Uncontrollable urges, animalistic appetites and aggression, hair growing in new and unusual places: these are the trials and struggles of any nascent werewolf. Or teenager. In my eyes, the young lycanthropes of Teen Wolf provide a metaphor for the trials faced by any young man going through puberty, both socially and physically.
I qualify “young man” because Teen Wolf is unfortunately lacking in the lady lycanthrope department. Despite having some very compelling, interesting, and strong female main characters, the main werewolves are male, and the few female werewolves who have been on the show are somewhat peripheral and not explored in depth. (The newest episodes bring us a delightful new female main character who is discovering that she is a kitsune, but that’s a whole other story, and one with much less shapeshifting… so far.)
I think the Teen part of Teen Wolf is a pivotal part of the show; this is not just because quirky, angsty teens make for the funnest protagonists, but because puberty/adolescence is by its very nature a stage of transition—what anthropologists term a “liminal” state. We transform.
We move from child to adult, and for years seem stuck in an in-between state. This is wonderfully expressed and explored in the werewolf mythos of Teen Wolf. Almost all of the werewolves on the show do not transition seamlessly between human and wolf as in many depictions of lycanthropy, but rather to an intermediate “wolf-man” state, like the child-adult state of the adolescent. This show, this particular interpretation of the werewolf, is most appropriately Teen Wolf, not Kid Wolf, not 27-Years-Old-and-Comfortable-With-It Wolf, not even Midlife Crisis Wolf (though that would certainly be an interesting show)!
In the Teen Wolf mythos, werewolves have various categories, reflecting somewhat the social strata of actual wolves, but perhaps more directly, the social strata of high school. At the bottom of the heap, we have the omegas—the proverbial “lone wolf”, a wolf with no pack, or the high school analogy: the loner sitting by himself in the cafeteria. The betas are the team members behind the team captain, so to speak, those making up the pack. At the top we have our alphas: the apex predators, or the aforementioned team captains; they are stronger, more powerful, and at times more bestial than the betas below them. In line with the themes of transition (both of lycanthropy and of adolescence in general), none of these rankings are set in stone. Betas can ascend to alphahood or dissociate from their packs to become omegas, alphas can lose their status and become betas, even omegas can work their way up to being alphas (the twin alphas in Season 3 admit to being omegas at one point). In fact, the challenges of achieving alpha werewolf status may be less difficult than rising through the social ranks of any given high school. The social nature of wolf packs lends itself to giving Teen Wolf a rich source of metaphors for the social aspects of adolescence, in a way that Teen Jaguar, for example, would not. (Teen Lion, now I suppose that could work.)
Lycanthropy also serves as a metaphor for the inherent state of physical transition and transformation that is a defining part of puberty. For most able-bodied, non-chronically ill people, puberty is the first time we actively feel out of control of our bodies (potty training notwithstanding). The changes are sudden, violent, bizarre; simple changes in height are nothing compared to the fundamental, irreversible changes to the character and nature of our bodies that happen during puberty. It’s rooted in the same basis that makes all body horror so terrifying—the involuntary changing of and lack of control over the body.
An exemplary hallmark to illustrate: one lovely part of puberty that every cis male knows is the spontaneous erection. Wake up in the morning, boner; sitting on the bus, boner; just walking around the hallways at school, boner; stand up for a hymn in church, definitely a boner! These erections are not actually related to sexual arousal at all; the body is just flexing its newfound, er, muscle. The body has a mind of its own and in adolescence, sometimes an erection just happens for no apparent reason. On the other hand, some erections are certainly caused by sexual arousal as well. In the beginning of Teen Wolf, it is discussed how any sort of psychological or physiological stressor, any sort of increased heart-rate invoking situation, can trigger a transformation in an untrained werewolf: panic, fear, anger, pain… and even arousal.
In the very first episode, Scott is dancing close at a party with the object of his affection, the fair Allison Argent. As everyone who has ever been to a high school dance knows, dancing that close to someone, slow or fast, is a primary cause of teen erections! (Or so I hear; as a young queerling at a Catholic high school, I was only dancing with girls, which was not erection-provoking for me.) While dancing with her, Scott becomes increasingly uncomfortable and has to excuse himself; not for the erection and ensuing issues (although it’s probably there!), but for fear of initiating his transformation into a werewolf. Again, in “Magic Bullet”, while making out on her bed, he finds himself in a compromised position, as the arousal begins to trigger a transformation, though he is able to hide the give-away claws. However, throughout the series, we do see Scott start to gain some level of control over his transformation. In fact, in a season three episode, “Currents”, Scott and Allison find themselves in close quarters while hiding in a closet. Their physical proximity does indeed cause Scott to stand at full attention, so to speak, but he does not wolf out one bit. This is a kind of control that most teens can only wish for over their own unruly bodies. (This series of gifs explains what words alone cannot: re-live the charming magic moment of the Awkward Closet Boner here. Rated PG.)
To sum up, both lycanthropy and adolescence are states characterized by transformation and transition, and in Teen Wolf the two often overlap and inform each other. Teen Wolf gives us some very interesting metaphors with which to look at the adolescent experience, in both its social and biological/physical aspects. This post is just the tip of the iceberg in regard to both of those issues, and I again lament the male bias, especially in regard to the second. This is due largely to my inexperience of female puberty, but also from Teen Wolf’s lack of werewolf women. Bad, bad Jeff Davis. (At the moment, the only truly female-centric werewolf media I can think of is the Ginger Snaps film series, though I have admittedly not watched them.) However, the current season’s development of Kira the Kitsune should be interesting to examine, once all is said and done. I would love to hear input on this front from female readers/viewers/writers about lycanthropy and female adolescence! In the meantime, let’s keep watching our favorite transitional teens and see what they have in store for us!