I Used to Think Maybe You Loved Me (Now Baby I’m Sure):
Charlie Bradbury and the Reconstruction of the Supernatural Fangirl
Paper presented with KT Torrey (Virginia Tech) at Mid-Atlantic Popular and American Culture Association conference, November 2014, Baltimore, Maryland
Nearly a decade ago, Sam and Dean Winchester [SLIDE 2] of TV’s Supernatural hit the road in search of their missing father. Along the way, they’ve staved off the Apocalypse, died a few [dozen] times, and gotten themselves hopelessly entangled with the forces of Heaven and Hell [SLIDE 3]. However, although the brothers have learned time [SLIDE 4] and time [SLIDE 5] and time [SLIDE 6] again that “family don’t end in blood,” [SLIDE 7] there’s increasing evidence that, as media blogger Aja Romano notes, the “female, queer, genderqueer, nerdy, and unashamed” fans of Supernatural that make up the series’ own family are “diametrically opposed to the straightlaced mainstream audience [the series] wishes it had” [original emphasis] (Romano). These tensions reflect wider questions about what Mel Stanfill, among others, has called the increasingly industrial orientation of fandom. That is, more and more media properties are attempting to engage with fans directly in order to encourage what they perceive as profitable fan behavior. One example of this phenomenon, as Suzanne Scott has argued, is the corporate endorsement of the “quality” fan, one whose practices serve solely to promote a media property, rather than to engage in “overly critical, emotionally excessive, or erotic” practices (6).
In this paper, then, using Scott’s work as a guide, we will examine the two models of female fandom—of Supernatural fandom—that have been incorporated into Sam and Dean’s diagetic world. The first, Becky Rosen, [SLIDE 8] introduced in season five, is an aggressively heterosexual Supernatural superfan who writes Sam/Dean slash fanfic and has a particular penchant [shall we say] for Sam; while the second, Charlie Bradbury [SLIDE 9], who debuted in season seven, is a queer geek-chic hacker with a fondness for Star Wars and Lord of the Rings. Today, we’ll argue that reading Becky and Charlie through the lens of “quality” fandom undermines popular perceptions of Charlie as an affirmative step forward in terms of fan representation within the series. While she does embody a much-needed injection of female and queer into Supernatural’s hammerhead heternormative world [amen], Charlie is ultimately presented, we assert, as a Winchester-approved model of female fan engagement with the show. In her role as the “quality” fan, Charlie erases the type of textual authority that fangirls like Becky assert over the Supernatural canon in favor of an adoring, but uncritical, relationship with Sam and Dean: an affection that the brothers [especially Dean] return in kind. Ultimately, we’ll explore the effects of Charlie’s presence within the Supernatural text, her reception by the series’ fandom, and how the continuing evolution of fandom might challenge efforts of industrialization.
As fan cultures continue to shift from the margins and into the mainstream, the producers of media content, along with the corporations who fund them, have begun to engage more directly—and even diagetically—in attempts to shape fan practice. This issue has become one of growing interest and even concern for fan studies scholars. For example, in “Walking the Talk: Enunciative Fandom and Fan Studies’ ‘Industrial Turn,’” Suzanne Scott examines the ways in which AMC’s The Talking Dead—a fan chatshow that runs immediately after the network’s hit The Walking Dead—forwards a model of what she calls “quality fandom.” Through conversations with a panel of “celebrity superfans,” Talking Dead host Chris Hardwick models “reverence for the text, creators, and performers” of the series, highlighting “affirmational, rather than transformational” fan engagement with the text (Scott). While The Talking Dead invokes the ethos of fandom—that is, its geek cred, detailed knowledge, and enthusiasm—Scott argues that, in practice, the show “distances itself from . . . overly critical, emotionally excessive, or erotic fan enunciations” of The Walking Dead and in doing so sets up those behaviors or practices as the definition of a “bad” fan (6). In this way, The Talking Dead provides “an industrial vision of the ‘quality’ fan,” one who is “deeply analytical but never overtly critical . . . [,] wholly focused on the canon,” and who prizes “the show’s cast and creator’s interpretation of [The Walking Dead] above their own” (Scott).
Although Scott’s discussion is carefully focused on the rhetoric of The Talking Dead, and its specific application to fans’ engagement with The Walking Dead, we suggest here that her argument has much to offer ongoing conversations about relations between Supernatural and its fandom as they play out in the “canonical portrayal of fans and fan practices” within the series (Coker and Benefiel 109). For ten seasons, Supernatural has followed the adventures [SLIDE 10] of Sam and Dean Winchester, two [frighteningly attractive] brothers who cruise the backroads of America in a ’67 Chevy Impala hunting a never-ending cavalcade of shit that goes bump in the night. What makes this genre series so notable, however, is its very particular—and at times uncomfortably intimate—relationship with its fans. This relationship, initially cultivated through live conventions first staged early in the show’s life, has become further established through sustained social media engagement—all typical of contemporary cult TV series. However, Supernatural’s creative team has taken this relationship one step further by representing the series’ fans within the show’s diagesis. Beginning with episode 4.18, “The Monster at the End of This Book,” this run of meta, or self-referential episodes, continues to expand, and will include the show’s 200th episode, a musical entitled “Fan Fiction,” that’s scheduled to air next week.
Central to the foregrounding of fandom in Supernatural is Chuck Shurley [SLIDE 11], pulp writer and unknowing prophet of the Lord. First introduced in “Monster at the End of This Book,” Shurley is the author of a series of novels called Supernatural [SLIDE 12]—books that trace the adventures of Sam and Dean Winchester, two [frighteningly attractive] brothers who cruise the backroads of America in a ’67 Chevy Impala hunting a never-ending cavalcade of shit that goes bump in the night. [Right.] Further, Shurley’s novels, like the Supernatural television series itself, have an active fanbase. As Sam and Dean discover, these fans take great pleasure in interacting with, and even altering, the text of what they believe to be the fictional Winchesters’ lives. To do this, Shurley’s fans participate in activities that include Live Action Roleplay (or LARP) and—most distressingly of all, in Dean’s eyes at least [SLIDE 13]—writing gay, incestuous fan fiction featuring the Winchester brothers.
Notably, the introduction of Shurley and his Supernatural novels provided the series’ creatives with a means by which to introduce a recurring female fan character into the show’s diagesis—that is, to represent the series’ fandom within the text of the series itself. Episode 5.1, “Sympathy for the Devil” introduced Becky Rosen [SLIDE 14], a gleeful superfan of Shurley’s book series who is thrilled to learn that her favorite fictional characters are in fact living, [heaving] men. In many ways, Becky is a woman of fannish excess: not only does she possess an encyclopedic knowledge of the Supernatural novels, her fan practices are also marked by emotional and erotic abundance. In “Sympathy,” for example, we see her rapturously composing a love scene between Sam and Dean, gushing over Shurley, and [infamously] [SLIDE 15] groping Sam against his will. As a fan, she displays a sense of proprietary ownership over Shurley’s text and the body of its real-life representative, Sam. Ultimately, her behavior in both “Sympathy” and “The Real Ghostbusters,” the second episode in which she appears, suggests that, just as she can transform the original text of the Supernatural novels through her fanfic, she believes that she can “transform” the real Sam into the love of her life.
As scholars like Laura Felshow, Melissa Gray, and Judith May Fatallah have documented, fan reactions to Becky’s initial introduction were [shall we say?] mixed. As Zubernis and Larson put it, although “some fans reacted with uncontrollable laughter” to Becky, “others were scandalized” that the series would so overtly comment on “real life fan practices that had heretofore remained hidden” (160). That said, in her first two appearances, the excessive qualities of Becky’s behavior as a fan are played primarily for laughs. However, the tone struck in her third appearance—in the awkwardly titled “Season Seven: It’s Time for a Wedding!”—is noticeably darker. Here, Becky’s desire to possess Sam—to exert authorial control over the Winchesters’ narrative—drives her to commit crimes against his person. With the help of a little demon-juiced Spanish fly, she dupes Sam into marrying her [SLIDE 16] [in Vegas, no less] and to forsake the Impala in favor of her tiny apartment in Delaware. When her drug supply runs dry [and the boy attempts to resist] Becky knocks Sam unconscious and drags him to her parents’ remote cabin—where she promptly removes his pants and ties him spread-eagled to a bed [SLIDE 17] (“Wedding”).
In this episode, what was initially portrayed as a humorous—if somewhat misguided—struggle over control of textual meaning reads as attempted rape, wherein Becky poses a clear and present threat to the integrity of Sam’s body, and to the Winchesters’ story by proxy. What makes Becky as a fan dangerous, “Wedding” implies [with a waffle iron to the head] is her desire to privilege her interpretation of the text above that of its creators at all costs—a desire that spirals into kidnapping, forced confinement, and the suggestion of attempted rape. Within the diagetic world of Supernatural, then, Becky embodies the anti-quality fan: that is, she is portrayed as a “loser” who is mocked for the meaning and the purpose she finds in the Supernatural books—a meaning that has led inevitably, the narrative implies, to emotional, erotic, and critical excess that no real person, not even Sam, can truly fulfill (Coker and Benefiel 108). [SLIDE 18] The model of female fandom—of Supernatural fandom—that Becky represents, the text suggests, is one that true fans of the series would be well served to avoid for fear of not only alienating the series’ creatives but of becoming such “losers” themselves. Ultimately, as Coker and Benefiel argue, while Becky’s portrayal acknowledges that transformative fan practices like writing fanfic may “bring a sense of pleasure and belonging to those who engage in them,” these activities are also “seen as potentially disturbing to the balance of creator/consumer by the media producers” (Coker and Benefiel 109).
While fans and scholars generally read Becky as a reflection of Supernatural fandom—the type of fan the show has—we argue that Charlie Bradbury [SLIDE 19] is presented as a model of the kind of fan the show wishes it had. As a character, Charlie is a queer woman with an unstoppably adorable combination of smarts, sympathy, and sass. She’s a nerdy girl who would rather have a wifi connection than a tan, one who rocks out to ’80s pop hits in public but who also hacks computers [SLIDE 20], embezzles funds from greedy megacorps [Robin Hood–style], and tosses out well-timed one-liners. Her confidence won the heart of a many a Supernatural fangirl, and the series garnered praise for its presentation of Charlie’s sexuality as just another facet of her character, rather than as a pretext for the traditional, tortured coming-out story that marks many gay characters on broadcast television. In this way, as Tumblr user lookatthesefreakinghipsters argues, Charlie “defies the typical media representation of a woman, of a fan, of a nerd, of a lesbian. She’s the best type of representation, she’s human representation.”
For all her positive attributes, however, Charlie also represents a very particular kind of fandom, one that moves away from the sorts of transformational practices Becky engages in and toward what Scott calls “affirmational” behaviors, the types of practices that industrial interests would like fan consumers to adopt (Scott). First and foremost, being a fan is fundamental to Charlie’s character. Indeed, like Becky, Charlie’s geeking is unabashed, but there’s a key difference: rather than portrayed as silly or fawning, Charlie’s fannish behavior is matter of fact: a statement rather than a squeal. And that’s in part because Charlie’s hobbies are coded within the series as male or, at least, not girly.
For example, early in her first episode, the aptly titled “The Girl with the Dungeons and Dragons Tattoo” [see what they did there?], there are several loving shots of her workspace [SLIDE 21] at Roman Enterprises in which the camera traces a mishmash collection of geek media, including a Wonder Woman bobble head, Legolas action figure, and Yoda Pez dispenser. Charlie likes what she likes, period, whether it’s video games, high fantasy novels, or women. [SLIDE 22] Charlie is a different breed of geek from Becky; she’s a hacker, a gamer, and a LARPer, whereas Becky is a fic writer and a web mistress, pastimes predominantly construed as female fan practices. Not only does Charlie have no apparent interest in fanfic, she’s definitely—unlike Becky—not a fan of the Shurley’s book series or of the Winchester boys themselves. In fact, after their first meeting, she orders Sam and Dean to never contact her again, “like, ever.”
Further, although Charlie does eventually befriend the boys, her expressed preference for women means there’s no risk she’ll ever be attracted to Sam or Dean. Becky’s desire for Sam is her first, most evident characteristic, and ultimately what leads her to be recast a threat. But, in keeping with the male-coding of Charlie’s practices, the portrayal of Charlie’s lesbianism in Supernatural resembles heterosexual male behavior—she’s characterized, essentially, as Dean without a dick. In her second appearance in “LARP and the Real Girl,” for example, we learn that they even watch the same porn. Like Dean, we see Charlie score a one-night stand, flirt shamelessly [with a beautiful creature with wings], and receive a hero’s kiss from a damsel in distress. [SLIDE 23] What we don’t see is Charlie expressing an attraction to any specific character from one of her fandoms. In this way, Charlie’s queerness supplants a heterosexual female, Becky-like desire in the portrayal of fangirls, distancing her from the “taint” of female fannish excess. Here Charlie embodies the show’s idealized version of the “quality” fan, a template for ideal fan behavior—a good fan, according to Supernatural, doesn’t loudly lust after the show’s characters in a series of online keysmashes and i can’ts and certainly doesn’t write deleted-scene fic in which the male characters get it on with one another. Thus, in an unsettling twist, Charlie’s celebrated queerness can be read as a constraint on fan power. Her carefully redirected gaze erases the thing that most fuels Supernatural fandom: female sexual desire. [SLIDE 24]
Fundamentally, removing heterosexual female desire from the equation allows Charlie to present a model of fandom in which the exercise of textual authority is no longer a threat. That is, where Becky’s attempts to alter the Winchesters’ story are vilified, Charlie displays no interest in interfering with, or revising, the brothers’ lives. Indeed, conversely, she herself shows a remarkable willingness to behave as Sam and Dean tell her to, to follow the behavioral scripts they set out for her to follow. In “The Girl with the Dungeons and Dragons Tattoo,” for example, Charlie must infiltrate the inner sanctum of Roman Enterprises in order to gain access to key information—a task she can only accomplish with Dean talking her through the operation via a Bluetooth connection. At first, he provides only logistical assistance; however, once Charlie’s progress is blocked by a male guard, Dean is thrust into the role of Cyrano. [SLIDE 25] He guides Charlie through a flirtatious, semi-seductive dialogue with the hapless guard, telling her exactly what to say—instructions she follows a little too precisely.
Dean: “You ever do anything else with your free time? Like take a girl out for a drink?”
Charlie: “You ever do anything else with your free time?
Dean [sotto voce]: “Stop laughing Sammy.”
Charlie: “Stop laughing Sammy. Um.”
Similarly, in episode 8.11, “Pac-Man Fever,” Dean takes Charlie shopping for clothes that will allow her to pass as a [fake] FBI agent. [SLIDE 26] In a classic quick-change montage, Dean votes yay or nay on a series of outfits, eventually sticking Charlie with a shapeless, dull-colored suit much like the boys’ own. Later in the same episode, Charlie becomes stuck [SLIDE 27] in a video game–inspired dream loop inside her own mind. In order to save her, Dean intervenes, and Charlie is able to escape only after accepting the Mr. Miyagi-esque life lesson that he imparts. In this way, Charlie-as-model moves a step beyond Scott’s definition of a quality fan: not only does she evince no interest in altering the creators’—the Winchesters’—interpretation of the text, she also cedes herself to their discursive control.
And in return for ceding this power, Charlie is rewarded. She is beloved in and by the text. Several characters express admiration of her skills, she’s crowned queen of the LARP of her choice, and she’s desired by men and women alike. Most tellingly, she is showered with affection by Dean and accepted into the brothers’ lives in a way that they have never—and they would never—accept Becky. For example, Charlie manages to wrangle Dean into the conversations about his feelings he’s avoided for seasons with Sam—the type of heart-to-heart that fic writers have been scripting for years, but Charlie gets the real thing. She also exchanges Star Wars-coded “I love yous,” with Dean [SLIDE 28]. His affection for her marks Charlie as a member of the Winchester [read: Supernatural] family; she’s the “little sister [he] never wanted.” It is, as Charlie herself cheekily declares [SLIDE 29], good to be queen.
That said, a question one might ask about this kind of intertextual rewarding of particular fan practices is, as Mel Stanfill puts it, “when media companies take fans into account, what do they want fans to do?” According to Stanfill, fans are “not simply condemned or tolerated” by corporate interests, but are “managed, inserted into systems of utility,” an act she labels containment (Stanfill). In the case of Charlie, containment is attempted through positive reinforcement: love her, be like her, the text suggests, and you will be loved like her. Certainly an army of Charlie!fans and Charlie-like fans would usefully serve the primary Supernatural text. For example, enthusiastic fans who feel loved ensure good ratings, participate in trending events on Twitter to raise the show’s visibility, and win online polls, all of which keep the show in the network’s good graces and on the air. Further, Charlie’s increased presence in the “massive consumption” campaigns surrounding Supernatural points towards ongoing efforts to harness the character’s appeal (Stanfill). [SLIDE 30] In fact, Charlie is now literally in mass market production [SLIDE 31]—finally, a fangirl the show’s writers can fully control! According to Stanfill, and as we saw in Scott’s “quality fan” hypothesis, the industry seeks to normalize fandom practice toward affirmation and fixed meanings of canon. As a “quality” fan, Charlie presents an idealized model for Supernatural fan behavior, one that the text suggests is wholly endorsed by Sam and Dean. Be like Charlie: be cool, be cute, but don’t bother with fanfiction; support us, hang with us, but don’t try to control us; and above all, adore—but don’t ever interfere with—the text.
Now, we must admit that, when we first began this project, it was this point we found most unsettling [read: depressing]: that Charlie, a character who so many regard as a step forward in fan representation within Supernatural and who is widely embraced by the fandom itself, can also be read as undermining the acts of intervention and resistance that we ourselves, as fan writers and scholars, value. Further, these diagetic attempts at real-world containment reminded us of increasingly public discussions about the dissolution of “fourth wall” between fans and media producers. As the fourth wall continues to crumble, TPTB are better able to see us fans [hello] and, perhaps naturally, they want to shape us. Given that fandom has long been characterized as a space for voices and stories alternative to those found in mainstream media—namely, female and queer—we find it worrisome [though perhaps not surprising] that some of these attempts at containment eliminate two of the core drives in fandom: resistance reading and female sexual empowerment. We were also disconcerted by the willingness of many fans to, like the Winchesters, wholeheartedly [and uncritically] embrace Charlie.
Upon further reflection, however, we found that we ourselves had bought into the same logical fallacy that many media producers seem to be operating under. That is, introducing a new kind of fan does not displace the old. Indeed, as Paul Booth notes, “The contemporary mainstreaming of fandom . . . has created a new type of fan—one that may identify the dominant ideologies of the media, but also supports them. These new fans don’t replace old fans, but exist in tandem with them, complementing and working alongside them” [emphasis added] (62). That is, despite Charlie’s popularity, and the industrial attempts to install her as a “quality” model, Supernatural fandom is, in fact, filled with Beckys, Charlies, and many others that fall in between. Fandom, Booth reminds us, is a Kinsey scale, not a binary. As scholars, we need to keep this in mind, too. Like TPTB, the field of fan studies has contributed to delineating what we think a “quality” fan looks like: which is Becky. We have to be careful here, therefore; for, as Booth observes: “the presumed boundaries of fandom . . . [are] boundaries that have been defined not necessarily by fans themselves but by a particular academic apparatus that has taken a particular shine to fans and fan culture” (79). So who knows what kind of mutual pleasure a collaboration between these types of fans might lead to [as this Becky/Charlie slash fic suggests]? And perhaps even Charlie, for all her disengagement and queerness, might want to see Dean and Cas get it on.