dream, they have to listen to actual whispering demons. Mages are constantly under siege from malevolent entities seeking to corrupt or control them, and while it’s often said in-world, usually by someone like Anders, that “Tevinter exists, and the world hasn’t ended” – meaning, there is a place where mages live without Circles, and it hasn’t imploded – the fact that Tevinter not only spawns Corypheus, who does almost destroy the world, but is a slave-based empire responsible for centuries of imperialism makes it… not a morally compelling argument.

Elves, by contrast, while similarly fictional, are mistreated solely on the basis of a racist myth of inferiority: they might not actually exist, but the axis of their oppression is certainly real. Which means, returning to the specific setup of DA2, that comparing Fenris with Anders – to say nothing of the two camps they ultimately represent – is an activity rife with pitfalls. Mages are human – or elven, or Qunari – and their magic is inborn. It can’t be repressed and, except at the expense of being made Tranquil, which is abhorrent, it can’t be removed. At the same time, magic itself – the act of having magic at all – is arguably terrifying. Even without the prospect of a child being taken from their parents to be raised in a Circle, Jedi-style but without the galactic kudos, being a mage means a lifetime spent contending with literal demons. Being a mage is like being born with a sword in your hand: the presence of the weapon is no guarantee of aptitude, you’re as likely to cut yourself as do harm to others, and it makes you a visible target of mortal fear and monstrous appetites both.

In short, mages vs templars in Dragon Age is a morality problem with no obvious, easy solutions: the ultimate in quis custodiet ipsos custodes. The potential danger posed by mages doesn’t justify the abuse to which they’re subjected under the Circle system, but nor is the general fear of mages irrational. Contextually, magic is almost like a disease vector, with demonic abuse as the virus: skill and intention won’t necessarily prevent a mage from infecting themselves or others, which leaves vigilance as the only real recourse. It’s zombie apocalypse logic in a fantasy setting, but hard to identify as such because, in most other fantasy settings, which create our collective expectations of the genre’s baseline, magic-users aren’t persecuted with anywhere near so valid a reason.

And for players trying to navigate moral decisions surrounding the use and restriction of magic, the issue is further compounded by the fact that, in all three games, it’s magic that fuels the enemy, and mages from within the protagonist’s camp who ultimately betray their allies. It’s worth analysing this pattern in-depth, if only because the actual gameplay mechanic – which is to say, the handwavy justification for the creation of multiply-spawning, must-be-killed-to-death enemies for the party to encounter – can often serve to obscure exactly how fucked up the situation is when viewed at a remove.

In Origins, on joining the Grey Wardens, the protagonist learns that the Wardens are initiated by drinking darkspawn blood, a ritual which, if it doesn’t kill them outright, will shorten their lives and eventually require them to commit suicide. In Redcliffe, it’s the Arlessa’s decision to keep her son, Connor, away from the Circle that leads to his demon possession and the death of almost an entire town. At the Circle on Lake Calenhad, the rebellion of a cabal of mages leads to the death or possession of almost their whole number, along with every templar bar one – Cullen Rutherford, more of whom later – who was trapped with them. In the Brecilian Forest, the Dalish Keeper, Zathrian, is revealed to have used his magic to create a monstrous werewolf, whose bite has infected hundreds of innocents over a period of decades. In Orzammar, the Paragon Branka becomes so consumed with the need to replicate an ancient magical technology that she allows her friends and lover to be consumed by darkspawn; is even willing to kill other dwarves in order to make new golems. And after all this, there’s the final sacrifice: Morrigan’s magic can help to defeat the archdemon, but at the cost of virginal Alistair, who prizes family connections and romantic fidelity, siring a child he’s never allowed to see with a woman he hates. “Good” magic might beat “evil” on the battlefield when reduced to the status of a tool defined by the hand which wields it, but it’s the callousness of a power-hungry apostate that packs the emotional suckerpunch at the finale, and with everything that’s come before, it’s hard to view it as an isolated incident.

Similarly, in Inquisition, despite the ostensible division between mages and templars when it comes to picking allies, abuse of magic and demonic interference is the root problem in both camps. Corypheus, the long-dead Tevinter magister-turned-demigod, uses both primeval red lyrium – an effectively magical substance – and various mages and demons to try and destroy the world. Demons pour into Thedas from a rip in the Veil, and while, as always, magic is used to combat magic, the emotional betrayal of the finale comes when Solas, the elven apostate, is revealed to be the trickster god Fen’Harel, whose quest to remake a past age anew was ultimately what caused the rise of Corypheus and the near-breaking of the world.

And thus, returning to DA2, the strangeness of the contrast between Fenris and Anders, templars and mages. The city of Kirkwall, where the story unfolds, is also called the City of Chains, having been founded by Tevinter mages and famed, once upon a time, for being a major slave-trading hub. The Gallows, where the Circle mages now live, was formerly reserved for slaves, and in snippets throughout the game, we also learn the city itself is constructed in such a way as to make the Veil thinner. Blood magic is performed more easily, yet goes awry more often, while demons are stronger, more powerful there: the legacy of Tevinter and its magical priorities, or (possibly) something darker, buried underground. While there’s a clear thematic comparison in mages living where magisters once kept slaves – and while it’s clear that the resident templar Knight-Commander, Meredith, has always taken a hard line against her charges – we also learn at the finale that her ultimate descent into madness is the result of infection by red lyrium: by, in essence, the very same magic she feared. And once again, it’s the resident apostate, Anders, who concludes the game with an emotional betrayal, orchestrating a magical explosion that kills hundreds of innocents in a strike against, not the templar order, but the Chantry, which in Kirkwall was run by a moderate.

I don’t know how else to say this but baldly: by game’s end, Anders is a terrorist. Blowing up the Chantry is a literal act of terrorism, being as how it constitutes a military strike on a non-military target, and if it were performed by a character who wasn’t an attractive white guy, I’m guessing that description of him wouldn’t be so rare. And no, before you mention it, in this specific instance, I don’t care that the Chantry is ultimately responsible for creating the templar order: Grand Cleric Elthina appointed Knight-Commander Meredith, but she was also trying to compromise with the mages, blocking Meredith’s call for the Right of Annulment. Anders, in picking the Chantry as his target, specifically states, “There can be no half-measures… there can be no peace. I removed the chance of compromise because there is no compromise.” Only a Sith deals in absolutes, and that is not the language of someone who’s sorry to murder strangers. 

The extent to which the extremity of this stance can be attributed to Anders being possessed by Justice/Vengeance – and therefore the extent of his personal culpability, were the spirit removed- is going to vary depending on who you ask. Personally, I’m inclined to judge him – him meaning Anders/Justice as a single entity – in the context of his actions throughout the game, and in that light, he remains consistent throughout. Romantically, I shied away from Anders because of his violent intensity, and given his claim to Hawke that “Justice disapproves of my obsession with you,” I’m inclined to view his earlier promise – “I would drown us in blood to keep you safe!” – as a sign that, even when acting on his own impulses, Anders is still possessed of some frightening qualities. And Justice, by the magical rules of Dragon Age, was originally a pure spirit. From the examples set by Wynne and Cole, we know it’s possible for benevolent spirits to remain benevolent while possessing humans; similarly, according to Solas, good spirits can become “twisted”, their nature “defiled” by humans who misuse them. Even though it’s Justice who convinces Anders to fight the oppression of mages, therefore, it doesn’t seem unreasonable to argue that Anders himself corrupts the spirit to Vengeance.

But however you attribute Anders’s actions, canonically speaking, it’s hard to argue against his hypocrisy. Speaking to Fenris, he says of the Circle mages, “They’re slaves! You should want to help them.” And yet, despite having made this comparison, Anders is singularly dismissive of Fenris’s actual experience of slavery, saying to Hawke, “He has let one bad experience colour his whole world. Surely you want someone more open-minded?” Worse, in the same conversation – and despite his vehement objection to Cullen’s claim that “Mages cannot be treated like people. They are not like you and me,” – he says of Fenris – to Hawke, but in Fenris’s hearing – “He seems less a man to me than a wild dog.” This is an abominable insult, and quite deliberately so: in fact, it’s a rare, clear instance where the fictional, historical and current axes of oppression all completely align. Fictionally, elves are oppressed in Thedas, with one of the most common slurs – “rabbit” – being animal in nature; by the same token, Anders is also aware that Fenris’s name, given to him by his abusive former master, means “little wolf”. Historically, slaves have often been compared to animals in such derogatory terms; which is why, currently, referring in particular to a brown man as a “wild dog” – especially when the speaker is a white man – is reminiscent of some truly ugly things.

But of course, Anders is an attractive white man presented as a viable romantic option for the protagonist, and so we – culturally conditioned creatures that we are – don’t readily stop to consider that he is simultaneously written as a prejudiced hypocritical terrorist; and more, that he is written this way on purpose. We are meant to be morally conflicted by Anders, just as we are meant to be morally conflicted by Morrigan and Solas – and yet, over and over and over again, in discussions of all three characters, I see their deliberate failings written off as BioWare’s accidental failings, as though the writers are merely including problematic or offensive dialogue for no good reason, and not because it’s serving the purpose of demonstrating bigotry in the characters. Morrigan’s appropriation of elven culture in Inquisition isn’t the result of BioWare failing to consider the negative implications of a human drinking from the Well of Sorrows, but a deliberate choice designed to make the player uncomfortable; hence the clear comparison with Dorian, who understands exactly why he, as a human mage from Tevinter, shouldn’t be the one to steal elven secrets, even if the intention is preservation.

Inarguably, part of the problem is the sheer complexity and length of the games themselves. A single playthrough of Inquisition alone can take upwards of eighty hours, and even then, you’re not going to witness anywhere near the full total of cutscenes and dialogue options. Being a compulsive dork, I tend to play through the first time with a Wiki open on my iPad, just in case I get stuck; the phenomenon I’m observing, that meta-blindness, may simply be the result of multiple players writing from incomplete perspectives. If you don’t take Dorian to the Arbor Wilds and ask him his opinion at the Well of Sorrows, for instance, it won’t be immediately obvious that his counterexample to Morrigan exists – and yet, at the same time, I can’t help thinking that whiteness, beauty and romantic availability go a long way towards fostering the automatic assumption that, regardless of what such a character said, if it makes them look bad or cruel or bigoted, it’s a writing error until proven otherwise. See also: Solas telling a Tal-Vashoth Inquisitor that “Qunari are savage creatures… but you have shown a subtlety in your actions,” which insult has lead someone to ask, without any apparent irony, “Does BioWare not realise what they’re doing?”. Yes, random internet person: yes, they do. They want you to think Solas is an asshole.

There is also, I’ve found, an even more disturbing parallel to this phenomenon of presumed white character innocence: assumed brown character guilt. For every post I’ve seen that criticises BioWare for unintentionally painting Solas or Morrigan in a bigoted light, I’ve seen at least three others castigating Dorian – not the writers, but Dorian himself – for being a former slave owner.

Take a moment for that particular double standard to sink in.

By this toxic, racist logic, if a white character is problematic or bigoted, it’s because BioWare made a mistake and didn’t realise the negative implications – but if a brown character is problematic or bigoted, it was clearly intentional, and the character cops the flak. Consider, for instance, the problem of Vivienne: a black woman whose racial identity, as others have pointed out, is almost an afterthought, unattached as it is to any particular region in Thedas. Vivienne is often criticised for being cold, impersonal or cruel, but while I’ve sometimes seen the more problematic aspects of her characterisation attributed to BioWare, who perhaps didn’t consider the current racial implications of making their lone black female character an advocate for systematic oppression (an unchanged Circle, in this case), more often than not, she’s simply dismissed as unlikeable.

Dorian’s case, I feel, is slightly trickier (see above re: privilege and slavery), and yet his characterisation as a “slavery apologist” niggles at me. Specifically: it niggles because a similar claim isn’t ever made of Cullen Rutherford.

Why Cullen, you ask? Allow me to explain:

In Origins, Cullen is the lone templar survivor of the disaster at the Lake Calenhad Circle, a deeply traumatic experience which – somewhat understandably – leaves him with a vehement fear of mages. As such, when we see him in DA2, he’s Knight-Commander Meredith’s right hand; that he ultimately aids Hawke and the mages against her (if you take that option) doesn’t change the fact that, for the seven year duration of the game’s events, he’s been complicit in some pretty horrific atrocities, including summary executions, regular torture and confinement, mages being unfairly made Tranquil, and their systematic rape and sexual abuse. That Cullen hasn’t necessarily done all these things himself doesn’t absolve him of his role in letting them flourish; certainly, he knows about some of it, and does nothing. But by the events of Inquisition, he’s finally learned to question: though still traumatised, he’s willing to work with mages, and acknowledges them as people. Give the man a cookie!

Particularly in DA2 – which is to say, in with reference to the Kirkwall Circle, supervised by Cullen – we’re encouraged to compare Circle conditions to slavery. And certainly, whatever we might conclude about the innate dangers of mages and the practises of Circles elsewhere, in that time and place, it’s a very apt comparison. Dorian, by contrast, is raised in Tevinter – a place where elves are enslaved by virtue of being elves, but where humans can choose to indenture themselves as an alternative to poverty. This latter option is historically reminiscent of Rome, on which Tevinter is largely based, but at the same time, it’s very clear that Tevinter is its own ecosystem.

Many moons ago, I expressed my irritation with a phenomenon I think of as Sexism Without Sexists: stories where women are oppressed as a narrative default, but where the male heroes are never shown to be overtly sexist, thus enabling the creation of stories where female agency is restricted (and female characters correspondingly minimised) without damaging the likeability of the male protagonists. Since Origins, Tevinter has been established as a slave-owning country, and seldom treated with any moral subtlety as a consequence. Which, yes, on the one hand, if a country is pro-slavery, we can be pretty sure they’re not a bunch of stand-up guys. But on the other hand, one of the most horrific things about slavery is the fact that, for those not enslaved, it becomes a background element: that life goes on around it, facilitated by it, and mostly without critiquing it. And in both DA2 and Inquisition, it’s clear that BioWare is trying to move beyond simplistic, Black Hat notions of Bad Guy cultures, even if they are still using literal evil monsters like Corypheus (because fantasy tropes). Together with the changes to Tevinter, this shift is exemplified by the steady development of the Qunari from ‘conveniently warlike culture of monstrous-looking invaders’ to ‘startlingly original and complex culture of weirdly socialist, polyamorous, non-monogamous philosopher-warriors’, which is definitely a change for the better.

Similarly, in addition to establishing Tevinter and the Qunari as convenient Bad Guys, Origins also set the precedent for both nations being majority dark-skinned, or at least non-white, which… I shouldn’t have to explain why that’s problematic. By the same token, whitewashing both races in future games as a “fix” to this would’ve been equally unpalatable – and so, instead, BioWare has gone about giving their cultures nuance and depth, trying to create something positive from the mess of their early mistakes. If we’d never heard of Tevinter before Inquisition, that would be one thing; but as part of a developing narrative about an established world, it’s vital to look at how portrayals of both Tevinter and the Qunari have become more complex since Origins.

And thus, Dorian Pavus: a character intended to represent a positive scion of Tevinter without making obnoxious use of Slavery Without Slavers. It would’ve been easy in the extreme to paint Dorian as an abolitionist from birth; to make him a convenient exception to everything we hate about his country. Instead, BioWare took the harder option of acknowledging that yes, good people, however we define so perilously nebulous a term, aren’t magically immune to the uglier sides of the cultures which raise them; that questioning has to be learned. Dorian is critical of slavery, but that doesn’t mean he automatically accepts that abject poverty is somehow marvellous, either. Consider, in-game, the treatment of Kirkwall’s Circle mages; the treatment of elves in Ferelden alienages. Whether fictional, historical or current, a system of oppression doesn’t have to be called slavery in order to be morally reprehensible, or to mimic certain of slavery’s abuses.

(By the same token, when Solas says to Dorian, “If you wish to make amends for past transgressions, free the slaves of all races who live in Tevinter today,” the fact that Dorian replies with “I… don’t know that I can do that,” isn’t apologia for slavery, but a literal statement of fact. He, Dorian, physically cannot do this thing, because Dorian is only one person. When Solas says “you” in this conversation, he’s talking about Dorian in the singular, not Tevinters in the plural, as contextualised by their previous remarks: Solas, being a provocative shit, is suggesting Dorian do an impossible thing, and Dorian, being honest, is acknowledging that he can’t, not stating that he shouldn’t.)

The care taken to construct Dorian’s perspective, however, is most obvious when you compare his remarks on slavery to those of Fenris. In DA2, during Fenris’s personal quest, the slave Orana exclaims, “Everything was fine until today!” To which Fenris, quiet and raw, replies, “It wasn’t. You just didn’t know any better.” This remark is a reference to Fenris’s time with the Qunari Fog Warriors on Seheron – people who helped him during his first separation from Danarius, but who he subsequently killed on his master’s orders. (“Are you my master now?” Orana asks next. And then, when Fenris says not, “But… I can cook. I can clean! What else can I do?”) Slavery, as Fenris knows all too well, is a mindset as much as an institution: obedience, even (or perhaps especially) to one’s abusers, is a habit not easily broken.

And Dorian understands this, too. Asked about slavery, he says, “Back home, it’s… how it is. Slaves are everywhere. You don’t question it. I’m not even certain many slaves do.” His subsequent statement – “Some slaves are treated poorly, it’s true. But do you honestly think inescapable poverty is better?” – isn’t exactly a glowing denunciation; at best, it reads as flippant understatement mixed with false equivalence. Yet even so, you’ll have to explain to me, please and thank you, why this is a fundamentally more repugnant, more utterly unforgivable statement than Cullen’s claim, in DA2, that “Mages cannot be treated like people. They are not like you and me.” Dorian, however wrongheadedly, is at least acknowledging that slaves don’t deserve to be mistreated; Cullen’s statement is far more viciously biogted, denying his charges even their basic humanity. And whereas Cullen has personally presided over the monstrous abuse at the Kirkwall Circle, Dorian, we’re told, has never seen his family mistreat their slaves, nor owned any himself. He spends the rest of the game – this comment being made early on – expanding his horizons.

Dorian Pavus has far fewer sins to his name than Cullen Rutherford when it comes to the abuse of powerless people under his control, yet of the two, it’s Dorian who’s more often cast as irredeemable, Dorian’s fans who are asked to justify their affection. The truth is, both men are morally complicated- BioWare, it seems, don’t do anything so dreary as simplex morality if they can help it – and both are offered redemption by the narrative. Cullen wants to find a new way for mages and templars to work together; Dorian wants to reform Tevinter. I’m not going to criticise anyone who draws the line at absolving them for their sins or who fundamentally dislikes either character, but I can and will point out the hypocrisy of fandom, as a collective entity, routinely pardoning the straight white man while demonising the queer brown one.

Returning briefly to the topic of queerness: while I understand the disappointment some fans felt regarding the romance options in Inquisition – specifically the fact that, unlike in DA2, the love interests had static orientations, rather than being protagsexual – I also think there’s value in acknowledging that queerness isn’t amorphous, but is constructed from multiple different identities. A protagsexual Dorian, for instance, by dint of being bi/pan, wouldn’t have had the same conversion therapy arc; or at the very least, it couldn’t have been told the same way. The fact that two people are queer doesn’t mean they have identical experiences of queerness, and as much as I’d love to romance Cassandra as Asha Adaar – and as much as my gleeful bisexual heart will forever love DA2 for making everyone bi/pan, it’s literally canon, fight me – it’s equally important to acknowledge a spectrum of sexual preferences and their potentially different narrative impact. (Dear BioWare, if you’re listening: why not alternate this approach from game to game? Make the next DA protagsexual again, and the one after that more specific. ALL THE QUEER ROMANCEABLES, huzzah!)

Nor is this the only important aspect of Inquisition which, from where I’m sitting, seems to get less praise than it deserves. In many respects, in fact, it’s rather revelatory, not least because the Inquisition itself is driven by women. The Inquisitor is saved from the fade by the spirit of Divine Justinia, then taken into custody by Cassandra and Leliana, the right and left hands of the now-dead Divine, who’ve taken it upon themselves to recruit, among others, Cullen and Josephine. This, too, feels like a correction of early DA errors: Origins in particular is notable for having established an ostensibly egalitarian world – or at least, a world in which women can equally fight and rule and lead in various capacities, and where the primarily religious organisation is female-dominated – while simultaneously making almost all the relevant, authoritative NPCs men. DA2 makes a stab at correcting this, but ultimately, Grand Cleric Elthina, Leandra Hawke, Patrice, Hadriana and Knight-Commander Meredith are either politely ineffectual or wickedly corrupt: it’s First Enchanter Orsino, the Viscount and his son, Commander Cullen, Danarius, Gamlen, the Arishok and a succession of male intermediaries who show a full range of moral complexity while nudging the plot along.

In Inquisition, however, not only does Josephine’s introduction render the Inner Circle predominantly female, but the game’s entire narrative is arguably split, at least in part, along gender lines. This is, of necessity, subtly done; which is to say, the women are neither absent nor saintlike, the men made of sterner, more complex stuff than straw. Rather, we’re shown a series of power struggles in which women are granted a variety of roles, and where male arrogance is largely expressed as a function of contextual male privilege. Grand Enchanter Fiona is pitted against Magister Alexius; Warden-Commander Clarel de Chanson against Lord Erimond; Cassandra against Lord Seeker Lambert (or his demon impersonator); Calpernia against Corypheus; Briala and Empress Celene against Duke Gaspard. Not all these struggles have the same dynamic, and yet, over and over again, Inquisition shows us what happens when women who’ve been manipulated and lied to by powerful men decide to fight back. Like Sera sticking up for the little people and the continual presence of small, domestic quests amidst far bigger crises, there’s a profound, continuous undercurrent of, not just inclusivity, but recognition of the fact that everyone matters when you’re saving the world, especially if you’re planning to remake it as something better when you’re done.

Nor is it irrelevant that, out of all the main characters, the three with the most prestigious, political backgrounds – Josephine, Dorian and Vivienne – are all people of colour. Cassandra, though technically royalty, is a warrior, not a diplomat: the other three are all consummate courtiers and intellectuals (though I wonder if, as a Nevarran, she might not be categorised as white-passing rather than white). Even the Iron Bull, who’s arguably a person of colour depending on how you categorise Qunari, is a spy, incisive, intuitive and literate in addition to being a massive, muscular brawler. And if you recruit the Templars, it’s Delrin Barris who proves the most honourable of his company, one of few brave enough to speak up against the corruption and brutality of his commanders. In a genre which so often exoticises people of colour while simultaneously marking them as Other by the standards of what’s contextually deemed civilised, it’s subversive as hell to take a European-inspired setting like Thedas – and particularly the deeply English/French duo of Ferelden/Orlais – and say that, actually, the people best suited to navigating these waters, out of everyone in the Inquisition, are all immensely competent outsiders: a straight black woman who’s risen to power on the basis of her extraordinary skill and acumen, a queer brown woman, nobly born, who’s managed to do likewise (and who’s bringing her family back into prominence with her), and a queer brown man from an enemy nation who still knows more about social etiquette and alliances than the commander of the Inquisition forces.

The fact that Inquisition gives us Krem, a trans male character whose companions all unhesitatingly accept him as such – and whose friendship with Bull gives me feelings – is another such diverse highlight. In fact, all our escapee Tevinter boys are rather striking, a confluence I’m discinlined to view as coincidental. Taken collectively, I’d contend, the Iron Bull, Fenris, Krem and Dorian represent four different facets of Tevinter society – the embedded Qunari; the elven slaves; the human soldier class; the aristocratic magisters – in an embedded, interrelated narrative that reads as a damning takedown of traditional, toxic masculinity.

The Iron Bull, while raised in the Qun to disregard romantic attachments, can nonetheless fall in love with either the Inquisitor or Dorian. At the same time, his hypermasculine attributes of size and strength aren’t tied, as is so often the case with such characters, to heteronormative ideals, but are rather complimented by a relaxed, comfortable, kinky pansexuality. Fenris, whose relationship with Danarius is strongly coded to imply rape (Danarius laciviously calls him “skilled” when taunting Fenris and Hawke; same sex relations in Tevinter are encouraged with favourite slaves; Fenris is touch-phobic), is one of a vanishingly rare number of male abuse victims shown in games. His arc in DA2 is – or can be; is ideally, I’d argue – one of healing and self-acceptance. Rather than relying on isolation and stoicism, Fenris heals through his friendships, by learning to trust the people he cares about; by talking, however privately, about his trauma. Krem is a trans character whose personal history, while involving flight from his family and betrayal in the army, is nonetheless presented utterly without self-hatred. Krem knows who he is, and while he can acknowledge that his life hasn’t always been easy, he isn’t a tragic character: his friends and romantic partners accept him, he’s great at his job, he’s got a killer wry sense of humour, and he doesn’t take crap from strangers. He’s level-headed, successful and just a little bit shy: a portrait in all respects of the kind of positive, diverse masculinity we so badly need to see more of.

And Dorian? Dorian is a privileged man oppressed by the same strictures of toxic, heteronormative masculinity which ostensibly see him elevated. Rather than opt for a life of misogyny and self-hatred, married to a woman he doesn’t like, love or respect, he asserts his own identity and questions the world that raised him. Conditioned to expect only physical attachment – not, like Bull, due to any cultural mandate against romance, but because his romantic inclinations don’t run in an approved direction – he nonetheless finds love and self-acceptance in the Inquisition, eventually using what remains of his privilege in the service of others. Put together, not only do all four men represent a spectrum of sexuality – Bull is pansexual, Fenris bisexual, Krem straight, Dorian gay – but their narratives engage with maleness in very different ways. None of them is a queer tragedy; all of them are men of colour; and all of them present masculinity as fluid, adaptable, variable.

How many other games can boast as much?

There’s a heartbreaking moment in DA2 when Fenris, hurt and vulnerable, asks – furiously, rhetorically – “What does magic touch that it doesn’t spoil?” (He’s covered in magic lyrium. He’s talking about himself. My heart.) It’s a question few fantasy narratives, buoyed by the genre’s love of magic as novelty, would think to ask with any degree of seriousness, let alone seek to answer with such complexity. Whatever failings can be heaped on the Dragon Age franchise, it’s hard to deny that they’re striving to tell new stories about a wide range of people; that they’re attempting, with each new game, to learn from prior mistakes; that their failures stem more often (now) from enthusiastic ambition than ignorance. In fact, they’ve created such a wealth of rich, detailed material that our critical analysis is still racing to catch up with the content: despite everything I’ve said here, I’ve barely scratched the surface.

I look forward to finding more.



By this point in the media/meta cycle, oceans of virtual ink have already been spilled on the comparative flaws and virtues of Jupiter Ascending, a film that is almost universally perceived as being both nonsensical and glorious. Now that I’ve finally seen it, however – because those of us with toddling offspring tend to be reliant on iTunes for our theatrical jollies, shut up – I’m moved to weigh in on the matter. Specifically: while I’ve seen a great deal said about the absolute comic insanity of JA’s wordlbuilding – bees that recognise royalty! flying space werewolves! floating sofas! – nowhere have I seen it pointed out that actually, Jupiter Ascending is basically an equally batshit redo of The Matrix.

I mean, look. Internets. I get that The Matrix was kind of seminal for all of us here who saw it in our tweens and teens and twenties, and it’s such a goddamn shame they never made a sequel and all that, but really. Really. How long has it been since you actually sat down and watched it? I know that it’s a hallowed classic that tends to exist in this weirdly exalted geek mental space, but if you’re going to pass judgement on the hilarity of Eddie Redmayne’s creepy sociopath voice, you’re going to need to cite me chapter and verse as to why Hugo Weaving’s inflected robot-drawl is any better. If you think it’s kinda twee that the film ends with Jupiter Jones donning space gravity boots and flying over Chicago, you have to justify why that’s inherently different to Neo rocketing into the sky in his black leather Coat of Awesome.

To be clear, I love The Matrix, and I love Jupiter Ascending. This isn’t me trying to pull down the former or devalue the latter; far from it. I’m just trying to point out that, except for the fact that The Matrix has a grim cyberpunk aesthetic and a passive male protagonist who’s endlessly rescued by a hot, badass woman in black leather before finally coming into his own, while Jupiter Ascending has a colourful space opera aesthetic and a passive female protagonist who’s endlessly rescued by a hot, badass man in black leather before finally coming into her own, they’re basically the exact same fucking film.

I mean, okay. Let’s break this shit down, shall we?

At the start of their respective films, both Neo and Jupiter are dissatisfied with their everyday lives, dreaming constantly of something beyond the mundane. In both cases, we witnesses their respective love-interests – Trinity and Caine – being leather-clad badasses before they ever encounter Neo and Jupiter, which meetings are ultimately assisted/enabled by friends who only appear at the start of each story. When Neo is first taken in by Agent Smith, who vanishes his mouth and injects him with a literal tracking bug while splaying him, bare-chested, over a table, he’s left thinking that the experience was a dream, after which, it’s Trinity who proves otherwise. Similarly, when Jupiter first encounters aliens, her mind is wiped, leaving her doubtful that anything really happened; the second time, however, she’s splayed in mid-air in a hospital gown and injected in the neck, at which point, she’s rescued by Caine. Neo is initially sceptical that he’s The One, while Jupiter likewise doubts the claim that she’s a Recurrence; each character is granted their special status by right of birth with an element of spiritual predetermination – even reincarnation – in an otherwise (pseudo)scientific context, and each has the ‘real’ truth of the world explained to them by an authoritative third party – Morpheus for Neo, and Stinger for Jupiter – who acts as a mentor to their love-interest.

Once taken aboard their respective spaceships, they each encounter a smooth-speaking man – Cypher for Neo, Titus for Jupiter – who, under the pretence of telling them the unvarnished truth of their new situation, effects a betrayal. This leads to the imprisonment of Morpheus and Stinger, both of whom are rescued by their protégés, Trinity and Caine. (It’s also worth remarking that these mentor-figures each have plot-significant names: Morpheus for the king of dreams who rescues Neo from sleep, and Stinger Apini, which is doubly evocative of the bees which ultimately reveal Jupiter’s heritage.) Cue some dramatic fight scenes with lots of guns and explosions, a pair of climaxes wherein Neo and Jupiter triumph over Agent Smith and Balem Abrasax before being immediately rescued from peril by Trinity and Caine, with secondary spaceship rescues also effected by Tank and Diomika Tsing, and a matched set of closing scenes where our protagonists soar off into the sky, and the symmetry is complete.

Note, too, that both stories hinge on combating regimes – the Machines and the Abrasax dynasty – that ritualistically harvest and liquefy human beings in order to extend their own lifespans, though whereas humans created Machines in The Matrix, in Jupiter Ascending, the Abrasax seeded humanity. In this sense, the two films are bookends, thematic mirror images of each other: The Matrix is dystopian, set after a cataclysm has already occurred, and so ends with Neo escaping into a reality both harsher and more honest than the one he’s known. Jupiter Ascending, however, which presents a more hopeful vision of the future, allows Jupiter to save the Earth before it can be destroyed: unlike Neo, Jupiter returns home with a renewed appreciation for her life, a couple of awesome gadgets and a flying werewolf boyfriend. Neo’s journey is full of self-doubt – though Morpheus believes in him, he fails his first jump in the simulator and is, at least ostensibly, denied his Chosen One status by the Oracle – and only comes full-circle when he learns to believe in himself. Jupiter’s journey, by contrast, is full of external validation: the bees confirm her as royalty, and she’s consistently treated as such, but the story ends with her realisation that she doesn’t need to rely on what other people think of her – that she is, first and foremost, in charge of her own life.

There’s an undeniable Star Wars vibe to the world of Jupiter Ascending: we’re shown lots of races living together, a complicated alien bureaucracy, fabulous costumes and futuristic technology. It’s a setting that consistently develops outwards, showing Jupiter the potential for both human and personal expansion. The Matrix, by contrast, takes place in a wasteland; ‘the desert of the real’, as Morpheus says. The false matrix can be developed inwards, a literal fantasy realm, but the actual world is finite, limited, broken, and while the subsequent two films eventually show humanity making peace with the Machines, it’s a pax brokered by Neo’s death. In Jupiter Ascending, however, it’s Jupiter’s refusal to die that saves the Earth, ensuring that the planet remains in her keeping rather than passing to Balem.

As such, the primary differences between The Matrix and Jupiter Ascending can be summarised as follows:

  • One has an everyman male protagonist with a badass female love interest; the other has an everywoman female protagonist with a badass male love interest.
  • One has a gritty cyberpunk aesthetic, replete with lots of blacks, greys, greens and BDSM-style leather outfits; the other has a colourful space opera aesthetic, replete with lots of golds, purples, reds and couture-style silk outfits.
  • One is thematically dark, focussed on the consequences of hubris and the aftermath of cataclysm; the other is thematically hopeful, focussed on the possibilities of expansion and the prevention of death.
  • One has a secondary cast made memorable both by their diversity and visually distinct outfits, though most of these characters die; the other has a secondary cast made memorable both by their diversity and visually distinct outfits, though all of these characters live.
  • One has a protagonist without any apparent familial ties to a world that is subsequently proven to be imaginary; the other has a protagonist with deep familial ties to a world that is subsequently prove to be more important than ever.

In other words, and despite their many similarities otherwise, The Matrix is gritty, dark and stereotypically masculine, while Jupiter Ascending is bright, hopeful and stereotypically feminine – though both, as I said at the outset, are equally batshit. Look, don’t make that face: yes, Jupiter Ascending has bees that recognise royalty and Jupiter trying to sell her eggs for a telescope and grey abducting aliens and the ‘I’ve always loved dogs’ line and a scene where Caine gets an honest to god maxipad stuck to one of his man-wounds, but The Matrix has flying squid robots and Neo climbing along the outside of an office building because a stranger told him to and actual Men In Black and ‘there is no spoon’ and a scene where Neo dives headfirst into a pavement that goes all Looney-Tunes liquid and springs him back up again. You’re meant to laugh at obvious absurdities at various points in both of them, is what I’m saying – hell, I remember seeing The Matrix at the cinema at the impressionable age of thirteen and laughing my fucking ass off every time Agent Smith spoke – but that doesn’t meant they’re any less awesome for being purposefully comic.

I find it telling, therefore, that while both films received a certain amount of praise and censure on release, there’s a marked difference in how their respective Wikipedia entries describe what is arguably a very similar critical reception, at least at the level of popular opinio. According to the entry for The Matrix:

“It was generally well-received by critics, and won four Academy Awards as well as other accolades including BAFTA Awards and Saturn Awards. Reviewers praised The Matrix for its innovative visual effects, cinematography and its entertainment. The film’s premise was both criticized for being derivative of earlier science fiction works, and praised for being intriguing. The action also polarized critics, some describing it as impressive, but others dismissing it as a trite distraction from an interesting premise.

“Despite this, the film has since appeared in lists of the greatest science fiction films, and in 2012, was added to the National Film Registry for preservation.”

But for Jupiter Ascending, we get this:

“Although critics praised the visuals, world-building, and originality, the general attitude toward the film was negative, with most criticism focused on incoherence in the screenplay and an over-reliance on special effects. Despite this, the film has found a cult following, particularly among female sci-fi fans who appreciate the film’s campiness, and that the film deviates from typical gender dynamics in a genre that is traditionally male-centric.”

And okay, look: I get, again, that The Matrix both won awards and grossed more money than Jupiter Ascending. It’s an awesome film, and a totally deserving classic! Nonetheless, it seems relevant that while both were praised for their visual effects, Jupiter Ascending is deemed to have an ‘over-reliance’ on them that The Matrix, a film which showed a helicopter crashing into a glass skyscraper in slow motion and which basically pioneered the ‘combatant frozen in midair while the camera spins around them’ trick, apparently lacks. Similarly, while the weirdness of The Matrix doesn’t stop it having an ‘interesting premise’, Jupiter Ascending has ‘incoherence in the screenplay’, despite the fact that they’re both telling largely identical stories.

So while it’s not a new opinion that Jupiter Ascending is deeply reminiscent of the tropes of teen girl fanfiction – hello, angel werewolf boyfriend! – and while it’s similarly been stated that most action movies are, in fact, written as million-dollar endorsements of the fantasies of teenage boys, I haven’t seen it pointed out that, in this case, you’ve already got a film written and directed by the exact same people telling the exact same story but in a thematically inverted way, such that you can arguably use it as yardstick for gauging the extent to which the comparative femininity and hopefulness of Jupiter Ascending have counted against it in the popular consciousness.

All of which is a way of saying: Jupiter Ascending is both awesome and flawed, but no more so than The Matrix, which leads me to think there’s more than a little sexism involved in its constant devaluation. Which doesn’t mean you’re sexist for thinking The Matrix is a better film – to each her own, as they say. But JA is space opera, which is meant to be lavish and rich and weird, and given that the Wachowskis are predominantly vaunted for The Matrix and V for Vendetta, which are gritty and dystopian and yes, stereotypically masculine, I can’t help feeling that Jupiter Ascending is frequently judged a failure simply for not being those things, instead of for its performance of an inherently campier genre.

Basically, I loved it, and you will prise my hovering space-throne sofas from my cold, dead hands.

In this modern world of dogwhistle invective and coded slurs, wherein racist, sexist, homophobic ideology is frequently couched in ‘polite’ or ‘neutral’ terms, the better to distance its exponents from the bigoted reality of their actual opinions, it’s sometimes perversely refreshing when some properly oblivious specimen forgets the unspoken rule about code-switching into their Outside Politics Voice and lets us know what they really think, unfiltered. It’s like watching a slime-eyed troglodyte heave itself, gasping and wheezing, into the modern sunlight, an ugly-funny anachronism. You feel like you imagine David Attenborough does, whenever he has chance to narrate the cyclical reappearance of some particularly rare, hideous insect, but without the concern for its future preservation. Ah, you think to yourself, with almost fond revulsion, and here we see the Asshaticus Whatthefuckius, emerging slowly from its own distended rectum. Note the pungent aroma of gender essentialism and failure.

I am, of course, referring to Kyle Smith’s article in the New York Post about why women are incapable of understanding GoodFellas.

It’s such an astonishing trainwreck, I feel like I should be eating popcorn. “Yes,” says Smith, “Men like sports. Men watch the action movies and eat of the beef and enjoy to look at the bosoms.” Oh, wait, I’m sorry – that’s actually a quote from Buffy the Vampire Slayer, wherein teen everyman Xander Harris mocks Anya, a former vengeance demon who specialised in punishing unfaithful men, for her woefully stereotypical concept of masculinity. The fact that Smith’s article more or less embodies this sentiment but without the irony is why I’m actively repressing an outburst of violent laughter even now. Internets, I shit thee not: there are tears in my goddamn eyes.

For reals, though: let’s take a moment to see why Smith thinks ladytypes can’t possibly appreciate his precious dudeflick:

““GoodFellas”… takes place in a world guys dream about.Way down deep in the reptile brain, Henry Hill (Ray Liotta), Jimmy the Gent (Robert De Niro) and Tommy (Joe Pesci) are exactly what guys want to be: lazy but powerful, deadly but funny, tough, unsentimental and devoted above all to their brothers — a small group of guys who will always have your back. Women sense that they are irrelevant to this fantasy, and it bothers them.”

And in that moment, I swear a musclebound, dudebro angel wrapped in a beerstained fratboy toga descended beatifically from the heavens, gently set a calloused finger to Kyle Smith’s lips and lovingly whispered, “No homo.”

(Speaking of which, does anyone else find it odd when Manly Men proudly attribute their Manliest Male Impulses to their “reptile brain”, as though citing the least intelligent, least human, most distant part of their evolutionary history as an overriding impulse should somehow engender sympathy rather than alarm? Never mind the fact that actual reptiles are among Mother Nature’s finest genderbenders; it’s like someone saying, Yes, I know I’m a talented stockbroker, but my great-great-grandfather was a sheepfucking drunk, so deep down, there’s a part of me that just wants to shotgun a bottle of Tia Maria and really let wild at the petting zoo, you know? It’s biology, officer!)

And then it gets better:

“The wiseguys never have to work (the three friends never exert themselves except occasionally to do something fun, like steal a tractor-trailer truck), which frees them up to spend the days and nights doing what guys love above all else: sitting around with the gang, busting each other’s balls.

Ball-busting means cheerfully insulting one another, preferably in the presence of lots of drinks and cigars and card games. (The “GoodFellas” guys are always at the card table, just as the Rat Pack were, while the “Entourage” guys love video games.) Women (except silent floozies) cannot be present for ball-busting because women are the sensitivity police: They get offended, protest that someone’s not being fair, refuse to laugh at vicious put-downs. In the male fantasy, all of this is unforgivable — too serious, too boring. Deal another hand, pour another drink.”

I’m always amazed by the brazen failure of empathy that allows anyone to sit down and make declarative statements about the secret preferences of an entire gender via the simple expedient of assuming their own fantasies to be universal ones. I mean, look: let’s be real. Language is a tricky thing, and as such, it’s sometimes necessary, or at least useful, to speak in general terms about groups or concepts rather than having to qualify with extraneous wordage, over and over again, that you’re only talking about X thing or Y problem, when the actual context and topic of conversation has already made that clear. But this isn’t what Smith is doing: instead, he’s conflating his personal feelings with a platonic ideal of masculinity in a way that’s hilarious at best and downright worrying at worst.

Like, okay: I’m aware that I’m a female-presenting person without any Floozy Credentials and am therefore, in Smith’s book, The Goddamn Sensitivity Police and a wilful traitor to fun, but I’m pretty sure that, if I showed his article to every man I know, 99% of them would either burst out laughing or roll their eyes hard enough to necessitate immediate corrective surgery. But then again, I know a lot of guys who, like, actually respect women? And enjoy their company? And dislike vicious putdowns on principle? I mean, I derive great ironic satisfaction hate to ruin a perfectly good film review by pointing out that toxic masculinity actually does real damage to countless guys by telling them that Real Men are emotionless, misogynist dickbags who hurt their friends for fun and deal with their problems through stoic alcoholism and domestic abuse, but, yeah: that’s totally a thing, and it’s kind of hard to laugh at Smith’s suggestion that it’s a good thing when, quite patently, it’s not.

Plus and also, and speaking out of pure literary concern for Smith’s apparent status as a professional writer, there should be a limit on the number of times you can use the phrase “ball-busting” and its attendant variations in a 900 word article; and whatever that limit, I submit that eleven times – which is to say, at least once every hundred words – is a tad excessive. There’s an almost fetishistic quality to Smith’s obsession with balls and the busting or breaking thereof that GoodFellas apparently personifies, and while I’m not one to kinkshame – if a healthy, red-blooded American man enjoys a little CBT, then more power to him; whatever, as the kids say, creams your Twinkie – Smith’s actual point, assuming he had one beyond Manly Men Are Manly And Awesome And Women Are Shrewish Harridans, might have been better served by the occasional use of a non-testicular synonym for funning.

I mean, look. At the end of the day, Kyle Smith can have as big a hard-on as he wants for GoodFellas – can be as disdainful for the touchy-feely incomprehension of ladies and their dreary femotions as he wants – but that doesn’t mean I’m not gonna bust his balls for promoting his toxic, sexist concept of what Real Men are as if it’s an obvious universal ideal, which: huh. Now, there’s a conundrum for you: if I’m crushing his cojones (see! the thesaurus is your friend) for having such an ass-backwards view of masculinity, does that make me Lorraine Brasco or a member of the sensitivity police?

It’s a paradox, your honour: bullshit all the way down.

Warning: all the spoilers for Kingsman.

For a week or so now, I’ve been wanting to talk about Kingsman: The Secret Service, which I was finally able to watch, and which I genuinely loved. Not only is it an engaging, well-acted, well-scripted action movie that is funny, touching and littered with pop cultural hat-tips, but it manages the difficult trick of being both an homage to and a biting debunk of the James Bond franchise. Specifically: Kingsman takes all of Bond’s hallowed trappings – the spy gadgets, the sharp suits, the suave badassery – and explicitly removes both the misogyny and the classism that traditionally underpins them. Being a Kingsman, or gentleman spy, as explained by veteran Harry Hart to protégé  Eggsy Unwin, isn’t about having the right accent or upbringing, but “being comfortable in your own skin” – the exact opposite of Bond’s womanising, macho façade and aristocratic heritage.

In taking this stance, Kingsman also takes a stab at traditional, toxic notions of masculinity. Eggsy, we’re told, was once a skilled gymnast – possibly even Olympic-level material – but was forced to stop because of his violent, sexist stepfather’s ideas about gender roles. Eggsy is protective of his mother and younger half-sister, Daisy, and respectful of his colleague, Roxy, without ever being paternalistic or condescending, because Eggsy’s version of masculinity – the version encouraged by Harry Hart – is predicated on treating women as equals. Similarly, when confronted by the privileged, upper-class snobbishness of the other young white men in Kingsman training, it’s both striking and significant that the three outsiders – that is, lower-class Eggsy and the two female candidates – instantly bond together against them. This kind of intersectional solidarity across the boundaries of class, gender and, I would argue, sexuality (though we’ll come to that later) isn’t something you often see in action films; and nor is there a whisper of either competition or romance between Eggsy and Roxy. Instead, we’re given a situation where the two outsiders become, not lovers or rivals, but friends, their relationship one of mutual respect and support, and given how rarely that happens, I’m always going to appreciate it.

On the downside, it stands out that all the Kingsman candidates are still white; as does the fact that the villains, Valentine and Gazelle, are, respectively, a MOC who speaks with a lisp and a disabled WOC. Given the whiteness and overwhelming maleness of the Kingsmen, this isn’t a great state of affairs; but at the same time, both Valentine and Gazelle are spectacular, memorable characters. In defiance of stereotypical roles for black men, Valentine – played wonderfully by Samuel L. Jackson – is a software genius who gets sick at the sight of blood, while Gazelle, a double amputee, fights ruthlessly using her leg-blades. And while it doesn’t quite compensate for casting POC villains against an otherwise white cast, it’s nonetheless salient that the film expressly chooses to hang a very meta lampshade on the James Bond parallel in the following conversation between Harry Hart and Valentine:

Valentine: You like spy movies, Mr DeVere?

Harry: Nowdays, they’re all a little serious for my taste. But the old ones? Marvellous. Give me a far-fetched theatrical plot any day.

Valentine: The old Bond movies –  oh, man! Oh, when I was a kid, that was my dream job: gentleman spy.

Harry: I always felt the old Bond films were only as good as the villain. As a child, I rather fancied a future as a colourful megalomaniac.

Valentine: What a shame we both had to grow up.

This exchange is telling on several levels: not only does it expressly evoke the contrast with Bond while making a neat comparison between Harry and Valentine, but it makes a very literal statement about the reasons behind Valentine and Gazelle’s characterisation. When Harry says that modern spy films are ‘a little serious’, the camera pans to Gazelle’s bladed legs, which she’s artfully displaying for him: Kingsman is not a serious film, and in this moment, we’re meant to recognise its self-aware attempt to recapture the hijinks of classic Bond while simultaneously making something new. But by the same token, a not insignificant portion of Kingsman’s strength comes from its villains – from their originality, vibrancy and memorability. So while the decision to present the Kingsmen as an all-white institution battling two POC villains is still problematic, especially at the level of visual/thematic storytelling, it also gives us two extremely charismatic POC characters: Gazelle’s fight scenes are some of the most amazing I’ve seen in a long time, and given the extent to which this turned her disability into a strength, it’s significant that, when she is defeated, it’s not because this strength is somehow recast as a weakness. She is never rendered helpless, her weaponised disability is never turned into an Achilles heel, and villain or not, Gazelle is undeniably awesome.

By the same token, it’s also significant that the film’s ultimate concept of villainy isn’t personified by Valentine and Gazelle at all, but rather by men like Arthur and Kingsman dropout Charlie – that is to say, by rich, privileged, powerful white men who’ll happily crush others to ensure their own survival – and, at the other end of the scale, by agents of toxic masculinity like Eggsy’s stepfather, Dean, who routinely asserts his dominance through aggression and domestic violence. In fact, there’s a neat parallel between Eggsy and Roxy’s infiltration of the Kingsman system and Valentine and Gazelle’s calculated ascendency through the echelons of privilege: all four characters are agents of change against the entrenched systems of (straight, white, male) power. As such, it’s notable that the implants Valentine has his wealthy patrons wear to protect against his ultimate, population-thinning weapon also gives him control over them: Valentine exploits the self-serving nature of his clients’ survival instinct, but clearly has no intention of handing over the reins to the same class of people who, according to his philosophy, ruined the world in the first place.

If this was all there was to the substance of Kingsman, it would still be an excellent movie. But what I really want to dissect is the extent to which Kingsman can be read as a direct challenge to the idea of heteronormativity as a narrative default, and why this is so important.

In our culture, the unspoken rule – not just in storytelling, but in real life – is that everyone is assumed to be straight until proven otherwise. This is why, for queer people, coming out is never just a thing you do once: we have to do it over and over in endless new social contexts, because unless we expressly state our sexual orientation, most people – and especially straight people – will assume we’re heterosexual. There are many frustrating consequences to this, one of which is the struggle to see queer interpretations of narrative treated with the same subtextual validity as their straight counterparts. There are, for instance, plenty of tropes which, if enacted between a man and a woman, are invariably seen – and, indeed, treated as – inarguable preludes to romance: the classic establishment of a “will they, won’t they” UST dynamic, as per the lead pairings in shows like Bones, Castle and Fringe. Over and over again, we’re taught that such tropes are implicitly romantic; but when the same narrative devices are used to create charged encounters between two men or two women, these same implications are often fiercely resisted. Even in scenarios where a character’s sexuality has never been expressly stated – even if we’ve never seen that character involved in a canonical romantic relationship – they’re still assumed to be straight; and if they have had a relationship with someone of the opposite sex, then (the dominant logic says) they can’t possibly be bisexual or closeted or anything other than 100% hetero, because queerness, unlike straightness, can never be implicit or subtextual: it’s either overt, or it isn’t there at all.

As such, and because popular narratives are overwhelmingly more likely to canonise straight pairings than queer ones, the on-screen PDAs of confirmed heterosexual couples end up being used as yardsticks for the validation of queer relationships. That is: until or unless a proposed queer couple meets the minimum standard for PDAs as established by a straight couple in the same story, then none of their interactions can be deemed romantic, even if, prior to the straight relationship becoming canon, it was still assumed to be a valid romantic prospect due to the presence of the same romantically-charged tropes now deemed insufficient to legitimise the queer relationship. (Because heteronormative double standards, that’s why.)

But now, consider Kingsman: a film in which there isn’t a single straight kiss on screen. Though Eggsy’s mother is married to Dean, the relationship is an abusive one, and we never see any affection between them. Though we’re given snippets of physical contact between Valentine and Gazelle that hint at a romantic relationship, it’s never confirmed aloud. And though Eggsy, in another reference to classic Bond, supposedly ends the film by sleeping with a princess – and although we see her half-naked in bed, rolling over for him – we don’t actually see them do anything together. Which means that, somewhat unprecedentedly, there’s clear subtextual parity between straight and queer interpretations of Kingsman: the usual bar is set so low that, as nobody in the whole film either kisses anyone or overtly declares their sexual preferences, any move to interpret the characters as straight on the basis of tropes, word usage and behavioural cues alone grants equal validity to the thesis that they’re queer for the same reason.

For instance: as part of their Kingsman training, Eggsy, Charlie and Roxy are all asked “to win over… in the Biblical sense” a chosen target – the same target, in fact, for each of them: a pretty young woman. All three trainees are subsequently seen attempting to do just this, and while none of them succeeds, the fact that Roxy is asked to seduce a woman alongside Charlie and Eggsy – coupled with the fact that she appears just as enthusiastic about it as they do – is arguably suggestive of her queerness. Even if a viewer set on a heteronormative interpretation wants to insist that Roxy is only ‘playing gay’ for the sake of the mission, on the basis of the evidence, it’s just as likely that Eggsy and Charlie are both queer men engaged in ‘playing straight’. By which I mean: if it’s possible that one of the trio is willing to seduce the target despite their own sexual preferences, then it’s just as likely that this person is Eggsy or Charlie as it is Roxy, not only because each of them is equally willing to attempt an explicitly sexual conquest, but because we have no canonical reason to think any of them are straight. By the same token, if Eggsy and Charlie’s enthusiasm is proof enough to deem them sexually attracted to women even without any followthrough, then the same must logically be true of Roxy. As such, the only way to insist that there are no queer characters in Kingsman is to purposefully enact a heteronormative double standard that goes above and beyond the usual yardstick set by straight PDAs: to insist that subtext is enough to prove straightness, but insufficient to prove queerness, even under identical conditions.

Canonically, therefore, there is at least one queer character in Kingsman – but, just as canonically, it’s the viewer’s prerogative to decide who they are. The only other narratives I’ve ever known to pull this trick successfully are Ann Leckie’s Ancillary Justice and Ancillary Sword, where the use of ‘she’ as a default pronoun by the inhuman narrator means that determining individual gender – and, in the case of characters stated to be in relationships, sexual orientation – is entirely up to the reader.

As such, building a case to support the queerness of particular Kingsman characters is more than just an academic exercise: it’s a necessary means of engaging the canon through subtext. And thus, consider Eggsy Unwin. When Eggsy and Harry’s conversation in the pub is interrupted by Dean’s cronies, Harry goes to leave – until, that is, one of the men calls out: “if you’re looking for another rent boy, they’re on the corner of Smith Street”. Now, given that Eggsy is, in canon, perfectly willing to engage in criminal activities to financially support his family – and given that the speaker knows this – his word choice becomes significant. He doesn’t tell Harry to find a rent boy, but another rent boy, thereby implying that Eggsy is one himself. Ordinarily, if such a line were delivered in a film whose straight yardstick demanded a higher burden of proof for queerness than subtext alone, the heteronormative assumption would be that this is only an insult, meant to demean Eggsy by implying both that he has sex for money, and that he does so with men, thereby besmirching not only his straightness, but Harry’s. But even if we agree that, yes, the statement is undoubtedly meant to be insulting, the phrasing suggests the possibility that it’s also true – that Eggsy either is or was a rent boy, and is therefore potentially* queer.

If we choose to interpret this line as proof of Eggsy’s queerness, then, a subsequent conversation with Harry would seem to endorse it further. When Harry tries to explain to Eggsy what their relationship as Kingsmen will be, this exchange takes place:

Harry: Did you see the film Trading Places?

Eggsy: No.

Harry: How about Nikita?

Eggsy: [shakes his head]

Harry: Pretty Woman?

Eggsy: [scrunched face of near recognition, as though he’s heard of it, but not seen it]

Harry: All right. My point is, the lack of a silver spoon has set you on a certain path, but you needn’t stay on it. If you’re prepared to adapt and learn, you can transform.

Eggsy: Oh, like in My Fair Lady!

Harry: Well, you’re full of surprises. Yes, like My Fair Lady. Only in this case, I’m offering you the opportunity to become a Kingsman.

What’s interesting about these cinematic comparisons is that each film suggests a different set of implications for Eggsy and Harry’s relationship, though all are predicated on a poor or disenfranchised person (Eggsy) being given a second chance by someone more powerful (Harry). Trading Places is about a male hustler given an opportunity to succeed by a powerful man, albeit in a cynical context; Nikita is about a female criminal trained as an assassin by a powerful man; Pretty Woman is about a female prostitute and a rich man falling in love; and My Fair Lady – which, crucially, is the one, they both agree on – is likewise about a poor woman being trained into aristocratic manners by a educated man, with the two eventually falling in love. Of these four comparisons, only one references a relationship between two straight men (though interestingly, in Trading Places, the Harry character still befriends a female prostitute); the other three all compare Eggsy to a female character whose primary relationship is with a man, once platonically (Nikita) and twice romantically (Pretty Woman and My Fair Lady). In a film that’s already had one character refer to Eggsy as a rent boy, the comparison with Julia Roberts’s character arguably takes on double significance, and when you couple this with the fact that both Harry and Eggsy choose cinematic examples that suggest the potential for a romantic relationship between them, there’s a compelling case to be made that this is, in fact, exactly what’s happening. (The fact that, in a later scene in the same location, Harry makes a joke about Eggsy losing his suit-wearing virginity – “one does not pop one’s cherry in fitting room two” – is also suggestive of sexual/romantic banter between the two.)

There is, in other words, a very good reason for the vast quantity of Hartwin slash that began appearing on my tumblr dashboard long before I ever saw the film: canonically, we have as many reasons to think that Eggsy is a bisexual action hero as he is a straight one, and if we could be forgiven for seeing a romantic subtext to Harry’s Pretty Woman/My Fair Lady/cherry-popping comments were Eggsy’s character female, then it’s only reasonable to suggest that same subtext applies between two men. Personally, I like to think that Charlie, Roxy, Eggsy and Harry are all queer – and the best part is, you can’t tell me otherwise.

Kingsman, then, while flawed in some respects, is nonethless a thoroughly fun – and, I would argue, surprisingly subversive – film. Certainly, it’s one of the more enjoyable action flicks I’ve seen in a long time, and when the promised sequel arrives, I’ll definitely be in line to see it.


*In the context of sex work for financial necessity, of course, there’s no default assumption that a person’s choice of client reflects their preferences otherwise. Nonetheless, when it comes to subtextual interpretations of narrative, we can argue that, in this case, it does, provided we stop short of assuming it always must.

(Correction, 11.06.15 – In the original version of this post, I mistakenly listed Charlie’s character as Rufus. This has now been fixed.)

Q: On the flip side, it sometimes seems like there isn’t much of a way into your books for female readers. Where are all the women in your work? A: I was raised in a family with four boys, and I absolutely did not know anything about girls at all. I have a daughter now; she’s 17. When she was born, that was the first girl I ever had in my life. I consider myself completely ignorant to all things woman and female. I’m trying to be better though. – Andrew Smith

The idea that Andrew Smith’s daughter is the first girl he ever had in his life is a staggering lie. For one thing, he has a wife, and presumably has, or had, a mother; and for another, women are half the global population. They have been his classmates, colleagues, girlfriends, relatives, and while not all those relationships will have had the same degree of meaning to him – while his connection to his daughter might be the most important of all – the idea that he was functionally isolated from women before he up and fathered one is bullshit. What he’s saying isn’t that he never had a chance to bond with women, but rather that, until he had a daughter, he didn’t, and wow does that tie into some ugly rhetoric about male ownership of women being a trigger for their caring about our wellbeing. (The fact that we still pitch women’s rights to men by giving them the what if it was your mother/sister/daughter/wife speech, as though it’s completely unreasonable to expect them to care about us on our own merits, is a case in point.)

There is, to me, a casual kind of sexism, a sort of paterfamilias handwave, that comes of a man who’s lived with a wife and daughter for almost twenty years blithely admitting his total ignorance of their gender. Never mind that this is also a lie, unless Smith seriously wants to double down and claim that, yes, the women he loves most in the world are fundamentally alien to him; the problem is that he saw nothing wrong with pretending they were strangers.

I don’t think Smith meant to do this: I suspect, rather, that he was trying to acknowledge the implicit criticism in the question without actually engaging it, and ended up blundering into a much thornier problem by accident, rather like stepping into the path of oncoming traffic in order to skirt an open manhole, which you then stumble into anyway, but not before taking a couple of motorists with you. Having brothers is not what stops you learning about women. Maleness can be insular, the culture of masculinity rigidly maintained, but just the mere presence of men is not, by itself, a thing that negates the simultaneous presence of women. Smith was ignorant, not because he had brothers, but because a combination of cultural influence and inherent privilege conspired to tell him that women weren’t worth learning about, and by ignoring the distinction, he points the blame away from himself, and from the culture in which he was raised – both of which can be subject to critical analysis – and onto an objective fact over which he has no control, and which therefore seems impervious to criticism. I was raised with four brothers, therefore I couldn’t possibly know about women. QED.

I’m not angry because Smith gave a flippant answer to a serious question; I’m angry because he seemingly didn’t care enough to realise that’s what he’d done. Even if Smith’s daughter was the first real girl in his life, he’s had seventeen years to consider that she, and other girls like her, are unique individuals capable of sustaining narrative interest, and to realise that his ignorance on that front is unacceptable. Citing her birth and his brothers as part-reasons why he hasn’t already done so is, therefore, if you’ll pardon my French, a really fucking lazy way of saying the dog ate my homework. Tacking a ‘but I’m trying to be better though’ on the end of that mess without understanding that literally every word preceding the final sentence proves its necessity is just adding insult to injury, like you’re aware there’s a problem, but couldn’t be bothered to check if your answer was part of it. Here is what I feel for Andrew Smith, and other men like him, who end up in these situations: embarrassed. You’re a professional writer who expressed a thing so glibly, so naively and so poorly ina professional context that you’re now put in the unenviable position of having to explain, over and over, that you didn’t actually mean the words you wrote. Which leaves you with a choice: either own up to having produced an astonishingly bad piece of writing, inasmuch as it utterly failed to communicate your actual views on women, and try to address why this happened, or defend the quality and cop to the sexism.

It’s your call.

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.


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.


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.