Now that the first half of Teen Wolf’s third season is officially born into the world and flying on its own legal, 100% MTV-sanctioned wings, I want to talk about cultural representation with respect to the past 12 episodes, and also looking forward to 3B. It is widely acknowledged that the show has historically been excellent with LGBT representation, or at least better and much defter than others of its ilk. Where it falls short though—and this became increasingly apparent throughout this season—is in its treatment of characters who are not men and not white.
Under the cut: goodbye all our female PoC, the tropes live on, why we’ve got to talk about race, “Asian influence” in 3B, and give us a character— not a plot tool or an apology.
It’s not a secret that female characters on Teen Wolf are at a disadvantage when it comes to narrative and survival rate. However, the lady need not fear, because characters of colour are just as, if not more, shafted. Wait, what’s that? We had six relatively significant characters of colour—mostly black with one of possible Southeast Asian descent, handled incredibly poorly outside the show and not at all within it—and only three out of the four killed off were women? All of their backstories were poorly and hastily dealt with? One of them barely got a name, even though she rescued Isaac (who is the one beta left standing, also a white dude) in the inciting incident of the season? And the one surviving black man is the one who best fulfills a trope with racial connotations? Madness, absolute madness.
Unlike LGBT characters and their relationships—or the Argent matriarchy-that-never-was, fingers crossed now that Allison is owning shit up—race is never a subject of conversation. It’s not an issue, they say. We don’t have to talk about it, they say. Well, they’ve done a great job creating a universe with minimal LGBT prejudice—and they acknowledge it, through Danny, and Coach’s jokes, and Stiles. That acknowledgment is important, because the show does not exist in a vacuum; that acknowledgment is needed because the show exists in context of our current society, and it exemplifies a level of tolerance towards which we should strive, as per the creators’ standards.
That very lack of acknowledgment on the matter of race and minority cultures becomes even more alarming with what little is gradually being revealed about 3B. That there will be a kitsune: great. That the show will have a “heavy Asian influence”: about as accurate as saying 3A had a heavy European influence, and about as accurate as said European influences (read: not very much at all). That Arden Cho will be playing a half-Japanese, half-Korean character: she is great! But some of the many problems of Asian-American representation come to the surface here.
The term “Asian” is imprecise, ill-used, and oft-abused. In popular culture, it’s most often used to refer to the Central Asian trifecta: China, Japan, and Korea. A varying group of other countries are usually labelled as “Southeast Asia”; Western Asia is not really a thing, apparently. But there are many reasons why we, Asian-Americans and not, still use the term (and here I’m only going to talk within a North American context, because that’s my personal experience, and it’s also where the show is set and produced). Perhaps because we are visibly Not White; it is easier for us to shoulder our struggles together. Maybe it’s easier for Them to refer to Us as a collective. We all want to talk about this issue, but how? It’s a damned if you do, damned if you don’t kind of thing.
But we’re talking about it, and we’re getting our representation, right? (Moment of silence for miscellaneous Asian American werewolf dude who got killed off at the beginning of flashback episode, I had such great and ephemeral hopes for you.) Yes—but only by necessity. Very little is confirmed right now, but I say with confidence that we are only getting an Asian character because they have to be Asian, and that can be just as bad as no representation at all. It places Asians and Asian-Americans within a distinctly restricted sphere of “other” and reinforces stereotypes within the minds of your average white North American citizen—and worst of all in this case, young Asian Americans who are within the demographic of Teen Wolf. It makes us plot tools, not characters.
This kind of profiling is also why we can’t shove specificity under an umbrella and ignore it: when media representation is so rare, it’s disheartening to see that your culture and your language—one of them, anyway—are so easily substituted, in addition to probably being misrepresented. The kitsune is Japanese mythology and Arden is Korean American; she will be playing a half-Japanese, half-Korean character. If she is indeed the kitsune, and there is no reason for the character being of such origins other than the actor being Korean American, the entire thing feels like a half-assed compensation for not striving for proper representation. It feels like a shoddy, transparent compromise—that even better, would also completely ignore the context between these two particular cultures.
And here’s the thing: that compromise is someone else’s life. Every single one of the above—the underrepresentation, complete lack thereof, that which is misguided and misplaced, tropes and tropes and tropes—is someone else’s life, and I don’t just mean your characters, Teen Wolf. You’re playing with our lives, our worlds. So be careful with it.