Let me start with a disclaimer: I loved “Fan Fiction.” I thought it was genuinely respectful of the fans, and appreciative of our disposition towards, and devotion to, the show. I believe it was well-intentioned and deeply heart-felt, and if I’m being perfectly honest, it made me cry. As a Thank You to the fandom, it was brilliant, and utterly sincere.
But I do have a couple of anxieties about it as well, and I feel compelled to air them. After all, a fangirl is nothing if she is complacent about that which disturbs her. My two biggest issues come down to the treatment of the topic of Destiel, and the posited equality between all interpretations that the episode espouses. I will start with Destiel.
First, I do not believe the ship was in any way overtly insulted, which is definitely progress (I am a devout Destiel shipper, for the record). I think they were relatively respectful of the idea of Destiel and the framing of the issue was not directly homophobic or derogatory. My issue is rather that the episode arguably engages in a degree of queerbaiting through its particular means of addressing it.
Fans have pointed out that there were subtle but distinct differences in how Wincest was discussed and treated, versus Destiel. For example Dean overtly intervenes in the Wincest implication, telling the actresses “Why don’t you take a ‘sub’ step back there, ladies!” and reminding Marie emphatically that they are brothers. With Destiel, Dean registers anxiety about it – “Is that in the show?” – yet he does not outright reject it, or dismiss it as implausible. At least not directly.
The first moment it is brought up is extremely complicated and layered, as Marie divulges that the actresses canoodling as Cas and Dean are a couple in ‘real life.’ It almost beggars my ability to give a coherent analysis of this scene because the set-up is so densely packed with different stratum of reference and implication. On the one hand, it implies that Destiel (in the play) and thus Destiel (on the show) is explicable through actor chemistry. In other words, it’s all Misha Collins’ and Jensen Ackles’ fault. Thus, on one level, the moment reads as a commentary on the choices of the performers, and their responsibility for adding more to the text than was originally ‘there.’
Conversely, the moment also works to suggest there is more ‘reality’ to Destiel than there is to Wincest, that Wincest is entirely confined to the realm of interpretation and imagination (the play), whereas Destiel has more basis in the ‘real world’ of Supernatural. Yet Marie also quickly moves to assure Dean, “Don’t worry, it’s just subtext.”
Through this, the TV-show performs its classic fort-da strategy, where it wavers between what it wants to assert is real/true/canonical about Destiel, versus what is interpretation/fantasy/subtext (according to TPTB). The TV-show uses this moment to absorb the dynamic of Destiel under the discourse of the ‘real’ (through labeling the demonstration of affection between the meta-characters an index of a genuine relationship) and then immediately turns around and labels play-Destiel subtext, i.e. there, but also not real.
What I find frustrating about this rendering is that it gets TPTB off the hook in terms of having to issue any kind of definitive stance on Destiel. Their commentary on Wincest is pretty clear-cut, and we know where everyone stands on it with regard to the actual canon text. This is further emphasized by the fact that Dean’s intervention with the actors paying Sam and Dean takes place when the two are on stage rehearsing a scene from the play. The moment serves as a direct commentary on the content of ‘the text.’ And while there’s no overt condemnation of Wincest (e.g. “that’s sick”), there is no ambiguity about it either. There is a firm articulation of NO. Not going to happen. This is further emphasized when Marie ultimately goes along with Dean’s instruction, and accedes to the actors stepping away from each other.
Whereas with meta-Destiel, what is being communicated about it by the episode itself is far less clear. When Dean first issues his reservations about meta-Destiel, the pair is a) physically placed in the audience, rather than on-stage and b) having a personal interaction not directly tied to the content of the play. They just happen to be wearing their costumes while they have this ‘real-life’ moment.
The set-up enables the topic to become visible, while relieving the TV-show from having to articulate their stance on Destiel as it exists within the text. Destiel is very conveniently taken ‘out’ of the play before it is commented on, such that the commentary then becomes inoculated from attaching in any straightforward way to the actual text.
In simple terms, taking Destiel out of the play relieves TPTB from having to take a firm stance about it being in the play (which is to say, in the TV-show). Dean communicates anxiety about the possibility, but as many observed, he never outright rejects it, nor does he try to intervene on potential manifestations of it (as with Wincest). He does break the fourth wall at this point to ostensibly place ‘blame’ on the audience for sexualizing the relationship. (Which, frankly, guilty as charged, your Honor). But lampshading audience dispositions toward Destiel ultimately says nothing about the legitimacy or viability of the pair as a canonical phenomenon.
And the issue is only further clouded by Dean’s later line to the Cas actress: “I want you to put as much ’sub’ in that text as you possibly can.” The narrative structure of the episode makes this articulation deeply ambiguous, for we know they are trying to get Calliope to show herself so they can kill her, but Marie’s vision must be ‘realized’ for that to happen. So the question becomes, is the encouragement to be read as an actual stamp of approval, or is it purely a strategy to achieve an end? The text, very predictably, lets you decide, which I’m not entirely sure is a good thing.
It’s hard to make the case that the episode’s discourses about Wincest are at all ambiguous. Destiel, conversely, is shrouded in nothing BUT ambiguity. This is perhaps most acutely visible in meta-Castiel’s song “I’ll Just Wait Here Then,” which I would like to argue is actually the only moment in the entire episode where there is effectively absolutely no meta aspect to the text whatsoever.
Don’t Use Different Actors and Tell Me It’s Meta
Throughout the whole episode, mirrorings and doppelgangers pervade. There is real Sam and Dean, and there is play-Sam and Dean. There’s the real Impala, and the stage-prop Impala. There’s the real villain Calliope, and her prop villain the scarecrow boogey man. Various moments are staged to bridge the ‘fake’ with the ‘real’ in various ways: the ‘BM’ moment between real Dean and Sam that is taken over by play-Dean and Sam, which is then affirmed by real Dean and Sam, the staged version of the boys driving off into the scenery sunset which is then later mirrored by them actually driving into a real sunset, the prop Samulet, which becomes a replacement for the ‘real’ one that was lost, the badge display which is disrupted by its own mirroring on stage. Even real-Sam stabbing Calliope backstage as play-Sam stabs her boogeyman on-stage. The text creates a series of mirrored dualities that speak to each other, merge and diverge at various moments, but that always maintain at least some ‘distance’ from one another in terms of their ultimate effect. They are never made entirely, perfectly co-incidental and they are always speaking to one another and about one another to a certain degree.
Yet I’d like to suggest there is one glaring exception. During play-Castiel’s “I’ll Just Wait Here Then,” no ‘dialogue’ exists between the varying levels of fiction occurring within the episode. The question of whether IJWHT is a love-song or not, and what it ‘reveals’ about Dean and Cas’s relationship/feelings, is posed to the ‘fictional’ audience at precisely the same time, and through precisely the same terms as it is posed to the real audience (i.e. us). And there is no dialectical moment where the ‘real’ Dean or Cas issue any kind of response to it, or where any of the ‘real-life’ characters offer a perspective on this particular ‘fictional’ rendering of Dean and Cas.
IJWHT demonstrates no overt, textual self-awareness by means of mirroring or layering; it has no explicit meta-level that separates out what the play is saying from what the TV show is saying, and it has no distinct, separate purpose ‘within’ the play, versus ‘within’ the show. The song also cannot be described as ‘commentary’ of any kind, either on the previous content of the show, the creators, or the fans, because it doesn’t issue any kind of definitive perspective on anything, unlike Single Man Tear or Carry On.
- “The Road So Far” is designed to tell the fictional audience what the real audience already knows, and as such, it is textually redundant. Here the play is simply saying again what the show has already said, just with rhyming lyrics and a melody.
- “A Single Man Tear” is both additive and it is meta-commentary on the shows recurrent patterns and tropes. It makes that which was implicit – Sam’s feelings about Dean – more explicit and it is self-deprecating humor about the creators of the text. The show is using the play to be meta about its’ previous text and to demonstrate creator self-awareness about the show.
- “Carry On Wayward Son” is designed to honor the fans and thank them, and as such, it is textually declarative. The show is using the plays’ finale as a means to say: thank you for loving us so much that we get to keep going.
The sole purpose of “I’ll Just Wait Here Then” is to raise the question is this a love-song? to the ‘audience’/audience without giving a definitive answer. It is by design a textually ambiguous rendering of that which was previously textually ambiguous. Which is to say, IJWHT is just the show continuing to be the show without any explicit meta-level or self-awareness attached to it. It is the show continuing to do what it has always done and – most critically – NOT overtly conceding to the fact that that is what it is doing, in contrast to the BM moment, for example, or the badge moment.
If there were some aspect of the episode that displayed overt self-awareness about the ambiguity of the song’s romantic implication, then it would be meta-commentary. If Dean had asked Marie in the wings “Is this supposed to be a love song?” and Marie said, “I figured I’d leave it up to the audience,” THAT would be meta-ing it. Then the song would be comparable to the other textual moments where they make fun of themselves, or are being purposefully self-referential. But they aren’t being self-referential with IJWHT, because no part of the text steps away from the ballad at any point to overtly ask what effect it is having, why it is there, or why it is the way it is. The show has absolutely no dialogue with itself about what the song is, what it means, or how the audience ought to see it.
The song isn’t actually saying anything about the show Supernatural, its’ creators OR its’ fans; the song is simply being the show Supernatural. It’s not meta of the text, and it’s not meta of Destiel, it is Destiel, simply by means of other actors.
Using different actors in order to say something about Destiel is meta. Using different actors to redundantly ‘stage’ Destiel within Supernatural is pointlessly excessive, and it is what “Fan Fiction” ultimately did with that song. They acknowledged the existence of Destiel while adamantly refusing to actually comment on it decisively in any way, shape or form.
In the beginning of the episode they take the pairing ‘out’ of the play before they will say anything about it, or allow Dean to express the reservations he has toward it. And once they put it back ‘in’ the play, they refuse to say anything about it at all, through Dean or anybody else. Once Destiel gets attached to the play-Supernatural, the show Supernatural suddenly, amazingly has nothing to say on the matter. Which is why I would contend it is queerbaiting of a kind. Because they refuse to hold themselves accountable for it, or to make any kind of actual statement – positive or negative – that they might be beholden to.
Declare Your Allegiance
Admitting Destiel is a thing is not the same as forwarding a perspective about it as a thing. And calling it “subtext” doesn’t absolve you of its implications, particularly if you are being strategically ambiguous about it for your own benefit. The fact that they have Marie declare both Wincest and Destiel as “subtext” places responsibility for it squarely on the shoulders of the audience/fangirls of the world, without ever contending with the extent to which the actual text of Supernatural might also bear some responsibility.
In the only moment that finds Dean and Sam openly confronting the ominous queerness question, all the show does is circumvent it with jokes about ship names (Deh-stiel versus Dee-stiel; Samstiel versus Sastiel). Sam is being willfully obtuse, pretending to be confused about pronunciation to get under Dean’s skin, and Dean bursts out “THAT’S your issue with this?!” But of course the text never goes so far as to disclose exactly what Dean’s issue with it is, either. The audience is responsible for their own inference regarding Dean’s oh so vague “““issue.”””
For an episode that was designed to be the show explicitly talking to itself, and to the fans, about itself, there is a remarkable resistance to actually saying anything definitive at all about either Dean’s latent bisexuality or his potential relationship with Cas. They’ll go so far as to reject Wincest as a legitimate canon possibility, but they will not give any kind of concrete perspective on Destiel or Dean’s consistent queer-coding within the show (arguably continuing to do it precisely through their notable refusal to explicitly comment).
And honestly, in some ways, I would have rather they had Dean say something along the lines of “I’m straight”… assuming it’s what TPTB truly believe about him as a character, instead of continuing all this aggravating fence-sitting. It’s not inherently homophobic for a character assert that they are heterosexual (though how the character does it matters a great deal). And although too much of the previous series gives off a queer reading of Dean for me to be swayed by such an assertion, I would have at the very least respected their willingness to pick a side and openly cop to it. It would have been the braver thing to do, rather than continuing to languish in the cowar—excuse me, calculated ambiguity of it all. Of course the bravest thing of all would have been for them to admit that he actually is queer, but even I’m not naïve enough to consider that a realistic expectation.
Clap Your Hands if You Believe? Oh, if Wishing Made It So!
Finally, I need to be a little meta myself, and tie an aspect of the text into my final critique of it, which has to do with the ostensible leveling of all interpretations onto an equal playing field. In the episode, they initially forward a tulpa as the monster they are potentially up against. The tulpa, according to Supernatural, garners its power from large collective belief in an idea or concept, allowing the concept to become a reality through the force of widely-shared belief. Texts are inherently like tuplas in that sense. The power they hold often has to do with what we collectively believe to be true about them.
More than once this episode tries to suggest that fan interpretations are just as valid as creator interpretations (“You have your version and I have mine”). Which is a nice sentiment, but one I’m afraid I ultimately cannot put much faith in. Saying my interpretation is equal to yours doesn’t make it so as a matter of fact.
Someone declaring you to be their equal doesn’t ipso-facto mean that you actually are. And as much as I would like to think my version of Supernatural has as much truth-currency as does the writers’ and producers’, I am very well aware that it does not. Their words and their narrative choices inherently have more weight in the wider world than mine do. They have more power and more influence and their interpretations still tend to have wider circulation with greater lasting effects. The author may be metaphorically dead, but that does not fully undermine the continuing hegemony of authorial force, as such.
Admittedly, the formalized distinction between producers and consumers of popular culture is largely a product of modern capitalism, as Henry Jenkins rightly explained in his classic work on fandom, Textual Poachers. But the fact that the economics of modern copyright law have strongly informed our hyperbolic valorization of the canonical, in relation to the noncanonical, does not void that hierarchy of its power, any more than a sentimental, if well-intentioned, declaration of its non-existence does.
The canon, and ‘faithful’ readings of the canon, are still far more privileged culturally than are transformative works, or subversive readings. I might have my privately subversive reading of Dean Winchester as queer, and that subversive reading might even be shared by some notable subset of other viewers and fans. But no matter how much I, or they, or we insist Dean is queer, we do not have the same power you – Supernatural writers and producers – do to make it ‘so’ as a matter of ‘fact.’
Take it from a girl who has spent more hours than she’d care to admit in the comments section of various online pop-culture editorials. I can make an elaborate, well-researched, meticulously cited case using everything from direct canonical evidence, to academic analysis of certain cinematographic techniques, to literary theory about authorial intention and the political economy of queer polysemy. It does not matter. Until Dean explicitly says “I am bisexual,” or kisses a man in earnest, there is a large faction of the audience who simply will not give that interpretation the time of day. Like the tulpa, the cultural narrative still garners the power of the real through a critical mass of belief in what it renders, and canon authors still have a lot more influence over that rendering than do audience members or fans.
The force and power of a privately held interpretation, or even a subculturally shared one, still does not compare to the force and power of the canonically rendered interpretation. And believe me, I wish it were as simple as saying everybody can have it their way, but the fact that everyone has equal power of interpretation does not make all interpretations equally powerful. At least not in the ‘real’ world.