Posts Tagged ‘Sexism’

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

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

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

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

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

It’s your call.

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

Trigger warning: some discussion of suicide and sexual assault.

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

Let’s Talk About Teen Wolf

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

First Things First

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

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

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

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.

Warning: All the spoilers for Supernatural, especially Season 10.

Trigger warning: discussion of rape.

The first time I tried to watch Supernatural, I gave up midway through the first episode, irked by the show’s highly stereotyped portrayal of women. Though I subsequently found myself sucked back in by the promise of the premise and lead characters both – and while I’ve never been shy about my affection for the show overall – the range and treatment of female characters in the first nine seasons has, with few exceptions, remained disappointing. Traditionally, Supernatural has used the deaths of women as emotional motivators in the developmental arcs of its male protagonists, all of whose pasts are littered with female loss. Beginning with Mary Winchester and Jessica Moore in the very first episode, the body count steadily ratchets up, claiming established characters like Ellen and Jo Harvelle, Bela Talbot, Ava Wilson, Pamela Barnes, Anna Milton, Meg Masters and Ruby alongside women whose connection to the Winchesters, or to other male characters, is frequently rendered equivalent to wearing a red shirt in Star Trek. Sarah Blake, Madison, Tessa, Emma, Karen Singer, Channing Ngo and Gwen Campbell, to name just a few, all die to amp up the emotional tension for the boys, and while Dean’s girlfriend, Lisa Braeden, escapes alive, the fact that she does so with her memories wiped denies her any agency in the decision.

Though undoubtedly a show whose male characters also die in staggering numbers – getting close to Sam and Dean Winchester is practically a death sentence, regardless of gender – Supernatural has also tended to offer its men both a higher chance of resurrection and a wider range of characterisation, and when you couple this fact with the highly sexist language of the early seasons in particular, it’s easy to see why the majority female fanbase has often felt, if not underappreciated, then certainly misunderstood by the show’s creators. The fact that the series was originally intended to attract a male audience – a fact incorporated into early meta episodes like ‘The Real Ghostbusters’ (5.9), which portrayed the fanbase for the Supernatural books as predominantly male – goes some way towards explaining this; the creators expected one type of audience and found themselves with another. This does not, however, excuse the treatment of the female characters, even early on: a story may be intended by its creators to be male-oriented without disrespecting, stereotyping or belittling either women or femininity, and vice versa (though our frequent failure to make such a distinction is of a piece with the rest of our cultural baggage around gender roles, and looks to remain so for some time).

Yet slowly but surely, Supernatural has begun to catch up to its own audience, introducing recurring female characters like Charlie Bradbury, Jodie Mills and Donna Hanscum, and making a (mostly) sincere attempt to engage with its fans on topics like queerbaiting, shipping, diversity and sexism. Which isn’t to say the dialogue isn’t prone to insensitivity, missteps and one-sided preaching, or that all parties have always been respectful of one another; the conflicting opinions run too deep for that, and after ten years on the air, three different showrunners and the omnipresent spectre of network approval as a meddling factor, the various camps – both within the fanbase and the show itself – are entrenched enough that sometimes, agreeing to disagree is as close to a compromise as can be managed.

Undeniably, one of, if not the most contentious such issue is the question of Dean Winchester’s sexual orientation. With a significant portion of the internet currently revelling in the popularity of Dean and Castiel’s still-apparently-platonic relationship – according to tumblr’s year-end statistics, Destiel is now the most popular ‘ship on a site with somewhere between 30 and 50 million users, while multiple media outlets, including Buzzfeed, MTV and TV Guide, have all described them as a romantic couple – the fact that the pair have shared the screen in only two of the current season’s nine episodes hasn’t gone unnoticed, leading to rampant speculation about what this might mean, given that the show’s 200th episode, ‘Fan Fiction’ (10.5), expressly mentions Destiel as a concept. (And with the recent confirmation of a canon romance between the two lead female characters of Avatar: The Legend of Korra – a relationship heavily and deliberately inferred throughout the show, but never made explicit due to network pressures – the question of Destiel, and of how we distinguish ‘romantic’ vs ‘platonic’ relationships on screen between same sex couples where PDAs are verboten, seems more pertinent than ever.)

Which is perhaps why Season 10 of Supernatural has, in some quarters, been met with a critical reception not dissimilar to that of Season 8 of The X-Files, when viewer anxiety over the fate of Agent Fox Mulder, absent and presumed dead until the finale, lead to the dismissal of a narrative arc that was otherwise much stronger than that of the preceding Season 7. Indeed, one of the reasons that rewatching a film or rereading a book is not only emotionally satisfying, but (I would argue) critically necessary, is that the context in which we encounter a story can dramatically alter our perception of it. Though TV shows air week to week, with the distribution of episodes frequently spaced around one or more season breaks, they are still constructed as narrative wholes, and as such, there’s a world of difference between watching the finished product unspoiled, as it airs, and watching the same episodes spoiled, in a glut, or for the second time. That being so, anyone watching the first half of Season 10 of Supernatural in tense anticipation of Dean/Cas interactions – and it’s hardly a small number of fans who are thus invested – may well have been, not only disappointed, but actively frustrated. Apart from ‘Soul Survivor’ (10.3) and ‘The Things We Left Behind’ (10.9), Dean and Castiel are kept apart, moving along narrative trajectories that not only failed to intersect, but which saw both of them romantically engaged, however fleetingly, with different women.

On the Destiel front, then, Season 10 has thus far been slow going. But despite the wider implications of Dean and Castiel’s relationship, it would be a grave mistake – and even, I’d go so far as to say, an actual injustice – to judge the latest season purely through this lens. Because not only is Season 10 steadily unfolding a coherent, engaging narrative arc built, unlike the melodramatic angel wars of Season 9, on the importance of human relationships, it’s also doing something utterly unprecedented in the history of Supernatural: it’s wholeheartedly handing the reins to the women, and doing so with a respect, a sincerity and a deftness of touch that’s all the more powerful for coming from a show with such firmly sexist beginnings. It’s a tonal shift so profound and omnipresent across every single episode as to be inarguably deliberate, and when taken as a whole, the effect is gamechanging.

To give a sense of the extent of the shift, while only 20.93% of episodes across the first eight seasons passed the Bechdel Test, and with Season 9 not much better, the pass rate for Season 10 thus far is 100%. That’s a staggering improvement even before you get to actual context of the episodes themselves, and once you do, the results are even more profound. There simply isn’t another way to put it: Season 10 of Supernatural is fundamentally invested in discussing issues of sexism, gender roles and female agency, and has managed to do this without either retconning the main characters, turning them into white knights or changing the tone of the show, and if that’s not an endeavour worthy of praise, then I don’t know what is.

Right from the outset, sexist and misogynistic behaviour is actively subjected to criticism. In ‘Black’ (10.1), Demon!Dean is shown to be in a sexual relationship with Ann Marie, a waitress at a bar. When her ex shows up and corners her, Dean violently beats him, his aggression fuelled by the Mark of Cain – but though Dean tries to pass his actions off as chivalrous - ‘I protected your honour, didn’t I?’ – Ann Marie calls him out. ‘Seeing you take on Matt,’ she says, ‘I was like, no one’s ever done that for me before. But then you kept going and going, and I realised whatever is going on with you has nothing to do with my honour at all.’ They argue, and Dean eventually responds by calling Ann Marie a ‘skank’ – but again, she gets the last word, leaving the audience in no doubt as to how unacceptably she’s being treated: ‘Now, see? I’m so screwed up myself I’m gonna walk out of here thinking I actually deserved that.’

Similarly, in ‘Reichenbach’ (10.2), we see Demon!Dean at a strip club, where he touches a dancer without permission, then beats up the bouncer who comes to her rescue, his behaviour presented as a consequence of the Mark of Cain. Yet in the same episode, when Crowley sends Dean to kill the cheating wife of a man, Lester, who sold his soul for the hit, Dean ends up killing Lester instead, disgusted by his misogynistic double standards – he wants his wife dead because of her infidelity, yet freely confesses to having cheated first, because ‘It’s different when guys do it.’ In an episode that’s expressly about Dean’s ambiguous moral status – sometimes demonic, yet sometimes not; enough so that Crowley yells at him to ‘Pick a bloody side!’ – it’s not an accident that Dean’s disrespect of women is presented as demonic, while his championing of them hints at his humanity. Elsewhere in the same episode, angel Hannah goes to visit the imprisoned villain, Metatron, who taunts her in an aggressively sexist fashion, leering as he refers to the ‘white-hot spark’ between them and describing her as ‘desperate to be dominated’.  Hannah responds, very satisfyingly, by slamming Metatron’s face into the bars of his cell, and while Castiel is present for some of their exchange, it’s notable that Hannah is the one given the satisfaction of responding to Metatron’s abuse, just as Ann Marie was given the space to name and shame Dean’s cruelty.

This respect for female agency is pivotal to the season’s success: though misogyny is consistently entangled with villainy across all nine episodes, its status as an expressly gendered form of abuse, rather than just another type of evil, is always made clear, while the women it affects are, without fail, validated in their responses. Though Sam, Dean and Castiel are far from bystanders, over and over and over again, Season 10 gives us women who save themselves and each other, and whose cathartic moments of confrontation aren’t stolen by the boys. In ‘Paper Moon’ (10.4), it’s returning werewolf Kate who ultimately kills her renegade sister Tasha, not the Winchesters, while both the captured women in ‘Fan Fiction’ (10.5) and their showrunning friends are treated as equal participants in the defeat of the goddess Calliope, their right to interpret the Supernatural stories validated by both Dean and – more pertinently – Chuck.

Which isn’t to say that women are consistently saints through Season 10; far from it. Along with Tasha and Calliope, we’re also given other female villains in the form of renegade angel Adina, shapeshifter Olivia and the witch Rowena, Crowley’s long-lost mother and a likely candidate for the season’s Big Bad. Additionally, in ‘Ask Jeeves’ (10.6), we’re also given Heddy and Beverly, older women who make an effort to foist themselves on Sam despite his obvious discomfort. Though their characterisation is part and parcel of the episode’s Cluedo theme of stereotypical socialites in a murder mansion, it’s one of the few sour notes as regards the season’s portrayal of gender; not because the women are sexually confident, but because they repeatedly ignore Sam’s boundaries in a way that’s played for laughs without being called out as inappropriate, their eagerness and age presented as justification to view them as comic.

The fact that this is the only instance of demonstrable sexism that goes unchallenged in the season* is striking: a blind spot on the part of writers who are otherwise making a clear effort. But then, Sam being assaulted by women for laughs is a running joke in Supernatural, which perhaps goes some way towards explaining why it snuck through unchallenged: prior to the events of ‘Ask Jeeves’, there was his drugging by and marriage to Becky Rosen, his longtime stalker, in ‘Season Seven, Time For A Wedding!’ (7.8) and his groping by Gertrude Case (also an older woman) in ‘Red Sky at Morning’ (3.6). What makes this gag even more objectionable in Sam’s case, however, is the fact that he is, canonically, a victim of rape – a revelation made explicit in ‘Hello, Cruel World’ (7.2), when he hallucinates Lucifer calling him ‘bunkmate’ and reminiscing about their time in the Cage, when Sam was ‘[his] bitch, in every sense of the word’. There is literally no other way to interpret this than as an admission of rape, and yet this detail is never addressed again. Instead, Sam continues to be assaulted for laughs – because undesirable women wanting him is funny; because their touching him despite his discomfort is apparently even funnier – and while his experience with specific tortures demonstrably triggers him at other times, sexual assault, for all that it happens repeatedly, never does.

That being said, in all other respects, Season 10 endeavours to be sensitive on the subject of sexual abuse. In ‘Girls, Girls, Girls’ (10.7), when Sam and Dean encounter a demon-run brothel, it’s significant that the phrase used to describe the treatment of the (human) women is ‘forced prostitution’, rather than simply prostitution alone – a pivotal distinction between choice and coercion. Again, the emphasis on female agency comes to the fore: when her pimp is tricked into a confrontation with the Winchesters, it’s Shaylene who responds to his misogynistic abuse by killing him, and while this cuts short the interrogation, she still manages to provide the necessary information on her own initiative. Elsewhere, two other women, Catlin and Elle, are ‘rescued’ from similar circumstances by Rowena, whose magical abuse soon leads to Elle’s death. But when Rowena tries to talk Catlin into sticking with her, praising her as ‘strong’ while calling Elle ‘weak’, Catlin responds by agreeing that yes, she is strong – at which point, she punches Rowena in the face and walks away. Adding a further layer to their interactions is the fact that, prior to Elle’s death, Rowena tries to manipulate the women into trusting her by taking them to a fancy restaurant. When the head waiter snobs Catlin and Elle because of their clothes, Rowena casts a spell to make him do their bidding, and while her motives are unquestionably selfish and cruel – like Elle, the waiter dies – this is nonetheless another instance of sexism (Elle and Catlin are upset by the waiter’s attitude, then happy at being allowed to stay) that’s flagged as such in the narrative.

Further fleshing out the depiction of female agency in ‘Girls, Girls, Girls’ is Hannah’s decision to let her vessel, Caroline, return to her husband. Throughout the season, we’ve seen Hannah struggle to understand humanity and human feelings in much the same way that Castiel once did; she experiments with her body and the reactions it can elicit from both herself and Cas, but when confronted by Caroline’s husband, she reconsiders her claim on the person she’s wearing. ‘Caroline was inside me, screaming out for him, for her life back,’ Hannah says. ‘These feelings – they aren’t for me, for us. They belong to her.’  And thus comes one of the most powerful, graceful exits of a female character in the entire run of Supernatural: Hannah not only chooses to leave, but does so in a way that is expressly considerate of the wishes of another woman, Caroline. That we don’t hear the dialogue between them doesn’t make its impact any less real. Both Hannah and Caroline are granted agency through a respectful negotiation, and when Castiel watches Caroline’s reunion with her husband, he’s prompted to consider the former family of his own vessel, Jimmy Novak, in turn.

When it comes to depiction of female friendship and agency, however, the relationship between Sheriffs Jody Mills and Donna Hanscum in ‘Hibbing 911′ (10.8) is hard to beat. Not only is this a funny, engaging episode in its own right, but it manages the trick of taking two very different adult women – Jody is wry and antisocial; Donna is smiles and sunshine – and realistically developing their relationship in the context of a monster-of-the-week case. Again, there’s an emphasis on calling out sexism: both women are condescended to by a male gunseller, whom they eyeroll and mock, while Donna’s douchey ex-husband repeatedly fat-shames her until Jody gets him to stop. The fact that Jody actually calls his behaviour ‘fat-shaming’ while simultaneously reassuring Donna about her body is the kind of representation that we badly need more of; even better, however, is the fact that Donna is still allowed to feel embarrassed and upset at Jody speaking for her, rather than being obliged to accept the defence without comment. Both women are existing characters with complicated personal histories: though Jody has a teenage daughter, Alex, to care for, their relationship isn’t simplified either, and the fact that Jody still mourns the loss of her husband and son is something we’re allowed to feel along with her.

In fact, in a show whose male characters are so often defined by the loss of their wives, mothers, girlfriends and daughters, Jody’s status as a woman who has survived the loss of three significant men – her husband, son and Bobby Singer, with whom she was romantically linked – is striking, as is her near-death on a date with Crowley and her subsequent adoption of Alex. Jody’s development arguably parallels that of the Winchesters: like Sam, her romantic partners either end up dead or demonic, and like Dean, she’s been forced to watch the death of her child. Donna, however, with her incongruously cheery personality and slightly comic introduction to the series – at a weight-loss spa run by a fat-sucking pishtaco – is closer to that of Garth Fitzgerald, a dentist who became a hunter (we’ve been told) after killing the tooth fairy. Just as Garth’s friendliness was initially juxtaposed against Dean’s surly demeanour, so Donna’s smiles are juxtaposed against Jody’s scowls – and just as Dean ends up taking Garth under his wing, so ‘Hibbing 911′ ends with Jody offering to show Donna the ropes.

Rounding out the season thus far is ‘The Things We Left Behind’, a heartbreaking episode that reintroduces a now teenage delinquent Claire Novak – daughter of Castiel’s vessel, Jimmy – on the run from the foster system. Critically, the episode respects Claire’s anger: though Castiel tries his (clumsy) best to look after her, both he and Claire are acutely aware of the fact that her actual father is dead, and that Castiel can’t replace him. When Claire states that Castiel is helping her out of guilt alone, Cas acknowledges the truth in the accusation while still expressing a desire to protect her. But even when Claire is effectively ‘sold’ by a man she considered a protector to a loan shark, who promptly tries to rape her, the story still gives her agency in her escape: she fights her attacker, and when Castiel breaks into the room, it’s Claire who takes advantage of the distraction to kick her assailant to the ground and flee. Yet neither is she shown to be unaffected by what’s happened: she is clearly distraught, looking to Cas for comfort that he anxiously provides, and as harrowing as the sequence is, it never once feels exploitative or sensationalist. Claire is a realistic character, flawed and brave: she makes her own choices and acts to protect herself, but is still allowed to be a scared, vulnerable girl distressed by a dangerous situation.

And what about Sam and Dean? After all the secret-keeping of Season 9, it’s both refreshing and necessary to see them attempt to communicate with each other; not that Dean isn’t still lying about the effects of the Mark of Cain, but they’re lies of emotion and omission rather than the informational, you-can’t-know-the-truth-Because-Reasons fibs of the previous season, and it both grounds their relationship while demonstrating its rockier edges. The parallels between Dean and Cole – an antagonistic ex-soldier whose monster father Dean killed in 2003 – are clear and deliberate: Cole has a wife and son he’s neglecting in pursuit of revenge against Dean, just as Dean lost Lisa and Ben to the hunting life. Though Cole may yet return later in the season, his use as an inverted foil for Dean’s transition from demon to human – Cole becomes more monstrous as Dean regains his humanity, while Dean’s acknowledgement of his own monstrousness pushes Cole to return to his family – is neatly cathartic, while at the same time, Cole’s vendetta is what allows Rowena’s escape, his exit as an antagonist leading directly into her establishment as one. But Dean’s transition from demon to human – and the question of what makes someone a monster – is also echoed elsewhere: both in Sam’s decision to risk the damnation of innocent souls, including Lester’s, in his pursuit of Dean and Crowley, and in the questionably humanity of the rapist loan shark and his cronies, all of whom end up dead at Dean’s hand: monstrous men, for all that they’re not technically monsters.

Powerfully, there’s a direct line drawn between Dean’s behaviour at the start of the season his actions at the end of it. In ‘Black’, he attacks Ann Marie’s ex-boyfriend on the pretext of defending her honour while overtly relishing the excuse for violence; in ‘The Things We Left Behind’, however, and despite the greater provocation of the threat to Claire, he genuinely tries to avoid the fight, yet still ends up killing to sate the Mark. In both instances, Dean’s violence is contextualised by a sexual threat to a specific woman, and in both instances, his use of violence as a response is coded as being attributable to the Mark of Cain. But whereas Demon!Dean tries to justify his aggression by falsely claiming it as chivalry, as a human with the Mark, he doesn’t attempt to defend his behaviour at all, even though he has a much better case to make. Not only did the other men attack him first, they were all complicit in the attempted rape of Claire – yet Dean is left numb and horrified, because the Mark has compelled him to murder, and though he could try and pretend otherwise, as he did with Ann Marie, he knows there is no chivalry in his violence. And if that’s not a valuable entry point for a conversation about masculinity, white knight behaviour and aggression-as-protection, then frankly, I don’t know what is.

Nine episodes in, and Season 10 of Supernatural has blown me away with its female characters, human themes and clear commitment to discussing gender roles, sexuality and agency.  It’s a rare show that lasts this long to begin with, but a rarer one still that’s willing to go so far outside its traditional parameters in direct response to the fanbase, and while the execution isn’t always perfect, the fact that the writers are so clearly making an effort carries a lot of weight with me. As big a fan as I am of Destiel, I’d be selling the show short to paint it as the emotional be-all, end-all of everything, and while I’d like to see more of Cas and Dean together in the rest of the season – and I rather suspect we will – if the show keeps on in this new vein regardless, I’ll be a happy camper.

 

 

*In ‘Soul Survivor’ (10.3), Castiel refers to Hannah’s presence by saying ‘there’s a female outside in the car,’ a line which has been justly criticised. However, while I agree that this is a poor choice of words, I’m inclined to view it as a more innocent slip; partly because ‘female’ is a word we’ve seen Cas use before within his awkward speech patterns – most notably in ‘Reading is Fundamental’ (7.21) – but also because there’s a potential contextual reason for the ambiguity it provides, inasmuch as it doesn’t betray whether Cas’s companion is human or angel. (Dean and Hannah don’t get along, which makes it understandable that he wouldn’t call her by name.) So while I still find the line jarring, I don’t think Castiel is being sexist.

 

Recently, I tried to watch the new Netflix series, Marco Polo, and made it through three whole episodes before ragequitting in a fit of disgust. It wasn’t the lacklustre pacing and derivative scripting that got to me, though they certainly didn’t help: it was the Orientalism and rampant misogyny that saw every female character – all of them women of colour – either viscerally sexualised or defined solely by their relationships with men. That the show took the character of Khutulun, a Mongol warrior who famously vowed never to marry unless her husband could best her at wrestling, and turned her into a smirking seductress in a leather skirt was bad enough; but having her father state that Khutulun’s ‘virginity’ was ‘promised’ to a warrior who could defeat her – reframing an arguably feminist decision as a sexist mandate and thereby stripping her of its agency – had me spitting fire. The first episode alone introduced not one, but two separate female characters by showing them in the throes of sex, their laboured panting audible even before the camera cut to their nudity; other women were shown in the periphery of shots designed to give prominence to men, off to the side even when the ostensible purpose of the scene was to introduce the ladies.

But amidst all the dehumanising nakedness and concubine orgies, what really struck me was a comparatively small detail: the positioning of the camera in the few scenes showing the Princess Kokachin interacting with her young daughter. Even in moments where the two women were ostensibly its sole focus, the camera was still painting them with an outsider’s perspective – we saw them from a distance, like strangers observing a ritual, rather than intimately, from their own eyes. When men interrupted these scenes – which, inevitably, they did – the framing felt like a pre-emptive extension of their gaze, slewing back to confirm that yes, we were viewing the women at a remove, rather than tightening to suggest, as the narrative context otherwise did, that this was a male intrusion into a private, female space. Though not as overtly gratuitous as the surfeit of naked ladies, the direction in these moments felt equally dehumanising for its failure to recognise that women can have a gaze of their own; can be the active participants within a narrative, rather than merely passive subjects.

Have You Met A Human Woman

In the field of developmental psychology, there’s a concept called object permanence: our awareness of the fact that things continue to exist even when we can’t see them. The fact that babies lack an understanding of object permanence is why they can be entertained by games like peek-a-boo or grow distressed when a parent or cherished object is out of sight: in their perception, whatever they can’t see has ceased to exist. Adults, of course, are meant to know better, but when it comes to the portrayal of women in film especially, I often wonder if certain creators lack object permanence about their female characters: if they only exist in sight of men, and otherwise fade away.

It’s not just a question of our telling stories that are primarily about men as a cultural default, though this fact is often used, somewhat paradoxically, to excuse the very problem it represents. If the protagonist is male, the logic goes, then it only makes sense that we’d see any female characters purely through his eyes – an argument that conveniently ignores the many narratives with male heroes that still make time to fully develop and humanise their secondary male characters. Ladies in these stories are treated as accessories, not participants: their individuality is less important than their adornment of someone else’s triumph, and as such, what they do on their own time doesn’t matter.

When discussing the presence of women in narrative, we often use the Bechdel Test as a basic means of gauging whether or not female characters both exist in plurality and engage with one another. As yardsticks go, it’s something of a blunt instrument, in that it pays no attention to the type of character or representation on offer, retaining its usefulness only because the achingly low bar it represents too often goes unjumped. More recently, as a means of compensating for these limitations, the Mako Mori Test was coined to take account of the actual roles of women in narrative – a test of context rather than dialogue, and another important axis of representation. When it comes to the presence and characterisation of women in cinematic narratives, however, I’d like to suggest a third such tool: the Solo Test, which a film will pass if it:

a) shows a female character alone;

b) in a scene that neither begins with a man leaving nor ends with a man arriving;

c) that doesn’t focus primarily or exclusively on her physical attractiveness.

Though the Solo Test could quite easily be applied to other types of narrative, it is, I feel, of greatest relevance to film: a medium whose time constraints often necessitate smaller core casts than can be managed in serial narratives and whose culture is powerfully male-dominated, both in terms of creation and focus. The test is meant as a measurement of gaze and visual imperative, because, to put it bluntly, I’m sick of watching films that will happily take the time to show us how male characters behave while alone or in private, but whose female characters only show up when the men do – women who are never viewed alone, in their own right, unless they’re getting out of bed (naked) or into the shower (naked) or otherwise caught in the act of cleansing or dressing themselves. It’s astonishing how many films still treat female solitude with a sneaking-into-the-girl’s-locker-room-mentality, as though the primary value in a woman alone is necessarily voyeuristic, her feelings relevant only inasmuch as they decode the mystique of her secret reactions to men.

There are, of course, contextual limitations to the usefulness of such a test – as, indeed, is the case with the Bechdel and Mako Mori. An equally useful variant of the Solo Test, for instance – and one that provides a helpful counterpoint when assessing the treatment of male vs female secondary characters – let’s call it the Sidekick Test – might focus on the depth of characterisation afforded to any non-protagonist by asking similar questions, such as:

a) Are they shown in isolation?

b) Do they have conversations and/or demonstrable interests that don’t involve the protagonist?

c) Are they defined by more than their sexuality?

Whether used separately or in combination, these tests can hopefully provide an interesting analysis of gaze, and especially cinematic gaze, as a means of assessing whose individuality and personhood is considered narratively relevant to a given story, or suite of stories, and whose is considered optional. Nor is the applicability of such questions restricted wholly to issues of gender; applying them on the basis of race – or along multiple such intersections, as per comparing portrayals of white women with portrayals of women of colour – can provide an equally relevant (and revealing) analysis. Though the language of camera angles and comic book panels is crucial to the establishment of a visual gaze, the idea of a narrative gaze – those facts of characterisation that creators deem relevant vs their expression within the story – is similarly important, and goes a long way towards describing the role and focus of non-protagonist characters.

While the bulk of characterisation comes through engagement and interaction, we shouldn’t underestimate the importance of silence and solitude: the way a person behaves when the metaphorical cameras are off, when they exist for nobody but themselves. It’s in these moments that we see characters at their least guarded, their most honest, and if this space and privacy is routinely denied to women – if we see them only ever as others do, at a public remove, or else as voyeurs intent on their bodies – then we deny them personhood and object permanence both: we force them to exist as performers alone, and never for themselves.

more of this, please

Browsing the Guardian this week, I encountered a deliberately provocative headline – ‘Howard Jacobsen: All my books are apocalyptic. I have never met an intelligent optimist’ – and promptly did a double-take when I read down to see that Jacobsen has apparently been shortlisted for the Booker Prize for his latest novel, J, which is being described as ‘dystopian’ and ‘apocalyptic’. I frowned at the computer screen, trying and failing to reconcile this information with Jacobsen’s self-professed status as someone who is contemptuous of genre things; a man who once argued that what makes genre fiction genre fiction is its formal predictability… the best novels will always defy category‘. And, indeed, it’s clear that Jacobsen does include dystopian fiction as a type of genre writing, as per his assertion that ‘internecine war will sometimes break out between the genrists – paranormalists deriding the moralistic pretensions of dystopians, for example‘. One could be forgiven for expecting, therefore, that Jacobsen has taken issue with such labels being applied to his own work; or at the very least, has failed to use those labels himself.

Apparently not. ‘In a way,’ he says, ‘all my books are apocalyptic.’

In his 2012 review of Michael Chabon’s Telegraph Avenue, Hal Parker made a salient observation about Chabon’s use of genre:

Reappropriating genre literature under the aegis of high culture has become a familiar convention of postmodern literary fiction; really, “literary genre fiction” is arguably a genre of its own at this point. Even more common is the practice of saturating a novel in a given milieu to such a degree that the milieu itself comes to serve as the “brand” of the novel. There, however, lies the rub: While Mr. Chabon is white, much of the milieu providing the “brand” of Telegraph Avenue (soul and jazz music, Blaxploitation films, the Black Panthers, Oakland and its environs) is unmistakably black. What this means is that “literary genre fiction” now runs the risk of becoming a kind of sophisticated “literary gentrification”—a process by which a predominantly black milieu is appropriated by a white novelist as a springboard. Put simply, is the story of “Brokeland,” whatever it may be, really Mr. Chabon’s to tell?

Though Parker is speaking specifically about a white writer’s appropriation of black culture, going on to link these elements with the novel’s arguable classification as a work of ‘gentrification fiction,’ the idea of literary gentrification has, I would argue, a wider and more general applicability which he himself acknowledges: namely, the idea of literary writers seeking to detach – and therefore, in their frequent estimation, elevate, or even rescue – genre ideas from their cultural, narrative and contextual points of origin. Part of what makes this such a difficult phenomenon to discuss, however, is the fact that ‘genre fiction’ has long since become an umbrella term encompassing wildly different types of writing, each with its own history, heroes and hallmarks, and each with varying points of intersection and overlap with the others. Much like a university attempting to unite a handful of disparate academic schools under a single banner by turning them into a college, ‘genre fiction’ is often treated – and, as a consequence, called on to defend itself – as if it were a single, coherent entity, and not, as per the university model, an administrative and academic siphonophore. As such, I would argue that genre fiction isn’t a genre in and of itself, but rather a college of genre – and that makes for some interesting analysis.

For instance: author N. K. Jemisin, who is African-American, has spoken in the past about her books being shelved in the African-American section of bookshops, despite the fact that she writes epic fantasy. It’s worth quoting her at length on this point, for reasons that will hopefully become apparent:

I understand why this section exists — because the publishing industry rather notoriously would not publish books by or about black people until the 1990s, unless those books were deemed of sufficient interest to white readers. Prior to the 1990s it was kind of hard for black readers to find these “accepted” black writers (outside of Black History Month), because there weren’t many of them, and because their works were mixed in with the mainstream. So black readers had to rely on word-of-mouth — which, pre-internet, was actually kind of limiting…

It took black authors self-publishing to lucrative success, with some rather famously becoming bestsellers by hand-selling self-pub’d books from the trunks of their cars, to prove to the industry that yes Virginia, black people do read, and what’s more they buy, and I dunno gee maybe it’s kind of racist to assume otherwise. So publishers paid attention and started snatching up black writers, and later black small presses, in an effort to latch on to this “new” audience. Many of them started heavy-handed marketing campaigns designed to appeal to the “urban” reader (where “urban” somehow = “black”) by using arcane language (e.g. “keepin’ it real!”) and plastering poorly-designed book covers with women who looked like music video refugees and men who looked like ex-cons. Or whatever the industry thought ex-cons looked like. And some black readers were grateful for the attention, after so long a time of neglect.

Problem is, most black readers aren’t “new” readers. That was a misconception derived from the initial racist assumption by publishers and retailers that “black people don’t read”; to people who swallowed that baloney, it must have seemed as though millions of black readers suddenly sprang fully-formed from E. Lynn Harris’ forehead in 1995. This is a completely illogical, frankly asinine assumption — what, were we all sitting around playing with our Dick and Janes before that? But that’s racism for you; logic fail all over the place.

And instead of dropping that original racist assumption that black people didn’t read, the industry gave it an upgrade: OK, black people do read, but they don’t read like the rest of us (read: white people, because Latinos and Asians and so forth don’t matter). And they don’t have the same need for well-drawn characters, engaging plots, etc., because they’re not very smart or well-read. All we have to do is give them are plenty of examples of people who look like them and speak “the vernacular” and deal with “their issues” (which are not like our issues). Profit! And because the industry also assumed that nobody but black people would want to read all this, y’know, “black stuff”, they decided to dump it all onto a single shelf, usually in the back of the store, and stick a label on it: African American Interest. Which might as well have read, “Everybody But Black People, Nothin’ to See Here. Move Along.”…

As a result of this old and new racism, the AAF section of today is mostly just a constricted, homogenizing ghetto. Writers stuck there — those who aren’t big enough to be cross-marketed — have lower earning potential, because it’s a lot harder to sell books when they’re marketed to 12% of the population than 100% of the population. Let’s not talk about how some black authors have been forced into this marketing classification against their will. And then there’s the problem of content reliability. There is no reason that anyone should look among the “thug love” books to find Alaya Dawn Johnson’s lyrical fantasy Racing the Dark. The folks who would be interested in one are highly unlikely to be interested in the other. But that is precisely what happened to her, because her book got shelved in the AAF section too.The Autobiography of Malcolm X has diddlysquat-all to do with Zane’s “Sex Chronicles”, but I have personally seen these two authors shelved side-by-side in AAF, I guess because X comes near Z on a bookshelf…

Worse, any bookstore or library that does this is, IMO, perpetuating the same racist assumptions that caused this problem in the first place. It all comes down to the idea of universality — which mostly just means “the ability to write something that appeals to white readers”, in my experience. Before the AAF boom, black readers were assumed to have no interest in books meant to appeal to white readers; hence the assumption that we “didn’t exist”. When our existence was confirmed, black readers were then assumed to be strange ducks, Not Like The Rest Of Us in taste or discernment, fundamentally alien — or Other — in our intelligence and thought processes. And black writers — despite having written mainstream books for generations — were assumed to be incapable of writing for anything other than this strange, alien audience. If “universality” = “whiteness”, well, of course we couldn’t possibly have it. Even if we did.

Trying to disentangle concepts of genre from concepts of race is, therefore, a highly problematic proposition, and one which ties in particularly to concepts of antiblackness, as per the fact that, as Jemisin points out, the African American section* is concerned only with the segregation of one specific racial identity. As such, it’s worth noting that both Howard Jacobsen and Michael Chabon are Jewish men, and while it’s conceivable that Telegraph Avenue might have been shelved in the AAF section, Chabon’s other works – such as, for instance, The Yiddish Policeman’s Union, which arguably belongs to the college of genre, and which, as the title suggests, is deeply concerned with questions of Jewish identity – would not receive the same treatment. Jacobsen’s J is similarly informed, taking place after an event described in his interview as a ‘mass pogrom':

The new book is about the annihilation of any group, any “other”, Jacobson says. “The Jews happen to be the group that I know about, so it is informed by antisemitism, but the point is that if you get rid of ‘the other’ you then have an absence; an absence of irony, an absence of disputatiousness. No argument should ever win that completely.”

Not having read J – and despite my general dislike of Jacobsen, I’ll admit I’m tempted – I can’t pass any judgement on the quality of the book, its dystopian elements or its relationship with the college of genre. What I can say, however – and returning, at long last, to the original point – is that Jacobsen’s decision to write a dystopian work, embracing the potential of genre’s college without rescinding his previous disdain for it, and being rewarded for his efforts with a second Booker shortlisting, raises an important question. Namely: if, as Jacobsen himself contends, truly great novels defy categorisation, then in the game of literary gentrification, which writers are considered capable of transcending genre while still employing its tropes, and which are not? Because if, per Parker’s criticism of Telegraph Avenue, there’s a parallel to be made between the racial implications of a particular narrative and the context in which that narrative is both created and received, and by whom, then it doesn’t seem irrelevant that, whereas works like Jacobsen’s J, Chabon’s The Yiddish Policeman’s Union and Cormac McCarthy’s The Road are, apparently without effort, classed as being both literary and genre-transcendent while still possessing strong dystopian roots, something like Nnedi Okorafor’s Who Fears Death is not. When Audrey Niffenegger’s The Time-Traveller’s Wife, with its titular SFFnal conceit, can be shelved and discussed as a purely literary work, but Octavia Butler’s Kindred or Delia Sherman’s The Freedom Maze cannot, then we have a problem. When Nicholas Sparks, a man made rich and famous by his penchant for writing about tragically beautiful white people having romantic sex in the rain, states emphatically that ‘If you look for me, I’m in the fiction section. Romance has its own section… I don’t write romance novels,’ and the bookstores of the world agree with him, while N. K. Jemisin can end up shelved in the African American section regardless of the actual content of her novels, then yes: we have a problem.

Literary gentrification is not a simple matter of famous literary authors – who, coincidentally, tend to be straight, white men – cherrypicking SFFnal tropes and declaring them cleansed of genre, transcendent of but inspired by: it is as much a question of whose writing we deem capable of having this effect as one of which writers strive to have this effect, in that however much one tries to transcend, one cannot actually achieve it – or be told that such achievement has, in fact, occurred, regardless of intention – without a critical audience to argue, or even assume, that this is the case. The idea that works either by or about POC constitute a discreet genre is, as Jemisin points out, as problematic as it is established within the industry, but despite the college of genre being long defined as the home of ‘anything and everything not deemed literary fiction’, it had never quite occurred to me before that the former can be seen to fit within the latter. Perhaps this is yet one more reason why the question of diversity within SFF has become so prominent lately: we have, at long last, begun to argue for the rights of everyone in our college, however falteringly, and if those rights are ultimately defined as ‘the right of POC to not be viewed as inhabitants of a separate genre, but as an integral and assumed part of any readership or creative body’, then so much the better.

Because as much as I loathe seeing smug literary authors speak snidely about SFF in one breath while borrowing its tropes in the next, I’d be misplacing my outrage if this was the only level on which the phenomenon disturbed me. The archetype of the straight white male literary author is so culturally ingrained at this point that it can, at times, serve to obscure the very tangible prejudices underlying the reasons for its primacy: that, now as historically, in genre as in culture, the dominance of straight, white and/or Western men in a given sphere, coupled with a corresponding lack of representation from other groups, is not a fucking coincidence. I would be far more inclined to accept Jacobsen’s argument that truly great works transcend the classification of genre if the ability to bestow transcendence was not apparently restricted to a narrow class of person, not because they’re the only ones interested in producing such works, but because we assume their works possess a certain quality that the works of others do not, even when they deal with similar themes in a similar manner. Hypocritically borrowing from a genre one professes to despise is one thing, but doing so as part of a process of literary gentrification predicated on the selfsame dystopian history of racism, sexism and exclusion of the Other you’re ostensibly critiquing is quite another.

One cannot help but wonder if Jacobsen has noticed the irony.

*As the name suggests, the African American section is something you’re unlikely to find in bookstores outside of America. I’ve never seen an equivalent section separating out, for instance, Aboriginal literature in Australian stores, but that doesn’t mean such sections don’t exist, and if you’ve seen or heard of one, I’d be interested in hearing about 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.

In the past two days, I’ve ended up in two different arguments with two different men – both of them strangers – in two different forums, about two (ostensibly) different issues; and yet their methods of argument, even their language, have proven eerily similar. The first argument happened on Facebook, when a friend posted a joke about MRAs (“How many Men’s Rights Activists does it take to change a lightbulb? Not all of them!”) and one of her friends chimed in to assert that, as feminists, we were hypocrites for finding it funny, because if the joke were being told about women, we’d be outraged. The second argument happened on Twitter, when, in response to my tweeting Mallory Ortberg’s recent deconstruction of a sexist book review, an unknown man asked both of us, plus another woman, whether we’d have been just as outraged if the targeted reviewer had been female (the implication being that we were, once again, hypocrites).

Both disputes began with a single man challenging two or more feminist women to defend their beliefs on the basis of a hypothetical genderflip from male to female which, in both cases, completely missed the point of the conversation. In the first argument, changing the subject’s gender would obviously have an impact on how the joke was received, because the joke is explicitly contextualised by our awareness of gender inequality, the punchline a verbatim reference to the cry of “Not ALL men!” with which MRAs so frequently – and aggressively – attempt to derail feminist discourse about sexism and misogyny. To suggest, therefore, that such a joke is offensive on the grounds that a genderflipped version would be even moreso is to fundamentally misunderstand that this is the actual point of the joke: namely, that even though women are still being  disenfranchised by an entrenched culture of sexism, the first response of too many men is to act as though their hurt feelings at being accused of sexism, however tangentially, is the greater evil.

By contrast, the proposed genderflip  in the second argument was ineffective for the opposite reason: though Ortberg’s piece certainly made mention, not only of the reviewer’s gender, but of the fact that she’d yet to see the book in question reviewed by a woman, the ultimate point was simply that the review itself was written in a sexist manner; that this was not a helpful way for anyone to review women’s writing. Had a female reviewer written the exact same piece, replete with the exact same biases and problematic turns of phrase, Ortberg might certainly have worded her response differently, if only in the sense of attributing the reviewer’s attitude to internalised sexism rather than male privilege, but the source material would still have been sexist, and therefore deserving of the exact same level of outrage. For our interlocutor to have based his opening rhetorical sally on the idea that female feminists will be naturally more inclined to excuse sexism if it comes from other women – and worse, to phrase this 101-level question as though we had never once considered it before – was not only deeply oblivious, but actively insulting.

To be clear: genderflipping can be – and frequently is – a useful rhetorical device in conversations about both sexism generally and the more specific issues facing persons of all genders. But its usefulness is always going to be contextually dependant on the user’s understanding, not only of what sexism is, but how and why it functions. Because sexism is fundamentally a problem of inequality, the subversive impact of a well-executed genderflip rests in its ability to switch the (im)balance of power in unexpected ways, thereby highlighting the fact that it exists to be subverted in the first place. Genderflipping an argument to support or restore the status quo, however – whether by asking us to sympathise with those already deemed sympathetic, or to approve the power of those already powerful, at the expense of those already viewed as unsympathetic or powerless – is not only a wrongheaded misuse of the technique, but a catastrophic failure of comprehension. The same is true of other subversive flips, like racebending (which is why, for instance, Victoria Foyt’s Revealing Eden: Save the Pearls was such an all-out disaster).

The fact that these two men deployed the exact same tactic for the same, poor reason was notable. That their subsequent responses also aligned was downright creepy – and I mean that in the fullest sense of the word. In response to their condescending language, I referred to each man in tern as patronising, half in anger, half in the hope that they might rethink their approaches. Here is how they responded:

On Facebook: Being patronizing is so much fun you are welcome for it… You may be right but your anger clouds your point and makes it seem far to emotional and not logical. Now before you go off your rocker that I just equated your style of rhetoric with classic feminine traits, I will say that I have done this very thing to men on facebook and gotten the same overly emotional reaction… I always am deliberately patronizing because it would be a waste of the day to do it by accident.    

On TwitterMy pathetic faux-humour patronizes men and women in equal measure. Men find me every bit as exhausting.

In other words, both men accepted that, yes, they were indeed being deliberately patronising, but that I had no grounds for finding their approach sexist, because they were just as rude to men – as though, once again, completely ignoring both the context and the content of the conversation was sufficient to make the accusation go away. Nor is this curious tactic of attempting to deny sexism by claiming misanthropy, or some version of it – as though an admission of being rude to everyone completely rules out the possibility of being rude to certain types of person in specific, culturally coded ways – a two-man anomaly. To quote from Lindy West’s How to Make a Rape Joke:

This fetishization of not censoring yourself, of being an “equal-opportunity offender,” is bizarre and bad for comedy. When did “not censoring yourself” become a good thing? We censor ourselves all the time, because we are not entitled, sociopathic fucks… And being an “equal opportunity offender”—as in, “It’s okay, because Daniel Tosh makes fun of ALL people: women, men, AIDS victims, dead babies, gay guys, blah blah blah”—falls apart when you remember (as so many of us are forced to all the time) that all people are not in equal positions of power. “Oh, don’t worry—I punch everyone in the face! People, baby ducks, a lion, this Easter Island statue, the ocean…” Okay, well that baby duck is dead now. And you’re a duck-murderer. It’s really easy to believe that “nothing is sacred” when the sanctity of your body and your freedom are never legitimately threatened.

Both encounters were frustrating and draining; both left me feeling like I’d wasted time, effort and emotional energy engaging with someone who viewed my exhaustion and distress as a personal victory.  It is disputes like this, in fact – not so much for their content, but for their frequency and duration – which so often prompt people to say, Don’t feed the trolls. Don’t engage. Just ignore them, and they’ll go away. But as I’ve said elsewhere, and as much as even such minor encounters increasingly threaten to burn me out, this isn’t advice I’m willing to take. Like playground bullies, trolls don’t go away when ignored: quite the opposite. They take silence to mean they’ve won, or as assent, or as a challenge to try harder: either way, it invariably emboldens them. I’m not for an instant suggesting that people should engage above and beyond their coping level, or that we should all die on every half-assed rhetorical hill that drops into our blog comments with a virtual smirk and the suggestion that lol maybe ur overreacting??? – I just don’t believe that silence is the answer. This sort of behaviour isn’t anomalous; it’s part of a pattern, and one which needs to be identified before it can ever hope to be changed.