I was scrolling through Tumblr during/after the season 8 premiere of Supernatural, as you do, and I saw a bunch of posts crop up after Crowely encountered the Winchesters to the effect of “WHERE IS YOUR ANGEL! YESSSSS DESTIEL IS SO CANON!” and I kind of wanted to bang my head against my coffee table. It inspired an annoyed tweet on Twitter, which inspired a short rant to a friend’s inbox, which inspired epic, pouty meta on ships, canon, and queer baiting. You know, again.
Okay, so, first? NOTHING IS CANON. None of the highly popular slash ships in the Supernatural fandom are canon. That’s just not how this show rolls. There is gobs of SUBtext to willfully chose to misinterpret to suggest romantic entanglement, but TEXTual, sexual relationships among the male leads do not exist on the show.
And of all the subtext available from which to build a case for a “canon” Dean/Cas relationship, why choose Crowley as your source!? Crowley is a lying demon liar face! He is full of sarcasm and he teases Dean (and Sam!) about Cas because he knows it nettles Dean. But—scrapping “author intent” here for a minute—WHY it nettles Dean is subject to fan interpretation, and thus, not canon. It’s canon that Sam and Dean love each other as brothers. It’s canon that they’d die for one another. It’s also canon that they’re disturbed by the idea of having sex with each other. Likewise, it’s canon that Cas rescued Dean from Hell. It’s canon that they developed some mutual respect for each other during the apocalypse. It’s canon that Dean felt Cas betrayed their friendship and was saddy pants while Cas was presumed dead. It’s not canon that they are fucking.
I realize I’m raining on fandom’s parade here, but, well, what about my parade? It bums me out (read frustrates the fuck outta me) to see angry, defensive posts about how OUR SHIP IS CANON and what “proof” is provided by the writers. Because none of that matters! Half the fun, half of what’s engaging and interesting about slash ships for me is that the relationship is NOT canon.* It’s the freedom to reinterpret relationships outside the prescribed/presumed boundaries that I enjoy. It’s the piecing together of the subtext puzzle to make a completely different picture than the one provided us on screen. It’s the fans’ ability to reimagine reality, to think differently, to see otherwise that dazzles me and keeps me reading fic after fic after fic. (Seriously, do you know know how long it’s been since I finished a real book? Almost YEARS.)
And although campaigning to see representation of same-sex romance on TV is a very good cause—which is an outgrowth of the MY SHIP IS CANON movement, of course—show producers’ retroactive imposition of queer baiting in response to that increasingly vocalized desire is not healthy representation, and it makes me sad when slash fans confuse the two. Slash fandom cultivates a mindset through its telling of stories and sharing of fanart. It sows emotional and visual acceptance, even the deep, dirty, porny stuff. Slash fandom enacts a world in which relationships of all types triumph, and that becomes a worldview. All those superlong ranty Tumblr posts about gender equality and/or eradication and marriage equality and queer acceptance don’t exist in an internet vacuum. Those are fandom’s values splashed all over real life.
My point is that Dean/Cas (or Sam/Dean or Sam/Gabriel—or, hell, even Sterek) doesn’t need to be canon in order to matter. It doesn’t need to (and maybe shouldn’t) be approved by TPTB. It’s good that it’s subversive, it’s powerful in its challenge to power, it’s fun that the terms of the relationship aren’t dictated to us, and it’s more engaging and genuine coming from fans who see what could be there rather than what is.
Please don’t read me wrong. I’m not bashing fan exuberance or trying to harsh anyone’s squee (even though I know I might, and I’m sorry). I got all gooey hearted over the subtext of Dean making it his #1 priority in Purgatory to find Cas, and I refer to Cas as Dean’s angel too. But I consider the real work of slash fandom to be the mining of relevant detail to forge a believable relationship between a pair of characters. This isn’t to say that PWP isn’t totally legit or sometimes just exactly what I’m looking for. But I feel there’s a difference between, ooh, these two guy are so hot, I wonder what it looks like if they fuck? and the canon-based grounding of a couple, even if it’s just for sex, if that makes sense. That’s one reason I find Dean/Cas so very compelling, actually—there is SO MUCH to find in between the lines of canon to sculpt a very realistic bond between this righteous man and his angel of the Lord. It blows me away how many different ways their emotions can intersect and their story can be told, and I have trouble imagining a point where I will tire of reading it. And that’s why I stick with watching the show, despite my quibbles with it—I want to more subtext, I want the next adventure. I want to read the stories the show can never tell me. I want to live in a world where those stories are possible. And by writing them, I think someday we might.