Symposium

A box of mirrors, a unicorn, and a pony

Jules Wilkinson

Melbourne, Australia

[0.1] Keywords—Convergence; Fandom; Fan fiction; Supernatural; Television

Wilkinson, Jules. 2010. A box of mirrors, a unicorn, and a pony. Transformative Works and Cultures, no. 4. http://dx.doi.org/10.3983/twc.2010.0159.

doi:10.3983/twc.2010.0159

[0.2] Fan: If you could ask Castiel one question, what would it be?

Misha Collins: What question would I ask the character I play? That's like being in a box of mirrors. With a unicorn. And a pony.

1. Introduction

[1.1] It all used to be so simple. There were fans and there were The Powers That Be (TPTB), the shows' creators. TPTB created stories that we, the fans, adored, consumed, criticized, and chopped into bits and made into shiny new things for our amusement. There was a version of the fourth wall—more a one-way mirror, really—between the source text and fandom, with both sides generally happy to keep it that way. But with Supernatural that fannish fourth wall has been demolished, and we are trapped inside a box of mirrors with the show's writers and the unicorn and pony of our creative endeavors.

[1.2] The Organization for Transformative Works defines "transformative works" as "creative works about characters or settings created by fans of the original work, rather than by the original creators" (OTW n.d.). This delineation between fans and original creators, never rigid to start with, is blurring. What happens when the creators of original work take the fans and their creative works and incorporate them into source material that the fans in turn will further transform?

2. I can see you

[2.1] Even before the Internet, the transformative works of fandom were no secret to TPTB—not since the first Star Trek fan turned up at a convention wearing some rubber ears and clutching a mimeoed fanzine. However the growth of the Internet, and particularly of Web 2.0 (note 1), has made fan works much more accessible.

[2.2] Fandom and Web 2.0 are a match made in cyberspace—the Web helps us communicate, collaborate, and create faster than we ever have before, and in prettier colors. Henry Jenkins called Web 2.0 "fandom without the stigma" (2007), because it embodies many of the activities inherent in fandom: getting together, having fun, and making stuff. The playground of Web 2.0 has brought fandom and TPTB closer together as our creative works have become much more visible and accessible on sites such as LiveJournal and YouTube and through the social bookmarking site Delicious. Since the mid-1990s, any show runner looking at media forums or blogs to gauge audience reaction has also come across links to fan works. TV writers and directors now actively engage with fans through message boards and forums, and more recently through Twitter (note 2).

3. The one-way mirror

[3.1] Fans have always felt some anxiety around the idea of fannish works being noticed by the original creators. On the one hand, some fans see the works as tributes to the source material, and many creators feel the same way. The gift of a fan creation to an actor or show runner is an indication of how much the source material is valued and appreciated, and also often embodies a wish for approval. Yet some fans have wished to keep these works hidden, for both legal and cultural reasons.

[3.2] Fans' fear of litigation has diminished in recent years, and both sides have been operating under a "don't ask, don't tell" policy, although this has recently begun to break down (note 3). Some of this change has been driven not by any cultural shift, but by the profit motive—the realization by TPTB (particularly in TV) that the production of fan works is a sign of an engaged viewer, one who will consume your product (and that of your advertisers).

[3.3] Many fans still hold the opinion that we do what we do for our enjoyment and it is not something to be shared outside of fandom, and particularly not with TPTB. Many people who are active in fandom do not share their activities with friends or family because of the negative stereotypes that persist about fandom (Chaney 2008).

[3.4] A natural law that holds true across all fandoms states, "Two male characters in possession of some personality must be slashed." Since Supernatural has only two regular characters, who happen to be brothers, this means that the slash fan fiction for the show is 85 percent Wincest (note 4). (The other main slash pairing is of Dean with Castiel, who was introduced in season 4.) Few who write porn in fandom would share that fact with those outside the community; the double transgression of writing about not only sex but gay incest in particular is reason enough for fans to want to keep their creative endeavors in the closet.

[3.5] The first professional convention held for Supernatural was called Asylum; it was run by Rogue Events in Coventry, England, in May 2007. During a question and answer session, Jensen Ackles was asked whether he knew about fan fiction:

[3.6] Some of those fan fictions have some very, very crazy ideas. And sometimes very…disturbing ideas. One of my favorites is, uh, Wincest…I only hope that my grandmother never reads those. Jared and I had a good laugh about that one. It was only brought to our attention because Kim Manners posted it. (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=FdYh2wJh7vE)

[3.7] The topic of fan fiction has been raised by fans at nearly every Supernatural convention that has been held. When asked about what he thought of Wincest at the EyeCon convention in Florida in April 2008, Jared Padalecki managed to validate transformative works while avoiding the tricky incest issue:

[3.8] With fan fiction and RPGs, it's like an aspect of what I was talking about earlier, that everyone's taking a part in Supernatural and they're not just watching it…and they're really passionate about the show, and especially the fans of Supernatural. It's a great learning tool, and exploring tool, to explore this world. So I'm supportive. (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ZxkAG3N5lM0)

[3.9] Jim Beaver was the first actor to tease fans with his knowledge of fan culture when he wore a T-shirt proclaiming "I read John/Bobby" to the EyeCon Convention in April 2008.

4. Mirrors on the ceiling

[4.1] In April 2009 a spotlight was shone on Supernatural fan fiction. In anticipation of the last four episodes of the season, Entertainment Weekly did a feature on Supernatural in its print edition and a few days later reproduced one of the articles on its Web site. It began by outlining the "intense universe of fandom" surrounding the show and included this reference to Wincest:

[4.2] There's also a unique and very creepy subset of romantic fan fiction dedicated to siblings Sam (Jared Padalecki) and Dean (Jensen Ackles) called "Wincest"—the less said about it the better. (Wheat 2009)

[4.3] The reason the print article had mentioned fan fiction became obvious when 4.18 "The Monster at the End of This Book" aired that evening. In this very meta episode, Sam and Dean discover a series of books about their lives called "Supernatural," written by Chuck Shurley under the pseudonym Carver Edlund. The episode uses this metafictional device to comment on the process of writing in general, and on the TV show and its writers in particular. Chuck—who calls himself, in his role as writer, a "cruel and capricious god"—stands in for show creator Eric Kripke (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=wU8yuUuXSLo).

[4.4] The episode also introduces Sam and Dean to fandom and fandom into the canon of the show, when the brothers find an online fan community:

[4.5] Dean: Check it out. There's actually fans. There's not many of them, but still. Did you read this?

Sam: Yeah.

Dean: Although for fans, they sure do complain a lot. Listen to this—Simpatico (note 5) says, "The demon story line is trite, clichéd, and overall craptastic." Yeah, well, screw you, Simpatico. We lived it. There's Sam girls and Dean girls and…What's a slash fan?

Sam: As in "Sam slash Dean," together.

Dean: Like together, together? They do know we're brothers, right?

Sam: Doesn't seem to matter.

Dean: Well, that's just sick!

[4.6] Are you starting to get that whole box of mirrors vibe?

[4.7] The episode was one of the highest rated in season 4 (Super-wiki, "Ratings," http://www.supernaturalwiki.com/index.php?title=Ratings&oldid=25848), and the mentions of fandom in the show and the media attracted much discussion among fans. Some were delighted to be part of the canon of the show, and appreciated being included in the meta commentary alongside the show's own writers. Other fans were uncomfortable about the (literal) airing of what they saw as "fandom business." Some fans felt loved, others felt mocked. This variety of reaction is not surprising. Subcultures like fandom form because a group of people are engaged in customs and behaviors which are considered unacceptable in wider society. Within the subculture these activities become normalized, but when the mainstream discovers them its invariable condemnation reminds people of their outsider status. Some people feel shame when their behavior is pointed out as deviant, but for others being an outsider can be a thrill.

[4.8] These different reactions were incorporated into the text when the character of fangirl Becky Rosen was introduced in 5.01 "Sympathy for the Devil," written by Eric Kripke. Becky's screen name is samlicker81, and she is the Webmistress of a site called morethanbrothers.net. Becky is contacted by TPTB—Chuck Shurley, prophet and author—and asked to contact Sam and Dean.

[4.9] Becky: Yes, I'm a fan, but I really don't appreciate being mocked. I know that Supernatural is just a book, okay? I know the difference between fantasy and reality.

Chuck: Becky, it's all real.

Becky: I knew it!

[4.10] And this is where the unicorn gets put in the box with the mirrors, as the scene begins with Becky reading from a piece of fan fiction she is writing:

[4.11] Sam shivered as he leaned against the splintered wooden wall of the barn. His shoulder ached from his fight with the demon spawn Mar-Delok and his clothes were soaked from the cold rain which fell outside. He let the knife fall into the dust and turned to his brother.

[4.12] Dean was shaken up. His chest was heaving with exertion and his shredded shirt was barely clinging to his muscular frame. Sam could see he was hurt.

[4.13] "Hey. Are you OK?" Sam stepped closer and put his arms around Dean. "We're going to get out of this, they can't keep us here long."

[4.14] The brothers huddled together in the dark as the sound of the rain drumming on the roof eased their fears of pursuit. Despite the cold outside and the demons who, even now, must be approaching, the warmth of their embrace comforted them.

[4.15] And then Sam caressed Dean's clavicle.

[4.16] "This is wrong," said Dean.

[4.17] "Then I don't want to be right," replied Sam, in a husky voice.

[4.18] It's a fine example of the Wincest genre, combining an irrelevant demon with a classic hurt/comfort narrative and the eroticization of a specific body part, suggesting that Kripke is familiar with the genre and its tropes. Thus the creator of the show that inspired Wincest writes Wincest. Of course, his "fan fiction" is unfinished. However on September 13, 2009, only three days after the episode's airing, a LiveJournal user called Samlicker81 posted a completed version of Becky's story—now called "Burning Desires"—to a Wincest fanfic community on LiveJournal. Thus the pony is shoved in the box of mirrors alongside the unicorn.

[4.19] "Sympathy for the Devil" is not the first time Kripke has written fanfic. In November 2008, the last issue of the second series of Supernatural comics—"Rising Son"—was published. It included a six-page stand-alone story called "The Beast with Two Backs." The story starred the Ghostfacers team from episode 3.13, and the beast in question was a chimera of Jared Padalecki and Jensen Ackles, a beautiful two-headed creature that killed fangirls because it could not bear to let anyone prettier than it live. Kripke, it seems, ships his stars—or at least is well aware that we do.

[4.20] A subsequent episode, 5.09 "The Real Ghostbusters," is set at a Supernatural convention, and the episode again pokes fun at the show's writers, actors, and fans, with many details that suggest TPTB have closely observed fandom's activities. Kripke, who has described himself as a fanboy (Kripke 2008), also uses the episode to give a strong positive message about being a fan. The episode subverts the clichéd trope of the socially awkward, emotionally immature fan by making the Supernatural fans Demian and Barnes gay lovers who save the day and provide Dean with an emotional insight. Kripke's most definitive statement, however, is made through the relationship between Becky and Chuck: the creator falls in love with the fangirl. Becky, initially more enamored with his creations (Sam, in particular), eventually transfers her affections to him.

5. Misha and his minions

[5.1] Actor Misha Collins, who plays the angel Castiel, has also been actively involved in this reconfiguring of fannish relationships, kicking over whatever was left of the fourth wall with gusto. At the All Hell Breaks Loose convention held in Sydney in April 2009, as Jensen and Jared's last session came to a close, there was one final question from the audience—"How does it feel playing brothers when you're lovers in real life?" There was an audible shocked gasp from the audience. The question, it turned out, came from Misha.

[5.2] A month previously, at the 2009 Salute to Supernatural con in L.A, Misha Collins had said he was fascinated with fandom as a subculture, and would like to read some slash if he could do so "without getting molested." At the Asylum convention in May 2009, Misha said that he'd read some slash and admitted that doing so had been uncomfortable—it was a bit like "finding your parents' pornography." The following day he was at pains to emphasize that he wasn't criticizing fan fiction. "I've done some pretty pervy things myself," he added. At subsequent conventions he continued to talk about reading fan fiction, even suggesting that he comments on stories (for instance, at the Salute to Supernatural in Chicago in 2009: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=M2c1T-_8qJA).

[5.3] Misha is well aware of the discomfort that this break with traditional fan boundaries can elicit. In an interview in October 2009 he said,

[5.4] So there's these fan conventions…and I've mentioned it [slash fan fiction] in the Q & A things and you can sense the whole audience tensing up. They don't want you talking about this weird, slash fiction, weird pervy stuff they get up to. So I do like to bring it up for that reason. (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=TGl-hkjcZRU)

[5.5] Misha has also engaged in an original way with fandom through his Twitter. More than any other aspect of Web 2.0, Twitter has been responsible for redefining the relationships between fans and celebrities, as the application allows a new immediacy and intimacy in interactions. Misha has developed a Twitter "persona" who is a rather surreal megalomaniac and whose followers are known as minions. In this space Misha is creating crack fiction with himself as a Mary Sue, or self-insertion into the story. Fans are creating art, stories, and videos about Misha and his minions (Super-wiki, "Misha's Minions," http://www.supernaturalwiki.com/index.php?title=Misha%27s_Minions&oldid=25484). He has paired himself in his tweets with people as different as Kim Jong Il and Michelle Obama, and described running into Queen Elizabeth in the gay fetish section of an adult bookstore.

6. What happens when you cross a pony and a unicorn?

[6.1] The integration of fandom and the stories we make into the text of Supernatural fits perfectly within the show's narrative mission. At its heart Supernatural is concerned with exploring the stories people construct and tell about themselves and their relationships, in particular the stories that form, shape, and sometimes destroy families. It has explored modern morality tales (in the form of urban legends) and ancient ones (from folklore), and it is retelling the epic stories of society—the ones we call religion. It has examined the storytelling of pop culture through episodes satirizing movies (2.18 "Hollywood Babylon"), TV (5.08 "Changing Channels"), and celebrity culture (5.05 "Fallen Idols").

[6.2] Now that we are trapped in this box of mirrors with TPTB and our respective creations, we must ask how this new situation will transform us. Our creative endeavors have already changed the source text. TPTB are creating transformative works about themselves. As the source text incorporates and comments on both itself and its fandom, it remains to be seen how knowing we are being watched, seeing what we do reflected back to us, will change how we play at being fans.

7. Notes

1. On Web 2.0, see "Web Squared: Web 2.0 Five Years On," an essay, white paper, and Webcast by Tim O'Reilly and John Battelle, at http://www.web2summit.com/web2009/public/schedule/detail/10194.

2. Allyson Beatrice (2007) documents her experience of Buffy fandom, particularly her interactions with the writers and show runners. Many actors, writers, and show runners are on Twitter. For example, the writers' room of the comedy Psych can be found at http://twitter.com/Psych_USA.

3. Some creators of original texts have continued to vigilantly oppose transformative works. Anne Rice is one example, and Warner Bros. recently forced the cancellation of a Harry Potter dinner party (http://www.abc.net.au/news/stories/2009/10/28/2726040.htm).

4. This analysis is based on around 33,000 stories written in the Supernatural fandom that have been listed on the Supernatural newsletter on LiveJournal (http://community.livejournal.com/spnnewsletter) and tagged on delicious (http://delicious.com/supernatural_fic) as of January 31, 2009. For a further exploration of Wincest, see Tosenberger (2008).

5. Simpatico is the online name of a poster at the Television Without Pity Supernatural forums: http://www.televisionwithoutpity.com/show/supernatural/the_monster_at_the_end_of_this_1.php?page=5.

8. Works cited

Beatrice, Allyson. 2007. Will the vampire people please leave the lobby? Naperville, IL: Sourcebooks.

Chaney, Keidra. 2008. Fans vs. freaks: Media coverage of fandom. The Learned Fangirl, August 24. http://thelearnedfangirl.com/2008/08/24/fans-vs-freaks-media-coverage-of-fandom (accessed January 22, 2010).

Jenkins, Henry. 2007. When fan boys and fan girls meet… Confessions of an aca-fan, May 17. http://henryjenkins.org/2007/05/when_fan_boys_and_fan_girls_me.html (accessed January 22, 2010).

Kripke, Eric. 2008. Supernatural creator Eric Kripke answers fan questions: Part 2. Transcript of questions-and-answer period at Salute to Supernatural, Los Angeles, March 29–30. Eclipse Magazine, April 24. http://eclipsemagazine.com/hollywood-insider/5633/ (accessed January 22, 2010).

OTW [Organization for Transformative Works]. N.d. Glossary. http://transformativeworks.org/glossary (accessed January 22, 2010).

Tosenberger, Catherine. 2008. "The epic love story of Sam and Dean": Supernatural, queer readings, and the romance of incestuous fan fiction. Transformative Works and Cultures, no. 1. http://dx.doi.org/10.3983/twc.2008.0030 (accessed January 22, 2010).

Wheat, Alynda. 2009. Supernatural: Sexy. Scary. Over? Entertainment Weekly, April 8. http://www.ew.com/ew/article/0,,20270843,00.html (accessed January 22, 2010).



Transformative Works and Cultures (TWC), ISSN 1941-2258, is an online-only Gold Open Access publication of the nonprofit Organization for Transformative Works copyrighted under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial 3.0 Unported License. Contact the Editor with questions.