Queerbaited: Homoeroticism & Homophobia in Supernatural in the Age of the Internet

I can’t put my finger on exactly when I first saw the word cropping up in and around fandom spaces on the internet, but it was, at least, a good few years ago that I first read the word “queerbaiting” and wondered what in the hell that was even supposed to mean. I was still in university, at least, because I remember sitting in a lecture for my fashion art history class and my professor struggling with something similar that one of his TAs had brought to him. We were studying fashion advertisements and their gendered power dynamics, and the particular significances of the objectified male body. Needless to say there was lots of discussion of the gaze, Laura Mulvey, and Jacques Lacan.

What my professor was struggling with was a term one of his graduate students had brought up in one of their seminars, that of the “gay vague”. The student defined it as homoeroticism that purposely toes the line between subtext and overt text but never fully crosses it in order to stay “safe” for heteronormative audiences yet still enticing to gay ones, which to my ears immediately brought to mind a different but similar term I had been seeing all over my Tumblr dashboard online.

The conversation was specifically begun in reference to Bruce Weber’s work in fashion film and advertisements, and we had just watched this as a class:

My professor’s problem with “gay vague,” as I remember it, was that it focused too much on the supposed intentions of the creator rather than the actual dynamic and relationship of subject (i.e. the advertisement) and viewer (i.e. us, the audience). For him, it failed to address the actual symbolism and relationships at play, and unfairly dismissed any homoeroticism as “not enough,” without any analysis of its own value in its own right and the subversive significance of a male body on display in an objectified way that’s often reserved only for women. For him, it wasn’t that “gay vague” was a bad or even necessarily inaccurate term so much as that it wasn’t very useful.

This rung with me very strongly, for it sounded a lot like my own struggle with the word “queerbaiting”.

I can’t say or not whether the term originated in the fan communities surrounding the TV show Supernatural, of which I was a seasoned member, but it was there that I saw its most widespread usage. I’d seen it lobbed frequently at other shows like Teen Wolf and Sherlock, but as I wasn’t in those fandoms myself, I didn’t pay much attention to those debates. No, the one raging in my own fandom was loud enough to preoccupy me.

If you’ve been anywhere on the internet where TV show fandoms are discussed, you’ve surely heard about the relationship between Dean Winchester and the angel Castiel. Though Supernatural is a show that rarely if ever gets any mainstream media attention, go to any comic con or fan convention and I will bet you at least see a dozen different Castiel cosplays, and half of them likely with their own cosplay version of Dean. At 11 seasons and counting, it is the longest consecutive running genre show on American television, after all.

Castiel (Misha Collins) on the left being supported by Dean (Jensen Ackles) on the right, as they’re about to face off against a frequent foe in episode 7 of season 8.

Perhaps the funny thing about the juggernaut that is Dean/Castiel, is that it was sort of an accident that it became anything at all. The character of Castiel, played by actor Misha Collins, was only introduced in the show’s fourth season as a temporary guest star, meant to be used as merely a gateway into a newly expanded mythology arc that would see angels and demons battling in the war to end all wars, the biblically heralded apocalypse. But just as the apocalypse never actually came, averted, as Castiel says in episode twenty of season six, “by two boys, an old drunk, and a fallen angel,” so too did Castiel never actually leave as he was originally supposed to.

As creator and then-showrunner Eric Kripke describes it on one of season 4’s episode commentary tracks (episode 3, “In the Beginning,” to be exact), Misha Collins was originally hired as a three episode guest star, but blew the powers that be away so much with his performance and chemistry with the existing cast (namely, with Jensen Ackles’ Dean) that he was quickly signed on for more episodes, and then hired as a series regular for the next two seasons. Originally, however, when season 4 was first being outlined, Castiel was supposed to die, to be replaced by another angel character as Dean Winchester’s guide through the apocalypse. But Collins’ performance as the seemingly stoic but highly conflicted celestial warrior was powerful enough that those plans were quickly rewritten, and Castiel indeed would rapidly become one of the show’s most beloved characters, and Collins, one of the show’s most popular breakout stars.

But it wasn’t just the chemistry between Dean and Castiel (as heavy and loaded as it is) that attracted viewers, but the particular nature of their story. Which, as it happens, was also caused a bit by accident.

(Beware, spoilers abound after this mark.)

Anyone who pays attention to TV will remember the writer’s strike of 2007–2008, which affected almost every show then on the air. Supernatural, cult genre show that it was, did not escape the rapid need to wrap up a season only half as long as it was supposed to be. Before the fateful strike changed their plans, Supernatural’s third season was supposed to end with Dean Winchester’s soul being saved from Hell where it had been doomed towards at the end of season 2, after making a deal to save his brother, Sam. But with the strike looming on the horizon, the writers and producers of the show realised that they simply didn’t have enough time in the semi-serialised format their show was made in to save Dean. So, at the end of season 3’s shortened season, Dean dies, and goes to hell.

There was never any question of Dean staying there, however, so the writers knew they had to get him out in season 4. Enter the angels.

Kripke has gone on the record saying that when he first conceived of the show’s mythology, he never actually wanted to introduce angels at all. But the shift in the shows plans due to the writer’s strike meant that he actually had the perfect opportunity to re-energise the show’s mythology and expand the show’s potential storylines, and so he took it. As many issues as Kripke’s storytelling has, from misogyny to racism and every other thing well internalised by a middle aged straight white man, to his credit, this shift in mythology was a really smart move.

All through Supernatural’s run, the show has struggled with the limited capacity of its two member main cast. Sam and Dean Winchester are indeed complex and compelling characters on their own and together, but at over twenty episodes a season, there is a limited amount of compelling stories you can tell with just two people. The chief reason the show has survived, I would argue, and gone on to eleven seasons (and may well soon continue into its twelfth), is the wide cast of recurring and secondary characters the show has introduced over the years. Unfortunately, those characters seem to meet their doom sooner rather than later, especially if they’re women or characters of colour, but the wider cast of Supernatural has undeniably been the vital support that Sam and Dean need to play off of to continue giving us fresh stories. Rarely, a recurring guest star makes such an impression that they get promoted to series regular (which unfortunately doesn’t mean they appear every episode, but does mean the show has priority over the actor’s time and therefore can use them more frequently), which has indeed happened a few times in the show’s history. Currently, Mark Sheppard, who plays the demon Crowley, and Misha Collins, who of course plays Castiel, are the only two surviving regulars the show has.

I could argue for days about how Crowley has long since been exhausted of any kind of compelling storyline or relevance (I’m sorry Crowley, I loved you in seasons 5 and 6, but it’s time), but Castiel has, since his introduction in 2008, continued to be a dynamic and vital addition to the show. Despite my personal frustrations with the show’s reluctance to make Castiel a part of the weekly main cast alongside Sam and Dean, he has managed to cultivate deep and complex relationships with both Winchester brothers, and particularly with Dean, whom he rescued from Hell in the opening episode of season 4.

That’s literally one hell of a meet cute right there, but Dean and Castiel would continue to have a flagrant and exciting relationship, from Castiel’s slow thawing and burgeoning friendship with Dean, to eventually giving up all he’s ever known among the ranks of Heaven’s angel to help Dean save the world, and dieing in the process just to give Dean a chance. And it doesn’t even end there.

Miraculously, he’s brought back to life by some unknown force (by God, we’re lead to believe, who’s always on the show conspicuously absent), and in season 5 continues to stand by the brothers to help de-rail the apocalypse that, if it came to pass, would see half the world razed just for the sake of settling a familial score between archangels Michael and Lucifer.

It doesn’t end there either.

Castiel, cut off from heaven, falls and discovers humanity, with all its fumbles and failings. He learns the visceral reality of exhaustion, or loss, of hunger. In one episode (“Free To Be You And Me,” 5.03), Dean even tries to introduce Castiel to human sex by taking him to a brothel, promising him, “There are two things I know for certain: one, Bert and Ernie are gay. And two, you are not gonna die a virgin.” Well, Castiel doesn’t sleep with anyone at the brothel, instead returning with Dean to their abandoned house hideout with Dean’s arm slung around his shoulder. So, how did you do on that promise then Dean, hmm?

Even before Castiel’s introduction, fans of the show had long interpreted Dean as a closeted bisexual, fulfilling all the familiar tropes of repressed sexuality and posturing, overcompensating masculinity. Raised under the military discipline of his neglectful and emotionally abusive father, Dean was forced into the role of surrogate parent to his younger brother at the age of four after the death of their mother. Spurned on to a lifelong quest for revenge, John Winchester dragged his sons across the country, bent on being a martyr for his wife rather than a father to his children. The lesson Dean grew up with then, reinforced time and time again, was that his own emotions and experiences didn’t matter, for they were always secondary to looking after Sam. His own wants, desires, and relationships outside of his parentified fraternal duty were always relegated to second, to risk perishing or repression. And though John Winchester coerced Dean into effectively replacing his own mother with regards to Sam, John also continually scorned Dean for any outward show of femininity or softness. This impossible conflict, irreconcilable to an adult let alone a child, meant that Dean grew up with few allowances to actually express and discover himself. It meant that Dean grew up using normative forms of masculinity as an armour, a cloak to conceal his underlying sensitivity and fragilities, a vessel of survival under the eye of his regressive and old fashioned father.

This, of course, isn’t prescriptive of being queer, but for those of us who are, it’s a familiar refrain. Needing to don masks, obfuscate emotions, repress desires, it’s a familiar thing for many queer people growing up in our heteronormative and patriarchal society, even those of us from relatively healthy families and childhoods. Understandably then, many queer and LGBT identified viewers latched on to Dean as an expression of themselves, as a companion to their struggles.

So when he met Castiel, was literally saved by him, healed and reborn with his handprint emblazoned on his shoulder, people took notice. Not only was Misha Collins a very handsome man acting next to another very handsome man, Jensen Ackles, but the charged nature of their relationship and the instant rapport the actors had with one another lent to their characters a sensation of a fuse being lit between them. Eight years on from their first meeting on September 18th, 2008, Dean and Castiel have fought together, against each other, died and betrayed each other more than once, but every time, come back to each other, accepted each other as they are, and forgiven. “I’d rather have you,” Dean said in episode 23 of season 7, on the eve of a final showdown, “cursed or not.”

Whether you give a damn about Castiel and Dean’s relationship or not, then, it’s easy to see how it’s possible to read as heavily romantic. It follows all the common tropes of a will they/won’t they dynamic seen countless times in other shows, from Mulder and Scully of The X-Files (Supernatural’s predecessor in many ways), to Booth and Bones of Bones, Castle and Beckett of Castle, Sam and Jack of Stargate SG-1, et cetera. The difference, you’ll notice though, from Dean and Castiel, is that those are all straight relationships. Even though not all of them quite got the on screen requital fans wanted — Sam and Jack, after 10 years of being explicitly teased, got only an implied mention after one of the actors had left the show; Mulder and Scully repeatedly brought together but then broken up — all relationships were textually and explicitly acknowledged in some way as being viably romantic. They all kissed at least, at some point.

Now, I would argue part of the problem with Supernatural’s romance situation is that is an action genre show. Which is not to say that genre shows and romance are incompatible, but that its writers and producers, overwhelmingly straight and male, often think they are. Romance in our Western culture carries a potent feminine connotation, and indeed the genre of “romance” as far as fiction is concerned is explicitly marketed for women. Romantic comedies are movies for women. Romance novels are for women. And they are just for women because the hegemonic gender binary we live with decrees that sentiment is synonymous with femininity, and antithetical to masculinity. In order to be truly a man then, expression of sentiment, being vulnerable to feeling, cannot be allowed. For if we allow cracks in these barriers, the barriers as a whole will be at risk of collapsing altogether, and what would the patriarchy do if it couldn’t control people by gender? If those barriers collapsed, they’d lose power.

Suffice to say then, I think the male dominated world of action and sci-fi/fantasy is uncomfortable with writing even heterosexual romance in any kind of serious way, for they’re often uncomfortable with even writing three dimensional and complex women, period, and don’t know what to do with them when they do. That’s not to say you never find it, but in general it’s hard to write a compelling heterosexual romance, after all, if all your women are objects more than agents. This is definitely a problem that befalls Supernatural, no question. Flaky producers and writers might hide behind the weak excuse that their supposedly male dominated audiences don’t want to see “girly shit” or that their story is “not about that” or whatever other sexist bile they want to use as their mantra, but even that shallow plea can only take you so far.

The thing is, Supernatural’s audience is actually mostly women. Among those women, many are queer and LGBT. Many of us want these stories, not just as reflections of ourselves and our own experiences so rarely portrayed on TV, but for the characters we’ve fallen in love with: we want them to have a chance to be happy, if only for a little while. It’s not just Supernatural’s Dean/Castiel fans that know this yearning, but I think it’s something all fans of same-sex pairings carry, from the godfathers of slash Kirk/Spock from Star Trek, to fans of Finn/Poe exploding all over Star Wars fandom today.

What makes Dean/Castiel fans particularly confused, though, is how the producers and writers of the show have reacted to the phenomenon.

In the age of the internet and social media, creators and audiences have been able to interact like never before, have conversations and dialogues in real time, making consuming media an active experience rather than a passive one. Fans have been creating fan fiction and fan art well before the advent of the internet, of course, but never before have the creators themselves, willing or unwilling, been so unable to avoid being confronted with the fan experience. Writers are often contractually banned from being able to read fan fiction, but the ideas fan fiction explore, of roads not taken, of romances unspoken, are constantly being talked about in front of them. Supernatural’s so tuned into their fan discussions that fan interpretations and interests have made it into the show itself many times, from season 4’s “The Monster at the End of This Book” to season 10’s “Fan Fiction,” the 200th episode of the show. As indicated by its title, “Fan Fiction” offers up a sincere celebration of the show’s fandom, recognising not only the gender make up of the show’s audience (the episode takes place in an all-girls high school) but also its diverse interests, from fans interested in the relationship between brothers Sam and Dean being read as incestuous, to fans of Dean and Castiel’s romantic subtext, or “Destiel” as many people call it, including Sam himself at one point in the episode. “It’s just subtext,” we’re reminded in the episode, but episodes like this, and the many conversations the producers and writers have had with reporters and fans alike reveal how much they know about what we think about them. In 2015, fans of Dean and Castiel even won Jensen Ackles and Misha Collins a Teen Choice Award for best chemistry.

So what does this all have to do with “queerbaiting”? Well, after 8 years of Dean and Castiel’s relationship being developed on screen, understandably it’s left many fans wondering when they’re going to develop further, especially when all the foundation is there, it’s done, ready for the taking. Fans wonder what it means that the producers of the show know about how audiences interpret Dean and Castiel’s relationship, but don’t do anything to move it fully in that direction. Fans wonder why after all this time, and so many chances, they’re still left straddling the line.

“Queerbaiting,” then, was a term coined to try and define this dynamic between creators and their audiences, where audiences are “baited”, i.e. teased with romantic subtext, but never actually given any satisfaction of receiving it in full text format. It supposes a particular intent on the part of the creator to tease because they want the viewers interested in queer subtext to tune in, but never follow through for fear of losing their heteronormative viewers. Basically, it supposes that while the creators are aware of the potency of their queer and queer-interested demographics, they prioritise the potential straight audience first, assuming their reaction to any development of same-sex romance would be negative, and negative enough that economically would not be worth it for the show and therefore, the network.

At the heart of it, however, I think “queerbaiting” describes an emotion more than anything else: the sense of betrayal that happens after being driven to care about a story in a certain way to only discover that its creator doesn’t share the same ideals as you at all. It’s a term, ultimately, to describe broken trust. But as fine as a term it is for that emotional reaction, that’s also as far as the term can take us.

For the problem with “queerbaiting” is that it doesn’t address the issue of why, why might a creator not be inclined to follow through on their perceived build up of same sex romance, why are they only comfortable with teasing and flirtations with queerness as long as they can always rein it in at claim heterosexuality as the reigning champion at the end of the day, why indeed, might it actually never have occurred to them to pursue same sex romance seriously at all. The answer, of course, is that it’s complicated.

Setting aside the fact that it would be nearly impossible to prove the producers behind Supernatural have done any kind of analysis of potential demographic reactions and economic losses in the face same-sex romance being portrayed on their show, for I think if they had, it would show that indeed having a news-worthy development between two of their main characters would probably garner more support for the show than it would lose, the real reason any reticence to follow through would exist despite all the work they’ve done to set the relationship up comes down to imbedded attitudes of homophobia and misogyny.

As with the “gay vague,” “queerbaiting” simply doesn’t address the underlying power structures that dictate our society’s assumptions with regards to gender and sexuality. It doesn’t speak to why actors and producers on the show have said things like “the show’s not about that,” or “we don’t talk about it,” in reference to Dean/Castiel being discussed in the writer’s room, because to speak to those things we have to talk about misogyny first, about how the assumption that action genre shows are incompatible with romance, with same-sex romance (Spartacus, Sense8, and The 100 — which is on the same network as Supernatural — would suggest otherwise!), has to do inherently with attitudes about gender, about what “real men” can and can’t do, and what roles women are restrained to.

If we don’t name these things for what they are, we give up power to them. Supernatural’s misogynistic attitudes don’t just affect the women on the show, relegating them to the side or to violent, pre-mature deaths, but the male characters, too. They affect everyone. People associated with the show (including, sadly, Misha Collins himself) have tried to defend Supernatural’s lack of female representation by saying the show is simply about the “interior lives of men,” and how that’s a perfectly valid topic of exploration. The thing is, that’s not actually true, Supernatural isn’t about the interior lives of men, because then it would actually maybe be about how diverse and complicated and conflicted men are, as in, all men. It would be about men of colour, queer men, trans men, disabled men, not just straight white men as if they were the superior and sole archetype for what “man” means. Of course, in our white supremacist society they are the superior and sole archetype, but that’s like, a really shitty thing? I think we all know that’s a really shitty thing.

There’s a lot of complexity you can read into about Supernatural’s portrayal of men and masculinity, especially if you interpret Dean as bisexual, and that’s why the viewer experience is vibrant and vital. But you can’t claim it yourself, Supernatural, unless you actually put up. Until then, it’s still only ours.

Which sucks, because we don’t want it to be. We want to share in this love story with you, in this added layer of complexity and diversity that no, wouldn’t save the show from all its other problems, but would help it somewhat, would give it something. It would give Dean and Cas a whole world of new story potential, and open up Supernatural to a whole new fresh audience who would be engaged in its unfolding.

In the end, then, “queerbaiting” is actually a fairly useless term in trying to describe and analyse the reasons why we aren’t there yet. It’s especially not useful in trying to argue people over to our side, because it’s far too vague and contradictory as a term, impossibly inaccessible to uninitiated audiences. That is, if we want to generate conversation around the lack of queer representation on Supernatural and indeed media in general, let’s stop pretending that “queerbaiting” is the problem — it’s a symptom, if anything. And we have to talk about the problem to understand it, and we have to understand it to eventually fix it. Getting more diverse writers and producers in those writers rooms to offer up diverse perspectives as decisions are made would be a great start.