Symposium

Becky is my hero: The power of laughter and disruption in Supernatural

Judith May Fathallah

University of Cardiff, Cardiff, Wales, United Kingdom

[0.1] Abstract—Interpreted through Mikhail Bakhtin's theories of resistant laughter, the fan insert character of Becky from Supernatural can be read as an invitation to appropriate the narrative for their own pleasure. However, outsiders to the fan community may not recognize that Becky's depiction is hyperbolic and may thus read the character as a damaging stereotype.

[0.2] Keywords—Fan fiction; Gender; TV

Fathallah, Judith May. 2010. Becky is my hero: The power of laughter and disruption in Supernatural. Transformative Works and Cultures, no. 5. http://dx.doi.org/10.3983/twc.2010.0220.

1. Introduction

[1.1] When the cult TV show Supernatural branched out into explicitly metatextual domain, introducing the heroes to their own fans and apparent author, the fangirl character of Becky received extremely mixed responses. On the surface, her depiction buys into many of the female mad-fan stereotypes: Becky is a humorous, obsessive, very feminine young woman who writes bad slash on her bedroom computer and dotes on one of the male leads. While many fans greeted Becky with laughter and appreciation at being "noticed," others were far from amused. Negative reactions, ranging in intensity from mild annoyance to outright anger, tended to fall into broad overlapping categories. Lisa Schmidt (2010) reports fans' feelings of being mocked, exposed, betrayed, or simply uncomfortable with the intersection between fanon and canon. Now that episode 5.09 "The Real Ghostbusters" has aired, a specific objection is noted by Catherine Tosenberger: unlike the male fan characters, Becky doesn't get to be heroic (2010, 1.6).

[1.2] This is a legitimate complaint, resonant with any woman who remembers wondering why she couldn't wield a sword or undertake a quest, or imagined herself a boy in order to do so. The fan base portrayed in "Ghostbusters" is predominantly male, which Supernatural fandom is not, necessitating a strong investment of meaning in Becky as the sole representative of the female fan. But I want to suggest that while Becky does not get to participate in the traditional, masculinist quest narrative, which is fueled by angst, pain, revenge, and linear progression to a goal, this does not have to be read as failure of power. It could equally be interpreted as a rejection of that ideology. Interpreted through Mikhail Bakhtin's theories of resistant laughter, Becky could be read as refusing to take seriously the official, dominant story line, inviting those not privileged in mainstream society to appropriate the narrative for their pleasure.

2. Becky and laughter

[2.1] I should make it clear that I do not read Becky as a literal representation of a fangirl, any more than I read the neurotic, chaotic, isolated Chuck as a literal representation of Eric Kripke, the real creator of Supernatural. For me, she is a comic character with a hint of truth: YouTube commenters on Becky clips frequently acknowledge that there's a little bit of Becky in every fangirl, just as, I believe, many writers have experienced a hint of the equivocation between "writing is hard" and "I'm a god" (Chuck, 5.18 "The Monster at the End of This Book"). So how might we interpret Becky as heroic? The key to this reading is Bakhtinian laughter and disruption. Consider this insight:

[2.2] In the Middle Ages, folk humor existed and developed outside the official sphere of high ideology and literature, but precisely because of its unofficial existence, it was marked by exceptional radicalism, freedom, and ruthlessness. (Bakhtin 1968, 71).

[2.3] I believe this is equally applicable today. If fangirls, with Becky as their representative, can be taken as a branch of the folk with their own "unofficial truth" (Bakhtin 1968, 91), both the humorous aspects of Becky to the viewer and her own joyful sense of humor can be seen to radically disrupt and at times rewrite the official narrative of Supernatural. The fact that Becky herself is humorous in no way negates this, because the folk are not exempt from their own laughter. The folk laugh at everything, so everything is equalized.

[2.4] Sam and Dean think their quest is of fundamental importance and seriousness, but to Becky, both the characters and the quest are leveled out into her ideology of pleasure and comedy. Hence this now infamous scene from 5.01 "Sympathy for the Devil":

[2.5] Sam: Um, Becky, c…uh can you…quit touching me?

[2.6] Becky: No.

[2.7] My reaction on first viewing was explosive laughter, minus the tension and edge of horror experienced at earlier canon humor.

[2.8] Then, in 5.09 "The Real Ghostbusters," Becky creates her own plot, recruiting Sam and Dean for her convention using a text from Chuck's phone:

[2.9] Chuck: Um…did you take my phone?

[2.10] Becky: I just borrowed it. From your pants.

[2.11] Later on, having transferred her affections from Sam to Chuck, she actually gets Sam to cooperate (awkwardly) in her comedic romance when she "breaks up" with him. Their chemistry, she informs him, was too hot to survive, and so perished "like a monkey on the sun." Becky is the heroine of her own, happily anarchic narrative, which operates according to a different narrative logic, or no narrative logic at all.

3. Gender and genre

[3.1] The quest is a hallmark of the masculinist epic. Sam and Dean's quest is in some ways an epic narrative, and laughter contains the potential to "destroy…the epic, and in general destroy…any hierarchical (distancing and valorized) distance." Laughter has "the remarkable power of making an object come up close," that one might "examine it freely and experiment with it" (Bakhtin 1981, 23). Here Bakhtin is contrasting the epic with the novel. Though it is significant that the novel is more polyphonic, fluid, and traditionally conceived as far more feminine than the epic, I do not think it necessary to categorize Becky as a novelistic character as opposed to an epic one. She is not easy to pin down, and so in a sense is more radical: generic categorization is a form of cultural taming. But Becky certainly does not need a quest. She is already where she wants to be.

[3.2] Becky pulls the quest characters into her creative playground. She draws the official narrative into "a zone of crude contact where one can finger it familiarly on all sides, break open its external shell, look into its center, doubt it, take it apart, dismember it, lay it bare, and expose it" (Bakhtin 1981, 23).

[3.3] Bakhtin finds this an indispensible step in the realization of creativity. To say the character of Becky accomplishes all this is too much. The key phrase in Bakhtin's analysis of laughter's operation is "where one can," or to adapt it slightly, "where we can." Becky is not a finished project of liberation, but she is a powerful symbol that real fans can appropriate. Her laughter, and ours, is potential: she demonstrates the kind of power available to real fan fiction writers, to take apart, to finger with familiarity, to look into the center, to dismantle.

[3.4] Finally, it should be noted that while Becky cannot contribute to the quest narrative in the physically active way Chuck and the male fans do, it is her comprehensive fannish knowledge that provides the vital information for the broader myth arc narrative (the whereabouts of the Colt, a gun with special demon-killing properties). As a discussion at Sequential Tart acknowledges, this episode's hunt literally would not have been achieved without the fans, a "nice quasi-metafictional acknowledgement" (O'Connell 2010).

4. A Caveat

[4.1] There is a dark side to the breaking of the fourth wall in this way. What happens if Becky is read literally by outsiders to the fan community, those in real-life relationships with fans? To anyone with a basic knowledge of fandom, she is obviously hyperbolic, but fandom is a proportionally small segment of the television audience. In a thought-provoking and disturbing comic strip posted in the LiveJournal community Supernaturalart by Counteragent, a man storms angrily out of the marital home after viewing the scene in which Becky is writing Wincest (note 1) and inferring that "this" is what his wife and the mother of his baby does online (January 9, 2010). This could be read as a warning against the presentation of Becky as potentially damaging to the real-life female fan.

[4.2] For Becky is available for appropriation; but to appropriate her without fear, the female viewer must already be in a relatively privileged position. She must have the internal and external resources to assert her nonofficial desire. Internally, she must be secure in the conviction that hegemonic stories of female passivity and traditional heterosexual unions are not the only legitimate ones, which implies a degree of education in feminist and gender studies. Externally, she cannot be practically dependent on those hegemonic narratives, which implies a degree of financial security. She must be confident that anyone she watches the show with knows enough to share the joke, rather than inferring that Supernatural fangirls actually are irrational nymphomaniacs. For some people, fandom is a refuge, a space where they can explore facets of themselves not sanctioned by official culture, where anonymity provides security and they need not fear jeopardizing their off-line situation. It could be argued that it was not the place of Kripke and his writers to present a character who may cause risks for female viewers in less privileged situations than themselves, who are economically and emotionally dependent on structures in which it is necessary to keep part of themselves hidden.

[4.3] But the comic strip also problematizes the situation in which such risks arise, demonstrating just how disruptive Becky is to the masculinist, heterosexual narratives our society operates on. We might ask who the villain of the piece is. Is it Kripke for the act of exposure? The husband for his narrow-minded overreaction to a joke he doesn't understand? The wife for marrying into, and having a child in, a repressive situation where she must hide a fundamental part of herself? All are possible candidates. In my reading, though, the problem is the discourse according to which this marriage operates, in which the husband is so threatened and angered by the possibility of his wife having an imagination and a sex drive. The strip highlights how far we still have to go in terms of the equality of women in the cultural sphere, as does the author's note: "Luckily, this is fiction. For now." Fandom being a relatively accepting and open-minded community, the strip serves as a reminder of the vast gap between our ideals and day-to-day life under culture's dominant discourses.

[4.4] On the one hand, to assert that public texts should not say what society is not ready to hear is to resign ourselves to endless repetition of the same tired ideology. Perhaps there can be no progress without cost, no new thought without shock. But on the other hand, while industry control remains in the hands of the privileged few, creators must take some responsibility for their representation of disprivileged cultures, bearing in mind the very real impact of text on life.

5. Conclusion

[5.1] The complaint that Becky is not heroic only makes sense in terms of the official, masculinist quest narrative of the myth arc. Many female fans are likely to feel the disappointment of this, particularly since the unnecessary death of Jo, a female character who did take an active part in the official story. But Becky exists outside of and in spite of this narrative, which she refuses to take seriously and appropriates to her own ends of pleasure and libratory expression. Becky is available as a hero, for those able to appropriate her as one, and if we change our definition of a hero from one who is driven by a quest narrative of achievement and suffering to one who writes and lives her own, radically comic, stories.

6. Acknowledgments

[6.1] Thanks to Morgan and Counteragent for permitting me to reference their works.

7. Note

1. Fan term for incest slash concerning members of the Winchester family, usually Sam/Dean. As with much Gothic fiction, this is certainly available in Supernatural, but only as subtext. See Tosenberger (2008). Admittedly, Becky's writing is deliberately atrocious, a compilation of cringe-inducing fan fiction clichés. It would be interesting to see if the writers were brave enough to reference Wincest fan fiction of high literary quality, such as Morgan's 2009 story "Midwinter Montana," archived at Sinful Desire (http://www.sinful-desire.org/).

8. Works cited

Bakhtin, Mikhail. 1968 (1965). Tvorchestvo fransua Rable [Rabelais and His World]. Trans. Hélene Iswolsky. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.

Bakhtin, Mikhail. 1981 (1941). Epos i roman [Epic and novel]. In The Dialogic Imagination: Four Essays, ed. Michael Holquist, trans. Carl Emerson and Michael Holquist, 3–40. Austin: Univ. of Texas Press.

O'Connell, Margaret. 2010. Supernatural talk: Tarts talk about Supernatural 5.09, "The Real Ghostbusters." Sequential Tart, January 4. http://www.sequentialtart.com/article.php?id=1603 (accessed July 21, 2010).

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.

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.

Tosenberger, Catherine. 2010. Love! Valor! Supernatural! [editorial]. Transformative Works and Cultures, no. 4. http://dx.doi.org/10.3983/twc.2010.0212.



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