Friday, February 7, 2014

A Tale of Two Brothers (and Two Main Problems)

I'm not sure how much there will be, but potential spoilers for Supernatural up to half-way through Season 5; it'll also operate on the assumption you've seen it, because I don't
feel like  going through and explaining every minute detail- there will
be enough to cue you to the right episode, character, etc., but if you need 
more, go to one of the millions upon millions of fan pages.

Sam and Dean Winchester,
two brothers, one mission; sort of
I finally started watching Supernatural a while ago, and I've got to say, it's definitely quite addicting. I can tick off a few things I think it has going well for itself.

1) Good long-term plot devices. While its monster-of-the-week stuff can sometimes get a little cliché and typical (not to mention predictable), the overall story arcs are very well conceived and executed- I often am surprised and deeply moved by some of the Big Stuff that happens. For example, the stuff about "Yellow-Eyes," or Azazel, from the first two seasons was all very compelling and  well-done. 
Persuasive mo-fo- he prolly has a bonus of,
like, 8 to his Diplomacy checks.
2) Self-awareness. From the very first season, the show acknowledges how weird and unrealistic all of this is through the voices of the "regular" people the brothers encounter every time. Hell, even the brothers, the ones that grew up around  this shit, sometimes are like, "For real?" about whatever they have to go after. And it goes to some really hilarious meta-arenas later on, like when the brothers Winchester discover there are books  about them and even end up at a Supernatural (name of the book series) convention with a bunch of Sam and Dean LARPers. Not only does it comment on the genre, but on itself  as such a big phenomena within said genre. 
I honest-to-Bob can see this in
an actual episode FAR too easily.
3) The pop culture references. They were also around from the very beginning, albeit somewhat subtler- the aliases the brothers used were classic rocker names, and  every now and then one of them (usually Dean) name-dropped something relevant ("Take that, twilight!" when going after a vampire, no doubt a reference to those fabulous books and  movies). It has grown a bit more overt (and sometimes takes up more lines of dialogue than one or two), and especially happens simultaneously within the über-meta episodes (like  the one where the trickster puts them into spoofs of a few different TV shows, including Grey's Anatomy, C.S.I., and, yes, even Supernatural itself).

(NOTE: You could also argue it does this with its episode titles, but that's kind of common, to name things after pop culture references; I do it for papers, for my blog post titles, and lots of other shows I've watched do it without actually showing specific references during the episode to the thing in the title.)

4) Backstory. Any episode with flashbacks or backstory for the brothers is always. Just. So. Good. The brothers as kids; their parents as teenagers; stuff about when Sam decides to go off to school/ when Dean and their dad were a duo. It's not trite or pointless, and is fit in with the rest of the show very nicely. There's an episode in Season 1 where the boys go to where the house they grew up in used to stand because Sam has a premonition about it, only to find the house now there is being haunted. And they discover that their mother's own ghost has been protecting the family living there from a malignant spirit trying to kill the children. And she sacrifices herself to get rid of that malignant spirit. It had me crying like a baby. 
Mary Winchester: The Woman on Fire

Or one where the ghost is a former bully at one of the schools they went to for a few weeks... Sigh. Point, any backstory or flashback is done tastefully and woven in seamlessly, rather than feeling shoe-horned or forced like so many other shows (or movies, for that matter). 

5) Death. This show isn't afraid to kill off people. That can sometimes be a weakness (see below), but other times, it's really good and profound. The reason is, the brothers sometimes fail in saving the person or people they're trying to save. And that actually helps me get into it more- I'd get really sick of it if everybody gets saved every time, I really would. Sometimes, true to genre, they go out one-by-one, but other times, there's a huge struggle and they still end up dying. One of my favorite examples is an episode from Season 4 where the guys are after a "Rugaroo," a creature that eats human flesh, but can avoid it by basically pulling a Louis from Interview with the Vampire by avoiding the first bite of human meat by eating other meats raw. Long story short, the Rugaroo takes that step in order to protect his wife (and the child she's carrying). The guy is literally crying  as he's eating his victim, and while that sounds ridiculous, it also had me crying.  

6) Love. And starting with the relationship between Sam and Dean. It's complex (damn, I feel like that word is so abused)- they love each other, oh sure, but they also hate each other sometimes, and it's refreshing to see two dudes love each other so openly without having to do some sort of audience-wink-no-homo thing (which runs contra to one of my min critiques, sorta, but whatever, hang in there with me). I think it's a lot more common to see sisterly than brotherly love on TV/film/etc., let alone the brothers involved be so outward about it. And what's great is the dudes acknowledge it, too. The emphasis on loyalty and love throughout the series shows up in the guys, to be sure, but in other hunters, in people they're trying to save... a lot of the humans they meet are in over their heads because of love, or love is a big driving force in their story (like the kid whose ghost sticks around with his mom, or the Rugaroo I mentioned above). Bobby is an interesting specimen, especially since Dean vocalizes what  we, as an audience, knew about him ourselves long before he says it, that Bobby is the "closest thing [the Brothers Winchester] have to a father" after their dad bites it. And Bobby reciprocates that affection and loyalty by putting himself  in danger for them and not giving up on them when they're ready to give up on themselves. 

In the words of Chris Farley: "Brothers don't shake,
brothers gotta huuuuug!"
So... I can't hold it in any longer. While Supernatural is fun and has a lot going for it, it seriously lacks in two main ways. And if you have a problem with this, I ask you to please 1) read the whole bloody thing before chewing me out, and 2) understand that I'm writing this from mid-Season 5 and am fully aware of that fact, so I'll admit some of this stuff may get better. Anyway, here goes: 

1) Diversity. You're lucky to see a POC every five-ish episodes. I'm on Season 5 as of this writing, and there has yet to be a major, non-antagonistic character that isn't white.  I realize it takes place mostly in the Midwest, but it's not like there aren't any minorities living there. Hell, I'm in Indiana and I see more Black or Hispanic people during one trip to the grocery store than I've seen in an entire season of this friggin' show. Any speaking POC have either ended up going rogue/bad and trying to hurt, if not kill, the Winchesters, been bad from the start, or has died. Granted, death makes it more "real" and whatnot (as said above), but killing off any good POCs is just... it's not okay. The following is a list of the people of color I can think of there were so far, in roughly this order (and  all are Black):
  • Dean's ex-girlfriend. She's in one episode.
  • The FBI agent  that catches them a few times before getting blown up. He does show up in one more episode as an apparition thing, but he serves as a thorn in the guys' sides at first, then, well,  after maybe four or five appearances, he's fucking dead.
  • A fellow hunter that decides he needs to hunt Sam when he realizes Sam has premonitions. He's in like three or four episodes, until he gets turned into a vampire and then, well, Sam slices his head off with barbed wire. Ew.
  • A British couple, Isaac and Tamara, and hunters to boot, showed up for AN episode. The husband drinks liquid plumber to try and save his wife. She lives, but I haven't seen her again.
  • Some random Black man, also a hunter, that finds Sam when he's trying not to be a hunter anymore, again, one episode. Sam refuses to help him and the other (white) hunters he's with, and he and one other dude come back to try and kill Sam because everybody else died in the fight. Also haven't seen him since (although that was from Season 5, the season I'm on, so maybe  he'll show up again... but I doubt it). 
I'm going to be a pretty interesting character for a few episodes.
Then just as I start to get REALLY cool and you think
my character is going to make a really big move or change...
...I'm going to die. In a really annoying way, too. You're welcome.

And that's it.  That's seriously  it.  I guess maybe the woman  that ended up being  a werewolf may have been of some Mediterranean ethnicity, since her skin was rather olive-colored and her eyes didn't look entirely Anglican. But, well, she was still basically just a hot white chick- and she ends up dying in the episode. Which leads to the second main problem (which, yeah, has a lot of sub-parts). 

EDIT (written the day after the post first went live): For the sake of openness/fairness, I should add that I forgot the angel, Uriel. He's in a few episodes, gets killed, then is back in another flashback episode. Hoo-ra. NOT. 

2) Hegemonic masculinity. The show is driven by the hypermasculine caricatures of Sam and Dean. and is constantly hammering down (with about as much subtlety as Thor) traditional notions of what a "real man" is and the like. 

For starters, Sam's "the sensitive one," but come on. The show masks what's really just more thought and less grunting with a false pretense of being "sensitive." Dean shoots first, asks questions later, sure, but Sam asks questions... then shoots. It's really not much different, honestly. And his pseudo-sensitivity is constantly bashed, either by other characters through dialogue alone, or through baddies actually using it against him. Sure, we like that Sam keeps his heart (mostly) in the face of evil, but when there are good characters also giving him shit about it, you know there's something fishy- and the overall message being sent is, sensitive men are weak men and aren't really men at all.

And  then there's Dean. Aaaaah, Dean. There are episodes to make us believe Dean is really a stereotypical Jerk with a Heart of Gold, of course, but all those do is further the myth that a man actually dealing with his emotions is somehow broken  or messed up- even if the writers are trying to make it seem like Dean's broken for acting emotionally constipated, they do a piss-poor job. Because his disconnected nature never really causes him problems. If anything, it gets him further ahead than Sam in a lot of instances. He sees things more clearly than Sam, gets shit done with more swift precision (despite the easy image of a gorilla barreling into the room, beating its chest). I think we're supposed to get the sense that they balance each other out, but so far, it seems more like Dean is subtly being labeled as "better," so to speak. 

That isn't to say Sam is actually a wuss, either- his guts are just as solid as Dean's, and he kills a lot of shit, too. He's still an incredibly huge badass, despite the comparison to his brother, and a "masculine icon," for lack of a better way to put it- he's attractive, heterosexual, dominant, and kills things. So basically, these two strut around with their chests all puffed up- and it's not done ironically or with  a wink and a nod to the audience like a lot of their lore surrounding the creatures and demons. No, they're Men in earnest, and it's sometimes distracting in a very bad way- while not ever being presented as problematic or even being remotely deconstructed in any meaningful sort of way by the writers- yet, anyway.

And then there's the homophobia. Homosexuality is always either a punchline or an insult. I have yet to see a single positive (without being meant as a joke) portrayal of homosexuality. Dean calls something- be it something Sam is doing, something he sees, something someone else says or does- "gay" as an insult a few times every season. I should have tallied it, but it happens every handful of episodes. Whenever confronted with homosexuality, Dean gets uncomfortable- and it's meant  to be funny, sure, but so is the way he's confronted with it, which means we're supposed to laugh not at Dean for being ignorant, closed-minded, or whatever, but at the scenario as a whole.

Also, it seems to ruin some of the coolest meta-episodes. For example, one of the most delightfully meta episodes, the "Ghostfacers" one, was entirely tarnished for me by the stuff with the dead male intern's crush on one of the other dudes being what saved them- not only in how that in itself was portrayed, but then how the dudes were "reflecting" on it later. It was insulting, and I'm not even queer. I haven't dared to check, but I'm SURE there was Internet rage over that. The point  is, though, the intern being gay was all one long-running joke for the last quarter  of the episode, and that's upsetting. And, frankly, disappointing. 

I in no way found this funny, but I
was totally supposed to. What the fuck?
Or the "convention" episode, it ends with the two main Sam and Dean LARPers telling Dean they're a couple, grabbing hands, and leaning on each other. The dudes move and speak with comedic delivery, and it's just amplified by Dean's nervous, "Oh..." and wide eyes. It's meant to be ridiculous to us and not just Dean. They're gay for laughs, not for equal representation or even just because.  

I'm not remotely sorry to say that queerness isn't a punchline. No, I'm not queer, but Goddamnit, it shouldn't take a Master's in political science to think maybe that's the truth. It's basic human decency. People are not punchlines. This is actually a problem I have with a lot of comedians- if your whole schtick is just making fun of other people, laughing at them, I won't like your routine. So when homosexuality is there for the purpose of being laughed at the way it always is in this  show, it makes me uncomfortable at least, and angry and disgusted at most. 

And then there are the women. This is problematic on two fronts. First, in how they're shown. Dean's a horny sum-bitch, and he's constantly chasing tail. Which is totally on-par with traditional norms of masculinity and gender- he's a man, he needs to spread his seed, and that's understandable, because man. Ugh. He's always giving eyes or nodding suggestively at women, and while it's sometimes (not nearly anywhere close to "frequently") made fun of by Sam or someone else, the fact is, I can't think of more than two times where he wasn't received positively by the woman/women he's oggling- they pretty much always wink or smirk back, sometimes leaning over and pushing their boobs together to produce even more cleavage than they were already showing. And these women, they make up the vast majority of the women on the show. They're objects, present souly for the purpose of demonstrating how manly and attractive Dean is. Nine times out of ten, they don't even speak. And  if they  do, it's some hypersexualized innuendo that basically translates to, "Let me suck your dick." God, even that ex-girlfriend of Dean's? They do a pretty  good job making it apparent that their relationship was more physical than emotional (including via some witty banter after inevitably doing the horizontal tango).

I swear, this face gets old. It was cute/hot/whatever the first
And it's  a source of competition for Dean, too- hypermasculine postulating takes the stage whenever a woman shows interest in Sam, Heaven forbid! Dean gets all petulant and pouty, even telling Sam directly (and this is a direct quote, not a self-censorship thing) that Sam "c-blocked" him. I mean, really? Sam usually doesn't do much with the advances he receives, as of yet, or at least not nearly as much as Dean- he "sealed the deal" (as Dean would so poetically say) twice so far. Dean? I would have lost count  by Season 2 if I had tried, but I never even bothered. 

Every  now and then, you get a smart woman as a side-character for the episode, but she's usually in need of being  rescued because the demon/monster/whatever for that episode is in her household somehow. And in the end, she gets caught by said demon and a man (not always one of the brothers- it's important to note that regular Joe Schmoes sometimes save their wives and kids by at least hitting the thing, but women never do this, as far as I can remember) swoops in and saves her from it. The women in the show rarely, if ever, save  themselves. 

Unless they're one of the few female hunters shown- they do sometimes save themselves. Sort of. Ish. Tamara, mentioned above, needs rescued from the other male hunters around her, but she does do some butt-kicking in the lone episode in which she's featured. Ellen doesn't really get rescued the one time she's actually shown doing any fighting (it's hard to tell- it seemed more like she shoved off what she thought was a demon and ran away with the other dudes), while her daughter, Jo, does every time; but the two end up sacrificing themselves after having been in less than ten episodes. 

And in sheer numbers, well, recurring female characters end up being evil and/or killed off (Bela, Ruby, Ellen and  Jo) or exceptionally aloof/only around every so often (Anna, the angel), and/or have extremely stereotypical roles (again, Ellen (mama bear) and Jo (rebellious and naive little girl with daddy issues)). And any woman that isn't being  possessed or whatever and has  a speaking  role ends up never showing up again or dying (like Tamara, the hunter mentioned above). Not a single recurring female character has stayed alive except that angel, Anna, but  she's only been in three episodes at most... AND... She and Sam bone in her first episode. Ugh. Bela, one of the coolest characters in the whole series, imo, tries to have the guys save her from some Hellhounds (those pesky deals with devils...), but it didn't work, so she dies after being  in just a smattering of episodes, and, like with Hendrickson (the FBI  guy), right when it seems like she may actually end up changing her M.O. in some way that'd make her more regular and more awesome. 
Before aiming guns at zombies, I was aiming them
at demons and the Brothers Winchester.  You prolly don't
remember that, though, because I didn't even
last a whole season.
So then the killing thing the show isn't afraid to do starts to hurt it. Because if all the women that seem to be able to hold their own as characters get killed off, you're writing a show where women are constantly victims (whether they start out as the person needing rescued in the monster-of-the-week format or are a hunter or something that ends up getting offed) and villains (or, at best, entirely self-sacrificial Goodies) (and in rather trite ways- the way Ellen and Jo blew themselves up had me genuinely confused, because I could think  of a half dozen other things they could have done*). And it relates to the POC thing, too- when all your POC end up dying, what's left except white people? The show's lack of restraint in killing characters means all that's left is a bunch of white men.

And let me point something out, and this may be a more, "Um... what?" thing...

Bobby. Dude got stabbed pretty badly. Bad enough for the demon in him to bolt. And he lives. How come the dude lives, when all the women die? Sure, he's paralyzed, but if you so much as start thinking, "Better off dead than disabled," (which is totally what he does at first- which is its own post), fuck you. I'm just going to say it. Fuck you for thinking that. IRL, it's better to be alive than dead. In a show, it should be, too. 

"Better off dead" is one of the most dangerous,
pervasive stereotypes of ableism out there. Period.
I'm getting off-point.

My reason for bringing up Bobby is it demonstrates the fundamental difference in how the women versus the men that get caught in these dangerous situations are treated by the writers. Think of the brothers, too- they're shot, stabbed, bitten, clawed... The only time one seemed to have any lasting  injuries was when Sam had a cast on his wrist for a few episodes. Yet the women die from... hitting their heads and getting thrown across rooms... It's just... I think it's really symbolic, is what I'm getting at, here. And toss the POC in there with the women, too (except don't kill them, 'natch). Women and people of color are essentially disposable in this show thus far. And it bothers me. A lot.

Granted, two things. 

1) I can, indeed, "turn it off" and have a good time watching  the show. This prolly comes from my own privilege, which does make me feel a little bad. But as Aneeta Sarkeesian has to constantly point out, it's entirely possible to love something while still critiquing it. Blind patriotism is bad, right? So shouldn't blind fangirling, too? I could ramble for hours about the problems in other franchises I like and would go to cons to engulf myself within, so I'm no "less" of a fan of Supernatural for pointing out some of its issues. 

2) I've also heard from friends I was expressing this to (HI YOU TWO!) that it gets a little better for the ladies, at least, because a few cool (white) females show up and stick around and are awesome, and that I need to hold out for them to change writers, too, because the first dude was pretty bad at all of the above stuff (they didn't disagree that the first half of the series had all those problems I mentioned). And apparently the next writers are better with women and queers. I'm open to that, and hope they're right, frankly. Like I said before, I'm only about halfway through the fifth season, so I'll wait and see, and maybe I'll update this at some point to talk about the contrast in writers and tell y'all whether I think the improvement is really improvement or just superficial dribble and hat-tipping. 

These same friends also said that as far as CW shoes goes, it's pretty decent with respect to diversity. I'm hoping they meant the latter half of the series, oh my goodness... And. Well. If that's the trend for the CW, I must say, that's pretty shitty. The only other CW shows I'm familiar with are Arrow and Reign. The former is based off a DC character's mythos, so, well, good luck with the diversity, there, kids- although already, in only season 2, there has been a portrayal of two women in love that was done very, very well (especially how one of their dads was basically like, "So?" when she says they were "together" to him- I literally fist-pumped). And Reign, well, it's historical fiction, about Mary, Queen of Scots, in France. I wouldn't expect anyone to try any historical revisionism in the name of diversity on a sexxy  teen drama (not that I don't find it disappointing, of course- but we can't even have fictional period pieces with inclusiveness, or even movies with diverse actors based on entirely fictitious books that are explicit about the myriad of races for its characters (::coughHUNGERGAMES::cough::JLAWISWHITE::cough::RUE::cough::). I guess it just bothers me with Supernatural because it has such a ginormous following and rabid fandom. And maybe that's why it "gets better" later- the show now, finally, has enough staying power to be more inclusive and progressive in how it portrays POC and queers, and the writers themselves are progressive enough to write women positively. 

Here's hoping. If it really does get better (and, well, to my picky satisfaction...), I'll be surprised.

Me, if it really does meaningfully change.

*Okay, maybe not that many, but at least a few.

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