This post is addressed to my livejournal friends who are troubled by the apparent misogyny of “Supernatural.” Spoilers up to and including 3.12, Jus in Bello.
In this essay I would like to propose a slightly different way of viewing the position of women on the show. I’ll argue that “Supernatural” does not so much promote a misogynistic view of women, but that it does use the idea of separate spheres to create an atmosphere of fragility for the everyday world, in contrast to the brutal realities represented by the Winchesters. The world of women is a sunlit world, a world in peril, that represents all the Winchesters long to protect and all they long for for themselves but cannot have due to their chosen role as warriors. Moreover, the Winchesters themselves are placed in a position of suffering by their exclusion from the “softer side” of life. The world of Hunting is brutal and terrifying, yet having once acknowledged its reality, the Winchesters take upon themselves the onus of protecting the innocent from that world. On “Supernatural,” a kinder, gentler world is represented by women, but I argue that women are not limited to the less than fully human pedestal perfection of misogyny, but rather live fully fledged human lives that Sam and Dean cannot allow themselves to join.
I will begin by positioning my theoretical background. I am a trained literary scholar with a women’s studies certificate and an avowed feminist. That said, I’m not going to take the position that “Supernatural” is misogynistic even though many thoughtful women whose opinions I respect have come to that conclusion. For better or for worse, my thinking represents what Keats would call “negative capability” – the ability to hold two conflicting ideas in my head simultaneously – this does not make me a better arguer, but it does allow me to enjoy Show even when it portrays women as less than fully realized characters.
I wrote my dissertation on the novels of Mary Shelley, basing my arguments on her representations of what I call “utopian domesticity.” I argue that Shelley represented the family and the home as the site of perfectable society, in keeping with the progressive political theories of her mother, feminist thinker Mary Wolstonecraft, her father, anarchist political theorist, William Godwin, and her husband, radical visionary poet Percy Bysshe Shelley. So, I bring to the table in this conversation about “Supernatural” a certain set of ideas about the role of women, the nature of home, and the ideals of utopia, that are not usually part of the feminist conversation but that I argue can be both progressive and feminist in potential.
Let’s turn first to the sunlit world of women represented by Mary Winchester, Jessica Moore, and Lisa Braeden. Because we are introduced so briefly to Mary and Jess before they are killed, we don’t know a lot about them, except for what they represent: their murders represent the catalyst for turning the Winchester men into driven, homeless warriors. They represent the potentiality for home, love and security that is taken away and replaced with a never-ending series of seedy motel rooms and a mobile arsenal in the back of an antique muscle car. In the Djinn’s dream, Dean longed for his mother, her touch, her birthday celebration, the engagement of Jess and Sam, and the beautiful sunshine on the green grass while he mowed the lawn. What he got instead was a midnight conversation with his dead dad, and a self-inflicted knife wound that woke him up to his own reality.
The fact that Mary and Jess are never fully explored as characters is troubling, yet for me, the idea that they represent home and love to Sam and Dean is not misogynist. They are victims, but not because they were weak or deserved to die. They were victims in the tragic sense: their deaths are senseless and random. In actuality they seem like mature, strong and interesting women, if only we had gotten to know them. In misogynistic systems, women’s characters are flattened and limited, so that “pure” characters and “fallen” characters do not have fully-fledged human identities. I don’t think that “Supernatural” maintains Mary and Jess as pedestal pure, but rather as complex, fully human women we didn’t get a chance to know.
We do get a little more knowledge about love interests Cassie, Lisa, Sarah Blake and Madison the werewolf. Of all these characters it’s Madison that interests me the least. She’s a very sexy werewolf and there doesn’t seem to be that much more to it except that Sam is susceptible to her attractiveness. She does die a noble death – facing her death without complaint when she realizes that she is doomed – so that can be admired. The equation of the sexy woman with the destructive animal – a step toward misogyny – is mitigated by her bravery and humanity when she accepts death as a way to keep from becoming a beast and killing again. The witch in Malleus Maleficarum who tries to escape the demon by attacking it with a spell makes a similar move – regaining fuller humanity by resolute action in the face of doom. By facing death bravely or by taking a doomed last stand, these women put themselves exactly in the subject position of the Winchesters.
Jo and Ellen are even more closely positioned as parallel characters to the Winchesters. Ellen, though not a hunter, has the knowledge of a hunter and gives the boys vital leads and advice. Missouri is also introduced as a wise woman who understands the nature of the supernatural yet survives that knowledge. Jo is two years younger than Sam and is itching to go out into the world as a hunter, a goal she eventually realizes. I’ve never understood why there is so much animosity in fandom toward Jo. She is young, and inexperienced, but she is ready to learn and ready to experience. To my mind, neither of the Harvelles is a woman limited by the blinders of misogyny, but rather are women making a go of it in the Hunters’ world.
Back to love interests, we see in Cassie a sceptical view of the Winchesters’ world, and in Sarah Blake a more open-minded one. When Sarah is convinced of the reality of a vengeful spirit, and is ready to work with them to take it on, Dean says to Sam, “Marry that girl” -- meaning, here’s a woman who is your equal, a potential partner, someone you can be happy with – the kind of woman Cassie didn’t turn out to be. I’m sympathetic toward Cassie: as a sceptic she turns on Dean when he first reveals his identity as a hunter to her, and her scepticism is justified because unlike Sarah she does not see any evidence of the supernatural that we know of. When later she tells Dean that she doesn’t believe things would work out between them, I feel like this is her prerogative. Dean leads a dangerous and nomadic life. It would be like being in a relationship with an armed forces serviceman without any of the guarantees or community of that life -- he could get killed or possessed and she might never even know about it – a rough row to hoe.
Lisa Braeden is another love interest Dean seeks out after he’s made the deal with one year left to live. (My husband always wonders how she has such a nice big house in that gated community on a yoga instructor’s salary....) We see that she is important to Dean beyond her position as the mother of his possible son when we see her again in the dreamroot vision, clearly representing the same sunlit world of women that his mother and Jess represent to Dean. To me, it is fair that she represents that world to Dean, with her big beautiful house, the elaborate birthday party she throws for her son, her bravery in the face of danger, her love for her son, and above all, the tentative offer she makes to include Dean in that life. He is forced by his circumstances (the Deal) to reject her offer though it clearly pains him to do so; he falls back on the idea that the role of the Hunter is the only role he is fit for: “this is not my life.” Dean chooses to dedicate his remaining years to killing as many evil sons of bitches as he possibly can, instead of getting to know Lisa and her son. He exiles himself from the sunny world she represents even as he longs for it.
Let’s turn next to the world of women allies beyond the Harvelles. We’ve met several women in law enforcement who see, understand, and meet the challenges represented by the Winchesters and their world of Hunting. Two examples include Deputy Kathleen Hudak, who teams up with Dean so that they can learn the fate of their respective brothers, and Detective Diana Ballard, who teams up with Sam to solve a string of murders that we eventually learn were actually committed by her partner. Both these women are strong and capable law enforcement officers who come to respect the Winchesters’ dedication to Hunting, and are respected by the Winchesters in turn. Oddly, both these women are faced by threats that are actually not supernatural, but rather stem from brutal men. They end their respective episodes saddened but alive.
Another woman character I enjoy is Lenore, who attempts to lead her family of vampires out of the realm of the supernatural into the realm of sunlight, by convincing them to drink cow’s blood and have dayjobs instead of preying on humans. She is portrayed in marked contrast to the horrific Hunter gone mad, Gordon, who killed his own sister after she became a vampire. Lenore, though placed in the tragic position of having her family hunted down and destroyed one by one, refuses to allow her bloodthirsty nature as a vampire to triumph over her ethical understanding. She cleverly arranges the abduction of Sam in order to convince him of her trustworthiness, developing the Winchesters as allies, and opening the eyes of Dean to the true nature of Gordon, whom Dean had empathized with as a dedicated and self-sacrificing Hunter. Lenore survives! And leads her remaining family to a new safe location. Lenore, as a woman, represents a choice away from the darkness of the world of the supernatural, and toward the daylight world of home and family – not a misogynistic, but a women-centered (feminist) outcome.
I’m willing to discuss other woman characters such as Ava, Layla, Tamara, etc. but don’t necessarily think that their identities as women defines their character. Even the two new girls, Bela and Ruby, though certainly cast as sexy women, do not seem to be woman characters first and foremost.
One more thing before concluding: the attitude toward Sex on the show. Dean is a sex-positive thinker. He sees sex as recreation and wants to enjoy it with whatever willing partner he comes across. I get the impression that Dean would be an enthusiastic, attentive, and respectful partner. I’d actually be more wary of getting involved with Sam, who seems to have a welter of expectations as to what sex might entail. I think Sam chooses rightly to keep himself reined in, and I believe that the two brothers both respect women as sexual creatures in their own ways – Dean by having a lot of fun, and Sam by staying unentangled. I especially liked Dean’s astonishment in Jus in Bello that the very kind and attractive Nancy is a virgin – he’s like, “no one is a virgin” -- she says she is and very earnestly defends her status as “a choice”. He seems to respect that and yet conveys his willingness to help her out should she change her mind. For Dean, it is not whether or not Nancy is a virgin, but whether or not to intentionally sacrifice a human in order to win their battle. His respect for Nancy’s life is not tied to her status as a virgin, but to her identity as a human being (not a demon).
In conclusion, I acknowledge that women are often put into the position of “victim” on the show. This seems to be a feature of the horror genre. (Show actually parodies this trope in the Hollywood Babylon episode.) While Sam and Dean are Heroes, roaming about fighting evil and sacrificing themselves, they have cut themselves off from much of human life, a fact that Sam initially rebelled against, the character of Gordon played out to a horrific extreme, and something Dean is coming to understand and regret. It is a show about two brothers, something the Show’s creative team strives to keep free of an encumbrance of supporting characters (no matter how much we long for the return of Ellen). I might even posit that the wealth of wincest represents a desire on the part of fandom to create a deeper sense of home for the boys by uniting them into romantic love, since they have denied all attachments to anyone but each other. The world of love, home and safety has been assigned to women in our patriarchal society, but that world also serves as a utopian model of perfected society if women are allowed to be fully human and men are not always excluded from it by their status as warriors. In my opinion, the narrative desire of the Winchesters, constantly deferred by the generic demands of serial television, is to fight their way through all the evil of the supernatural and finally win a place in the sunlit home.