Following on from my recent thoughts on the Supernatural pilot episode, I’ve decided to do a rewatch of the show, focussing in particular on the question of Dean Winchester’s characterisation and sexuality. It’s no secret that I’m a staunch advocate of the Bi!Dean school of critical analysis, so I won’t pretend to be coming at this from a purely dispassionate angle; nonetheless, I think there’s enough textual evidence for the position to justify examining it in detail. That being so, I’m not going to talk exclusively about Dean’s sexuality, partly because you can’t usefully discuss that facet of the character in isolation from the rest of his personality, but mostly because – well. Supernatural is a big show with a lot of room for critique, and despite having a stated focus at the outset – and although this is far from being my first time at the SPN meta rodeo – there’s every chance I’ll want to discuss other elements of the show along the way.
With that established and the pilot already dealt with, let’s take a lot at the next few episodes of S1 – ‘Wendigo’ (E2), ‘Dead in the Water’ (E3), ‘Phantom Traveller’ (E4), ‘Bloody Mary’ (E5), ‘Skin’ (E6) and ‘Hook Man’ (E7) – and how they serve to establish Dean’s character.
It’s often asserted that early Dean in particular is unequivocally straight and stereotypically masculine, only developing past this from S2 onwards. But looking closely at the start of S1, a very different picture emerges: though Dean certainly strives to be seen a certain way, it doesn’t quite match up with who he really is. In ‘Wendigo’, when Dean and Sam first meet Haley Collins, the sister of the missing hiker, Dean waits until her back is turned to silently mouth his appreciation of her at Sam. Yet this same degree of sexual swagger is missing from his actual interactions with her: he flirts, but more reservedly, always aware of the context. When Dean is finally forced to admit to having joined the search party under false pretences, revealing that he and Sam are brothers looking for their father, he and Haley have this exchange:
HALEY: Why didn’t you just tell me that from the start?
DEAN: I’m telling you now. ‘sides, it’s probably the most honest I’ve ever been with a woman… ever.
It’s a matter-of-fact confession, not a flirtation, and as such, there’s something stripped bare about it. Just as saliently, however, Dean’s attraction to Haley, in contrast to the usual M.O. of womanising characters, is never just about her looks or her simple presence as an ostensibly available woman: his initial display of interest only happens after she shows her appreciation for his beloved Impala, and is further solidified by their shared status as protective older siblings caring for younger brothers in the absence of both parents. Dean connects with Haley, and at the end of the episode, her simple farewell kiss on the cheek leaves him visibly flustered – not the reaction you’d expect from someone who makes a habit of one-night stands:
This pattern immediately repeats itself in ‘Dead in the Water’, with Dean’s relationship with Andrea. Though he initially flirts with her at the police station, he does such a poor, clichéd job of it that she actively – and amusedly – calls him out, saying, “Must be hard, with your sense of direction, never being able to find your way to a decent pickup line.” Rather than seeing this as a challenge, Dean takes the rejection for what it is and never propositions her again, though he continues to treat her respectfully; instead, the emotional core of the episode centres on his connection to Andrea’s son, Lucas, and the revelation that Dean witnessed his own mother’s death as a child, a trauma that continues to influence him. At the end of the episode, Dean is just as flustered by Andrea’s parting kiss as he was with Haley’s. If Dean is a womanizer, he’s a peculiarly innocent one, blushing before turning away and changing the topic, to the clear amusement of everyone else:
By comparison, Sam – who’s still in mourning for Jess – shows no such awkwardness during or after his kiss with Lori in ‘Hook Man’. Though he quickly stops, apologising to her, Sam is still portrayed as competent and confident, and given who we’re ostensibly meant to see as the more sexual brother, while Dean doesn’t try for a deeper kiss with either Haley or Andrea, Sam definitely does with Lori:
What this suggests to me, and writing partly with the benefit of hindsight, is that Dean touch-starved, flustered by simple affection in a way that Sam isn’t. Whereas Sam has had the benefit of a nearly two-year relationship with Jess, becoming used to casual contact, Dean – as we’ll later learn – has never experienced anything even remotely so longlived or domestic. As such, he talks a big game around his little brother, constantly trying to prove that he both likes and is experienced with women, but the second things move beyond the theoretical, he turns shy.
Though young, attractive women feature in both ‘Phantom Traveller’ and ‘Bloody Mary’, Dean has no romantic or sexual tension with any of them; the closest he comes is an awkward conversation with Amanda, the air hostess in ‘Phantom Traveller’, when he’s trying to see if she’s possessed. This absence of flirtation is important for two reasons: firstly, because it establishes that Dean doesn’t hit on every woman he meets; and secondly, because it highlights that there was something special about both Haley and Andrea. It also helps to retroactively contextualise his treatment of Jess in the pilot: on a first viewing, it’s easy to view his objectification of her as a reflex, womanising overture, but even four episodes later, it’s clear this isn’t so. Dean’s comments to Jess are partially meant to annoy Sam, but mostly, they’re meant to get her out of the room so he and his brother can talk in private: as we see from Dean’s response to Andrea’s rejection in ‘Dead in the Water’, he knows exactly what constitutes appropriate behaviour towards women who tell him no, and the fact that he chooses to be obnoxious with Jess has nothing to do with his libido and everything to do with the context.
In light of this dynamic, Dean’s interest in Becky in ‘Skin’ is fascinating, as we’re given two different perspectives on it: that of Dean himself, and that of his shapeshifted doppleganger. When Sam first mentions Becky, Dean immediately asks, “Is she hot?”, which question Sam rightly greets with a roll of his eyes. Then, later on, when Sam tries to get Becky out of the room so he and Dean can discuss the supernatural elements of the case, this exchange happens:
SAM: Maybe some sandwiches, too?
BECKY: What do you think this is, Hooters?
[She leaves the room]
DEAN, muttering: I wish.
On the surface, both these instances can be used to support the idea of Dean’s heterosexuality. Yet, as with the scene in ‘Wendigo’ where he silently telegraphs his appreciation of Haley to Sam, what we’re really seeing is how Dean performs masculinity for his brother’s benefit, and not how he behaves towards actual women. Dean’s actions throughout ‘Hook Man’ prove the same point: despite repeatedly reinforcing his interest in women in conversations with Sam – “Yeah, I think she’s hot, too” and “stay out of her underwear drawer,” about Lori; “You’ve been holding out on me!” and “Think we’ll see a naked pillow fight?” about sorority girls – he barely interacts with any women at all, rendering the sentiments little more than talk. The closest he comes is eyeing a couple of girls at a party (though he also gazes after a guy in the same scene); otherwise, the romantic arc is all about Sam and Lori. Similarly in ‘Skin’, though Dean enthusiastically introduces himself to Becky and says yes to her offer of a beer, that’s the extent of their flirtatious conversation; the rest of the time, they talk about the case. Thus: while Dean makes sure to let Sam know that he’s interested in women, this doesn’t really correlate with how frequently or aggressively he hits on women otherwise. Instead, it’s the shapeshifter who claims that Dean would “bang her [Becky] if he could”, and the shapeshifter who goes to the house and smooth-talks his way into Becky’s good graces, hitting on her with a persistence and confidence that Dean is yet to display.
By contrast, these episodes also offer two interesting moments that ping my Bi!Dean radar: his encounter with Roy in ‘Wendigo’, and his interaction with Murph the fratboy in ‘Hook Man’. In the first of these, Dean approaches Roy and baits him into the following conversation:
DEAN: Roy, you said you did a little hunting.
ROY: Yeah, more than a little.
DEAN: Uh-huh. What kind of furry critters do you hunt?
ROY: Mostly buck, sometimes bear.
DEAN: Tell me, uh, Bambi or Yogi ever hunt you back?
At this point, Roy physically grabs Dean by the shirt and gets in his face – and given that Dean’s being deliberately provocative, the logical assumption for both Dean and the viewer to make is that Roy is angry. Which is why Dean’s softly-drawled response – “Whatcha doing, Roy?” – ends up sounding provocative in a very different way: the line is delivered neither confrontationally, as you’d expect if Dean had been trying to goad Roy into a fight, nor in shock, apology or fear, as would make sense if Roy’s reaction had caught him off-guard. Even his expressions are at odds with the moment, both when Roy initially grabs him, when he looks like this:
and after he’s been let go – after it’s revealed that Dean was about to step in a bear-trap – where he stares at Roy like this:
In combination, the whole exchange comes off as Dean brattishly flirting with Roy, then looking put out when he doesn’t get the desired response; or at least, I can’t find another explanation as to why he looks so happy about being grabbed. By contrast, when Murph in ‘Hook Man’ asks Dean to help apply his body paint, Dean’s first response is to fob the task off onto Sam, saying “He’s the artist. Things he can do with a brush,” to Sam’s clear mortification. Yet at the same time, the first thing Dean does on entering is to look Murph over, and despite his feigned disinterest, he’s clearly paying enough attention to point out – correctly – that Sam has “missed a spot” on Murph’s lower back:
When put together with Dean’s interactions with the Jericho police in the pilot episode, these two moments suggest an interesting pattern to how Bi!Dean behaves around men. With the Sheriff, Deputy Jaffe and Roy, Dean is deliberately provocative, low-voiced and smirking; but with Murph, he suddenly turns awkward, pretending to read a magazine in order to hide the fact that he’s actually watching the whole thing. Why the change in approach? Because, unlike on the other three occasions, Sam is standing beside him. Though his brother is also present when Dean talks to Roy, he’s not in earshot, too far back to really witness their exchange. Just as Dean continually affirms his interest in women around Sam, behaving in a way that doesn’t actually reflect his interactions with them, so too does he change his approach to dealing with certain men, retreating into No Homo territory. (Watching with the benefit of hindsight, Dean joking in ‘Skin’ that “Sam wears women’s underwear” is a comparable instance of projection to Murph and the bodypaint: in both instances, Dean mocks his own private preferences by publicly asserting them as Sam’s.) The only potential outlier to this comes in ‘Bloody Mary’: when Sam first activates the night vision function on their video camera, Dean strikes a pose and asks, “Do I look like Paris Hilton?”, making this the second time he’s feminised himself, the first being his “My boobs” comment in the pilot episode. But even here, he’s got himself covered: the fact that he’s referencing straight pornography is, presumably, more salient than the fact that he’s comparing itself to the female star.
As for Dean’s other interests, even seven episodes into S1, it’s already clear there’s more to him than leather, cars and classic rock. In ‘Phantom Traveller’, we see evidence of his engineering abilities in the form of his homemade EMF meter, brandishing it with geeky delight when Sam asks why it looks “like a busted-up Walkman”:
Similarly, in ‘Skin’, Dean compares the shapeshifter’s ability to access his memories to ‘a Vulcan mind-meld’, while in ‘Hook Man’, he references Matlock – suggesting that his decision to call Sam a “geek” in the same episode is yet another case of projection.
On the basis of these episodes, then, it’s hard to see early Dean as anything like a womaniser. Though he certainly wants Sam to perceive him as a stereotypically masculine ladykiller, this isn’t born out in his actual interactions with women, while he becomes less provocative around men depending on whether or not his brother is watching. Even if you assume that Dean’s exchange with Jess in the pilot episode was meant to be representative of his usual behaviour – that he wasn’t trying to get rid of her; wasn’t trying to re-establish his masculinity for his brother’s benefit; wasn’t acting more confidently than usual in the knowledge that Jess was taken, and therefore extremely unlikely to reciprocate, making the whole thing more a power play than a flirtation – the next six episodes seemingly do their best to run as far and as fast in the opposite direction as possible. Unlike James Bond, who hits on all attractive women regardless of context and presses whatever advantage they give him, at this point in the narrative, Dean Winchester is selective, has a preference for women to whom he feels a connection, is mindful of the context, and is flustered by simple affection.
Early Dean, in other words, is a projecting, over-compensating, touch-starved dork. No wonder we all love him.