Teen Wolf and the Cure for Toxic Masculinity
Gay Straight Relations in Beacon Hills
I am a sci-fi and fantasy tragic. I have always loved these genres. When I was a kid, I watched Bewitched and I Dream of Jeannie, and being a young pre-gay boy, fell in love with Samantha’s over-the-top fabulous mother Endora (Agnes Moorehead) and her campy uncle, Arthur (Paul Lynde). I was totally entranced by LOTR (2001–2003) when Jackson’s masterpiece blazed onto the big screen and have dallied with all kinds of magical tv shows and movies my whole life, the most recent being Fantastic Beasts and Where To Find Them on the big screen and the incredible Travelers on Netflix. So, it was never going to be a big surprise that I would become a fan of the two longest running tv shows of this genre in my adult life: Supernatural from 2005 and still going, and Teen Wolf, from 2011 to 2017.
Teen Wolf comes to its conclusion this year. Season 6 is its last, divided into two halves of 10 episodes each. The first ten deal with the shows last and most indomitable villains, ‘the ghost riders’; immortal beings who abduct people, including main character Stiles, from all of existence and who seem impervious to all that the Scooby gang can throw at them in their efforts to get their friend back (once they work out they he existed and has actually disappeared). The second 10 episodes see the gang graduated from High School, away from Beacon Hills and off to college. The cast itself is still surprised that the show has lasted this long.
Teen Wolf has also surprised me. And on a number of fronts. I thought it would be a fairly puerile supernatural show hopping on the bandwagon of vampires and werewolves with a certain amount of weekly jeopardy and a whole lot of teenage angst. But in actual fact, the teen angst is dialled right down and the story deals rather with some quite deep issues, one of which, an important rite of passage: the discovery of the authentic self and the quest to navigate the often treacherous waters of becoming a functioning stable emotionally mature adult.
Enter Scott McCall (Tyler Posey). It is his story that is the anchor of this grander arc: Scott coming to terms with being turned into a werewolf in Season 1 and how he is to make his place in the world as someone different. Being different is not easy for anyone, but especially during High School. Just ask an LGBTI person.
While the grander arc of ongoing emotional maturation takes place over each season, some wonderful surprises awaited me as I watched year by year. There are lots of fun story lines, interesting characters and scary monsters in the first few seasons, and the Season 5 villains, the Dread Doctors, the most extraordinary villains I have ever seen, are truly terrifying and will give kids nightmares for the rest of their lives. I recall that Dr Who had the same problem in 1976 when The Brain of Morbius was broadcast and terrified the children of the world. So kudos to the makers of Teen Wolf for creating modern television’s most macabre and menacing bad guys ever. But the main accolade that the show wins from me is not the Dread Doctors, but its representation of men, both straight and gay.
The first surprise is the representation of masculinity. You might expect Teen Wolf to show late teen males finishing their High School years as physically strong, confident, alpha male straight guys who chase the girls and make dills of themselves regularly in their juvenile ‘boys will be boys’ manner. But you would be wrong.
None of the guys in Teen Wolf are of this stereotype. While Scott is physically strong as the alpha-werewolf leader of the pack and can kick arse when he needs to, his character is that of a very gentle guy with a soft heart, who loves his friends and his mother, who can cry and tear up when he suffers loss or emotional pain, who can be confused and frightened, and who does not as a matter of course, resort to violence or aggression as his default solution to the many problems he faces. He does not always have to be in control, either of his environment or his emotions. Preferentially, he is a healer, not a fighter. He absorbs poisons and illnesses from the bodies of his friends by laying his hand on them. Very New Testament. He has a ready smile, is huggy with his mates and his girlfriend in earlier seasons and he loves animals and wants to study to become a vet. He is not afraid of colour in his choice of clothes (more so in later seasons)and he values and treats the women around him as equally as he does the guys. Watch it through; Scott McCall, the alpha-werewolf-leader-of-the-pack, is a softie. A strong soft man.
Stiles Stilinski(Dylan O’Brien), the moral centre of the show, is likewise not the alpha male type. He sucks at lacrosse, yet gets himself onto the field regardless, is loyal to Scott to the risking of his life, is sometimes overwrought, struggles occasionally with anxiety or panic attacks, is occasionally clumsy and uses humour to defuse situations. Stiles remains human throughout the series and represents the weakness of non-supernatural humanity, yet in doing so paradoxically, he shows his extraordinary courage and strength. And all this wrapped up in a package of cute. Dylan O’Brien is a comic genius, but is also famously known as cuteness personified. He plays Stiles as cute, funny, brave and loyal. He loves Lydia but he loves Scott too. And there was certainly a lot of chemistry between he and Derek too, which the Producers obviously picked up on and ran with.
The other regular straight male character is that of Sheriff Stilinski, Stiles’ father (Linden Ashby). This is a beautifully nuanced performance. Sheriff Stilinski is brave, clever, thorough, a good lawman and a good father. He has lost his wife to illness and cares for his son alone. After the disclosure of their supernatural status, Sheriff Stilinski takes the new-found knowledge of his son’s extraordinary friends with equanimity, fully accepting Scott and the others of his pack and allowing them to work with him in solving some of Beacon Hills’ darker cases. He is caring, loving, is able to cry, can go out of his mind with worry, but always present, always reliable, always there for his son. Teen Wolf offers us an unashamed representation of a strong and sensitive lawman without all the hyper-masculine adds-ons that so many other shows offer us for such a character.
Of the other straight characters who are irregular regulars, Chris Argent (JR Bourne), Derek Hale (Tyler Hoechlin), Liam Dunbar (Dylan Sprayberry), and Deputy Jordan Parrish (Ryan Kelley), all have strength and sensitivity. None represent uneducated biff masculinity, but are strong, loving, and tough yet sensitive, and while Derek Hale and his brother Peter (Ian Bohen) may come closest to traditional alpha male types, in fact, both men exhibit their softer and vulnerable sides several times.
What am I saying here? It is that the makers of Teen Wolf seem to have made a conscious thematic decision to give the male characters in this story some three dimensional depth. They have abandoned the traditional representation of masculinity of men being strong, tough, always in control, never showing emotions, don’t need to ask for help, exhibiting sexual prowess, and eschewing intellectual life. Gone is this stereotyped tough guy and replaced with straight men who are strong, brave, loyal, loving and sensitive guys who accept each other’s vulnerabilities and don’t mock them. Not once in the many story arcs is it that these men’s masculinity is on the line or in question. And for this, Teen Wolf needs to be congratulated. Representing a show’s entire stable of straight male characters in this manner so thoroughly and consistently is actually trail-blazing.
The second wonderful surprise found in this fun romp through youth and danger is the presence of queer characters. The thing here is that Teen Wolf has written them into the dramatis personae without fuss, without bother and without fanfare. Often, when a show introduces a queer character, say a gay guy, it tends to be a big deal. There are looks of disapprobation or affirmation. There is an uneasy look, a joke, a nervous laugh. A comment has to be made along the lines of the famous Seinfeld quote, “not that there’s anything wrong with that”. And then the straight men in the scene will invariably have to demonstrate or affirm their heterosexuality. If you’re straight, you may not have noticed this, but if you’re gay, you will recognise the demonstration of ‘not gay’ easily. In fact, you wait for it. We all lived this phenomenon ourselves through High School. The gayness is demonstrated as difference on screen by the reactions of the straight characters surrounding, rather than a way of being that has its own rational ontology. But not so on Teen Wolf.
There are several gay men on Teen Wolf who are all just part of the furniture of daily life of Beacon Hills.
Danny Māhealani (Keahu Kahuanui) is in the first three seasons. He is an openly gay senior at High School and it is Danny who introduces us to queerness in the whole show. He fancies his best friend Jackson, who, played by later come-out actor Colton Haynes, fancies Lydia. Eventually Danny falls for Ethan (Charlie Carver), an identical twin werewolf who is at first on the evil guys’ side, but who is redeemed by Danny. It is Danny who offers Stiles a sexual encounter in a now famous scene.
Mason Hewitt (Khylin Rambo) is an openly gay freshman who falls under the evil plans of the Dread Doctors, but who is saved by Lydia from living life as an ancient werewolf, the Beast of Gévaudan. He joins Scott’s pack as a human . He falls in love with Corey (Michael Johnston), another student at the school, a gentle soul, who has the ability to disappear, after the Dread Doctors also operated on him, and who also joins Scott’s pack. Their relationship is portrayed as being loving, healthy and normal throughout Seasons 5 and 6.
Each of these gay men are represented sympathetically. There is no trace of the historic psychopathologisation of their sexual orientation, nor is there any sniff of homophobia. Heterosexism is the belief that straight sexuality is normal, gay is deviant and that everybody is straight or should be. Like homophobia, heterosexism does not appear to exist in Beacon Hills, either in the High School or in the wider community. There are none of these historic social bigotries in Teen Wolf.
On the contrary, not only is the presence of queer students in the school represented as just part of the quotidian life of Beacon Hills, it is valued as being the equal of heterosexual orientation. Gay relationships are seen as the equal of straight ones. This is both remarkable and wonderful. And very timely.
There is one final lovely surprise within this frame of reference. The friendships between straight characters and gay characters is represented very sympathetically. The straight boys don’t get all weird around the gay boys. The straight boys don’t have to demonstrate their heterosexuality whenever there is a scene with a gay character so that we ‘don’t get the wrong idea’. The straight boys don’t lord it over the gay boys or oppress them due to their sexuality. Even evil straight characters don’t attack the gay characters because of their sexuality. The straight boys touch the gay boys and do not treat them as leprous. Even when the straight boys see the gay boys kiss, it is accepted and smiled at as though it were two opposite sex characters. Never is it a big deal. And never once is it seen as a moral wrong. In other words, the presence of gay guys in the school, in Scott’s pack, as best friends, in Beacon Hills, is in no way represented as a threat to the straight guys or their maleness, their masculinity or their manhood.
I love Teen Wolf. It has given me hours of pleasure and suspense and I will miss it when it ends. Although weird and wacky frequently, but in a genre you come to expect to be weird and wacky, I think teen Wolf has achieved something really wonderful in its extraordinary characters, its fabulous story arcs, its amazing suspense and hilarious comedy, and above all, its modern, sympathetic treatment of its men and masculinity, and in particular, its gay characters.
As a Counselling Psychologist, I know that it is essential that we have lots more queer characters on our screens and more sympathetic treatment of them. We know the statistics of anxiety, depression, substance abuse and suicidality of young LGTBI people who feel isolated and alone, struggling, confused and sometimes rejected. Gay identity formation is a complex psychological journey and it typically takes years. So, we can do without the queer stereotypes on the screen. We know enough now about human sexuality for the arts to come on board and help out with sympathetic representation of gay characters. I know from interviews that the cast of Teen Wolf is thrilled and proud that their show is so open and accepting of its gay characters. It’s lovely for a change to see that the gay person is not always the one that gets killed.
I hope other shows emulate the efforts of Teen Wolf in this regard. I am not going out on a limb to suggest that there are probably young LGBTQ people still alive today and thriving because they’ve seen such a sympathetic representation of someone like them on Teen Wolf. Given that ignorant bigotry still exists out there in the world, we need all the positive messages we can get.
A huge thank you to Teen Wolf and and heartfelt congratulations to its producers, directors, cast and all who have been involved in bringing such a magical show to life.
PS. There is a case to be made, though not the intent of this piece, that Scott and Stiles are in love. Though both straight, their friendship, like Frodo and Sam’s, transcends the boundaries of the ‘two straight boys thou-shalt-not-go-there’ rule. Their unmistakable love for each other grows stronger each season and it is clear and apparent that each would give his life for the other if it came down to it. “No greater love — — — ” In Episode 10 of Season 6, teary-eyed and looking deep into each other’s eyes, they almost declare this love, but cannot quite bring themselves to say it and so revert to the David and Jonathon brother trope. The love between Scott and Stiles is there for all to see. It is not hidden and it is a beautiful thing. As far as I know to date, such a portrayal could only have been possible in Teen Wolf.