Reviews in Brief: Werewolves and Other Shapeshifters in Popular Culture, by Kimberley McMahon-Coleman and Roslyn Weaver
Because I read a many books here at the Driftless Area Review, I can’t hope to give them all a thorough long-form review. Reviews in Brief are short-form reviews that offer a concentrated dose of information.
One doesn’t have to walk very far to see the impact of the shapeshifter on popular culture. As the last installment of the Twilight movie series lumbers through cinemas nationwide, it is important to take a step back from the marketing onslaught and Robert Pattison-induced hysterics. Werewolves and Other Shapeshifters in Popular Culture, by Kimberley McMahon-Coleman and Roslyn Weaver, approach the material through thematic analyses. The pair of Australian academics investigate how things like marriage, sexuality, disability, addiction, gender, and spirituality come to play within the novels and films.
The material covered is vast, including the Being Human TV series (UK and US versions), Buffy the Vampire Slayer (TV series and comics), True Blood (books and TV series), Twilight (films and books), and the Vampire Diaries (TV series and books), among others. Included in the analyses are more obscure Australian novels like Jatta by Jenny Hale. For those oversaturated on the Twilight phenomenon, the “Works Cited” list offers some fascinating recommendations.
Werewolves proves its usefulness in its good timing. Coleman and Weaver investigate the numerous pop cultural pieces here, analyzing how specific treatments reflect attitudes of society at large. For those curious as to why Twilight is so huge with teens these days will find the thematic analyses illuminating. Make no mistake, not every TV series, film, or book covered here would fit into the Great Literature category, but it is a wonderful addition to the growing field of reader reception theory. (Similar reader reception studies have been done with romance novel readership.) The book is a handy resource for those interested in understanding pop cultural trends, but who have neither the time nor inclination to read through the primary source material.
The thematic analysis is an advantage but also a liability in Werewolves. The various rubrics (addiction, gender, etc.) put the primary source material through various lenses, all thought provoking. Conversely, the numerous lenses make the analyses thin and superficial. As a theoretical starting point in exploring shapeshifters in popular culture, the approach delivers. Unfortunately, the weakness shows itself most in the section on spirituality, itself a soft, mushy term acting as a catchall for ritual, religion, and cultic social behaviors. This is seen when McMahon-Coleman and Weaver apply Christian symbolism to the Twilight series. While spiritual and ethical issues like sacrifice, eternity, and morality get explored sufficiently, the analysis of spirituality in Twilight would have benefited immensely from a specific reading attuned to the uniqueness of the Mormon faith. The Mormon concept of blood atonement in a vampire novel series would have proved fascinating, along with the Mormon’s specific understanding of links between Native American and Jewish groups. In Mormon theology, Native Americans are descended from the ancient Jewish population. What does this mean in light of Twilight’s Native American shapeshifter characters, especially since those shapeshifters pass on their powers via hereditary transmission?
Werewolves is a great starting point for those interested in the significance of the shapeshifter in popular culture and how it reflects modern mores.