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Fans & Fantasy: Changing Melodies

An interesting thing happened in my living room a week ago. My husband and I were watching the latest Supernatural, and Dean was being overtly flirted with by a guy. As expected, Dean rejected him with a bevy of stammers, excuses, and tripping over himself to get away -- and my husband blurted out, "God, he's so homophobic!"

I couldn't believe my ears. Dean hadn't insisted he was straight, and he hadn't said anything rude. He'd been flustered, sure, but to me he would have had the same reaction had a girl he wasn't attracted to. I saw a guy being made goo-goo eyes at by a stranger, and gender notwithstanding, that can get pretty awkward. But my husband saw Dean as being so deeply disturbed at the very concept of a guy coming onto him that he lost his cool. Two interpretations, both fo them fair, and it was a good, brief discussion that we had about it.

And then I went online and saw everyone talking about Dean's big bisexual moment.

I actually had to ask my friends if I had missed something while I was chatting with my husband. Sure, there was a bit of a joke there, but if Dean had actually shown some interest in the guy, I'd missed it entirely.

It turned out to be a long-game sort of analysis, a subtle shift in the way Dean had reacted compared to previous situations in the show's history, as well as a reading of one of Dean's expressions later that could have meant he wasn't that averse to the flirt. It certainly wasn't clear from the text whether my husband's, or my, or my friends' interpretation had been the right one. What is clear is that the show left it open for us to decide.

Supernatural has been making "gay jokes" about its main characters since the second season. But as the seasons have progressed, the jokes have become more prominent, and less obviously jokey -- instead of a one-liner that's shot down or played for laughs, it's a suggestive line paired with a beat of silence, as though to allow the audience to decide just how much of a joke it really is. In a way, it's a very clever way of opening up the story to all comers. Let non-shippers dismiss it as a joke, let shippers read all the subtext they'd like into it, and never do the showrunners need to show their hand or even make a decision themselves or state anything they couldn't take back.

It's not just happening in Supernatural, either, though that genre- and audience-savvy show has certainly done the lion's share of it. There's been a gradual change in the way creative teams are reacting to shipping, acknowledging the hunger of some fans for subtext -- and, much like shipping itself, it seems to be too far along to stop now. But there are elements of this that are problematic, and, I imagine, that's true of shippers and non-shippers alike.

I am assuming, and I invite your comments to tell me if I'm wrong, but I'm guessing that these moments must stick in the craw of non-shippers quite a bit. It's hard enough to feel like shipping is now an inescapable part of fandom, especially if it's something you don't personally care for. Now the shows themselves are acknowledging and encouraging it, and no matter which way you look, you're seeing an element thrown into something you would prefer to enjoy for a totally different reason.

And for shippers, these winks to the audience can be amusing, and at their best they can provide those clues that give us hope we may not be so wrong in how we've interpreted subtext. But at their worst, they're a strong step in the wrong direction. They're a sign that our wishes and concerns with regard to our favorite characters are fodder for jokes, or they're what is often referred to as "queerbaiting" -- providing hints in lieu of real representation for alternative sexualities, essentially conditioning viewers to accept what scraps they can get without shows having to take responsibility for actually portraying such complex and important things as the sexuality of a traditionally masculine character, or populating a world with GLBT people outside of comic relief and day players, or saying that yes, a gay person can be a hero or heroine without losing their heroism.

These are big problems, and they're happening just as the world is trying to shake off decades, if not centuries, of intolerance. Considering how huge and everpresent the media has become, not having a show -- or multiple shows! -- with highlighted, respected portrayals of characters whose inclinations don't fit stereotypical gender/sexuality roles is an increasingly big problem. And I personally think it's doubly a problem with genre TV, which pushes boundaries so well in other aspects but seems to be holding back from really making this happen. Which isn't to say that one ship or other should become canon in order to solve this problem -- that would come with its own set of difficulties. But this sideways nod to the thirst for representation isn't so helpful, either. At least, not in my view.

I talked about these past few columns as being a "canon," in the musical sense, on canon. And at the end of this penultimate column on the topic, I want to invoke the musical metaphor one more time. When you have a melody layered on top of itself multiple times over -- a single song from different points of view -- you're inevitably going to have moments of dissonance. Unresolved suspensions, augmented or diminished chords, or two sounds that just plain don't fit. But that's part of the line of the canon, and I think this friction is part of what moves the melody forward. Right now, creators are trying to give fans what they want, and fans are asking for something different. That includes shippers and non-shippers, and the friction there adds to the tension of the chord, so there's nothing the canon can do right now that's going to keep everyone happy. So what do we do? We keep playing, no matter where we fall along the line, whether we're trumpets or tubas or professionals or fans, and we keep seeking out that resolution. I'm afraid that right now, we have a bit of dissonance, but I'm hoping that as the song goes on, we find our way back to harmony again.

What's your opinion of the way shows acknowledge shipping and the desire for subtext? How should show creative teams acknowledge the sometimes-at-odds sectors of their fandom? What's the best way to respond to these types of nod-and-wink moments? Keeping in mind that some people want the opposite of what you do, what's the best way to work together and find resolution?

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