Supernatural and Queer Love: Destiel, Queer Baiting, and homophobia

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graphic by averyniceprince

A/N: This is a long post, with quite a bit behind the cut. Make sure to click Read More for the whole thing!

I came across an innocuous picture post of popular tumblr crushes today and one of the pictures was, unsurprisingly, of Jensen Ackles. It was unsurprising in that Supernatural is one of the biggest fandoms on tumblr, and the show and the actors make up a  large portion of the content I see on tumblr. What did surprise me though, was seeing people stating in the comments that Jensen was homophobic. I haven’t been a part of the Supernatural fandom for a loooooong time (since about season 3), so even though I still keep up with the show, I don’t keep up with the actors and what they say at cons, etc. Well in looking this up, I learned that Ackles has made a variety of comments in the past that have come across as homophobic. 

For those of you who don’t watch the show or aren’t familiar with it, Supernatural follows the adventures and misadventures of two brothers, Dean and Sam (played by Jensen Ackles and Jared Padalecki, respectively) who ‘hunt’ demons and monsters across the US. The show has always inspired a healthy amount of gay shipping amongst its fanbase (which is overwhelmingly female). Most notably, fans ship ‘wincest’, the incestuous pairing of Dean and Sam, and ‘Destiel’, the pairing of Dean and the angel Castiel, who was introduced as a character in the show’s fourth season, where he was first seen rescuing Dean from Hell. One of his first lines in the series was, in response to Dean asking who he was, “I’m the one who gripped you tight and raised you from perdition”, which sort of became the line that spawned a thousand fanfictions. 

Now, back to Jensen. Tumblr user Mahakavi posted this handy run-down of occasions in which Jensen has said things which imply a discomfort with homosexuality, or at least the perceived homosexuality of his character:

  1. During one of the cons (JIBCon ‘12), Jensen and Misha were discussing the trenchcoat scene in 7x17 with the audience. Jensen brings up a comment that Misha made to him, about the scene being ‘unmanly’. A fan points out that he used the term ‘gay’, and that gay =/= unmanly. Jensen responds by saying “well in this case it did”. 
  2. He then follows it up with “And we read him the lines and he just folded and started laughing hysterically and then we proceeded to spend the next hour and a half—how can we change this around to make it more believable between these two characters. Oh Sera! Which would make sense because she’s a girl. And she’s an amazing story-teller, but sometimes the language she writes for the guys—sometimes there are more effeminate lines.” 
  3. In another interview, he says, “this is gonna sound like we’re  gay, but it’s like a dance partner, if you dance with that partner long enough you just know how to go along with their moves”
  4. In yet another discussion of the trenchcoat scene, he talks about the lines he had to say to Misha, and mocks them - “When you say it out loud—it’s like, Wow I would never say that to another human being. Especially a man.”

Jensen has also apparently been notoriously close-lipped and closed-off about answering questions at cons dealing with the relationship between Dean and Castiel. As the Daily Dot reported:

On Saturday morning, multiple fan reports surfaced alleging that a con organizer (of Supernatural New Jersey Con, held in may of this year) had refused certain ship-related questions because Jensen Ackles, who plays the dreamy Dean on the CW’s long-running testosterone candy, was “uncomfortable” when faced with the show’s enormous contingent of Dean/Castiel shippers. The problem? Dean is a guy, and Castiel is a male angel. Questions about the show’s notable homoerotic subtext were first disallowed, then booed by audiences—and notably rebuffed by Ackles, a lead actor on the show.

There was major fandom meltdown when a fan’s question about Dean’s identity and sexuality was halted by a con organizer because those questions made Ackles uncomfortable.’” In the video/gif of the episode, the girl gets as far as asking,

I’ve loved seeing Dean’s character become more comfortable with himself this season. As a bisexual, I’ve noticed some possible subtext-”

before Jensen says 'don't ruin it for everybody now', and then she is halted by an organizer from continuing with her question.  In the girls’ own account, she describes the situation this way:

Now here is what happened when I attempted to ask this question. I got as far as the word “bisexual” before the crowd groaned. I proceeded to hold my hand up in a ‘please just wait a second and let me finish’ way and then got as far as the word subtext before the crowd was full on booing and starting to shout a couple things I couldn’t make out. This is when Clif (the organizer) stepped out from behind the curtain looking very intimidating. He said, “Are you really going to ask this question?” to which I responded, “No, I have the question right here on my phone” and I held it up to him for him to read it but he was just like, “Just explain it to me”.
I then stood on my tiptoes to talk directly in his ear because the crowd was still too loud. I kind of stumbled through the explanation of the question as it’s a complex question. I just stepped down after that and Clif just said, “Don’t ask that. Please just thank them and go.”
He did not say this in an angry way. It is Clif’s job to keep things around Jared and Jensen calm and the way the crowd was was not calm at all. This question was just a little too much for the first question and people’s reactions were very, very negative so obviously I wouldn’t be asking the question. I looked up at Clif and told him that I meant no disrespect and to please tell Jared and Jensen that, then immediately grabbed the microphone and said, “I did not mean to be disrespectful at all. Thank you so much.” and then stepped back so that the girl behind me could move to the mic.
Jensen looked confused and said, “I still don’t know what the question was. I’m going to pretend I don’t know what the question was.

This incident got a TON of attention within the fandom, and rightly so. Why did a question about the sexuality of Ackles character receive so much hate from the audience? This is absolutely normal stuff within this fandom, so why was it ‘too much’ for the first question? The way the organizer approached her, “are you REALLY going to ask this?” “Please don’t ask it, just thank them and go’ implies to me that the actors were not comfortable receiving questions of that nature. Now, this perhaps doesn’t seem like such a huge deal. After all, actors in fandoms don’t have to pander to every fans interpretation of their material. But the writers of Supernatural have CONSISTENTLY written content and dialogue into the show that implies a deeper relationship between the two characters of Dean and Castiel, making Ackles’ comments and refusals to engage with questions of this nature very, very strange. As Superntaural Wiki reports, “Numerous allusions to the bond between Castiel and Dean in canon, often with ribald sexual references”. Here are just a few:

Dean: Don’t normally see you off leash. Where’s your boss?

Uriel: Castiel? Oh he’s, he’s not here. You see he has this weakness, he likes you.

4.10 Heaven and Hell

Dean: So what, I’m Thelma and you’re Louise and we’re just gonna hold hands and drive off this cliff together?

Reference to the movie “Thelma and Louise”. The two women kissed before driving off the cliff.

5.03 Free to Be You and Me

Dean: There are two things that I know for certain. One, Bert and Ernie are gay. Two, you are not gonna die a virgin. Not on my watch.

5.03 Free to Be You and Me

Castiel stares intently at Dean in silence

Dean: Cas, not for nothing, but the last time someone looked at me like that…I got laid.

5.18 Point of No Return

Sam: So what, you like him better, or something?

Castiel: Dean and I do share a more profound bond. I wasn’t going to mention it.

6.03 The Third Man

Balthazar: Sorry, you have me confused with the other angel. You know, the one in the dirty trench coat who’s in love with you.

6.17 My Heart Will Go On

Dean: Why’s it always got to be me that makes the call, huh? It’s not like Cas lives in my ass. Dude’s busy…

(Cas appears behind him) Cas, get out of my ass!

Castiel: I was never in your…

6.19 Mommy Dearest

Meg (to Dean): Ask him, he was your boyfriend first!

7.23 Survival of the Fittest

Sam: We should call Castiel.
Dean: Dude, on my car, he showed up naked, covered in bees.

7.23 Survival of the Fittest

Castiel: I don’t sleep.

Dean: Well, I need my four hours, so…

Castiel: I’ll watch over you.

8.08 Hunteri Heroici

Now remember - these are all canonical lines from the series. The references to Bert and Ernie being gay, to Thelma and Louise, to episodes being named ‘Free to be You and Me’, to multiple characters calling them boyfriends or implying that they’re ‘together’ romantically: fans are not pulling this stuff out of thin air. These lines have deliberately been written into the scripts. Daily Dot points out why this is so problematic when coupled with the negative reaction to questions about it:

Supernatural, known for killing off its textually gay characters, is often derided for “queerbaiting”—dabbling in “Ho Yay" only to turn around and declare "No homo." Ackles himself is not immune, and Destiel fans have had plenty of moments like this from DVD commentaries, panels, and extras to encourage their shipping:

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The wink-wink-nod attitude of the show towards its many slash fans is not only frustrating to fans, but problematic, consideringthe incredibly long line of shows that utilize queerbaiting in order to build their fanbases, without any intention of ever following through. The lack of acknowledgment that queer romance could be a possibility for prime time’s most compelling relationships is a core part of the reason slash fandom exists to begin with; and while fandom has grown decidedly more mainstream since the days of Kirk/Spock, the attitude creators have towards the idea of two male characters falling in love on a show that’s already established them as straight has undergone virtually no change at all.  It’s why, at a core level, so many slash fans still desperately hope and believe that their ship could become canon—most notably, Sterek fans and Destiel fans. Both Teen Wolf and SPNfans can be found frequently talking about their ships as if they are “endgame”—holding out hope that the show’s creative team will do the diverse thing and allow their presumably straight characters to be queer and in love.

But as far as Supernatural goes, it seems unlikely. In addition to the show’s abysmal track record when it comes to women, the show has also never shown much respect for the enormous female population of shippers who comprise the majority of its fanbase. On episodes where SPN parodies its own fanbase, it portrays it entirely inaccurately as being mostly comprised of male geeks with a few outlying, rabid, and crazy female slash fans in the minority. The show’s own attitude of contempt towards the many slash fans in its midst catalyzes the need for slash shippers to have some acknowledgment of the Destiel pairing from the actors and creative team—and encourages the other parts of the fandom to be dismissive and contemptuous of it in their turn.

Now, I want to be clear that I’m not full out stating here that Jensen Ackles is a homophobe. If he were one, I think it would be very implausible that he would have gone along with much of the writing of the recent seasons, especially around his character and the character of Castiel. But there does seem to be a discomfort around talking about it. And maybe that’s understandable, considering Jensen’s past. As tumblr user Andythanfiction writes:

I think Jensen’s from Texas, a place that is the absolute epicenter of American gender policing and pushing the image of what it means To Be A Red-Blooded American Man.  

I think that Jensen was a model since childhood, a cheerleader and a football player, and an actor who did a lot of cheesecake roles and spent a lot of time in a half-pound of mascara and lipgloss pouting into soft focus on a soap opera when he was very young.  I think this means that there is a 200% chance that in his childhood and teens and young adulthood (called the formative years for a reason) he experienced bullying and harassment meant to shame him for his violation of gender roles.  

I think that this has continued, with “Jenny Thunder” photoshoots and implications of femininity still used with intent to humiliate as recently as Misha’s stunt a few weeks ago and laughed over on Tumblr tags where people ROTF with all their LOLs that Dean Winchester looked like a GIRL even as I type this.  

I think that he has been subjected to a spectacular amount of fandom nastiness, invasiveness, and bullying directed towards himself, his wife, and now his unborn child by people who have decided that they can infer that he’s “secretly gay” and “really” doesn’t love Danneel by dissecting how he performs gender.  

A segment of the Supernatural fandom engaged in some very uncomfortable gender bullying when they found pictures of Jensen from pre-supernatural times. Jensen’s character Dean is incredibly rugged, has lived a hard life and presents his masculinity in a very traditional way. Meanwhile, Jensen comes from a history of soap operas and modeling, much of it booked on the fact that he was a very beautiful (note beautiful, not handsome here) youth, with very feminine features. So it is entirely possible that he’s struggled with trying to maintain his masculinity in an industry and a culture that is always looking to section out men for not being ‘manly’ enough, and that this has resulted in him being uncomfortable with questions about the masculinity of his character. Is his equation of ‘gay=unmanly’ problematic? Yes, absolutely. Is the silencing of questions about LGBTQ content at cons problematic? absolutely. Is the queerbaiting and treatment of the show’s women problematic? Again, absolutely. I’m hoping that these things will change, but honestly I’m not holding my breath. As to the ever-long question of ‘will they or won’t they’ when it comes to Destiel? Fans will simply have hope, pray, and tune in on Tuesdays at 9pm on the CW to find out. 

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