The Diversity Bait and Switch

Growing up as a black nerd, I watched a lot of sci-fi and fantasy TV shows like Charmed, Roswell, and Xena: Warrior Princess. As time went on, I began to notice something peculiar: none of the main characters in my favorite shows looked like me. If there were any black characters or people of color around, it didn’t end well for them. I honestly thought things were getting better, but then I noticed something about my favorite shows. Teen Wolf and Sleepy Hollow touted themselves as “progressive” shows; both had a person of color as the lead actor, but then they slowly changed into something else. Or simply put: they pulled the old bait and switch.

One of my favorite shows as a young adult was Teen Wolf. However, Teen Wolf doesn’t handle race well. Scott McCall’s race seems to be ambiguous at best. I think he’s supposed to be biracial, but they never actually say whether he is or isn’t. In a 2012 Huffington Post interview, actor Tyler Posey even commented on the fact:

“Well, his mom has got a dark complexion, so I think he’s half-Latino. It never comes up in the show, but I’m pretty sure that he is Latino. I mean, look at the guy! He looks Latino, a little bit.”

Tyler Posey may believe that Scott McCall is biracial because he’s biracial. Posey continued to say something along those lines in numerous interviews. I feel like that perfectly sums up the problem with Teen Wolf; while they portray him as an all-American teen, they never touch upon the most noticeable aspect, his race. They shy away from it and only hint at it in season three. In the episode “Galvanize” we learned that Melissa McCall’s maiden name was Delgado. We also learned that she didn’t change her name after the divorce because McCall was Scott’s last name as well. Other than that, they never talked about the implications of that information.

Delgado is a common surname in Latin America. It has Spanish and Portuguese origins. But the writers just dropped that tidbit and quickly moved on. It also doesn’t help that the actors who play Tyler Posey’s parents aren’t people of color. The actor who played Rafael McCall (Matthew Del Negro) tweeted that he’s 100 percent Italian. While the actress that played Melissa McCall, Melissa Ponzio is also Italian with Native American ancestry. This further adds to the confusion around Scott McCall’s race.

I attribute this confusion to the creator of Teen Wolf, Jeff Davis. In a 2012 interview with AfterElton, Davis said:

“I’m trying to create a world where there’s no racism, there’s no sexism, there’s no homophobia. And I know it’s not real life, but I kind of don’t care. I’d like to create a world where none of that matters: you have the supernatural creatures for that to work as an analogy. In my mind, if you can create a world like that on TV, maybe life starts to imitate it.”

In a now-deleted Tumblr post, Davis went on to say:

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. 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.”

During my time in the Teen Wolf fandom, I noticed quite a few things. Mostly the racism, but other -isms reared their ugly heads as well. The fandom and the writers, to a certain extent, shifted away from Scott and focused on his best friend, Mieczyslaw “Stiles” Stilinski. I saw many fans say they preferred Stiles, which I shrugged off. They would go on to say that the show should focus on Stiles instead of Scott. If the writers did that, it would no longer be Teen Wolf. It seems like once a show reaches a certain level of success, the vocal fandom has a bit of sway with the writers. During the first season of Teen Wolf, the show focused on Scott McCall. Then they moved on to an ensemble cast format. I believe it would have been okay, had they tied the other characters and their issues back to Scott and how it affected him and the pack. But they didn’t do that. Sleepy Hollow used a similar tactic: they introduced us to a wonderful character, Grace Abigail “Abbie” Mills, and the first season hinted at good things to come. Sleepy Hollow lured me in for two reasons: one, the show seemed committed to and understood the need for inclusion. Two, they promoted themselves as something we have never seen before, and as far as I can remember, I don’t recall having a black woman lead a supernatural drama — especially one on a major network. They were able to market themselves as one of a kind.

Sleepy Hollow had an excellent cast and crew; we could’ve had it all! Instead, they wasted its potential. Gradually, they began to shift focus from Abbie Mills, and after a while, the jig was up. By the second season, the writers started moving away from what made the show successful. They began to focus more and more on Ichabod Crane and his family. First his wife, then his son and their never-ending family drama. Toward the end of the third season, Sleepy Hollow became unrecognizable. Not only because they killed off Abbie Mills, but because they slowly shifted the focus to Ichabod Crane and his journey.

The show became so preoccupied with Ichabod and his issues that they forgot about Abbie. Who was she outside of being a Witness? Throughout the seasons her allies and friends dwindled. She lost so much for the cause, and it’s typical for shows like this, but this time it felt different. The way they handled her death was awful. Even if they had to kill Abbie, they didn’t have to make her death all about Ichabod.

What these two shows have in common is that they drew us in with inclusion, and then they pulled a bait and switch. Slowly but surely, the show started focusing less on the main character and more on their white best friend. Unfortunately, a lot of shows do that, but those are just a recent example of what fans of color experience. We’re tired of being promised a show that’s inclusive and then it defaults to the white character. I’ve had enough of these shows being touted by white showrunners as something new, only for it to turn out to be the same old thing.

I felt the weight of Sleepy Hollow more because I was older, more experienced and by then I knew what the deal was. Now, at 26, I’m a bit more jaded. However, I still hold out hope that we’ll get an inclusive sci-fi or fantasy TV show that won’t pull a bait and switch. When you look at the history and progression of TV, we’re slowly moving in the right direction. First, we were supporting characters, and now we are the leads. I won’t pretend like it’s perfect, but we are making incredible strides. I hope this problem will become a thing of the past.