Werewolves and Other Shapeshifters in Popular Culture: A Thematic Analysis of Recent Depictions

By Mulligan, Rikk | Extrapolation, April 1, 2014 | Go to article overview

Werewolves and Other Shapeshifters in Popular Culture: A Thematic Analysis of Recent Depictions


Mulligan, Rikk, Extrapolation


More Than Skin Deep. Kimberley McMahon-Coleman and Roslyn Weaver, eds. Werewolves and Other Shapeshifters in Popular Culture: A Thematic Analysis of Recent Depictions. Jefferson, NC: McFarland, 2012. 211 pp. ISBN 9780786468164. $40.00 pbk.

Reviewed by Rikk Mulligan

Vampires are repeatedly used as a sexy revenant and metaphor for race, class and consumerism, whereas zombies, the shambling undead, are read as downtrodden proletariat, colonized and colonizer, and even creeping post-9/11 terrorism. For Kimberly McMahon-Coleman and Roslyn Weaver, however, the increasing appearance of shapeshifting characters in recent literature and media offer new and exciting options that challenge all manner of boundaries and interrogate a range of contemporary social issues through their ability to "move between worlds, identities, values and styles" (1). Rather than just another liminal figure, trapped in the margins between life and death, communities, or cultures, these authors argue that recent shapeshifters transform from human into desirable Others and, in so doing, offer critical (and often subversive) insights into topics including adolescence, gender, sexuality, ethnicity and race, disability and illness, addiction, and spirituality and religion. Werewolves and Other Shapeshifters in Popular Culture focuses primarily on literature and media produced within the past twenty years, although some older works are briefly considered for historical context.

American texts dominate the book, as they arguably do popular culture and media globally, but McMahon-Coleman and Weaver also draw from the United Kingdom, Canada, and Australia to expand the array of novels, television series, and feature films that inform their research. They stress that, because the proliferation of shapeshifting characters seems to be increasing almost monthly, any effort to be comprehensive is doomed to become nothing more than a bibliography; therefore, they concentrate on a select number of novels, films, and television shows. Among the works they use are from television: Buffy the Vampire Slayer, The Vampire Diaries, Teen Wolf, True Blood, and the British and American versions of Being Human. Films include the adaptations of Stephanie Meyer's Twilight novels and J. K. Rowling's Harry Potter series, the Underworld franchise, and the Ginger Snaps movies. The main literary texts under scrutiny are Charlaine Harris' Sookey Stackhouse series (True Blood), Maggie Stiefvater's The Wolves of Mercy Falls trilogy, Jennifer Lynn Barnes' Raised by Wolves (2010), Martin Millar's Wolf Girl series, and Meyer and Rowling's novels. A number of others texts are briefly considered, but largely as examples that underscore recurring tropes and formulas. Given the Western cultural perspective here, werewolves are the most frequent examples of shapeshifters, followed by transformative vampires, especially in YA horror/contemporary fantasy literature and media.

In many respects, the consideration of shapeshifting and adolescence in the initial chapter frames and sets the tone for the entire book and is one of the more novel and productive lines of discussion. By emphasizing adolescence as a liminal space, the authors discuss the vulnerability and estrangement of those who reconstruct their identity during puberty. The werewolf-its strength and frequent desirability-becomes an empowering figure to combat feelings of loneliness and isolation caused by confused identity and sexuality, dysfunctional families, hidden heritage, and vulnerability. The alienation of teens through their personal metamorphosis during puberty is a recurring topic; in these texts, shapeshifters, while isolated, have strength and abilities that help them survive and transition into new lives and communities, thus becoming representations of teens and young adults whose bodies are beyond their control and often understanding. The second chapter engages the gender politics of shapeshifting. The authors argue for the shapeshifters' potential to "resist more stereotypical or traditional depictions of male-female roles" (41), but the preponderance of males, especially dominant male werewolves, tends to reify the traditional gender (and ethnic or racial) stereotypes in these texts, even when balanced by females with powers and abilities of their own. …

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