Jeff Davis, Teen Wolf, and the Invisibility of Whiteness

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A SYTYCB Entry

Let me be clear about some things. White people have a race. White people have various ethnicities. By golly, white people have a gender and sexuality, even when they’re white, male, and heterosexual! I know this disturbs the dominant worldview that suggests they don’t (and that when those “issues” come up, they’re irrelevant to white people), but I’m not the first to acknowledge that, and know I won’t be the last.

In response to recent critiques of the racial makeup of the cast on MTV’s Teen Wolf, Jeff Davis, creator and writer on the show, said, “I have also always said I will not make Teen Wolf an ‘issues’ show.” That’s funny, Mr. Davis, because I thought securing and maintaining the safety of your loved ones was an issue. I thought balancing the relationships you have and the secrets you keep with people you love was an issue. I thought that finding your place in the world or even within your own social space was an issue. Oh, wait…you meant those pesky li’l issues about race, gender, and sexuality?  Heaven forbid we ever acknowledge in popular discourse that they tend to converge from time to time. Oh, you meant you just don’t wanna mess with those issues.

Along those lines, Davis continued, “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.” Newsflash, Mr. Davis, the story lines on Teen Wolf are not race, gender, and sexuality free. No story ever is, even when it’s about white, straight, men. You ARE writing those stories. You have white male characters on your show that are very much sexual. In fact, the writing by you, Monica Macer, Jeff Vlaming, Daniel Sinclair, Nick Antosca, Ned Vizzini, and whoever else writes and/or contributes in some way to the show is very much influenced by the existing race, gender, and sexual politics we live with in today’s U.S. The good thing for you is that you don’t ever have to talk about it explicitly. You don’t ever have to name it. You don’t ever have to worry about it being named (until now). You can call your show “just a show about people” and have “people” stand in for white and not expect anyone to bat an eyelash.

Now, if you really thought you couldn’t do justice to a black character because you aren’t a black writer (and didn’t want to bother scouring the country trying to find one), why even throw Boyd into the show? Who are you trying to appease? Why not actually lobby for MTV to hire some writers who are “better” than you (your words, not mine) that could? Listen, I know Shonda Rhimes is quite busy. So are the Akils. So, was Kia Corthron unavailable? Saladin Patterson? Kathleen Anderson? Yes, I know these are heavy-hitters, but I think you could do better…if you wanted to. If you didn’t want to, just say you didn’t want to. The truth, my friend, shall set you free as they say.

You also said, “I’m here first and foremost to entertain.” Well, along those lines, I just have another question, but bear with me as I get to it. Black folks comprise just 12% of households in the U.S. However, the last time Nielsen did a study (in 2004), they found that black households watch more TV than any other household, even during prime time and ad-supported cable, when and where your show actually airs. Black households even watch general drama more than any other household, and while your show may not easily be classified as a general drama, it’s that more than it’s sitcom, documentary, or any other genre that Nielsen studies. Now, as faulty as these studies may be, I’d think a guy like you would want to pay attention to them for obvious reasons. So, my question is this: If you don’t think you’re equipped to write about black people, why do you think you’re equipped to entertain them? Oh, right. Because when TV people claim that we’re writing universal stories that appeal to everyone, what you really mean is that you’re gonna throw a bunch of white people behind and in front of the camera and the rest of us non-white people just have to deal with it. Because I mean, hey, your issues are our issues, but as you said, our issues aren’t yours. The problem for you now is that we don’t EVEN have to just sit back and shut up about it.

Seriously, though, why not just call a spade a spade? If you want to write a show that is created by and features mostly white people, do it! I mean, what am I writing? You did do it! And even as we critique you, you’ll keep doing it! You and Lena Dunham (creator and star of HBO’s Girls) can huddle up in a corner and complain about the fact that people are being critical of you and your programs when all you wanted to do was make an entertaining television show that everyone can enjoy. That’s, in some ways, cool and all, but wait a minute. All I’m asking is that you, Dunham, other writers, the various networks that give your programs a home, and viewing audiences (both active and passive) stop crying foul and telling yourselves that you’re being unfairly criticized. Hey, you write for TV. We watch TV. We study TV. We critique TV. What’s the old adage? If you can’t take the heat, stay out of the kitchen.

Finally, you wrote, “When we send out breakdowns for cast it always says, ‘All ethnicities.’” Now, Mr. Davis, why would you even play that game if you KNOW you’re going to eliminate any (or most) characters of color, because you’re too lazy to do your research and use your imagination to fully develop them? The next time you send out breakdowns for cast, make sure it reads, “Only white male characters, because I’m not smart enough to write any other kind.” That would be the actual truth of the matter. Your words, not mine.

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