Is Supernatural Sexist?
Since Supernatural has just begun its fifteenth and final season, I’m gonna take the opportunity to write about a question that has long bothered me.
Is Supernatural sexist?
People are often surprised to hear I like Supernatural. After all, I identify as a feminist, if an unorthodox one, and Supernatural is supposedly the most sexist show ever.
But I don’t think Supernatural IS sexist. Even though I’m pretty sensitive to stuff like that, I really don’t find it at all sexist. I have literally never been offended by anything that has happened on Supernatural, except for Charlie Bradbury, an insufferable Mary Sue who was ironically written to serve as some sort of female representation. That’s right, the only thing I’ve ever found sexist on Supernatural was the magical talisman that was supposed to prevent me from thinking Supernatural is sexist. Don’t do me any favors, yo. Don’t give me a crappy character you put 10 seconds of thought into and pretend it’s for me when it’s just so you can shut people like me up.
I simply think Supernatural, rather than being a sexist extravaganza, is just a show that is mostly about men, and not as much about women. And that is perfectly ok with me. IMVHO, it’s not at all feminist to demand that shows about men actually be about women. Women don’t need special treatment, we just need an equal shot. Right? If we need special treatment to succeed, if we need to force people against their will to watch shows that feature female characters, then we really AREN’T equal, are we? We’re just LARPing equality. I want the real deal.
I enjoy a good estrogenfest now and then just as much as the next gal, but I also like watching shows that are about dudes doing dude things too. There are an infinite number of stories out there in the world to be told and as such it’s only natural that some stories are mostly about guys. So? I believe with every fiber of my being as both a feminist and a fiction writer that there is room in the world for stories that are mostly about men, stories that are mostly about women, and stories about both men and women interacting together in all sorts of different ways. A world that features ONLY tales that involve a set number of boys and a set number of girls every single time would drastically limit the number of stories that could be told. As a writer, I will never approve of limiting the number of stories that can be told! We can call for and hope for AND PERSONALLY CREATE more stories that are centered around female characters and include lots of female characters without demanding that stories that are about men be altered to include female characters when it doesn’t serve the story.
In the case of Supernatural, a show that is mostly about men, a lack of a main female character is not extreme, sexist or unusual. It is realistic. Fun fact, there are vast, huge swaths of the world in when men do things together without the presence of women. (Trust me, I have 4 sons and my husband is a truck driver.) There are men – and not a few – who go days, weeks, even months without having a single meaningful interaction with people of the female persuasion at all. It is not because they think females have cooties and they think men are superior so they don’t let stinky ol’ girls join the He Man Woman Haters Club. It is because they’re completely cut off from women. Men LIKE WOMEN. They seek them out whenever and however they can. They want to have women in their life, would love to, they just don’t.
Seriously, Supernatural fans, after watching this show for 15 years, do you think Dean, Sam, Bobby, and even Castiel aren’t SUFFERING from not having women in their life? They are, it’s obvious that they are. It causes them great pain to not have love, to not have female companionship, and it’s a pain that a lot of men actually kind of relate to. It is not sexist to portray men who are isolated and suffering because of their isolation. That isolation is, in fact a huge part of why Dean, Sam, and Bobby are so miserable all the time. They don’t have love in their lives. (Castiel, of course, doesn’t need that in the same way that humans do, but he still might wish to have a female friend, which he is unable to have due to circumstances out of his control.) These guys can’t have love in their lives. Every time the Winchesters start to pursue a relationship (even just friendship) their loved ones die or they have to leave to protect them.
This matters. This dynamic is critical to the plot of Supernatural, it’s critical to the characters as they’ve been written, it’s critical to the greater subtext (because it’s a story that is ABOUT MEN). If the writers stick a girl into this masculine melee to tick off a SJW box on a PC checklist, it changes that dynamic irrevocably just like it would change the dynamic of Steel Magnolias if one of the Magnolias was Chris Hemsworth. It undermines the fundamental premise of the show, which involves men, who through no fault of their own, just a terribly unlucky twist of fate, are cast into a battle they never wanted to fight, and as a result are completely cut off from the things that most of us take for granted, like family and love and happiness.
You know, the way billions of men have lived and died throughout history. Alone. Of all the men who have ever lived, only 40% of them have passed down Y chromosomes that endure to this day. This means that huge, huge numbers of men have lived their entire lives and died without being married, without even getting close, without ever having children. They went out on pirate ships and into monasteries and joined armies where they were surrounded by men all day every day. Except for their mothers – and a good many men, like the Winchesters, lost their mothers at young ages – and the occasional encounter with a prostitute, the existence of a whole lot of men throughout history has been one of being surrounded by all dudes, all the time. Even to this day tons of men are single, have exclusively male friends (or no friends), may be employed someplace with primarily male coworkers, and just don’t see many women from day to day.
Again, this is not because they’re big fat mean sexist pigs, it’s because fate has put them into a position where they have no access to women, not even in the friend zone. It’s not by choice, it’s by necessity. It doesn’t make them happy to be alone, and Dean and Sam Winchester, in their female-less misery and isolation, exemplify this. Sam and Dean, as silly as it sounds, are the fictional embodiment of millions, if not billions of dudes who went out and fought the good fight and saved the world in some small way and died, forgotten, without anyone there to mourn them but their brothers. Dean and Sam are the modern day avatars of men who died at sea and on battlefields and in jungles and forests thousands of miles from home doing heroic ass feats to bring we ladies cinnamon and safety and never even got laid as thanks for their sacrifice.
Given all this, it’s really rather asinine to demand there be a consistent “female voice” in Supernatural because Supernatural is about the male experience – particularly the male experience feeling sexually and emotionally isolated from women and having to save a world you never even get to partake in. Shoehorning a “female voice” in there could very easily drown out a good part of what the show is even about – male pain. And not, you wiseacre you, because women never shut up either, but because men act differently when women are present. Men, particularly tough men like the Winchesters, rarely talk about their feelings in front of women. Men try to impress women, when women are present, by being brave and strong and stoic. All those scenes where Dean and Sam sit in the Impala and hash out the terrible things they’ve been through would not happen if there was a girl or two in the car with them (well, they might, but they’d be a lot harder for me to buy as a viewer.)
Men being open to discussing feelings is really important. Men seeing other men, even fictional men, doing so is really important. I know some feminists think it’s fun to belittle male tears but I think every human being’s pain matters and for men to talk about their emotional baggage with somebody now and then is critical. Even if you really don’t give two figs about men and their feelz, it is important ~for women~ to allow men to explore male vulnerability through fiction even out of our own self-preservation. We all know the trope of that strong, silent man who lashes out at his wife and his kids, we all know the story of that quiet guy who kept to himself right up till the day he snapped. Don’t stifle yourselves, my dudes.
Supernatural is exquisitely rare in that it shows men being vulnerable with each other sometimes. We as feminists should be encouraging that and not sitting around whining that we didn’t get enough representation. Because normalizing male vulnerability is the cure for toxic masculinity.
But Supernatural is about more than just male pain. It’s about male fear.
What is the thing that men fear the most? It’s not spiders, it’s not dental work, it’s not snakes like Indiana Jones, it’s not demons, it’s not even killer clowns.
Men’s greatest fear, programmed into them from a kajillion years of evolution, is that they cannot protect their loved ones. Whether or not you believe gender is mostly a social construct, the fact is, biologically, right down to their very DNA, male animals are hard wired to protect their flock or their tribe or their family and desperately fear failing at that task. And Sam and Dean, again and again and again, are unable to protect the people closest to them. They fail in their primary mission, protecting the defenseless people who rely on them, and they fail at it repeatedly. As the song says, it’s almost like they were born to lose and destined to fail. The amount the Winchesters spectacularly fail at their fundamental role as men is downright emasculating. But then they have to regroup and do it all over again. And they do, no matter how hard it is, no matter how much it costs them. Supernatural is a story of men who cannot accomplish the one thing men want the most – to keep their loved ones safe from harm – again, as a great many men throughout history have been unable to keep their loved ones safe from harm. But it’s also a story of men who don’t give up trying.
When you watch Supernatural through that lens, it’s incredibly moving. Dean and Sam try and fail and try and fail and fail and fail some more. No wonder they push women away – they don’t want to let them down. They don’t want to get them killed. Their lives are a train wreck, their saga is tragedy-in-progress. The “women in fridges” trope has come under fire recently and rightfully so, but Supernatural should be held fully exempt from that criticism because women dying on Supernatural serves the greater subtext of the show – men being chronically unable to protect those they love. The greatest fear that men have.
If the writers decide to now cram some adorable female version of Cousin Oliver into the show and have her survive??? and become a regular character????? that would undermine what the show is even about. A show about men’s isolation and men’s pain and men’s deepest darkest fear that they can’t protect the people who rely upon them would be rendered meaningless by the introduction of a character who directly undermines that subtext. Supernatural with a recurring female character who survives indefinitely invalidates the whole entire freaking point of Supernatural. It’s not sexism not to have a “consistent female voice”, it’s simply staying true to what Supernatural is about!
But even if you look at Supernatural from a fully female-centric perspective, it’s still not sexist.
So you don’t like men? You don’t care about their fear and their pain? Ok. Let’s talk the women on Supernatural.
One of my biggest, hugest, personal pet peeves is how we are told that cramming spectacularly beautiful, always flawless, nearly always young women into a movie or show is supposedly feminist or something. Are you seriously telling me that putting forth women whose physical attractiveness is so far beyond that of mere mortals as to be unattainable, that are OBVIOUSLY put into a program not for me to relate to but for men to ogle (no doubt whilst comparing gals like me unfavorably) is somehow more feminist than a show that doesn’t have a “consistent male voice”?
Are you kidding me?
Shoving a gorgeous chick at me telling me it’s for my benefit when really it’s for the benefit of thirsty dudes does not feel even remotely feminist, mmmkay??
And Supernatural never, ever, ever does that. The women in Supernatural are average and get dirty and look gross sometimes and don’t wear that much makeup and aren’t perfectly coiffed and most of them don’t ever dress slutty unless it’s important to the character (rare). Watching the women on Supernatural feels like a breath of fresh air to me. They look like me. They’re put together like women who are working hard and fighting for their life would be and aren’t running from demons wearing 3 inch heels.
Let’s take a look at some of the awesome gals who have shown up on Supernatural the most.
Sheriff Jody Mills:
Ellen and Jo:
Ruby in both incarnations:
While all these women are beautiful, their beauty is attainable. It’s not Hollywood level insane off-the-charts-Megan-Fox-Margot-Robbie beauty. They wear real clothes suitable to the job they’re doing. They get dirty and bloody and their hair gets messed up. Kudos to whoever does the casting and the costuming/makeup, because I for one really appreciate it. The women on Supernatural seem like real people doing real things in a messed up world and not chicks who are prancing around on a screen for dudes to jerk it to. The women in Supernatural feel like they are there for me to relate to and they are there to tell a story and not there for men.
And that, cats and kittens, is entirely feminist.
Beyond all that, Supernatural does something extraordinary with its female characters, something that I believe to be entirely unique. It lets them have sex in a way that is normal, that approximates to a reasonable extent the type of sexual activity women have in the real world. The female characters on Supernatural are sexually active without it being a gimmick. The women of Supernatural have sex just as an ordinary part of their lives and it is not a huge deal. No slutshaming, no virgin-celebrating, no Madonna/whore complexes. They screw sometimes because people screw sometimes.
Examples? But of course.
Lisa Braeden, Dean’s on again, off again girlfriend, had a one-night-stand with Dean, then shortly after got pregnant from another one-night-stand, had a baby on her own, raised it, we assume she had sex many times along the way with various people, and then Dean got back together with her and they lived together for a while. Her sexual choices were not presented as disgusting or indeed in any way remarkable. Dean had absolutely no qualms about picking it up again with Lisa right where they left off despite the fact that she’d had sex with other dudes. Lisa Braeden was not a soiled dove; Dean wasn’t doing her a favor by going out with her, in fact he felt lucky to have her.
Amelia Richardson was a woman who Sam had an intense fairly long term relationship with. Dean and Sam had had a falling out and he was on his own. She thought at the time her husband was dead, killed in Afghanistan, but later it turned out he was actually alive. Neither her husband nor Sam were consumed with jealousy, neither punished Amelia for the terrible situation she found herself in. Her husband let Amelia decide for herself what she wanted to do and didn’t pressure her in any way. Her body, her choice.
One of my personal fave Supernatural women is Jo Harvelle (and one of the reasons I hate the Charlie Bradbury character so much is that Sam and Dean actually HAD an adorable little sister character that they never gushed about anywhere near how they gushed about Charlie, FFS). Jo, as many younger women do when it comes to older guys they’ve known for a long time, had a bit of a crush on Dean, which Dean being Dean, reciprocated in a sexual way. But Jo knew (please note, it was NOT that Dean was sooo wise and mature that HE knew, Jo herself was the one who knew better) he would have never been the guy that Jo needed him to be, so she never acted on it. This went on till the night before they were going into a situation where they’d likely both die. Dean played the “it’s our last night on earth, why not?” card. And Jo thought about it, thought about it very seriously, and turned him down. Because sexual freedom also includes the right to say no.
But the one that takes the cake for me is Annie Hawkins. Annie was a Hunter, like Dean and Sam are Hunters, who went missing. In the process of looking for her, it is revealed that she had slept with Bobby, Dean, and Sam at various points over the years. It was funny, but it wasn’t painted as funny in a “ha-ha slut” way, it was funny because life is funny and people are funny. It wasn’t a laugh at Annie’s expense at all. And Annie wasn’t a throwaway disposable character. Even though she’d died, she wasn’t a woman in a fridge, she was an important part of the plot. Even though she was only in one single episode, she was a fully-fleshed out 3 dimensional character, not a punchline. She was neither punished nor celebrated for her sexual choices. All three of our heroes cared about her and valued the time they’d spent together, but it was just that nobody needed to marry nobody or nothing. It was a really nice way to illustrate that women have sexual histories just like men, we have sex for all sorts of reasons including that we’re in the mood to. I wracked my brain and I couldn’t think of a single other show that had ever featured a non-slut woman having sex with three different guys at various stages in her life as a non-joke plot point aside from Supernatural. Totally a feminist moment for me.
Final analysis – Supernatural is not sexist. Far from it. In many ways, it’s downright feminist.
We live in a world full of oodles of people who think they get to have everything JUST the way they want it all the time. If they aren’t the absolute center of the universe in everything all the time they pitch a fit and moan and complain and make demands until someone gives them fan service. But fan service sucks and intersectionality is impossible. It just isn’t possible to produce a book or a movie or a show that is fundamentally about men and male pain and male fear and then decide to flush that away to make a show about a random and extraneous woman designed by a focus group instead because some people have loud mouths. It would be an entirely different show if the writers did that, and I suspect a very much inferior one. Plus, despite being a show about men, Supernatural does a pretty fantastic job of bringing us strong and relatable female characters anyway! Don’t fix what ain’t broke!
Long story short, I think it’s flipping ridiculous – and antifeminist – to pretend that a show is anti-women just because it happens to be pro-men.
Supernatural is NOT SEXIST. The atomic feminist has spoken.
If you want to see my take on adding a female character to the Supernatural universe please check out my (long) short story Supernatural: Manic Pixie God Girl.
Photo by Chesi – Fotos CC
This piece was originally published on the atomic feminist.