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