Friday, July 11, 2014

Strong Female Character Friday: Malia Tate (Teen Wolf)

I get excited every time Malia Tate (Shelly Hennig) opens her mouth. Hands down she is the best part of Teen Wolf's fourth season, and a huge part of the tonal shift that is refreshing the show, getting it going along new paths, and just generally making it fun to watch again. Malia and her absolutely hilarious mouth.

If you don't watch the show, you might not have any idea what I'm talking about here. Well, let me explain. Now entering it's fourth season, Teen Wolf has introduced a fair number of new characters over the years, and killed off even more. In the wake of last season's angst fest - there's really no way not to be angsty when the whole season arc is about loss of bodily autonomy, mass murder, and the death of a fan favorite - the new season promises better mysteries and plot, but also more fun. A switch back to the "high school student by day, teen werewolf by night" formula that made the show a hit in the first place.

Into all of that comes Malia Tate, a minor character from the third season now elevated to series regular and love interest to one of the leads. Malia was first introduced to us as a missing person in a decade old case that the Sheriff was re-investigating. She was in a car with her mother and sister when the car mysterious crashed. The other bodies were found, but Malia's never was. It was assumed that she was probably dragged off into the woods by some wild animal and then presumably eaten.

Which was sort of true. Kind of.

It turns out that the real story was more complicated. Malia, even as a little girl, was a were-coyote, and had trouble controlling her shift. When she was in the car with her mother and sister, she started to shift (because it was the full moon) and the struggle crashed the car, killing her family. Malia then, out of grief or rage or just because she was so confused, got stuck in her coyote form and spent the next decade living in the woods as an animal until Scott and Stiles managed to unearth her and change her back.

Her father (who is not the most mentally stable person in the world) welcomed her back with open arms, but we later saw Malia living at Eichen House, the local mental institution. She helped Stiles when he was committed there for a few days during the whole Nogitsune thing, and they happened to hook up. Then he left, and presumably she stayed. We say her again a few times, but it wasn't until the beginning of this season that she started showing up with any regularity.

Now she's back in the real world, going to high school, helping out Scott's pack (that she's kind of a member of at this point) and generally being rad. But that's not what makes her such a fun character, or why I wanted to single her out as the best part of the season so far. The reason we love Malia is because, yeah, she's in the real world now, but she freaking hates it.

Like, so much. Most of her interactions make it clear that while she enjoys saving the world alongside Scott and the gang, and she really does like dating Stiles (they're an official couple now, and it's stinking adorable), she hates pretty much everything else about being a human. For starters, she's being forced to take high school level classes, despite having a third grade education (Beacon Hills is not very good at compassionate educational standards, it seems). High school is hard enough without having to learn literally everything for the first time.

Then there's the true and meaningful frustration of normal human interactions. Malia was a coyote for a decade. She is not good at talking to people. Just, really aggressively terrible. And she knows it, but she doesn't know how to stop. Which is actually really awesome.

It's moments like when she complains that they're going to save Lydia when they could just abandon her, but later reassuring Stiles by telling him, "I would never leave you behind. Them I would leave." referring to Lydia and Kira. What makes this lovely is that Lydia and Kira are sitting in the backseat and can hear her. But Malia doesn't care. Why would she lie? 

All of this is combined with the fact that she always looks a bit like she's been dragged through a hedge, and with her absolute and mildly psychotic belief that she can take you in a fight, even if you're a seven foot tall berserker demon thing. She can take you. Obviously. And if she happens to lose, well, you just got lucky.

But the point here isn't that Malia is hilarious and amazing, or even that her constant struggles with being a teenage girl and not a coyote anymore are giving the show new life. Both of those things are true, but not the real point here. What makes this all so wonderful is how it expands for us the ideas of what a female, feminine character can be.

Let's be real, we don't often see characters like Malia on television. Not just in the sense that it is relatively rare to see a female character who lived as a feral animal for a decade, but also because in television, especially teen television, it's rare to find a female character who has so much trouble being a girl, but is never criticized for that.

Think about it. Malia isn't particularly feminine. She likes feminine things, but it's very clear she has no idea what she's doing with it. And no one makes fun of her for not knowing. She's aggressive and tactless and a little nuts, but no one stigmatizes her for it. Heck, she's even got a cute boyfriend and a group of friends who love her even if she does occasionally tell them she'd eat them if she were starving. 

It's pretty rare, is what I'm saying. Malia is a girl, and she seems like she wants to be girly, but she doesn't know how. Usually what we get instead is a female character who either is super girly like she was born with the knowledge of how to use a curling iron and precisely what shape dress looks best on her hips, or she's a complete shlub with no idea what she's doing and who doesn't care. She's either a knockout or hopeless, there is no in-between. But rarely do we see the girl who doesn't know, and who doesn't need to know.

Maybe Malia wants to know how to curl her hair. That's fine. But I love that the show actually recognizes the fact that she probably doesn't know that already. Why would she? When would that have come up?

And I adore how she really does want to be a supportive girlfriend, accompanying Kira to the lacrosse tryouts so they can watch their boys play. Only Malia being aggressive means Malia screaming insults at the coach, taking out bets on how well Stiles will do, and generally making herself a nuisance. And, again, this is all shown to be fine. Great, even. It's what Stiles likes about her, what we like about her, and the narrative doesn't tell us she should change.

Plus, she's the first person to just out and say that everyone wishes Peter was still dead. Gotta give her props for that.

I'm not saying that her storyline is completely without fault. It's not. For starters, we have no idea how or why she went from a tearful reunion with her father to a mental institution to high school. We don't know where her dad is now and why he is seemingly okay with his daughter (who was missing and presumed dead for a decade) going on impromptu "camping" trips and spending the night at her boyfriend's house. Seems like he should be concerned about this. Just saying.

And I'm not super stoked by the revelation that she's secretly Peter's daughter. I could do with less Peter. I mean, yeah, Ian Bohen is a great actor, but Peter as a character hasn't had anything to add to the show in a while, other than exposition, and it seems self-indulgent to keep him around.

All that having been said, though, I really do love Malia. She's a different kind of "strong female character" than we're used to. I mean, we're used to the "I am gruff and emotionless but also very conventionally sexy" type, as well as the "I am super girly but have hidden reserves of strength that will alarm you" types, and a few in between. But not Malia's type. Malia is physically strong - very - and emotionally resilient, but she's also willing to be vulnerable. She's struggling and learning and screwing up and making jokes. She's the honest to goodness action heroine who doesn't understand why you would ever try to fight a battle in high heels.

When you consider her alongside Kira, Lydia, and Melissa McCall, it starts to become clear that Teen Wolf, for all of its other failings, has managed to do something pretty right here. It's building up a stable of complex, compelling female characters who are all strong, but are all strong in a completely different way. Malia has nothing really in common with Kira and Lydia, at least on the surface, but they all respect each other. They're friends. They share history. And they're all strong.

Malia Tate gives me hope for the diversity of representation of female characters. Both in Teen Wolf and in the world. 

But mostly, she makes me laugh.

It's cool, Malia. Demonstrating math problems at the board makes me wolf out too.