Men. Men in Cages.
It’s time. The Supernatural Season 9 premiere is upon us at long last. I would like to take a moment, in these last hours before the season begins, to look back on one of the more recent Season 9 promotions and my reaction to it.
At the end of September, this happened:
The Powers That Be over at the CW decided to give us a series of posters featuring the leading men of Supernatural–in other words, Dean, Sam, Castiel and Crowley–in cages.
There are bars. There are chains. Nobody is in the chains, and the posters don’t show the cage doors, so … it’s not at all clear how locked these cages are, or how easy and/or difficult they would be to escape.
But still: cages. Men in cages.
In 1999, Susan Bordo wrote The Male Body: A New Look at Men in Public and Private. In that book, in the much-excerpted chapter “Beauty (Re)discovers the Male Body,” Bordo describes her reaction upon finding a particularly evocative Calvin Klein underwear ad in her New York Times Magazine:
[…] I had my first real taste of what it’s like to inhabit this visual culture as a man. It was the first time in my experience that I had encountered a commercial representation of a male body that seemed to deliberately invite me to linger over it. Let me make that stronger–that seemed to reach out to me, interrupting my mundane but peaceful Sunday morning, and provoke me into erotic consciousness, whether or not I wanted it.
[–Excerpt taken from page 131 of David Bartholomae and Anthony Petrosky’s 2008 anthology, Ways of Reading*]
What was evocative, for Bordo, was not the model’s mostly nude state (though she certainly did not mind it), but the way that the model was posed: head down and eyes averted, sinuously muscled body held in a gentle S-curve. The model was enticing in a submissive way that bucked the trend of hard, cold, hyper-masculine male models that were the go-to standard of advertising at the time. This ad was different, and it spoke to Bordo in a way that other mainstream advertisements displaying male bodies–advertisements painstakingly designed so as not to offend the delicate sensibilities of a heterosexual male gaze–did not.
Right now, I feel kind of like Bordo in the spring of ’95 (when she first saw the ad, and knocked over her coffee).
Because, for me, with my own particular erotic inclinations, these promotional posters for Supernatural come as a similar shock. These posters are jarring for me–an interruption, though a welcome and enticing one. And they certainly “provoke me into erotic consciousness.”
Yeah. These posters kind of do it for me. And not in a way that I encounter in popular culture on a daily basis, except on those days when I embark on deliberate searches for such stimuli. I can certainly find this kind of thing when I go looking for it; it is just that it does not usually find me.
These are, by far, the most evocative, and most provocative, Supernatural posters (or DVD covers, or photo stills, or what have you) that I have yet encountered. Because they appeal to me, to my taste. They seem almost as if they were designed with me in mind. As if I am, for once, the target audience, and not just someone who happens to enjoy a product that was aimed at somebody else.
In the first place, these posters of the leading SPN men present them in poses and attitudes that actually look, well, in-character. Appropriately enough. And that can sometimes be hard to find.
For example, my parents once bought me a Spike-themed Buffy the Vampire Slayer wall calendar. As Buffy was a show I just about lived for then, and I had a huge, open crush on Spike, this was a very thoughtful and appropriate gift. (And yes, I do realize now why crushing on Spike is so very problematic, but that is not the point at the moment.) I loved the character and I appreciated the calendar. However, there was something dissatisfying about the calendar’s monthly images.
They were mostly just . . . pictures of Spike. Which, I know, I know, is what I signed up for, yes, but these pictures were all so static. Spike standing around. Spike showing some fang. Spike looking cool. The thing is, what had made me fall in love with the character in the first place was his vulnerability. The way he had of always getting in his own way. The wounded look he would get when someone hurt his feelings. How he wanted to be the Big Bad, but still yearned to submit to someone else’s authority. The trademark James Marsters head tilt, indicating absolute bewilderment. I liked Spike because of all of those moments in the show when he wasn’t calm, cool and collected.
And this calendar didn’t include any of those. In fact, some (if not most) of the pictures in it seemed like they weren’t of Spike at all, but of James Marsters in his Spike costume, at a studio shoot somewhere, being told where to stand by the photographer. Which still made for images that were pretty easy on the eyes. They just weren’t what I wanted.
I tried. I tried to look at these studio-polished stills and reawaken the erotic charge that I had felt during the last five minutes of “Fool For Love” (Season 5), or during all of “Intervention” (Season 5), or while singing along with Spike’s solo in “Once More With Feeling” (Season 6). And it worked, to an extent, but it was an exercise of recall, not an appreciation of the calendar’s images in their own right.
In the second place–Hey, remember that there was a “first place” before I went off on that huge Spike tangent?–the CW has a nasty habit of releasing promotional images that are Photoshopped so obviously and so awkwardly, they end up grotesque. (I’m looking at you, Vampire Diaries.) And while I’m sure Photoshop (or some similar piece of software) was involved in the making of these posters, these posters nonetheless do not look grotesque. They look good. The men in them look pretty good, too.
Furthermore, I just like looking at pictures of men in cages. (Disclaimer: when and only when those pictures represent fictional scenarios.) Because BDSM is fun.
My one-poster-at-a-time take (Analysis! Sketches! Also probably some SPOILERS for Supernatural!) on each of the four cage-themed promotional images is below the cut:
Dean looks the least ‘trapped’ of any of the four caged Supernatural men. He crouches down, staring at the viewer straight-on. As if he’s there of his own volition. As if he just popped by, to you in your cage, to ask, “Hey, you need some saving? Because that’s kind of what I do” like a big damn hero. When I look at Dean’s poster, I feel like the one in the cage. Even though Dean is crouched, in a cage and next to a chain (What is that for, anyway, if Dean’s not wearing it?), it still seems like Dean is the one with all the power. I’m trapped in the cage, but he could leave at any time.
It’s in the relaxed posture of Dean’s shoulders, and the way he’s crouched rather than sitting down, lying down or leaning against the cage bars. He looks ready to stand up and get out–with or without me. And it’s in the directness of his gaze. Dean is displaying what Susan Bordo in 1999 might have called “face-off masculinity”:
Many models stare coldly at the viewer, defying the observer to view them in any way other than how they have chosen to present themselves: as powerful, armored, emotionally impenetrable. (Ways of Reading 145)
Dean’s stare might not be exactly cold, but he certainly seems to be defying me to think of him as helpless. Dean gazes out from his promotional poster, his eyes level with mine, and even though he is only a still image, I feel like the one being observed. It’s not an angry gaze, but it is an assessing one. I feel scrutinized. It’s an uncomfortable feeling, if not an entirely unpleasant one.
After all, there are probably worse erotic fantasies out there than rescue-from-cage, courtesy of Dean. It’s not my favorite of the four posters, but I’m sure some of Becky’s peeps on the Supernatural message boards would be all over it.
If Dean is the one who dropped by to rescue you, then Sam is the one who volunteered himself to be caged in your place.
I’ll be honest. The first time I saw Sam’s poster, I thought, “WTF is Jared Padalecki doing? This is a Supernatural promotional, not a perfume ad!”
But, after staring at it long enough to sketch it, I’ve come to accept that this poster does present an in-character Sam. This is, after all, the Sam that Supernatural has been trying to get us to see since the Season 5 Finale: Sam as tortured martyr. He went to Hell to save us in “Swan Song.” (Because Supernatural doesn’t do subtle.) He tried to die to save us in “Sacrifice.”
And this poster is consistent with that characterization. Sam reclines in the corner of his cage, sorrowful but at peace with the world and accepting of his fate. Sam is not challenging anyone, viewer or captor. If you want to get a rise out of him, you’re going to be sorely disappointed, for Sam offers no resistance.
In that same Male Body chapter, Bordo compares “rocks” to “leaners.” The “rocks” are the rigid, aggressive models who are so built and who stand so stiffly that they are practically surrogate phalluses on their own; the “leaners” are the models who, well, lean, leaving themselves visually open and receptive to the imaginary advances of the viewer. (Ways of Reading 147-149)
For his part, Sam’s pose might not look quite like submission, but it does look like surrender.
Oh, Castiel. Castiel needs a hug. And maybe a bowl of soup and a blanket and a spot on your sleeper-sofa for the next few weeks while he tries to get his life together.
Castiel is the one who looks like he needs to be rescued.
Castiel cringes in his cage, huddled in the corner, looking out with wary eyes, hand curled protectively around his knee. He looks like he’s about to lose it. Like the only thing keeping him from weeping openly is one last tattered scrap of pride, and the off chance that someone might be looking.
Really, Castiel’s reaction seems the most cage-appropriate.
And delicious. His fear is intoxicating.
Remember what I said about liking vulnerability? And about liking BDSM?
More than any of the others, Castiel looks like he actually wants out of his cage. He looks terrified. Trapped and terrified. As if the cage is not just a set for Misha Collins to pose on, but an integral part of some story in which Cas gets himself stuck in a freaking cage. And does not like it. And is alone, facing his own mortality in a way that feels more real to him than ever before. (Even though, like the Winchesters, he’s already died at least twice.) Castiel’s poster makes me the most excited for Season 9, because it reminds me of the trauma Cas experienced in the Season 8 finale, and seems to foreshadow all the traumatic stuff he’s going to experience as a human.
Also, Cas looks somehow exposed without his trench coat. Indecently exposed. I feel dirty just looking at him.
Dean’s in a crouch; Sam and Castiel are on the floor. Crowley is the only one standing in his cage.
Even though Crowley is standing, this stance does not, quite, place him in a position of power.
And even though Crowley gazes out at the viewer, this also does not, quite, place him in a position of power.
For there is something very interesting going on in Crowley’s expression. He looks like he is about to smile. As if he’s preparing for the moment after he tricks you into bargaining with him (which will about five seconds from now), and he needs his gloating face ready. At the same time, he looks like he’s about to cry. This deal he’s about to make with you might be the most important thing in his life–or the only thing that will save his life–and he’s desperate for it to go through.
This makes Crowley’s gaze a challenging one, but not a confrontational one. He is not about to fight or defy, but he is challenging you to accept his offer.
Or maybe his carnation.
* * *
* Bordo, Susan. “Beauty (Re)discovers the Male Body,” Ways of Reading. 131-181. Edited by David Bartholomae and Anthony Petrosky. Boston and New York: Bedford / St. Martin’s, 2008.