a man and a woman stand outside in the snow
Posted on August 15, 2021

Werewolves Within’s Politics of Niceness: Good Neighbors and Feminist Killjoys

Guest Post

Werewolves Within (2021, dir. Josh Ruben), a comedy-horror whodunnit about a snowed-in small town community under attack by a werewolf, succeeded in making me laugh and in keeping me invested in the mystery throughout. In addition to fine comic performances, it engages with multiple contemporary political issues, including sexual harassment, gentrification, and the ethics of building a pipeline near a protected forest. I was excited that the central characters include Finn, a Black forest ranger (Sam Richardson); Cecily, a young woman postal worker (Milana Vayntrub); and Devon and Joaquim, a gay couple (Cheyenne Jackson and Harvey Guillén). This is more diversity than I would’ve expected for a small town in Vermont, plus great public service representation! With all of those elements present from the beginning, I had high hopes for Werewolves Within as a horror-comedy that might have something interesting – or even inspiring – to say about one or a combination of these narrative elements.

Despite enjoying Werewolves Within, however, I felt somewhat let down by it. It didn’t meet my expectations, and all of those signposts of a seemingly liberal politics, of engagement with meaningful issues, turned out to be mere surface dressing. The movie both-sides the debate about the pipeline, never once mentions Finn’s Blackness (even as he is nearly shot by a white man), and ultimately undermines the feminist critiques Cecily presents throughout the film.

Warning: major plot spoilers ahead.

movie poster of a group looking down a holeA good place to start is with the protagonist of Werewolves Within: Finn, the forest ranger who arrives in town just before the main action begins. The audience gets to know the town and its inhabitants alongside Finn, and his character arc is central to the movie. Still in love with his ex (and unaware, until Cecily informs him, that he has actually been broken up with), Finn is introduced as a man who needs to take charge. In the car on the way to his new job in Beaverfield, Vermont, he listens to a self-help book encouraging him to scream and to repeat the word “balls,” and Cecily tells him he needs to “man up.” It seems that his arc is, therefore, to become more assertive, to conquer someone or something. To be something other than nice.

Ultimately, however, in a move I find quite refreshing, Finn chooses not to do this. Instead, he embraces his niceness and refuses to go along with the werewolf’s attempts to divide and conquer. As such, Finn’s character arc rejects stereotypical ideas about masculinity and makes a case for a heroism that doesn’t require conquering others. This is a great answer to the kind of toxic masculinity represented by other characters (e.g., Pete [Michael Chernus], who repeatedly tries to hug Cecily against her will) and unavoidable in real life.

The film reinforces this endorsement of niceness by using Mr. Rogers as a key touchstone throughout. The film opens with a quote from Mr. Rogers: “Listening is where love begins: listening to ourselves and then to our neighbors.” Set to sinister horror music, this gets some laughs in the ironic contrast between text and sound, and it also presents the central issue of the film. What does it mean to be a good neighbor? Building on Mr. Rogers’ words, the film argues that good neighbors listen to each other, work together, and – crucially – avoid killing one another. (Although the film is not about and does not acknowledge COVID-19, this argument – that the worst thing you can be is a bad neighbor – resonates with debates about the virus and public health, too.)

An important secondary plot in the film drives this home. Emerson (Glenn Fleshler), the local loner, is not – as Finn quickly discovers – a friendly neighbor. When Finn walks up to Emerson’s house to deliver a package and ask a question, Emerson threatens to shoot him and chases Finn off his property. Later, Finn and Cecily return to Emerson’s house to ask him to help the community by hunting the werewolf. They appeal to his sense of neighborliness by referencing Mr. Rogers, but Emerson has never heard of him and refuses to help, further cementing his status as bad neighbor. The film’s conclusion revolves around Emerson coming out of his isolation to help take down the werewolf, having apparently discovered and learned from Mr. Rogers. Not only is neighborliness critical to defeating the monster, then, but Finn’s niceness converts Emerson from hostility to niceness.

two men hold flashlights looking scared while standing in a forest at night

And this is all lovely. But Finn’s niceness also represents a kind of weakness – not a personal weakness, but a political one. After all, the problems here – werewolf attacks, on the one hand, and the threat of the oil pipeline, on the other – are not ones that can be solved by niceness or centrism. The werewolf is not dissuaded from attacking by Finn’s niceness but is stopped by a crossbow. And in the face of the potential environmental degradation represented by the pipeline proposal, having everyone find a way to respect each other and get along might help start a conversation, but it doesn’t solve anything.

Here I’d like to return to Mr. Rogers. Invoked at several points in the film to argue for niceness and neighborliness as prime virtues, Mr. Rogers is seen as the ideal good neighbor. But Mr. Rogers was actually far more radical than this film or its characters. Annie Murphy Paul, in The Washington Post, writes that “Rogers wasn’t just about feeling good. He was no superficial cartoon of niceness. . . . Rogers treated with sober seriousness notions that the rest of us regard as platitudes – ‘Love thy neighbor’ – and devotedly lived them out.” Fred Rogers was not just nice but kind, taking action to help others, not just to help everyone get along. He acted in opposition to social norms, after all, as when he invited a Black police officer on the show to highlight the bigotry of segregation. As a character, Finn may have aspirations to this kindness, but the film doesn’t go that far. His big speech in defense of niceness, in the end, is about politeness more than kindness: “Sorry! I’ve gotta tell you, it’s fucking okay to be nice. Excuse my language; it’s effing okay to be nice.” It is okay to be nice. But it’s also okay to make trouble.

And it is in this emphasis on niceness over rudeness (“effing” versus “fucking”), on getting along over making trouble, that we arrive at the figure of the feminist killjoy. Many reviews of the film have emphasized its feminism. For instance, Tomris Laffly argues for Variety that writer Mishna Wolff “absolutely soars in the feminism department, dismantling casual misogyny and toxic patriarchy,” and Ryan Bordow writes that the film “sports a subversive feminist streak.” However, this feminism is tied most clearly to Cecily, cheerful mailperson, Finn’s romantic interest, and – in the end – werewolf. The revelation that Cecily is the werewolf reframes all of her critiques of sexist behavior by putting them in the mouth of the monster. Although Cecily’s feminist perspective throughout the bulk of the movie is a real highlight, then, she is ultimately also the problem. She is the one disrupting this small town’s peace and refusing to be nice. She is a feminist killjoy.

woman in a cabin stands in front of brick fireplace

Feminist killjoys, as described by Sara Ahmed, ruin things. Ahmed writes, in Living a Feminist Life, that “the experience of being feminist is often an experience of being out of tune with others. The note heard as out of tune is not only the note that is heard most sharply but the note that ruins the whole tune.” Cecily’s critiques and the violence that Cecily-as-werewolf brings to Beaverfield both ruin things, revealing the rot at the heart of this community. There is value in this kind of ruination, Ahmed argues: “we [feminists] need to ruin what ruins.” However, instead of valuing the work of the killjoy, Werewolves Within rejects it. Even Cecily’s well-founded criticism of Pete (the man with the wandering hands) – enacted both verbally and in her werewolf act of biting off his hand – isn’t allowed to stand uncorrected. She is a monster who must be killed, after all. She is a feminist killjoy who is punished for not just getting along with everyone – even those who harass her – and the heroes (Finn and Emerson) get to be “nice guys.”

Werewolves Within – like the politics of niceness it represents – cares more about people getting along than it does about systemic change or meaningful resistance. But fighting back against sexism and environmental harm require something other than niceness. I appreciate the film’s rejection of toxic masculinity and the desire to avoid further division, but I was hoping that this movie would be one where the people pushing back against societal problems wouldn’t be the ones being punished. Because it is not, however, Werewolves Within merely wears its liberal ideas as a disguise, beneath which centrism is the real monster.

You can stream Werewolves Within on Amazon (ad):

Christy Tidwell is Associate Professor of English & Humanities at the South Dakota School of Mines & Technology. She works primarily at the intersection of environmental humanities, speculative fiction, and gender studies. She is Digital Strategies Coordinator for the Association for the Study of Literature and Environment (ASLE), co-leader of ASLE’s Ecomedia interest group, and co-organizer of A Clockwork Green: Ecomedia in the Anthropocene, a nearly carbon neutral virtual conference held in Summer 2018. She wrote the entry on ecohorror for Rosi Braidotti and Maria Hlavajova’s Posthuman Glossary (2018), contributed an article on Mira Grant’s Parasite to the ecohorror cluster in ISLE: Interdisciplinary Studies in Literature and Environment (2014), and recently published a chapter on Jurassic Park, Jurassic World, and de-extinction anxiety in Fiction and the Sixth Mass Extinction: Narrative in an Era of Loss (2020). She is also co-editor of both Gender and Environment in Science Fiction with Bridgitte Barclay (Lexington Books, 2018) and Fear and Nature: Ecohorror Studies in the Anthropocene with Carter Soles (Penn State University Press, 2021).

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