Undisclosed Desires: Supernatural and Network Response to Sam/Dean Slash Fiction
By Allison Ross
In reading this week’s articles and considering corresponding fanfictions, I was reminded of the CW’s Supernatural (2005-) which, in its ten-plus-year run, has inspired extensive fan and slash fiction. This series features numerous “meta-episodes” where various aspects of Supernatural fandom are directly addressed by the show’s characters. By examining the phenomenon of slash fiction and contemplating its subversive uses, in the context of two Supernatural episodes that diegetically address fan culture, I hope to start a discussion around how fan fiction fits into CW’s larger marketing strategies and vision for the show.
Shortly after the pilot episode of Supernatural aired, fan fictions immediately began to surface, including a subversive fan narrative thread. This narrative had brothers Sam (Jensen Ackles) and Dean (Jared Padalecki) Winchester engaged in a romance. While this romance was an example of the larger genre of slash fiction, reminiscent of Mark Andrejevic’s writings on the Kirk/Spock pairings, the backlash against this fan thread was much more pronounced. First, this relationship posited a homoerotic narrative in a show trading on highly codified normative categories of gender and sexuality. The two brothers are pumped-up eye candy types, one almost constantly seen chasing women while the other is defined primarily by his desire for revenge after the death of his girlfriend. Perhaps more shocking, though, was the fact that, within the show, they are brothers. The producers of discussion sites around Sam/Dean acknowledged the subversive aspects of this relationship, dubbing the relationship incestuous. Though potentially an oppositional viewing, as defined by Ellen Seiter, affording gay male (and, according to the “wincest” boards, some female) viewers alternative forms of pleasure while watching the show, this thread would seem to amount to what Henry Jenkins calls “character rape.”
Episodes of Supernatural, most notably Season 6’s “The French Mistake” and Season 10’s “Fan Fiction,” directly address fan fiction: characters respond to fan narratives about their lives. In the episode “The French Mistake,” Sam and Dean are placed on a movie set where Supernatural is being filmed, and forced to “play” the actor versions of themselves – Jensen and Jared. In “researching” their characters, they become aware of Sam Girls and Dean Girls, fan groupies around their characters. This relationship with fan culture thereby is normalized – fantasy narratives of romance with the show’s leads is permissible as long as it is the “right” (heterosexual, consistent with the show’s diegesis) kind of desire. In the later “Fan Fiction” episode, Sam and Dean discover a play that has been written about their lives. The title “Fan Fiction” and incidents within the episode allude to the reappropriation of storylines by fans of a show, but, again, the diegetic logic of the show is maintained. The show’s creators, therefore, consistently reappropriate fan culture in an effort to normalize it, but also curtail potentially subversive readings by representing one, favored fan interpretation.
In the context of this week’s readings, I wondered about fan’s regulation of other fans versus the network’s regulation of fans. It seems the two parties have a contested relationship, with some fans trying to influence network programming and others resisting it. I was curious about the use of this tension as a marketing strategy, especially by the youth-oriented channel CW. Does this acknowledgement serve to inspire and encourage certain types of fan culture? Make alternative readings less alternative? Or further marginalize against the grain readings by making it clear that some online narratives will be acknowledged and others ignored?