Fans vs fiction: Queerbaiting in "Supernatural"

“Queerbaiting is clinging to the heteronormative interpretation on the surface of things, and refusing to invalidate it, but still trying to present a queer reading in the background; metaphorically selling the hetero story from the front door, and the queer story out back.” Rowan

Sometimes we hold on, far past when we think we should call it quits, because of hope – painful, agonising, stubborn hope. For me, an important source of hope fizzled out in the wake of a Supernatural episode “Fan Fiction” that aired on Tuesday November 11, 2014. My hope ended with these words: you have your version, we have ours.

There’s plenty of speculation out there on whether Supernatural queerbaits its lead male characters Dean, Sam, and Castiel, but there’s no question in my mind that big media corporations recognise and make every attempt to profit over highly popular fan pairings, straight or otherwise. It’s the very heart of television marketing. Supernatural has explicitly acknowledged the popular ships “wincest” and “destiel” in the show itself, alerting fans that they see what they’re up to and know what they want. Wincest, as it involves two brothers, is highly unlikely to ever become an explicit relationship, but fans take the queerbaiting involving destiel, two non-related main male characters, seriously because why shouldn’t we?

Supernatural developed a more intimate relationship with its fans than most shows, though not necessarily a good one. For example, they found a way to directly address their real fans by creating a fake fandom within the show. A prophet chronicles the main characters’ tales and produces a book series, and the brothers often encounter fans of the book series that interact with them, usually unaware they represent the characters in the books. “Fan Fiction” was another such episode where Dean and Sam engage with fans of the books series and comment on how these people view their lives. Erik Kripke, the former showrunner of Supernatural, called this episode “a love letter to the fans”, but in my eyes it was a condescending message masked by singing and dancing. Wincest and destiel were directly addressed, and Dean tells the fans, “you have your version, we have ours”, an answer to the rising, heated controversy over whether Dean and Castiel will ever textually address their long-hinted feelings for one another. That answer is a resonating “no”.

Fans playing Dean and Cas in the episode “Fan Fiction”, and the closest we will likely ever come to textual confirmation of destiel.

 

picture11

“Source: screenshot of episode 10×05”

Even after such a reaction and repeated denial by people involved in the direction of the show as to the future of destiel as a romance, many fans still hold out for Dean and Cas to proclaim their romantic intentions, possibly in the last few moments of the show. These fans often refer to the show as “Schrodinger’s queerbait”, indicating that they won’t call it until the last credits roll. That’s how effectively the show sold the romance; no one wants to believe it could be a marketing tool. My major skepticism of this school of thought is that there have been numerous straight romances with every primary character on the show. The problem isn’t even homophobia: lesbian and gay romance occasionally make an appearance on the show (though the lesbian romances were fetishized and executed for the male gaze, so that wasn’t, by any means, revolutionary). The only romance they refuse to acknowledge, no matter how many fans push or how hard, is the bi one, evidence of biphobia and monosexism.

As these words were uttered my heart sank, but it was already low to begin with. Blow after blow to bi fans preceded the statement, a formalization of what many suspected based on the show’s attitude both in and out of the screen toward the ship and the idea of their main characters coming out as bi. For a more detailed history of Supernatural’s biphobia, check out this post.

The Supernatural fandom consists of a huge number of bi women, more bi women than I’ve ever seen concentrated in one place.

This is likely because the cute main male characters attract mostly women, and the possibility of a bi main character, let alone two, attracts poly-identifying people starved for media representation. My concern at the close of the episode was for these bi women who watched the show with hope like my own – finally, finally, a beautiful, complicated depiction of two bi characters with a slow burn, epic romance worthy of memorializing in television. I wanted to know if they were as affected as I was by the show’s years of teasing and then backpedaling, a confusing pattern of biphobic statements outside of the show but textual and sub textual encouragement within the show. I sent out a survey* to polysexual and/or polyromantic fans on twitter and tumblr, the two social media sites where a large portion of Supernatural’s fan base exists. From that request I interviewed five polysexual women and gathered responses from 62 other polysexual people.

I found that the voices of the bi people I interviewed, over 80% of whom were women, mostly matched up with my own thoughts. They felt hurt, confused, annoyed and overall fed-up with Supernatural’s treatment of polysexuality and polyromanticism.

“It seems that in the rare case there is a character portrayed in a way that is poly, it is always to further some joke, which bothers me every time it’s tried. There’s also the taboo of being poly or the myth that these things aren’t real, which is harmful enough in everyday life, but is so infused into the way the show is written that even when it isn’t a direct poke at poly people, there’s something there that implies being poly is somehow either wrong or nonexistent.” – Anonymous

It’s worth noting that 97% of those surveyed thought the show intentionally presented Dean Winchester as poly or possibly poly, and over half viewed two of the other main characters, Crowley and Castiel, as poly or possibly poly. All of the respondents to this survey identified as poly (bi, pan or some other poly identity). Either these poly people sympathized most with Dean’s queer coding, or he is the most heavily queer coded character. I tend to agree with the latter idea, as I’ve seen Dean queerbaited with many same-gender characters, but the other lead characters are queerbaited more selectively.

A mass exodus of bi women from viewership of Supernatural occurred as a slow trickle with spurts over the last two seasons, when it first started to become apparent that biphobia and heteronormativity lurked underneath all the queerbaiting. Screenshot 2015-03-06 17.49.05

“I haven’t watched since Dean was “cured” in S10 and there was a ton of heterosexual Dean pushes. As for the second question: Emphatically YES. I do feel disrespected because Dean was based on a bi character, and he was represented as bisexual (which anyone who understands the social struggle that can happen with identity would see). I loathe that heterosexual dog sex and bestiality were treated as better than bisexuality. As a professional writer, I feel that it goes BEYOND disrespecting queer people. Through bi-erasure, the entire story, the characters and the myths have suffered and there have been plot holes, bad dialogue and weird story arcs all because of the need by the creators to erase what they did with Dean’s sexuality in the years before.” – J.

I felt like the buildup of the question of queerbaiting or not was coming to a head between the 8th and 9th seasons. They had nowhere to go with Dean and Cas’s relationship except romantic after that point, and they began to make it very clear in insulting and heterosexist ways that they had not intention of doing so. They seemed to think they had to act in a homophobic/biphobic and condescending way to explain the queerbaiting away, and it was just too offensive for me to deal with anymore. It felt like a personal attack. Even though I could have enjoyed the show without any kind of romantic relationship, they were saying things about bisexuality and queerness that were very personal and hurtful to me. It was an ugly reminder of how little people care about the feelings of queer people like myself.

– Anonymous

Only 56% of the respondents still watched the show regularly. Survey respondents cited many reasons for why they left the show, but when asked whether they felt disrespected by the show in some form or another, 87% answered yes.

“Yeah, the complete lack thereof (of poly identities) outside of subtext and demons, the poster children for the Depraved Bisexual trope.” – Tom

“I would have to say it’s mainly what the writing staff and actors say outside of the show. Anything on the show could be part of the characters’ own prejudices. For example, if Dean said something homophobic/biphobic, it could be explained that he is struggling against his own bi identity. But the staff and cast condescending queer fans leaves no question in my mind that they don’t care about us or see us as important members of their audience.” – Anonymous

“It’s the overarching romantic buildup that was never realized that offends me most. Well, that and the writers trying to act like it’s all fanon and they have no responsibility — for example the two “versions” of Supernatural in 10×05. It suggested that romantic Dean/Cas was pure fan interpretation, denying all the elements within the show that created and fostered that interpretation.” – Emma (xceteras)

“The biggest thing is insinuating that having Castiel be portrayed as poly, or Dean, would somehow “make the show about something that it’s not” or “ruin it.” Also the particular incident of Jensen Ackles allowing a fan to be booed off the mic at a con specifically because she said the word “bisexual” (without ever even getting to go on with her question, so ultimately no one actually knew what her question was).” – Sam

“They made Castiel hetero when he didn’t even have a gender….” – Anonymous

“It feels like Supernatural treats poly identities as a joke. Especially when Dean makes comments like “I don’t swing that way” because that’s such an easy way to dismiss the validity of poly identities by not taking it seriously and even using terms that people use to avoid acknowledging poly identities.” – Lindley

The most cited areas of disrespect were from producers and executives, writers, and the actors themselves talking about the show.

“What led me to stop was what was said at Jibcon 2014. Specifically, one of the main lead’s desire to “SQUASH” my beloved pairing. Also, giving them the benefit of the doubt, I expected the issue to be addressed, hence enduring an infernal hiatus in fandom (pressure, mockery, ship wars etc.) My final decision to quit was due to TPTB not addressing the issue directly nor one of the many aspects presented to them during the “Asksupernatural” event on Twitter.”-  Anonymous

In a frankly inevitable turn of events, the PR stunt #asksupernatural on twitter filled up with thousands of angry fans throwing sarcastic, rhetorical questions at the show’s queerbaiting, sexism, racism and ableism. True to form, the show chose to pretend they’d never asked, deleted the tweet, and never publicly acknowledged the reaction (to my knowledge).

I can relate to this fan’s comments on Jibcon. I watched the con from home on youtube, and good thing because I found my eyes tearing up when Jensen Ackles, who plays Dean, said with disdain, “I don’t think there’s anything ‘secret’ about their relationship, though a lot of people wish there was. And I certainly know that Misha and I don’t play that.” Later he commented to Misha, who plays Castiel, “I just spent ten or fifteen minutes squashing the entire Dean and Cas situation.” At this point in the show, ten seasons down and six seasons worth of queerbaiting in, the lead character should have been clued in if there were real romantic plans between himself and another lead character.

Most frustrating is how easily fan popularity translates into straight romances on the show, yet the enormous popularity of destiel is a situation that needs “squashing”. Producers and writers cited the popularity of the unexpected chemistry between Castiel and Meg Masters, a demon in a female body, as a factor in their decision to create a romance between the two characters. Meanwhile, Destiel is the most widely known and by far most popular fan pairing of the show for years now, and it’s still just a common source of derision for actors and writers, the butt of jokes at cons and within the episodes. As “Fan Fiction” suggested, it’s a ridiculous fan push on the same level with inserting robots and space aliens into the plot.

fuckit3This was gathered from an online fandom poll that thousands of fans participated in, from all different social media outlets. (Source: http://fandometrics.tumblr.com/)

Respondents defined queerbaiting similarly and found it disrespectful compared to straight ship baiting because of the lack of representation in media as a whole. Almost all respondents (97%) cited difficulty in finding representation in media. Participants agreed that media representation was important.

“Media reflects how people view the world around them. In return, the world views media and assumes that it is an accurate reflection. If certain groups or types of people are misrepresented or entirely absent from what the media portrays, than the people who consume that media may be misled in their view of the world around them.” – Anonymous

“My first experience with it [queerbaiting] at all was when I was a kid watching Nick at Nite. There was this episode of the Facts of Life where a character seemed to be confused about her gender expression and sexuality. The show was very much implying that she thought she might be gay. I couldn’t believe it. I got my hopes up. There was no romantic/sexual relationship teased, it was just the idea that this kid might be kind of like me. Then at the end of the episode, she (and everyone around her) was so relieved when she suddenly felt attraction to a male character who was introduced. It felt like I was punched in the gut when that happened. Because I was so young, it kind of confirmed to me that I was abnormal and to be like me would be a terrible fate.” – Anonymous

While 73% of respondents either did not think Supernatural would ever present an explicitly polysexual character or found it possible but unlikely, most respondents said the presence of one would change their feelings toward the show. How those feelings would change, however, differed considerably.

“I would be very impressed. I’d be excited. I’d feel represented. I would be happy. Most of all, I’d be so proud of my show for doing something so brave and wonderful.” – Lauren

“No. In my opinion, the damage is too great for me to go back to this show. Also, based on past experiences, I no longer trust the writers with a decent job at depicting such a relationship or character.” – Anonymous

“Somewhat. I’m not going to lie, my response would probably be “this is too little, too late,” but I would probably feel better about the show nonetheless.” – Kimberley (Kay)

“It would show they listened to the fans. I’d still want an apology since they’ve been queerbaiting since the early seasons.” – Anonymous

If there is a silver lining for bi people in this awful situation, it’s the gathering of bi people and bi-friendly people in fandom. We do have “our version”, and it’s a wonderland of representation. Many participants viewed fandom as a safe haven for their identity, with a multitude of fan works that offer unambiguous bi characters and an audience eager for bi stories. However, when asked how they thought queerbaiting had affected fandom, participants were split. They either found the issue raised awareness of poly identities, or it created a rift between fans who saw queerbaiting and fans who considered those fans “delusional”, also at the encouragement of people involved with the show.

Q17: Do you think Supernatural’s queerbaiting has affected fandom’s attitude toward poly people? Please talk about your experience in fandom as a poly person.

“Yes. It’s insisted that we are pushing an agenda, called crazy. I just don’t feel like I’m seen in a good light.” – Anonymous

“Sort of. Attitudes toward bisexuality are pretty bad in general. By dragging things out the way that they do the show is not helping. And that is the real problem with queerbaiting in a heteronormative society; by never being explicit and never confirming queer readings (that I do believe are purposefully invited in many cases) they allow further invalidation of REAL queer identities.” – Anonymous

“Although most of the fandom interprets Dean as bisexual, the refusal to acknowledge it on the show hurts. I have people saying a bisexual Dean would make the show ‘effeminate’ and ‘needlessly political’. It’s very hurtful to me that these are the words people hear when I talk about my identity.” – Sarah

“I think the discussion it created in fandom led to more people identifying themselves as poly in the larger community in order to point out that poly people do exist and deserve the representation that they feel is possible. I also think you’ve got a lot of pissed off queers because they saw the potential for their stories to be told, and they’re getting jerked around for a bunch of punch lines.” – Anonymous

“I think that people who are straight, seeing us trying so hard to get SPN to accept Dean as bi, or Cas as bi, has pissed them off, and made it so that there is a lot of anger and resentment between straight people and poly people. It’s really frustrating to read an article about how SPN is queerbaiting and then see the comments where straight people are just yelling or screaming at people who think there might be more to any of the characters other than the norm.” – Rebecca Star

“In my corner of fandom, at least, it has made the subject of multisexuality more accessible, easier to discuss.” – Shawne

Speaking of… this article isn’t about whether or not Supernatural queerbaits, but it inevitably becomes the focus of conversation in the wake of any media recognition of the phenomenon. It might be tempting to claim that since Supernatural finally (ambiguously) cleared up the destiel question textually on Fan Fiction, it’s no longer queerbaiting. I would contend that the long history of disrespect and denial while continuing to use our symbols, our jokes, our references and our romances will leave Supernatural an eternal example of queerbaiting, no matter what the show now does to try to fix the mess. Major publications like policymic and tvguide have addressed the matter, and queer publications like Advocate as well, giving weight to fan accusations. Let me leave you with these images and a link to these PowerPoints on destiel and queerbaiting in general if you have doubts (warning for strong language). You’re also welcome to discuss the topic with me on my blog or on twitter anytime, provided you read the previous posts before bringing it up.

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Source: screenshot of supernatural episode 8×17 in the moments following a pivotal relationship point for Dean and Cas. The flag in the window wasn’t there before…

 

If you would like to read all the survey results, as there were many amazing responses I didn’t have room to publish in one article, it’s available to the public here. A lot of people spent a lot of time filling out this survey and it offers deep and complex insight into the feelings of the bi audience. A galaxy sized thank you to the survey participants.

*A note on the survey methods: The survey results cannot be extrapolated to the whole fandom of Supernatural because I was not able to gather a true random sample. I was limited to surveying people who followed me, and the people I was able to reach through retweets and reblogs on tumblr and twitter. While you cannot extend the results to all of the fandom, it is still valuable to hear individual voices of bi people in fandom and their thoughts and feelings. Another possible bias in the survey was the use of the term “queerbaiting” in the survey name, which might have discouraged bi identifying fans who don’t consider Supernatural as an example of queerbaiting from responding. I specified that the survey was about queerbaiting in order to avoid the respondents who only want to argue over whether or not queerbaiting exists and if it does whether it exists in Supernatural, which is still controversial in fandom. In an attempt to mitigate this bias somewhat, I specified that respondents who didn’t agree that Supernatural was queerbaiting were encouraged to respond as long as they didn’t shift the focus of their responses into debating that idea.

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Geneva Kelly

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4 Responses to Fans vs fiction: Queerbaiting in "Supernatural"

  • Pingback: Representation and Queerbaiting – You Can't Spell Subtext Without S-E-X

  • V says:

    I think that person J is misconstruing Dean being named after Dean Moriarty, for being based on. When Eric Kripke himself, has never actually said Dean was based on Moriarty, outside of wanting to name the character Sal and Dean. He talks more about how the characters are more based on Han and Luke than anything else, and I think he’s only ever mention On the Road once, and that’s when he was talking about where he got the names for the characters.

    Yeah, the show has made a few jokes, which I can understand people seeing as queerbaiting. But at the same time said people, will say a drunk Dean infected with ghost sickness telling a deputy he is “awesome” is queerbaiting or queer coding, or the fact Dean and Cas stand in the same room, I mean people see scenes where Cas is threatening Dean with violence as romantic, there is a real dissonance to it all too on the fan side. So there is a level of, I don’t confirmation bias I guess would be the term, that they want to see anything and everything as subtext and thus equate it to queerbaiting. And I’ve seen some loopy stuff on Tumblr, like Dean dreaming of two strippers is Destiel subtext somehow.

  • J. says:

    @Geneva: I just wanted to give you a heads up: Your data on the summary is mixed up and you’ve attributed responses to the wrong people in several areas.

    You have me listed as #4, but a lot of my answers on various pages aren’t in the #4 spot. For example, I consider myself Genderqueer and not Asexual. Additionally, 48/61… I don’t ship Destiel or Sastiel. My answer was the one above it that you have in the #3 slot. I don’t have a copy of what I submitted, but looking back through the comments I can tell in several places where responses attributed to me are incorrect. For example again, 15/61 #3… I stopped watching after Slumber Party and watched S9 on a binge. I haven’t watched Girls, Girls, Girls or Fan Fiction… Page 24/61 is also entirely messed up. You have my comment under #7 on that page. These are not the only instances. If you look at the time stamps, you can see where my actual responses are on the summary. I submitted my responses on 12/16. For some reason, a few showed up as 12:53 and the rest are at 1:20 PM. As for the quote above in the article: That’s definitely mine. Thank you.

    @V: I have mentioned Dean Moriarty in the past, but I’m not saying that this is the primary reason that Dean is a bi-character only that the original basis shouldn’t be ignored (I don’t deny that the influence of Han and Luke were mentioned, BUT they were also suddenly only overemphasized in interviews after fans started learning more about the characters in On the Road and started asking if he meant that Dean was bi).

    Dog Dean Afternoon was a play on the name of the movie Dog Day Afternoon. If you know anything about that movie, you can see that the writer’s were referencing it while seemingly mocking fans who have seen what very much appears to be Bi-Dean on screen and blatant queerbaiting. If you can’t see the queerbaiting, well… that is how it works. I don’t ship Destiel. As you can see above, Geneva mixed some things up on the summary. That said, I can definitely see why some viewers have seen winks and nods in that direction. Ignoring Tumblr GIFs, which can be manipulated, and overzealous fans who believe they see certain ships in every interaction, there are plenty of instances of queerbaiting in the series.

    But, I won’t go on about it since you’ve already stated that you only think the show has “made a few jokes.” That right there is one of the biggest problems with SPN… queerbaiting can be misconstrued as the writers “joking.”

    Well, treating homosexuality and bisexuality as a punchline for heteronormative people to laugh at is not funny; misogyny is not funny; rape culture is not funny and racism is not funny. Yet, the writers and cast of SPN have at one point or another made all of those topics into “jokes” or outright promoted these concepts (which is why so many people asked about the bi-erasure, misgoyny, rape and discrimination against POC in SPN on Twitter that day.

    Additionally, I’m not saying that all instances of the winks/nods that were suggesting, at least, Bi-Dean throughout the series were on purpose. In fact, it looks more like they saw, by S8, that they could really get the numbers if they pushed it and that’s when they went all out with maybe a few purposeful instances before from the point when Castiel first showed up and they were “joking” more about he and Dean. But, I personally didn’t believe that they were going to introduce Dean as Bi, even though I felt he was closeted or unaware, until S8. I suggest re-watching that season. It is chalked full of baiting and, for the first time, I thought… Wow. I think they’re actually going there. And, I didn’t care if Dean got involved with Castiel. In fact, I kept seeing his connection to Benny and the teenage after school special quality of the dialogue and the scenes — especially the “break up” comparison between Sam and Amelia and Dean and Benny — as definite queerbaiting. I later re-watched and understood where the Destiel fans are coming from because I could see a few instances in that direction. The flag in Naomi’s office. That was NOT an accident. I don’t care what they say. It’s the bisexual pride flag turned upside down and there were plenty of winks/nods in that season. Season 9, on the other hand, was all about the backpedaling and trying to undo the fact that they went too far in Season 8. They wrote themselves into a corner in which they would either have to acknowledge Bi-Dean or erase him. Slumber Party is one of the best examples of bi-erasure in S9. They spent an incredible amount of camera time having the token Lesbian, Charlie, hold up or point out Dean’s heterosexual porn collection. They also spent a lot of time talking about “revisionist history.” That was also the episode in which Jensen and Jared switched lines when talking about the Supernatural books written by Chuck. It was admitted by one of the SPN team on Twitter that same night that the switch was done on purpose. Later, the actors claimed it was because the line that Sam spoke didn’t seem like a Dean line, but if Jensen had spoken it he would have come off as against the fandom. There’s PLENTY of additional instances throughout Season 9 of backpedaling and erasure. How many times did an episode focus at some point on Dean’s sexuality while ignoring Sam’s or ignoring Sam entirely to have unnecessary scenes or plot elements that were primarily about proving that Dean is 100 percent all American heterosexual male.

  • J. says:

    Correction to the above:

    There should be a question mark at the end of that last line. There were SO many scenes in Season 9 designed to prove Dean’s sexuality.

    Before S8, I would have thought that either 1) Dean’s had problems with homosexuality / slight phobia OR 2) The opposite… Dean was again closeted or consciously unaware and trying to prove consciously or subconsciously, given his upbringing, that he’s 100 percent heterosexual.

    After the S8 baiting… I have no doubt that many of the S9 scenes, plot points, episode titles, etc were about erasing the possibility of Dean as bisexual and mocking fans who both saw the queerbaiting and complained about it.

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