When it comes to television shows the phenomenon known as shipping is no new thing. Pairing characters together as a practice has gone on in this medium since the 60s. However, there are some pairings that become so large they become part of the fandom landscape and it appears that Sterek shall be one such pairing. Sterek comes to us from the world of Teen Wolf a teen drama show loosely inspired by, but not based on, the 80s dramedy of the same name and the show contains various allusions to that source material. This show has actually become far more known for its shipping and fan culture as well as its social media presence rather than any clever throwback references.
Indeed, this show contains a multitude of ships. None loom as large, however, as Sterek which became the lens through which many fans came to enjoy the show – even after one of both members of the ship had temporarily moved on. Now Sterek as a phenomenon is unique for it’s popularity. Not only does it exceed the characters but it also exceeds the height of the show’s popularity and is wrought with tales of queerbaiting and harassment to and from the creative staff. With much of the vitriol directed towards series creator Jeff Davis, especially in light of his status as an openly gay man. In some ways, Sterek asks questions far beyond should these two characters be together and casts aspersions on the entire concept of using fan enthusiasm to drive viewership which seems to be the gripe many people have taken to Teen Wolf and how they managed the insanely popular Sterek ship that hit its peak sailing during the earlier seasons of the show. With the series now complete it is possible to look back and ascertain just what exactly happened with Sterek and what worked and what did not.
To this day, Sterek still retains its place as one of the most recognizable ships, even outside the Teen Wolf world. Within the show’s own fandom, the pairing far outweighs it’s competitors/compatriots having more works of fanfiction, fanart and fanvideos than even Stydia, another very popular Teen Wolf ship between Stiles/Lydia, and Scallison, the main canonical focus of the show’s earlier seasons between Scott/Allison. So one might ask: What is it, exactly, that propelled this ship and its fandom to the top?
Well, arguably for some, Sterek just made sense. Seasons 1-2 of Teen Wolf had a core cast that was already paired up: Scott and Allison made up the aforementioned Scallison while Jackson and Lydia made the less popular but everpresent ship Jydia. There was also a running love-triangle-esque storyline that seemed to be putting Stiles between Lydia and Jackson. However as is often the case within fandom canon, it does not always hold the audience’s attention and viewers may find themselves drawn to subtext when it comes to what ignites their pairings. In these instances, many fans were quick to notice that while ostensibly Stiles was meant to be invested in this show’s burgeoning love triangle he instead found himself running off to help Derek.
Their story and chemistry fed into the popular hate-to-love, enemies-to-lovers trope that made people invested in their back-and-forth witty banter and blatant opposites-attract dynamic. These instances began to be collected in compilations of what some fans viewed as “proof” or at least indications that there were avenues to be explored with these characters that were simply not being given enough weight. Jeff Davis himself commented on the particularly comedic side of their pairing, with Derek being a big surly werewolf who has to put up with the sharp-tongued eager sidekick. While these comments may have been meant to connect with fans by engaging in their fandom or merely express an opinion they proved to be the beginning of an ongoing battle between Davis and certain fans as it was viewed by some as an endorsement of the ship. Which lead some to question if he saw the potential of this pairing, then why not advocate for it’s placement on the show? Some even argued that if Stiles had been a girl, Sterek would have definitely happened. So. How much weight must a creator’s comments be given? There are many involved when it comes to decisions made on how a television show evolves, so why did Jeff Davis get most of the heat? He had accusations ranging from gay and bisexual erasure to using the fan’s passion for this pairing to further viewership. On top of that, accusations have been levelled of him not being able to handle not having discovered Sterek himself.
It has definitely not been smooth sailing for this creator. Before one dives into the former assertions, let us examine the relations between creator and fan on social media. In the modern era of shipping, following the rise of social media and the increase in creator accessibility, it has become easier than ever for fans to express their feelings and make demands. This was quite a frequent occurrence with Sterek. Davis even stated, “I had no idea that my Twitter account would be pummelled by pleas and requests to actually make Stiles and Derek a pair in the show itself, to become ‘canon.'”
While fans expressing what they think is best for a show or pairing is nothing new, the ability for others to see, share and agree or disagree has created a new level of investment when it comes to these issues. As a result, things can quickly balloon out of control – as we have seen with many instances. Fan outrage and entitlement can lead to situations of creative teams being harassed for things entirely outside of their control i.e the Voltron Studio Mir blackmail incident. However, that is not to say creative staff are perfect either. While fans may act out more simply by virtue of there being more of them, there are certain members of creative teams who have no filter or active PR staff when it comes to engaging with their fans. This can lead to instances of creators bullying and belittling their fans which is, unfortunately, a phenomenon which often occurs around shipping. This as feelings begin to run quite high for all involved when each side has strong views as to what is best for a show and it’s characters. In the case of Teen Wolf it is safe to say that it was not the best situation for either side, though both would probably claim the other went too far, and both would have valid claims to such an assertion. There are numerous examples of Sterek being acknowledged by various members of the creative staff and not always in the most positive light although it must be noted that creators affirming or not affirming a ship does not mean one must stop shipping it. Indeed it could be argued that part of fandom’s function is to explore elements that are either taboo or not welcome/explored within the main canon.
However, in an era where shipping culture and fandom have become more prevalent and better understood it can be hurtful to hear an actor on the very show one is a fan of call ones pairing “twisted” as was the case with Tyler Posey. Although it must also be noted that some fans may take these incidents much more seriously than they were intended to be. For example, some view the creation of Sterek-based material to encourage a Teen Choice Award show win as the ultimate in terms of queer baiting and pandering to fangirl culture. Others view it as a smart business decision if one’s audience is showing an affinity for a certain aspect of one’s show, then why not use it? Some creators even view this as a way of giving back to the fans and not as a way to insult them. As so few homosexual pairings ever come to fruition, in circumstances where the will-they-won’t-they dynamic involved in traditional heterosexual relationships where baiting is at play some feel it is unfair to utilise such tactics until the will they aspect of such couples comes more into the forefront. Others still feel that this type of pandering contributes to the fetishisation of queer culture that can occur within the more heterosexually-dominated female fan bases of such ships, treating these pairings as novelties to be squealed over rather than real relationships between characters that should be developed as well as enjoyed. This seems to be especially in light of Twitter posts disavowing the ship entirely, which for many fans made it feel that the disingenuousness in featuring Sterek in online popularity polls and for visibility within the show was magnified.
All of this made the ship very complicated, and for many within the fandom, less enjoyable. While not everyone wanted the ship to be made canon, even amongst those who were fine with it remaining in the fandom, it could be disconcerting to see the ship paraded around to maintain the show’s overall popularity and attract even more fangirls. Though as always, it must be noted that there were some for whom none of this was an issue either because they were unaware or because they feel all if fair game when it comes to marketing a show and each marketing/creative team is free to use the methods they deem the most effective.
Now the question for many observing fandom becomes does actor or creator acknowledgement encourage or discourage shipping of a given pairing? The answer varies from shipper to shipper: For the more canon-based shipper or those who are more inclined to give creative authority to those involved with the work in question’s actual production, it may negatively impact their shipping or even lead them to feel ashamed or silly for shipping it in the first place. While those who view their fandom as independent from the creative staff’s own views will still ship on but may in response regard the aforementioned people involved with a more critical eye. And there are of course those who can ship undeterred regardless of any surrounding discourse.
And one must be skilled at avoiding discourse if they do not want to get involved with it when it comes to Teen Wolf as it is now time to talk about erasure. Erasure is different from accusation of pandering, this is an assertion that Jeff Davis actively ignored the potential sexualitites of these characters. A belief many grant credence to thanks to quotes such as this one “I’ll admit this is a bit out of reach of my understanding, even as a gay man. I’m also not sure they may see the characters as perfectly ‘straight,'” Jeff Davis explains. “We’ve certainly made some hints to the possibility of Stiles being bisexual.” Now this statement could be viewed as an attempt to include fans with alternate headcanons in light of how the relationship between Stiles and Derek was playing out on the show. Some viewed it as an attempt to silence this narrative in favour of a heteronormative one. Queer erasure is defined as “the tendency to ignore, remove, falsify, or re-explain evidence of certain queer identities in history, academia, the news media, and other primary sources.” A feeling some fans gave voice to in light of the aforementioned queer baiting as “being the practice to hint at, but then to not actually depict a potential same-sex romantic relationship between fictional characters.” The potential romance may be ignored, explicitly rejected or made fun of. Now it is clear that to some extent queer baiting became part of marketing Sterek to the fans, however were the charges levelled against Jeff Davis as being irresponsible with representation thanks to his status as an openly gay creator fair? Some feel that those from groups that are traditionally less represented in mainstream media owe it to their groups to make sure they are accurately represented. However, some feel this is unfair pressure to place on one single member of a creative team as creative decisions often have to run through multiple sources before they come to fruition, and even extremely established creators sometimes have to bury their intentions until a show’s conclusion, and even then the decision can come across or be labelled as pandering to that viewer base. In short: It is a complex issue and it is possible that Davis was unfairly maligned even if he did not always handle the ship’s popularity with the most grace.
The few canon queer relationships that did occur on the show – Danny/Ethan, Mason/Corey, Jackson/Ethan – didn’t stop the Teen Wolf fandom from continuing to ship other characters, like Scisaac (Scott/Isaac, a beta werewolf played by Daniel Sherman, which actually got a lot of traction as a ship) and Allydia (Allison/Lydia, best friends on the show and one of the most popular femslash ships). Many also felt that the queer relationships didn’t get as much screen time or importance as the heterosexual ones, often being presented as an afterthought or with such casualness that it made the relationships feel sub-par. This could have been due to Davis’s want to present homosexuality in a fictional world that was sans any homophobia, thus making it almost seem like an appeasement to the need to diversify the characters. Some fans felt that the Mason/Corey relationship – especially because of the parallels between Liam & Mason’s dynamic to Scott & Stiles’ season 1 relationship – was an extremely watered-down version of Sterek. This may have been, again, due to how Mason was modelled after Stiles which has also been a huge criticism of Davis’s creation of female characters. Malia, many noted, had very similar personality (mostly when she was first introduced) to Cora Hale who was Erica’s replacement, enabling a cycle of similar-feeling characters many chalked up to lazy writing but which brings me onto the next point of conversation.
The female love interests of Sterek received some of the biggest hate in the fandom, with some saying it was because they were “standing in the way of the ship”. The history of female character bashing is often buried in the excitement over the overt male/male acceptance that is so prevalent in the fandom. Swan Queen, a femslash ship between Emma and Regina in Once Upon A Time, never became canon but was very heavily supported. However, when it became official that Captain Swan (Emma and her now-husband Captain Hook) was endgame, and Regina was being paired with Robin Hood, the male characters received very little to no hate. Of course, there are differences between this comparison – arguably, Sterek was a much larger ship than Swan Queen but why is it that the hate of female characters often takes place in the fandom? Jennifer, Derek’s love interest in season 3a, was bashed even before being revealed as a villain with some calling it “forced”, “out of character” for Derek and even going as far as to claim it was only to reestablish Derek’s heterosexuality. As for Stiles, it’s more a case of fans feeling like his sexual arc was leading to a bisexual or even gay revelation and acceptance – which never happened, much to the chagrin of many who felt it was, as aforementioned, queer baiting.
Now that the series has concluded another question emerges on the horizon that can be properly examine outside of the emotions surrounding an ongoing show. That being: Would Sterek actually have made the show better? Now, there are some for which the answer is of course since they feel more representation is necessary and in this case certainly desired. However for those who have seen their more traditional will-they-or-won’t-they ships come to fruition, they may argue that when a fan favourite pairing comes to fruition it can actually derail the show for many viewers, and would argue that some ships should stay back in the realm of fandom. Giving the fans what they want does not always yield the best narrative results, even if more ardent shippers will be pleased with anything. Especially in a case like this where the ship has become such a point of contention between creators and fans – although it is possible to salvage such a relationship as demonstrated by shows such as Supernatural when it came to how they discussed Destiel. Though that is a story for another time. There are numerous fics out there exploring the narrative from the point of view of Sterek being canon (there’s also the inherent sexual mythology attached to werewolves that some latch onto, with Derek often finding Stiles to be his mate) so now it is up to fans to determine whether the pairing would have improved the show as we will never really know.
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