This Show Was Supposed To Be A Gift: Teen Wolf + Race

By Guest Contributor Kendra James

l-r: Stiles (Dylan O’Brien), Scott (Tyler Posey), Allison (Crystal Reed) and Derek (Tyler Hoechlin)

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.

Seth Gilliam as Dr. Deaton

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!

Gage Golightly as Erica Reyes.

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.

Bianca Lawson as Ms. Morrell.

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.

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.

  • kdlmn

    Update necessary: Jeff Davis has announced in interviews that Ms. Morrell (Bianca Lawson) and Dr Alan Deaton (Seth Gilliam) will be major characters next season (Season 3) and that we’ll find out what they are. Dr Alan Deaton will be revealed good, but Ms Morrell will turn out to be bad. So far the show has hinted at some Celtic gods/fairies/druids with all of Dr Deaton’s potions and bottles and the talisman he had being of Celtic origin (a fact that Jeff Davis emphasized on twitter). Unfortunately some fans (albeit luckily few) have taken to calling Dr Deaton “voodoo vet”. Boyd (Sinqua Walls) now also has a full name that Teen Wolf writer Angela Harvey announced together with show creator Jeff Davis on twitter: Vernon Milton Boyd IV.

    • Dienna

      We’ll see if the show delivers in its third season. And Boyd wasn’t his full name?! A character so underdeveloped that he was reduced to a last name. Dag.

  • Dienna

    I started getting into this show after reading this article, because I wanted to be nosy and see what everyone was talking about. This show was originally not on my radar. Granted, the show does not have the best acting (a lot of these people were obviously cast for their looks), and it veers too much into “Pretty White Kids With Problems” (TM “Mad TV”) territory for my taste, but it held my interest enough.

    I’m still finishing season 1, but I am definitely seeing what you’re saying about Dr. Deaton. To me, their description of him being “mysterious” reads to me as “too lazy to write a character background for him.” And I agree with others who mentioned the girl in the pilot. She could’ve been a great part of their group. She completely disappeared after the pilot.

    I know I’m going to dread the lack of character development for the other black characters like Boyd when I hit the second season episodes. I heard that there’ll be a third season with 24 episodes. I’d hope that someone would finally step up to the plate and write minority characters with depth for their third season, but I’m probably hoping for too much.

  • Anonymous

    I wanted to share this; this was a great eloquent article on everything that is wrong with the show or rather the worldview of its creator:
    http://thewherefores.tumblr.com/post/28158936197/ok-so-some-of-those-teen-wolf-thoughts-that-tumblr
    [First sentences: "Jeff Davis has said that Teen Wolf, Like Archie Comics, takes place in a
    kind of ‘perfect world’ without racism, sexism, homophobia or classism.
    He’s wrong."]

  • Anonymous

    Very good points. I agree with pretty much everything… It’s interesting to me how rare it is for American TV shows to feature main characters who do not have Anglo family names and have an explicitly non-Anglo heritage backstory (unless they are Jewish). If they do, that automatically becomes a major plot point (example: Polish heritage in “The Chicago code”) rather than just a normal fact of life/American history.

  • Rae

    Great article! I’m surprised you didn’t mention Jeff Davis’ tweet about “finally getting credit for casting a Latino actor as a lead,” as if he deserves cookies and praise for doing something decent. That was a damn mess.

  • http://twitter.com/wriglied Kendra

    I didn’t want to call any Tumblr-ers out by name, and I still don’t, but some of the things I’ve seen from the big fic writers have been honestly upsetting. I remember the night when Colton’s black face pics were “exposed” and seeing posts along the lines of ‘aw, he was just young and stupid though! It was an accident.’ Meanwhile, I’m trying to remember if I have any friends who have ever ‘accidentally’ found themselves in black face when they were younger.

    I don’t know if that reaction is worse, or just watching them ignore it entirely. Fandom’s reaction to anyone talking down in any way about the show seems to be covering their ears and making Sterek posts in all caps. Not that I have any issues with shipping, but their love of the sound of their own voices is problematic when it comes to getting people to understand the problems behind the scenes.

    • Dienna

      “I remember the night when Colton’s black face pics were “exposed” and
      seeing posts along the lines of ‘aw, he was just young and stupid
      though! It was an accident.’”

      I hate dumb fangirls. Of course they’d say something idiotic like that because they’re too blind by their celebrity crush to see that the guy did something completely egregious. Now if someone who they weren’t attracted to pulled this blackface stunt, then they’d be all up in arms.

  • ericathevegan

    It is getting sort of ridiculous. Black characters, Mexican characters, etc. are not all that different than characters of another race (or white). It’s not that hard to develop a simple back-story. We’re all the same..right?
    At times I had forgotten what Boyd’s name was, simply because I didn’t know anything about him (eh, I may have forgotten what Isaac’s name was too, and Erica’s [had she not had the same name as I] but I recalled Isaac’s because I heard someone say it – no one says Boyd’s name). I have no idea who Boyd is – why is a he a loner? why don’t kids sit with him? he’s attractive..don’t typical (high school) shows give the attractive characters attention? yes, America is vain, but it’s okay. I just think Boyd (and Dr. Deaton) should have a back-story – ALL the other werewolves do, all but Boyd. I’d say that Ms. Morrell wouldn’t really need one; she’s just a teacher/counselor (even though her knowledge of Latin and other things makes me wonder…)

  • Anonymous

    Thank you so much for tackling this! I am pretty much addicted to this show. And Boyd’s complete non-development (what.so.ever) is one of the two things that really bother me about this addiction of mine. The other is the constant (CONSTANT) rape featured.

    But something else: You didn’t mention Dany in your article, why not? I mean: How many show’s feature Native Hawaiian characters and actors?!

    • http://twitter.com/wriglied Kendra

      Admittedly, I think I’d been taking Danny for granted for being better handled since he’s been getting more screen time this season. Well deserved screen time at that. But you (and everyone who’s mentioned it) are completely right. It’s another case where, while his sexuality is handled well, some canon acknowledgement of his background wouldn’t suddenly turn Davis’ show into Glee. (I also just really, really want to know more about his computer genius/the one time he was arrested.)

  • Anonymous

    I’m glad he fumbled his way into this pandora’selephant in the room, though he obviously regrets it, I’m just hoping e learns from it (so etching other than to run hard and fast in the other direction while trying to slam the box closed again). Again I just have hope that this leads to awareness n opportunities.

  • Anonymous

    I’m glad he fumbled his way into this pandora’selephant in the room, though he obviously regrets it, I’m just hoping e learns from it (so etching other than to run hard and fast in the other direction while trying to slam the box closed again). Again I just have hope that this leads to awareness n opportunities.

  • Val

    “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.”

    A Latino guy can be All-American and White can’t he?

    I really don’t expect much from TV anymore as far as developing characters of Color. In fact TV seems to be going backwards in this area. Just look at the (Thursday night) comedies on NBC for instance. None of the Black characters are developed. The Black woman in Parks and Rec is just around for wisecracks. Stanley on The Office started with a little development but then they seemed to have given up leaving him to be just there for wisecracks. Rashida Jones on Parks and Rec is not even playing a Woman of Color. The Black woman on Community got a little development but her storyline was that of a semi-stereotype.

    And People of Color on TV dramas are just as limited. Hopefully People of Color will continue the trend of making web-series. That’s the only place where one might see fully developed characters of Color.

    • LNessman

      “Rashida Jones on Parks and Rec is not even playing a Woman of Color.”
      What does this mean? What should she do differently?

    • LNessman

      “Rashida Jones on Parks and Rec is not even playing a Woman of Color.”
      What does this mean? What should she do differently?

      • Val

        It means that on every TV show that I’ve ever seen Black characters at some point have their ethnicity acknowledged in some way no matter how small. For instance, when Rashida was on The Office, Michael upon meeting her said that she looked “exotic”. But in her role on Parks and Rec her character’s ethnicity has never been acknowledged or even alluded to.

    • Anonymous

      Okay, I apologize. I didn’t know enough about this issue. So apparently there is some conflict going on between Tyler Posey and Jeff Davis on the never mentioned Latino ethnicity of Scott McCall. I stand corrected. Here the low-down:
      http://i.imgur.com/WynGu.png
      Yup, he’s a douche.

      Contrast that smug bull with Tyler (from the Huffington Post interview that Kendra linked):
      HuffPo: Your character Scott McCall is an all-American guy. He’s not Latino, right?

      Tyler Posey: Well, his mom has got a dark complexion [kdlm comment: the actress, Melissa Ponzio, is of Sicilian, Native American and French heritage], so I think he’s half-Latino. It
      never comes up in the show, but I’m pretty sure that he is Latino.

      At ComicCon this year, Tyler brought up the ethnicity issue again in an interview:
      http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=RtZe3r53SHA
      Journalist: It seems like Scott’s very black and white as far as loyalty-
      Tyler Posey: Scott’s Mexican, I think.

      And from an interview with Tyler Posey, Francia Raisa and Gina Rodriguez from August 1, 2012 on being young, Latino and type-cast:
      Q: On “Teen Wolf,” you’re not playing a Latino character.

      - Posey: I don’t really know. I think he is. The mom on the
      show looks Latina. I have to be. I am. You’ve got to make character
      choices. I feel like he has Latin roots. It’s never come up, but
      maybe I could incorporate something.

      - Raisa: There’s no way of acting Latin.

      - Rodriguez: That’s what makes it even cooler. He’s just a kid
      who can act and tell a story.

      - Raisa: And turn into a wolf.

      - Rodriguez: That’s what we need more of. I want to book the
      projects that are like, “female, brunette, early 20s.”

      Q: Is it harder to get seen for those parts?

      - Raisa: Oh my gosh, yes, it is. Very hard. The minute people
      even hear my name, they’re like, “Oh, she’s Latin.”

      - Rodriguez: I was literally told the other day, “The
      producers are going to see ‘Rodriguez,’ and they’re just going to
      know.”

      - Raisa: It’s so frustrating when you walk into an audition room
      and you see white, white, white, white, white. You’re like, “What
      am I doing here?” [...]

      Posey: The creator of my show always mentions, “Yeah, he’s a
      good actor, but he’s also ethnic. And he’s the lead of our show, so
      that’s going to help us.” It’s weird the way that he says it, but
      it’s true, and it’s cool, and I’m totally stoked.
      http://www.backstage.com/bso/content_display/news-and-features/e3i990ff609be2c2c78e6f23642547db289

      Yup, Tyler, that does sound weird. :( Overall Jeff Davis just sunk in my esteem. A lot. He seems douchey and lacks self awareness.

  • embdowns

    I am noticing that while there is more diversity, the characters are background or even worse disposable.

  • STaylor in Austin

    The problem is POC’s aren’t producing, writing or directing TV shows in any significant numbers. Women, especially women of color, are also under-represented. Obviously we need more POC’s and women in postions of power in Hollywood, but that’s been a problem and argument for decades and I don’t know how to make it happen. Tyler Perry is blazing his own trail of success, but I am loath to support his modern minstrel show. I guess we’ll keep tilting at virtual media windmills
    Below is a snippet from the a Root article from last year on TV diversity:
    http://www.theroot.com/views/77-percent-scripted-television-series-have-white-male-directors
    A new Directors Guild of America report shows how woeful the record is, but it’s the same news — just a different day. The report analyzed more than 2,600 episodes produced in the 2010-2011 television season for more than 170 scripted television series shown on broadcast TV, basic cable and premium cable. The shows were produced by production companies including ABC, CBS, Fox, HBO, NBC, Sony and Warner Bros.
    White males directed 77 percent of the shows, and white females directed 11 percent of the episodes. Minority males directed 11 percent, and minority females directed 1 percent. The racial and gender near-shutout was more striking for one-hour series, in which white males directed 80 percent of episodes.