Monday, September 14, 2009

On fangirls and feminism, or, "Sweetheart, this ain't Gender Studies."

This post was requested by my dear friend Beth, fellow butt-kicking feminist and Supernatural fangirl. If you don't care about the show, you may want to skip this post. I won't be sad, I promise.

For those of you not in the know who decided to stick around, Supernatural is a television show about two brothers, Sam and Dean Winchester, who travel the country in their beautiful 1967 Impala killing ghosts, demons, and other things that go bump in the night. The show is, from its outset, a bit problematic from a feminist perspective. The brothers Winchester become demon hunters by following in the footsteps of their father, who is drawn to the business of hunting after he sees his wife engulfed in flames, pinned to the ceiling of Sam's nursery with her abdomen sliced open. He spends the next two decades learning to track the thing that killed her, and, as a result, the boys are alternately trained in supernatural combat and left to their own devices in a series of seedy motel rooms. While Dean takes their father's edicts as law, Sam yearns for normalcy and, when it's time for him to go to college, says goodbye to his family and their demon hunting ways for good, and says hello to Stanford's pre-law program, where he meets a comely blonde named Jessica and starts working on making his dreams of normalcy come true. That's all well and good until Dean shows up at his and Jessica's apartment in the middle of the night, asking Sam to help him find their father, who appears to be on a demon-hunt gone bad. Against his better judgment, Sam goes with him. The boys don't find their father, but do solve a mystery that he couldn't. They defeat a Woman in White, a spin on the Vanishing Hitchhiker legend who targets unfaithful men by making them pick her up on the side of the road. When they take her to her destination (her creepy, abandoned house), she flirts with them until they give in, then rips out their hearts. Sam and Dean kill her angry spirit by forcing her to confront the ghosts of the children she drowned after finding out her own husband was unfaithful. When she reenters her home, the watery spirits of her children engulf her own airy one, and she's gone. After their victory, Sam and Dean return to Sam and Jessica's place. Sam tells Dean he enjoyed the rush of the hunt and seeing his brother again, but that he needs to get back to his normal life, thanks. No such luck, because Sam finds Jessica pinned to the ceiling with her abdomen slashed, and she bursts into flame, a near-mirror image of what happened to his mother in his infancy, right down to her hairstyle. Sam now understands his father's motivation, and the pilot episode ends with a shot of Sam's duffel bag being thrown into the Impala's truck with its coterie of homemade weapons. We hear (but do not see) Sam say "We've got work to do," before the screen goes black.

Why does this get my feminist panties in a bunch? All of the above happens in the pilot. The catalyst for both sets of parallel action (father and son) is a dead woman, and the first spirit to be killed earns her fate for transgressing her appropriate roles as good mother and submissive wife. These points set up Sam and Dean's very male, very lonely world of muscle cars, hair metal music, and skirtchasing. Okay, so that's mostly Dean, but you get the idea. The boys are virtually alone in their weekly hunting pursuits until Season Two, when they meet the denizens of Harvelle's Roadhouse, a rundown place in Nebraska that seems to cater to a clientele of hunters. The roadhouse is run by Ellen Harvelle, a no-nonsense woman who somehow knows the boys' father, and her equally fierce (though not in the gross Tyra way) daughter, Jo, who longs to escape her mother's watchful eye and get in on the hunt herself. Both women are tough. They can take care of themselves without help from a man and they even best Sam and Dean in a fight. It turns out that John Winchester was there when Jo's dad was killed by a demon, so she has the same sort of familially-connected desire for revenge the boys do. A Jo/Dean romance is hinted at but never pursued, and though she proves herself capable of planning and seeking a hunt in episode 2.6, "No Exit," Dean looks at her as an inexperienced kid. When she suggests his disdain of her hunting is because she's a woman, he condescends, saying, "Sweetheart, this ain't Gender Studies." Jo turns out to be the ticket to the boys' solving the hunt, but only because the serial killer's ghost they're looking for has a particular hankering for petite blondes. Jo acts as bait and saves another woman in the process, but the boys must step in and save HER. We see her a few more times that season, and in her last major appearance, she's nearly raped by a demon-possessed Sam. Problematic and disturbing? Yes. Even more so? She was written off primarily due to negative response from the show's mostly female fanbase who didn't want a woman getting to close to the boys. They would rather all representations of themselves be screaming and helpless, apparently. Bah.

Fast forward to now, the beginning of Season Five. We've seen two more major female characters. One was a manipulative, double-crossing (or triple-crossing?) demon and the other was a mercenary. Both used their sexuality to get what they wanted. Not much to work with in the well-rounded female character department. There's been an interesting new development, though. Now the boys are trying to save the world from the apocolypse and a very upset Lucifer (yeah, that Lucifer...sort of). It turns out that they're the subject of a book series, cleverly titled (you guessed it) Supernatural, whose writer is a prophet from God. Yeah. They went there. This series has a small but rabid fanbase not unlike that of the actual television series. In the most recent episode we met Becky, the books' biggest fan.The author asks her to get a message to the real Sam and Dean. She tears herself away from the wincest fan fiction she's writing, and goes to see the boys. She then fawns, gropes, and generally freaks Sam and Dean out. I'm not sure what to make of this. On one hand, it's nice to see a wink and a nod to some of the more extreme members of a fandom I'm simultaneously a part of and love to hate. On the other hand, Becky seems like the latest addition to a series of poorly characterized women. I know the show has some silly fans. I know I like to get silly when I watch it sometimes. Jared (Padalecki, who plays Sam) and Jensen (Ackles, who plays Dean) are certainly easy on the eyes, and that's enjoyable, but the show is so much more than that. It's scary and funny and clever. It's just kind of sexist, too.

Jo makes another appearance in this week's upcoming episode. I'd love to see her confront Becky, but I doubt that'll happen. I asked Alona Tal, who plays Jo, how she felt about being written off the show and if she'd be back when I met her at a fan convention about two years ago (I meant it when I said I was a fangirl). She admitted that she was miffed about fan treatment of Jo and said tha she too had noticed a lack of a strong female character on the show prior to her tenure. Let's hope she remedies that for all of us this week.

Beth, I hope that satisfies your craving for some feminist discourse about our craziness. Everyone else, if you're interested in catching up, Seasons 1-4 are on DVD and Season 5 airs Thursdays at 9 on the CW. If you still don't care, thanks for reading anyway.


  1. I love and adore you more than words can say. You have no idea how good being called an ass-kicking feminist makes me feel. Equality for the win!

    I really like it that you talk about the fangirls reaction to Jo. As a rabid fangirl myself, I admit that I didn't like Jo, and it wasn't until you mentioned how badass awesome she is that I stopped and tried to figure out why, which boiled down to how she cuts into Dean's screen time. Yet, I find Becky just amusing even though intellectually I hate what she represents. Also, it kind of bothers me that the show not only doesn't present any strong female characters, it also takes the time to make fun of women like that. It also sort of makes fun of men who aren't masculine enough, like the nerdy ghost hunters.

    Sorry for the rambling comment, I'm a little tired right now, but I love this and thank you!

  2. Thanks, love.

    Yeah, I'm really upset about what happened to Jo.
    I enjoy Becky a bit as well. I like that the writers feel they can affectionately pick on the fans. That's cool.

    It's great that you mention contrasting maleness as well. I never quite know what to do with The Ghostfacers. Clearly they're meant to be dupes and stooges, but the integration of the gay plot last year rubbed me the wrong way. I can't really explain it. Great point, though.

  3. I find the Ghostfacers (sorry for forgetting the name) generally annoying if for no other reason that the writers use them to make a dig at Buffy the Vampire Slayer. As in, they clearly regard Buffy as one of their heroes ("what would Buffy do?") and they are also reminiscent of the three boys in Buffy who are played as nerdy dupes and stooges and generally mocked throughout the show.

  4. I'm not sure that holds up entirely, given that so many BtVS cast members have been hand-picked guest stars. Clearly the SPN folks (at least partially) acknowledge Buffy's contributions to the genre. I think it's what they're doing to the fangirls, a kind of affectionate ribbing. The gay stuff seriously complicates it, though, as I said.