Symposium

Supernatural bodies: Writing subjugation and resistance onto Sam and Dean Winchester

Suzette Chan

Edmonton, Alberta, Canada

[0.1] Keywords—Fan fiction; Television

Chan, Suzette. 2010. Supernatural bodies: Writing subjugation and resistance onto Sam and Dean Winchester. Transformative Works and Cultures, no. 4. http://dx.doi.org/10.3983/twc.2010.0179.

doi:10.3983/twc.2010.0179

1. Introduction

[1.1] Collectively, the Winchester brothers on Supernatural (2005–) have been tied up, caged, beaten, cut, stabbed, shot, possessed by a demon, hit by a truck, swarmed by insects, gripped by yellow fever, and nonfatally killed multiple times via the Trickster and a Babylonian wishing coin. That's just all in a day's work for the young demon hunters. Cuts, bruises, and breaks are usually healed and forgotten by the next episode, while magical deaths are soon reversed.

[1.2] From living under their father's command, to being infected with demon blood or resurrected by angels, it has become clear that neither Sam nor Dean has an exclusive claim on his own body—or his fate. When they do evade the clutches of the supernatural, the brothers physically hold on to each other, asserting their bodily reality and their genetic, affectional, and human brotherhood—in defiance of the divine forces that bedevil them. In this paper, I will discuss how Sam and Dean's bodies are constructed by the commercial demands of the broadcast television medium, the diagetic events within the show, and fan readings.

[1.3] Supernatural was commissioned by the WB, now the CW, a network that targets teens and young adults, emphasizing youth and beauty in its casts. Supernatural is not exempt from the CW's rules, even though the show is about two grifting near-serial killers living out of an old car, fighting monsters every week. Jared Padalecki, who plays Sam, did not want to appear shirtless in the movie Friday the 13th because "I'm already on the CW, which is kind of like the pretty boy network" (http://www.joblo.com/index.php?id=23727). He has also directly addressed the commercially driven demand for magic healing. When Padalecki broke his wrist in real life during season 2, he was happy that the cast he wore was written into the show "because it sort of frustrates me when there's a show and you're cut up and you're bruised and your arm's in a sling, and then the next day you're sparkly clean. We used to joke about it and call it WB ointment" (Knight 2008, 129).

[1.4] The show resolves the tension between marketability and storytelling by making scars disappear and wounds invisible. The patriarchal forces on the show "mark" Sam and Dean for ugly futures, but without leaving unsightly physical traces. The few visible marks they do have are acceptable, even aesthetically pleasing in the case of the antipossession tattoos, for mainstream prime time viewing. Deeper scars remain invisible. Marked by a blood infection, Sam's scars are internal and internalized, so there is no surface disruption of his (and Padalecki's) fresh, collegiate looks. But while casting former soap opera star Jensen Ackles as Dean fulfills television expectations of beauty, it goes against the text of the elder Winchester brother being a lifelong warrior and a bit of a redneck. The many psychological scars and the angel handprint that Dean retains indicate who owns him, and how.

[1.5] Fan fiction writers bring these metaphorical and physical scars closer together. Most fan constructions of Sam and Dean are just as handsome as the characters on the show and just as resilient to the effects of hard living, heavy drinking, and bad eating. But many fan writers give Sam and Dean bodies of consequence, bodies that bear the scars of the past and that also exercise proactive agency, thus creating opportunities for Sam and Dean to mark each other in defiance of the industrial and patriarchal forces acting upon them.

2. Dean as Foucauldian hero

[2.1] Dean's body is a field of play that French philosopher Michel Foucault would recognize: "the body is also directly involved in a political field; power relations have an immediate hold upon it; they invest in it, mark it, train it, torture it, force it to carry out tasks, to perform ceremonies, to emit signs" (Foucault 1977, 25).

[2.2] John is the first authority figure to leave his mark on Dean. Despite a lifetime of defending John against Sam's criticisms, Dean harbors the thought that his father was "an obsessive bastard" who molded Dean into "a good soldier, an attack dog" who mindlessly follows commands (3.10 "Dream a Little Dream of Me"). As a consequence, Dean tends to gravitate toward domineering father figures. While this helps him on the hunt, especially when he goes undercover as a figure of petty authority (for example, as a prison card shark in 2.19 "Folsom Prison Blues" and a gym teacher in 4.13 "After School Special"), it also leaves Dean open to attack from those with real power, the demons and the angels.

[2.3] Alastair is the second patriarchal figure to scar Dean. Because Dean's body does not bear any physical scars from his time in hell, the show characterizes his torture as metaphysical: hell's victory over Dean is over his psyche, not his body. "They sliced and carved and tore at me…until there was nothing left. And then, suddenly, I would be whole again. Like magic. Just so they could start in all over" (4.10 "Heaven and Hell"). What endures is the psychological torture to which Dean subjects himself over giving in to Alastair's temptation: "I enjoyed it, Sam. They took me off the rack, and I tortured souls, and I liked it…No matter how many people I save, I can't change that. I can't fill this hole. Not ever" (4.11 "Family Remains").

[2.4] According to Dean, the angels "rehymenated" (4.05 "Monster Movie") him when they raised him from hell. But they leave Castiel's handprint—a cattle brand indicating that the ownership of Dean's body has passed from John (his biological father) and Alastair (his father-figure in hell) to the agents of God, the Father-Creator whose existence Dean has disbelieved. The fallen angel Anna eroticizes this mark of submission to patriarchal forces when she places her hand on it as she and Dean undress in 4.10 "Heaven and Hell." At that moment, Anna and Dean bond as former child soldiers in their fathers' wars.

[2.5] After Alastair reveals that Dean broke the first seal, Dean falls into a crippling depression, which is ironically an act of passive resistance to the angels, as if Dean intuitively understands that "the body becomes a useful force only if it is both a productive body and a subjected body" (Foucault 1977, 26). As long as Dean does not actively help Sam kill Lilith, he delays the apocalypse. The "upper management" of heaven stages an intervention (4.17 "It's a Terrible Life") that succeeds until Dean looks past the metaphorical curtain to see Zachariah operating the controls (4.22 "Lucifer Rising"). Again, Dean channels Foucault: "Power is tolerable only on condition that it mask a substantial part of itself. Its success is proportional to its ability to hide its own mechanisms" (Foucault 1978, 86). In the same vein, when Dean discovers that the archangel Michael cannot forcibly possess him, he realizes that his body is a political site and withholds consent, defying the angels in a display of negative force (5.01 "Sympathy for the Devil"). Metaphysical marks such as the prospect of becoming Michael's vessel, the coercion by the demons, and his father's psychological imprint remind Dean that his body has never been his own. During the apocalypse, Dean has influence over his own fate, but only as long as the angels need his body.

3. Sam's Gothic body

[3.1] As constructed on the show, Sam's body is a repository of Gothic tropes: "the legacies of the past and its burdens on the present; the radically provisional or divided nature of the self; the construction of peoples or individuals as monstrous or 'other'; the preoccupation with bodies that are modified, grotesque or diseased" (Spooner 2006, 8).

[3.2] In Sam's story, as in the Gothic vampire novel, these themes are carried forth through the device of blood infection. The burden of the past becomes evident as Sam's disease spreads along familial lines to doom four generations of past and possible Winchesters (demons claim the lives of Sam's grandparents, father, mother, brother, and fiancée, the potential mother of the next generation of Winchesters), but there are no outward signs of it. It is comparable to a stigmatized disease that is physical yet not visible, and must be hidden. Sam's greatest fear is rejection by his brother for being "different" and "a monster" (4.21 "When the Levee Breaks"). Conscious of his othering, Sam tries to turn this infection into a virtue. In 4.04 "Metamorphosis," he says: "I've got demon blood in me, Dean. This disease pumping through my veins, and I can't ever rip it out or scrub it clean. I'm a whole new level of freak. And I'm just trying to take this—this curse—and make something good out of it. Because I have to."

[3.3] Sam proactively modifies his body to match the new mission with which he chooses to define himself. Resolving to avenge Dean's death and damnation by killing Lilith, Sam accepts Ruby's offer to train him. His growing power is visually represented by Sam's imposing, demon-smiting physique. Serendipitously, these scenes were filmed after actor Padalecki spent the summer building up muscle to match the monster he faced in Friday the 13th (note 1). This bit of physical metastorytelling expresses Sam's forceful will and forges Sam's body into an exceptionally strong vessel, both of which are required to contain Lucifer.

[3.4] After Lucifer rises, Sam believes that "whoever put me on that plane cleaned me right up" (5.01 "Sympathy for the Devil"). But in Sam's mind, the stain in his blood has been replaced by a blot on his conscience. While his demonic infection may have been cleared up by supernatural intervention, Sam's human deeds cannot be undone. Previously ashamed about what he was, Sam is now mortified about what he has done: distrusted Dean, consorted with a demon, and became addicted to demon blood—essentially becoming a vampire. In 5.02 "Good God, Y'All," Sam decides to step back from the hunt: "The problem's not the demon blood, not really. I mean, what I did, I can't blame the blood, or Ruby, or anything. The problem's me, how far I'll go. There's something in me that scares the hell out of me, Dean."

[3.5] This is a different Sam than the one who appeared in the first episode of the series. Back then, he was constructing an identity as a pillar of normalcy in the rationalist profession of law. But college boy Sam—not the bad-attitude, leather-clad Dean—is the rebellious Winchester. Like a modern day Lucy Westenra, once infected, Sam goes on to break the skin of convention, abandoning his family and the hunt, allying with a demon, and giving himself over to the power of blood. The tragedy for Sam is that everything he tried to do to save Dean, to make the world safe, and all the alterations he made to his character and his body, were ironically driven by the demons' agenda, carried out by Sam's body via blood infection.

4. Written on the body

[4.1] The demons and angels may metaphorically ride roughshod over the Winchester brothers on television, but in fan fiction, Sam and Dean are given bodies that bear the calluses and scars that testify to their individual histories, victimization, and resistance. The show depicts Sam and Dean as being absolutely devoted to each other and implies their need to affirm each other as physically real and human, especially after they survive metaphysical trauma (such as Sam's release from the time loop in 3.11 "Mystery Spot" and Dean's return from hell in 4.01 "Lazarus Rising"). As Catherine Tosenberger (2008, 2.1) notes, the brothers' diagetically intense closeness easily leads slash-minded fans to write Sam and Dean as lovers, calling up the Romantic and Gothic literary trope of incest as the ultimate expression of physical oneness: "united not simply in body and soul, but in blood."

[4.2] Tosenberger continues: "The intense, exclusive, excessive nature of their love is not only central to the plot, but also named by the creators, actors, critics, and fans as the show's primary strength. While this love is not necessarily romantic, our culture codes romantic love as similarly excessive, so the show makes it very easy to read Sam and Dean's excessive love as romantic" (2.2).

[4.3] In Wincest stories, it is common for Dean's scars to be seen through the eyes of Sam, who has a new regard for his brother after spending years away in the normal world. In arby_m's "Hell" (2005), posted just weeks after the show debuted, Sam conflates erotic desire with a melancholic awe for the sacrifices Dean has made: "All muscles and scars; Dean was (really) built, but his body also bore witness to years of the hunt." Proprietary sexual marking (bites, hickeys, scratches) has appeared since the earliest published Wincest stories. In joyfulgirl41's "Can't Just Walk Away" (2005), Dean apologizes for leaving a "crescent-shaped bruise" on Sam's shoulder. Sam replies: "I kind of like it."

[4.4] In the same vein, some fan fic writers have picked up on an increasingly important trope on Supernatural, the equation of possession by demons and angels with sex and sexual assault (note 2). Often creating more naturalistic universes than is possible on network television or within the parameters of Supernatural's heightened genre reality, fan fiction writers convert the show's metaphorical, agency-denying rapes into concrete plot points, especially in sexual fiction that explores the power relations that have resulted in the characters' psychological scars. The show's depiction of patriarchal forces' use of Dean's body—to the extent of eradicating his identity—is explored in fic that casts Dean as a victim of rape at the hands of monsters, demons, angels, and even his own father and brother. Some of that same fic ascribes a need or tendency toward sexual domination to Sam, whose desire and behavior is either rooted in or blamed on the demon blood in his system.

[4.5] These tropes are effectively employed in the hurt/comfort epic "The Bright Lights of Disturbia" by leonidaslion (2009a). In this fic, the Yellow-Eyed Demon reiterates his claim on Sam by raping Dean on multiple occasions, acting out Sam's long-harbored sexual feelings for his brother. The attacks leave an external scar on Dean's temple, internal tearing after a near-fatal rape, and psychological trauma. In an incident that reimagines the confrontation in 1.22 "The Devil's Trap," the Yellow-Eyed Demon rapes Dean while possessing John's body, forcing Sam to watch the literal and obscene manifestation of Sam's main issue with his father, John's domination of Dean: "It [the demon] broke Dean with deliberate, calculating malice—fashioned him into someone who would be open to a relationship with his brother because he didn't trust anyone else enough to give it a go. It raped Dean as some kind of sick, twisted gift for Sam" (2009b). But Sam goes on to use markings to reposition himself vis-à-vis his father figures: John, his biological father; Azazel, the Yellow-Eyed Demon who, in vampire terms, sired Sam; and Dean, his older brother and main caregiver. When John orders the boys to get antipossession tattoos, Sam drafts them himself, stepping up as a hunter, literally by his own design. Then, without John's knowledge, despite the demon's physical and sexual claims, and counter to normative relations between siblings, Sam designs a second tattoo, a marriage rune. At the tattoo parlor, Sam pitches the idea to Dean: "I want to mark you…This'll be different. Just for us" (2009c).

[4.6] Sam's turnabout marks a moment of identity reclamation, shared exclusively between the brothers, away from patriarchal eyes. Significantly, there is one other person in the room in this scene, an original female character named Trish, who tattoos both symbols of protection onto the boys. Trish can be read as an avatar for female fan fiction writers who write resistance onto Sam and Dean as a corollary to diagetic and productorial uses of their bodies—explicitly outlining the naturalistic implications of the show's unrelenting imperilment of attractive young men caught up in a sexualized play of power relations (note 3).

5. Conclusion

[5.1] On Supernatural, Sam and Dean's destinies are defined by the interests that claim their bodies. But the physical marks remain invisible, fulfilling broadcast television demands for unmarred beauty, blank slates on which both producers and fans can write stories. Fan fiction writers play with ideas and themes that can be developed to only a limited extent on the show due to time, budget, broadcast, or marketing constraints. In Supernatural fan fiction, writers explore Sam and Dean's perpetual subjugation by picking up on key textual cues about the characters' histories and constructing bodies that are physical repositories of external forces' agendas, as well as sites of resistance.

[5.2] However, on the show, the near-complete absence of scars on the Winchester brothers displaces their battles from the physical to the metaphysical plane. The emotional scars of their actions and of being acted upon, and the proprietary marks left in Sam's blood and on Dean's shoulder, have groomed the close-knit Winchester brothers to receive the warring archangel brothers Lucifer and Michael. As characters whose actions—self-preservation in Dean's case and misguided heroism in Sam's—led to the apocalypse, what is frightening about the Winchester brothers' twinned fate is not only the loss of physical control of their bodies: it is also the possibility that they will be complicit in their own corruption. "It's not one of the key dramatic urges for the viewers to feel like he's going to die or not. Our discussion is living with angst, living with fear, living with all the things that require catharsis," says Supernatural producer Ben Edlund (http://www.acedmagazine.com/component/content/article/95-celebrity-event/3527-supernatural-looks-to-the-wal-mart-apocalypse). "Supernatural is a non-stop nightmare. Those men and their dreams are thwarted every week."

6. Acknowledgments

[6.1] Thanks to Katherine Keller, Wolfen Moondaughter, and Justin Jordan for commenting on earlier drafts. I am greatly indebted to my editor, Suzanne Scott; my enabler, Catherine Tosenberger; and my mentor, the late Gilbert Bouchard.

7. Notes

1. In 2009, Men's Fitness magazine named Jared Padalecki one of the 25 fittest men in the world. "Padalecki also made sure he was at peak fitness for the recent Friday the 13th. 'There's nothing worse than watching some 120-pound dude killing the bad guy,' he says" (http://www.mensfitness.com/fitness/469?page=3).

2. As the possessions become increasingly tied to the brothers' fates, Dean's jokes about them become grimmer. When Meg possesses Sam, Dean laughs about the "naughty" connotations of Sam having "full-on had a girl inside [him] for like a week" (2.12 "Born Under a Bad Sign"); when the angels introduce a shaky concept of consent, Dean likens the situation to prison rape: "I got an archangel waiting for me to drop the soap" (5.08 "The Curious Case of Dean Winchester"). In between, Sam confronts Ruby directly on the issue—"Whose body are you riding?" (4.09 "I Know What You Did Last Summer")—forcing her to switch to a vacated body before he allows her to engage him further.

3. Sam and Dean have many traits of the Final Girl in slasher horror movies. While Final Girls have gender neutral or masculinized names (Stretch in the 1974 Texas Chain Saw Massacre and Erin, a homonym of Aaron, in the 2003 remake), "Sam" is as popular a nickname for Samantha as it is for Samuel and Dean is named after his maternal grandmother, Deanna; just as Final Girls are tomboyish, Sam and Dean's feminized features (Sam's long hair; Dean's lush eyelashes and lips) are routinely fetishized by fan fiction writers; and although Sam and Dean are not as virginal or sexually unavailable as Final Girls, they are emotionally unavailable to women and sex is on their timetable. In Men, Women, and Chain Saws, Carol J. Clover (1992) argues that the Final Girl is the sexually ambiguous victim-hero through which male viewers can identify: female enough to be inscribed with fear and male enough to triumph over figures of troubled or troubling masculinity (sister-obsessed Michael Meyers in Halloween, mother-identified Jason Voorhees in Friday the 13th). As Supernatural's Final Boys, Sam and Dean could be read as the subject-objects of the female gaze as it peers into a world of troubled or troubling femininity as played out in Mary's bad mother deal with the devil, Meg and Ruby's sexual aggression, and the boys' feminized victimization at the hands of an endless parade of male and female villains who tie them down; shoot, stab, or poke them with phallic objects like guns, knives, and fingers; or attempt to seduce them (the siren Nick and Lucifer, both of whom appear in shifting gender identities). Ironically, in 2009 remakes of classic slasher films, Padalecki and Ackles were cast in lead roles positioned as Final Boys. In Friday the 13th, Clay (Padalecki) is the Final Boy alongside Whitney, his Final Girl sister; in My Bloody Valentine, Tom (Ackles) closes the Final Girl-Killer loop by being set up as the hero-victim, but turning out to be the monster.

8. Works cited

arby_m. 2005. Hell. Fan fiction. http://arby-m.livejournal.com/7676.html (accessed January 31, 2010).

Clover, Carol J. 1992. Men, women, and chain saws: Gender in the modern horror film. Princeton, NJ: Princeton Univ. Press.

Foucault, Michel. 1977 [1995]. Discipline and punish: The birth of the prison. New York: Vintage.

Foucault, Michel. 1978 [1990]. The history of sexuality: An introduction, volume 1. New York: Vintage.

joyfulgirl41. 2005. Can't just walk away. Fan fiction. http://joyfulgirl41.livejournal.com/261178.html (accessed January 31, 2010).

Knight, Nicholas. 2008. Supernatural: The official companion, season 2. London: Titan.

leonidaslion. 2009a. The bright lights of disturbia. http://archiveofourown.org/works/181007 (originally posted at http://community.livejournal.com/leonidasden/47893.html, accessed January 31, 2010).

leonidaslion. 2009b. The bright lights of disturbia, chapter 39. Fan fiction. http://archiveofourown.org/works/181007/chapters/266292 (originally posted at http://community.livejournal.com/leonidasden/60365.html, accessed January 31, 2010).

leonidaslion. 2009c. The bright lights of disturbia, chapter 34. Fan fiction. http://archiveofourown.org/works/181007/chapters/266284 (originally posted at http://community.livejournal.com/leonidasden/55466.html, accessed January 31, 2010).

Spooner, Catherine. 2006. Contemporary Gothic. London: Reaktion.

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 26, 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.