We can all name a show that seemed to be the one and only thing keeping us sane in quarantine, offering us a much-needed escape. For me, that was Supernatural, a show that had everything I loved; myths, monsters, an All-American backdrop and an angst-ridden hero with boyband hair. Yet the more I fell in love, the clearer it became that it didn’t love me back.
Even with an online fandom that is almost 80% female and bisexual, the fangirl is just too alluring a punching bag for Supernatural to ignore, resulting in demeaning depictions that are all too familiar. Female fans are often infantilised and pathologised, seen either as moths to the flame or as monstrous, even in comparison to the literal monsters that comprise the show. Although portrayals of male fans can often be just as cruel (we all know the stereotype of the basement-dwelling manchild), their prevailing reputation is of being naive and harmless. With a prequel already in the works (despite the finale only airing in 2020) it’s more important than ever to examine how Supernatural simultaneously spoke to its female fans while shutting them down.
Supernatural isn’t just drawing a female fanbase; it is drawing a young, tech-savvy, cult female fanbase, who are wielding everything at their disposal to be seen and acknowledged
For years, the writers seemed confused and even frustrated that this majority female fanbase existed at all. As literary scholar and fellow fan Katherine Larsen told Gizmodo, “they had guns and a cool car and classic rock – all of that was meant to bring in a male audience”. The entire narrative is constructed around the assumption that Supernatural fans are the same as archetypical comic book fans: male geeks who aspire to become like the heroic and hypermasculine Winchesters (who yes, are named after the American firearms company). The sexualisation of the protagonists plays to this fantasy with many, many, many scenes of demonic femme fatales tying up the boys, seducing and manipulating them, invoking the age-old cliche of ‘all the women want him, and all the men want to be him’.
To this end, a lot of the female characters exist primarily to prop up the protagonists’ heroism, especially in earlier seasons. Yet in creating this male fantasy, it manages to accidentally cater to the female gaze too. Superficially, it shows women physically dominating men, and blatantly and unapologetically objectifying them, in a reversal of stereotypical gender roles. It follows in the footsteps of some of the shows that have been resoundingly popular with women over the years, other urban fantasies such as The Vampire Diaries, Charmed and most notably Buffy The Vampire Slayer.
In other words, Supernatural isn’t just drawing a female fanbase; it is drawing a young, tech-savvy, cult female fanbase, who are wielding everything at their disposal to be seen and acknowledged, whether through fan fiction, petitions or conventions.
It can’t all be about visual attraction. At the heart of Supernatural is the brother bond of Sam (Jared Padalecki) and Dean (Jensen Ackles), which allows them to be intensely intimate and emotional without forfeiting any of that aforementioned masculinity. They have died for each other and it’s this love and emotional vulnerability that is the source of their strength, rather than a joke or weakness, which is sadly still refreshing to see in 2021.
The Winchesters are a contemporary retooling of America’s oldest folk hero: the cowboy, giving us characters that are deeply flawed and emotional yet still legendary as opposed to the stoic and traditionally heroic men played by actors like Clint Eastwood. The Winchesters exist on the fringes of society, gambling and committing credit card fraud to survive, as well as posing as federal agents to gain the information they need to save the day. For these reasons, they’re often witch-hunted by the genuine authorities, their heroic acts going undervalued and unnoticed when they’re not being misunderstood as dangerous monsters themselves.
There is an agreement among fans that the Winchesters aren’t speaking from a place of material privilege. This is very different from a more traditional male figure like James Bond who is rendered much more unforgivable for his similar attitudes due to his wealth and reputation
Academic Laura Felshow does a great write–up of how the brothers are depicted as Other, their links to humanity being so tenuous that they often question if they have more in common with the creatures they hunt. “When the heroes are so definitively other, despite their gender, sexuality and race, is there much need for any other Other?” Felshow asks. Therein lies the key to Supernatural’s fatal attraction. The characters and show itself is at a crossroads, relying on symbols like vintage cars and guns, in an attempt to anchor their identity to those of conventional American action heroes. Some scenes are so cheesy and stereotypically masculine that they border on self-parody.
Yet all of this can be excused by female and LGBT fans alike because there is an agreement among them that the Winchesters aren’t speaking from a place of material privilege. This is very different from a more traditional male figure like James Bond (“the patron saint of white masculinity”) who is rendered much more unforgivable for his similar attitudes due to his wealth and reputation. Can it be a hard show to defend? Yes. Sometimes I don’t know if it even deserves defending. Regardless, it proves to be a show that is easy to love, and I always manage to forgive if not forget Supernatural’s sins.
That being, of course, only one side of the relationship. Is Supernatural willing to forgive our sins as fans? Series five introduces the character of Becky (Emily Perkins), a fangirl of the Winchesters themselves, who unbeknownst to them have inspired a niche book series. Meta-commentary like this has always rubbed me the wrong way. Much like being under a microscope, it feels invasive and claustrophobic, made even worse in this instance because the microscope’s lens is distorted. The first scene where we see Becky, she is writing incestuous slash fan-fiction about Sam and Dean. Instantly, we return to the tired stereotypes of fangirls as unhinged and perverted obsessives, who have no concept of social boundaries. It now becomes necessary to pre-emptively say “but not one of those fans” whenever admitting to liking Supernatural, for fear of being branded a Becky – a fear that my brother, also a fan of the show, gets to ignore completely.
Becky is such an agonising character because she’s inevitably our point of identification, being a fellow fan of the Winchesters, and an ordinary person in a series that focuses on extraordinary people. Yet every trait we share has been taken by the show and warped into something shameful and monstrous
Later in the same episode, Becky discovers that Sam is a real person and her first action is to non-consensually grope his chest as he is visibly uncomfortable. At that moment, what I actually wanted was to melt into the carpet. For weeks, watching episodes with my family, they had rolled their eyes and laughed as I had tried (unsuccessfully) to hide my blushing face in the dark. They knew my secret; I was a Sam fangirl too. And here I was, being portrayed, by the show I loved, as someone who’d assault my favourite character. As one of the villains.
Becky is such an agonising character because she’s inevitably our point of identification, being a fellow fan of the Winchesters, and an ordinary person in a series that focuses on extraordinary people. Yet every trait we share has been taken by the show and warped into something shameful and monstrous. When the character returns in season seven, she kidnaps and drugs Sam in a scene akin to Stephen King’s Misery, lamenting that she hasn’t had the chance to “consummate” their marriage. Fans are often portrayed as predators, as they try to exert control over something that doesn’t ‘belong’ to them – headcanons, shipping and fan-fiction all posing a threat to the creator’s vision. Becky seems designed then as a cautionary tale and a reminder of who is really in charge of Supernatural – we can retaliate against the representation, but we can’t rewrite it or save our reputations.
Actor Emily Perkins has spoken in defence of the character, saying “Jared and Jensen are asked to laugh at themselves and their gender, their sexuality, their masculinity [and] the writers are thinking, well the fans are sophisticated, they’re gonna be able to laugh at themselves”. But if Sam and Dean don’t speak from a position of power, the writers (and actors to a lesser extent) certainly do. They have nothing to lose from making jokes at their own expense, but by feeding the misogynistic trope that fangirls are stalkers and perverts, we become unwelcome party guests in our own community. The progressive subversion of gender roles they often achieve through the gags at Ackles and Padalecki’s masculinity is undone by using it as justification to take yet more cheap shots at women.
Fangirls are firmly forced into either the villain or victim box – a huge part of that being because they’re branded as hypersexual. It’s a limiting and inaccurate portrayal that ignores all the other reasons women become fans
‘Live Free or Twihard’ is another episode of Supernatural that infantilises its fans, and yes you guessed it – it’s an episode that plays with the zeitgeist of Twilight hatred that was so prominent at the time of season six. Twilight for me has always been a huge staple of my own internalised misogyny; I was better than other girls because I liked dangerous, ‘real’ vampires, the kind that had no souls and absolutely no sparkly skin. This episode could have been written for, or indeed by, fourteen-year-old me. So, what sticks out about it in terms of fangirl representation? Well, it’s the way it victim-shames. The episode is about a band of vampires who lure teenage girls by pretending to be like the vampires they read about in Gothic romances. Whenever the Winchesters make a predictable jibe about their universe’s Twilight knock-off, it has a sinister implication that these girls deserved their fates. Boy-smitten and too naive to know any better, they were simply lambs to the slaughter, easy victims.
Fangirls are firmly forced into either the villain or victim box – a huge part of that being because they’re branded as hypersexual. It’s a limiting and inaccurate portrayal that ignores all the other reasons women become fans, but the point should be made that there is nothing wrong with women finding attractive characters attractive. The only thing wrong here is shows like Supernatural that (accidentally or not) work to make us feel ashamed of those feelings, which are neither evil nor weak.
The misogyny towards young fangirls in the 2010s was in part, I think, due to huge audiences of people getting to read, see and judge every fanwork in a way that just wasn’t possible before. This new hyper-visibility coupled with the fact that girls have always been taught to feel ashamed of their interests made it a very tough decade to escape from without internalising a bit of that sexism and self-loathing. Watching Supernatural summoned all those old feelings, making me realise that, no matter how far I’ve come from my ‘not like other girls’ phase, this is a monster that isn’t as dead and buried as I’d hoped.
But! There’s always a but. We’re in the first couple of years of the 2020s and there’s still time for this decade to be the decade of the fangirl uprising. Twilight has had a recent resurgence and is fondly remembered as a cult classic. Cringe culture is dead. With the amount of showrunners throughout the years who all had different perspectives, even Supernatural saw a bit of progress within its runtime. The portrayal of Becky shifted massively in later seasons. And, as mentioned in the beginning, there’s a new spin-off of Supernatural coming, one that centers on the Winchester brothers’ parents, John and Mary, possibly introducing the first woman protagonist of the series… Unless they just decide to make her a sidekick to John.
But there’s hope, real hope, that this decade is going to be one that has grown and learnt from the previous one, especially because we’re talking about it, and that’s the first step.
Supernatural is available to watch on Amazon Prime UK.
Images courtesy of IMDb.
1. A portrait of Becky against a red background. She appears annoyed.
2. The Winchesters hug their father with somber and emotional expressions. They have cuts on their faces.
3. A portrait of Becky with her mouth open in thrilled surprise.
4. An image from the aforementioned Season Seven episode. Becky and Sam are on a bed. Becky lies on Sam’s stomach. Sam is tied to the bedpost and has a sock in his mouth.