Although last Tuesday's 200th episode of Supernatural was an enjoyable 44 minutes, it also put the final nail in the coffin of the great queerbaiting debate. For those unfamiliar with the term, queerbaiting is when a show's producers tease a queer relationship with no intention of ever following through. This is often done to get the benefits of featuring queer relationship — namely, to gain support of the LGBTQ community and profit off their viewership — without having to worry about alienating viewers who would find such relationships objectionable.
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Slash fiction and shipping has been a part of Supernatural since its inception. But while the wink-wink-nudge-nudge jokes about Sam (Jared Padalecki) and Dean (Jensen Ackles) worked (more or less), that's because the Winchesters are brothers, and therefore there was no real expectation of anything more. However, when the same homoerotic cues began being applied to Dean and the angel Castiel (Misha Collins), who joined the show in 2008, fans saw this relationship (dubbed Destiel) as a real possibility — and one that came laden with expectations and hope.
The Supernatural producers have undoubtedly profited from the Destiel ship and encouraging ambiguity in Dean's sexuality. As Cas and Dean's relationship took on more importance in the series (and became based more heavily on romantic tropes) in Seasons 8 and 9, the ratings increased. Interest in Dean's relationship with Cas — romantic or platonic — began to rival even that of his relationship with Sam
Yet, as the 200th episode made abundantly clear, Supernatural producers do not support canonical Destiel. After initially resenting the creative license taken in the Supernatural musical, which featured slash elements, Dean eventually gives the author Marie his stamp of approval to continue writing her fan fiction. "I have my version, and you have yours. And that's OK," Dean tells Marie.
But it is not anyone's right to grant fans the ability to have their own interpretation of a show. Roland Barthes made that much fairly clear. Statements such as Dean's are simply ways that Supernatural's creative team can deny their role in encouraging queer readings by patronizingly reducing Destiel to a cute, little quirk of its fans — and one only be tolerated with the stipulation that the legitimate origins of it are denied.
But to say that queerness in Supernatural only exists in the minds of slash writers is an act of revisionist history. When Marie first explains Destiel to Dean, she says: "You can't have subtext without S-E-X." But Marie is completely missing the point. When it comes to Destiel, the subtext isn't based in S-E-X, it's based in T-E-X-T.
Supernatural is filled with queer references and jokes based on the idea that Dean is bisexual and that he and Castiel are more than friends. While some of these are quite blatant ("he was your boyfriend first!"), others are more subtle. There's the time Dean referenced Purgatory, a gay bar in Miami. Or when he joked about opening a "charming B&B in Vermont," the first state to legalize same sex marriage. What about when the characters compared Dean's "breakup" with Benny to Sam's split with his girlfriend Amelia? In one interview, Collins even admitted showrunner Jeremy Carver instructed him to play Cas like a "jilted lover" with Dean. In addition to these and dozens more, the show utilizes common rom-com tropes and visuals cues to create a romantic atmosphere in Dean and Castiel scenes.
However, Dean's queerness extends far beyond Castiel, a crucial distinction that is often ignored by those who deny queerbaiting. References to Dean "overcompensating" for not being straight began as early as Season 1, long before the addition of Castiel, and one of the most cited examples of Dean's bisexuality occurred with another man.
In the Season 8 episode "Everybody Hates Hitler," a man, Aaron, has been tailing Dean, but says he's doing it because he thought they "had a moment." Eventually, Dean learns Aaron lied about them having "a gay thing," a fact Dean is visually disappointed by. Without even getting into the question of why a man thought the best way to get close to Dean was to hit on him, let's just focus on what the Supernatural producers said on the DVD commentary for the scene where Aaron initially comes onto Dean.
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"Well, that's the weird thing, is that it reads in this weird way where it does feel like Dean's a little bit like...it's almost like a romantic comedy kind of fluster. Which is very interesting for the character Dean, like because it just sorta suggests this weird, this potential," executive producer Ben Edlund said, according to SpoilerTV. "This potential for love in all places," agreed executive producer Phil Sgriccia.
Yet despite comments like those from Edlund and Sgriccia, the show and many of those who create it fervently refute the legitimacy of Destiel outright. That is, or they meekly refuse to take a stance either way.
"I'm not sure how people get upset and offended when a story line that doesn't exist... doesn't exist" director Guy Norman Bee tweeted.
"We have many gay friends, family and workers in our lives. And the utmost respect for the LGBT cause. But I did not create these characters so they are not mine to define," writer Adam Glass shared.
"I support the idea of bi lead [characters]. But on this specific show, it is not our intention for these [characters.]" WB executive Chad Kennedy said, adding that "if it served the story, I would support it."
Out of all the statements above, Kennedy's is the most troubling because isn't the idea that a character's sexuality has to "serve the story" exactly what's wrong with sexuality on television today? Why can't a character be bi simply because some people are bi? And if the writers and producers aren't trying to say that Dean is bisexual with all the hints and jokes, what are they saying? Could it really be something so simple, and disappointing, as the idea that a macho man being confused for queer is the epitome of comedy because, the nightmare, right?
There are a lot of mixed messages being thrown about from actors, writers and producers when it comes to queerness in Supernatural, questions that could easily be cleared up if there was any transparency on the topic. But alas, all questions about sexuality are allegedly banned at conventions, a move which doesn't exactly incur the good faith of the LGBTQ community.
The most famous incident of the ban being put into action occurred at a New Jersey convention in 2013. A teenage girl was given the opportunity to ask the actors a question, but she got as far as mentioning the words "bisexual" (in relation to herself) and "subtext" (in relation to Dean) before getting cut off and booed, and Ackles eventually warned her not "ruin it for everybody."
Ackles' reaction is sadly not surprising — despite occasionally playing into the Destiel ship himself. Supernatural has a long history of mistreating minorities (including women and people of color) and the show has even repeatedly derided and mocked slash fans in canon. But to shut down all conversations regarding Destiel and Dean's (bi)sexuality is a huge missed opportunity. Because while television has made great strides in diversity, bisexual characters are practically nonexistent. This has slowly changed in recent years (as evidenced by shows like Orange Is the New Black, Game of Thrones and Transparent), but far too often the portrayals of bisexuals in television play into harmful stereotypes or bisexual erasure where, as Carrie Bradshaw so indelicately put it, bisexuality is "just a layover on the way to Gay Town."
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Issues like Destiel and Dean's sexuality are important because representation on television is important. When Nichelle Nichols, the actress who played the groundbreaking role of Uhura on Star Trek, considered quitting the series, Martin Luther King Jr. himself pleaded for her to stay because of the good she was achieving by offering a much-needed positive representation of people of color on TV. "For the first time, we are being seen the world over as we should be seen," King told Nichols.
That is what fans are calling for when they ask for Dean's queerness to come to fruition — simply to be seen. They aren't just Becky Rosens, projecting their fetishized desires onto a platonic friendship simply to see two attractive men make out. They're doing so because they want to see themselves accurately reflected onscreen, rather than turned into a plot device or reduced to a dangling carrot to entice a queer audience before shouting "No homo!"
After 10 years, it's time Supernatural stop playing both sides. Dean either is or he isn't. And if he isn't, fine. It's not the show's responsibility to solve the lack of queer representation on television. But then stop giving false hope to those who want to see real change in the way we view sexuality on TV.Isn't it bromantic? Watch Sam and Dean hug it out (a lot):
Supernatural airs Tuesdays at 9/8c on The CW.
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