Symposium

"What you don't know": Supernatural fan vids and millennial theology

Louisa Ellen Stein

San Diego State University, San Diego, California, United States

[0.1] Abstract—The Millennial discourse on religion, dogma, faith, and belief are evident both in Supernatural and its fan vids.

[0.2] Keywords—Audience; Authorship; Generation Me; Generation Y; Millennial Generation; Religion; Vidding

Stein, Louisa Ellen. 2010. "What you don't know": Supernatural fan vids and millennial theology. Transformative Works and Cultures, no. 4. http://dx.doi.org/10.3983/twc.2010.0192.

1. "God has left the building": The millennial generation and religion

[1.1] In a 2008 opinion piece in USA Today's online blog, Boston University professor Stephen Prothero poses the question, "Is religion losing the millennial generation?" In his encounters teaching students about religion, Prothero has found widespread discomfort with traditional religion, or at least with certain dimensions of traditional religion—dimensions that many would see as key to religious belief systems: dogma, divinity, and heaven. In his words:

[1.2] These young people aren't just allergic to dogma. They are allergic to divinity and even heaven. In the religions of their imagining, God is an afterthought at best. And the afterlife is, as one of my students told me, "on the back burner."

[1.3]…What will today's youth do with religions whose ethical injunctions arrive as strict commandments rather than friendly suggestions? Will they be able to abide religions that divide the human family into the saved and the damned, that present as absolute truth what they suspect is mere speculation?

[1.4] Prothero offers these observations in a cultural moment where questions of religion, ethics, and morality have come to the fore. As we face two continuing wars, deep economic hardship, and political debates about the role of government in community upkeep, cultural conversations about shared morals and the rise or decline of tradition are omnipresent. Thus perhaps it is not surprising that we would see these themes raised not only in the op-ed section of USA Today, but also in contemporary television programming and its reception.

[1.5] Indeed, the questions that Prothero raises likely sound strikingly familiar to viewers of the television program Supernatural, as these are the very questions faced by the program's characters and thus raised by Supernatural itself. The main characters of Supernatural, Sam and Dean Winchester, do what they can to put the afterlife on the back burner, resist strict commandments (even when they come from angels), and certainly resist the splitting of their family into the saved and the damned, despite season 4's revelation that Dean is a chosen warrior of heaven and Sam a chosen tool of Lucifer.

[1.6] Supernatural is one of many programs directed at the so-called millennial audience referenced by Prothero, a generation imagined in public discourse to embrace moral nuance in a seemingly contradictory union with ethical high ground. The "Millennial Generation" is a term made popular by cultural analysts William Strauss and Neil Howe (2000), among others. In recent years, the term millennial has become fairly widespread, supplanting the overlapping generational terminology of Generation Y and Generation Me (note 1). Those invoking the millennials as generational category cast a wide net, imagining a group with shared cultural values ranging from current 12-year-olds to 32-year-olds (birth years from the late 1970s to the late 1990s). So imagined, such a wide yet supposedly unified audience construct appears significant for media institutions, businesses, and political and religious organizations alike (note 2).

[1.7] In his 2008 USA Today piece, Prothero suggests that millennials have a religious vision that diverges from those of the past (or from those of today's religious institutions), one of tolerance, open-mindedness, and focus on the present:

[1.8] What my students long for is not salvation after they die but happiness…here and now…They want to discover themselves and to give voice to their discoveries. They want to experience joy because of their bodies, not despite them. And they don't want to be told what to do with those bodies, or with whom…Almost invariably, they mix fun with faith…But they do not mix faith with dogma. My students are careful—exceedingly careful—not to tell one another what to believe, or even what to do. Above all, they want to be tolerant and non-judgmental.

[1.9] Again, these themes of withholding judgment and of pleasure in the now (prompted by doubt in the afterlife) may seem familiar and resonant to Supernatural fans, although perhaps the match is less perfect. Supernatural does not open and close questions of faith, but rather poses them and holds all possible answers in tension. In so doing, the program has provoked prolonged and diverse discussions among its fans. The introduction of overt religious themes in season 4 of Supernatural (complete with angels as well as demons and references to a possibly absent god) has elicited fan explorations of questions of morality, faith, and God, as well as the role of religion.

[1.10] These issues emerge in conversations about religion in and beyond the show, but they have also surfaced somewhat more indirectly in fan textual creativity. The centrality of the character of the angel Castiel to a new portion of fandom who pair together Dean and Castiel as romantic partners has prompted fans to (at times playfully) question their own investment in fandom as fantasy, pastime, and literature/art form (note 3). Given the new, overtly religious themed underpinnings of season 4, fans found themselves asking questions such as: What does it mean to cast an angel in a romantic and/or erotic situation with another character—of the same sex, no less? What are the religious, spiritual, moral, and ethical implications of such investments and authorships?

[1.11] Shortly after the introduction of Castiel, fans struggled with the notion that the narratives and fantasies they were writing now included an angel of the Lord (rather than say, a teen wizard, a young Superman, or two demon-fighting brothers). At various Supernatural fan fiction communities, we saw disclaimers describing slash fiction featuring Castiel as blasphemy. However, as the season progressed, we saw more and more fiction that introduced biblical themes beyond those specific to Supernatural, incorporating other angels and even God as a character. Fan fiction and fan vids took up questions of God, spirituality, dogma, faith, and tradition as concepts to be interrogated and debated in relation to the show and at times beyond.

[1.12] The question of the role of religion in millennial identity—or the role of millennials in the future of religion—is a vexed one, full of contradictions. Where Strauss and Howe's Millennial Rising (2000) claim that millennials are increasingly turning toward/identifying with religion, Cooperative Institutional Research Program data suggest the opposite: that religious engagement among young adults has declined on all fronts. Their statistics show that the number of those who identify as belonging to a religion, praying, or focusing on spiritual concerns has either stayed the same or decreased (2007 College Board National Forum, http://www.artsci.com/documents/CollegeBoardNatForumMillenialPresOct24_07.pdf). Prothero's op-ed echoes this sense of decline or stasis, yet reintroduces the discourse offered in Millennial Rising suggesting that the millennials could potentially offer a new, revised approach to religious belief. But where Strauss and Howe argue that this new religiosity includes a return to tradition, Prothero's analysis suggests the opposite: that millennials first and foremost want to break from traditions, or at least from any traditions built on dogma.

[1.13] Thus, the conversations surrounding millennials and religion is curiously contradictory (also a tendency of discourse at large about the millennial generation): according to the many varying analyses, blog posts, books, and newspaper articles, millennials seek a return to tradition and organization, yet want less dogma and more acceptance of diversity. In Supernatural we see these conflicting factors writ large: the show invokes religion, hell, heaven, dogma, salvation, and resurrection; it recreates the narrative of Jesus via Dean's resurrection at the hand of Castiel. And yet at the same time, Supernatural shows us a heaven that looks like a crime movie, angels who appear to be morally bankrupt, and, in season 5, a potentially sympathetic Lucifer. After all, not coincidentally, season 5's premiere episode was entitled "Sympathy for the Devil."

2. "What you don't know won't hurt you": Supernatural vids as millennial reception discourse

[2.1] As I've suggested above, we can't necessarily define the millennials as a generation—generational constructs are cultural fantasies, not scientific or historical realities. However, we can recognize the items under debate in public discourse about the millennial generation and see how they surface in texts directed at and received by the age group under question. And indeed, while the notion of the millennial generation is a cultural construct, not necessarily a historical truth, it is a construct with enough weight itself to affect the texts directed at the generation (like Supernatural) and the larger cultural frameworks shaping reception discourse.

[2.2] As Supernatural (and in turn, its fandom) moves from more subtle engagement with moral ambiguity to direct exploration of moral and religious themes, the fan texts that spring from it—including both online discussions and literature/artwork—offer a rich window into the contested space of (so-called) millennial reception discourse, and more specifically, into contemporary discussions of religion, spirituality, and God, as well as the spiritual or mythic value of popular cultural texts like Supernatural.

[2.3] For the remainder of this piece, I will explore two fan videos that feature not only Castiel and the angel story lines, but also consider questions of God and faith. These two vids, "In Heaven" and "Fall of Man," exemplify the interrogations within fandom that intertwine questions of theology, dogma, spirituality, and morality—questions akin to those raised in the debates about the hearts and minds of millennials.

[2.4] Francesca Coppa (2008) describes the fan cultural/artistic practice of vidding as "collaborative critical thinking" often put to the purpose of providing "alternative perspectives" (5.1) relevant to female fans within a specific fan community. Julie Levin Russo describes vidding as a "subcultural practice" and "underground art form," suggesting that with the increasing visibility as remix culture becomes more mainstream, vids may be "dislodged…from their interpretative landscape" and as a result be subject to misrecognition (2009, 126). But vids do not exist only within the vacuum of fan communities. Just as Supernatural itself engages with the public conversations about politics, morality, and religion that have come to the fore in a particular cultural moment, so too do vids contribute to larger contemporary cultural conversations, in part by virtue of their speaking back to the source texts they take inspiration from.

[2.5] "In Heaven" and "Fall of Man" demonstrate how vidders draw on source textual material (at times, in combination with other cultural media texts, new and old) to offer through artistic authorship an additional thread in a larger cultural conversation—a conversation that is both particular to this moment and that extends over history. Both vids use the vidding tradition to not only offer interpretations of Supernatural but also to pose significant questions of religion, dogma, faith, and personal responsibility. Thus these two vids serve as compelling examples of artistic and cultural work of contemporary transformative/remix practices within and beyond vidding and fan communities.


Find more videos like this on BAM Vid Vault

Vid 1. Castiel666, "In Heaven" (2009).

[2.6] This vid, by a vidder with the appropriately contradictory moniker Castiel666 (a union of the angelic and the satanic) combines a trancelike repetitive soundtrack by Bang Gang with a series of images focused on the angelic story line in Supernatural's season 4. The slow, measured pace of the music track is echoed in the vid's editing, and together, music and image provide a sense of looming heavenly threat.

[2.7] The vid opens with the introduction of heaven via the figure of Castiel, shadow wings outspread, but cuts quickly to his unexpected negative effect, as, in his introduction to the narrative, he burns out the eyes of the overreaching psychic who summoned him. The vid then moves to images of Dean and Castiel and the more militant angel, Uriel, in the unsettlingly idyllic location of a lush green park and playground. We see a montage of violence perpetrated by and against angels, highlighting the violence of angels having their grace violated and angels being murdered by other angels. The continued repetition of the song's lyrics ("In heaven, everything is fine, you've got your good things and I've got mine") works with the montage of images of angelic violence to cumulatively communicate the message that heaven and angels offer a trap and a lie.

[2.8] The introduction of Castiel's angelic superior, Zachariah, ratchets up the stakes of angel corruption to the level of the institution. But the vid itself becomes truly chilling when it introduces the factor of human belief in God and angels through the character of Jimmy Novak, the human who plays host to Castiel. Accompanying the lyrics "You've got your good things / And you've got mine," we see Jimmy Novak pray, convulse as Castiel prepares him to be his vessel, put his arm in boiling water to demonstrate his calling, and accept Castiel into his body. The twist in the lyrics instigates the vid's climax by drawing attention to the more sinister dimensions of the angelic use of humanity as a tool. Driving this point home, the vid concludes with Castiel forcing Jimmy to choose to sacrifice himself for his daughter. The combination of these images and narrative references with the song's lyrics finally suggests that angelic power is co-opting and perverting human dedication precisely through human faith in the heavenly.


Find more videos like this on BAM Vid Vault

Vid 2. Obsessive24, "Fall of Man" (2009).

[2.9] Where "In Heaven" presents an analytic overview of the representation of heaven in season 4, Obsessive24's "Fall of Man" offers its viewer insight into Castiel's perspective as he struggles with his role as Dean's angelic guide. This vid draws on a wide range of images beyond Supernatural, weaving them together to highlight Castiel's increasing self-awareness as he comes to terms with the roles that he and Dean must play in the fate of the world. At the same time, the vid's trajectory is also suggestive of Castiel's changing feelings toward Dean and toward God.

[2.10] Supernatural itself of course evokes heaven/hell parallels (and the resulting moral ambiguity) by casting both demons and angels as noirlike gangsters, with angel wings only glimpsed in rare moments in shadow. In contrast to Supernatural's more muted, metaphoric approach to representations of heaven and hell, "Fall of Man" reintroduces epic imagery, interweaving overt imagery of hell (not only from Supernatural but also from other, more explicit source texts) with a manipulated image of Castiel with full wings and with vast images of apocalyptic battlegrounds realized rather than imagined—again, from cinematic source texts such as Constantine (2005), The Devil's Advocate (1997), and End of Days (1999) with the budget and generic or narrative impetus to depict hell and the apocalypse as literal experiences. This reintroduction of overt angelic and apocalyptic/hellish imagery does not reinscribe fantastic moralistic dualities, but rather makes overt the suggested moral/spiritual ambivalence of Supernatural. Now we must face the notion that an angel—wings and all—may struggle with moral imperatives just as a human would.

[2.11] The lyrics of this vid, in combination with the imagery, suggest that Castiel has chosen to protect Dean from the truth of heaven's bankruptcy, spelled out most clearly in the closing refrain: "What you don't know won't kill you." Indeed, this vid's vision of the role of the heavenly is akin to that brought out by Castiel666's in "In Heaven." Both vids emphasize the canonical revelation in season 4's finale that the angels are working to bring the apocalypse, that there is little difference between heaven and hell, and that God may very well have left the building.

[2.12] However, "Fall of Man" also offers a powerful montage paralleling Dean and Sam's physical confrontation with Castiel's conflicts with Uriel and the other angels. This intercutting suggests that despite the vid's title, it is Castiel and not Dean who has fallen. Indeed, the vid's title surfaces as lyrics only once: the words "the fall of man" accompany imagery of a flock of birds falling from the sky and scattering on the ground. Supernatural's season 4 aligns imagery of birds with angels—from its Hitchcockian bird wing opening credits to Castiel's birdlike head tilt—in an effort to make angels less anthropomorphized and more uncannily inhuman. In its literalizing of the bird imagery, Obsessive24's vid equates the fall of man with the fall of the angels (or perhaps vice versa). Through Dean, Castiel has recognized the possible absence of God, including the darker (inhuman) dimensions of Castiel's own being ("I was never that nice"). The layering of Castiel and Dean in similar motion in conjunction with the lyric "what you don't know" transitions the "you" of the vid from Dean to Castiel; it is Castiel who hasn't yet faced the absence of God, and it is his fall, his realization of heavenly bankruptcy (and thus perhaps his own moral bankruptcy), that fuels the vid's climax.

[2.13] The ultimate moment in this vid is its final image, which incorporates and transforms the iconic imagery of Adam reaching to God from Michelangelo's "Creation of Adam." We see Adam reaching for God (who is depicted giving Adam the breath of life), but through a subtle dissolve, God (and, not incidentally, the angels who cling to him) disappears, leaving Adam reaching out to nothing. The punch of this conclusion comes in our awareness that it is Castiel who has now accepted the absence of God and the betrayal of his brothers. And in that closing image, with the collapse of Castiel and Dean as "you," combined with the highly familiar but non-source-textual imagery of Michelangelo's Sistine Chapel ceiling, we, the viewers, perhaps also become the "you" struggling with the possibility of the absence of God.

3. Conclusion

[3.1] Both "In Heaven" and "Fall of Man" could be read as millennial texts par excellence, with Supernatural used as a vehicle to raise millennial questions of the necessary reconfiguration of the role of religion, dogma, faith, and belief. In the same stroke, we could acknowledge Supernatural itself as part of this millennial discourse, both asking the questions and shaping their ability to be asked. "Fall of Man" and "In Heaven" in turn reframe the questions and push them further. "Fall of Man" especially, with its incorporation of non-Supernatural source texts ranging from B movies to the Sistine Chapel, shows us clearly that these questions, while momentarily specific to a cultural, historical, and generational context, are also connected to larger cultural debates that we can trace across history, shifting discursive constructs probing humanity's relationship to the divine. Thus "Fall of Man" is both millennial and high renaissance, or at least it links the two. In so doing, it renders clearly the potential of vidding as artistic and cultural expression, not only as subcultural and local, community-specific tradition, but as part of much larger arcs of cultural work. Indeed, vidding's capacity to quote, remix, rework, and remake through intricate processes of visual and aural montage make it an especially apt form for revealing in relief the interconnections within and between industry and audience, culture and subculture, and historical specificity and transhistorical discourse.

4. Notes

1. In 2000, Strauss and Howe introduced the concept of the millennial generation in Millennial Rising. At around the same time, the term Generation Y had become popular to define a similar age group (Martin and Tulgan 2001). In 2006, Jean Twenge introduced another term, Generation Me, to describe approximately the same age group. All three generational terms coexist in popular discourse about generational communities to describe overlapping audiences.

2. The CW's target demographic of 18- to 34-year-olds coincides roughly with the boundaries set by cultural critics seeking to define the millennial generation. Pinning down actual audience demographics at any given moment is a slippery project; we can't simply assume that this demographic encompasses the actual viewers of Supernatural, let alone those who participate in fandom or make vids. However, if we approach this notion of the millennial as a discursive construct borne out of industrial discourse and the resulting media texts and reception, then we can understand both Supernatural and its audience reception, at least loosely, as millennial creative textuality.

3. These discussions evolved in various fan communities dedicated to the character of Castiel and/or to his relationship with Dean. I have chosen not to provide direct links to these discussions out of concern for protecting these fannish spaces.

5. Works cited

Coppa, Francesca. 2008. Women, Star Trek, and the early development of fannish vidding. Transformative Works and Cultures, no. 1. http://dx.doi.org/10.3983/twc.2008.0044 (accessed September 16, 2009).

Martin, Carolyn, and Bruce Tulgan. 2001. Managing Generation Y. Amherst, MA: HRD Press.

Prothero, Stephen. 2008. Is religion losing the millennial generation? USA Today, February 4. Available at: http://blogs.usatoday.com/oped/2008/02/is-religion-los.html (accessed September 16, 2009).

Russo, Julie Levin. 2009. User-penetrated content: Fan video in the age of convergence. Cinema Journal 48:125–30. [http://dx.doi.org/10.1353/cj.0.0147]

Strauss, William, and Neil Howe. 2000. Millennial rising. New York: Vintage.

Twenge, Jean. 2006. Generation Me. New York: Free Press.



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