Posts Tagged ‘Masculinity’

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

Trigger warning: some discussion of suicide and sexual assault.

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

Let’s Talk About Teen Wolf

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

First Things First

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

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

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

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

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

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

Scott: What kind of girl are you?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Queer Representation and Unthreatened Masculinity

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

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

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

Stiles as the Anti-Xander

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

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

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

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

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

Mentorship, True Alphas and Positive Masculinity

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

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

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

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

Scott: I can get angry.

Derek: Not angry enough.

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

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

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

Derek: We’ve learned a better way!

Peter: I’m a creature of habit.

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

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

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

Isaac: I don’t.

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

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

Scott: How do you deal with it?

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

Scott: How do you do that?

Rafael: I used to do it by drinking.

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

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

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

John: I do. I miss it.

(Stiles gets up.)

John: I miss your mother.

(Stiles freezes.)

Stiles: What’d you say?

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

Mothers and Daughters

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

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

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

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

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

(Beat)

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

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

Natalie: No. No, you don’t.

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

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

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

Sex and Romance

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

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

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

Triskeles, The Threefold Death & Villainous Triptychs

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

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

Teen Wolf table

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

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

I and the public know

What all schoolchildren learn,

Those to whom evil is done

Do evil in return.

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

Evolving Roles

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

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

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

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

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

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

Race and Refrigerators

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

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

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

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

Strength and Mental Illness

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Lydia: You know, it could be psychological.

Stiles: What do you mean? Like psychosomatic?

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

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

Allison: Then what do we do?

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

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

Scott: I… I was having an asthma attack?

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

Scott: How did you know to do that?

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

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

Onwards to Season 5

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

Spoiler warning: All The Spoilers for Supernatural. All of them. 

Exposing yourself to certain fandoms on tumblr is like signing up for a bout with Stockholm syndrome: sooner or later, you’re going to drink the Kool-Aid. And by “drink the Kool-Aid”, I mean “become obsessed with Supernatural“, which – surprise!* –  is exactly what happened to me. I mean, I knew all about the sexism, the queerbaiting, the manpain; about the woeful representation of POC. I vowed, on the public internets, that I would never watch it – and in a universe without tumblr, I may well have done just that. But slowly, steadily, like dripping water eroding stone, the steady flow of GIFs, photosets and soulful meta wore down my resistance. Surely, I told myself, I ought to at least watch the pilot, just so I can say that I gave it a fair shot. So I did – and I wasn’t impressed. I even livetweeted my endeavour, complete with scathing criticism. The portrayal of women was so ludicrous, and Dean Winchester so obnoxious, that I didn’t make it much more than halfway through the first episode before giving up, and for a while, that was that: I’d tried Supernatural, I hadn’t liked it, end of story.

But.

Despite myself, I found that I wanted to know what happened next. Enough of my friends whose taste in shows I either shared or respected had been surprised by my reaction – had vouched for the worthiness of at least the first five seasons, despite the acknowledged problematic elements – that I started to waver. Had I been judging too harshly? My curiosity was piqued, but in the end, what tipped the balance wasn’t the recommendations of friends or the writings of strangers: it was this speech by Misha Collins – which, yes, I encountered via tumblr – in which he calls out the show’s writers for their needless use of sexist language and misogynistic tropes. Just the fact that one of the main actors was willing to both acknowledge the problem and speak about it went a long way towards reassuring me that Collins, at least, was someone whose work I wanted to support. So I made my decision: I’d give Supernatural another try, endeavouring to make it to at least Season 4, when Castiel – played by Collins – finally makes an appearance.

This decision was roughly equivalent to taking a second hit of heroin because the first one hasn’t kicked in yet.

As promised, Supernatural has a lot of problems – and I mean, a lot. (As, indeed, does heroin.) There’s scarcely a male character on the show whose defining emotional arc doesn’t hinge on his having lost his mother, wife/girlfriend and/or children, and scarcely a female character with an emotional connection to Sam or Dean Winchester who hasn’t been fridged in order to give them more angst (though in fairness, the male death toll is similarly high). Overwhelmingly, the POC characters are either exoticised, stereotyped and/or played as villains, while the queerbaiting is made all the more frustrating by the overall lack of actual queer characters. The sexist language, too, is omnipresent: if you made a drinking game of it, and took a shot whenever someone says bitch, whore, or explicitly codes weakness as female (“no chick flick moments”) and strength as male (“sack up!”), you would end up drunk after any given episode. Throughout nine seasons, but especially in the first three, almost every female character either falls squarely into one of four categories – Victim (dead or damselled), Virgin (pure and protectable), Vixen (sexy and strong) or Virago (angry and strong) – or straddles their intersections with all the subtlety of a brick to the face. Supernatural is, quite categorically, a show about straight white manpain as facilitated by dead ladies and magic – and if that were all it was, I’d never have made it through two full seasons, let alone nine.

However.

It is also a show with a sprawling, complex mythology that nonetheless manages to stay coherent and engaging as it develops. Like The X Files, it has a deft touch with humour, poking fun at its own meta and idiosyncrasies at least as often as it takes itself seriously. It strikes a solid balance between stand-alone episodes and extended arcs, and the characters – well, that’s where things get interesting. Because for all that the Winchesters are frequently situated as being traditionally masculine, even hypermasculine heroes, this isn’t their be-all, end-all.

In fact, there’s an argument to be made that Dean – whose love of classic rock, classic cars, weapons, whiskey and women makes him about as stereotypically masculine as it’s possible to be – is also an active subversion of the very masculinity he ostensibly personifies. Sometimes, this comes across as being an unintentional – but still canonical – consequence of queerbaiting: that is, of the show’s habit of putting (presumably) straight characters in homoerotic situations, or strongly implying a homoerotic subtext, without ever crossing the line into overt displays of queerness. But this practice, while deeply frustrating, also feels like a very real reflection of, and reaction to, the show’s conflicting fanbases, and to the sheer impossibility of pleasing them both – namely, of the schism between (predominantly) male viewers who tune in for the adventures of Fiercely Hetereosexual Warrior Dean Winchester, the epitome of maleness in a show that is very definitely All About Dudes, and (predominantly) female viewers who tune in for Tortured Bisexual Dean Winchester, a good man who is eighteen kinds of broken and quite clearly in love with an angel. (Or his brother. Or both. Whatever.) Uncharitably, the queerbaiting is a way of firmly committing to the former fanbase while giving the latter just enough hope to keep them invested. More charitably, it’s a way of trying to please both groups equally without doing anything that either camp could construe as unforgivable. Most likely, it’s a combination of both, which, when combined with the conservative homophobia of network executives, tends to err on the side of default straightness. Whatever the answer, Dean Winchester remains a complex enough character to defy easy categorisation – and intentionally or not, even without the problem of queerbaiting, his version of masculinity as portrayed on the show is worth interrogating; as, indeed, is Sam’s.

Right from the outset, the Winchester brothers are set up as being, if not total opposites, then temperamentally opposed. The first time I tried to watch the pilot, Dean came across as brash, obnoxious and full of himself, while Sam, whose initial distance from hunting provides the audience with an introduction to the concept, feels more sympathetic: a nice, normal guy being dragged into danger and tragedy by an uncaring sibling. But as the season – as the show – progresses, it soon becomes clear that things aren’t what they seem. Dean’s arrogance is, very explicitly, a coping mechanism, and even in Season 1, we can see the cracks. Sam, by contrast, is highly – and successfully – compartmentalised, able to set aside his past and live normally in ways that Dean just can’t. Nowhere is this more apparent than in the comparison of Dean’s attempt to live a normal life at the end of Season 5 and Sam’s attempt to do likewise at the end of Season 7. When Dean leaves, Sam is imprisoned in hell, having first extracted a promise that Dean won’t try to rescue him. Dean accedes, and goes to live with Lisa, his ex-girlfriend, and her young son, Ben – his reward for having stopped the apocalypse. But Dean, by his own admission, is a mess: he is tormented by Sam’s loss, suffering from recurrent nightmares and flashbacks as well as survivor’s guilt. When the hunting world impinges on his new life, his relationship with Lisa irreparably breaks down as he begins to exhibit the classic symptoms of PTSD: hyper-vigilance, obsessive behaviour, aggression as a fear response, and a compulsive need to control both his environment and the actions of his loved ones. Sam, however, suffers from no such baggage, despite the fact that he doesn’t know if Dean is alive or dead. He makes a new life for himself with ease, and while he does talk to his new partner, Amelia, about having “lost” his brother, it’s clear he isn’t psychologically damaged in the way that Dean is.

In fact, the only time we really see Sam undergo this level of distress in response to trauma – nightmares, impulsive behaviour, rage – in a context that isn’t directly related to his burgeoning demon powers is very early in Season 1, immediately following Jessica’s death. Which begs the question: is Sam compartmentalised because it’s an inherent part of his personality, or is it something he’s learned – a coping mechanism, the same as Dean’s bravado? I’d contend it’s a combination of nature and practise. From what we learn of Sam’s childhood in various flashback episodes, it’s clear he’s always harboured a burning desire to be normal, but it’s equally clear that the same is true of Dean, too. Both brothers have suffered from their upbringing, but whereas Sam is clearly capable of cutting himself off from his family (running away as a teenager, going to college, moving in with Amelia), Dean can never manage it. Which is, quite arguably, the consequence of his being the older brother: Dean’s entire life has revolved around protecting Sam and obeying his father, whereas Sam, who lacked those responsibilities, has a better baseline for normalcy – or at least, for self-definition in the absence of family and hunting – and therefore a better starting position from which to try and establish himself as a separate person. The Winchesters rely on each other, but while Sam depends on Dean as a person, Dean depends on Sam for his purpose, too.

Superficially, Sam is presented as being sensitive and emotional – and therefore the more stereotypically feminine of the two – while Dean is typed as tough and strong: a heroic masculine archetype. But in terms of their actual psyches, the opposite is true: Sam is compartmentalised, resilient and capable, while Dean is a wreck. Throughout the show, both brothers are repeatedly told by a slew of older men – hunters, angels and demons alike – to “stop whining” and “sack up” whenever they dwell on their problems. Any failure to do so, whether perceived or actual, is invariably criticised as being feminine, or derided by comparison to feminine behaviours. Yet at the same time, Dean’s issues are real enough that the same people telling him to “be a man” are also, at various points, genuinely worried by his refusal to seek help or tell them what’s wrong. The contradiction is not only striking, but deeply representative of the toxic burden of enforced, stereotypical masculinity. On the rare occasions when Dean does try and talk about his feelings, he is invariably mocked as weak, whiny and effeminate; but when, having absorbed these lessons, he tries to cope through drinking, self-destructive behaviour and suicidal thoughts, he is criticised – often angrily – for being an idiot. Sam likewise receives the same treatment, but to very different effect. Unlike Dean, who can’t separate himself from his work, Sam’s stress response is to leave whatever situation is upsetting him and calm down elsewhere – a much healthier approach, though one that also earns him rebuke. Time and again, when Sam gets angry, feels betrayed or is otherwise shown to be under pressure, he leaves, turning his back on his (undeniably damaged) family and ignoring other responsibilities in favour of self-care. That he is often cast as selfish, untrustworthy, traitorous and insensitive for doing this – presumably on the basis that Real Men don’t run from their problems or let their friends down, ever, no matter the personal cost – is part and parcel of the same toxic logic that romanticises male self-sacrifice and silence.

For all that Supernatural can and does act as a paean to the virtues of traditional masculinity – brotherhood, battle, stoicism, strength – whether intentionally or not, it just as frequently demonstrates why this mindset is  brutally flawed, with the worst psychological consequences of investing in its mythos – repression, loneliness, self-hatred, addiction, suicidal ideation, insecurity, worthlessness – personified by Dean Winchester. Unlike countless action movie heroes who drink their whiskey, kill the bad guys and stride manfully into the sunset without ever flinching, Dean drinks excessively to the point of attracting comment, has nightmares about his actions, and has to be rescued from danger at least as often as he does the rescuing, because half the time, his “act first, think later” policy is a self-destructive impulse rather than an actual plan. Almost, you could define the split in the Supernatural fandom as being between those who think Dean Winchester is someone to be idolised for his masculinity, and those who see him as needing help. And even now, I still can’t tell if Dean’s relationship with traditional masculinity is deliberately portrayed as compounding his traumas to the point of causing new ones, or if its implications have been hidden from the writers by cognitive dissonance and/or social conditioning. Given the number of creative voices involved, I suspect it’s both, depending on the episode – but either way, it makes for some interesting analysis.

As a duo, what makes Sam and Dean so compelling is the extent to which their personalities, strengths and weaknesses differ, not just from each other, but from first appearances. Particularly in the early seasons, much is made of Sam’s ability to successfully comfort the many grieving strangers they encounter, whereas Dean is always blunt, less adept – and less willing – to tailor his approach to the person, a contrast we’re initially inclined to see as proof of Sam’s sensitivity and Dean’s rudeness. And certainly, Sam is a caring person. But as the show progresses, his interactions become less a function of compassion and more the consequence of his being a better liar than Dean, with fewer compunctions about emotionally manipulating strangers to get the information he needs. When it comes to informational lies – credit card scams, adopting fake IDs – Sam tends to be uneasy with the deception in ways that Dean isn’t; but while Dean is happy pretending to be someone else, he doesn’t fake his emotional reactions. Broadly speaking, Dean is a situational liar and emotionally honest, while Sam is an emotional liar and situationally honest – the exact opposite of how they present.

When it comes to their relationships with women, however, another curious comparison presents itself. Without wanting to overanalyze the handful of sex scenes sprinkled throughout the show, it’s notable that Dean’s encounters, in contrast to his aggressively masculine persona, tend to be romantic, even gentle, with Dean himself often shown to be the more passive partner, while Sam is assertive and dominant to the point of being rough (as more than one person has noticed). Dean has slept with angels; Sam lies down with demons. And for most of the show, that’s not just a metaphor: the big reveal of Season 5 – that Sam is meant to be Lucifer’s vessel, while Dean is earmarked for Michael – is arguably foreshadowed by their earlier romantic pairings with Ruby and Anna, respectively. But as of the most recent season, their predestined dichotomy is turned on its head: Season 9 starts with Sam being possessed by an angel, and ends with Dean turning into a demon, a deliberate subversion that shows how far Sam has come, and how far Dean has fallen. The Winchesters have been to Heaven, Hell and Purgatory, but despite the implied promise of the lyrics to Carry On Wayward Son, they’re yet to find any peace.

What really gets me about Dean Winchester, though, is his status as the most broken of Broken Birds I’ve ever encountered – and in a show where so much else about the gender roles is regressive, it’s striking that the most ostensibly masculine character is one who’s best defined by a trope that’s overwhelmingly female-dominated. In this sense, Dean actually makes for a good case study about our perceptions of gender in stories; specifically, our tendency to hold female characters to higher standards than men, not only in terms of their actions and personalities, but in how we judge whether they’re three-dimensional or poorly-drawn tropes, and our corresponding tendency to assume male competence as a default. Right from the outset, and despite being situated as the more experienced hunter, Dean is – not ineffectual by any stretch of the imagination, but prone to the kind of error which, were he a woman, would likely be counted as signs of inherent weakness.

In the first four episodes of Season 1, for instance, Dean continuously fails to establish his fake identities with any degree of success: twice, he gets in trouble with officials who call his bluff, and twice his incompetence leads to civilians detecting the lie. In 1.1 (Pilot) and 1.4 (Phantom Traveller), it’s Sam, not Dean, who kills the Big Bad, and while he saves the child in 1.3 (Dead in the Water), the offending ghost is dispelled, not through his actions, but the self-sacrifice of another character. The only monster Dean kills is the titular villain of 1.2 (Wendigo), and in 1.4, he’s actively disarmed by his fear of flying. All of which is paired with a high degree of sentimentality: in both 1.2 and 1.3, Dean is visibly flustered by a simple kiss on the cheek, while his strongest emotional connection consists of his bonding with a child over their mutual loss of a parent. Under identical conditions, a female character would, I suspect, have to work much harder to be seen as competent: her failed bluffs would be seen as failures of intelligence compounded by a poor kill rate, while her visible terror would see her pegged as overly emotional. Which is what happens, when successive generations of terrible female characterisation condition viewers to infer the presence of gendered stereotyping on the basis of normal behavioural cues: there’s such a backlog of bullshit to work through re the portrayal of women on screen, it can be hard to step back and judge new characters on their individual merits. But because Dean Winchester is not just male, but overtly masculine, wrapped in a leather jacket and driving a Chevy Impala, we trust that he knows what he’s doing, even when we’d be well within our grounds to think the opposite.

I have more to say, but I’ll save it for another post, as this one is already considerably longer than planned. Apparently I have Feelings about Supernatural that demand expression, and that, right there, is a sentence I never, ever thought I’d be writing. TUMBLR, WHAT HAVE YOU DONE TO ME?

Feel These Things

Sam Winchester - How Do I Stop

Dean Winchester - I Wish I Couldn't Feel A Damn Thing

 

 

*Or not, for anyone who’s been following my tumblr/Twitter presence for the past few weeks.

Dear Mr Delingpole,

I’ve just come across your nauseatingly clueless piece, Why it’s not sexist to say that boys should never play with dolls, and was so impressed by your complete and utter failure to understand the issues you’re discussing, not to say your sexism, that I felt the need to respond to it in full. Not so much because I think you’ll listen to a word I have to say, but because it’s necessary; and because, quite frankly, I think my head might explode if I don’t. So, without further ado: here is why you are wrong. (All bolding for emphasis is mine.)

Not so long ago the “progressive” headmistress of a very smart all-girls’ boarding school invited me to dinner with some of her brightest sixth formers.

One by one the girls were asked to tell me of their impressive future plans: “Engineering, Cambridge; physics, Oxford; maths, Imperial; an astronaut; a mining engineer; a brain surgeon…”

“And which of you just wants to settle down and bring up a family?” I interrupted, partly to annoy the zappy, go-ahead, right-on headmistress but partly out of genuine curiosity. 

The girl I most admired was the single one to raise her hand. It takes real courage these days for a girl to fight against the political correctness of our time and follow her true nature.

So, Mr Delingpole: let’s be clear. You, an adult man, were invited to an all girl’s school to have dinner with students selected especially for their academic potential – presumably so that you could encourage them in their fields of choice. You, however, appear to have been cynical of this endeavour from the outset; at the very least, you evince little respect for the woman who invited you, calling her a progressive-as-insult and pettily interrupting her in front of her students for your own amusement.

You then asked the girls, who were there to hear you support their academic ambitions, how many of them wanted to settle down and raise a family. More than that: you interrupted the listing of their goals - as though the information you’d been specifically invited to hear was both boring and irrelevant – and asked them instead the most sexist, inappropriate question you could possibly think of; the same question which, over and over and over again, has been used to derail the passion and dedication of professional women: when are you going to give up on all this career nonsense and settle down with a man?

The problem isn’t just that you asked the girls about their plans to have families, although doing so was both invasive and deeply inappropriate. The problem is that you not only situated the question of their settling down as being more important than the career ambitions they wanted to tell you about, but phrased it as though the two options – career and family – were mutually exclusive. You didn’t ask them if they also wanted families; you asked them if they wanted to “bring up” a family: to be, primarily, mothers and caregivers. Which is what you seem to think most, if not all women, naturally aspire to be, in the absence of meddling, “zappy” headmistresses. You describe the one girl who said yes as having the courage to “follow her true nature” – as though every girl at the table secretly wanted to be a mother herself, and was just too shy or too brainwashed to dare admit it.

I am a mother myself, Mr Delingpole – currently a full-time one, in fact. I have every respect for motherhood, and no delusions whatsoever about how valuable, underpraised and challenging it is to raise a child. But what you did was despicable. In 2014, you told a group of ambitious, clever teenage girls that the most important thing they could do was settle down, reserving your admiration, not for the girls who bucked your narrow expectations of what women should be, but the one who conformed. Never mind your assumption that all these girls were straight, which is a different problem altogether – because I have no doubt that, when you asked if they wanted to bring up a family, you meant a traditional, heterosexual pairing, preferably one that was legalised by marriage. You diminished them by denying their potential, Mr Delingpole – and now, in print, you’re boasting about it.

Does this make me sound like a complete sexist pig?

It does, because you are. I’m sorry to break it to you, but the ability to ask a rhetorical question about whether or not you’re a sexist pig is not some magical proof against actually being a sexist pig.

Well, possibly. But that is because I happen to be one of those reactionary dinosaur fathers who would like his beloved daughter to end up in a career which suits her talents and interests.

If she wants to be a welder or lorry driver or a rocket scientist all well and good. 

But the last thing she needs is some trendy teacher steering her towards a traditionally male profession to prove some dubious political point.

Do not wave your daughter at me like she’s a point-scoring mannequin, Mr Delingpole. Plenty of sexists have daughters. Your claim to want the best for her doesn’t change the fact that you happily sat in a room full of other people’s daughters, assumed that their collective interest in “traditionally male” professions was the unnatural consequence of some teacher’s political agenda rather than the natural consequence of having their native interests and talents encouraged by someone who didn’t think their gender was a handicap, and then tut-tutted at their reticence to give the “correct” answer to a question so invasive and personal you’d be out of bounds asking it of an adult colleague or family member, let alone a strange teenager.

If your first thought on hearing a schoolgirl profess an interest in brain surgery or mathematics is to assume, on the basis of nothing more than her gender and her teacher’s enthusiasm for her intelligence, that she must have been pressured into it, then yes: you are a sexist.

This is where I think Tory MP Liz Truss was a bit silly the other day when she told parliament’s The House magazine that chemistry sets should be aimed as much at girls as at boys.

Nice theory but what would be the purpose? A toy business’s job is to make profit not engage in social engineering

And if as consumer research has shown, it appears that boys are the prime market for test tubes, chemicals and smelly potions, why waste time and effort trying to drag girls away from their hair and make-up sets?

Let me ask you a serious question, Mr Delingpole: do young girls gravitate towards pink things because of some innate, female preference for the colour, or do they like pink because everything in our culture tells them that pink is feminine? Let me give you a hint: historically, pink was considered a masculine colour more suitable for boys than girls, while blue was considered feminine. In point of fact, pink didn’t signify feminine until as recently as the 1940s – but now, it’s so ubiquitously considered the colour for girls that we seldom think about why.

I mention this because you seem to be operating under two misguided assumptions: firstly, that social engineering is something toy companies aren’t already doing;  and secondly, that social engineering is inimical to profit. Both these assertions are false. There’s no innate reason why boys should like chemistry sets more than girls – unless you think there’s really some truth in the tired, scientifically unsupported, deeply misogynistic claim that women are inherently worse at, and consequently less interested in, the hard sciences (more of which later). But as to the question of why toy companies sell some products for boys and others for girls – consider what would happen if they didn’t. If all toys were simply accepted as being for everyone, regardless of  gender, then why would parents need to buy two otherwise identical items – one pink, one blue – to spare their son the social indignity of playing with a girl’s toy? If pink and blue weren’t gendered colours, then why would parents need to rush out and buy a whole new set of otherwise identical baby clothes for an expected girl because their first child was a boy, and boy colours would be inappropriate?

By not only making some toys explicitly for girls and others for boys, but by socially enforcing the narrative that such divisions are natural and necessary through their advertising campaigns, toy companies increase their profits by effectively forcing adults to buy extra or duplicate products for children of different genders. If it’s socially unacceptable for brothers and sisters to play with the same things, then even when it might be more cost-effective for parents to buy one toy and let their mixed-gender offspring share it, they end up buying two. This phenomenon is particularly evident at the cheaper end of the spectrum – that is, at toys and clothes marketed to poorer families. Whereas richer parents can  afford the boutique prices being charged by companies quick to cash in on the revelation that there’s a viable market for gender-neutral options (which is just one example of how removing the boy/girl fixation can be profitable for toymakers), poorer families cannot, which makes them all – adults and children alike – more dependant on heavily gendered products.

I say again: toy companies are already engaged in social engineering for profit. The only difference with what’s being proposed by people like me, who dislike the compulsive gendering of children’s products, is that we’re trying to fix a system that’s both toxic and very deeply broken, to the point of actively contributing to the negative treatment of girls and women elsewhere in our culture. I shouldn’t have to say this, but even though companies exist to make money, their profits cannot and should not be prioritised over every other human or social concern. Just as we’re right to be outraged about sweatshop labour, the use of poisonous chemicals, factory pollutants and the other many and devastating outrages that routinely occur when companies are allowed to privilege profits over everything else, we are also right to hold companies socially accountable for the injustices their products and advertising help perpetuate.

For instance: the fashion industry uses heavily airbrushed images of frequently underage, underweight models to sell clothes to young girls, portraying this highly specialised body type as both beautiful and ideal. The corresponding rise in anorexia, bulemia, poor self esteem, body dysmorphia and depression among the target demographic of these campaigns is not, therefore, unrelated to fashion marketing – and especially not when we consider that the same industry has been known to airbrush sick models into looking healthy, recruit new models outside eating disorder clinics, produce clothes dummies that are the same size as anorexic girls, and sell girls sexualised “Anna Rexia” Halloween costumes. This being so, we’re not wrong to say that the fashion industry’s profits aren’t more important than the damage their current advertising and business plans are doing, and to try and take action accordingly. By the same token, it doesn’t matter if boys are perceived to be the “prime market” for science-based toys: women in STEM fields are battling sexism, struggling for recognition both currently and historically, and the discrimination against them starts early (as evidenced, among other things, by your own poor treatment of teenage girls aspiring to STEM work). This is a real problem, and one not helped when toy and clothing companies habitually tell girls that science isn’t something they either can or should aspire to. That’s why it’s not a “waste [of] time and effort” to “drag girls away from their hair and make-up sets” – because we’re not “dragging” them, forbidding them one and insisting they take the other. We’re simply trying to give them a choice; one that you, Mr Delingpole, seem to think they neither deserve nor merit.

Because it is “sexist” I suppose. That at least is how the various feminist lobby groups would see it.

Yes. Yes, it is.

One is called Pink Stinks which campaigns against “gender stereotyping” in the toy industry. 

Another – Let Toys Be Toys – successfully persuaded Marks & Spencer earlier this year into announcing that it would no longer sell gender-specific toys. Liz Truss hailed this campaign as “fantastic”.

But is it really “fantastic” to deny boys and girls the kind of toys they most want just to demonstrate how enlightened and post-sexist you are? 

What you’re failing to grasp here, Mr Delingpole, is that nobody wants to deny little girls their princesses, any more than we want to deny little boys their chemistry sets. What we want is to give children the option of choosing what suits them without being told it’s only meant for children of a different gender: to say that fairies and knights and Lego and trucks and dolls can be for ANYONE. You, however, quite categorically are denying children”the kind of toys they most want” – by refusing to allow the possibility of girls who like dinosaurs, as I did growing up, or boys who like Strawberry Shortcake, as some of my male friends did. By concerning yourself with only a majority of children whose interests are defined as constituting such by toy companies with a vested financial interest in not changing anything, you are making it harder, if not impossible, for all children to enjoy the toys they want to play with. For God’s sake, get it into your head: the only people “forcing” children to do anything are the ones who come along yelling about how it’s wrong for boys to have dolls while simultaneously kicking the Lego away from their daughters’ outstretched fingers.

If girl toddlers want to spend their time playing with dollies – and they do – and if small boys want to spend their time constructing things out of Lego where exactly is the social benefit in frustrating their natural urges?

Before I had children of my own I was much more open-minded on this score. I was always perfectly prepared to believe – as the “experts” tell us – that behaviour is a social construct and that boys and girls act the way they do because of the roles that we parents force upon them through unconscious gender stereotyping.

Then I saw for myself at first hand what boys and girls are really like and the scales fell from my eyes. 

From as soon as she was able to walk my daughter seemed to like nothing better than pushing a baby dolly round in a pushchair. 

My son at the same age was only interested in sitting around on his fat bottom, building things with bricks and smashing them up.

Almost any parent who has had both boys and girls will tell you this.

No matter how hard you try to bring your kids up in a gender-neutral way – even if you refuse point blank to dress them in stereotypical blue or pink romper suits – those XX and XY chromosomes will out in the end. 

Are you aware, Mr Delingpole, that there’s a fundamental difference between natural behaviour and socially conditioned behaviour? And are you also aware that social conditioning can kick in from an extraordinarily young age? While some children doubtless do have innate personal preferences for dolls or blocks – preferences which sometimes align with their biological sex, and sometimes don’t – that’s not the full story. From the time they’re born, we dress girls in pink and boys in blue; we treat them differently even before they’re big enough for such differences to matter, our own biases so culturally entrenched that we don’t always realise we’re doing it. A recent study found that parents are more likely to explain science concepts to their sons than their daughters, for instance, while another found that mothers were far more likely to underestimate their baby daughters’ crawling skills while overestimating their sons’ abilities at the same tasks. Many adults actively police gender-conformity in children, and once they’re teenagers, despite the existence of “zappy”, “progressive” authority figures like the headmistress you openly mocked, many teachers and school speakers alike line up to continue the process, with a particular emphasis on shaming girls.  Even little children have a gender wage gap, with girls performing more household chores than boys for less pocket money, while this heartbreaking analysis of what parents Google about their children shows a preoccupation with female beauty and male intelligence. No matter our intentions, all parents suffer from the implicit biases we’ve absorbed and internalised as normative from the culture in which we live – so when we see our children conforming to gender stereotypes despite our efforts, however slim, we often assume it must be the result of some inherent, internal difference, after all.

In her excellently researched book, Delusions of Gender, Cordelia Fine refers to this position as ‘biology as fallback’ – one adopted by parents who, for whatever reason, didn’t expect to see their children exhibit stereotypical behaviours, and who subsequently assumed that gender stereotypes must really be innate. “Believing that they practiced gender-neutral parenting,” she writes, “biology was the only remaining explanation.” But as she goes on to explain – at length, her conclusions backed up by multiple studies – this simply isn’t the case. Rather, there’s only so much individual parents can do to successfully implement gender neutral parenting when, in every other aspect of their lives, children are exposed to a wider culture that overwhelmingly tells them the opposite.  It’s one thing, for instance, to try and tell your daughter she’s free to enjoy superheroes and princesses in equal measure if, every time she sets foot on the playground, she’s mocked for playing with action figures and praised, whether by her peers or her teachers, for dressing prettily.

All of which is a way of saying, Mr Delingpole, that no – the behaviours you’re observing aren’t the undeniable result of some absolute chromosonal impulse that tells girls to cuddle and boys to smash. They’re not even universal behaviours; the fact that your children confirm to stereotype doesn’t automatically mean that every child, everywhere, does, regardless of whether their parents are fans of gender-neutral parenting or view it with total antipathy.

Give a girl a doll and she will cuddle it and nurture it. Give a boy a doll and he will either torture and dismember it or use it as a hand grenade.

I find it extremely disturbing that you class  torture and dismemberment as inherently male characteristics, strong enough to be evident even in childhood – and more, that you seem to think boys are incapable of cuddling and nurturing. What you’re describing here isn’t a synonym for boisterousness or rough play, but something far more disturbing. Have you honestly never met a little boy with a favourite stuffed animal, one he loves and cuddles and cannot bear to be without? Because I have, many times. My own son, now nearly one, is among them: just as I did throughout my entire childhood, he has developed a particular affection for one of his toys, a plush owl. This owl goes everywhere with him, subject to constant hugging, chewing and fierce, babyish love. If the owl isn’t within reach, he won’t go to sleep; the one time we needed to wash it around bedtime to get rid of a moldy smell, he screamed and cried for the whole two and a half hours it took for the dryer cycle to finish, then fell asleep the instant we placed it into his hands. He’s too small for kisses yet, but he hugs us back when we hug him, and if you lean your head close to his, he copies and gently bumps foreheads, giggling and smiling. As he grows older, I have no doubt that he’ll play games where his toys are exploded or killed or imperilled – I did the same growing up, enacting out endless games where Starscream of the Decepticons shot rockets at my collection of My Little Ponies, or orchestrating playground games where Catwoman and Batman were fighting bad guys. But that’s a far cry from the sort of thing you’re describing.

Little boys are not universally sociopaths in training: nurturing and love are not exclusively feminine traits. But that’s what they can sometimes become, if, as so many people do, you assume that boys are naturally monstrous, and consequently neglect to teach them the empathy, kindness and respect for others you’ve already decided they’re incapable of learning. And so male brutality becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy: if boys will be boys, then why bother to teach them otherwise? Easier far to excuse their aggression with a single pat phrase, and blindly hope they don’t grow up to become rapists or abusers.

Is this really such a bad thing? Well, you could argue that if more were done to check boys’ destructive instincts we might have less war and if more were done to discourage girls’ child-rearing tendencies we might have more women in the workplace and a narrower gender pay gap.

Or you might find as I do something rather sinister and Brave-New-World-ish in this attempt at social engineering.

What if there is a sound biological reason for the way men and women are programmed to think and behave in different ways? What indeed if the future of our species depends on it?

To a degree I think it does.

If little girls didn’t have those dollyhugging instincts we would all be in a pickle because who in the future would do the mothering and who would work in all those vital caring professions from midwifery to primary school teaching and nursing?

And if little boys weren’t hardwired into being obsessive, aggressive show-offs and risk-takers, who would spend hours in the lab before making great scientific breakthroughs or drilling for oil or defending the nation?

Are you familiar with the concept of a false binary, Mr Delingpole? I somehow think not, because if you were, you’d realise you’d just answered your own question. If some boys grow up to be nurturing, then they’ll be working in those “vital caring professions” and staying at home with the children, while the little girls with the chemistry sets and athletic skills will be, as you have it, “making great scientific breakthroughs” and “defending the nation”. All that will happen is that men and women will appear in greater numbers in the sorts of professions you seem to think they’re inherently unsuited for, and it’ll all balance out. Society won’t collapse – it’ll just look different as a result of being more equitable. As always, we’re not talking about every girl completely abandoning traditionally feminine occupations or every boy settling masculine traditions aside in favour of basket-weaving – we’re talking about gender not being a determining factor in what professions they get to choose. And while we’re on the subject: what makes you think that the gender schism evident in many Western professions is so absolute, so fundamental to human nature and gender, that it applies everywhere in the world, and throughout history? That would, after all, be the logical, sane conclusion, if your claims to biological determinism were really accurate.

In fact, the opposite is true. Women have a long and significant history of making scientific breakthroughs – but thanks to the prevailing sexism of their times, men often took all the credit, leaving us with the inaccurate, distorted perception that women never really did anything important until very, very recently. Or how about this: does it interest you to know that the professions you’ve classed as being inherently gendered – “caring” professions, like primary teaching and nursing for women; serious, manly professions, like science, military service and doctoring for men – aren’t always skewed that way? Once upon a time, teaching – even primary teaching – was a male-dominated profession; only comparatively recently has it swung the other way. In Russia, most doctors are women, and thanks to the ability of sexism to devalue women’s work, whatever it is, Russian doctors are grossly underpaid, just as nurses are in the West.In Finland, 50% of doctors are women, while in the UK, female doctors are set to outnumber men by 2017 – just three years away – despite the fact that they’re still paid 25% less than their male colleagues. And this is all deeply relevant, because one of the reasons nursing has traditionally been female-dominated is because the modern profession was formally begun by a woman, Florence Nightingale. At a time when women were more or less prohibited from becoming doctors, Nightingale found a way to teach women medicine on an organised scale – but that doesn’t mean that modern nurses are any less medicine-focussed or inherently more nurturing than doctors. For both, the work is hard, technical and emotionally draining, but because nursing, despite being vital, is seen as being feminine, it continues to be undervalued and underpaid.  

As for women in the military – well. I could write you a whole different essay on that, Mr Delingpole. I could talk about the compulsory military service for women in Israelthe fact that the first female marine, Opha Mae Johnson, joined in 1918the thousands on thousands of Soviet women who served on the front line in WWII, only to be demonised and forgotten; the Night Witches; the Dahomey Amazons;  the tale of Khutulun; the large numbers of female Viking warriors archaeologists originally assumed to be male, simply because they were buried with swords (which is also what happened in the case of this Etruscan warrior prince – sorry, princess); the women serving currently in armies around the world, and you know what? I could do this all day, Mr Delingpole, but the point is that if you’re trying to argue that warfare is an inherently masculine preoccupation, such that women have only taken it up since the pernicious advent of gender-neutral parenting, feminism run amok and modern, “zappy” headmistresses, then you are wrong, wrong, wrong. Thanks to sexism, you probably didn’t learn about it in school, but that doesn’t mean it didn’t happen, and it sure as hell doesn’t mean that women warriors are unnatural or rare.

Women can be arrogant risk-takers who make fantastic breakthroughs. Men can be empathic, loving caregivers. That’s not because feminism is trying desperately to upset the natural order of things – that is the natural order of things, no matter how often various cultures have tried to pretend otherwise, because human beings are not wholly defined by our gender.

This doesn’t mean that girls can’t do boy things and vice versa.

Really, Mr Delingpole? Because you seem to have expended a great deal of energy trying to argue exactly that.

Lego for example has had great success with its new specialist toy range aimed at girls, which helped drive up its profits by 35 per cent. 

But this wasn’t because Lego suddenly discovered that girls were just as interested in construction toys as boys. 

It is because – much to the annoyance of feminists – Lego cunningly designed the new range in demeaning, stereotypical sexist pinks and purples and turned the astronauts and highway patrolmen into puppies and pretty girls.

Actually, no – allow me, once again, to set the record straight. Prior to their introduction of the pink-and-purple, female-oriented Lego Friends range, Lego was already successfully selling their products to girls. As these vintage Lego ads clearly show, Lego was originally marketed a gender-neutral toy: in fact, I grew up playing with Legos, as did pretty much every other child – male and female – of my generation. But as I’ve already explained, Mr Delingpole, toy companies like their profits, and a clear way to make parents buy more Lego is to create a new kind, one that encourages them to buy two different sets – a Lego for boys, and a Lego for girls – rather than just the one, shared product. I don’t doubt that Lego Friends has found a market, likely even attracting new customers in the process, but the idea that girls weren’t playing with Lego prior to this – that they only became interested in building once they could make hairdressing salons and play with pink bricks – is demonstrably absurd, a claim debunked not only by the testimony of every girl and woman who played with the stuff before then, but by Lego’s own advertising history. This is what social engineering really looks like: a campaign to convince little girls they suddenly need a different, special type of Lego than the one they’ve always played with, because the proper stuff is for boys.

When my niece was growing up and my brother wanted to recruit her as a companion on his military re-enactment expeditions he conducted a similar successful experiment.

At first being a girl Freya just couldn’t be persuaded to care that much about war and weaponry.

Then one day my brother hit on an ingenious solution. He bought her a toy gun, painted it pink with pretty flowers down the side, called it a Barbie Gun and it became her most treasured possession.

MP Liz Truss, I gather, has two daughters so if she fancies making them a couple of Barbie guns to help them combat society’s ingrained sexism I’m sure my brother would happily send her the colour scheme.

I have no doubt that’s exactly what happened – but in all the times you’ve told this story, Mr Delingpole, have you ever stopped to wonder why? As I’ve already stated, pink isn’t an inherently girl-attracting colour, as evidenced by the fact that it’s only been marketed as girl-exclusive since the 1940s. Girls like pink because girls are trained to like pink, which is the exact same reason that boys now tend to avoid it; because literally every single thing that’s branded as being “for girls” is either pink or purple, and boys are socially punished for liking pink or feminine things. Growing up as a girl, it’s virtually impossible not to end up with a wardrobe and toybox full of pink things, even if – as was the case with me – it’s not your favourite colour. What it has undeniably become, however, is a symbol of femininity. Girls are trained to view pink as theirs, as something that cannot be taken from them. Nobody questions a girl in pink: it’s safe, and can therefore become a source of strength. Your niece didn’t have some innate, fundamental objection to toy guns simply because of her gender – she was hesitant to play a game that every single aspect of her life had told her was for boys only. But when your brother made her a girly gun, he sent her the message that guns could be girly, too, and that playing with them was therefore acceptable. He told her that guns could be for girls, not by appealing to some inherent, chromosonal attraction to the colour pink, but by manipulating the social convention that says it’s absolutely right and OK for girls to enjoy pink anything.

How do I know this? Because your niece isn’t alone in her experience. I’ve heard stories of little boys who’ve expressed a desire to own and play with ‘feminine’ toys, like dolls and ponies, when offered versions that were mocked up in dark, ‘boy’ colours, like red and black. Walk into any store that sells baby clothes, and look at the striking difference in the colour schemes: pinks and purples and pastels for girls, and lashings of red, blue, black, green and bright everything for boys. We dress our kids this way from birth, most of us without questioning it, and even before they’re walking and talking, we buy them toys that confirm to gender stereotypes, with dollies for girls and trucks for boys. We teach them that boys and girls are fundamentally different – not always with words, but absolutely with actions. Children learn from example, and they do so early, that pink means girl and blue means boy. We teach them to laugh at boys with long hair, to puzzle over little girls who like spiders and dinosaurs. On the playground, they learn gender discrimination – they police each other from day one, because that’s what adults have taught them to do, however unthinkingly. And then we get surprised, and sigh, and act as though biology alone can explain it, when some girls only feel comfortable using toy guns and building blocks that are coloured pink.

But it seems a bit of a waste of talent to me. Though I love my boy and girl equally I am in little doubt that females are manifestly the superior species in almost every way: more articulate, more empathetic, more resilient and more capable of multi-tasking.

This may come as a shock to you, Mr Delingpole, but benevolent sexism is still sexism. Saying girls are somehow fundamentally “superior” for their innate possession of various traits isn’t complimentary; it’s a covert way of praising women who conform to outdated gender stereotypes while mocking, rebuking, exclusing or demonising those who don’t. Girls aren’t made of sugar and spice and all things nice, just as boys aren’t made of slugs and snails and puppydog tails. We are human beings, just as capable as the next person, whoever they are, of being venal, arrogant, greedy, abusive, stammering, callous, single-minded and anything else you’d care to name. To impose on us the burden of being moral and social caregivers – the sweet, smiling stoics whose biological destiny is to rein in the destructive impulses of angry, aggressive, goal-oriented men – is to deny us the full range of our humanity; and more, to implicitly blame us when the men in our lives get out of control, for failing to use our feminine wiles to soothe them. Don’t limit us to the sort of roles you’re clearly unwilling to adopt yourself. Don’t put us on a pedestal we neither deserve nor want. Let us be flawed and wonderful; let us be human, and don’t think we’re being unfeminine when we dare to stray outside the bounds you’ve arbitrarily set for us.

Why would you want to steer someone like that into a boring, obsessional field such as maths, chemistry or car design? Girls deserve better than that.  

No, Mr Delingpole. Girls deserve better than to have men like you decide that they deserve better than their passions. “Boring, obsessional” fields, as you term them, are neither boring nor obsessional to those who love them, whatever their gender. Don’t presume to tell us that the “better” we deserve is to get married, knocked up and spend the rest of our lives raising children, just because you’d feel slightly more comfortable if we did. Don’t try to couch your sexism as protectionism, as though little girls everywhere need to be shielded from the scary predations of straw feminists out to turn them into truck-driving lesbians by throwing all their Barbies onto the fire. Don’t tell any more teenage girls that their ambitions are worth less than their reproductive potential. In fact, don’t say anything at all.

Just shut up, and listen, and learn. Because right now? You are the problem.

Furiously,

Foz Meadows

ETA on 25.1.14: Behold the sexist majesty of James Delingpole’s Twitter response to a woman who called this article fabulous:

James Delingpole being a sexist ass on Twitter, 25.01.14

And again, which, ew:

James Delingpole being a sexually harassing ass on Twitter, 25.01.14

Male feminists, however, are apparently “beneath contempt”:

James Delingpole anti male feminists on Twitter, 25.01.14

But it’s OK, guys! Because Delingpole isn’t really being a sexist ass – he’s just goading me:

James Delingpole goading on Twitter, 25.1.14

 

Only, no: he’s also really serious about feminists being ugly:

James Delingpole on feminists on Twitter, 25.1.14

I’ve now reached the end of S4 of The X Files, and am happy to say that I’m still enjoying the show. Granted, it hasn’t improved on race issues, which has lead to some truly cringeworthy moments – as I noted before, with few exceptions, POC predominantly appear in the show as extensions of or vehicles for their supernatural and/or religious beliefs, with a strong tendency towards negative and/or highly stereotyped portrayals of both – and Scully is still being damselled in ways that Mulder isn’t by virtue of gender, but overall, the quality has remained impressively consistent. I’m especially enjoying the strength of the continuity: not only are there multiple regular callbacks, both large and small, to the events of previous episodes and seasons, but the way these references are braided together to form a cohesive background of conspiracies and character development is extremely well done. In modern television, a policy of as-you-go retconning seems to have long since become the default order of business, and as someone who appreciates background details, it’s refreshing to see them treated with the care they deserve.

But as before, what really stands out is the skill with which Scully and Mulder are rendered as characters, and the extent to which their relationship subverts the usual presentations of TV gender roles. Having observed in S1 and S2 how non-sexualised Scully is, for instance, it still came as a surprise to realise – or rather, to hear my husband observe – that Mulder is frequently sexualised in her place: often, he’s shown running around shirtless or wearing nothing but a towel, and as of the penultimate episode of S4, we’ve seen him naked in the shower. Skinner, too, is shown in a similar light, with multiple bare-chested appearances and one prolonged, overtly voyeuristic scene of him in his underwear. While I can certainly think of several more recent shows that feature male sexualisation as a regular component, I’m hard-pressed to think of any that do so instead of, rather than as an accompaniment to, female sexualisation, let alone where the male nudity isn’t filtered through the lens of an on-screen female gaze. By which I mean: in order not to frighten straight male viewers, men only tend to be sexualised on screen when in the presence of a straight female characters – their gaze, whether lustful or embarrassed, is overwhelmingly used as a barrier to protect straight men from seeing male bodies as sexual objects; that way, such viewers can continue to identify with sexualised male characters without actually feeling objectified themselves, because their identification is with the idea of being attractive to fictional women rather than unknown audience members. Take away the on-screen women, however, and what you’re left with is a man whose sexual appeal is only meant for the audience – an inherently radical prospect, when the most sought-after demographic are straight young men who’ve been socially conditioned to panic at even the slightest whiff of homoeroticism. And yet, this is exactly how The X Files runs its sexuality: shirtless Mulder and Skinner shown in contexts where neither Scully nor any other female character is there to see them, such that their nudity is for the benefit of the audience alone. (Scully does see Mulder in the shower, but it’s a profoundly unsexy encounter given his state of psychological shock, and she doesn’t react at all to seeing him undressed.)

It’s also notable that Mulder, while still a masculine character, is allowed to display emotions that are traditionally deemed feminine: he not only cries freely, but does so in the presence of other people, rather than at home, alone, while drunk, as a sign of repression. Similarly, Scully is allowed to display traditionally masculine traits without this compromising her femininity: she aggressively confronts congressmen, senators, generals, senior government officials and other powerful figures, and yet is never once characterised or described as nagging, bitchy or shrill – even her enemies respect her competence without slighting her gender, and that’s a rare thing. This dynamic is exemplified in S4’s The Field Where I Died, which deals with the idea of past lives: though not a fantastic episode in and of itself, the fact that Mulder was said to be female in one of his past lives, while Scully was male at least twice (once as Mulder’s father, and once his commanding officer, both positions of command and power over her colleague) says a lot about the show’s willingness to subvert gender dynamics – as does the fact that this information is presented without question.

All in all, then, I’m looking forward to the start of S5, and keen to see where the rest of the show is headed. Even if it starts to head downhill from this point (and let’s be honest – most TV shows tend to go a bit wonky in their fourth or fifth season) I’m glad to have seen this much.

A month ago, columnist Joel Stein decided it would be a good idea to formally declare himself as a sexist ass by decrying grown men with a penchant for female-oriented YA novels. Now, however, another columnist has evidently decided to follow in his misguided, asshat footsteps – one Kurt Schlichter, who has let forth a veritable tirade against men who like My Little Pony.

As with Stein’s piece, Schlichter never actually states outright that girls and girlish things are inherently inferior to men and masculinity, though he comes perilously close: in his eyes, bronies – male MLP fans – are distinguished from ‘real men’ as being:

pathetic sissies [who] giggle like schoolgirls… harmless fem-boys who stopped maturing at age seven… perma-virgins… acting like idiots… losers… man-children… geebos.

Or, in other words: MEN WHO LIKE GIRL THINGS ARE ICKY AND THEY FREAK ME OUT.

It’s not a coincidence that Schlichter describes the brony trend as ‘terrifying’. For him, as with Stein, the idea of men and boys enjoying something that’s meant for girls is a sign of their unmanliness and, as a consequence, unworth. The fact that he compares bronies to the ‘real men – and women… tromping through the wilds of Afghanistan’ is so ludicrous it reads like satire: just think, citizens – while our soldiers suffer and die for your freedom, some selfish dilettantes are repaying those efforts by actually using it! 

The fact that Schlichter makes no mention of women who watch the show is telling. Presumably, he thinks, it’s fine for mothers to bond with their daughters over it, or at the least, women at home with their children have a better excuse for exposure. And as for us childless female viewers – well, we’re still ladies, after all! It might be an equal waste of our time, but at least it’s a gender-appropriate waste. The idea of fathers watching to bond with their children, or men simply wanting to enjoy a fun, uncomplicated show, is clearly anathema to him. The objection isn’t to adults watching cartoons, though Schlichter’s language occasionally tries to pretend as much – it’s to men watching girl cartoons.

Indeed, as Schlichter so condescendingly points out:

Fandom, even potentially nerdy fandom, need not be destructive. For example, the original “Star Trek” had real merit. The character of Captain Kirk provided an example of true manhood – note that the attributes commonly associated with ‘manhood’ are not limited by mere gender, as heroes like Sergeant Leigh Ann Hester proved – even within the concept of science fiction. Watching James T. Kirk teaches young males key life lessons – that violence is an important option for defeating evil, that individual dignity is worth fighting for, and that scoring with green alien chicks is awesome.

Translation: geeky shit is fine for guys, so long as the female characters are either acting like masculine heroes or being seduced by them. (Lord of the Rings is apparently fine by Schlichter, too, because the presence of martial themes trumps the presence of elves. I’m betting the comparative absence of women doesn’t hurt either.)

Dear Kurt: you know why so many people are happy to undercut what you call ‘traditional morality, conservatism and… positive values?’ Because they’re sexist, anachronistic, arbitrary and awful! Rigidly enforced definitions of masculinity and femininity are hurtful to everyone, and though you obviously disagree, your obvious disdain for girl things – and, by extension, girls – is as sexist as it comes.

And to all the bronies out there: keep up the good work, and don’t let the asshats get you down!

Don’t let the title put you off. This isn’t what you think.

With few exceptions, there comes a point in every little girl’s life when she first suffers exclusion on the basis of gender. For me, this happened regularly in primary school sports: the boys didn’t like it when I wanted to play cricket, and would actively gang up to ensure I was either kept away from the bat or relegated to the furthest reaches of the outfield. Children aren’t paragons of political correctness: unlike later in life, I knew definitively then that gender was the reason for this behaviour, because I was openly told as much. Over and over again, whether it was soccer or cricket or handball or football or some other thing the boys were doing, I had to fight for inclusion, because even at the tender ages of seven and eight and nine, boys knew that girls were no good at sport; that my presence on the field, let alone my desire to play, was aberrant, and that my foregone incompetence would spoil it for the rest of them.

This isn’t the only way it can happen. Some of the exclusion is even orchestrated by adults, who, whether intentionally or not, project onto children their subconsciously-absorbed ideas about who should be doing what. Don’t play with the truck, dear – it’s for boys. Wouldn’t you rather wear a dress? Only boys have short hair; yours is lovely and long. The inverse happens too, of course, and to equal detriment: in fact, when adults police the behaviour of children, the crackdown on boys who behave in feminine ways is far more severe than what transgressing girls experience, with the result that boys are much more likely to be mocked and policed by their peers, too, and from an earlier age. My own experiences bear this out: only at high school was I ostracized for being masculine. Prior to that, none of my female friends ever minded my tomboyishness – but from the earliest years of primary school, my male friends were actively persecuted by other boys for hanging around with a girl.

The above scenarios are not atypical. Thanks to the hyper-gendering of children’s toys, clothes, television shows, picture books, dress-up costumes and perceived interests, the basic rules of childhood play are rife with learned gender politics. The ubiquity of school-sanctioned sports and games – that is, things boys are stereotypically meant to be good at – during primary education, especially when placed against the comparative dearth of stereotypically girlish activities, means that the dynamics of exclusion work primarily against girls. This is because, while boys are seldom confronted with or encouraged to participate recreationally in ‘feminine’ activities, girls are regularly taught and told to engage in ‘masculine’ ones. This means that unless, like my childhood friends, boys decide on their own initiative to befriend girls or take up ‘feminine’ activities, they may never experience gender-exclusion at school; but that girls, thanks to the gendering of sports and particular play activities, almost certainly will. Perhaps more importantly, however, this skewed dynamic means that both boys and girls are taught to associate exclusion with femaleness. In the vast majority of cases, girls aren’t penalised for behaving like boys – after all, teachers encourage them at sports, and girls are allowed to wear boyish clothing – but for being girls doing masculine things. Boys, on the other hand, are penalised both for behaving like girls AND for being boys doing feminine things. Throw in the fact that boys are invariably penalised more harshly for their transgressions than girls – adults police boys who wear dresses; peers police boys who play with dolls – and you end up with a situation where all children, regardless of gender, are absorbing the message that for many things, it’s better to be masculine and male than feminine and female.

We also teach children they live in an equal society.

Clearly, this isn’t true; and as the above should demonstrate, examples of its untruth abound in childhood. But children, by and large, are not critical thinkers, and adults, by and large, are sadly averse to questions from children that challenge the status quo. Asked whether boys can wear make-up, for instance, it doesn’t seem unreasonable to assume that many, if not most parents would answer that no, they can’t; or that they could, technically, but don’t; or that make-up is just for girls; or even that it’s wrong for boys to do so. And because their question has been answered in accordance with what they see in the world, most children will probably nod and store that information safely away, so that if, some time in the future, they do see a boy or man wearing make-up, they’ll instinctively find it troubling – even though their original question has long since been forgotten. And all of that only concerns gender differences: throw in the additional and equally complex problems of race, nationality, sexual orientation and culture, and you’ve got yourself a maelstrom of youthfully-learned biases.

The point is, childhood matters. A lot.

Which is where we come to the inherent problem of telling these same children, once they’ve grown into teens and young adults, that society is equal. It doesn’t help – and is, I’d contend, actively harmful – that lessons which mention equality are almost always tied to the achievements of a particular historical group (the women’s suffrage movement, for instance) rather than to the pervasive bias that made their actions necessary to begin with. This creates the false impression that, as the movement ultimately succeeded, the equality of the outcome was absolute – and as the lesson tends to be about the movement itself, rather than what came afterwards or its ongoing relevance in the present day, students are left, quite literally, with the feeling that a chapter has been closed. Even if accepting the existence of total equality as gospel means actively discounting our own experiences with inequality as anomalous, the majority of students will do so – because even though teens frequently question the relevance of school or the utility of its lessons, questioning the truthfulness of their content in the absence of external prompting invokes a far greater conspiracy.

How, then, does any of this relate to the frankly incendiary notion that teaching equality hurts men?

Because of everyone, straight, white men are the least likely people to experience exclusion and inequality first-hand during their youth, and are therefore the most likely to disbelieve its existence later in life. Unless they seek out ‘feminine’ pastimes as children – and why would they, when so much of boy-culture tells them not to? – they will never be rebuked or excluded on the basis of gender. Unless someone actively takes the time to convince them otherwise, they will learn as teens that the world is an equal place – an assertion that gels absolutely with their personal experiences, such that even if women, LGBTQ individuals and/or POC  are rarely or never visible in their world, they are nonetheless unlikely to stop and question it. They will likely study white-male-dominated curricula, laugh ironically at sexist, racist and homophobic jokes, and participate actively in a popular culture saturated with successful, varied, complex and interesting versions of themselves – and this will feel right and arouse no suspicion whatever, because this is what equality should feel like. They will experience no sexual or racial discrimination when it comes to getting a job and will, on average, earn more money than the women and POC around them – and if they stop to reflect on either of these things, they’ll do so in the knowledge that, as the world is equal, any perceived hierarchical differences are simply reflective of the meritocracy at work.

They will not see how the system supports their success above that of others, because they have been told that equality stripped them of their privileges long ago. Many will therefore react with bafflement and displeasure to the idea of positive discrimination, hiring quotas or any other such deliberate attempts at encouraging diversity – because not only will it seem to genuinely disadvantage them, but it will look like an effort to undermine equality by granting new privileges to specific groups. Never having experienced inequality, therefore, the majority of straight white men will be absolutely oblivious to their own advantages – not because they must necessarily be insensitive, sexist, racist, homophobic or unaware of the principles of equality; but because they have been told, over and over again, that there is no inequality left for them – or anyone else – to experience – and everything they have experienced up to that point will only have proved them right.

Let the impact of that sink in for a moment.

By teaching children and teenagers that equality already exists, we are actively blinding the group that most benefits from inequality – straight white men – to the prospect that it doesn’t. Privilege to them feels indistinguishable from equality, because they’ve been raised to believe that this is how the world behaves for everyone. And because the majority of our popular culture is straight-white-male-dominated, stories that should be windows into empathy for other, less privileged experiences have instead become mirrors, reflecting back at them the one thing they already know: that their lives both are important and free from discrimination.

And this hurts men. It hurts them by making them unconsciously perpetrate biases they’ve been actively taught to despise. It hurts them by making them complicit in the distress of others. It hurts them by shoehorning them into a restrictive definition masculinity from which any and all deviation is harshly punished. It hurts them by saying they will always be inferior parents and caregivers, that they must always be active and aggressive even when they long for passivity and quietude, that they must enjoy certain things like sports and beer and cars or else be deemed morally suspect. It hurts them through a process of indoctrination so subtle and pervasive that they never even knew it was happening , and when you’ve been raised to hate inequality, discovering that you’ve actually been its primary beneficiary is horrifying – like learning that the family fortune comes from blood money.

To be clear: these personal hurts are not the same as cultural disadvantages (though in the case of men being forced to adhere to a restrictive masculinity, they can certainly cause legitimate pain, distress and disadvantage, the discussion of which would merit a blog of its own). This post isn’t about bemoaning the woes of the privileged, but about making clear the circumstances under which the existence of that privilege can so often go unquestioned and unnoticed by those who have it; and to point out why, when the question of their being privileged is first raised, so many people react with disbelief and anger. I say people, because although I’ve focused this piece on the privileges of straight white men, they are not the only privileged group. Intersectionality must be a serious part of any discourse centered on equality, or else those of us who aren’t straight white men but who nonetheless enjoy privilege will only be training ourselves to unsee our advantages in just as problematic and damaging a way.

We all, right now, need to stop the pretense that the world is anything near an equal place. Sexism, racism and homophobia are not only commonplace, but actively institutional. Universal suffrage and the civil rights movement are not, and never have been, the be-all, end-all of either our legal or cultural freedoms. Fraternities of straight white men have equality – but when you consider that this selfsame group has majority control of Western government, it shouldn’t be hard to understand the ubiquity of the lie that everyone else has it, too. The only way to fight for equality is to acknowledge that we don’t yet have it – and to admit that sometimes, our self-perception, no matter how well-intentioned, is the very thing at fault.

Because teaching equality doesn’t just hurt men. It hurts everyone.

In what will come as a shock to absolutely no one, I have a contentious opinion to put forwards.

Tentatively.

I’m not a hundred per cent on any of this: it’s something I’ve been chewing over for the past while, and I’m writing it up because I’d like to hear what other people think. But this is not a definitive statement of my beliefs – rather, it’s an attempt to tease out an idea that may or may not stand up to actual criticism. Still, I think it’s an interesting problem, and I’m going to make an effort.

So:

As things stand, female notions of male sexiness in our culture are deeply problematic, particularly as relates to feminism. Traditional concepts of masculinity – and, by extension, patriarchy – hinge on the three P’s of strength: protectiveness, power, and physique. Feminism has sought to challenge this ideal, emphasising equality, intelligence and agency for both sexes. The P’s aren’t just for men, this argument goes, but even so, they need not and ought not be the defining characteristics of society. Women have taken charge of their own sexuality, and feminists are fiercely – and rightly – determined to protect that agency. And yet, when it comes to male sexuality as coveted by women, it doesn’t seem like much has changed.

To be clear: I am not saying that feminists have never argued against traditional notions of male sexuality, nor that they’ve argued badly. In that respect, what I’m saying isn’t new. But what has struck me recently is the extent to which the three P’s are still used as the basis for male sexiness in narratives written by feminist women – and worse, that the sexiness of female characters is frequently expressed as the ability to provoke those characteristics in men. I do not excuse or exclude myself from that statement. Part of what has prompted me to sit down and write this out is the fact that, in planning romantic and/or emotional encounters between various of my characters – something I do to do help me fall asleep – I’ve been hitting a wall of cultural preconceptions. Like it or not, I have a learned version of sexiness stored in my head, a set of rules to which I’ve subconsciously been adhering, but recently – perhaps because I’ve been thinking about feminism and writing – I’ve started to see that they’re there, and to poke at them.

Here are some of the tropes I’m talking about:

1. A strong female character surrounded by men who find her attractive and a smaller number of rival women will demonstrate her strength by showing up one or more of the women in front of the men, frequently through a refusal to behave in a traditionally feminine (negative) way. This proves she is better than the other women, and therefore more deserving of male companionship, because she does not Play Games.

2. A variant on the above, where the strong female character is picked on by other women in the sight of one or more men who find her attractive, such that her dignity in coping with the situation and/or her subsequent stoicism in refusing to complain about it becomes proof of her strength. In this instance, it is important that the male observer(s) remain concealed and not intervene, ostensibly to show that the woman is strong and can deal with things on her own, or that the man respects this about her, but in reality to ensure that he is later able to confront, comfort and offer to protect her.

3. Male love interests who are physically dominant, who always initiate the first kiss, the first touch, and who might go so far as to hold the heroine’s wrists or push her forcefully against a wall. This would perhaps be less detrimental if it weren’t a default setting – if we saw a comparable number of narratives, or really any number of narratives, where the woman was physically dominant, the first to initiate everything, who pushed or held the man. Instead, the reigning logic says that male dominance is sexy, while female dominance is wanton and potentially pitiable.

4. A more chaste version of the above, but still with sexual overtones: the protective male character who, in response to whatever plot-specific necessity, will grab the heroine, carry, push or embrace her in the name of ensuring her safety, such that the heroine must reflect positively upon and ultimately be made grateful for his physical strength. Again, this would be less detrimental if the reverse situation was equally as popular, but where male protectiveness of women is permitted, female protectiveness of men is seen as emasculating.

5. A strong heroine is shown to be strong by her decision to confront the villain alone, always for noble or altruistic reasons, so that we cannot suspect her of being headstrong or rash. Inevitably, she is injured or overcome in the subsequent confrontation, such that she must be rescued, healed and comforted by a male character, whose protectiveness of her is (of course) sexy. This shapes the heroine as decisive, brave, competent and selfless while still allowing her to be a damsel in distress.

6. A male love interest must be two things: traditionally strong and non-traditionally sensitive. If he is just strong, he is a villain; if he is just sensitive, he is the geeky best friend who lusts after the girl and never actually gets her. (Sidenote: this is one of my LEAST FAVOURITE TROPES EVER.) The combination of strength and sensitivity is explained by trauma in the man’s past, such that the female character, even if she’s the ostensible protagonist, is ultimately bound to a narrative arc designed to orchestrate his redemption. Note that the female character will probably have trauma of her own, but because she is female, her behaviour is never bad enough that she needs redemption: instead, it makes her stoic, so that the male character, as part of his own emotional development, can comfort and protect her.

And so on.

The thing is, though, that what I’ve just described are some of my favourite narrative devices – and I’m not alone in that. It actually hurts me to mock them, on which grounds I’ll beg bias and say that, despite the way I’ve painted them above, they can be done well, to a purpose, in a way that genuinely works. But the problem I’m trying to identify isn’t that such tropes are being used badly. It’s that they’re being used exclusively. They enforce the idea that the only viable definition of male sexiness is the traditional definition of male sexiness. This is tempered and excused in the narrative by the fact that the woman is strong, too, and maybe the man’s a bit sensitive, but what it excludes is the idea that women protecting men is sexy; that men who are just sensitive are sexy; that any alternate permutation is sexy.

I understand the popularity of these tropes: I really do. They appeal to me, and on some level, because I am a product of our culture, I can’t help that. At best, they represent a balance between traditional masculinity and feminism: scenarios where women are strong and competent, but in ways that allow for male protectiveness without emasculation. It’s the perfect compromise. Everybody wins! But at worst, the definition has become a subconscious default, and not one possible option among many. Men can’t be sexy in different ways, this trope says, any more than female strength can be derived from sisterhood, rather than the ability to keep up with and/or impress men by the adoption of traditionally masculine traits. There is only one proper way, and we ought not question it.

In the end, I’m left thinking about this ad, wherein the perfect man is discussed with no small degree of irony. In these tropes, men are shown to be a faultless combination of everything – strength, support and sexiness – while women derive their agency, not from their own selves, but through their ability to attract a man who is strong, supportive, sexy. And when that happens, it stops being female agency, and starts being female worthiness. And that is, I believe, entirely antagonistic to feminism.

So, people: what do you think?