Monday, 23 August 2010

More Tweenage She-Wolves...

Following on from my post on Mattel's Monster High dolls, here's another she-wolf for the tweens - this time brought to us by the good folks at Disney.

Wizards of Waverly Place was created for the Disney Channel in 2007. Now in its third series, the show focuses on the three Russo siblings - Alex, Justin and Max - who are the children of a former wizard and a mortal. They live in Manhattan, and juggle keeping their wizard life a secret while living as normal American teens. Sound familiar? It's pretty hard not to think Sabrina the Teenage Witch meets Hannah Montana. And like its predecessors, the show is proving a huge hit with its pre-teen/tween audience. The first film was made in 2009, and a sequel has recently been announced. The 10-12 year olds that I teach tell me that Selena Gomez, the show's star, is rapidly replacing Miley Cyrus in their affections.

The episode that interests me here is Season 2, Episode 2: Beware Wolf. The episode begins with Justin (David Henrie) announcing that he is going on a blind date with a girl he has met on 'WizFace' (the social networking site for wizards). His family warn him not to do it, as the last girl he met on WizFace turned out to be a centaur. Nevertheless, a knock on the door reveals Isabella (Sarah Ramos) - an apparently 'cute' and normal young woman. Isabella and Justin immediately hit it off - much to the annoyance of Justin's sister Alex (Gomez). But Isabella is not what she seems. When Justin leaves the room, she takes Alex's jumper in her mouth and plays with it like a dog. Later, she laps water out of glass, and then bounds around a park, catching frisbees and selling 'hello' to everyone she sees.

Isabella, you see, is a werewolf. And when Justin kisses her, he becomes a werewolf too. His sister laughs; he is terrified; Isabella takes it all in her stride, casually dismissing everything Justin thinks he knows about werewolves as a 'stereotype'.

So what can we make of the Disney Channel's female werewolf? At first glance, she appears to be a completely domesticated she-wolf. Isabella's 'werewolf' characteristics manifest entirely in behaviour suited to a pet dog. When Alex suggests that she-wolves eat their human mates, Isabella tells her that this is a misconception: werewolves are actually 'very loving' (said as she nuzzles Justin like a friendly puppy). She then warns Justin that one of the main dangers of being a werewolf is 'chasing cars'.

When Justin is told that he is now a werewolf, he screams and falls behind a sofa. Stretching his hands (in a gesture reminiscent of the transformation scene in An American Werewolf in London), he prepares himself for what he thinks will be a painful metamorphosis. Isabella laughs condescendingly and tells him that actually transformation is quick and painless (and, as she later points out, nothing to do with the full moon). Hey presto - both Justin and Isabella are suddenly in 'werewolf' form.

This transformation apparently simply entails the two characters gaining some extra fur and remarkably dog-like face paint. Unsurprisingly (this is a Disney Channel family show after all), their clothes are undamaged. But more strikingly, their personalities/memories/thought processes are utterly unchanged. Justin acquires no particularly lycanthropic tendencies, apart from the habit of leaping up onto rocks and elonging 'ooooo' syllables at the end of words. Isabella is not changed at all, except for becoming slightly more hirsute and acquiring a puppy-like black nose.

And yet - there is something about this episode that, I would argue, links Isabella with a particular tradition of presenting the female werewolf. Note the major change that this show makes to the werewolf mythos - it is not the bite of the werewolf that transforms Justin: it's the kiss. Of course, the kiss is a chaste peck on the cheek (again - this is Disney), but as soon as Justin accepts a, shall we say, less than platonic relationship with the she-wolf, he is lost. So the troublesome sexuality of the female werewolf rears its head again, albeit in a saccharine, sanitized form. We might also remember here that Clawdeen Wolf, Mattel's shop-til-you-drop 'wolf in chic clothing', includes 'flirting with boys' as one of her interests. A glance at the other Monster High characters reveals that it is only the werewolf who is so upfront about her emerging sexuality: the vampire is a pink clothes-loving 'girly-girl'; the mummy has a steady boyfriend; the zombie is studious and wears 'nerd glasses'. Clawdeen is 'fierce', wears micro miniskirts and cropped tops, and opening announces her interest in boys. It should be remembered here that Wizards of Waverly Place's Isabella was first encountered by Justin as he looked through the 'World Wide Wiz-Web' for girls who wanted to date boys.

That this episode of Wizards of Waverly Place contains a subtle warning about the female of the species is made clear by the final lesson that Justin learns. Having been told expressly by his parents not to contact girls on WizFace, he is forced to admit that they were right, before his father will give him the cure for werewolfism. He is mocked by his whole family and repeatedly told that the girls he will meet on social networking sites will not be what they seem. In the final scene, the centaur girl (who seems lovely and totally interested in getting to know Justin, despite the fact that she is half horse) returns to ask for a second date. However, Justin has learnt his lesson - and runs away as quickly as he can.

So, the Disney Channel reminds its young viewers that meeting people on social networking sites is dangerous. Particularly, it warns young men that the women they meet may well turn out to be monsters - and that they should never ever kiss them. The fact that they have chosen a female werewolf to deliver this message reveals that the unsettling sexualization of the female werewolf lives on for another generation. Isabella (and Clawdeen) are the new breed of tweenage she-wolves. I just can't work out if they'll grow up to be Veruca from Buffy, Carrie from Sex and the City, or some horrifying hybrid of the two.

Why do I have the disturbing sensation that we'll soon be finding out?

Watch Season 2, Episode 2: Beware Wolf of Wizards of Waverly Place on You Tube.

Acknowledgement: I would like to thank my Yr. 5 pupil, Amy Ninian, for pointing me towards this episode of Wizards of Waverly Place.

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