How Bitten beat the curse of the female werewolf

Feature Caroline Preece 10 Apr 2014 - 07:00

Canadian series Bitten takes the concept of the female werewolf into new and exciting territory, argues Caroline...

While female witches, vampires and ghosts have been present in popular culture for decades, there’s one mythical creature that’s so far largely been a men-only territory: werewolves. Inherently primal, beastly and aggressive, the popular perception of the lycanthrope is immediately incompatible with stereotypical perceptions of femininity and, until recently, that's meant that seeing female werewolves on television, film and in literature has been a rare occurrence.

Canadian series Bitten, which recently aired on Space in Canada and on SyFy in the US, set out to do something different, then, by not just featuring a female werewolf, but also putting her front and centre as the inarguable protagonist of the story. Adapted from novels in the Women Of The Otherworld series written by Kelley Armstrong, Bitten follows female werewolf Elena Michaels as she struggles to escape the world of her werewolf ‘family’ by rejecting their way of life and retreating to a more normal existence as a photographer in Toronto.

We learn that Elena is the sole female werewolf in existence, something that attracts a great deal of attention. The mere idea that she is the only woman ever to survive a werewolf bite might throw shade on the rest of her gender but, for the purposes of the show, it immediately makes Elena into someone that stands out; something special. She is just as powerful as the male members of her pack, and has enough gumption and initiative to make her a compelling lead in a show otherwise entirely dominated by men.

The show itself has been plagued by audiences’ supernatural drama fatigue, which has seen viewers turn away from the Twilight-esque tales of dreamy vampires and werewolves and latched instead to dystopian sci-fi like The Hunger Games and its own flurry of pretenders. On television, previously all-conquering (within the target demographic, anyway) series like The Vampire Diaries and True Blood have lost some of their lustre, and those supernatural dramas that remain engaging are the ones doing something a little different from the norm.

The Originals, for example, has Hayley, the sole female in her own pack of New Orleans werewolves and very much a counterpart to Bitten’s Elena. Both shows benefit hugely from being adult dramas free from the constraints of high school hormones, and this leaves them free to explore the oddity of female werewolves in brand new ways. There have been other examples, of course, such as True Blood’s Debbie, Angel’s Nina, Buffy’s Veruca and Once Upon A Time’s Ruby, but most of these characters are either completely on the periphery and, alongside Hayley, Bitten’s Elena finally takes the idea to some new places.

One of the best and most memorable conceptions of the female werewolf as a metaphor for puberty was the film Gingersnaps, with the main character even being bitten several days after getting her first period. The whole movie operates as an allegory for the plight of the teenage girl, and paints female lycanthropy as something uncontrolled and irrational but also as a stand-in for her sexual awakening. In much the same way, Erica’s transformation in Teen Wolf was something that took her from the shy outcast into a confident woman largely separated from the superficial worries that plagued other female characters on the show.

For obvious reasons, the few examples of female lycanthropy on screen have a lot to do with explorations of female sexuality through typically male characteristics, and this inherently changes between when dealing with teenage girls discovering their power and with adult women coming to terms with it. Because the male werewolf is a figure so ingrained in our culture, new stories can use the sub-genre’s old tropes to say fresh things. It’s still about control vs. aggression, just with a unique little twist.

Giving teenage characters the curse is often used in much the same way as any supernatural affliction, as a metaphor for the changes experienced throughout puberty and the end result, both positive and negative, of becoming a woman. Maddy Smith's transformations in CBBC's Wolfblood, a drama aimed at eight to twelve-year-olds, are just such. With Bitten, however, those issues are transferred into a more adult world, and that brings with it a whole host of new storytelling opportunities. Gone is the immediate temptation to portray female werewolves as something dangerous and out of control, and in comes the blank canvas of an adult lycanthrope having already passed through those difficult stages of growing up.

For example, Elena’s troubles in Bitten go far beyond the fact that she’s a werewolf, and it’s not the first time the gender-swapped narrative has been used in conjunction with that of abuse. We quickly learn that Elena grew up in foster care and was abused at various points in her youth, aligning subsequent supernatural power with past trauma in similar ways to Being Human (USA)’s Nora. In the latter case, Nora reacts completely differently to the curse than boyfriend Josh, himself a twist on an old idea who hides away and rejects his wolf side, and it’s not long before she uses it to get revenge on an ex-boyfriend.

Then there’s the idea of pregnancy, which is a topic brought up in female werewolf stories almost across the board. In both the US and UK versions of Being Human, Nina/Nora discovered she was pregnant and, in the former actually carried the prophesised baby to term. In the US version, however, the full moon caused a then-human Nora to miscarry early in her pregnancy, and this theme of female werewolves not being able to have children is a common one. In the Otherworld novels, for example, the question of whether Elena can ever have kids is ever-present and, on The Originals, Hayley is currently carrying a vampire/werewolf hybrid child.

There’s precedent, then, and the attention Bitten has gotten since it was announced seems more to be because of the centrality of Elena than the notion of a gender-skewed werewolf story in general. What it also does, of course, is reject those ideas of the untamed aggression and masculinity that have always gone hand in hand with the werewolf myth, instead using those preconceptions to explore the disguise of femininity that affects so many women. It’s an evolution of both the male werewolf tropes and those puberty metaphors for teenage characters, but doesn’t ever condemn its characters in the same way.

Elena is allowed to embrace her power, and her reluctance to do so in the beginning has more to do with her previous issues than anything that came with the bite. Unlike vampires, which are so often used to amplify the sexuality of female characters, being a werewolf is a way for stories to explore the internal struggle of a character, male or female. This lack of distinction is something that popular culture has struggled with at every turn but, with movies and television shows increasingly subverting tried and true narratives to mine new ideas and storytelling avenues, it’s strange that the female werewolf is still such an untapped resource.

With Bitten, though, that could all change. While female werewolves have been popping up as supporting characters for the last few years, this is pretty much the first time a television show has focused so entirely on the idea. The show isn’t perfect, nor is it a breakout hit, but it could be an important milestone in a surprisingly obscure sub-genre. Female werewolves are rich with thematic potential that has so far gone unexplored but hopefully, with things slowly starting to change, more shows will be brave enough to try in the future.

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