Baby put your arms around me
Tell me I’m the problem
Know I’m not the girl you thought you knew and that you wanted
Underneath the pretty face is something complicated
I come with a side of trouble
But I know that’s why you’re staying
I think the reason these lyrics struck me is simply because it’s shocking that women have to explain things like this. We have to say, yeah, I’m not perfect, I’m complicated, I have my own issues I have to deal with. It seems weird that we should have to explain this at all, but with pervasive tropes telling people that women should be placed on a pedestal because they are inherently good, loving, nurturing, and moral, it is a huge problem. This may seem like one of those “not all stereotypes are bad” kind of things, but let’s make the point now that all stereotypes are bad—even the ones that seem “positive”. This stereotype in particular makes women less human and less complex. Even further, this kind of attitude makes women into nothing more than the moral compass for men, and worse still, makes them evil or less than human if they can’t fulfill that role.This is reflected in our storytelling, and female characters in geekdom often fulfill this trope.
Spoilers for all of Teen Wolf below the jump. Also trigger warning for some brief mentions of rape.
Though Teen Wolf has had less of a problem with this particular trope in its recent seasons, the show has in seasons past specifically invoked the idea of women being the moral compass for men. In Season 1, Allison acts as Scott’s anchor, meaning that just thinking of her or being in her presence allows Scott to control his more violent and animalistic tendencies as a werewolf. This is later downplayed by the show explaining that anyone or anything can be someone’s anchor (for Isaac it was his father, and for Derek it was anger), and they even pushed the envelope by having Scott become his own anchor. But while the show has evolved, that first season still irks me. The idea that women have to be good and act as the moral compass for men, because men are more violent and animalistic and therefore can’t control themselves without women’s intervention, is super offensive to both genders. In the past this very argument has been used to justify rape by making the argument that if the women had dressed more “modestly” then the man would have been able to control himself. This puts all moral responsibility on women and none on any of the men, which, obviously, ends up severely harming women and actually removes potential consequences from men.
This same harmful trope is repeated in Seasons 2 and 3 of Teen Wolf, once again with Allison’s character. When Allison begins her hunter training, her father, Chris Argent, explains that the women are trained to be leaders while the men are trained to be soldiers. He claims the reason for this is because men are more violent and thus more likely to take things too far, whereas the women are less violent and so are more likely to keep a level head when dealing with difficult moral choices. The whole thing is moot anyway because we never really see any Argent women lead of their own free will, and when Allison tried to do so, she was demonized by fans for being “evil”.
Teen Wolf tries to subvert this trope, but doesn’t really succeed. The Argents claim that women should be leaders because they are more moral and less violent than men. However, with the exception of Allison, all of the hunter women, Argent or otherwise, are shown to be much more violent than the men. Yes, Gerard is very violent and evil, but he is one male hunter versus three very violent female ones. Victoria is willing to sneak off and slowly murder Scott, smiling the whole time while she does it, just because Scott is romantically involved with Allison. But Victoria is painted as completely heartless on the show until her final episode when she dies. So Victoria is only finally made into a complex character in order to make her death sad. Kate Argent is another extremely violent female hunter who delights in killing and torturing people; this, along with the fact that she burned a whole family alive and raped Derek, makes her one of the most violent and evil characters on the show. Then there is Araya Calavera, though not an Argent, she’s our first female hunter who is actually a leader. Araya murders someone in cold blood in front of Lydia, then tortures Scott. She also kidnaps and tortures Derek and Peter, and tries to force Kate to kill herself after she is bitten by Peter.
Even though these violent women seem to subvert the women as moral compass trope, the only one who is given any complexity is Kate, and even Kate isn’t fully fleshed out until Season 3. If anything, these women are painted as more evil than many of their male counterparts. Without the complexities that could make them good and interesting characters, they are just seen as morally reprehensible—even more so then the men, because in the public eye, women are supposed to be moral and good, not violent. Women as a moral compass isn’t just a writerly trope; it’s so ingrained in our public consciousness that the audience believes it as well.
In Season 2, Allison is given certain big moral decisions to make as she is told by Gerard it is her call since her mother is dead and she is now the only female Argent. Despite the fact that Allison makes several morally reprehensible decisions, she is being manipulated by Gerard the whole time, so Allison is still not really in charge. The backlash against Allison, despite how terribly she was being used, show how pervasive this trope of women as a moral compass is: fans immediately called for Allison’s death, creating the hashtag #killallison which was so popular it was trending on Twitter. Fans simply hated on Allison and completely ignored the emotional turmoil she was going through. Furthermore, while fans don’t like Gerard, there was no active fan movement calling for his death. On top of this, while Kate and Peter Hale are both rapists, murders, and all around assholes, it is only Kate who is branded as pure evil by the fandom, while Peter gets labeled as misunderstood and even dubbed “sassy Uncle Peter”. The “women as moral compass” trope encourages people to see women as more evil when they do something wrong, while with men it’s expected so people are not as appalled. So when women behave in an immoral way they are seen as more culpable than men, because women should “know better”.
If the Teen Wolf writers were really trying to deconstruct this trope, they shouldn’t have continued having Allison’s character fill the “moral compass” role. In Season 3 Allison really starts coming into her own. Her father had always been a devout follower of the Argents’ previous hunter code, “We hunt those who hunt us”; however, throughout the show this code is shown to be very problematic and Chris kind of loses his way a bit after realizing that. Allison proposes a new code that states “We protect those who can’t protect themselves”. This wouldn’t have been an issue in previous seasons; Allison and Chris are shown to be very close and she guides him as much as he guides her. Allison wouldn’t be seen as Chris’s moral compass; rather, the two would have been a father and daughter helping and supporting each other. But that is almost completely undone in Season 4. After Allison’s death, Chris is more lost than before, and eventually Araya Calavera approaches him to remind him of his duty to the original hunter code, “We hunt those who hunt us”. While Teen Wolf fans everywhere expected Chris to snap at Araya and claim he had a different code, he almost immediately gave into Araya and began following the old code. This paints Allison as Chris’s moral compass. Now that Allison is gone, Chris has no one to guide him, so he immediately follows Araya. It seems remarkably out of character for Chris’s character and the sole reasoning for it in the context of the story seems to be to show how lost Chris is without Allison, his moral compass, to guide him.
At its least problematic the idea that women have to be perfect angels for the sake of men creates boring female characters with little to no complexity. But at its worst, this trope supports rape culture, paints men as violent uncontrollable monsters, and makes us view women as evil for behavior that would otherwise be accepted in men. It’s extremely problematic to both sexes and I would love to see us break away from this trope. We need female characters to be just as complex, interesting, and human as men, with all the flaws and problems that entails. And we need male characters to find reasons for living and doing the right thing that is not solely determined by the angelic or near-angelic women in their lives. Not only would the storytelling be way less problematic, but it would be overall more interesting if writers would just avoid these tropes.