Supernatural: No Girls Allowed?

For those unaware  of the premise behind  Supernatural, it’s a series about two brothers (and occasionally their father) who are on the road, hunting demons. It’s basically a monster-of-the-week show, with the added bonus of a very strong familial bond and an underlying “big” demon theme  directly involving the family – Dean, Sam and John Winchester.    

The lovely Aizjanika pointed me toward discussions at the LiveJournal community  Metafandom  (and elsewhere, I’m sure) that have revolved around the lack of a strong female character on the show, some implicating Supernatural goes a long way to cut down the uber-feminism portrayed in Buffy: The Vampire Slayer.

This can be explained by the fact that it is, after all, the hero’s prerogative to save the day, and Sam and Dean — the heroes of Supernatural — are both male. But the masculinity the characters attempt to embody is one which reinterprets tropes which were introduced into the postmodern horror genre by Buffy, and the ways in which Supernatural seeks to recontextualise these images is distressingly easy to read as an attempted regression away from the new frontiers opened up by Buffy.

Other essays and points of view disagree quite a bit.

Supernatural has its share of damsels in distress, but I don’t view that as necessarily anti-feminist or anything. The main characters are all male; they’re going to be flirting with girls. And there were noteable exceptions to the damsel in distress rule. Fred-who-wasn’t-Fred in “Dead in the Water” was, yeah, a nice sweet mom, but she did fight against getting pulled under and she took the initiative to kiss Dean in the end. The girl in “Asylum” fired a shotgun, talked to a ghost, and dumped her boyfriend. The girl in “Scarecrow” (I suck at names, can you tell?) burned the tree that was animating the fugly zombie dude. The girl in “Wendigo” complimented Dean’s car and was determined to go find her brother.  

All comparisons to Buffy aside (I don’t think she was as uber-feminist as some), is Supernatural anti-feminist simply because the two main characters are male?

I tend to fall on the side of the second essay, to be honest. I’m all for strong, ass-kicking females…but they have to make sense within the context of the show. Supernatural quickly established itself as a show about the brothers. There are damsels in distress, but there are also dudes in distress. The female victims of the week that left a lasting impression on me were often portrayed as strong, capable women, even if they weren’t regulars on the show. They’re not all young and beautiful. Well, most of them are, but most of them aren’t flail-the-arms-and-scream victims, either.

I’ll also admit the thought of TPTB adding a female, ass-kicking demon hunter to the show simply to “balance things out” makes me absolutely cringe. The family dynamic works as is, and though I would not mind if the Winchesters ran into female hunters during their journeys…a full time or even frequently recurring female would be there only as a token and would upset the good formula they already have. I live in fear.

And does that, I wonder, make me anti-feminist?

Comments

  1. says

    Does being nervous that a token female character will disrupt the good dynamics already in place on a decent show make you anti-feminist? I’ll go with “no”. I think we should hold out for fully-realised, interesting characters of all genders whenever possible. If there’s really a gendered imbalance on Supernatural (I don’t watch it, but I find the arguments that there is fairly persuasive), a token “the girl” character isn’t going to do anything helpful about it.

  2. Jennifer Kesler says

    I don’t watch the show, but I can relate to your position. I have no problem with a show that focuses more on characters of one gender or the other. It’s unfortunate we don’t have more female-centric shows available (outside the comedy and weepy relationship genres), but that’s a separate issue.

    What would offend me is if the only reasons women ever show up is to get rescued or give romance, but you’re saying that’s not the case here.

    Isn’t this the show where they’re adding in a woman or two to the permanent cast, though? That’ll be the real test.

  3. sbg says

    Isn’t this the show where they’re adding in a woman or two to the permanent cast, though? That’ll be the real test.

    Yeah, I think so. And judging from reaction in the fandom (which I’ve tried to avoid), at least one of the women is about as Mary Sue on paper as is humanly possible.

  4. sbg says

    I’m not entirely sure the gender-imbalance is really a huge issue, and I certainly don’t believe Supernatural is somehow undercutting feminism simply because it’s a show about brothers. In the scope of the show, a full-time female doesn’t make a lot of sense to me. Especially not if she’s shoehorned in.

  5. scarlett says

    I actually think writing in female characters for the sake of having a female characters is pretty anti-feminism. To me, having a Mary Sue or other worthless character is worse then having no female characters.

    Of course, the best situation for this existing show is that they have, say, a recurring character in the same demon-hunting business. She could pop in from time to time with her own skills and storyline. But the format as it is, I don’t think working in such a character would work fulltime, and incorporating a few non-essential characters would be infinitely worse, IMHO.

  6. sbg says

    Yep, very recurring wouldn’t bother me a whit. Well, so long as they didn’t make her a “love interest” for one of the guys, because that screams of contrived to me. She should just be like them, only female. A comrade-in-arms. Just another hunter who happens to be a woman.

  7. scarlett says

    Well I’m thinking something akin to Xena in the Hercules series. I’m working from ten-year-old memory so bear with me if I get the details wrong, but she she her own character with her own history, skills etc. Because she and Herc led similar lives, their intercrossed from time to time, and there was a great sense that when she departed from his life, it was to continue down her own path, which she shared briefly with him from time to time. I can see something like that definitely working on supernatural.

  8. says

    Supernatural doesn’t strike me as anti-feminist (but then, I’m a dude). It strikes me as a show trying to tell a specific story about the relationship between the two brothers and, to a lesser extent, the ginormous freakin’ hole that the death of the mother tore out of the entire family.

    I love the Sam/Dean relationship. I didn’t have a brother, so I have no idea if it’s accurate, but it’s a fun relatinonship, and I like watching it.

    I have no idea how different the show would strike me if Dean were a girl. (Sam as a girl wouldn’t strike me as that different, because I see Sam as the more bookish one, the one who didn’t want to fight monters, and turn Sam into Samantha, the younger sister that the father and Dean tried to protect, would be pretty much on par with most of the bad genre stuff out there. So for me, Dean as a girl is the show that’d be worth watching, potentialy.) Maybe it would be good, or maybe it’d be awful. Maybe it would end up feeling a lot like Birds of Prey, where I walked away from every episode (of the few I watched) thinking, “Yes, they’re attractive. I get that. Sisterhood bonding. I get that. Could we maybe have hired an actress who can throw a punch for this action series?”

    I did like how Meg, the recurring villain, wasn’t strictly in there as the sex-appeal villain. She flirted from time to time, but she also got to kill people, and she did it in jeans most of the time. (This is from memory — and I also remember her taking her top off in one scene that was unnecessary, if not wholly gratuitous.)

  9. sbg says

    (Sam as a girl wouldn’t strike me as that different, because I see Sam as the more bookish one, the one who didn’t want to fight monters, and turn Sam into Samantha, the younger sister that the father and Dean tried to protect, would be pretty much on par with most of the bad genre stuff out there. So for me, Dean as a girl is the show that’d be worth watching, potentialy.)

    Ah, but there’s the rub. If they had made Sam a Samantha and she was always being protected, then it would have been seen as protection because she was “the girl.” I’m trying to figure out if I’d like Dean as a girl – would the writers automatically assign changes to the core of the character based on gender? Hmmm.

    Personally? One of them could have been a girl from the start, so long as the overprotection factor wasn’t there. It could have been interesting if the father had died at the beginning and it was the mother who survived and led these boys through a pretty fucked-up childhood experience. Something tells me she’d be even MORE criticized than poor John, who’s made some serious child-rearing mistakes.

    I guess we’ll never know.

    Maybe it would be good, or maybe it’d be awful. Maybe it would end up feeling a lot like Birds of Prey, where I walked away from every episode (of the few I watched) thinking, “Yes, they’re attractive. I get that. Sisterhood bonding. I get that. Could we maybe have hired an actress who can throw a punch for this action series?”

    Yeah, there needs to be more than the pretty, for both male and female action hero-types. I think someone discussed what type of physiology a woman would have to have to kick butt – citing how River from Serenity, Buffy from…Buffy and Max from Dark Angel all kicked ass, but primarily because they were juiced up in some way. They didn’t look particularly strong. I want a real woman, throwing real fake punches. No help from a lab or from destiny. ;)

    Whoop, got a little sidetracked.

    I did like how Meg, the recurring villain, wasn’t strictly in there as the sex-appeal villain. She flirted from time to time, but she also got to kill people, and she did it in jeans most of the time. (This is from memory — and I also remember her taking her top off in one scene that was unnecessary, if not wholly gratuitous.)

    Tee hee…but that made for a funny scene, with the pedestrian calling Sam a pervert. Funny, that, because he’s not demonstrated much by way of ogling at ALL.

    I actually didn’t like Meg until the end, but I think that had more to do with how she was played than her as a character.

  10. says

    Totally agree. I’d love to see a series starring a woman with Linda Hamilton shoulders. Heck, Lucy Lawless wasn’t a master ninja, and Xena wasn’t the best-choreographed show of all time, but at least she was tall enough to look convincing when she punched people, even if it didn’t have a black-belt level of skill behind it.

    I’m trying to write a book with a strong female heroine right now — and every time that I feel tempted to have her nimbly dodge a punch with some kind of svelte dancelike motion, I whack myself upside the head and have her take the shot it in a strong guard position and then floor the bad guy with an uppercut to the jaw. We’ll see how it goes.

    I also agree about not liking Meg all in all. I liked how they didn’t completely vamp her up, but she didn’t do it for me as a villain, generally speaking, until the stakes got higher.

  11. Jennifer Kesler says

    I so totally agree about Lucy Lawless (have written a few articles on Xena around here). The fighting was meant to be larger than life, which handily excused them from having to make it look realistic. But SHE did look the part: not only was she tall, but she looked like a grown woman instead of a stunted adolescent. Medium build, womanly curves, meat on bones.

    Gina Torres is another one who looks like she could pack a punch – nice build and muscle tone.

    On a side note, I always thought Amber Benson (Tara) looked huge on Buffy compared to Willow and Buffy – very big-boned and tall. Imagine my shock when I saw her at a coffee shop and she was little more than average height and on the slender side of average build. Now, how teency-tiny do the other actresses have to be to make her look big?

  12. scarlett says

    Lawless also looked fairly well-built – from memory, she had some decent muscles on her. I saw her on BsG recently and realised that, even prettied up, she’s quite a stocky woman. I miss those examples of women who were warrior-types and looked it. It’s like the only way women are allowed to be warriors is if they don’t actually have any muscle on them, which is totally unbelievable.

  13. sbg says

    Well, a strong female heroine could dodge a punch with a svelte dancelike maneuver as long as she followed it up with a strong uppercut. ;)

    I would expect martial arts training would provide a lot in the way of fluid movement and strength. Maybe she could deliver a blow to the baddie’s nose with the butt of her hand.

    Back to Supernatural: I did like that Meg was a stronger character than her “brother,” who appeared late in the game, at least in regards to how much we saw either of them in action.

  14. SunlessNick says

    Almost all the female characters are there to get rescued, but as it’s a road series with few recurring roles, that’s the same for most male characters but the main ones as well. There are “distressed people” of both genders who manage to make a contribution.

    A case from early in the series is Hailey, the sister of a missing boy (abducted by a cannibalistic monster). She wants to go with the brothers to help look for him. Sam (the younger one) is reluctant, but Dean (as well as older, the more gung-ho and stereotypically “manly”) points out that it’s her brother. She will go with or without them and that she has a better chance of surviving with them – which given monster-hunter vs civilian, is an assessment I have no problem with – but he also accepts that it’s her right to go as it’s her loved one that’s missing. A “right to rescue” is something I usually see given to male characters; to have it assumed for Hailey bought the series a lot of regard in my eyes.

  15. SunlessNick says

    That would be my preference for a couple of other reasons. First, I like the sibling dynamic and don’t want it diluted. Second, I like the sense of a monster-hunting underground you get from their Dad’s contacts who you occasionally see. Building up some contacts of their own – some of the people they met in the first season would be good ones – would add more atmosphere than another main character.

  16. SunlessNick says

    I’m trying to figure out if I’d like Dean as a girl – would the writers automatically assign changes to the core of the character based on gender?

    Personally? One of them could have been a girl from the start, so long as the overprotection factor wasn’t there.

    Dean was overprotective of Sam. If we’d had Samantha, perhaps the “over” would have been glossed over, while if we’d had Diana, maybe it would have been emphasised earlier. Don’t know.

  17. sbg says

    Yes, Dean was and is overprotective of Sam…and as annoying as that can be, it can’t be assigned to gender differences. If Dean were Dean and Sam were Samantha, there would be a sibling thing there, but also a female thing. Whether intended or not, I think.

  18. scarlett says

    Beta’s got an article about then ALien series somewhere around here – Ripley’s one of my favorite action heroines, because therewas nothing particularly graceful about her fighting style – just kick/bite/hit/throw/dodge for your life.

  19. SunlessNick says

    That – and your comment about how differently John might have been received had the character been Mom rather than Dad – reminds me of the conflict that Dean and Sam have in the third quarter of the series. For those who haven’t seen it, Sam is angry at Dean’s blind following of John’s orders, which Dean characterises as being a good son; while Dean accuses Sam of selfishness in his resistance to them, which Sam characterises as following more important goals. That conflict drives the second half of the series, and I wonder if it’s a reason why they chose two boys – thinking that conflict might play out better with both of them the same sex – and the same sex as the parent too. I can see the point if that is why.

    Which makes me wonder how that conflict would have been seen by viewers had Dean or Sam been Diana or Samantha. The reactions I’ve seen have been about even as regards Dean’s aide or Sam’s. Would more people have seen Samantha as a petulant upstart unable to comprehend the the life Dean and John had to live – or would Diana have been more widely seen as blind and silly and unable to think for herself?

  20. sbg says

    Would more people have seen Samantha as a petulant upstart unable to comprehend the the life Dean and John had to live – or would Diana have been more widely seen as blind and silly and unable to think for herself?

    I don’t venture out into that fandom much, for a variety of reasons, but the times I did demonstrated there seemed to be a lot more people who reacted negatively to Sam’s behavior, while holding Dean untouchable. I’m not sure how differently those reactions would have been if one of them were female.

    For me? Much as I adore both Sam and Dean, I did see and feel what you described several times through the course of the season, for both of them. They’ve got a real Biblical Jacob/Esau thing going between the two of them, with John as God, naturally. ;)

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