Recently, Emily has watched through seasons 1-9 of Supernatural (2-9 were for the first time). In the fourth of several articles, Emily explains why, even though she has come to love the show a lot, there are aspects to Supernatural that put her ill at ease.
Spoilers for seasons 1-9 feature in this article.
Machismo, at a price
There’s no getting past the fact that for many, the actors that play Dean and Sam Winchester (Jensen Ackles and Jared Padalecki, respectively) are good looking chaps. They’ve also got levels of machismo and so forth going on that puts them, mainly, within some very traditional representations of what it means to be male and to act in a masculine way. Thing is, I’m the kind of person to worry about men being shoehorned into what Tony Porter calls “the man box”.
So, while a part of me likes the fantasies that Supernatural as a work of fiction goes through, there’s always a part of me worrying a bit about the kinds of behaviour that it normalises. No, I’m not saying that men who watch the show will feel compelled to buy an Impala and drive around with enough hardware in the trunk to cause a small revolution. What I do fear that the show does a bit, is that it tends to stick too closely to gender roles: men are protectors, women should be saved and can’t save themselves.
And it also gets a bit icky with how Dean, especially, likes to hook up with random women and there’s only really one episode where that’s shown to any real consequences for the character and then it’s from his perspective and not what affect his actions of one night stands may often have instead. Then of course there’s the hints in some episodes where it’s suggested that Dean isn’t necessarily a straight character, but that the character is never given a safe place to explore this further, because he’s imprisoned in the man box.
The dangers of being female in Supernatural
Apart from unrequited love being a huge issue for any female characters who stay alive long enough to have feelings for either of the Winchester brothers, there’s a huge chance that if you’re female and in Supernatural and you’ve got a few lines going on… well there’s a danger that your character will end up dead. Maybe not in their first appearance or the second, but along the line you’ll likely end up deceased and without any higher beings or mojo to help bring you back. The same can be said of a lot of male characters in the series too, but they tend to be shown like they’re going out fighting.
Perhaps the only three female characters afforded the chance to go out fighting have been Jo, Ellen and Meg – over the space of the first nine seasons. And when they do survive, it’s after immense suffering and torture, like what happened to Kevin’s mum in season nine. A few more female characters have managed to stick things out for longer, like Sheriff Jody Mills, but these characters tend not to be of an age that Sam and Dean would romantically pursue.
There was also a tendency in much of the earlier seasons and their monster of the week focus to feature female victims prominently in the openings of episodes. And through much of the series, Sam and Dean normally assume that the women they come into contact with are unable to help or protect themselves. Of course much of this is down to what the screenwriter put down, but it can be a little frustrating when you’re a woman watching the series who doesn’t feel like she has to be saved all the time.
But things have improved
I would say that as the seasons of Supernatural have rolled out that issues around representation have improved. Sam and Dean have been allowed out of the box a bit more here and there, expressing how they feel and being allowed to do so. This has also been shown by the many ways and times that Sam, in the younger brother role, has also been used as a stand-in for a damsel in distress through many episodes.
And while not so many female characters are the first victims in the opening minutes of episodes as they use to be, I find the main progress in the representation of female characters in the show comes in the form of Felicia Day’s character Charlie Bradbury, who first made an appearance in season seven. Charlie is very untraditional as a female character in pretty much any media, more so in Supernatural. She’s smart, pretty, geeky and a lesbian. She’s incredibly nice and resourceful and while she does end up being saved by Dean and Sam more than once, she’s also shown to be pretty capable of looking after herself. But then, not everyone likes Charlie as she is, as shown here.
What I’m saying is…
That this year I have seriously become a fan of Supernatural as a series. However, I can see that it does have issues surrounding representation and gender roles, as well as sexuality at times, and that’s without looking at how the series has represented different ethnic groups in its time and the problems this presents (links to reading around that below) for viewers. I wouldn’t necessarily expect Dean and Sam to suddenly become very socially aware, considering their upbringing, but the show definitely needs a bit more of a balance between how it treats groups who aren’t straight white men… and then it also needs to question more how it treats straight white men. There’s some boxes here that need to be opened up and stay open.