Supernatural vs. Women, Part 2 of Whatever: Fangirls, Part I of III
I mentioned in an earlier post that I self-identify as a “fan” of Supernatural, and even to some extent as a “fangirl” of the show.
“Fangirl” is a loaded term from the get-go. Basically, it means, “a fan who happens to be female,” but why do we need (or do we need) a term for that, when “fan,” by itself, is gender neutral? And why is the term that we have for that an infantilizing term, which characterizes female fans of any age as “girls”?
More than just being infantilizing, “fangirl” is also used as a derogartory term in many cases. The Urban Dictionary definition of fangirl, in fact, starts with, “A rabid breed of human female who is obesessed with either a fictional character or an actor.” And while Urban Dictionary is not exactly known for its tactful turns of phrase, this definition does reflect an opinion on “fangirls” that is surprisingly (or unsurprisingly) prevalent: that “fangirls” are a thing apart, a group so obsessive and lacking in self-respect that it verges on being a sub-species, and a sub-par sub-species at that.
Of course, one could make the argument that “fangirl” is simply the counterpart of the classic, and also derogatory, term “fanboy,” but I’m not sure the situation is quite so cut-and-dried as that. Both imply obsessive devotion to stories, fictional worlds and/or fictional characters, but I think, especially in the wake of the phenomenon that is Twilight fandom, the “fangirl” now plays a more prominent role than the “fanboy” does in the American popular consciousness. (Or popular culture/popular consciousness. Let’s split the diff and call it pop consciousness.) And that role is a troubled one.
Now, Supernatural has been in a long narcissistic metasexual affair with itself ever since Sam told Dean what slash fiction was in “The Monster at the End of This Book,” so this is obviously a television series very invested in fandom–both its own fandom and the self-reflexive ‘fandom’ that exists diegetically within the show. This means that the not-so-elusive “fangirl” is sighted quite frequently in Supernatural–so frequently, in fact, that the thought of doing a single post on all of the internal-to-the-show Supernatural fangirls frankly made my head spin.
As a result, my discussion of fangirls in Supernatural will be doled out in three parts. Part I will discuss the off-brand Twilight fans in the stand-alone episode “Live Free or Twi-hard,” Part II will look at the trials and tribulations of Supernatural’s own ur-fangirl, “Yucky” Becky, and Part III will unpack why I can’t bring myself to like Charlie Bradbury/Carrie Heinlein, in spite of all the reasons I’m supposed to.
And Part I commences in 5 . . . 3 . . . Now.
Appearing in: “Live Free or Twi-hard,” Season 6, Episode 5. Directed by Jan Eliasburg*; Written by Brett Matthews.
I remember when the backlash against Twilight’s popularity began, and we were only just starting to be groomed into hating it. Someone showed me one of those “Twilight: How it Should Have Ended” image manipulations.** In this picture, a bloody-mouthed Edward Cullen carried an unconscious Bella Swan into the woods. Presumably to finish eating her. As vampires do.
And yeah, I thought it was funny. Vampires are monsters.*** Of course a vampire eating or draining the blood from a girl would make more sense than him courting her and being all standoffish.
So, at the time, I thought the whole “Edward should have eaten her” bit was funny. And then the joke kept going, and I thought it was funny for a little while longer. And then, maybe as I started to realize how mean-spirited some of the Twilight criticism (specifically that which targeted Bella herself and/or the female fans of the series) had become, it started being a little less funny. And then it just kind of stopped being funny.
Because men killing women? Not so much with the funny.
Now, “Live Free or Twi-hard” first aired in October of 2010, and I didn’t see it until 2013, so it’s possible that, had I seen it when it first aired, I would have still felt ever-so-slightly more kindly to the “Edward should have killed her” brand of humor. But I’m pretty sure I was over it by then. Because by 2010, we had all had plenty of time to get used to Twilight and the amazing tangle of public opinions that surrounded it.
On that note, let’s take a look at the Twilight/Supernatural timeline**** in a little more detail. For the sake of science. Or at least what sometimes passes for science on Internet media review sites.
September 13, 2005: Supernatural’s “Pilot” airs
October 5, 2005: Twilight released
August 21, 2006: New Moon released
August 7, 2007: Eclipse released
July 7, 2008: Breaking Dawn released
November 21, 2008: Twilight theatrical release
August 28, 2008: Midnight Sun (originally leaked) released on Meyer’s website
November 20, 2009: New Moon theatrical release
June 5, 2010The Short Second Life of Bree Tanner released
June 30, 2010: Eclipse theatrical release
October 22, 2010: Supernatural’s “Live Free or Twi-Hard” airs
November 18, 2011: Breaking Dawn Part 1 theatrical release
February 3, 2011: Parks and Recreation’s “Time Capsule” airs
November 16, 2012: Breaking Dawn Part 2 theatrical release
March 29, 2013: The Host theatrical release projected (Because the last year not accompanied by a film adaptation of a Stephenie Meyer book was 2007, and why break a trend?)
So . . . yeah. By the time that “Live Free or Twi-Hard” came out, all four–well, five, if you count Midnight Sun–of the Twilight books had been released, along with two of the five movies. And they all made ridiculous amounts of money. We were steeped, drenched, dipped, up-to-our-eyeballs in Twilight and Twilight-related paraphernalia. I think it was even around that time that the blood bus where I live was offering “Team Edward” and “Team Jacob” shirts to donors.***** So it makes sense that Supernatural, a paranormal TV show that hit the airwaves less than a month before Twilight hit the shelves, and yet never met with anything like the financial success that Twilight received, would poke some fun at the sparkly vampire juggernaut’s expense.
I love Supernatural. Really, really love it. I do not love Twilight. I actually have very few feelings on Twilight at all with the exception of a fascination with its break-out popularity, which is quite the cultural phenomenon. What I’m saying is, I’m in Supernatural‘s corner here. Or at least, I want to be.
But the way that Supernatural pokes fun at Twilight makes me uncomfortable.
“Live Free or Twi-Hard” opens with a scene that might as well be right out of Twillight. Or Twilight fan-fiction. Or Twilight cosplay. A young lady with a fake ID meets up with a young man at a bar. She is thrilled he showed up, and they sit together. The young lady, doing her best Kristen Stuart as Bella impersonation, gets a paper cut and bemoans her awkwardness to her companion. The tousled-haired, brunet young man sitting across from her, in his turn, does his best to be a rude, mysterious loner dude trying to resist her adoraklutz charms. He has a strong reaction to her paper cut, and has to leave. Then he comes back. They use ‘discreet’ language to argue over whether or not he will turn her, with her insisting she’s ready to be vamped and him trying to save her from his tragic existence. Slowly, wannabe Bella wears down his resistance. He shows her a single fang, and she asks if “it” will “hurt.” Double entendre much? This conversation is as awkward and terrible as such a conversation would be if anyone ever actually had it and it’s actually pretty funny.
Not Robert Pattinson (let’s call him NRP) begrudgingly allows the Bella wannabe to follow him to a seedy back alley. This environment disappoints her, because seedy back alleys are unpleasant, and she expected vampires to have swankier real estate. Also NRP’s boss, who does not share NRP’s Pattinson-related good looks, shows up, and wannabe-Bella realizes she is outnumbered, by men she doesn’t know very well, in a seedy back alley. NRP (whose name turns out to be Robert) reveals a mouth full of long, jagged fangs and wannabe Bella finally remembers that vampires are predators and tries to get away. She doesn’t get away.
Aaaand it’s time for the Hardy Boys to start their investigation.
The bros. Winchester go to the house of the missing girl, whose real name is Kristen (Get it? GET IT?), and her father assures them that Kristen was a nice girl, in spite of . . . something. Something that he alludes to evasively as if it were some kind of shameful secret: “Kristen’s a good kid. A little naive, sure. You try and be a good parent. Girls are hard.” The boys think maybe he’s referring to drugs, but when they investigate Kristen’s room, they discover her shameful secret to be . . . fangirlism? Fangirlitus? The condition of being a girl who is also a fan of things. In this case, vampires. Kristen loves vampires, and her room is plastered with images of hot vampire boys from some franchise that I think was invented for the episode, and no Twilight merchandise whatsoever. Presumably for licensing reasons. But her computer password is “Pattinson,” so at least we know Twilight still exists in this universe. It’s just that our vampire groupie has no Twilight books or sheets or posters or action figures in her room that is basically a shrine to hot fictional vampire teen boys. And no one references Meyer’s series by name, ever. So, that’s odd, and strains my suspension of disbelief for some reason, even though I’m cool with vampires existing in the first place. On the other hand, I’m guessing the show’s creators had little choice in the matter. Moving on.
Sam and Dean are horrified by Kristen’s room, and Kristen’s books. Dean picks up a vampire novel, sees that its hero is watching its heroine sleep, and asks “How is that not rapey?” Good question, Dean. (Use of the term ‘rapey’ aside.) This will be important later.
As the bros. marvel at Kristen’s themed bedroom decor, the implication is that we, the audience, are asked to be fascinated and horrified along with them. Isn’t it disturbing how many posters she has on her wall, that that is her laptop background, that she has obsessively collected so many things that relate to her favorite book series?
Well . . . no?
It’s just stuff, guys. It’s a lot of stuff, sure. But it’s just stuff she bought (or that was bought for her) because it related to something she loved. Not the best investment strategy, admittedly, but hey, maybe she didn’t need money. And wanted stuff.
I actually kind of like Kristen’s room. I don’t mean to say that I want Kristen’s room, but it makes me a little happy whenever I see fans proudly displaying their collections. It shows investment, and love for a fictional universe, and what’s not fun about that? And if you’re a fan of the same thing they’re a fan of? You know it immediately. Boom. Instant conversation starter.
The bros. dig further. They access Kristen’s old emails, and discover that she was corresponding with someone pretending to be a sensitive Edward-Cullen-type vampire. Vampires are Internet predators now. And an Internet-predator vampire has preyed on Kristen’s delusions, building the fantasy that he can offer her the kind of romance she adores in her vampire novels. Kristen the Fangirl is more than an obsessive collector of stuff. She is also a cautionary tale, the victim of an elaborate and deadly hoax.
So, in this universe, novels about hawt vampire boys are used as instruction manuals for preying on young women. Young women who have, through virtue of rebuilding themselves in the image of Bella Swan (or whomever Bella Swan is in this universe, because licensing) deliberately turned themselves into self-effacing, co-dependent and dependent victims who look to men to guide and abuse them. What’s not victim-blamey about that?
This all means that the cautionary tale in the episode is not just for the characters in the episode, but for us. We are being warned, in snarky, tongue-in-cheek fashion, that Twilight is Bad For You and Bella is a Bad Role Model. Which . . . we already knew? We certainly knew it by 2010. And a lot of Twilight fans knew it too. This universe in which fan(girl)s who cannot tell the difference between fantasy and reality are the norm and not the exception just seems unlikely. And a little offensive. The whole fantasy-makes-you-delusional thing sounds like a page out of the Mazes and Monsters handbook, and it’s an odd stance for a paranormal show to take.
And it’s not that there’s no space to criticize the more sexist aspects of Twilight, or that we should stop having that conversation just because it feels like it’s been had to death. The Twilight franchise is huge, and it’s still an important conversation.
At the same time . . . glass houses, Supernatural. I love you, but . . . glass houses. So Bella’s a bad role model. I’ll give you that one. But the Twilight saga does have a female protagonist and a female P.O.V., and the majority of its prominent, recurring female characters–as far as I understand it–survive the series. Supernatural can’t make those claims. Now, I can’t take Supernatural too much to task for the first two things on that checklist, but the third?
Supernatural, more to the point, revels in the spectacle of violence against women–both ‘good’ women who are offed by the bad guys (usually men) and ‘bad’ women (usually evil female demons in good-to-neutral female human bodies) who are offed and sometimes tortured by our heroes (also usually men). And for all its faults, I’m pretty sure Twilight doesn’t do that. So if one of the motivations behind this episode is upset that Twilight hit it big with the ladies while Supernatural–which seems to view itself as ‘better’ material–did not, at least not to the same degree, my feeling is: Can you blame them? If fans who happen to be women are going to insert themselves into one of these two stories, why wouldn’t they pick the one they were most likely to survive?
[UPDATE: A friend of mine who reads this blog pointed out that the above paragraph misleadingly implies that Twilight has a majority-female fan base while Supernatural does not–which is NOT the case; as far as I know, both franchises have majority-female fan bases (though I maintain that Supernatural targets a male audience, in spite of most of its audience not being male). In the previous paragraph, I had been trying to make a comparison between both titles’ overall number of female fans–as in “Twilight has many more female fans all told than Supernatural, though both have a higher ratio of female:male fans.” And I was trying to argue that Supernatural might have a larger (majority-female) fan-base if its female characters got killed off with a little less frequency. But yeah. It was really misleading.]
So back in the plot, stuff goes down and Dean gets force-fed vampire blood. He starts to turn! Now, he is the broody, sensitive vampire who wants his loved ones (his girlfriend and her son) to stay away from him for their own protection. But he still loves them and he can’t stay completely away. Also, Lisa smells good. Or her blood sounds good, or something. He loves her but he also wants to eat her. And his behavior comes off as cold and distant, because not eating tasty people is hard. Her son, Ben, approaches him, and Dean shoves him into a wall. For Ben’s own protection! Dean offers neither Lisa nor Ben an explanation for any of this crap. (Why is not clear. Presumably it is for their protection, somehow.) Dean even watches Lisa sleep! Remember that thing he called ‘rapey’ earlier? Well, now he gets it. Dean, who once looked down on this pitiful excuse for a romantic lead, has had a transformational journey and can now understand where Edward Cullen (or this world’s Edward Cullen equivalent) is coming from. This is his arc. His story. He gets it now.
But was this a story that needed to be told?
Stephenie Meyer seemed to think so. Look at that timeline! Midnight Sun, the (partial) novel written from Edward’s P.O.V., was released in 2008. The timing makes it reasonable to assume that the 2010 episode “Live Free or Twi-Hard” owes its inspiration at least in part to the Edward-centric Midnight Sun.
But my problem with Edward (and, to an extent, vampire!Dean) is pretty much the same problem that Anita Sarkeesian points to in her 2009 “The Real Reason Guys Should Hate Twilight” video. Up until Dean’s transformation, Supernatural, too, has a similar problem with Edward-style vampires, finding them predatory, ‘rapey’ stalkers. And then Dean is turned, and he, our hero, starts acting like an abusive, emotionally manipulative stalker. And because he’s the hero and he has good reasons (for the most part, he literally cannot help himself), we are supposed to sympathize with manipulative stalker!vampire!Dean.
And this makes me kind of queasy.
To investigate my queasiness, let’s break things down (sorta) logically:
- Supernatural remakes the Edward/Bella love story as a stalker/victim cautionary tale.
- Dean is put into the position of Edward, whose struggles are made more sympathetic as a result.
- Dean, channeling the now-sympathetic Edward, is now a sympathetic stalker.
And is that something we really need as a culture? Stories about sympathetic stalkers? Sympathetic abusers? Men who physically or emotionally hurt women because they just can’t help themselves? Is that a myth that really needs to be perpetuated? And is the perpetuation of that myth any less powerful just because it’s in a silly Twilight parody?
This feels almost like incidental sexism, where Supernatural started the episode by trying to use Twilight to say something insightful about the way gender dynamics are presented in popular culture and ended up saying something so much worse than the source material they wanted to criticize. Like they took a wrong turn somewhere and whoops! they were in sexism, but there was no time to rewrite the episode. Not that ‘accidental sexism’ would really qualify as an excuse in any context. I’m just saying that I don’t get any malicious intent from the episode. It really seemss like the creators very much wanted to be clever and stumbled into offensive whilst not looking. Which is perhaps more offensive in its way than sexism-with-intent, as it shows a kind of carelessness and lack of empathy for female characters and/or viewers.
Dean is now the inside man in the vampires’ nest. It’s a pyramid scheme! The hot vampire boys are lures for human fangirls with low self-esteem, and then the turned fangirls are lures for hot boys, who get turned into hot vampire boys who stalk and ensnare more wannaBellas, and so on, and so forth, until the vampire higher-ups meet their quota, or something.
It is never explained how the wannaBellas lure human boys. Apparently boys like klutzy vampires with self-esteem issues.
Towards the end of the episode, Dean must fight his way through the vampire fangirls. All of whom are basically Kristen Stuart impersonators who have been turned. And I think that this scene is the primary reason the episode exists. Because the creators could not resist showing us the attack of the wannaBellas.
And I get it. I really do. It’s a way of making fun of Twilight by showing one of the most famously passive heroines of all time as the entirety of a violent mob. (OK, so there are only seven of them. But still.) It’s a way of poking fun at fangirls, by reimagining them as predatory and violent as they descend upon their prey. (With their prey in the real world being the celebrities and/or characters who are the objects of their affections. It matters that Dean is recruited and recast as a “Pattinson” before the fangirls descend upon him.)
But this screeching mob of fan(girl)pires isn’t really helping the show’s presentation of women any. In fact, it implies some not-very-nice things about women in general and women who are fans in particular. Sure, maybe the mob was only intended to represent and mock female fans of Twilight, but because this scene is so in-line with the fangirl definitions we found on Urban Dictionary earlier, it’s easy to read it as being about female fans in general. It supports the perception of the fangirl as obsessive, unthinking, dangerous even. “Crazy.” And as a bonus, in this case she has been made literally subhuman.
And this all works to make female fans–most particularly those who attempt to participate in larger fan-based communities that include other female fans–seem wretched. And misguided. And unable to look out for themselves, or to understand their own choices. They’re just part of a herd. Sheep, if you will. Er, vampire sheep.
And none of this makes me feel particularly good about myself as a woman or as a fan or as a female fan. Or as a female fan of Supernatural. If this episode makes your skin itch, too, I recommend Parks and Recreation’s 2011 “Time Capsule” as a balm. “Time Capsule,” like “Live Free or Twi-hard,” makes fun of the Twilight fandom, but in a gentler way. It also (and much more interestingly) looks at how a fandom like the one surrounding Twilight can be instrumental in building a sense of community.
* * *
** The current incarnation of this meme now seems to involve Wesley Snipes’s Blade, and the implied threat is now to both Bella and Edward, and not just to Bella alone. Progress?
*** “Vampires are monsters. They make monster movies about them.” –Xander Harris, Buffy the Vampire Slayer, “Intervention.” Directed by Michael Gershman; Written by Jane Espenson.
**** The book and movie release dates for the Twilight series are taken from Stephenie Meyer’s site, StephenieMeyer.com. Supernatural air dates taken from imdb.com, because the official Supernatural site at cwtv.com does not list air dates for old episodes, for some reason. Parks and Rec air dates taken from the episode guide at the official nbc.com Parks and Recreation site.
***** I did not get one, and I regret it to this day. (In my defense, giving blood makes me ill.)