By Guest Contributor Kendra James
I never wanted to write about MTV’s Teen Wolf on the R. I tried so hard to avoid writing about it that, until this point, I’ve ignored that one time one of the lead actors got caught in blackface, a season and a half worth of problematic characters of color, and the question of whitewashed heroes. This show was supposed to be lighthearted fun peppered with beautiful abdominal muscles.
Unfortunately, that changed in the course of hours one night when Jeff Davis, the show’s creator, started a Tumblr, dedicated his inaugural post to the topic of race of the show, received over 1,000 notes on said post, and then deleted everything altogether when his opinions on race and diversity were not taken well by a PoC and social justice-themed audiences.
It’s the classic case of another well-meaning white male who forgot to check his white privilege at the door.
Because most people have better taste in television than I do, a little background: the show is a scripted drama based on the movie of the same name, starring a Latino actor, Tyler Posey, as Scott McCall. It’s a silly, ridiculous show filled with plot holes and lazy writing that occasionally provides comedic gems–and, like I said, beautiful abs.
From the beginning the show had symptoms of a Magical Negro issue, when the only black character, Dr. Deaton (Seth Gilliam), was a mysterious veterinarian who had no background, first name, or personality but was always there to answer questions and help other characters (sometimes with magic!) in their time of need. The character had me raising an eyebrow, but again there were good-looking men…and the one thing I wanted to avoid was to ever have to mention this program here.
In season two, we’ve met Boyd (Sinqua Walls), one of three new teenage werewolves, and Ms. Morrell (Bianca Lawson), a guidance counselor with vague ties to Deaton. Along with Deaton, both are supporting characters, and that has been one of the main excuses given by Davis when the lack of development in the show’s Black characters is brought up.
While Davis did delete his tumblr and the post, everyone knows that the internet is forever. You can read it here in full without comment, but for now let’s have a look at how Davis sees race on his show:
First off, the lack of story development for Boyd’s character. I have said numerous times in interviews that the new supporting characters are there to “support” the main characters. I have 41 minutes a week in which to tell a story. It’s not easy to service every character equally!
Forty-one minutes and twelve episodes to be exact and, no, that’s not a lot of time. But Boyd’s character is aligned with Issac Lahey (Daniel Sharman) and Erica Reyes, who have been developed far more thoroughly. Issac and Erica are also characterized as white; slapping the last name Reyeson a character played by a non-PoC, blonde actress, Gage Golightly, when you choose to not acknowledge the show’s actual Mexican lead in the show’s canon does not absolve Davis of his issues with race.
Which makes it no surprise–but typical of my favorite supernatural shows–that Boyd would get the short end of the character-development stick. Viewers have learned key details about Erica and Issac’s pasts, and they’ve both had the opportunities to at least develop definable personality traits over the course of the season. They have their own storylines and their characters have their own arcs.
What do we know about Boyd? Well, he’s a loner who drives a zamboni at the ice rink, and he takes the bus to school. Compared to Erica’s backstory as an epileptic and Issac’s abusive history with his now-deceased father–not to mention their numerous interactions with other characters and the obvious evolutions in their personalities and actions–Boyd hasn’t been given much to work with. He may as well be a blank slate.
It may not be easy to ‘service every character’ equally, but Boyd follows an annoying, yet common, trend in characters of color and fans are right to question Davis on it. Especially since it wasn’t exactly a fluke; the character was slated as African-American from the beginning, as seen on the casting notice:
Davis goes onto suggest budgeting and scheduling issues also impact his ability to better develop Boyd’s character. This doesn’t erase the fact that Boyd is a sorely underdeveloped character in comparison to his contemporaries, but it could have been a more viable excuse had he just stopped there. But like many well-meaning white people who are in over their heads when discussing the topic of race and media, Davis kept going.
When we send out breakdowns for cast it always says “All ethnicities.” I’m quite proud of the fact that our lead actor is Latino. But I have also always said I will not make “Teen Wolf” an “issues” show. I think a series like “Glee” or even the humor of “Modern Family” are far more equipped to handle those subjects.
First, I question how proud you can be of having a Latino lead if it’s not acknowledged with so much as a hint in the show’s canon, thus allowing viewers to assume that he’s ‘All-American’ and white. You can also obviously see above that underdeveloped Boyd was never meant to be cast as anything other than Black–that much should be clear. Issac and Erica were technically open to all races, but ultimately both characters, who are written and developed more extensively into the action, were cast as white:
Opening a casting call to any ethnicity (which poses its own challenges and doesn’t guarantee a diverse media environment) doesn’t earn you brownie points any more than being sure to develop your Black characters will make you an “issues show.” To show care, fairness, and equality towards your PoC characters does not make you an “issues show”–it makes you, at worst, close to being considerate and, at best, a show that fans of more backgrounds can enjoy without complaint.
The burn of Boyd’s lack of character development increases when you look at the other two black characters on the show. As mentioned, Magical Negro issues run deep within the show and on this week’s episode, Dr. Deaton cemented himself as the Bonnie Bennett of Teen Wolf–a character of color with supernatural abilities who exists to serve white characters–when, after a season and a half of popping up at opportune times with convenient advice, wisdom, and occasional magic, he revealed to Derek, “helping your family used to be a pretty important part of my life.” Ms. Morrell, the last hope for a well-developed Black character, has thus far turned out to be in some way related to Dr. Deaton, squashing most hope that she’s not another Bonnie in the making.
If just one of the show’s Black characters were allowed to progress into being a fully realized person it would be far easier to overlook the faults of the others. Not being able to develop all of your supporting Black characters is understandable, but when you score 0 out of 3, it’s time to step back, take a look, and maybe stop making excuses. Particularly excuses as tired as this one:
I also worry that as a white male who grew up in a pretty ordinary middle class suburb I may not have the insight to be particularly adept at tackling issues of race head on. While there is no way I can write without socialization and my own personal bias both informing and affecting my work, I believe my first job is to entertain. That’s what I love about writing. Entertaining people. If I skirt the issues of race and sexual politics, the reason is most likely that I don’t feel like I’m going to be very good at tackling those issues within a show about teenage werewolves. I don’t really know how to write those stories. But I think I do know how to scare people and how to make them laugh. There are far better writers out there like Aaron Sorkin, Shonda Rhimes, David E. Kelley, far more equipped to tackle those subjects. I’m here first and foremost to entertain. All else comes under the banner of “best effort.”
Yes, this is a show about lacrosse-playing werewolves in an otherwise “pretty ordinary middle class suburb” in California. No one is asking for A Very Special Episode About Racism (Ft. Magical Beings), but we could still see fleshed out, acknowledged PoC characters that act as more than props, scenery, and spiritual guides. Believe it or not, there’s no trick to writing these characters, no experience that you missed out on as a child that wouldn’t allow you to expand on the characters of a teenage boy or a grown man. Plot lines for Black characters (or any PoC character) do not have to center around the color of their skin. When you exist in a world where getting bitten by a werewolf is a more pressing concern than discrimination that rule should only increase ten-fold.
Let’s be real: if there were more characters like Olivia Pope on television I’d be a happier person, but it’s unfair to expect Shonda Rhimes to carry that burden by herself. (Nor have I ever considered Aaron Sorkin or David E. Kelley to be the paragons of virtue and perfection when it comes to writing PoC characters. Has anyone?) It’s also unfair to start this kind of dialogue and then run from it while backhandedly blaming the people who wanted to engage in the discussion you started to begin with.
Well, Tumblr, I was even gonna start putting pictures up. But you scared me away Back to just Twitter. Please keep it positive!
— Jeff Davis (@JeffDavis75) July 30, 2012
Race and media isn’t a topic that’s going to lead to purely positive responses. It certainly doesn’t get better when someone steeped in white male privilege decides to offer his opinion as the final word on the topic. If Davis thought that this post wasn’t going to elicit a severe amount of response and backlash that would warrant further response from him, then he’s operating either under a veil of naivete or sheer ignorance. Writers have to be prepared to stand by their words, deleted or not. Davis was obviously not up to that task.
Gawker points out the common use of the tumblr tag Jeff Davis is a gift. I’m not going to try and pretend that I haven’t used that tag in the past. I enjoy what Teen Wolf has done with homosexuality (in addition to having a gay supporting character, both main male characters are shown to be comfortable with advances from other men) and, sometimes, their frank handling of female sexuality is a pleasant surprise. That said, while a good deal of the fandom (including some oft read, quoted, and re-blogged Big Name Fans, which only perpetuates the problem) seem to think that positive portrayals of some topics negate the problematic handling of others, I’m not as forgiving. These are not new excuses concerning PoC representation, and he hasn’t provided me with, “Different insight into the whys and hows of the world of television.” I’ve heard it all before.
As well-intentioned as Davis is in trying to explain himself to his fans and create a world where race isn’t an issue, he may want to take a moment to reacquaint himself with the mantra his characters have spent the past three episodes repeating ad nauseum: “Once is an accident. Twice is a coincidence. Three times is a pattern.”
Dr Deaton. Boyd. Ms. Morrell.
I’ll leave you to it, Mr. Davis.