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Supernatural - 9.07 - Dean and Castiel's reunion and Queer-baiting

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For those of you who have been worried about the lack of spoilers regarding Dean and Castiel's interaction, fear not.
Scenes between them occur in episode 7 written by Robert Berens, who is also the new addition to the writing team of Supernatural.


We don't know yet how the first half of the season will continue picking up on what happened after Castiel's last conversation with Dean. So far, the facts include a disconcerting lack of interaction between them, such as phone conversations. Both of them are preoccupied with their individual issues and Castiel could potentially be regarded as a broken tool by the Winchesters. In fact, no other reports have indicated a more positive outlook other than the following tweet.

Dean and Castiel’s friendship is currently treated like the elephant in the room. On top of that, the writers have engaged with fans quite actively, making joking references and quoting significant lines for these two characters and even playing around with the idea of them being more than just friends. And many fans were happy to engage.
Yes, we're talking about romance.
Thus, it isn't really surprising that fans are getting restless for a reunion, despite the various interpretations about this particular relationship on the show. There are certainly fans who could do without it. And it depends on what each and everyone of us prefers to see. Unfortunately, these demands often cause a lot of problems and pressure for showrunners and producers.

You might ask yourself why people interpret a relationship one way or another, and it’s a very valid question. However, it does help to talk about it in a broader context, highlighting the do’s and don'ts. The reason why many fans are currently restless for more positive news is simply the fact that showrunners and producers have never been shying away from Dean and Cas. Until now.
A year ago, we had declarations from showrunner Jeremy Carver, such as: "No one is more of a fan of Dean and Cas than I am."

But in what way?


An interview from TV Guide Canada revealed the following interpretation.

“If Cas and Dean had a kissing scene, whether it’s a dream sequence or not, I would just really hope that Jensen brushed his teeth,” he quipped. “That would be my dream.”

In all seriousness though, Collins noted that he does sense a definite tension between Castiel and Dean on set, especially after coming into contact with fanfiction that ships and points out the connections between the surface-straight duo.

“It’s one of the very unexpected surprises of coming to this job,” Collins said of fanfic. “Knowing that it is out there, you can’t help but be conscious of it in those moments.”

He continued, “It’s hard to say whether we’re playing to the fact that we know fans are doing that, or whether that’s just a real aspect of their relationship … But I think that there is a certain intense intimacy to their relationship that is real and that fuels that fanfiction.”

Collins also confirmed this impression by saying:
"C’mon, in the first few episodes, Dean’s running around Purgatory, chopping off heads, Where’s the angel, where’s the angel, you know, the guy I’m in love with?

Fans: I don’t remember Dean saying that.

Misha: He might as well have. You know, we know what it is, what’s going on. We don’t talk about it. The actors don’t, Jensen and I don’t. But we’re all perfectly aware of how the relationship is, the writers are completely aware of how it’s being written. It may be unspoken but that doesn’t mean it’s not there or not true."

This year, Collins tiptoed around the subject at conventions, confirming that it’s up for interpretation. However, the tiptoeing and joking is what ultimately causes extreme tension and perpetuates the idea that Supernatural cannot consciously deal with that particular relationship and its implications in a serious way, simply because it's two male characters we are talking about. And that is problematic. I do want to believe that it can be treated with respect and honesty.

The immense support for them didn’t just start with season 8, even though it's been particularly strong since then. Season 4-7 showed a variety of scenes that support fans' interpretations from various angles, including the use of romantic tropes, dialogue, cinematography and the very blatant use of one of the most common techniques between male friendships on television. The romantic tropes include entrenching on someones personal space (5x04) and prolonged eye contact via zooming in on their facial expressions, nonverbal methods that are left to a fan’s imagination, thus neither confirming nor denying anything. Similar to Mulder/Scully we are dealing with common tropes such as “Held Gaze”,"Just Friends,” “Can’t Live With Them, Can’t Live Without Them,” “Will They Won’t They?,” “Everyone Can See It” and “UST,”. What is not left to your imagination and something that is used by the writers and directors and even actors is the following concept.


What is it and why it isn’t helpful.

Perhaps you have heard of that term. I want to elaborate on it a little bit.
Chemistry between actors is subjective, but I am arguing from the point of someone who sees it. So here we go.

The first step involves seeing chemistry between the actors on the show, which is clearly unplanned. If you already don’t, then that is where you won’t be able to follow further steps, because you perceive that relationship in different ways. Point is that Castiel’s story was never supposed to be extended beyond season 4 and the fact that fans responded positively to his presence and to his scenes with Dean is further testament that the initial stage was unplanned.

This chemistry alone can translate to people seeing them as more than just friends, which include the aforementioned nonverbal scenes (staring at each other in 8x22). It’s enough material for people to draw certain conclusions. By the way, I want to stress that it’s perfectly okay to show characters in intimate scenes without instantly saying the are in love with each other. Effemiphobia exists and has contributed to a gender taxonomy, in which all kinds of feelings and intimacy between men are considered effeminate, "gay" and therefore weak. However, queer-baiting works differently and actively engages with the fans of the show in a narrative that hints at something while simultaneously shying away from it for multiple reasons.

The writers pick up on fans’ reactions to it and proceed to extend their scenes, which is why Castiel’s primary interaction in season 8 was still with Dean rather than other characters. Until now. As Misha confirmed, the writers are perfectly aware how their relationship comes across and denying any responsibility on their part and fans simply accusing other fans of seeing something that is not there will always be untrue. Queer-baiting is not your fault. A response to these scenes only exists, because the people involved in the show include ambiguity. This is why the script puts in specific lines, or why the camera zooms in on their faces, or why the extra-diegetic music used for their scenes underlines romantic interpretations. It’s a combination of all these factors, which makes people see certain things. It depends on how responsive a fan is to queer-baiting (and seeing these scenes as jokes) and whether he recognizes the problem behind it or not. However, the more scenes between these characters pop up and the more ambiguous they become in its execution, the more problems eventually happen. Fans start getting their hopes up that maybe the showrunner will go that way. To repeat it again, the people involved in the show are not oblivious to how a scene can be interpreted and they make use of these techniques consciously to imply romance without outwardly confirming it. It's fun, it makes people happy. This is called subtext. Which means it doesn’t exist in a fan’s imagination. And now you have to differentiate between subtext and queer-baiting.

We obviously face a problem.

What do the showrunners do if they have firmly established one or both characters as heterosexual?


Ambiguity and jokes at the expense of queer people, including lines such as "get out of my ass, Cas". And that is the problem of queer-baiting.

The way many shows frame certain dialogues in order to not “tarnish” the heterosexuality of the characters is by making jokes and not taking these scenes seriously. The list of shows doing it is quite huge. Unfortunately, it is an indicator that a homo-romantic interpretation doesn't have a chance to become text in the show. This means: Frequent use of boyfriend jokes, intimacy jokes between men, basically all jokes that play with a romantic interpretation of these two characters in a way not to be taken seriously. It happens within the story as well as outside of it, for example when an actor continues joking about it in interviews.

These jokes are deliberately placed into the show’s canon story and thus they are not a fan’s fault, because you either have the choice to see it for what it is (an insult) or to dismiss it as the dreaded fanservice. But it exists, because certain fans see chemistry that was unplanned, and the showrunners act accordingly and in their belief that this is what fans want. It isn’t. At least not for many queer people.

The main problem is that certain scenes are jokes and others are subtext, and we are confronted with jokes because this interpretation is not being taken seriously in order to strictly establish that Dean Winchester is heterosexual, for example. His discomfort becomes the joke and this isn’t a support for romantic storylines at all.

And then we get gems like this quote from the Season 8 DVD featurette. Ben Edlund and Phil Sgriccia on the scene where Dean meets Aaron in the bar in “Everybody Hates Hitler”:

"Ben: He [Jensen] did amazing in this. Phil: He was so funny in this. Like the whole close up where he pulls the wallet back, that was something he did that we caught with the camera. It was so much fun to shoot that, because he played it so right down the middle like, just more awkward about it like, ”Wow, somebody likes me.” Ben: Well, that’s the weird thing, is that it reads in this weird way where it does feel like Dean’s a little bit like…it’s almost like a romantic comedy kind of fluster. [Phil: Oh sure.] Which is very interesting for the character Dean, like because it just sorta suggests this weird…this potential. Phil: This potential for love in all places. Ben: Oh Aaron and Dean, they could come together. He’s had a rough life, he’s a hard character to, to you know, settle down with."

The creators of the show are telling you that your interpretation has a source and is not something that is attributed to a fan interpreting a specific scene. What Ben Edlund obviously was looking for is the word bisexuality for Dean. Such interpretations should not be relegated to simple jokes, and the fact that most people will see Dean as heterosexual tells us just how far removed from textual confirmation this interpretation still is.

Words like "friend" invalidate the romantic interpretation on some level, because the nonverbal and ambiguous scenes always remain subtextual while friendship labels do not. Cas is still Dean's "buddy", after all. The show continues having these two characters staring at each other, occasionally putting them in scenes in which fans can interpret them as being potentially interested in each other, but nothing more. On top of that, Dean's bisexuality is hinted at with other characters, but not resolved. Hey, I wouldn't mind some Dean and Aaron action.

The characters never progress in their relationship. Fans don’t get an “I love you”, they don’t get a kiss or hands touching. They don’t get the slow progress that is needed on TV shows to portray that these characters as seriously romantically interested in each other.

It gets worse. A character's heterosexuality is further reinforced by giving one or both of the characters a female protagonist to interact with so as to create sexual tension and the subsequent release of it. This becomes text and the general viewer, who doesn’t see the ambiguity in the first place, still thinks that the characters are heterosexual. The interest between a female and a male character is made explicit with words and also actions. A kiss often follows. There is also a reason why fans of both Dean and Castiel got countless of reports that they will have sexual encounters in season 9. I don't think The Powers that Be are being malicious on purpose, but there is no denial that on social media this topic caused controversy. The most prominent assumption is that it's definitely going to be with women in both cases (heterosexism, as usual). On top of that, we cannot really expect these women to be treated with the respect and agency they deserve, because they often disappear as soon as the plot demands for it (as happened with Daphne, Castiel's wife). They do not get to express their desires and literally have no chance of survival, because their demise or tragic story fuels the pain of the more important male character. Love stories on Supernatural are not the most important part of the show, but also not particularly well-developed if it happens in my honest opinion. It seems that accidental chemistry has more of a chance to be believable. It also generates more interest, such as currently seen with Dean's lack of a mythological storyline, but significant interaction with Abaddon in season 9.

Dean and Castiel still don’t get any kind of text between each other, and relationships with one of them and other characters are at best a narrative failure coupled with disrespect for the female character (Amelia, where are you?). Romance on TV always needs time and patience to get your audience hooked. You don't want to be told that these two characters are in love or had fun times in the past. You want to see it step by step. And on a show that focuses on killing monsters it's not exactly top priority. And we aren't looking for another soap opera, but believable relationships in a world predominantly haunted by evil.

Friendship and Relationships

For Dean and Cas the label friendship remains and the jokes continue, although season 8 has been rather respectful in that area. Furthermore, it is a fact that our society is geared towards a heteronormative perspective, which means women and men on television are almost always perceived as romantic with much less subtext, whereas men and other men are firmly put into the category “bromance” and need much more subtext to be perceived as more. Bromance - in my opinion- is a term that invalidates any possibility or romance between men, which is extremely problematic. And for those people that argue “why can’t these two dudes just stay friends?”.
No. Open a book, watch film or TV and you are basically assaulted with bromances everywhere, men as comrades in difficult situations and nothing more. This is one of the most common relationship presented in our media and it’s not surprising that these men are in the most well-developed relationships on screen, and platonic of course.

Not even friendships between two women get that kind of exposure. So the last thing TV shows need is more bromance.

To sum up, queer-baiting is when fans get material, often jokes and not serious and respectful subtext. These scenes bait the audience into thinking that they might become more, while completely holding off any further development for the sake of supporting their heterosexuality and "just friends" impression. It's often done subconsciously, but it still hurts a queer audience, because you are literally told that your existence is comedy or discomfort for the straight character or not worthy to be talked about or developed further. It’s also very insulting to any queer fan, who wants to see himself being represented in one or the other, only to see their sexuality being treated as a joke. None of this is even remotely okay. It isn't okay or satisfying enough to watch Dean Winchester being made uncomfortable by a queer character, unless he is flattered and might even respond positively ( a reason why people thought that the scene with Aaron indicated Dean's interest in men). It's at least a first step in the right direction to have Charlie, the only queer and more prominent character on the show, being treated respectfully. Is it okay to say that people should be happy with such a small step and that she should be enough? No. What people are looking for are believable stories about love and friendship regardless of any orientation. Not sidekicks, parodies, stereotypes. And that includes stories in different worlds with different fictional struggles.

As for Dean and Castiel, the payoff never comes, the confirmation of their queerness never happens and no representation or textual evidence of romance occurs, which is why declaring that a character loves another character after the story ends isn’t valid either (see Dumbledore).

The audience has never seen the culmination point, the payoff. And in the end Dean and Castiel were still seen as friends. What the show is basically saying is that they are and never will be “that kind of show”, unless it's a minor story not related to a main character. We don't know the future, but the instances within and outside of the show keep piling up.

And now I want to explain why shows like Supernatural are so very important, even though the general audience might see is as 40 minutes of entertainment and not something to be taken seriously. Many kids, young adults and older fans watch a TV show not just for entertainment purposes, but because they are passionate about the fictional world and the characters that have been created. They see themselves reflected in these characters, and follow their journey, because they are truly invested in the show. Downplaying the importance by saying “don’t take it seriously” and “it’s just a TV show” is insulting to all those fans who take their time of the day to support a show. For free!

The fact, and I often like to repeat it, is that TV shows don’t work in a vacuum, because they reflect on our current social system, which means that representation of queer couples and diversity is not prominent. Although it's definitely getting better.

Why is Dean and Castiel different?

Technically, they aren’t. They aren't champions of queer characters and probably never will be. We are still talking about two white, male characters, currently the most represented people in media. Obviously there are arguments against a relationship for Dean and Cas, often argued from the simple point that people don’t see this supposed “subtext” or “chemistry” between the actors. However, as stated above, the showrunners and production actively contributed to a romantic interpretation, which means that they have a certain responsibility to carry that is not solely on the fans’ shoulders. It's their right to refuse to say no. But I'd rather have a clear no than a never-ending maybe.

Jim Michaels explained the following issue in an interview with Supernatural Turkey.
Dean and Cas have a sort of chemistry on the show, right? What do you think of Destiel?

Well you know I think that’s something that the fans sort of, put gasoline on that fire we maybe hinted at a little bit, you know the fact of the matter is we are a very open minded show and we’ll continue to keep an open mind about a lot of things, and we’re not trying to deceive anybody, but it’s something more talked about by the fans than we ever talk about it I can assure you. So it’s a fun thing that the guys get to play off each other and stuff.

It also isn’t surprising that the accusations of queer-baiting are rising because of that. Coupled with the fact that there's no good information to go with, people aren't expecting too much. There will never be a definite yes or a definite no, but the showrunners might as well say no with such a simple thing as silence. What's the point of telling your audience that there was this "weird potential" only to leave it as is?

Supernatural has great starting points in many areas, more so than other shows I like. It remains to be seen whether it capitalizes on them or not.

At least, Dean and Castiel's friendship might hold. They are just too caught up in other issues right now. The season premiere is already packed with action, showing Dean supporting his brother and Cas on his own, experiencing the first breath of humanity.

Season 9 premieres Tuesday, October 8 at 9:00 p.m. on The CW.
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