Praxis

Monstrous melodrama: Expanding the scope of melodramatic identification to interpret negative fan responses to Supernatural

Lisa Schmidt

University of Texas at Austin, Austin, Texas, United States

[0.1] Abstract—This article examines fan responses to an episode of the CW television series Supernatural; the episode features a metatext including a number of shout-outs and jokes about fandom. The most controversial of the shout-outs related to "Wincest," a form of slash featuring an incestuous sexual relationship between the two lead characters. Ien Ang's notion of melodramatic identification is revamped for use in relation to contemporary television reception and specifically to interpret negative fan responses to this episode. I argue that the theory of melodramatic identification can be employed not only to understand soap opera viewers but also viewers of many other kinds of television, particularly cult TV with its frequent reliance on serialized melodramatic narratives. I further argue that not only is Supernatural a melodramatic text, but also that text must be viewed as extending beyond the narrative world proper to the multiple narratives or texts comprised by the industrial and cultural context of the show. These together constitute a multilayered melodrama with which the fan identifies and to which she can also contribute through extratextual fan activities. That is, participation in slash and Wincest communities can be viewed as expression of melodramatic identification. This accounts for the strong negative responses of some fans who perceive that the show's producers are exposing and/or mocking them.

[0.2] Keywords—Cult television; Fan; Melodrama; Slash

Schmidt, Lisa. 2010. Monstrous melodrama: Expanding the scope of melodramatic identification to interpret negative fan responses to Supernatural. Transformative Works and Cultures, no. 4. http://dx.doi.org/10.3983/twc.2010.0152.

1. Introduction

[1.1] Fans of cult TV have from time to time been addressed, directly or indirectly, through the plots or dialogue of their shows. In many instances this address is subtle or coded; it requires specialized knowledge to recognize what is, in fan language, a shout-out, or what Sharon Marie Ross has termed an obscured invitation to audience participation (2009, 9). Ross has herself documented several fan shout-outs within the texts of Xena: Warrior Princess (1995–2001) and Buffy the Vampire Slayer (1997–2003) (9), while also categorizing other forms of invitation—for example, the ongoing invitation to engage in extratextual, Internet-supported interpretation and speculation on the narrative of ABC's Lost (2004–9) (9). The CW series Supernatural, which debuted in fall 2005 and is often described as a cult hit could be added to this list with ease. Certainly, many fans of the show would agree that the writers have been generous with fan service.

[1.2] Indeed, I would argue that the writers of Supernatural have issued invitations that transcend mere offers to participate. They have written fans into the show's mythology, even giving them a part in the unfolding of the battle between demons and angels. The episode that began this trend (4.18) is titled "The Monster at the End of This Book" ("Monster"), a "dizzyingly meta" episode in the words of Sera Gamble, supervising producer and one of the show's writers (TVGuide News 2009). The initial airing of this episode (April 2, 2009) spurred an intense reiteration of positive response for a show that already basks in the affections of a hardcore, if relatively small, fan contingent. However, "Monster" also sparked a simultaneous conflagration of negative fan response. A mostly similar range of reactions has been invoked by the follow-up to "Monster," 5.01 "Sympathy for the Devil" ("Sympathy"), which aired a week ago as of this writing. It was in the latter episode that a fan was recruited to deliver a critical message to Sam and Dean Winchester, the show's lead characters. In the course of both episodes, the writers took the opportunity to deliver some messages of their own to the fans, couched in the form of affectionate ribbing about fan obsession, fan complaints, and the nature and quality of fan fiction—specifically Wincest.

[1.3] The primary purpose of this article is not to account for these shout-outs in terms of textual practice. Rather, this is an attempt to interpret fan reactions—both approval and disapproval—to these gestures of the show's producers toward their fandom. Given that the shout-outs are presumably derived, at least in part, from affection for the fans, it is worth investigating the reasons that some fans receive them so negatively. Indeed, the negative responses to "Monster" provide an interesting case study in the context of increasingly intimate relations between television producers and viewers, an intimacy that, generally speaking, is highly desirable to fans. What interests me particularly is that in some cases this increased intimacy is not desirable; for some fans, and in some contexts, distance is preferred. For instance, with respect to the references to Wincest, the shout-outs in question relate to fan practices that, despite being common knowledge, are carried on anonymously and secretively. In "Monster," the show openly acknowledges the existence of the Wincest community; in "Sympathy," the writers integrate a Wincest writer into the plot and introduce her in the process of writing (and reading aloud) one of her stories. Fan reactions (particularly among those who read and/or write Wincest) to these moments often take the form of strong discomfort, although it is worth noting that despite the exposure, the predominant reaction to all the shout-outs, Wincest-related or not, is enjoyment. In fact, the pleasure of being recognized seems to be the overriding factor among all contingents of Supernatural fans. Thus my scholarly interest lies partly in theorizing this desire for recognition, but even more in the question of why, when the majority of a fandom is celebrating the attention received from their show, a minority should be exploding in outrage. To put the question in the fan vernacular—why the wank?

[1.4] The answer to this question depends upon an understanding of melodrama, one that is sensitive to the generic and cultural functions of this mode of storytelling, and that also sets aside connotations of emotional excess and female hysteria. Previous writings about TV melodrama have tended to restrict their analysis to those shows that were self-evidently melodramatic—in other words, soap operas—in order to account for their female viewership. Supernatural may seem an odd candidate for melodrama, given that it is generally assumed to be horror or cult TV, but it does exhibit a strong female presence among its audience (note 1). Moreover, when tested against the criteria given by Ben Singer in Melodrama and Modernity: Early Sensational Cinema and Its Contexts (2001) and Peter Brooks in The Melodramatic Imagination (1976), the show will reveal its true nature as melodramatic through and through. Furthermore, it will also be clear that the many extratextual narratives surrounding Supernatural tend toward the melodramatic. That is, the melodramatic mode encompasses not only the text of the TV show itself, but also the various activities of fandom that surround it, including, in the case of Supernatural, the Wincest.

[1.5] Not coincidentally, I am arguing that slash itself is deeply grounded in melodrama and, moreover, that slash based on the incestuous relationship of two brothers is, if nothing else, an exceptionally powerful form of it (note 2). While previous scholarly attempts to characterize slash generically have linked it to fantasy/science fiction, romance, and a genre termed intimatopic, I prefer the descriptive power of melodrama as a type, a narrative style, and a cultural mode. As I will explicate further below, many slash stories dwell on situations of intense pathos, scenarios of emotional surfeit nearly unmatched in any other form of narrative. This is not to say that slash is melodrama in an exclusive and definitive sense. It is, however, to claim that these stories are melodramatic regardless of plot device, be they called utopian, romantic, dysfunctional, tragic, perfectly platonic, domestic, or any other category against which slash might yet be measured. Catherine Tosenberger has suggested that Wincest appeals to some fans because it is the ideal romance, invoking the possibility of a complete union between two lovers. This may be an apt characterization of some Wincest, but in many more of these stories—indeed, in the very scenario of two brothers engaged in a sexual relationship—we have the perfect melodrama.

[1.6] In making these arguments, I draw upon Ien Ang's theory of "melodramatic identification" (1997) and modify it; mine is a theory of melodramatic identification reshaped to an era in which the notion of "the text" has become increasingly broad, encompassing fans, producers, writers, and actors. Certainly, the traditional text does continue to provide an important point of identification—amply demonstrated by the existence of extensive fan exegesis of the show's characters, plots, and themes, broadly referred to as meta. However, it is clear that a "show" now consists of multiple narratives derived from numerous textual, intertextual and extratextual sources. This is particularly the case if we consider how the idea of show is experienced by fans; since they concern themselves with all the lore surrounding the production in addition to the storytelling process, their text consists of overlapping and continuously expanding narratives that ultimately also include the biography/biographies of the fan and her community. In short, melodramatic identification cannot be restricted to an affective relationship with a character or plotline; rather, it is a relationship to a continuous interweaving of texts—including both fan fiction and the narrative of the fan herself—into a greater text that the fan knows as "my show." This expanded identification is the wellspring of the intensely experienced acts of reception that are so much a part of fandom. Melodramatic identification can account also for the acute divergence of fan responses that fall on a spectrum of emotional intensity ranging from mild amusement to profound anger. This is particularly so in the case of Supernatural, in which the show has made determined and deliberate overtures toward fans, attempting simultaneously to acknowledge and manipulate a complex affective relationship.

[1.7] It is not my intent to dismiss or diagnose any of the fans whose reactions I cite here by characterizing them as melodramatic. I turn to melodramatic identification because it is the best explanation of the multiple pleasures to be had as a fan of Supernatural—and many other shows, including those whose fans would strongly resist the label. Indeed, melodrama, like many cultural forms associated with "female interests," is simultaneously omnipresent in television and yet continuously undervalued; it is that which must be avoided if a show is to be considered "quality" (note 3). At the same time, I do not propose to focus on the melodramatic to the exclusion of other possible causes of fan behavior; there are aspects of the negative response to the Wincest shout-out that are the result of a simultaneous and discrete, more community-oriented, objection. Just like fandom in general, slash serves many purposes and could never be reduced to one exclusively. There are dimensions of slash that approach the expression of queerness, in that they are dedicated to the exploration of intimacy in all its forms despite any social mores or standards of heteronormativity. Indeed, some forms of slash are completely committed to the exploration of intimacies in the most taboo, fantastic, or simply impossible situations. Wincest might be an example of one such type; certainly incest is a kind of impossible situation.

[1.8] To invoke the term queer in relation to slash is to enter onto controversial ground. Even so, it is the case that, for some fans, an investment in a community and even an identity was part of the small but virulent negative reaction to "Monster," an episode whose clever and occasionally aggressive metatextual play triggered feelings of hurt, exposure, and outrage. It must be recognized that Erik Kripke—the show runner (and also creator and occasional writer-director) of Supernatural—and his team have essentially outed a subcultural group by choosing to write Wincest into canon. This kind of misunderstanding is perhaps understandable enough but still frustrating. From the perspective of some fans, it seems that the writers are condoning and even urging on those who prefer to assume that Wincest is weird behavior of some particularly marginal fans. This perspective has some validity, even if it is likely that the writers believed Wincest fans would welcome public acknowledgment. Indeed, many fans did welcome it.

2. The "monster" show

[2.1] "Monster" begins with Dean and Sam Winchester investigating a haunting in a comic book store, where they are mistaken for LARPers (live-action role players). The clerk, upon hearing them ask their standard investigative questions, leaps to the conclusion that they are fans of a certain series of books—a series that bears an uncanny resemblance to their own lives. According to the clerk, these books (much like the television show) never had more than a cult following and are now languishing in the bargain bin. Sam and Dean thus discover that a pseudonymous author (Carver Edlund, a name cobbled together from the last names of two of the show's writing team, Jeremy Carver and Ben Edlund) has written a series detailing every aspect of their lives; coincidentally, every book in the series is one episode of Supernatural, beginning with the pilot and ending with the last episode of season 3. In this final book, Dean dies and is carried off by the hounds of hell in accordance with a deal he struck to bring Sam back from the dead.

[2.2] After further investigation, Dean and Sam encounter the book series' publisher (Sera Siege) who is also the quintessential fangirl. Not coincidentally, she shares a first name with Sera Gamble (an executive producer and writer on the show) and a last name with the writer of the episode, Julie Siege. The publisher Siege rants about audiences who eschew quality drama for Dr. McSexy (an allusion to Supernatural's rather heavyweight Thursday night timeslot competition, Grey's Anatomy). Concurrently, the writer Siege displays a keen understanding of the emotional investments of a large segment of Supernatural's audience, as the publisher drools over Sam and Dean's moments of angst, sighing: "It's just the best when they cry." Later on in their motel room, Dean and Sam discover that they have an online fandom, which is to say that they discover the real life Supernatural fandom, even identifying a Web site and a username. Scanning the comments, Dean observes, "For fans, they sure do complain a lot." Then Sam introduces Dean to the concept of slash: "As in…Sam slash Dean…together." Dean inquires, "Don't they know we're brothers?" Upon learning from Sam that it "doesn't seem to matter," Dean replies in a potential metacondemnation of the existence of Wincest, "that's just sick."

[2.3] Fan responses to "Monster," as expressed on Television Without Pity (TWoP) and LiveJournal (LJ, where much of fandom lives now), for the most part expressed the delight of fans at being called out and acknowledged by "Kripke" (note 4). Also, many fans found pleasure in the dizzying interpenetration of fiction and real life. For instance, since Chuck Shurley, the author of the books, is revealed to be a prophet, Eric Kripke is, presumably, God. Sam and Dean are made to display their real, but supposedly imitation, tattoos based on the fictional Sam and Dean's tattoos, as proof of their dedication to the fandom. At one point, Dean reads aloud from a real fan's actual commentary: "Listen to this: Sympatico says: 'The demon storyline is trite, clichéd, and overall craptastic.' Well, screw you, Sympatico, we lived it." If this seems a trifle harsh, it does appear that Kripke et al. were willing to take it as well as to dish it out. The prophet Chuck apologizes, among other things, for putting the Winchester boys through some of his less polished writing efforts (1.08 "Bugs," 1.13 "Route 666," and 3.06 "Red Sky at Morning"), while in the same breath expressing regret for subjecting them to their depressing lives. In any case, comments posted shortly after the conclusion of the episode were nearly euphoric. A powerful interpretive energy transformed any apparent criticisms into clever inside jokes. As this fan put it:

[2.4] I was expecting something horribly angsty, and within the first five minutes I was pissing myself in laughter and disbelief. Taking the mickey out of the fans and themselves was pretty fun there for a while. Especially since an episode that was fictionally a crossover between fiction and reality was at the same time in reality a crossover between fiction and reality. Art and life imitated each other into a tangled ball of timey-wimey, wibbly-wobbly stuff (to quote The Doctor). (Katiki, Television Without Pity, April 2, 2009)

[2.5] As for the cracks about fandom, it appears that many fans experienced them as affectionate pats; even Dean's disgust at learning of the existence of Wincest was not taken as real criticism. The pleasure of being known was the primary interpretive principle, for to be known was to be loved. As one poster expressed it on the TWoP Supernatural forum within hours of the airing of the episode: "Well. That was the first time a show has taken me into its strong arms, looked into my eyes with a scorching fire, bent me back, and given me a kiss that drowned my soul—and than tickled me until I wet my pants. If anyone doubts that TPTB [The Powers That Be] read the boards…" (Snookums, April 2, 2009).

[2.6] A scan of the contemporaneous comments at TWoP and various communities on LJ reveal endless variations of the same theme:

[2.7] Kripke and Co. really know, understand and most importantly appreciate fandom for all its weird and sometimes downright disturbing awesomeness. How many tv show creators know their fan base as inside and out as Kripke and Co. know us? Not many I am certain. But that's the great thing about loving a show like Supernatural, the writers and producers are just as into us as we are into them. (Eden Winchester, Television Without Pity, April 2, 2009)

[2.8] Clearly, there is something emotionally alluring for fans about the idea of being known. In response to "Monster," they posted, over and over, "Kripke really loves us! He knows us! He sees us!" Jokes about the fandom appear to be the primary evidence of Kripke's knowledge, even if this results in exposure of all the habits, complaints, and obsessions of Supernatural fans, including the Wincest. Indeed, the show has continued writing their fans into the show's mythology with episode 5.01 "Sympathy" (September 10, 2009), allowing them to participate in saving the world à la Galaxy Quest (1999). Moreover, this episode takes the Wincest shout-out well past the obscured into the realm of the literal. The prophet Chuck needs to get a message to Dean and Sam, and reaches out by video chat to his "number one fan," a girl named Becky (alias SamLicker81), who is Webmistress of a site called MoreThanBrothers.net (note 5). When Chuck identifies himself and asks for her help, her first response is to castigate him for mocking her: "I may be a fan…but I know the difference between fantasy and reality." He snaps, "Becky, it's all true," and she immediately chimes, "I knew it!" Shortly thereafter, she delivers her message to Sam and Dean, whereupon there is some entertaining play with the fact that she is a Sam girl; she dismisses Dean as "not what I expected." She then caresses Sam's chest compulsively despite his request: "Becky, can you quit touching me?" In sum, Kripke et al. want to make it very clear to the Supernatural fans that they know them "inside and out." Rather than finding this a threat or insult, most fans seem to find it extremely pleasurable. It is a point of pride, even, because fans now believe that Kripke appreciates his fan base more than other show runners.

[2.9] Yet there is not total agreement with this interpretation, as can be seen in this fan's post on April 2, the night that "Monster" originally aired: "*blinks* Oh fuck you, SHOW. I mean, I love you and everything. That was an awesome episode. But still, you know. Get that damn spotlight out of my face, thanks so much, friends ;P" (KatieJo, Television Without Pity).

[2.10] She received only a few replies; mostly she was ignored, except for the following:

[2.11] Aww, now that I see everyone's positive reactions, I wish I liked this episode better than I did. And there were definitely moments that had me laughing and very entertained. But on the whole? It seemed like bad fanfic…But yeah, I don't know about a show acknowledging stuff like Wincest in the show…Acknowledging the fans, sure, maybe a shoutout or two, but this was too much. I think the writers need to get off the internet. (Bloody Marie, Television Without Pity, April 3, 2009)

[2.12] Further on, another fan chimed in "After reading the thread, I seem to be the only one who feels this way, but I didn't like the meta at all. It seemed like a slap in the face to the fans as a whole, and much too much like mocking to achieve even a tongue in cheek effect. Talk about biting the hand that feeds you" (Asweet7492, Television Without Pity, April 3, 2009).

[2.13] Roughly contemporaneously, there was an explosion of angst on LJ that ultimately landed on the infamous Fandom Wank (http://www.journalfen.net/community/fandom_wank). Once again, part of the outrage concerned the self-referentiality of the episode, but this complaint is merely consistent with ongoing disagreements about the direction of Supernatural's narrative throughout season 4. There will always be a contingent of fans who are feeling disgruntled or disenchanted with the show's entire narrative trajectory. The strongest objections, however, were derived from a sense of being mocked and/or exposed. The following comment on LiveJournal demonstrates the level of passion some fans exhibited on the subject: "I'm beginning to think Kripke has no respect for his own fan base. I don't expect TPTB to condone slash or Wincest, but I don't appreciate it when the creators of one of my favorite shows make fun of the fandom in general. We MADE you, you fuckers!" (Spiderine, April 3, 2009).

[2.14] A milder and more frequent kind of complaint invoked expectations of privacy. Despite—or because of—the understanding that Wincest is a potential violation of the sensibilities of Kripke, or of the actors who portray the characters in question, there was and is a feeling that the references to Wincest are exposing something that should remain within the community. "Dear writers, how about 'what happens in fandom stays in fandom'? The fourth wall is a nice concept indeed. Do you realize that the casual viewers don't equal with the fandom and you've just shown the whole brother incest thing into their faces?" (Fernblick, Television Without Pity, April 3, 2009).

[2.15] It is worth noting that the response to "Sympathy" has repeated these reception dynamics. Again, while the majority of comments cite pleasure at the direct address to fans, a portion of the online community has expressed dismay. There is what appeared to be an increase in the negative response (although it's virtually impossible to obtain a true measure of fan approval as opposed to disapproval), in that some have observed that "once was funny, twice is getting to be too much," while others reacted to the even more explicit adoption of Wincest into canon. In fact, the episode prompted Buddy TV writer John Kubicek (2009) to comment in an article titled: "Supernatural Slash: 'This is Wrong.'" He is careful to note that he doesn't mean the slash itself (he doesn't care how people "get their jollies"), but the fact that the writers of Supernatural have taken the joke "too far." He also opines that, despite "Monster" being one of the show's best episodes, with "Sympathy," the jokes about fandom are getting tired. Finally, he notes that the responses to his reader poll on the Wincest inclusion were split between "funny" and "disturbing."

[2.16] At this point, it is useful to summarize the negative responses to "Monster" and "Sympathy"; they fall roughly into three categories. The first reaction was on textual grounds. These respondents either dislike the direction of the narrative in a given season, or the episode alone, or both. For example, some fans wrote that they hated having the putative fourth wall broken or they found the device of the Supernatural books overly clever, or tired, or simply unfunny. The second reaction was to the perceived insults to Supernatural fans in general ("Talk about biting the hand that feeds you"). The third reaction was to the Wincest shout-out. It should be apparent that, for my purposes here, the first reaction is of little relevance. These types of complaints have been the prerogative of fans since time immemorial and will continue to be so as long as there are professional storytellers and people to listen. I am focused on the second and third reactions, on the responses of those fans who felt some level of discomfort or disapproval or some other negative reaction to being seen. Whereas the majority of fans interpreted being seen as being known and therefore loved, the general trend of these negative comments is that fans were not so much being loved as being exposed in some way; in the case of the Wincest shout-out, this reaction frequently takes the form of a perception of being "outed."

3. Fans and producers: New intimacies

[3.1] There is little in the way of academic literature that addresses directly the situation at hand; although there have been other instances where TV shows have written their fans into their texts, it is not apparent that the fan responses have been documented, analyzed, or theorized. In her introduction to Beyond the Box: Television and the Internet, Sharon Marie Ross observes that fandoms tend to differ in their qualitative sense of whether or not the creators/producers of their shows are truly watching (2009, 2–4). Subsequently, she relates an instance in which the writers of Xena made "a plot joke out of TV viewers' desire to know whether or not Xena and her female companion Gabrielle are lovers" (7). Although Ross closely documents fan interpretations of the Xena-Gabrielle subtext, she does not indicate how fans felt about the joke. She describes, generally, that some fans read the characters as "definitely" lesbian, while others viewed that reading as optional depending on the preference of the viewer, and still others insisted on a platonic reading (2002, 568–80). Some of the comments of fans in relation to this issue expressed a concern that the actresses would go too far and "cross a boundary," but the primary concern seems to have been a fear that it was bad for the show rather than exposure of the fans (2002, 577).

[3.2] In more general terms, for some time now there has been recognition that there is a kind of intimacy—or at least a perception of it—between fans and creators of a text. In a recent essay, Janet Staiger reminds us that authors are themselves readers, eroding the link between producer and consumer (2008, 280); indeed, authors can often be fans. Henry Jenkins has also written of the "renegotiation" of relations between consumers and producers in convergence culture (2004, 38), and although he focused in this essay on the gaming and recording industries, there is no doubt that the same applies to television producers and consumers. Put another way, academics are increasingly aware that the line between production and reception has grown tenuous. In Beyond the Box (2009), Ross has created a framework for understanding the different ways that audiences are invited to participate in television texts and suggests different types of invitations. Where such invitations exist primarily on the level of aesthetics or narrative structure (as opposed to more direct solicitations such as voting procedures), they are "obscured" (4). This latter category would certainly apply to the shout-outs in "Monster," where only a watcher with specialized knowledge (a fan) would realize that there was a metatext to be read. The "invitation" in this case is subtle, but it is still an invitation; the fan is being asked to engage in an added layer of interpretation and share in a joke.

[3.3] Put still another way, the relations between producer and consumer, authorship and reception have come to resemble, increasingly, an actual relationship, albeit not a terribly empowered one on either side. Under different circumstances we might even consider applying the adjective codependent. Both the producer and the consumer can become passionately invested in the same story, and both can suffer from a lack of control over the story, being subject to the whims of corporate decision making. In the case of Supernatural, this situation is particularly acute; the show has been termed a cult hit in the press, which is to say that its audience is relatively small. The show has always been endangered; fans have had to bite their nails every spring. They have done what they can to support the show, spreading the word, engaging in publicity campaigns, and making a point of turning on the TV every Thursday night, even for repeats. Thus Supernatural fans are showered with thanks—in interviews, on commentaries, and at conventions they are told how important and appreciated they are. The producers of such a show, particularly in a post-television landscape where audiences are increasingly fragmented, must be keenly aware that they need each and every viewer to survive; perhaps, despite their gratitude, they cannot help but resent this dependency. Some fans, watching "Monster," had to have felt just a tiny bit of genuine aggression in the playful slaps.

[3.4] In short, Supernatural fans are accustomed to a fairly luxurious sense of intimacy with their show, and where there is intimacy, there is likely to be deep emotion. Lawrence Grossberg has stated aptly the power that fans give to their cultural objects: "The most obvious and frightening thing about popular culture is that it matters so much to its fans" (1992, 59). Nor does this mattering always equate to positive feeling. The antipathy felt toward certain pop culture objects is merely the flip side of adoration. Moreover, such adoration can be the precursor to hurt feelings, and not just on the fans' part. Certainly, fans can hurt the creator-producer of their show, by rejecting characters or storylines, or by generally making a nuisance of themselves. Show-runners have been known to make statements seeking to justify decisions and even lash out at unappreciative fans; obviously, the role of personal feelings cannot be without some relevance in these situations. In his DVD commentary for 2.20 "What Is and What Shall Not Be" (2007), Kripke admits that he can feel hurt when he reads critical fan comments: "I'll be honest, it hurts my feelings sometimes!" In interviews, he has also stated that he has spent hours per week reading such comments, and has sometimes become "really down" if they were negative. The tone of his address in both commentaries and interviews tends to be personal and chatty, as though he is speaking directly to a friend. This is not to say that fans are in a real relationship with Kripke, but to demonstrate that the sense of intimacy between him and fans, however constructed and ultimately illusory, nevertheless has the affective and dramatic markers of a relationship.

[3.5] It is virtually impossible not to stray into Freudian territory when talking about affective investment, because the complete version of the latter phrase is "affective investment in a love object." The very notion of investing implies that we are "putting something into" an idea, person, or thing (object) and while not all of Freud's ideas may be equally useful, his theory of object attachments seems to describe something that meshes with our phenomenological experience of our own emotional lives (1917). Freud aptly demonstrated the link between object investment and identification; he observed that the more emotional energy (libido) we invest in an object (the process of cathexis), the more important it becomes to our sense of self. This is the actual mechanism of identification, a term that has been misused and abused in media studies. Identification is a process by which a fantasy copy of the loved object literally becomes a part of our ego. In simple terms, the more we put into the "show," the more it becomes a part of us. Moreover, the libidinal attachment is not to the object that exists in the real world, but to the copy inside us. Hence Freudian reasoning brilliantly explains a commonsense proposition: loving an other is inseparable from the love of one's self (note 6). Desire and identification are similarly inseparable, founded on the inexhaustible energy that is libido.

[3.6] The "show" object can also be broken down further, into other objects and part objects. Let us suppose that I have an attachment to the character of Dean Winchester. In psychoemotional terms, this means that I have a "Dean" inside me, and it is this Dean that I love and nurture with my daily attention, not the objective Dean of the show. The same might be true of an object called "Jensen" (Jensen Ackles, the actor who plays Dean). These objects are not mutually exclusive, nor are they entirely separate from each other. The Dean object that I nurture within me is less a perfect billiard ball than an oblong ball of clay, constantly being reworked by new and repeated emotional investments. Moreover, "Dean" is infused with "Jensen" and vice versa, and both are aspects of the object "show." My fandom could be represented as a constellation of doughy lumps that stick to each other and accrete into a single object (Supernatural) while simultaneously retaining the discreteness of themselves as objects. Again, this object is held within me as part of my self. If I were to lose my Dean object for some reason, through ambivalence or perhaps through cancellation, it could all but literally tear a chunk out of me (my ego). This is the melancholic mechanism as described by Freud, in which he explained grief and depression as both founded upon a loss of self concomitant with the loss of a loved object. The efforts of fans to relate, to know their show and all of its constituents, are not only the means by which they continue to invest in (cathect) the show object, but the safeguard against its loss. To question the realness of such relations is moot, in a sense. From this context, a fan's investment in a show is no less a real relationship than investment in a person to whom they have daily access.

[3.7] Fortunately, fans have a myriad of ways of relating to their show object: weekly episodes, promotional materials, convention encounters, commentaries, interviews, and more. Networking technologies have made it possible for fans to feel even more directly connected to show producers, actors, and writers; it is now possible to participate in a scheduled chat with a show runner, or to follow a favorite actor on Twitter. Moreover, some fandoms (such as that of Supernatural) have been encouraged via offers to participate (in Ross's terms), to believe that the show is reaching out to them, even watching them. Although frequently presented in the form of information-sharing, all of these encounters represent opportunities for recognition—a kind of knowledge, but, more importantly, an affirmation of the relationship. Conventions, for instance, could be viewed as organized situations of recognition, in which the actors let themselves be seen without makeup and without the crutch of a script. They answer questions designed by fans hoping to cause them to reveal information that could not be accessed otherwise. They have their pictures taken with fans, meaning that a fan has the opportunity to stand in close proximity to their love object, to see how they look up close, how they smell, how they relate person-to-person. Simultaneously, the fan is seen by the actors. For the fan, the emotional quality of the convention experience is based upon the quality of opportunities to know the object of their emotional investment. Indeed, the fan is always engaged in trying to know a love object who remains to some extent mysterious, always partially obscured and on the verge of being revealed. Perhaps this paradox is the source, at least in part, of the unique levels of emotional intensity frequently exhibited by fans towards their love objects.

[3.8] Based on all of these available opportunities, Supernatural fans could have said they felt "known" by Kripke et al. even before "Monster" aired, but the episode could be, and was, taken as powerful affirmation. To be known back, to be acknowledged, was certainly an admission if not an intensification of the sense of intimacy between Supernatural fans and the show. Under such fraught conditions, however, it could hardly be surprising that some find the intimacy a bit too much to bear, particularly those who are more disposed to keep their emotions and investment relatively private. It is no wonder, also, that the shout-outs could be viewed by some as a revelation of dislike, disrespect—or perhaps just something too intimate. Indeed, it is conceivable that fans have access to more information about their love objects than they can possibly process, including massive volumes of user-generated content available on the Web that fans can shape into their own narratives. David Beer and Ruth Penfold-Mounce (2009) have offered the suggestion that for fans to shape such material into a usable narrative requires the exercise of a new kind of "melodramatic identification." Being humans, we tend to narrativize our experience, and there are reasons why, for fans, the narrative must be melodramatic.

4. Melodrama: Not just in my imagination

[4.1] The concept of melodramatic identification as originally proposed by Ien Ang (1997) focused on identification with a melodramatic character (Sue Ellen Ewing) in a melodramatic text (Dallas); her definition of text, although not incorrect, was simply traditional. While I do intend to expand of Ang's concept of text beyond the boundaries of the box, I must now be old-fashioned for a time, in order to discuss Supernatural as melodrama.

[4.2] It might take few moments to see past the label of "horror show." Witness the reviews of television critics in 2005: "Things that go bump in the night are all the rage this fall" (Lowry 2005). However, for some who looked a little closer, there was also a quick insight into the presence of melodrama: "In the midst of all its other-worldly doings, Supernatural manages to address one of storytelling's enduring themes: the search of children for their father, and the desire to connect with parental figures" (Blum 2005, 12). Kripke and the show's writers have repeatedly referred to the relationship of the brothers Sam and Dean Winchester as the core of the series, and more recently Matt Roush, writing online of his "Supernatural Summer," made note of the entertaining horror and comedy elements of the show before going on to its "fiercely emotional center" (2009). Finally, Henry Jenkins (2007) stated in his blog review of Supernatural: "This is the stuff of classic melodrama." Indeed, Jenkins believes that this melodramatic core separates the show from other horror-themed shows such as Buffy and the X-Files (1993–2002), not to mention those that joined Supernatural in the fall 2005 cohort, such as Ghost Whisperer (2005–9).

[4.3] It need not be a stretch to suggest that supposedly male-oriented genres such as sci-fi and horror can be fundamentally melodramatic, particularly in the contemporary TV scene in which nearly all programs are strongly influenced by seriality. In his piece "Defining Cult TV: Texts, Intertexts and Fan Audiences," Matt Hills pauses to note the similarities in narrative structure between many cult TV shows and soaps—such as "narrative closure being indefinitely deferred" (2004, 513)—only to then carefully distinguish the two forms. There is no question that, for Hills, cult TV (however we may ultimately define it) is closely related to soaps because they both rely upon serial storytelling. However, he claims that in cult TV "programmes usually focus upon a defining narrative enigma or puzzle that is bound up with their creation of fantastic narrative worlds" (513), whereas soaps deal with multiple, intertwining narrative strands. Hills rather overstates the case, apparently keen to keep soaps away from his cult TV, although he does acknowledge that there are reasons why both soaps and cult TV seem to draw large and committed fan audiences: there must be something similar about the experience of watching them. Ross also noted that many respondents to her survey of Buffy and Xena fans found their shows to be "soap-like" (2002, 13).

[4.4] It is one thing to state that melodrama is everywhere; to define it is no easy matter. There have been a number of seminal pieces written in the field of media studies discussing melodrama in terms of both film and television, but Ben Singer offers a summary of much of this material, as well as a useful cluster of characteristics that identify melodrama. For a start, Singer notes that the popular understanding of melodrama links it to a sense of high sentiment, overwrought emotion, and women's content (2001, 39). In discussing the history of melodrama, Singer refers to key historical work performed by Steve Neale on the film genre, which demonstrates how the original meaning of melodrama shifted from its early usage in the late 19th and early 20th centuries to its reimagination as "the woman's film" in the 1940s. That is, in terms of early film history, melodrama was not "the weepie" or the "tearjerker" but in fact a highly dramatic story associated with gore, strong, detailed action, and fantastic plots hinging on coincidence and accident. It was something that more closely resembles the action-packed plots of Supernatural than the classic soap opera or the woman's film. Of course, the plots of these early "sensational melodramas" were designed to arouse powerful emotions in the audience, largely through identification with characters who were in desperate need of being avenged. The plot constructions were less focused on continuity than on the arousal or agitation of the audience through the creation of "situation": a moment of shock or surprise created by some revelation or plot development. Eliciting a gasp from the audience was of greater importance than narrative realism, although melodramas were committed to a realism of their own. Certain details had to strike a note of verisimilitude; devices, explosions, and gore—the aspects that we would now relegate to the category of special effects—had to be absolutely believable (Singer 2001, 42).

[4.5] In addition to this useful historical perspective, Singer (2001, 44–48) suggests five concepts that characterize melodrama: nontraditional narrative structure, sensationalism, moral polarization, pathos, and overwrought emotion. He is careful to observe that one or none could be present in a given melodramatic text, and that a text may contain one or more of these characteristics without being melodrama. In the next several paragraphs, I will demonstrate that Supernatural meets all five of these criteria.

[4.6] The characteristic of nontraditional narrative structure applies, in the sense that Supernatural relies heavily upon seriality, balancing open and unresolved plot elements with more classic episodic elements. While this is entirely typical for so-called cult TV (Hills 2004), it does represent the lack of narrative closure that critics once lamented in relation to melodrama. Indeed, the adoption of an open narrative structure to a greater or lesser degree in so many prime-time TV shows (seriality) nearly equates to the adoption of melodrama on a wide scale. Seriality not only leaves narrative questions open at the end of an episode, it also (presuming some level of competence on the part of the writers) ensures character continuity; characters can have history, memory, and relationships of the kind of depth that echo real life. Soap opera scholarship, rather than viewing the lack of closure as a narrative failing, has commented on how the lack of closure in these narratives permits a multiplicity of connections between characters and that this in turn requires a unique competence from the viewer (Allen 2004; Feuer 1994; Modleski 1984).

[4.7] In Supernatural, the serial aspects of the story are apparent in what is generally referred to by fans and producers as the myth arc aspect of the show: the aspects of the plot relating to Sam and Dean's part in the war between heaven and hell, Sam's demon blood, the deal made by Sam's mother with Azazel, the role of the demon Ruby, the intentions of the angels, Dean's destiny, and so on. Much like the plot of a soap opera, these plot details retain little of their true melodramatic qualities at being outlined in this fashion; to understand their psychological and emotional complexities requires a commitment from the viewer. Only a viewer who has watched every episode and has shared the vicissitudes of the characters of Sam and Dean could fully appreciate the melodrama of the season 4 finale; as with soap opera and other melodramatic narratives, a viewer requires that particular viewing competence to grasp all the emotional resonances of the climactic scene. As Michael Kackman (2008) notes, "it's melodrama's simultaneous invocation of, and inability to resolve, social tensions, that makes it such a ripe form for serial narrativization." In sum, seriality is both a characteristic of melodrama and an engine for melodrama, but it requires an investment of time and attention from the viewer.

[4.8] There can be no question that the criterion of sensationalism is present in Supernatural, given that this is a horror show. For Peter Brooks (1976), the originator of the concept of the melodramatic imagination, melodrama is a style of storytelling that employs narrative and stylistic excess to reveal the moral fabric underlying mundane reality. The emphasis on ghosts, magic, the impossible, and the irrational (the supernatural), equates with an aesthetic that is visually and aurally sensational. At the same time, these trappings of horror become an especially literal way to refer to the sacred moral world that Brooks argues is lacking in the post-Enlightenment era. In fact, the horror of Supernatural enables the melodrama; the horror elements of the story elevate or exacerbate the situations of the characters such that the costs of a personal crisis could be paid in spilled blood, torn flesh, and screams of terror. Plots are inevitably constructed such that the fates of people, families, and sometimes the entire world, hang on personal choice. When one of the heroes is depressed or hurt, the entire world might be endangered. This is the essence of the melodramatic imagination, or as Jenkins (2007) puts it:

[4.9] Peter Brooks tells us that melodrama externalizes emotions. It takes what the characters are feeling and projects it onto the universe. So that the character's emotional lives gets mapped onto physical objects and artifacts, gets mirror backed to them through other characters, gets articulated through gestures and physical movements, and on a metalevel, speaks to us through the music which is what gives melodrama its name. Supernatural is melodrama in the best sense of the term.

[4.10] Indeed as Jenkins notes, almost every monster that Sam and Dean encounter in some manner parallels their emotional journey.

[4.11] Supernatural further meets the criteria of both Brooks and Singer in its emphasis on moral conflict. Brooks's "moral world" is quite literally realized in Supernatural, in a battle between heaven and hell, with human beings caught in between and Sam and Dean Winchester somehow key players. Literally, everything hinges on their choices—and appropriately, the two characters embody a conflict between two different modes of decision making. In his character and in his actions, Dean exemplifies what Carol Gilligan (1982) calls the "ethic of care" (traditionally gendered female), while Sam (as well as his father, John) represent the "ethic of universal justice." In the ethic of care, decisions are made according to what preserves personal and relational connections; in the ethic of universal justice, moral decisions are made with regard to rational, ahistorical values of right and wrong. Dean is motivated primarily by a need to preserve and sustain the relationships that he still has (to his father and brother)—to reiterate, the ethic of care (note 7). This mode of ethical reasoning is demonstrated also in Dean's preference for helping those who are still living as opposed to avenging his own losses. His moral growth over the course of the four seasons is one in which he becomes increasingly articulate about the need to put people and families (the personal) before causes (the abstract), even if the cause is saving his own life. Taken to a dysfunctional extreme, his moral decisions reflect an absence of self-esteem; for instance, when Sam is killed, he wastes no time in bartering his soul and his life in exchange for Sam's in (2.22 "All Hell Breaks Loose"). His journey is thus one of learning to value himself sufficiently that he will no longer engage in excessive acts of self-sacrifice.

[4.12] Sam, with the benefit of the protection and nurturing provided by Dean, has grown up with stronger ego boundaries and has a stronger sense of self. The strength of the ethic of universal justice is the ability to rationally balance competing needs or weigh evidence, which Sam does. He is drawn to a legal career and is self-evidently a more contemporary, liberal man than Dean. In 2.03 "Bloodlust," he helps Dean to see that not all vampires are necessarily evil, that their moral status depends upon their actions rather than their nature. However, like Dean, he takes his particular moral gifts to a dysfunctional place; whereas Dean is selfless, Sam is selfish, even as he believes he is acting to help others. Just like John, Sam's moral compass tends to point toward revenge. After losing Dean at the conclusion of season 3, he becomes increasingly driven and lost in his anger. He deludes himself that his quest for revenge is for the good of all, failing to see his own arrogance.

[4.13] Arguably, every season has concluded with a major clash over the two ethical modes, revisiting and reshaping, restating the question: Which is the right way to be? How should they (I) be if they (I) want to save the world? Is it the personal, nurturing, ethic of care (Dean) or the utilitarian, egalitarian ethic of universal justice (Sam)? In season 4, Dean is approached by a new character, an angel (Castiel) who tells him it is his job to save the world from Armageddon; Dean is unable to accept that he was either worth saving from hell, or that he has the strength to save the world. Meanwhile, Sam believes that he is the only one with the strength for that job, which also happens to include killing the demon that sent Dean to hell (Lilith). In order to gain this strength, however, Sam is willing to become addicted to drinking demon blood; he traverses a path of self-justification, initially telling himself he is getting stronger to help people, then justifying their deaths in order to save the world—the classic utilitarian equation.

[4.14] As of the end of season 4, it seems that Supernatural has chosen to affirm the ethic of care, although with at least one more season remaining and Lucifer at large, there will undoubtedly be a restatement of the need for the ethic of universal justice and a replaying of the conflict between the two. In 5.01 "Sympathy," Dean is told that he is the Sword of Michael, the destined vessel for the impersonal, merciless power of an archangel (the ethic of universal justice), and true to his moral preference, he immediately refuses the honor. With the world at risk of being "burned alive," it remains to be seen if he can avoid this destiny. This is yet another iteration of the show's moral preoccupations. The most melodramatic moments of season 5 will undoubtedly turn (as in previous seasons) on this question as stated by Kripke: "Can family save the world?" He cites the philosophy of the show as "humanistic" and clearly prefers the moral demands of personal connections over abstract ethics: "Religions and gods and beliefs—for me, it all comes down to your brother. And your brother might be the brother in your family, or it might be the guy next to you in the foxhole—it's about human connections" (Ryan 2009).

[4.15] Thus, the fundamental question of Supernatural is whether an ethic based on personal relationships can truly save the world. From this, it is clear that the show is melodramatic to its core, even if it does lack the black and white moral polarization that Singer suggests of the melodramatic imagination. Indeed, one of the more enjoyable aspects of the show is the way in which it rarely leaves viewers with moral certainties: as the show has proceeded through each season, it has become increasingly morally complex. Far from altering the melodramatic essence of the show, this complexity only enhances it. If, as Brooks argues, the modern soul was, and is, hungering for moral certainty, it must be a moral certainty that is relevant to the times, and in the current context it cannot have escaped the notice of the sensitive viewer that our moral context is extremely complex. In short, there are no absolute certainties, but conflicting ethical models. An appropriate TV fantasy is one that offers epic moral clashes—with, perhaps, one moral framework coming out on top.

5. Melodramatic identification writ large

[5.1] The last two characteristics of melodrama as identified by Singer are pathos and strong emotion. Assume that pathos equates with empathy and identification, and it becomes abundantly clear that Supernatural brims with both. After all, it seems clear that fans empathize intensely (although perhaps masochistically) with the pain of Sam and Dean Winchester, as suggested by the comment of the uber-fan Sera Siege in "Monster": "It's just the best when they cry." Indeed, to elaborate on the countless examples of melodramatic moments within the text of Supernatural would encompass far too many words; suffice it to say that Sam and Dean could give any heroine a run for her money. "Those poor boys," Roush (2009) muses. "They've saved so many souls along the way but they keep falling short in their own destiny sweepstakes." They lose their mother at a very young age, are raised by a less than adequate although well-intentioned father, suffer from various emotional and personality disorders, and generally have lousy childhoods marked by poverty, loneliness, and fear. They are magnificently tortured in a way that has captured the hearts and minds of a significant female audience, just as Sue Ellen once drew the identifications of a female audience in Dallas.

[5.2] Yet there is much more to the contemporary version of melodramatic identification than simply tuning in for the adventures of two pretty, angsty boys (although this doesn't hurt). The media landscape is not the same as it was when Ang studied the phenomenon of Dallas. The prime-time serial melodramas—Dynasty, Dallas—were ratings juggernauts. The fans of these shows did not have to contend with the constant anxiety of cancellation or wonder if their network was even going to exist in a month! From the perspective of the Supernatural fan, the melodrama of Sam and Dean cannot be detached from the melodrama of whether the show is going to be renewed each year. But the difference goes deeper still, for in the current era of television one cannot simply talk of texts in the traditional sense. As Ross puts it, the situation in relation to television in 2009 is one in which "the text and creators and viewers become inseparable from each other" (2009, 22).

[5.3] As mentioned above, Beer and Penfold-Mounce (2009) argue the need for a new melodramatic identification as a kind of organizing principle in a complex mediascape, but it could be that such identification is already inevitable, for if there are multiple texts, then there are multiple points of identification. In terms of melodramatic identification, there is identification not only with the text in the original sense, but also with the entire show in its sense as a production and a cultural phenomenon. Hence the impulse to engage in certain extratextual fan behaviors is related also to melodramatic identification. Such activities as the writing of fan fiction, for example, are permeated by these identifications. The same is true of online fan interactions between fellow fans, or between fans and the producers of the show, or between fans and anyone who might have reason to comment on the show (such as a journalist/reviewer). While the reviewer might also confess to being a fan or audience member, they can easily find themselves subject to outpourings of high emotion from fans who disagree with their comments.

[5.4] Slash is a unique example of an extratextual behavior that exists in the melodramatic mode, although this is, of course, not its sole function. It is not surprising, therefore, that some have argued that slash is a form of romance (Driscoll 2006). Similarly, Elizabeth Woledge has argued that many slash narratives are "intimatopic," (2006) although not all are such, nor are all intimatopic fictions slash. According to Woledge, intimatopic fiction is that in which sex increases intimacy (103) rather than being separate from it; in this way she distinguishes slash from romance and accounts for the intense focus and eroticization of emotions that is generally found in the fic. Woledge also attempts to acknowledge some of the elements of slash that other scholars either have not acknowledged or have found difficult to—the presence of rape, BDSM, and the hurt/comfort genre (109–10). For example, she argues that the purpose of hurt/comfort is to create intimacy; however, she fails to acknowledge the frequent intensity of both the hurt and the comfort.

[5.5] There is something else at work in this aspect of hurt/comfort as well as the obsessive quest of slash to describe, over and over, situations of intense intimacy—namely, a melodramatic impulse. Consider the following quote, which originally referred to film melodrama. If the word films is replaced with slash genre and stories and viewing with reading as I have done here, the quote becomes a perfect description of many slash narratives: "The [slash genre] clearly displays its affectivity in [stories] that dramatize affect itself, [stories] in which the expression of sentiment is at the center of the narrative, [stories] that, even after the most casual [reading], can be recognized as having as their project the dramatization of relationships of sentiment" (Affron 1991, 111).

[5.6] Certainly, slash can be described accurately as a genre of fan fiction in which two male characters engage in an erotic relationship (note 8) but this is not its purpose. The purpose of slash has to do with (in Affron's words) "the expression of sentiment." In slash, emotions do not go unacknowledged, and the entire aesthetic of the genre revolves around the particular manner in which these emotions are revealed, in "the dramatization of relationships of sentiment." In the classic slash trajectory, one man notices another in ways that they are not noticed in real life; feelings are noticed and people are seen for who they are. Feelings are always visible in unique ways, or if not, then there is a prevalence of certain plot gestures that ensure their discovery. The best slash stories draw out these events in scenes of rare psychological verisimilitude, culminating in a gut-wrenching outburst of feeling that is simultaneously real and fantastic. This scene may be followed by others in which the two men will have long conversations about their feelings before eventually engaging in some acts of physical intimacy that consummate their emotional intimacy.

[5.7] It is as though, in slash, women are groping after the realization of some perfect expression of drama that has yet to be achieved or even attempted in the mainstream media, one in which the concept of excess no longer has meaning. This is not to deny the importance of the erotic in all of this—far from it. Indeed, as I described above with reference to a psychoanalytic framework, there is no boundary, no line where identification stops and desire begins. Slash can invoke both identification and desire simultaneously; the affective results are a powerful identification with scenarios of desire and identifications powerful enough to be erotic.

[5.8] If slash offers opportunities for intense melodramatic identification, then Wincest can take the story to still another level. Tosenberger (2008), in a piece titled "The Epic Love Story of Sam and Dean," argues that Wincest stories have as their raison d'être the desire to tell a perfectly platonic love story: Sam and Dean are united not only by their shared quest to bring their mother's killer to justice, their united lifestyle, and their shared upbringing, but also their shared blood. According to Tosenberger, the breaking of the incest taboo permits a perfect unity, or rather, perfect intimacy. This may indeed be the attraction in some Wincest stories, but there are many stories where the breaking of the taboo leads to scenes of great pathos—where their father, or their surrogate father, Bobby, discovers their relationship, where one or the other is blamed for it, or blames himself, where they torture themselves with guilt but are helpless to stop. This is only a slim sampling of the plot possibilities. Not all Wincest stories dwell on the potential angst of the situation of Sam and Dean as a couple, but many do, drawing pleasurable identifications precisely because of the incest taboo, because the notion of the two brothers together is a shocking situational drama that generates great pathos. It is almost a soap opera cliché, except that in many Wincest stories, Sam and Dean are not drawn together by accident so much as by a helpless intimacy, a dysfunctional longing. In short, Wincest is the stuff that melodramatic dreams are made of. Slash fans who initially resisted have found themselves ultimately drawn to it, not because they have stopped believing in the incest taboo but because the melodrama is irresistible.

[5.9] To propose a melodramatic purpose for slash (and Wincest) is not, hopefully, to limit the potential meanings of slash, particularly for those who participate in it. Like most things in fandom, slash has multiple causes and multiple pleasures. This means, in turn, that the negative responses to the Wincest shout-out also have multiple causes—that is, causes other than melodramatic identification. One of these would be a community-oriented objection on behalf of slash as a fandom in its own right. Jenkins observes that "the meaning of slash resides as much in the social ties created by the exchange of narratives, the sharing of gossip, and the play with identity as it does with the words on the page" (1991, 222). Moreover, slash may manifest some of the characteristics of a queer subculture; recently, a pair of essays (Busse 2006; Lackner et al. 2006) discussed the queer erotics between writers of slash in LJ communities. This might tread on the sensibilities of some members of slash fandom, but it seems appropriate in light of the reactions exhibited to "Monster"—reactions of being exposed or potentially outed.

[5.10] It must be emphasized that most of those women who reacted negatively to the Wincest shout-out did not feel shame about their activities, but rather, the kind of embarrassment that is derived from being caught engaged in something that cannot be easily explained. None of the fan responses from those who read or wrote Wincest indicated that Dean's negative assessment of Wincest in "Monster" would deter them. Even those fans who disliked the shout-out expressed their understanding that they knew better than to expect anything different from a character in canon. The source of their discomfort was based in their show's lack of understanding of what Wincest, or more generally, of what slash is. The writers of "Monster" constructed the Wincest shout-out as though slash were nothing but a sex game, when in fact it is not something that is easily and immediately explainable. The experience of slash is far more complex than the simple utterance of the words "Sam slash Dean" on national television—as though a fan's fantasy of the two of them together is a perverse decision solely based upon the sexual attractiveness of the two men and nothing more.

[5.11] As a community, slash fandom could be viewed as a subculture whose members expect a certain degree of privacy, or at least the freedom to carry on their activities free from interference. Sharon Cumberland sees slash online communities as a safe place for sexual exploration: "Women are using the paradox of cyberspace—personal privacy in a public forum—to explore feelings—to explore feelings or ideas that were considered risky or inappropriate for women in the past" (2004, 275). Not all of these identities are necessarily subversive or progressive in the sense of constructing something completely new, or deconstructing the status quo. In some cases they may even appear to be regressive. However, slash fandom is deeply involved with women's sexuality; the practice of slash involves women pleasing themselves, together. Although it begins with women at a physical distance, it is intimate; later, it also can include women in a room together, talking about sex; women reading stories to each other; women watching sex movies together; women going to drag shows together; and sometimes, women forming relationships, friendships, and sometimes sexual relationships as a result of their connections through slash. While these women may be reluctant or even embarrassed at the prospect of exposure, they generally refuse to allow these feelings to overwhelm or override the meanings and the pleasures of slash. This in of itself—the fact that a group of women are committed to explorations of their own sexuality despite cultural ignorance, disdain, and sometimes disapproval—should earn them the right of not being trespassed against.

6. Conclusion

[6.1] According to Ang's arguments concerning melodramatic identification, the women who consume melodrama are in need of temporary surcease from the emotional realities of their lives; for Ang, melodrama provides this place of emotional relief, a refuge from the world in which women's desires are in constant conflict with the reality principle. It should come as no surprise that (female) fans could identify so intensely with a serialized TV show, particularly one whose characters are constantly thrown into situations of intense pathos. In her piece, Ang meets head on a difficult question: Why identify with a soapy, weepy character like Sue Ellen when there were more positive female characters to identify with? Ang replies, quite sensibly, that television provides us with fantasies, not role models (1997, 162), which is to say that melodrama may meet a need in fantasy, even a masochistic one, but that it is not thereby self-destructive. A female fan is not, by indulging in a momentary wallow in a melodramatic identification, falling down on the ongoing grueling project of inventing a female subject. The melodramatic identification is only providing momentary relief, even "moments of peace" (165).

[6.2] Female fans of Supernatural are seeking something similar in their show. It is clear that the TV series Supernatural is a melodramatic text, based on the criteria of Ben Singer and Peter Brooks. However, the melodramatic identification of fans must be understood as extending beyond the narrative world proper to the multiple narratives or texts comprised by the industrial and cultural context of the show—that is, the writers, actors, directors, producers. This new form of melodramatic identification includes reception practices such as slash and, particularly in relation to this TV series, Wincest. Thus Ang's notion of melodramatic identification can be useful in a contemporary context, once revamped to encompass not just melodramatic identifications with soaps but with other kinds of television, particularly cult TV with its frequent reliance on serialized melodramatic narratives. That is, contemporary TV fans have access to multiple levels of melodramatic identification, not only via the narratives of the show but also the texts that surround it; moreover, through their own activities in online fandom, fans have become accustomed to creating their own melodrama. Whereas Ang wrote of melodramatic identifications with characters on Dallas, it is now more accurate to write of complex identificatory relationships with the show, a text that comprises multiple inter-, extra-, and meta-texts. Given these identifications, every gesture of the show, and especially shout-outs to fans, will have a potentially volatile result. Something intended as an affectionate joke could be both an act of recognition and an insult. Similarly, a fan of Wincest and/or slash probably can receive the show's references to Wincest as an exposure and a personal offense.

[6.3] To reiterate, there is nothing pathological about melodramatic identification; identification is a normal human behavior and in the case of these fans, it provides a release from everyday tensions. It is true these melodramatic identifications have an element of fantasy, but only in the sense that all relationships are based upon identification, and all identifications are based upon fantasy to some extent. Kristina Busse, in "My Life is a WIP on My LJ," observes that even if some of the statements on LJ are performance, all real life encounters contain aspects of performance (2006, 223); she adds that it would be a mistake to dismiss online interactions as mere illusion. Fan-producer relationships, too, are obviously not real life relationships, but there is something real about them as well, sufficient that they should be considered as having real emotional consequences.

[6.4] Perhaps at the same time the fan is giving herself license to feel and identify with a melodramatic narrative of her own. In her fan interactions, the fan is often writing online and anonymously, in a multidimensional space that is existentially a fact and yet fantastically pleasurable. With the protection of anonymity a fan can permit herself the luxury of melodrama—the luxury of being able to retreat into an extreme emotionality that she would never permit herself in her "real" life, where rationality and control are the more valued qualities. Whereas in the real world the fan knows that excessive emotion would be counterproductive, online she can write herself into the melodramatic narrative of a maligned heroine pitted against a thoughtless and ungrateful television writer—one of the faceless and terrible Powers That Be, perhaps. Whatever the story, it provides an emotional catharsis through its melodramatic power.

7. Notes

1. I do not mean to suggest that only female audience members are capable of melodramatic identification, or that Supernatural has only female fans. However, I find it more expedient to refer to the fan in question at this point as "she," since the female presence among Supernatural fandom has been noted repeatedly, and also because melodramatic identification is a theory that was posed originally to explain female investment in soap opera. I do believe that men are equally capable of such an investment, but that cultural learning tends to discourage them from the more emotion-oriented fan outlets. This could explain why male fans tend to engage in a different range of fan behaviors and practices. See this dialogue (mirrored from Henry Jenkins's blog) for an in-depth academic discussion of gender and fandom: http://community.livejournal.com/fandebate.

2. I would argue that all fan fiction is founded in melodrama, in fact, but this must be an argument that waits for some other paper. I will observe, though, that one of the more popular subgenres of fan fiction—hurt/comfort—is equally present in gen, het, and slash. I believe that this demonstrates, at the very least, that all fan fiction ultimately exists as emotional fantasy. Even where there is a concomitant investment in plot, character, or the physical details of sex, there always remains an investment in emotion for emotion's sake, as the object of the fantasy in its own right.

3. In a recent article for Flow TV, Michael Kackman (2008) gently chastises some of his colleagues in television studies for their celebration of "quality TV" as somehow aesthetically removed from its melodramatic roots. Indeed, he notes even in such "quality" shows as The Wire and The Sopranos, melodrama is not only present but necessary.

4. Although fans understand that the show is very much an industrial product requiring the collaborative effort of many people, including hair stylists, craft services, writers, directors, producers, actors, and cinematographers, they still tend to refer to this process in aggregate either as "Show" or as "Kripke." I believe that they either see "Kripke" as the controlling mind, very much in an auteurist sense, or they simply find it a convenient reference for what they know is a more complicated system.

5. The viewers discover Becky in the midst of composing (and reading aloud) what is self-evidently Wincest, albeit a very badly written example: "And then Sam caressed Dean's clavicle. 'This is wrong,' said Dean. 'Then I don't wanna be right,' replied Sam in a husky voice."

6. According to Freud (1917), love is always based on a fantasy relation to a copy of our beloved—not the actual person or thing. In writing this, Freud's intention was not to expose love as a hoax, but to explain the true basis of love in self-love. The object-relation to a fantasy object is not pathological, but normal. He would not (and did not) deny that love could lead to great acts of sacrifice and generosity, even altruism. The self-servingness of love, the irrationality and fantastic basis of it—these are not condemnations but a groping for understanding of humanity in its various complexities.

7. As one online journalist puts it: "It's easy to make Dean a hard drinking, sarcastic womanizer, but [the writers] also manage to make him the mom of the show" (Faraci 2009).

8. Although there are some scholars who consider slash to be any fan fiction about a same-sex relationship, regardless of gender, my preference is to limit the definition to stories about two male characters. I would distinguish stories about two female characters from slash with the term "femslash."

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