representation and the real girl

The thing SPN has consistently sucked at for the last three seasons is pacing. Whole episodes draaaaag, and then a bunch of exciting shit happens in one ep! And then zomg huge emotional episode! Followed next week by . . . fluffy filler? It just boggles me how they can’t seem to develop, sustain, and release dramatic tension in any kind of capable way. So, bearing all that in mind, I was well prepared to hate this week’s “LARP and the Real Girl,” having come off the amazing emotional roller coaster of last week’s episode. (Yes, I liked “Torn and Frayed.” Some day I might still tell you why.) But, here’s the thing—I didn’t.

I mean, I’m also not experiencing paroxysms of best. episode. ever., but as fluffy filler MOTW episodes go, it was pretty cute. I enjoyed all the pop- and nerd-culture references and I appreciate that the boys let go and got to have a little fun. But at some point as I watched I started to have a lot of Charlie-related feels of the feminist kind. She’s a tricky character for SPN, and the more I thought about her, and the more I scrolled through Tumblr, the more my brain kept spitballing. So, here. Have 1400 words of feminist-critique Charlie meta I wrote at work instead of doing my job today.

Good things first!

I liked that they picked up the “little sister never wanted” and made Charlie a confidant for Dean. Dean NEEDS a confidant, especially one that calls him on his bullshit, which she did. I hesitate to say Charlie is the new Jo (because I hate the Garth-is-the-new-Bobby thing they’re forcing on us SO VERY MUCH), but she seems to fill a similar spot in Dean’s life, albeit a less angsty one. Which is nice, actually. That she and Dean geeked out together was pretty adorable, and fits with Dean’s character in a touching way. He’s always liked playing a role, pretending to be someone else for a while, and fancies himself to be something of a strategist, so even if he thinks online gaming and fandom are a little wacky (see 5.9, “The Real Ghostbusters”), I totally buy that he’d get a kick out of LARPing.

But then we get to the thing I didn’t love . . . the her-name’s-not-really Charlie thing. In the very last scene of 7.20, “The Girl with the Dugeons and Dragons Tattoo,” she scoffed at the boys and said, Please, you think Charlie’s my real name? and then in this ep she’s all, No more hiding! I will be myself! I WILL BE CHARLIE BRADBURY. Uhhh, writers? Your canon. LEARN IT. (I recognize this can be hand-waved away in several different ways. I’m pointing out because it was a really easy thing to get right and somehow they didn’t.)

Okay, and now here’s a gigantic list of things I found potentially problematic, about Charlie’s return. These are all just possible feminist readings of her presentation, not attacks on her character, please understand. I’m all for representation of non-heternormative lifestyles on TV, and I certainly don’t and can’t claim to speak for the lesbian contingent of queer representation movement.* So if you felt Charlie’s character was a positive step forward and you enjoyed her ogling women and on-screen kissing, then hooray! Like, really, actually hooray! I’m just saying that I—as someone who also counts herself as a participant in the queer movement and as a sometimes media scholar—had a couple qualms about Charlie’s representation in the episode.

First off, Charlie’s sexuality is set up as quirk or oddity, rather than just a regular ol’ normal everyday part of who she is. She’s a cute a geek girl redhead who—omg!— shamelessly likes girls. We are therefore supposed to laugh at Charlie’s attraction to women the same way we laugh at Dean’s eyebrow waggles over women with nice boobs in tight shirts. Every one of Charlie’s overtures or expression of interest were played as a joke. I suppose there’s an argument to be made that having Charlie make the same type of joke as Dean demonstrates that the two are on equal footing, and because it’s a subject we’re safely joking about it means we’ve made progress toward normalization. But I’m not sure that ogling = normative. Wouldn’t normative, positive representation be rooting for Charlie to win the girl, the way we were supposed to be rooting for Sam to win over Amelia at first? (Because, let’s face it, are we ever really rooting for Dean to score? Don’t we all kinda wish Dean would sleep with fewer women? Even though his promiscuity is a rascally thing we love about him, it’s rascally, and therefore not normative.) And even if the goal isn’t normativity for Charlie/lesbians (because, let’s face it, normalizing queerness negates queerness—ahhh, the impending existential crisis), isn’t simple positive representation not being a joke to your audience? Not having your “preference” the thing that’s funny? With Dean, it’s the eyebrow waggling and the bad pick-up lines that are funny. With Charlie, it was the object of her attention that made the situation amusing.

But Charlie’s our hero! says the episode. And, yes, that’s awesome! To have a girl who likes girls be clapped on the back and touted as a hero is really awesome and I’m glad to see it. But a darker interpretation of the hero bit might be that the episode turned into a Little Engine Who Could story, which itself is patronizing. And if you really want to go all-out feminist, you could argue that the person who dubs Charlie a hero first, before she claims the word for herself, is Dean—that straight white dude who controls the narrative—so really this is just another case of a man defining a woman’s role. And although he’s granting her power, he’s still granting it, which means he still ultimately has power over her. Blah blah blah. (I don’t love that argument, but it exists. So.)

I also see possibility for a critique of Charlie’s cross-gender appeal. Both episodes she’s appeared in have made references to men being in love with her/smitten with her/crushing on her, and her entrance in this past episode was clearly filmed as a magical ooh-la-la, love-interest moment. And while I personally just want to use these things as little moments of triumph for the desirability of geek girls everywhere, you could make an argument about the gross male frustration over the “unattainability” of girls who like girls.

And then, of course, there’s the male-gaze, fetishization of women kissing thing. Women kissing is totes okay on screen, because that’s hot and easier to get past network censors and execs. But dudes kissing? Whoa, hey now. That’s crossing a line. Nobody wants to see that anyway. (Except for the 1.5 million females who are your actual viewing audience, SPN—and this from a girl who doesn’t even advocate for Dean/Cas becoming onscreen canon.)

All right, so there’s also this logical equation floating that goes like Charlie + Gilda on-screen kiss = Dean + Cas onscreen kiss is next! Um, no. It’s the opposite, actually. The Charlie + Gilda kiss is a thing the show can point to say, “We heart gay people!” in order circumvent the argument that the reason Dean/Cas haven’t locked lips on screen is because of some institutionalized homophobia. It’s a placating tactic, and fanservice for its queer fans (a la Teen Wolf, I suspect). It’s not a step toward making Dean/Cas an onscreen reality. I think the sheer number of instances in which Charlie’s sexuality was mentioned supports this—it was like we were being beaten about the head to ensure we noticed that she’s totally a lesbian. Or, as a Twitter user @deHavvy put it, “Look how not homophobic SPN is. DID YOU NOTICE THAT YET?”

Another OMG-Dean/Cas-kiss-is-coming!!!1! argument I’ve seen is a list of parallels between Charlie/Gilda and Dean/Cas, sorta like this one: Charlie’s human, Gilda’s a supernatural being; Gilda has mad super powers but Charlie is put in a position to save her; etc. That’s all very clever (though we could argue that’s also just SPN’s go-to romance schtick since it happens so often in the show; or that fans are seeing what they want to see, for the same reason), but the next logical conclusion of those parallels is not thus, Dean and Cas will now make out on screen. At best, it’s thus the writers are aware of our interest in Dean/Cas, which is no longer news. Plus, Charlie did not find everlasting true love with the fairy—she scored. And, dude, that’s awesome for her. But Dean and Cas have an epic half decade of angst and unspoken desire. So if we’re comparing relationships here, one of these things is not very much like the other at all. Just sayin’.

NONE OF THIS MEANS I HATE CHARLIE.** Or even that I’m mad at the show! Or that I can’t take a joke! I’m just pointing out ways in which her character operates on the show, and how some of those ways are problematic. There’s no hate here. Or anger.

In fact, what I like most about Charlie is that she is a real girl. I like that she’s a bro rather than a damsel (as I have felt my whole life), and that her opinion and her skills matter (I can’t emphasize the importance of those things enough). And, most of all, I like that she’s been one of the only characters on Supernatural who looked at the world and all the scary things in it and—rather than becoming inured to the scary things or hiding from them or shoving that fear and her emotions way down deep—chose to face it all anyway. That’s what really, in my opinion, makes her a hero.

P.S. This is the best .gif of the episode.

*Yes, I know that phrasing sounds kind of essentialist. No, I don’t agree with essentialism. Yes, I was purposefully being kind of funny. Also language is imperfect and this is my blog post, dammit, so whatever. (Reason #492 I hate Tumblr: it’s made me neurotic about expressing any kind of joke or opinion or jokey opinion ever at all.)

**I confess to having other issues with Charlie, but they are very convoluted and unrelated to these particular arguments.

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