Supernatural vs. Women, Part 1 of Whatever: “Heart” and “Wishful Thinking”
SPOILERS to Season 4 ahead.
So, I saw one of those Internet memes that asked how I would do in the zombie apocalypse if my group were made up of the protagonists of the last three things I read/watched/played. I had been marathoning Supernatural at the time, so naturally my first thought was, “Score!” Because I was so ready for the zombie apocalypse. I was all, “Bring it on!” I mean, if only, right? Those brothers have got the knowledge, the know-how and the undead-ready arsenal of weapons in the trunk of their immortal ’67 Chevy Impala. And an immortal Impala sounds like a good thing to have in the zombie apocalypse. Because if there’s one thing that The Walking Dead taught me, it’s that cars are important.
And then I realized: I’d been marathoning Supernatural. And since I’m, well, female, the Winchester brothers would probably get me possessed by a demon before accidentally kidnapping me and then killing me in ritual sacrifice for contrivey plot reasons. And then they’d feel all bad about it, possibly all the way until the end of the episode. But probably not, because they’d get distracted by something way more important than my untimely and undignified demise, because the Winchesters must never cease their epic road trip, and I don’t think I’m invited.
And probably the zombie apocalypse was all their fault anyway, because those dudes are kind of morons.
I love Supernatural. I’m even starting to go a bit fangirl over it. (Yes, feminists can be fangirls, and we can talk terminology later.) But Supernatural has Issues with women, and therefore, I have Issues with it. So, since I’m still in the middle of my marathon, and I’m still befuddled as to why female demons are very selective in their choice of hot female “meat-suits” while male demons don’t really give a crap, I will be starting a series of posts on the presentation of women in the very male-centered, male-led, testosterone-fueled universe that is Supernatural.
Let’s look at what I consider the two worst offenders amongst the episodes I have seen so far: “Heart” (Season 2, Episode 17) and “Wishful Thinking” (Season 4, Episode 8). These two episodes stick out in my mind as particularly sexist and upsetting in a series whose Pilot episode is framed by the fridging of two different female characters, from two generations. And that is just amazing. So get out your frying pan, because you know it’s fish-in-a-barrel time.
Season 2, Episode 17. Directed by Kim Manners; Written by Sera Gamble.
“Heart” is an episode that I enjoyed, but both like and dislike. I like it because it’s moving and it puts a new spin on the werewolf mythology, and that’s all well and good. I dislike it for largely ideological reasons.
In “Heart,” Sam and Dean hunt a werewolf. They think, at first, that the werewolf is stalking Madison, a girl they just met who immediately hits it off romantically with Sam. Because that’s what happens when you’re a Winchester, it seems, and these boys must have some awesome pheromones or something because they’re perfectly hot and all, but I just don’t get it. Then they realize that–gasp–Madison is the wolf! Whatever will they do? Well, kidnap her, for starters. Tie her to a chair and hold her at gunpoint. Then, try to heal her by killing the wolf that made her. (They don’t bother trying to save that guy.) Dean finds and kills the wolf (who happens to be Madison’s neighbor and–apparently–last remaining friend), and Madison doesn’t turn! Cue fanfare! Now that she’s not a monster and all, Sam can sleep with her. Which he does. And she’s cool with their sexual relationship in spite of the fact that Sam tied her up and held her at gunpoint. And to be fair, even Sam thinks this reaction is unrealistic.
But then–horror–she does turn! Apparently the not-turning was a one-night-only deal, orchestrated by the writers and the universe for the sake of Sam’s libido (and later angst). The Winchester bros. call up Bobby, their expert hunter friend who has more experience and knows more about things than they do (Just keep him on speaker phone all the time, boys.), and he lets them know that the whole “break the bloodline, end the curse” is just a myth, and there’s no cure for lycanthropy. So naturally, the brothers decide to kill Madison the Werewolf, because it’s the only right thing to do.
But wait! Couldn’t she just lock herself up on nights of the full moon, like werewolves did on Buffy?
Nope, not secure enough. She would probably escape. Someday. Eventually.
But couldn’t she get allies like, I dunno, some demon-hunting brothers to visit her once a month and act as guards outside her door or maybe even take her with them on their epic road trip?
Nope, they’re too busy with hunting. Also, no girls allowed on the road trip.
But, but, couldn’t they take her to a friend or something, like an older, more experienced friend who has tons of weapons and will be revealed in a later episode to have an iron-plated panic room that he built in his spare time? A panic room sounds pretty secure, actually. I know they don’t know about the panic room yet, but couldn’t they maybe ask him if he knows of a secure facility where–
No! Sam has to feel sad, dammit!
So lonely werewolf girl, who presumably had few friends to begin with and then accidentally killed all of the ones that Dean didn’t kill, begs Sam to help her with her totally necessary and not-at-all-contrived assisted suicide. And he does, because he’s a stand-up kind of guy. And then Sam has ALL THE FEELINGS. Sam goes into the hallway to collect himself, and we get a close up of Sam feeling very, very sad, as he prepares to kill his new almost-girlfriend who is waiting for death in the next room. We do not see any more of Madison, however, who is waiting for death in the next room. Because her death, obviously, is all about Sam.
And then the episode is over, and the Winchesters hit the road once more.
I get that Sam and Dean are the main characters, and that we should be more keyed into their motivations, feelings and decisions than we should be into the feelings of other characters. And I get that Madison is a one-shot character, and that since she will be made unnecessarily dead by the end of the episode anyway, one could argue that working to build up and flesh out her character would just be throwing good money after bad. But are Sam’s sad, very sad, no-good, very-bad feelings really the most important part of Madison’s death?
And is it really OK that the consequences for kidnapping, restraining and killing a woman are limited to Sam’s sad feelings, because everything they did was for the greater good and even met with the eventual approval of their victim?
And the kind of violence they enact upon Madison here is not an isolated incident in the show. The Winchester brothers actually kill a lot of women, usually those who have been literally infested by the forces of evil. (They kill men too, though less systematically.) They always have good reason, of course, and the best of intentions. And they know as sure as where Dean spent his summer vacation where those lead. But more on that when we talk demons.
Despite my moral objections to the episode, I am still quite fond of it. “Heart” hits a lot of good notes. Emmanuelle Vaugier is more than incredible as the charismatic werewolf Madison, ensuring the audience’s investment in her eventual fate. And when Queensrÿche’s “Silent Lucidity” starts playing in the background at the end? That’s when I just about lose it.
So that’s “Heart.” Or at least what I can think of to say about “Heart” at the moment. So let’s move on to “Wishful Thinking,” which has the dubious honor of being my current reigning champion least favorite episode so far.
Season 4, Episode 8. Directed by Robert Singer; Written by Ben Edlund and Lou Bollo.
DISCLAIMER: This was not my favorite episode the first time around, and I’m not inclined to re-watch it in its entirety now. I’m working mostly from memory on this one, and therefore may get a few of the details wrong. If that bothers you, you can pretend I’m reviewing “my memory” of the episode rather than the episode itself in some kind of absolute sense. After all, don’t we experience media through memory, anyway?*
Sam and Dean discover a small town where wishes are coming true. This is a bad thing, because wishes inevitably turn bad. They eventually discover that the wishes are being granted by a fully-functional wishing well, which was made fully-functional by the addition of an ancient magic coin. The magic coin can only be removed by the person who dropped it into the well and made the First Wish, which then allowed all subsequent wishes to come true. Sam and Dean set off to find the First Wisher.
How do they find him? Well, earlier, they saw a dweeby guy with a hot girl. They were together, and she was super lovey-dovey with him. So, naturally, they deduced that dweeby guy must have wished for hot girl to love him. Then they find an engagement announcement for the happy couple which seems to predate the wishing season.
That is it.
The one and only reason they identify this man (played by Ted Raimi) as a wisher at all is that he was in a restaurant, canoodling with his more attractive female significant other (played by Anita Brown). She’s obviously infatuated with him, and she feeds him with chopsticks from across their table, smiling happily.
This says a few things about Sam and Dean. 1) They judge based on appearances. 2) They assume pretty women are also shallow women, who would never become romantically involved with less attractive men, without magical intervention. 3) By the same token, they assume that ‘unattractive’ men (which appears to in this case mean men with greasy hair and glasses. Oh, the humanity!) cannot attract attractive women, but 4) can and most likely would use magic to acquire the otherwise unobtainable objects of their affection.
At this point, the episode still had potential. The Winchester bros. could have found out that it was Hot Girl and not Dweeb Boy who made the wish–which would still be pretty offensive, but would have at least shaken things up a bit. They could have discovered (and I would have strongly preferred this) that the romance in front of them was not a result of a wish-granting well, but just a, y’know, relationship that had little or nothing to do with the characters’ comparative levels of attractiveness, as defined by an arbitrary set of standards of beauty. Maybe she liked him for reasons other than his appearance. Maybe he saved her life once, or was her best friend in school, or made really good lasagna. Maybe she just liked him. The show could have done any number of things to subvert the Winchester bros.’s expectations about this relationship. To reveal that their assumptions were baseless, and presumptuous, and plainly stupid.
Instead, the show goes on to prove all of their baseless assumnptions (about said relationship) right.
And so, so much is wrong here.
It’s not that Supernatural doesn’t subvert its characters’ or its audience’s expectations; it does so wonderfully in another scene in the very same episode, when Sam and Dean expect to find a wish-conjured Bigfoot and instead encounter a man-sized, animated teddy bear. Their reaction to this discovery is priceless.
So why, why, couldn’t the show have done something similar with the adventure of Nice Guy(TM) and Hot Girl? (Dweeby Guy has been demoted to Nice Guy(TM), with all that that entails.) What we get instead of a subversion of the brothers’ and our expectations is the story of a poor, neglected Nice Guy(TM) whose dream girl never noticed him until he literally made her love him. The Twilight Zone did this with more tact with “The Chaser”** in 1960.
To the show’s credit (because fair is fair and all): Nice Guy(TM) does at one point ask his fiancee if she is “happy.” When she fails to answer his question, instead promising to try to be happier–obviously for his sake–he does appear to be upset, and subsequently rebuffs her when she initiates sex. (Unfortunately, the implication is not that he always refuses her when she initiates sex; in fact, her reactions imply that it is his resistance in this scene which is out of character.)
To the show’s discredit: Even after Nice Guy(TM) begrudgingly acknowledges that his relationship with his fiancee is “unhealthy”–or at least does not correct Sam when he uses that term for it, and what a horrifyingly tame euphemism that term is–he still refuses to retract his wish until it “turns bad.” How does it turn bad? Love makes the woman ‘crazy,’ of course, and induces her to wish that Sam–who is working to undo all the wishes and by extension the lovely, lovely love that she loves, because she loves being in love–electrocuted. Nice Guy(TM) does not free the object of his affections from the love spell that he knowingly placed on her until retracting his wish becomes a matter of actual life and death. Because he is a prince like that.
And the story would still be salvageable if its message were that Nice Guy(TM) is a horrible, reprehensible serial rapist who used magic to coerce his victim into love and, presumably, sex. Who kept her as a love slave without either her consent or her knowledge.
But that’s not the message.
The message is that it’s sad that we can’t just get what we want. That is the actual message. The moral of the story, kiddies, is apparently that Nice Guy(TM)’s extended mind control/rape of his victim is “bad” because “wishes turn bad” and not because, say, rape is bad, or twisting someone’s personality to suit your whim is, y’know, also bad.
Nice Guy(TM) even whines, “Why can’t we just get what we want?” which may in some cases be a valid question, but not when “what” you want is a person. And after Nice Guy(TM) takes his coin back, and undoes his wish, and his fiancee who was so devoted until the spell broke can no longer even recognize him, all of the directorial decisions indicate that we are supposed to feel sorry for him, because he can no longer have what he wants. And when it is revealed that she no longer recognizes him, and that all of her memories with her Nice Guy(TM) fiance are lost, she just . . . wanders off, looking vague. No one follows her. No one checks on her. It was pretty clear that, while under the influence, she was living in the same house as Nice Guy(TM), with them being all mind-control-engaged and such. It is not at all clear that she has any home to go to other than his. Nor that she has any memories of the last few months, and for all we (and the bros.’s) know, she was the one to move in with him, so it is fully possible that at the end of the episode, she does not even know her own address. Sam and Dean and Nice Guy(TM) just watch her go, and we are supposed to sympathize with Nice Guy(TM), and find it so very sad Nice Guys(TM) never get The Girl.
[Insert spluttering incoherent rage here.]
If there were ever a “Nice Guy” who should not get “The Girl,” it’s this guy. This guy is, like, the King of the Nice Guys(TM). Other Nice Guys(TM) who behaved better after using love spells and/or potions? Xander Harris from Buffy. Steve Urkel from Family Matters. Alan Austen from that Twilight Zone episode (and he considered killing her).
“Wishful Thinking,” you are wrong. It is not sad that a rapist who mind-controlled and repeatedly raped a woman does not get to “have” his victim, just because he “wants” her. It is sad that he is not in prison. It is sad that no one lifts a finger to help her when she wanders away, amnesiac and confused, after
months a month [E/N: and that is plenty bad enough] of abuse.
To add insult to injury? Her name is literally “Hope.”
And that’s my take on “Wishful Thinking,” an episode with a couple of shining moments of awesome in a sea of if-only-they-hadn’t.
Love “Heart” and/or “Wishful Thinking”? Take issue them as much as I do? Please comment. I’d be interested to hear other perspectives on the episodes.
I ask that, as a courtesy, guests begin any series-related comment that includes details from the show with a “SPOILERS up to Season X, Episode Y” warning.
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*And if it really, really bothers you, you can post corrections below.
**Which is based on John Collier’s short story of the same name, which you can read here.