Browsing the Guardian this week, I encountered a deliberately provocative headline – ‘Howard Jacobsen: All my books are apocalyptic. I have never met an intelligent optimist’ – and promptly did a double-take when I read down to see that Jacobsen has apparently been shortlisted for the Booker Prize for his latest novel, J, which is being described as ‘dystopian’ and ‘apocalyptic’. I frowned at the computer screen, trying and failing to reconcile this information with Jacobsen’s self-professed status as someone who is contemptuous of genre things; a man who once argued that what makes genre fiction genre fiction is its formal predictability… the best novels will always defy category‘. And, indeed, it’s clear that Jacobsen does include dystopian fiction as a type of genre writing, as per his assertion that ‘internecine war will sometimes break out between the genrists – paranormalists deriding the moralistic pretensions of dystopians, for example‘. One could be forgiven for expecting, therefore, that Jacobsen has taken issue with such labels being applied to his own work; or at the very least, has failed to use those labels himself.

Apparently not. ‘In a way,’ he says, ‘all my books are apocalyptic.’

In his 2012 review of Michael Chabon’s Telegraph Avenue, Hal Parker made a salient observation about Chabon’s use of genre:

Reappropriating genre literature under the aegis of high culture has become a familiar convention of postmodern literary fiction; really, “literary genre fiction” is arguably a genre of its own at this point. Even more common is the practice of saturating a novel in a given milieu to such a degree that the milieu itself comes to serve as the “brand” of the novel. There, however, lies the rub: While Mr. Chabon is white, much of the milieu providing the “brand” of Telegraph Avenue (soul and jazz music, Blaxploitation films, the Black Panthers, Oakland and its environs) is unmistakably black. What this means is that “literary genre fiction” now runs the risk of becoming a kind of sophisticated “literary gentrification”—a process by which a predominantly black milieu is appropriated by a white novelist as a springboard. Put simply, is the story of “Brokeland,” whatever it may be, really Mr. Chabon’s to tell?

Though Parker is speaking specifically about a white writer’s appropriation of black culture, going on to link these elements with the novel’s arguable classification as a work of ‘gentrification fiction,’ the idea of literary gentrification has, I would argue, a wider and more general applicability which he himself acknowledges: namely, the idea of literary writers seeking to detach – and therefore, in their frequent estimation, elevate, or even rescue – genre ideas from their cultural, narrative and contextual points of origin. Part of what makes this such a difficult phenomenon to discuss, however, is the fact that ‘genre fiction’ has long since become an umbrella term encompassing wildly different types of writing, each with its own history, heroes and hallmarks, and each with varying points of intersection and overlap with the others. Much like a university attempting to unite a handful of disparate academic schools under a single banner by turning them into a college, ‘genre fiction’ is often treated – and, as a consequence, called on to defend itself – as if it were a single, coherent entity, and not, as per the university model, an administrative and academic siphonophore. As such, I would argue that genre fiction isn’t a genre in and of itself, but rather a college of genre – and that makes for some interesting analysis.

For instance: author N. K. Jemisin, who is African-American, has spoken in the past about her books being shelved in the African-American section of bookshops, despite the fact that she writes epic fantasy. It’s worth quoting her at length on this point, for reasons that will hopefully become apparent:

I understand why this section exists — because the publishing industry rather notoriously would not publish books by or about black people until the 1990s, unless those books were deemed of sufficient interest to white readers. Prior to the 1990s it was kind of hard for black readers to find these “accepted” black writers (outside of Black History Month), because there weren’t many of them, and because their works were mixed in with the mainstream. So black readers had to rely on word-of-mouth — which, pre-internet, was actually kind of limiting…

It took black authors self-publishing to lucrative success, with some rather famously becoming bestsellers by hand-selling self-pub’d books from the trunks of their cars, to prove to the industry that yes Virginia, black people do read, and what’s more they buy, and I dunno gee maybe it’s kind of racist to assume otherwise. So publishers paid attention and started snatching up black writers, and later black small presses, in an effort to latch on to this “new” audience. Many of them started heavy-handed marketing campaigns designed to appeal to the “urban” reader (where “urban” somehow = “black”) by using arcane language (e.g. “keepin’ it real!”) and plastering poorly-designed book covers with women who looked like music video refugees and men who looked like ex-cons. Or whatever the industry thought ex-cons looked like. And some black readers were grateful for the attention, after so long a time of neglect.

Problem is, most black readers aren’t “new” readers. That was a misconception derived from the initial racist assumption by publishers and retailers that “black people don’t read”; to people who swallowed that baloney, it must have seemed as though millions of black readers suddenly sprang fully-formed from E. Lynn Harris’ forehead in 1995. This is a completely illogical, frankly asinine assumption — what, were we all sitting around playing with our Dick and Janes before that? But that’s racism for you; logic fail all over the place.

And instead of dropping that original racist assumption that black people didn’t read, the industry gave it an upgrade: OK, black people do read, but they don’t read like the rest of us (read: white people, because Latinos and Asians and so forth don’t matter). And they don’t have the same need for well-drawn characters, engaging plots, etc., because they’re not very smart or well-read. All we have to do is give them are plenty of examples of people who look like them and speak “the vernacular” and deal with “their issues” (which are not like our issues). Profit! And because the industry also assumed that nobody but black people would want to read all this, y’know, “black stuff”, they decided to dump it all onto a single shelf, usually in the back of the store, and stick a label on it: African American Interest. Which might as well have read, “Everybody But Black People, Nothin’ to See Here. Move Along.”…

As a result of this old and new racism, the AAF section of today is mostly just a constricted, homogenizing ghetto. Writers stuck there — those who aren’t big enough to be cross-marketed — have lower earning potential, because it’s a lot harder to sell books when they’re marketed to 12% of the population than 100% of the population. Let’s not talk about how some black authors have been forced into this marketing classification against their will. And then there’s the problem of content reliability. There is no reason that anyone should look among the “thug love” books to find Alaya Dawn Johnson’s lyrical fantasy Racing the Dark. The folks who would be interested in one are highly unlikely to be interested in the other. But that is precisely what happened to her, because her book got shelved in the AAF section too.The Autobiography of Malcolm X has diddlysquat-all to do with Zane’s “Sex Chronicles”, but I have personally seen these two authors shelved side-by-side in AAF, I guess because X comes near Z on a bookshelf…

Worse, any bookstore or library that does this is, IMO, perpetuating the same racist assumptions that caused this problem in the first place. It all comes down to the idea of universality — which mostly just means “the ability to write something that appeals to white readers”, in my experience. Before the AAF boom, black readers were assumed to have no interest in books meant to appeal to white readers; hence the assumption that we “didn’t exist”. When our existence was confirmed, black readers were then assumed to be strange ducks, Not Like The Rest Of Us in taste or discernment, fundamentally alien — or Other — in our intelligence and thought processes. And black writers — despite having written mainstream books for generations — were assumed to be incapable of writing for anything other than this strange, alien audience. If “universality” = “whiteness”, well, of course we couldn’t possibly have it. Even if we did.

Trying to disentangle concepts of genre from concepts of race is, therefore, a highly problematic proposition, and one which ties in particularly to concepts of antiblackness, as per the fact that, as Jemisin points out, the African American section* is concerned only with the segregation of one specific racial identity. As such, it’s worth noting that both Howard Jacobsen and Michael Chabon are Jewish men, and while it’s conceivable that Telegraph Avenue might have been shelved in the AAF section, Chabon’s other works – such as, for instance, The Yiddish Policeman’s Union, which arguably belongs to the college of genre, and which, as the title suggests, is deeply concerned with questions of Jewish identity – would not receive the same treatment. Jacobsen’s J is similarly informed, taking place after an event described in his interview as a ‘mass pogrom':

The new book is about the annihilation of any group, any “other”, Jacobson says. “The Jews happen to be the group that I know about, so it is informed by antisemitism, but the point is that if you get rid of ‘the other’ you then have an absence; an absence of irony, an absence of disputatiousness. No argument should ever win that completely.”

Not having read J – and despite my general dislike of Jacobsen, I’ll admit I’m tempted – I can’t pass any judgement on the quality of the book, its dystopian elements or its relationship with the college of genre. What I can say, however – and returning, at long last, to the original point – is that Jacobsen’s decision to write a dystopian work, embracing the potential of genre’s college without rescinding his previous disdain for it, and being rewarded for his efforts with a second Booker shortlisting, raises an important question. Namely: if, as Jacobsen himself contends, truly great novels defy categorisation, then in the game of literary gentrification, which writers are considered capable of transcending genre while still employing its tropes, and which are not? Because if, per Parker’s criticism of Telegraph Avenue, there’s a parallel to be made between the racial implications of a particular narrative and the context in which that narrative is both created and received, and by whom, then it doesn’t seem irrelevant that, whereas works like Jacobsen’s J, Chabon’s The Yiddish Policeman’s Union and Cormac McCarthy’s The Road are, apparently without effort, classed as being both literary and genre-transcendent while still possessing strong dystopian roots, something like Nnedi Okorafor’s Who Fears Death is not. When Audrey Niffenegger’s The Time-Traveller’s Wife, with its titular SFFnal conceit, can be shelved and discussed as a purely literary work, but Octavia Butler’s Kindred or Delia Sherman’s The Freedom Maze cannot, then we have a problem. When Nicholas Sparks, a man made rich and famous by his penchant for writing about tragically beautiful white people having romantic sex in the rain, states emphatically that ‘If you look for me, I’m in the fiction section. Romance has its own section… I don’t write romance novels,’ and the bookstores of the world agree with him, while N. K. Jemisin can end up shelved in the African American section regardless of the actual content of her novels, then yes: we have a problem.

Literary gentrification is not a simple matter of famous literary authors – who, coincidentally, tend to be straight, white men – cherrypicking SFFnal tropes and declaring them cleansed of genre, transcendent of but inspired by: it is as much a question of whose writing we deem capable of having this effect as one of which writers strive to have this effect, in that however much one tries to transcend, one cannot actually achieve it – or be told that such achievement has, in fact, occurred, regardless of intention – without a critical audience to argue, or even assume, that this is the case. The idea that works either by or about POC constitute a discreet genre is, as Jemisin points out, as problematic as it is established within the industry, but despite the college of genre being long defined as the home of ‘anything and everything not deemed literary fiction’, it had never quite occurred to me before that the former can be seen to fit within the latter. Perhaps this is yet one more reason why the question of diversity within SFF has become so prominent lately: we have, at long last, begun to argue for the rights of everyone in our college, however falteringly, and if those rights are ultimately defined as ‘the right of POC to not be viewed as inhabitants of a separate genre, but as an integral and assumed part of any readership or creative body’, then so much the better.

Because as much as I loathe seeing smug literary authors speak snidely about SFF in one breath while borrowing its tropes in the next, I’d be misplacing my outrage if this was the only level on which the phenomenon disturbed me. The archetype of the straight white male literary author is so culturally ingrained at this point that it can, at times, serve to obscure the very tangible prejudices underlying the reasons for its primacy: that, now as historically, in genre as in culture, the dominance of straight, white and/or Western men in a given sphere, coupled with a corresponding lack of representation from other groups, is not a fucking coincidence. I would be far more inclined to accept Jacobsen’s argument that truly great works transcend the classification of genre if the ability to bestow transcendence was not apparently restricted to a narrow class of person, not because they’re the only ones interested in producing such works, but because we assume their works possess a certain quality that the works of others do not, even when they deal with similar themes in a similar manner. Hypocritically borrowing from a genre one professes to despise is one thing, but doing so as part of a process of literary gentrification predicated on the selfsame dystopian history of racism, sexism and exclusion of the Other you’re ostensibly critiquing is quite another.

One cannot help but wonder if Jacobsen has noticed the irony.

*As the name suggests, the African American section is something you’re unlikely to find in bookstores outside of America. I’ve never seen an equivalent section separating out, for instance, Aboriginal literature in Australian stores, but that doesn’t mean such sections don’t exist, and if you’ve seen or heard of one, I’d be interested in hearing about it.

Apologies, oh mighty internets, for the recent lack of blogging! Having just recovered from LonCon3, which was excellent, I’m heading off tomorrow to Fantasycon in York, and between attending both cons, toddler-wrangling and returning to work for the first time since said toddler became a separate, corporeal entity, I am currently running late on All Of The Deadlines, No, Seriously, All Of Them, which state of affairs has rendered my brain into mush. So if I owe you a piece of writing, or if you’re waiting on me for an email reply: I AM SO SORRY, PLS FORGIVE, THE FOZ HAS TEMPORARILY STALLED BUT NORMAL SERVICE WILL BE RESUMING SHORTLY (oh god please let normal service resume shortly). 

That being said, if you happen to be attending Fantasycon, I’ll be appearing on the following panels:

Saturday 6th September, 4.00pm – SFF and Politics
There is nothing more glorious than to defeat your enemy by transparent democratic process, and hear the lamentation of the other sides’ whips. Can SFF make political process dramatic and heroic, or will it always come down scheming viziers and noble warriors?
Lizzie Barrett (m), Jaine Fenn, Foz Meadows, Catherine Hill, Adrian Tchaikovsky

Sunday 7th September, 11.00am – Building the Same Old World
Only SFF gives us the opportunity to imagine an entirely new world, but how often do we actually do that? Do any writers manage to leave preconceptions about the way the world works behind – and should they? The panellists discuss the opportunities, pitfalls and politics of worldbuilding.
Camille Lofters (m), Tiffani Angus, Foz Meadows, Kate Elliott, Peter Higgins

Hope to see you there!

In case you were wondering: yes, I’ll be attending LonCon 3 next month, and – double yes! – I will also be on panels. Here are my confirmed appearances:

What are the Fan Hugo Awards – Who Votes and Who Wins

Thursday 19:00 – 20:00, Capital Suite 4 (ExCeL)

It’s one of the most admirable aspects of the Hugo Awards that, since their inception, they have recognised fan work alongside professional work. But in recent years much ink has been spilled — and, perhaps as significantly, many pixels scattered — over the fate of Best Fan Writer, Best Fanzine, Best Fan Artist and, most recently, Best Fancast. Two themes recur in the debate. First, how should the Hugos recognise changes in the focus or format of fanwork in the Internet age — what defines a fanzine, what sorts of fan writing are most significant, and are “fancasts” a flash in the pan or here to stay? Second, in an era where Electric Velocipede wins Best Fanzine, Randall Munroe is nominated for Best Fan Artist, and four of the last six Best Fan Writers are better known as professional authors, where should the lines between fanwork and prowork be drawn?

John Coxon (M), Teddy Harvia, Andy Hooper, Foz Meadows, España Sheriff.

Literary Beer

Friday 19:00 – 20:00, The Bar (ExCeL)

Foz Meadows

The Daughters of Buffy

Saturday 13:30 – 15:00, Capital Suite 4 (ExCeL)

At the end of last year, to mark ten years since the broadcast of the final season of Buffy the Vampire Slayer on the BBC, Naomi Alderman made a special edition of the Radio 4 programme Front Row, featuring interviews with cast, creator, and critics. Among other things, she asked what the show’s legacy had been, and whether the right lessons — female characters written as well as men, given as much narrative importance as men, and surrounded by other women — had been learned. We’ll listen to her programme, and then the panel will discuss: who are Buffy’s heirs?

Foz Meadows (M), L. M. Myles, Dr. Tansy Rayner Roberts, Sarah Shemilt, Emma England.

On The Blogs: Bloggers Discuss their Roles in the World of YA

Sunday 10:00 – 11:00, Capital Suite 16 (ExCeL)

Bloggers have become an integral part of YA book promotion. How do authors find these bloggers? Why should readers trust their opinions? What are the best book blogs out there right now and what makes them so useful?

Foz Meadows (M), Patricia Ash, Liz de Jager, Shaun Duke, Erin M. Underwood.

Cosplay is Not Consent

Sunday 12:00 – 13:30, London Suite 3 (ExCeL)

Recent events have dramatically increased awareness of issues of harassment and poor behavior in fandom. and opened discussion of the issues surrounding it. This panel focuses on the the politics of physical contact and social interaction while in costume or dealing with costumers and cosplayers.

Aurora Celeste, Miki Dennis, Foz Meadows, Nicolle Lamerichs.

My Opinions, Let Me Show You Them

Sunday 16:30 – 17:30, Capital Suite 5 (ExCeL)

There are many different approaches to book blogging: some focus on news and announcements, running author interviews and ARC giveaways supported by publishers; others concentrate on reviewing and opinion pieces; still others are devoted to raising awareness of certain types of writing, like SF Mistressworks or the World SF Blog. Our panel discusses how they chose their blogs’ format and focus, how the blogs evolved over time, and how they found their ‘voice’ and their audience.

Foz Meadows (M), Thea James, Aidan Moher, Adam Whitehead, Justin Landon.

LGBTQ Gaming – Industry and Design

Sunday 18:00 – 19:00, London Suite 3 (ExCeL)

We investigate some of the ways that LGBTQ perspectives are developing in both Indie and Mainstream titles. What challenges do designers need to address in order to develop LGBTQ games, characters or ideas, and how should these be articulated within the larger sphere of gaming culture?

Meg Jayanth, Leo Adams, Michele Howe , Foz Meadows, Gemma Thomson.

The YA Gender Gap

Monday 11:00 – 12:00, Capital Suite 1 (ExCeL)

There has been talk about a gender gap within young adult fiction. Girls read boys’ books, but boys don’t read girls’ books. Is sexism at play within our younger generations? Or is this just a problem with marketing. Or both? Some people even claim that schools and libraries prefer male authors in order to attract male readers. If so, are we doomed to perpetuate the perceived gender gap? How can we step beyond the gendered roles assigned to us and our children? Also, does the sex of the character really matter to young readers? Are the boys really disappearing from the pages or are we just experiencing an equalization of the genders?

Michael Levy (M), Michele Howe, Alissa McKersie, Foz Meadows, LJ Adlington.

I should also be making an appearance at a Supernatural meetup in the fan space, organised by Emma England, from 5PM onwards on Saturday 16th.

Hope to see you all there!

ETA 9.8.14 – Due to scheduling conflicts with the Hugo Awards, I will no longer be appearing on the LGBTQ gaming panel; additionally, the end time for My Opinions, Let Me Show You Them is now 5:30 rather than 6pm, as the majority of attendees have to get ready for the reception.

Warning: amateur philosophy. 

People are basically good, and also basically asshats. We’re a mixed bag, is what I’m saying.

Put it another way: people are fucking flawed, from breath to blood to atoms. I don’t just mean bodies and brains, either; I mean whatever spirit or biological synthesis you choose to believe is steering each individual beast in the collective meatflock. We govern ourselves with an ever-changing yet eternal series of moral, spiritual, social and legal constraints more rigid, for the most part, than even the most optimistic view of human nature believes us to be capable of upholding en masse, because the alternative means giving up on our capability for goodness, change, improvement. We have the memories of mayflies and the cultural baggage of methuselahs, and are historically, as a species, very bad at noticing the dissonance, mostly because we’re so obsessed with the solipsistic present or one of any number of hypothetical afterlives to focus on the actual physical future, as stands to be inhabited by actual physical humans who are not, in point of fact, us. We are capable of extraordinary kindness and unthinkable cruelty, sometimes within the same body; sometimes, even, within the same action. You want to know what human sentience is? It’s the only thing in the universe capable of doubting its own existence. Being human means being awake to the fact that you can be tricked – by others, by yourself, by sense and thought and perception – and wondering, if only at the level of subconscious unease, how often you’re actually right.

Which means that being human, dealing with humans, requires a somewhat paradoxical approach. On the one hand, you have to allow for human weakness, gullibility, culpability, ignorance, whatever you want to call it – not just in the immediate, short-term sense, but over and over and over again, as an acknowledgement of the fact that inevitably, people are going to fuck up; maybe in lots of small ways, maybe in just a few big ones, or maybe in all of them together, but whether we’re nine years old or ninety, no matter how much we think we’ve learned, we still possess the capacity for error, because that is what human is. But on the other hand, we have to demand better of ourselves than a mere acceptance of imperfection; we have to adapt, apologise, learn, because otherwise, what’s to stop us from embracing our worst qualities, not just as inevitable negatives, but as behavioural mandates? For our own safety and sanity, we have to draw lines: to say, some weaknesses are inevitable, but this doesn’t have to be one of them; to say, I have reached my limit for forgiveness, for transgressions against me and mine, and this is it; to say, I am done with you. Human justice, if that isn’t an oxymoron, is as flawed and fickle an instrument as its executors, but in the end, it’s all we have, because we are all we have: there is nothing else. Whatever higher purpose we might believe in, whatever faith we might have, or not have, in some final dead day of reckoning, when Ma’at weighs our souls or Charon plucks the cold coins from our eyes, here and now, there is no unequivocal spiritual presence but what other humans claim to hear and feel; and if we are truly mediums for higher voices, in this capacity, we are still just as flawed – just as fallible – as we are in every other sphere of our mortal existence.

And I wrestle with that. Not with the idea that we might be poor spiritual vessels – I’m an atheist, and always have been – but with the inevitability of human error. Because I’m not a misanthrope; I don’t believe our species is fundamentally doomed or bad or broken. And yet, with screamworthy regularity and repetition, we hurt ourselves. We punish and exclude and torture and misconstrue; we continue to both tell and swallow lies all the more pernicious for their having been disproved a thousand times over; we willingly inhabit systems whose cruelties continue to shape us even as we once shaped them, and which can no more be dismantled by the individual than a single bee can demolish a hive, and that should terrify us; but instead, we shrug as though we expect nothing better, as though we’re only capable of a collective, humane memory when it means making rituals of our worst ideas; as though we can have no mutable traditions, nor enduringly gentle ones. By profession and inclination, I am a critic, which means I spend an enormous amount of energy discussing various human faults, and yet the act of criticism is, I think, fundamentally hopeful: why bother with deconstruction if you think we can never rebuild? I’m not a nihilist, either, some bitter Rorschach incapable of compromising, even in the face of Armageddon: whatever I feel on my bad days, I don’t believe I’m yelling into a void. Or I mean, I do, but only where void is a synonym for internet, this great greyscale maw into which we tumble our collective psyches, bruising as we bruise.

The problem with people is, we have a finite capability to give a shit about every other person, just as they have a finite capacity to give a shit about us. We’re just too goddamn numerous, and some of us are actively trying, and some of us just ran out of caring three asshats ago, and some of us are happy being those three asshats if it means we get left in relative peace for five fucking minutes, and all that could still describe any of us in the space of a given hour, because we’re mercurial creatures, too, and however much we want to put our backs to the firm and towering wall of Other People Are Fucking Wrong, it only takes a single mistake to turn us into them, and then we’re the ones who are Fucking Wrong, and the wall falls on us in direct proportion to how hard we’ve been leaning on it, and sometimes it’s irony, and sometimes it’s justice, and sometimes it’s just random chance – which is to say, both and neither, and part of life – but either way, it doesn’t hurt any less for being inevitable.

Ideologies be damned: we find our truths where we can, and break them if we must, and sometimes our best is a toxic wasteland, and sometimes our worst is a poem. I’m sick of feeling adrift, of twisting myself into endless shapes to accommodate the fear that someone, somewhere might hate me for trying to figure things out, when far more terrifying is the great seething mass of strangers who don’t even know what stories are, or why they matter. This is my anchor: at nine or ninety, I’m here to learn.

I’m here. I’m here. I’m here.

 

Warning: All The Spoilers for Supernatural and TW for discussions of suicide. 

As mentioned in my previous post about Supernatural, what finally convinced me to give the show a try was Misha Collins calling out the writers for sexism: for his sake, I decided to stick around until at least Season 4, when Castiel appears. And in any case, I was curious –  not just about the much-famed Destiel ship, but to see how the show dealt with the concept of angels. As a Buffy fan, one of my longstanding regrets about BtVS was the half-hearted way it dealt with Christian mytholgy, uncritically accepting the the utility of crosses, Biblical prophecy and holy water – and therefore implying a sort of Christian primacy – without ever examining why, in a universe rich with pagan gods, dimensions and non-evil magic, these particular tools should be so effective. This is by way of a personal bugbear about slapdash attempts at integrating diverse myths into a single system of worldbuilding that lacks overall cohesion: I’ve long since resigned myself to the whole nonlogic of spells work Because Reasons, which is apparently ubiquitous, but I’m fussier about other elements. Give or take some racefail (white kitsune, anyone?), however, on balance, Supernatural manages pretty well at this, establishing lore that feels distinct to the show while still being rooted in history. The fact that they’ve also incorporated the very American demimythology of urban legends, serial murders and highway tales is another nice touch, and one that fleshes out the early seasons in particular. But when it comes to angels and the wider Biblical mythos as derived from the apocrypha, pseudepigrapha and Talmudic sources, we’re crossing into potentially perilous territory: not because it’s been done before, but because it’s so often been done badly. When mishandled, such stories can either end up clumsily preaching Biblical literalism in the absence of moral complexity, or else relying on a scattergun of Christian concepts – Heaven, Hell, angels, demons – without ever addressing religion, faith and culture.

Obviously, your mileage may vary as to whether or not Supernatural succeeds in this respect, or whether it was even a good idea to introduce angels in the first place. Given their absence from the first three seasons, there are certainly fans who feel, not unreasonably, that their primacy in the subsequent six constitutes a profound change in the show’s direction, if not a sort of betrayal. Me, though? I love it. Granted, their insertion into the show’s mythology isn’t flawless, and at times the logic defaults to the universal rightness of Christian beliefs in ways that go peskily unexamined – other gods feed on human worship, but the angels predate humanity; other gods exist, but there only seems to be a Christian heaven; one of the key figures of the Norse pantheon is actually an angel – but overall, they do a good job. Morally suspect angel politics and plotlines borrowed from the apocrypha are basically two of my favourite things, and on both counts, Supernatural delivers in spades. And as much as I like the first three seasons, their respective arcs – the quest for John Winchester, Azazel’s psychic children, Dean’s demon deal – aren’t among my favourites. In fact, there’s something very reminiscent of The X Files in the progression of the first two seasons, but minus the government conspiracy elements. That’s not a bad thing in and of itself, certainly, but the mystery surrounding Yellow Eyes and his bargains never quite managed to hook me, while the early monster of the week plots run the gamut from engaging and funny to dull and unoriginal. As for the Colt, the idea of a magic gun whose bullets can kill anything always struck me as being unnecessarily naff, particularly as the how and why of its functioning was never explained. The Colt is the ultimate McGuffin, and while its origins provide a nice tie to the show’s defining American mythology, that was never a strong enough grace note for me to overlook its inherent silliness. As much as I was enjoying the show, therefore, there were times when I struggled, and if it hadn’t been for my determination to make it to Season 4, I might have given up.

But with the introduction of Castiel and his angels, the show really comes together. It’s not just that their presence automatically expands on the existing stakes and universe, fitting everything into a wider context where the battles of Heaven and Hell are neatly mirrored by the turbulence between Sam and Dean, and vice versa; it’s that Castiel himself provides an important counterpoint and exterior perspective both to a relationship which, for all its complexities, was becoming dangerously insular. There’s even a neat bit of dialogue in 8.08 (Hunteri Heroici) that sums it up:

Castiel: I could be your third wheel.

Dean: You know that’s not a good thing, right?

Castiel: Of course it is. A third wheel adds extra grip, greater stability.

Which, as far as Castiel’s relationship with the Winchesters is concerned, is very much the case. As an angel, Castiel is easily the most powerful of the three characters, but thanks to his unease in human settings, he is also the most naive, which puts him in the interesting position of being both master and student, guardian and innocent. With his literal speech patterns, social awkwardness and ability to switch from comic straight man to intense avenger in the space of a heartbeat, Castiel is variously reminiscent of Spock, Obi-Wan Kenobi and Rupert Giles: a perfect storm of fan favourite characters wrapped in a trademark trenchcoat. From a purely narrative perspective, his ability to appear and disappear at will – especially at the outset – is also the perfect exit mechanism, not only because it neatly circumvents the need for any “we’re not taking on passengers” dialogue, but because it makes his presence a surprise – something for the audience to look forward to, or which can constitute a sudden twist in the course of a given episode.

As well as providing a solid counterpoint to both Sam and Dean, Castiel is also an engaging character in his own right. It’s not just his comic quirks, though in a show that’s dominated by angst, they certainly help: it’s that he gets one of the most varied developmental arcs in the whole show. Beyond the obvious range involved in Misha Collins playing successive versions of the same character – angel Castiel; Jimmy Novak; Godstiel; Emmanuel; crazy Castiel; Clarence/Steve; fallen Castiel – his relationship to the Winchesters changes, not just in response to their rise and fall, but as a consequence of his own actions. Castiel is a rebellious angel, one who successfully challenges archangels, averts the apocalypse and double-crosses the King of Hell while failing to become god, restore Sam’s soul and seal Leviathan in Purgatory – and at the same time, he’s grappling with the concepts of free will, loyalty and friendship. In a show where just about everyone makes at least one truly stupid or horrific mistake – or, more frequently, both – Castiel’s errors are among the worst. And yet, we invariably forgive him: not because he always deserves it, but because he tries to.

Which brings me to the delicate matter of Destiel – a ship so popular and pervasive as to arguably be the most famous of any current fandom. Going into Supernatural, I was well aware of its primacy: with tumblr as my starting point, ignorance was impossible. Generally speaking, while I often self-describe as a shipper, in the sense of supporting this pairing or that, it’s not something I tend to lose sleep over. I can count on one hand the number of fictional relationships that have ever truly gripped me, and one of those I no longer really care about*. So even though I knew about Destiel – and even though I was actively looking forward to Castiel’s arrival – I didn’t set out to ship it.

Spoilers: I totally ship it. And in order to understand why, it’s necessary to take a closer look at Dean Winchester.

Even early in Season 1, it’s clear that Dean, for all his swagger, is a lonely and damaged person. In 1.3 (Dead in the Water), during Dean’s conversation with Lucas, a troubled child, we learn that he not only remembers his mother’s death, but continues to be impacted by it:

Dean: You’re scared. It’s OK. I understand. See, when I was your age, I saw something real bad happen to my mom, and I was scared, too. I didn’t feel like talking, just like you. But see, my mom – I know she wanted me to be brave. I think about that every day. And I do my best to be brave.

Similarly, in 1.6 (Skin), when a shapeshifter acquires Dean’s memories, he delivers the following speech to Sam:

Shapeshifter (as Dean): I am your brother. See, deep down, I’m just jealous. You got friends. You could have a life. Me? I know I’m a freak. And sooner or later, everybody’s gonna leave me.

Sam: What are you talking about?

Shapeshifter (as Dean): You left. Hell, I did everything Dad asked me to, and he ditched me, too.

Later, at the start of Season 2, after John Winchester trades his life to effectively resurrect Dean, we learn in 2.4 (Children Shouldn’t Play With Dead Things) that Dean thinks his father should have let him die – a confession which arguably straddles the line between survivor’s guilt and an actual death wish:

Dean: I never should’ve come back, Sam. It wasn’t natural. And now look what’s come of it. I was dead. And I should’ve stayed dead. You wanted to know how I was feeling? Well, that’s it.

It’s important to note that John’s sacrifice marks the second time Dean has been saved from certain death at the expense of someone else’s life: in 1.12 (Faith), he’s healed of a fatal heart condition by Roy Le Grange, whose wife directs a Reaper to kill another man instead. Dean feels guilty about his “miracle”, not only because it meant a stranger’s death, but because he was healed while a sick woman, Layla, whom he felt was more deserving of survival, was not. Already struggling with feelings of worthlessness, when John dies, Dean doesn’t – can’t – believe his life was worth his father’s sacrifice, and by 2.9 (Croatoan), it’s clear that his survivor’s guilt has left him feeling suicidal. Faced with the prospect of losing Sam to the virus, he openly admits to wanting to die:

Sam: Dean, I’m sick. It’s over for me. It doesn’t have to be for you.

Dean: No?

Sam: No, you can keep going.

Dean: Who says I want to?

Sam: What?

Dean: I’m tired, Sam. I’m tired of this job, this life… this weight on my shoulders, man. I’m tired of it.

Sam: So what, so you’re just going to give up? You’re just gonna lay down and die? Look, Dean, I know this stuff with Dad has -

Dean: You’re wrong. It’s not about Dad. I mean, part of it is, sure, but -

Sam: What is it about?

At which point, of course, the conversation is interrupted. But after Dean sells his soul to save Sam at the season finale, netting himself just a year of life before the contract is called in, his actions throughout Season 3 make it clear that he’s resigned to dying, even if it means an eternity in Hell. Which, inevitably, is where he ends up, a victim of torture and abuse for a length of time he experiences as forty years, rather than the four months that actually pass during his absence.

And then Castiel pulls him out of Hell, and everything changes. Because Dean Winchester, a self-loathing hunter with a death wish, is told he has to keep living – not for his own sake, but to fulfil his divine purpose: becoming the vessel of the archangel Michael and playing his part in the apocalypse, which event was ultimately set in motion by his actions in Hell. Not that he learns this all at once; his role as Michael’s preferred vessel – like Sam being Lucifer’s – is withheld until Season 5. Even so, there’s an awful sort of symmetry to the fact that, once again, the only way for Dean to escape his death is to sacrifice someone else:  for Michael to kill Lucifer, and therefore Sam. And even though Dean ultimately manages to avoid that final battle, in terms of seeing other people suffer in his place, the actual outcome is arguably worse: not only does Sam still end up in the Cage, enduring unthinkable torture at Lucifer’s hands before finally being rescued, as Dean once was, by Castiel, but Dean’s place as Michael’s vessel is taken by his younger half-brother, Adam, who is permanently imprisoned in Hell. Over and over, Dean Winchester dodges death because of the deaths of others, and in all that time, he’s never once felt worthy of life.

Which, if you look at his upbringing, isn’t surprising. Since the age of four, Dean has been raised to follow two imperatives: obey his father, and protect his brother. When John dies, Dean fulfils his second obligation – keeping Sam safe – via literal self-sacrifice, making the demon deal that sends him to Hell. Over and over again, Dean Winchester has been taught that his only value – his only purpose in life – lies in his ability to protect others by obeying his father’s precepts. But when Castiel brings him back, not only is Dean ordered to substitute his obedience to John with obedience to angels, but after everything he’s done to keep his Sam safe, his brother is already set on a course of self-endangerment. In Season 4, Dean is returned to a world where the only rules that have ever mattered to him no longer apply, and where, as a direct consequence of angelic meddling and demonic influence, his only viable option is to fight for something he doesn’t believe he deserves, and which he doesn’t really want: the right to live in rebellion.

And into this turmoil comes Castiel, an angel tasked with making Dean Winchester obey. But unlike his brethren, Castiel has faith in humanity, and very soon, he comes to have faith in Dean. As early as 4.7 (It’s the Great Pumpkin, Sam Winchester), Castiel begins to confide in him:

Castiel: Can I tell you something if you promise not to tell another soul?

Dean: Okay.

Castiel: I’m not a… hammer, as you say. I have questions, I have doubts. I don’t know what is right and what is wrong any more, whether you passed or failed here. But in the coming months, you will have more decisions to make. I don’t envy the weight that’s on your shoulders, Dean. I truly don’t.

Which is ultimately why Castiel rebels against Heaven: sympathy for Dean Winchester. Not that Dean always appreciates it, or even necessarily understands it – he values himself so little and obedience so much that, even when Cas is doing his best to help, all Dean sees is the fact that Castiel’s loyalties are split, and not the blindingly obvious fact that Cas is willing to fall for him. (Potentially, in every sense of the word.)

Completely 100% heterosexual bonding.Absolutely no homoerotic subtext whatsoever. Nope. Nada. Not even a bit.

Absolutely no homoerotic subtext here whatever. Nope. Nada. Not even a bit.

All this being so, for me, the appeal of Destiel as a pairing isn’t simply derived from the on-screen chemistry between Misha Collins and Jensen Ackles, or even from the many instances of subtext-slash-queerbaiting that are arguably suggestive of Dean’s bisexuality (although they certainly help). Rather, it stems from a desire to see two similarly confused, lonely characters – both forced into rebellion, not because they lack obedience, but because of the corruption of those in power – find a skerrick of happiness in each other. Though brought into conflict by a series of betrayals and bad decisions in Seasons 6 and 7, their subsequent reconciliation and return to friendship is made all the more important by their mutual forgiveness of each other – not just because of what they’ve endured to get there, but because forgiving Castiel is as close as Dean ever comes to forgiving himself, and vice versa.

Dean and Castiel - Stupid For The Right Reasons

Plus and also, if you don’t like Castiel? You are 8000% wrong. I mean, seriously:

Castiel - Solidarity Sandwich

Castiel - Boop

Castiel - Cat Penis (1)

Castiel - FBI Badge

Castiel - Pizza Man

Castiel - People Skills

Castiel - Sorry

Castiel - Sexual Orientation

Castiel - Not Of Import

What’s not to like?

 

*Irvine x Quistis from Final Fantasy VIII, for those of you who are curious. I still love the game and the characters, but no longer feel the same emotional investment in shipping them as I did in my teens.

Spoiler warning: All The Spoilers for Supernatural. All of them. 

Exposing yourself to certain fandoms on tumblr is like signing up for a bout with Stockholm syndrome: sooner or later, you’re going to drink the Kool-Aid. And by “drink the Kool-Aid”, I mean “become obsessed with Supernatural“, which – surprise!* –  is exactly what happened to me. I mean, I knew all about the sexism, the queerbaiting, the manpain; about the woeful representation of POC. I vowed, on the public internets, that I would never watch it – and in a universe without tumblr, I may well have done just that. But slowly, steadily, like dripping water eroding stone, the steady flow of GIFs, photosets and soulful meta wore down my resistance. Surely, I told myself, I ought to at least watch the pilot, just so I can say that I gave it a fair shot. So I did – and I wasn’t impressed. I even livetweeted my endeavour, complete with scathing criticism. The portrayal of women was so ludicrous, and Dean Winchester so obnoxious, that I didn’t make it much more than halfway through the first episode before giving up, and for a while, that was that: I’d tried Supernatural, I hadn’t liked it, end of story.

But.

Despite myself, I found that I wanted to know what happened next. Enough of my friends whose taste in shows I either shared or respected had been surprised by my reaction – had vouched for the worthiness of at least the first five seasons, despite the acknowledged problematic elements – that I started to waver. Had I been judging too harshly? My curiosity was piqued, but in the end, what tipped the balance wasn’t the recommendations of friends or the writings of strangers: it was this speech by Misha Collins – which, yes, I encountered via tumblr – in which he calls out the show’s writers for their needless use of sexist language and misogynistic tropes. Just the fact that one of the main actors was willing to both acknowledge the problem and speak about it went a long way towards reassuring me that Collins, at least, was someone whose work I wanted to support. So I made my decision: I’d give Supernatural another try, endeavouring to make it to at least Season 4, when Castiel – played by Collins – finally makes an appearance.

This decision was roughly equivalent to taking a second hit of heroin because the first one hasn’t kicked in yet.

As promised, Supernatural has a lot of problems – and I mean, a lot. (As, indeed, does heroin.) There’s scarcely a male character on the show whose defining emotional arc doesn’t hinge on his having lost his mother, wife/girlfriend and/or children, and scarcely a female character with an emotional connection to Sam or Dean Winchester who hasn’t been fridged in order to give them more angst (though in fairness, the male death toll is similarly high). Overwhelmingly, the POC characters are either exoticised, stereotyped and/or played as villains, while the queerbaiting is made all the more frustrating by the overall lack of actual queer characters. The sexist language, too, is omnipresent: if you made a drinking game of it, and took a shot whenever someone says bitch, whore, or explicitly codes weakness as female (“no chick flick moments”) and strength as male (“sack up!”), you would end up drunk after any given episode. Throughout nine seasons, but especially in the first three, almost every female character either falls squarely into one of four categories – Victim (dead or damselled), Virgin (pure and protectable), Vixen (sexy and strong) or Virago (angry and strong) – or straddles their intersections with all the subtlety of a brick to the face. Supernatural is, quite categorically, a show about straight white manpain as facilitated by dead ladies and magic – and if that were all it was, I’d never have made it through two full seasons, let alone nine.

However.

It is also a show with a sprawling, complex mythology that nonetheless manages to stay coherent and engaging as it develops. Like The X Files, it has a deft touch with humour, poking fun at its own meta and idiosyncrasies at least as often as it takes itself seriously. It strikes a solid balance between stand-alone episodes and extended arcs, and the characters – well, that’s where things get interesting. Because for all that the Winchesters are frequently situated as being traditionally masculine, even hypermasculine heroes, this isn’t their be-all, end-all.

In fact, there’s an argument to be made that Dean – whose love of classic rock, classic cars, weapons, whiskey and women makes him about as stereotypically masculine as it’s possible to be – is also an active subversion of the very masculinity he ostensibly personifies. Sometimes, this comes across as being an unintentional – but still canonical – consequence of queerbaiting: that is, of the show’s habit of putting (presumably) straight characters in homoerotic situations, or strongly implying a homoerotic subtext, without ever crossing the line into overt displays of queerness. But this practice, while deeply frustrating, also feels like a very real reflection of, and reaction to, the show’s conflicting fanbases, and to the sheer impossibility of pleasing them both – namely, of the schism between (predominantly) male viewers who tune in for the adventures of Fiercely Hetereosexual Warrior Dean Winchester, the epitome of maleness in a show that is very definitely All About Dudes, and (predominantly) female viewers who tune in for Tortured Bisexual Dean Winchester, a good man who is eighteen kinds of broken and quite clearly in love with an angel. (Or his brother. Or both. Whatever.) Uncharitably, the queerbaiting is a way of firmly committing to the former fanbase while giving the latter just enough hope to keep them invested. More charitably, it’s a way of trying to please both groups equally without doing anything that either camp could construe as unforgivable. Most likely, it’s a combination of both, which, when combined with the conservative homophobia of network executives, tends to err on the side of default straightness. Whatever the answer, Dean Winchester remains a complex enough character to defy easy categorisation – and intentionally or not, even without the problem of queerbaiting, his version of masculinity as portrayed on the show is worth interrogating; as, indeed, is Sam’s.

Right from the outset, the Winchester brothers are set up as being, if not total opposites, then temperamentally opposed. The first time I tried to watch the pilot, Dean came across as brash, obnoxious and full of himself, while Sam, whose initial distance from hunting provides the audience with an introduction to the concept, feels more sympathetic: a nice, normal guy being dragged into danger and tragedy by an uncaring sibling. But as the season – as the show – progresses, it soon becomes clear that things aren’t what they seem. Dean’s arrogance is, very explicitly, a coping mechanism, and even in Season 1, we can see the cracks. Sam, by contrast, is highly – and successfully – compartmentalised, able to set aside his past and live normally in ways that Dean just can’t. Nowhere is this more apparent than in the comparison of Dean’s attempt to live a normal life at the end of Season 5 and Sam’s attempt to do likewise at the end of Season 7. When Dean leaves, Sam is imprisoned in hell, having first extracted a promise that Dean won’t try to rescue him. Dean accedes, and goes to live with Lisa, his ex-girlfriend, and her young son, Ben – his reward for having stopped the apocalypse. But Dean, by his own admission, is a mess: he is tormented by Sam’s loss, suffering from recurrent nightmares and flashbacks as well as survivor’s guilt. When the hunting world impinges on his new life, his relationship with Lisa irreparably breaks down as he begins to exhibit the classic symptoms of PTSD: hyper-vigilance, obsessive behaviour, aggression as a fear response, and a compulsive need to control both his environment and the actions of his loved ones. Sam, however, suffers from no such baggage, despite the fact that he doesn’t know if Dean is alive or dead. He makes a new life for himself with ease, and while he does talk to his new partner, Amelia, about having “lost” his brother, it’s clear he isn’t psychologically damaged in the way that Dean is.

In fact, the only time we really see Sam undergo this level of distress in response to trauma – nightmares, impulsive behaviour, rage – in a context that isn’t directly related to his burgeoning demon powers is very early in Season 1, immediately following Jessica’s death. Which begs the question: is Sam compartmentalised because it’s an inherent part of his personality, or is it something he’s learned – a coping mechanism, the same as Dean’s bravado? I’d contend it’s a combination of nature and practise. From what we learn of Sam’s childhood in various flashback episodes, it’s clear he’s always harboured a burning desire to be normal, but it’s equally clear that the same is true of Dean, too. Both brothers have suffered from their upbringing, but whereas Sam is clearly capable of cutting himself off from his family (running away as a teenager, going to college, moving in with Amelia), Dean can never manage it. Which is, quite arguably, the consequence of his being the older brother: Dean’s entire life has revolved around protecting Sam and obeying his father, whereas Sam, who lacked those responsibilities, has a better baseline for normalcy – or at least, for self-definition in the absence of family and hunting – and therefore a better starting position from which to try and establish himself as a separate person. The Winchesters rely on each other, but while Sam depends on Dean as a person, Dean depends on Sam for his purpose, too.

Superficially, Sam is presented as being sensitive and emotional – and therefore the more stereotypically feminine of the two – while Dean is typed as tough and strong: a heroic masculine archetype. But in terms of their actual psyches, the opposite is true: Sam is compartmentalised, resilient and capable, while Dean is a wreck. Throughout the show, both brothers are repeatedly told by a slew of older men – hunters, angels and demons alike – to “stop whining” and “sack up” whenever they dwell on their problems. Any failure to do so, whether perceived or actual, is invariably criticised as being feminine, or derided by comparison to feminine behaviours. Yet at the same time, Dean’s issues are real enough that the same people telling him to “be a man” are also, at various points, genuinely worried by his refusal to seek help or tell them what’s wrong. The contradiction is not only striking, but deeply representative of the toxic burden of enforced, stereotypical masculinity. On the rare occasions when Dean does try and talk about his feelings, he is invariably mocked as weak, whiny and effeminate; but when, having absorbed these lessons, he tries to cope through drinking, self-destructive behaviour and suicidal thoughts, he is criticised – often angrily – for being an idiot. Sam likewise receives the same treatment, but to very different effect. Unlike Dean, who can’t separate himself from his work, Sam’s stress response is to leave whatever situation is upsetting him and calm down elsewhere – a much healthier approach, though one that also earns him rebuke. Time and again, when Sam gets angry, feels betrayed or is otherwise shown to be under pressure, he leaves, turning his back on his (undeniably damaged) family and ignoring other responsibilities in favour of self-care. That he is often cast as selfish, untrustworthy, traitorous and insensitive for doing this – presumably on the basis that Real Men don’t run from their problems or let their friends down, ever, no matter the personal cost – is part and parcel of the same toxic logic that romanticises male self-sacrifice and silence.

For all that Supernatural can and does act as a paean to the virtues of traditional masculinity – brotherhood, battle, stoicism, strength – whether intentionally or not, it just as frequently demonstrates why this mindset is  brutally flawed, with the worst psychological consequences of investing in its mythos – repression, loneliness, self-hatred, addiction, suicidal ideation, insecurity, worthlessness – personified by Dean Winchester. Unlike countless action movie heroes who drink their whiskey, kill the bad guys and stride manfully into the sunset without ever flinching, Dean drinks excessively to the point of attracting comment, has nightmares about his actions, and has to be rescued from danger at least as often as he does the rescuing, because half the time, his “act first, think later” policy is a self-destructive impulse rather than an actual plan. Almost, you could define the split in the Supernatural fandom as being between those who think Dean Winchester is someone to be idolised for his masculinity, and those who see him as needing help. And even now, I still can’t tell if Dean’s relationship with traditional masculinity is deliberately portrayed as compounding his traumas to the point of causing new ones, or if its implications have been hidden from the writers by cognitive dissonance and/or social conditioning. Given the number of creative voices involved, I suspect it’s both, depending on the episode – but either way, it makes for some interesting analysis.

As a duo, what makes Sam and Dean so compelling is the extent to which their personalities, strengths and weaknesses differ, not just from each other, but from first appearances. Particularly in the early seasons, much is made of Sam’s ability to successfully comfort the many grieving strangers they encounter, whereas Dean is always blunt, less adept – and less willing – to tailor his approach to the person, a contrast we’re initially inclined to see as proof of Sam’s sensitivity and Dean’s rudeness. And certainly, Sam is a caring person. But as the show progresses, his interactions become less a function of compassion and more the consequence of his being a better liar than Dean, with fewer compunctions about emotionally manipulating strangers to get the information he needs. When it comes to informational lies – credit card scams, adopting fake IDs – Sam tends to be uneasy with the deception in ways that Dean isn’t; but while Dean is happy pretending to be someone else, he doesn’t fake his emotional reactions. Broadly speaking, Dean is a situational liar and emotionally honest, while Sam is an emotional liar and situationally honest – the exact opposite of how they present.

When it comes to their relationships with women, however, another curious comparison presents itself. Without wanting to overanalyze the handful of sex scenes sprinkled throughout the show, it’s notable that Dean’s encounters, in contrast to his aggressively masculine persona, tend to be romantic, even gentle, with Dean himself often shown to be the more passive partner, while Sam is assertive and dominant to the point of being rough (as more than one person has noticed). Dean has slept with angels; Sam lies down with demons. And for most of the show, that’s not just a metaphor: the big reveal of Season 5 – that Sam is meant to be Lucifer’s vessel, while Dean is earmarked for Michael – is arguably foreshadowed by their earlier romantic pairings with Ruby and Anna, respectively. But as of the most recent season, their predestined dichotomy is turned on its head: Season 9 starts with Sam being possessed by an angel, and ends with Dean turning into a demon, a deliberate subversion that shows how far Sam has come, and how far Dean has fallen. The Winchesters have been to Heaven, Hell and Purgatory, but despite the implied promise of the lyrics to Carry On Wayward Son, they’re yet to find any peace.

What really gets me about Dean Winchester, though, is his status as the most broken of Broken Birds I’ve ever encountered – and in a show where so much else about the gender roles is regressive, it’s striking that the most ostensibly masculine character is one who’s best defined by a trope that’s overwhelmingly female-dominated. In this sense, Dean actually makes for a good case study about our perceptions of gender in stories; specifically, our tendency to hold female characters to higher standards than men, not only in terms of their actions and personalities, but in how we judge whether they’re three-dimensional or poorly-drawn tropes, and our corresponding tendency to assume male competence as a default. Right from the outset, and despite being situated as the more experienced hunter, Dean is – not ineffectual by any stretch of the imagination, but prone to the kind of error which, were he a woman, would likely be counted as signs of inherent weakness.

In the first four episodes of Season 1, for instance, Dean continuously fails to establish his fake identities with any degree of success: twice, he gets in trouble with officials who call his bluff, and twice his incompetence leads to civilians detecting the lie. In 1.1 (Pilot) and 1.4 (Phantom Traveller), it’s Sam, not Dean, who kills the Big Bad, and while he saves the child in 1.3 (Dead in the Water), the offending ghost is dispelled, not through his actions, but the self-sacrifice of another character. The only monster Dean kills is the titular villain of 1.2 (Wendigo), and in 1.4, he’s actively disarmed by his fear of flying. All of which is paired with a high degree of sentimentality: in both 1.2 and 1.3, Dean is visibly flustered by a simple kiss on the cheek, while his strongest emotional connection consists of his bonding with a child over their mutual loss of a parent. Under identical conditions, a female character would, I suspect, have to work much harder to be seen as competent: her failed bluffs would be seen as failures of intelligence compounded by a poor kill rate, while her visible terror would see her pegged as overly emotional. Which is what happens, when successive generations of terrible female characterisation condition viewers to infer the presence of gendered stereotyping on the basis of normal behavioural cues: there’s such a backlog of bullshit to work through re the portrayal of women on screen, it can be hard to step back and judge new characters on their individual merits. But because Dean Winchester is not just male, but overtly masculine, wrapped in a leather jacket and driving a Chevy Impala, we trust that he knows what he’s doing, even when we’d be well within our grounds to think the opposite.

I have more to say, but I’ll save it for another post, as this one is already considerably longer than planned. Apparently I have Feelings about Supernatural that demand expression, and that, right there, is a sentence I never, ever thought I’d be writing. TUMBLR, WHAT HAVE YOU DONE TO ME?

Feel These Things

Sam Winchester - How Do I Stop

Dean Winchester - I Wish I Couldn't Feel A Damn Thing

 

 

*Or not, for anyone who’s been following my tumblr/Twitter presence for the past few weeks.

In the past two days, I’ve ended up in two different arguments with two different men – both of them strangers – in two different forums, about two (ostensibly) different issues; and yet their methods of argument, even their language, have proven eerily similar. The first argument happened on Facebook, when a friend posted a joke about MRAs (“How many Men’s Rights Activists does it take to change a lightbulb? Not all of them!”) and one of her friends chimed in to assert that, as feminists, we were hypocrites for finding it funny, because if the joke were being told about women, we’d be outraged. The second argument happened on Twitter, when, in response to my tweeting Mallory Ortberg’s recent deconstruction of a sexist book review, an unknown man asked both of us, plus another woman, whether we’d have been just as outraged if the targeted reviewer had been female (the implication being that we were, once again, hypocrites).

Both disputes began with a single man challenging two or more feminist women to defend their beliefs on the basis of a hypothetical genderflip from male to female which, in both cases, completely missed the point of the conversation. In the first argument, changing the subject’s gender would obviously have an impact on how the joke was received, because the joke is explicitly contextualised by our awareness of gender inequality, the punchline a verbatim reference to the cry of “Not ALL men!” with which MRAs so frequently – and aggressively – attempt to derail feminist discourse about sexism and misogyny. To suggest, therefore, that such a joke is offensive on the grounds that a genderflipped version would be even moreso is to fundamentally misunderstand that this is the actual point of the joke: namely, that even though women are still being  disenfranchised by an entrenched culture of sexism, the first response of too many men is to act as though their hurt feelings at being accused of sexism, however tangentially, is the greater evil.

By contrast, the proposed genderflip  in the second argument was ineffective for the opposite reason: though Ortberg’s piece certainly made mention, not only of the reviewer’s gender, but of the fact that she’d yet to see the book in question reviewed by a woman, the ultimate point was simply that the review itself was written in a sexist manner; that this was not a helpful way for anyone to review women’s writing. Had a female reviewer written the exact same piece, replete with the exact same biases and problematic turns of phrase, Ortberg might certainly have worded her response differently, if only in the sense of attributing the reviewer’s attitude to internalised sexism rather than male privilege, but the source material would still have been sexist, and therefore deserving of the exact same level of outrage. For our interlocutor to have based his opening rhetorical sally on the idea that female feminists will be naturally more inclined to excuse sexism if it comes from other women – and worse, to phrase this 101-level question as though we had never once considered it before – was not only deeply oblivious, but actively insulting.

To be clear: genderflipping can be – and frequently is – a useful rhetorical device in conversations about both sexism generally and the more specific issues facing persons of all genders. But its usefulness is always going to be contextually dependant on the user’s understanding, not only of what sexism is, but how and why it functions. Because sexism is fundamentally a problem of inequality, the subversive impact of a well-executed genderflip rests in its ability to switch the (im)balance of power in unexpected ways, thereby highlighting the fact that it exists to be subverted in the first place. Genderflipping an argument to support or restore the status quo, however – whether by asking us to sympathise with those already deemed sympathetic, or to approve the power of those already powerful, at the expense of those already viewed as unsympathetic or powerless – is not only a wrongheaded misuse of the technique, but a catastrophic failure of comprehension. The same is true of other subversive flips, like racebending (which is why, for instance, Victoria Foyt’s Revealing Eden: Save the Pearls was such an all-out disaster).

The fact that these two men deployed the exact same tactic for the same, poor reason was notable. That their subsequent responses also aligned was downright creepy – and I mean that in the fullest sense of the word. In response to their condescending language, I referred to each man in tern as patronising, half in anger, half in the hope that they might rethink their approaches. Here is how they responded:

On Facebook: Being patronizing is so much fun you are welcome for it… You may be right but your anger clouds your point and makes it seem far to emotional and not logical. Now before you go off your rocker that I just equated your style of rhetoric with classic feminine traits, I will say that I have done this very thing to men on facebook and gotten the same overly emotional reaction… I always am deliberately patronizing because it would be a waste of the day to do it by accident.    

On TwitterMy pathetic faux-humour patronizes men and women in equal measure. Men find me every bit as exhausting.

In other words, both men accepted that, yes, they were indeed being deliberately patronising, but that I had no grounds for finding their approach sexist, because they were just as rude to men – as though, once again, completely ignoring both the context and the content of the conversation was sufficient to make the accusation go away. Nor is this curious tactic of attempting to deny sexism by claiming misanthropy, or some version of it – as though an admission of being rude to everyone completely rules out the possibility of being rude to certain types of person in specific, culturally coded ways – a two-man anomaly. To quote from Lindy West’s How to Make a Rape Joke:

This fetishization of not censoring yourself, of being an “equal-opportunity offender,” is bizarre and bad for comedy. When did “not censoring yourself” become a good thing? We censor ourselves all the time, because we are not entitled, sociopathic fucks… And being an “equal opportunity offender”—as in, “It’s okay, because Daniel Tosh makes fun of ALL people: women, men, AIDS victims, dead babies, gay guys, blah blah blah”—falls apart when you remember (as so many of us are forced to all the time) that all people are not in equal positions of power. “Oh, don’t worry—I punch everyone in the face! People, baby ducks, a lion, this Easter Island statue, the ocean…” Okay, well that baby duck is dead now. And you’re a duck-murderer. It’s really easy to believe that “nothing is sacred” when the sanctity of your body and your freedom are never legitimately threatened.

Both encounters were frustrating and draining; both left me feeling like I’d wasted time, effort and emotional energy engaging with someone who viewed my exhaustion and distress as a personal victory.  It is disputes like this, in fact – not so much for their content, but for their frequency and duration – which so often prompt people to say, Don’t feed the trolls. Don’t engage. Just ignore them, and they’ll go away. But as I’ve said elsewhere, and as much as even such minor encounters increasingly threaten to burn me out, this isn’t advice I’m willing to take. Like playground bullies, trolls don’t go away when ignored: quite the opposite. They take silence to mean they’ve won, or as assent, or as a challenge to try harder: either way, it invariably emboldens them. I’m not for an instant suggesting that people should engage above and beyond their coping level, or that we should all die on every half-assed rhetorical hill that drops into our blog comments with a virtual smirk and the suggestion that lol maybe ur overreacting??? – I just don’t believe that silence is the answer. This sort of behaviour isn’t anomalous; it’s part of a pattern, and one which needs to be identified before it can ever hope to be changed.