In 2011, MTV premiered the supernatural drama Teen Wolf, which is loosely based off of the 1985 movie of the same name. The lead titular character is Scott McCall, played by Tyler Posey, who is bitten by and transformed into a werewolf. The focus of this essay however will be on Scott’s best friend in the show, Stiles Stillinski, played by Dylan O’Brien. After becoming a sleeper hit for MTV, the show’s supernatural campiness made a turn for more dramatic storylines involving bouts with loss, grief, mental disabilities and personal identification. These themes have especially been dealt with through Stiles in the latest season of Teen Wolf. Stiles is presented as possibly bisexual, or at least questioning in his sexuality, although has only been canonically engaged in heterosexual relationships. The presentation of Stiles’ sexuality is done through a ‘queer baiting’ tactic, however, and suggests we may not live in a ‘post-closet era’ of media after all.
‘Queer baiting’ is a phenomenon that comes out of writing characters that may present or suggest the possibility of queer relationships, but does not ever make these relationships actually occur on-screen. This is similar to the “guy love” that Ron Becker talks about because the male characters that queer bait and show possible gay interests often immediately reinforce their heterosexuality (120-121). Stiles is a character that often has queer baiting storylines in Teen Wolf as he frequently suggests being gay or bisexual, but there is never any physical engagement with these advances and can mostly be written off as comic relief in situations. Queer baiting is problematic because writers will defend themselves with thoughts that any representation is good, even if those representations are shallow.
Examples of ‘queer baiting’ with Stiles:
One of the earliest moments of queer baiting with Stiles. This ‘curiosity’ of his attractiveness to gay characters is a recurring theme. (Season 1, Episode 3. Image Source.)
Stiles and his dad after being picked up at a gay club. Stiles was at the gay club for business, not pleasure however and this scene was seen as comedic. (Season 2, Episode 6. Image Source.)
Stiles often engages with Danny (a canonically gay character) to explore his ‘curiosity’. The two have never actually been romantically or sexually involved together. (Top scene: Season 1, Episode 3. Image Source. Bottom Scene: Season 3, Episode 4. Image Source.)
In the most recent and perhaps most overt acknowledgement of Stiles’ queer or questioning sexuality he is finally confronted and asked about it. The audience only receives that ‘questioning’ look in the last gif and not a firm answer spoken out loud. (Season 3, Episode 16. Image Source.)
Teen Wolf showrunner, Jeff Davis, has vocalized his pride of the representation on the show, especially in the acceptance of different identities within the show’s universe. In one interview Davis is quoted as saying, “I’m trying to create a world where there’s no racism, there’s no sexism, there’s no homophobia […] I’d like to create a world where none of that matters: you have the supernatural creatures for that to work as an analogy.” The fact is Teen Wolf does cast people of color as well as write queer characters. Tyler Posey is a Latino actor, and there is a continuing arc of the homosexual relationship between the characters Ethan and Danny (played by Keahu Kahuanui, an actor of Pacific Islander descent). These identities are not at the forefront of the show, however. The show is about teenage werewolves so that is a majority of the plot, but their lives outside of the supernatural are acknowledged through school and home settings – places where their identities could be discussed and explored. Furthermore, the canonically queer characters Ethan and Danny are secondary characters, and Tyler Posey’s cultural identity has never been written into his character. It needs to be understood that representation does not just mean a character with certain identities appearing on screen, but the characters actively engaging with those identities as well.
Davis discusses the possibility of Stiles becoming canonically queer. There is clearly a hesitation to actually go through with this.
The maliciousness in the type of ‘representation’ that queer baiting promotes on Teen Wolf is much more apparent when you take into account the engagement between the content creators and fans of the show through social media websites like Twitter and Tumblr. Stiles is often ‘shipped’ (or romantically paired) with another male character on the show, Derek Hale. Lovingly referred to as “Sterek” by these fans, the pairing has never been canonically together in a romantic or sexual sense, though Davis has shown he is quite aware of the ship’s popularity. In an E! Online interview about the popularity of ‘Sterek’ Davis said, “I had no idea that my Twitter account would be pummeled by pleas and requests to actually make Stiles and Derek a pair in the show itself, to become ‘canon.’” Davis has acknowledged the ship, yet he continues to write stories in which the audience only gets winks and nods, which is what I mean by the maliciousness of queer baiting. How can audiences who seek out queer representation be expected to react when they are acknowledged and still tossed aside?
[Dylan O’Brien who plays Stiles on left, and Tyler Hoechlin who plays Derek on right.] Even the cast knows the fans want it, but only in a non-canon paratext like an interview with TV Guide will it be acknowledged. (Image Source.)
Identities are salient. They matter when they come up, and I am not trying to argue that the characters on Teen Wolf are supposed to behave a certain way in order to represent their identities. However, the main characters of the show are not written in any sort of way that shows an acknowledgement or salience of these identities other than a line or two every few episodes. Main characters take up a bulk of the storyline that allows space for their identities to be explored. Stiles’ queer identity is dangled in front of the audience, and the only other place for queer audiences to find themselves are in the background characters who seem to only kiss, but don’t tell. With fan engagement being more common in today’s media content, at least there is a conversation happening. However, it will take time for showrunners like Davis to decide to actually listen and achieve better representation.
Becker, Ron. “Chapter 7: Guy Love.” Queer TV: Theories, Histories, Politics. Ed. Glyn Davis and Gary Needham.121-40. Print.