In the fifth season of Supernatural, the main brothers, Sam and Dean Winchester are faced with a monster that they had never encountered ever before: the fan girl. More importantly, the slash fan girl. Supernatural (2005 - ), which airs on the CW and has 11 seasons (thus far), is a show with an extremely active and prolific fan base. As seen in the clip above from an episode from the fourth season entitled "The Monster at the End of This Book" while the show has an active fan base, the writers and showrunners have a different reaction to their fans than perhaps their fans and the greater audience at large were expecting. In this particular story arc, the two brothers realize that their lives, both past present and future are being written about as subjects of "supposedly" fiction novels. After encountering the book, the two brothers discover that not only are their lives the subject of the story, there is a large, loud and sexually adventurous online fan base. They discuss the existence of "Sam Girls" and "Dean Girls" until Sam gets to "Slash girls" where Dean becomes confused. As Sam explains it as "Sam SLASH Dean" until Dean realizes that the fans are suggesting incest and exclaims, "That's just disgusting." This interaction, that is the basis for the story arc of the series for the next season and a half or so and is utilized as a tool for the creators to react against portions of the fan base that they did not agree with - namely the queer readings taking place about the brothers (with Dean being often read as bisexual or queer), and more specifically reacting against the incestuous reading of the two brothers.
Before continuing on with the analysis of how this show exemplified how some of the industry is pushing back against negotiated fan-readings, I want to complicate the notion that fans are poachers, as I believe that there is often more nuance in fan readings/appropriations then perhaps the term allows for. Specifically thinking more about queer readings, and by queer I do mean “against the normative” readings, whether they be regarding sexuality or gender. I wish to utilize Alexander Doty’s framework that he outlines in his 1992 book "Making things Perfectly Queer: Interpreting Mass Culture" within this post to allow for a greater understanding of readings that are happening beyond just a “simple pleasure;” or one that Stuart Hall and Dr. Seiter describe- specifically looking at the third “antagonistic” reading. Namely, a question that has been present for me while rereading some of these texts for this week were where do we find the space for those who are finding readings that exist within the text, supported by the text, and then are condemned (publicly) by the text? How do we negotiate queer readings in the public sphere, with interactions that are more immediate with the creators of texts? In this I want to discuss all three articles in congruence (albeit briefly) to discuss some of the schenanigans (theoretical frameworks that we can apply to) the events that occurred in the long running CW show Supernatural interacting with their fan base through the show itself.
First, it is no secret now that we have been working through that the large majority of fans are women. What should be stressed is that in particular that Jenkins points out is that "fan writing is almost exclusively feminine response to mass media texts" (Jenkins 476). They engage in work that is both productive and yet, what is productivity? Is it work that ultimately serves the greater text? If so, who gets to decide that? In the described negotiated reading by Dr. Seiter and Stuart Hall, "inflicting his interpretation on the basis of a particular social experience...enjoy[ing] a pick and choose relationship to the genre...shifting the text slightly to fit individual interests...providing explanations of events portrayed that suit her own worldview, not all of which may be as strongly 'there' as others" (Seiter 465). Yet, I want to complicate this notion as well because what does it mean to have a Queer reading of a text, to find moments of recognition in a text? Turning to Alexander Doty, he explains: "Queer readings are not 'alternative readings,' wishful or willful misreadings or 'reading too much into things readings.' They result from the recognition and the articulation of the complex range of queerness that has been in popular culture texts and their audiences all along" (Doty 16). So in saying this, how do we negotiate fan readings alongside queer readings? How is one inherently correct while the other is not? This is not to say that the fan readings that are AU based or ones that do not take readings from within the text to explain their reasoning, but focusing mainly on the interactions, camera angles, word play, and the construction of the text itself can bring validity to specific fan works. The denial of fan work seems to be intertwined with the gender of the participants, with women's work once more regulated to the "unproductive" "destructive" and "mass culture" "low culture" "unworthy" sentiment. As Andrejevic explains in the later part of his article, fandom and audience participation both create a space for "a women's art/communication system that simultaneously makes possible the exploitation of forms of dedifferentiated and networked labor that have historically characterized the sites of women's work" (Andrejevic 42). Not only is this work exploited in the sense that some networks and the industry at large have picked up and started to commodify fan culture, but in that the participants are often not valued for their contributions that they do bring and are routinely mocked within the popular culture texts that they participate and work with/in.
Moving back to Supernatural to outline this break between the labor and the validation of the labor and work that the fans do when interacting with the texts, it is important to note who the creators mock in their first volley towards their fan base. As a quick background to this particularly nasty fight, there was a popular fan site that hosted alternate readings where one of the popular readings of the show was that the two brothers were incestuous (as a buddy/road formula, the reading while not the most pleasant to think about is a valid reading) or that Dean (the elder brother) was at the very least bisexual or queer. Not only did the show portray the two characters finding the reading completely disgusting in a definitely irrefutable way with Dean stating "They know we're brothers right?" and Sam biting back the retort of "it doesn't seem to matter." More than that even, within the episode the show specifically calls out particular real life users (specifically one named "sympatico" that were writing these fics on Sam's computer screen where they tell the real life user through the show to go "screw themselves"). This push/pull negotiation of the writers/show runners and the fan base did not end with just one episode. Later, in the fifth season (in the clip above) we are introduced to our rabid, white, heterosexual fangirl Becky Rosen. Beck Rosen is introduced writing none other than Dean/Sam fan fiction, and the show does not pull its punches. Becky gets to meet her favorite characters IRL when she delivers a message from the author of the series (spoiler alert: who turned out to be a prophet of the lord). What should be taken away from this analysis and report however is that the writers and showrunners are very aware who their fan base is. They purposefully represent them in this way, and are able to fall upon old tired tropes of the rabid fangirl in order to discredit legitimate fan readings. I suggest what is necessary now is to figure out how to term the space for legitimate fan readings of queer negotiations, without denying their validity as "serving their own purposes." These readings have always existed, whether creators wish to acknowledge them or not, and are conveyed through small moments. It is also elitist to assume that all fan readings based on the fact that they are from the popular sphere are automatically any less legitimate than academic readings of the same texts. I have read some really great fan deconstruction and some really terrible academic writing, so how do we negotiate the sphere of elitism? How do we make the space for negotiation and interpretation a more accessible space, a more welcoming one?
In this spirit, not to move away from Supernatural and all the fertile ground for readings that it has to offer, but I want to just end with a look at a show that never explicitly says that it contains queer identity, but through isolation of particular moments strung together by a fan we can see a pattern emerge of this reading. This is the space that I believe needs more work and more attention. What do we call the space where we can see a reading that appears to be clearly intentional and waiting for the audience to interact/react to? Do we still call it a queer reading? Is that a term that can encompass these readings and lend them the legitimacy that they deserve from both the academic and popular community?