The “Profound Bond” between Power and Pleasure—Fanservice in Supernatural

Paper presented at National Pop Culture & American Culture Association Conference, April 2012, Boston, Massachusetts.

In The History of Sexuality, Michel Foucault writes of “the pleasure that comes of exercising a power that questions, monitors, watches, spies, searches out, palpates, brings to light; and on the other hand, the pleasure that kindles at having to evade this power, flee from it, fool it, or travesty it. The power that lets itself be invaded by the pleasure it is pursuing; and opposite it, power asserting itself in the pleasure of showing off, scandalizing, or resisting. Capture and seduction, confrontation and mutual reinforcement: parents and children, adults and adolescents, educators and students, doctors and patients, the psychiatrist with his hysteric and his perverts have all played this game continually since the nineteenth century.”

Given the pervasive influence of the entertainment media in both our twenty-first century and our personal lives, I add to Foucault’s list of players in the game of power and pleasure media producers and media fans. The internet has successfully put these two groups in communication, and in the case of the television series Supernatural the feedback loop between the show’s fans and its producers is a peculiarly tight one. But no matter how good an idea it may seem to “the powers that be,” pleasuring fans is a messy business—especially when the fan base is convinced the show’s male leads are getting it on off screen. Those are, of course, slash fans.

A few definitions, on the off chance someone here doesn’t have a LiveJournal account: Slash is the term given to the imagined romantic or sexual pairing of same-sex characters, specifically two male characters. Slash fan fiction is the exploration of those characters’ relationship through stories composed by fans and shared in online forums. The focus in this paper, for example, is the imagined relationship between Dean Winchester and the angel of the Lord Castiel—known as the Dean/Cas ’ship—the fandom that supports it, and the fan fiction it inspires. So—

To invoke Foucault is to subscribe to the idea that power is productive, that the exercise of power invites and generates a response. Often that response is the attempt to escape power, to subvert its ends or avoid its effects. It feels good to be in power. It feels good to wriggle out of power’s grasp, and the act of doing so is, in itself, an assertion of power that begs a response. “These attractions,” says Foucault, “these evasions, these circular incitements have traced around bodies and sexes, not boundaries not to be crossed, but perpetual spirals of power and pleasure.” The looping relationship between media producers and media fans exemplifies these spirals: slash fandom is a subversion of the heteronormative power the media exercise, in which fans take pleasure in assigning a sexual identity to the characters other than the one provided in canon (that is, in the source text). Fan fiction is one way this subversion is manifested. If the producers of a television show are aware of their slash following—as the Supernatural writers most certainly are—they can either work to deny and discourage slash interpretations, a practice called ’ship sinking, or they can taunt the fans with suggestive jokes and dialogue, dubbed ’ship teasing or, sometimes, queerbaiting. In response, the fan collective can resist the story provided in canon by exerting influence to change the flow of events overtly—such as the “Save Castiel” campaign launched after reports that co-star Misha Collins may be leaving the show—or they can find greater pleasure in the supplied details and incorporate them into fanfic. Drawing on seasons 6 and 7 of Supernatural, this paper examines how power and pleasure spiral between two groups of writers: those who write the script for the show and the Dean/Cas ’shippers who write fan fiction for it.

Perhaps because it’s a show developed by self-professed fanboys and girls, Supernatural keeps the pulse of its audience. Asked how fan reaction impacts the story-writing process, writer and producer Ben Edlund spoke directly of the online fan discussion, “It’s an amazing thing that the internet gives you this chance of seeing what people think . . . and that helps us play tension against viewer expectation. We want to scare people and surprise them and make them worried, so it tells us where the zeitgeist is moving so we can do a counter-move or move along with it.” One indication that the writers are, in fact, listening to fan chatter is the presence of fanservice. Fanservice is the deliberate insertion into the script of an element that does not contribute to the show’s plot, for example, but is guaranteed to give fans a thrill. At its most basic, fanservice is a quick suggestion of sex—unnecessary male shirtlessness or an attractive female who bears little on the plot but bares a lot in cleavage. While Supernatural exhibits its share of this behavior, in seasons 6 and 7 the writers have undertaken the peculiar practice of specifically servicing, or, some might say, taunting slash fans. With throwaway lines devoted to gay jokes and repeated references to a romantic relationship between Dean and Cas, the writers not only acknowledge their Dean/Cas fan base but have incorporated slash fandom’s ideology into the show’s storytelling (or, arguably, in lieu of its storytelling). There are over a dozen examples of fanservice from recent seasons—among them Dean’s “Cas get out of my ass!” line and Sam’s double-entendre teasing about Dean’s obsession with “dick”—but I’ll focus here on just a few to demonstrate fan attitudes toward fanservice and its part in the spiral of conversation between script writers and fanfic authors.

At his first appearance in season 6, in the episode “The Third Man,” Castiel arrives in response to a prayer from Dean, who’s requesting Cas’s assistance on the current case. Sam, who’d told Dean that Cas had not answered his own prayers, balks when Cas materializes in the boys’ motel room—“So what, you like him better, or something?” “Dean and I do share a more profound bond,” Cas answers, then adds, sheepishly, to Dean, “I wasn’t going to mention it.” The “profound bond” between Dean and Castiel is an example of the writers engaging in the fanservice technique ’ship teasing. And, as if on cue, Dean/Cas fangirls across the internet rejoiced over Cas’s declaration, some going so far as to declare the relationship canon. But for others, ’ship teasing is not to be trusted. The pejorative term “queerbaiting” is often applied to scenes like this one, where the writers gesture toward a queer relationship between the characters while maintaining the characters’ heterosexuality and without ever making the ‘ship “canon” (i.e., have the characters kiss on screen). These recent deliberate fanservice moments of baiting fans stand in contrast to the early subtext between Dean and Cas. As Lauren, a fanfic writer and SPN fan since season 1, explains, “There’s a difference between [fanservice and] a genuine, legitimate scene between Dean and Castiel. See season four or five, it’s full of them. These are the moments where the writers are trying to expand the plot and the characters just happen to fall charmingly into step with one another in the process of following the storyline. These,” Lauren emphasizes, “are the moments I would be more likely to use as evidence towards why Dean and Castiel are a legitimate coupling. . . . To me, fanservice is not real. It’s not canonical evidence. . . . When the writers make the characters say things for our appeasement, it’s not really the characters saying them.” Lauren’s point is corroborated by canon itself—just a few awkward moments further into the “profound bond” scene, for example, Cas says to Dean, “What, you think I came because you called? I came because of this,” and moves directly to the evidence of their case, thereby undermining the professed profundity and suggesting the exchange was less about developing character relationships than revving fans’ heart rates and generating internet chatter.

To claim fanservice isn’t “real,” however, is not to say it doesn’t have its uses. Fanservice may not be organic to the show’s story, but it decidedly becomes part of fans’ stories, tumbling into the fan-writer dialogue via fanfic. Conspicuous as they are, fanservice lines are often, and easily, quoted out of context. Aided by fangirls’ unique brand of selective memory, the lines are interpreted as unironic truths, despite the intonation of the character who delivers the line or other characters’ reactions to it. In season 6’s episode “My Heart Will Go On,” for example, Balthazar levers heavy sarcasm under his mock apology, “Sorry, you have me confused with the other angel—you know, the one in the dirty trench coat who’s in love with you?” But the salient points for Dean/Cas ’shippers are the words “in love with you” and that it’s Dean in Balthazar’s sights as he speaks (never mind Dean’s answering look of annoyed avoidance). This is, in fact, a line that launched a thousand fics—angst-filled, chaptered, epic stories in which Dean (in true Dean style) shoves down the possibility of truth in Balthazar’s words, while his denial of their “profound bond” slowly saps Cas of life. Stories in which Cas’s fear of rejection, unearthed as it was by Balthazar’s unwelcome announcement, is only relieved once Dean proves he loves Cas in return, possibly (OK, probably) by taking him to bed. Stories of misinterpretation, revelation, reconsideration; stories that all end with Dean and Cas together or coming together, recognizing something between them they hadn’t acknowledged before. These are the stories fanfic always tells, no matter what portion of the source material the author draws on. While there are brave authors in fandom who wade into the icy waters of season 6 canon, Cas’s desperation and corruption and Dean’s callousness and loss of faith in Cas had fans clinging to fanservice to keep them afloat, and praying all the while for a return to teamwork and togetherness.

And then, of course, the writers killed Castiel.

If season 6 is full of ’ship teasing, season 7 is, at pivotal points, all about ’ship sinking. In arranging his betrayal of Dean and staging Cas’s death, the writers dashed all fan hopes and “sank” the Dean/Cas ’ship—that is, introduced a canon element to destroy speculation over the pairing. As a result, legions of fangirls jumped from the fandom, swearing off the show and cursing its writers in a tide of angry internet comments. In retrospect, and with a little emotional distance, the incorporation of so much fanservice into season 6 reads as a deliberate attempt to raise fangirl hopes before the big reveal of Cas’s betrayal and his subsequent death. “They were playing up how much Dean means to Cas, and vice versa, in order to make that moment of betrayal that much more visceral,” concludes Nicole, a longtime fanfic author who joined SPN fandom specifically for the Dean/Cas dynamic. “‪All that build-up and all the investment on the part of the fans only made what happened to Cas GUT parts of fandom‬.” It’s an insidious example of the spirals at work: the writers adopted the slash ideology of Dean/Cas fans, in the form of fanservice, only to use it against them. By ostensibly pleasuring fans, the writers were, in fact, asserting their power through emotional manipulation. ‬‬‬But because we’re talking about spirals—and, specifically, in Foucault’s conception, perpetual spirals—no one ever really gets the last word. The “abuse” of power by the show’s writers led to an onslaught of counter narratives. Called “fix it” fic, these are stories that alter or ignore canon events for a more favorable outcome to ease the pain of “reality.” One series, titled “Redemption Road” and authored by a powerful fan collaborative, is billed as a “virtual” season 7, with updates structured as episodes to “rescue fans who might be apprehensive about the future of Castiel and his role on Supernatural.” Indeed, fanfic authors prefigured Castiel’s death and resurrection thousands of times before either event occurred on screen. And although hundreds of authors offered their version of Dean and Cas’s reunion and the role Cas’s anticipated amnesia might play, it’s safe to say no one predicted that Cas would show up married. I think it’s also safe to say that’s exactly what the show’s writers intended. Spoilers for “The Born-Again Identity” revealing that Cas acquired a wife in the absence of the Winchesters ensured that “even people who have ‘given up’ on the series [were] going to be watching it, just to see what happens,” says Nicole. “There is no greater pull on a fangirl than the possibility that her ’ship might be sunk/saved.”‬‬‬‬‬

It’s clear what draws fans to fanservice. Less evident is how fanservice serves the show’s writers. Given our spiral model, it must be that power and pleasure cycle back—how is this exercise of power pleasurable for the Supernatural writers? It seems to be an example of, as we heard Foucault say, “power asserting itself in the pleasure of showing off.” Fanservice is an example of indulgence. Through it the writers can exercise the knowledge acquired by eavesdropping on fandom, show fans they are hip to the slash joke, and demonstrate control by disconfirming fans’ desires. Another, perhaps more obvious, benefit is securing a loyal audience. Fanservice, even at its worst as queerbaiting, has a kind of Pavlovian effect, gaining return viewership through reward. It’s an easy pick-me-up for a disillusioned base or a way to acknowledge fan dedication. But fanservice also covers a multitude of sins. There is speculation that the recent upsurge in fanservice is a symptom of a writing staff reeling after the conclusion of the show’s intended five-season run. In this light, fanservice is a bid for the audience’s attention in the face of adversity. “Seasons 6 and 7 are a feast of fanservice,” says Lauren, “but [there’s] no over-season story arc, character development, continuity or any of those other things that generally make a show good. Sam taking off his shirt and telling us Dean and Castiel love each other does not make the show good. It makes us tolerate it for the moment we are sitting there watching it, but then when the episode is over and we ask ourselves, ‘Well, what did we think?’ the answer [is] ‘Well, I don’t remember what the plot was. But the scene where Dean wore the fedora and was all sexed up in old-timey clothes was pretty hot.’” Using fanservice to maintain an audience isn’t only about turning fans on or keeping them happy, however. As Nicole puts it, “The show doesn’t care about how we feel as long as we still watch it.” Ensuring that fans tune in on Friday nights is its own reward for the show’s writers, as healthy ratings translate to series longevity. Already two seasons beyond averting the apocalypse, Supernatural expects to be picked up for another. But distracting fans from overarching story problems and hinting at a romantic relationship that you never plan to allow onscreen only works for so long, and the continued drop in ratings throughout seasons 6 and 7 suggests the fanservice spell might be wearing off.

The truth is, slash fangirls don’t need help from the writers. Slash fans are subtext hounds—they can sniff up a trail, no matter how faint. And, as a general rule, slash fandom seeks answers for itself regarding how characters come together; it doesn’t need, or want, answers provided for it. It’s unsurprising, then, that only a small percentage of fanfic is directly inspired by fanservice. More fics are built from canon’s plot holes, possible “deleted scenes,” or spoiler speculation. It’s also interesting to note that a good deal of the Dean/Cas fanfic currently being generated still uses seasons 4 and 5—the era of those “genuine” scenes—as a launching point. The cycle can continue to spin without fanservice and, in its absence, slash fans actually have more freedom to interpret character relations, rather than having the nature of the relationship prescribed for them.

Still, fanservice isn’t wholly unwelcome in fandom. “[It] can give me a warm fuzzy feeling,” admits Maria, a European Supernatural fan, “if,” she qualifies, “used sparingly.” Indeed, the lesson of fanservice may well be the admonition against too much of good thing. Too much fanservice skews the balance of power in the fan-producer bond—with one side weighted more heavily, the spin of challenge and riposte may choke rather than churn. The fans who read and write fanfic are astute viewers. They are very aware of Supernatural’s structure, storytelling, and character dynamics. In short: they know when they’re being messed with. “We’re sensitive to people playing with our fandom allegiances in any way that might feel mocking,” says Elisa, a decided Dean-girl. A show must be careful that its fanservice winks and nudges with fans, not about them. Thus, the line between giving pleasure and creating displeasure is a fine one, and when relied on too heavily, used as a punch line too often, or dangled as a forbidden fruit too frequently, fanservice resembles not a spiral so much as a noose—it strangles dialogue, forces scenes, and, as fans begin to feel manipulated or mocked more often than entertained, slowly kills viewership. And if fanservice doesn’t serve fans, it doesn’t serve the producers, either. “I don’t expect or require fanservice,” Maria concludes. “As long as all my favorite characters are alive and kicking and the story is exciting, I’m a happy camper.” But in a media market that prizes the instant gratification of good ratings and an easy laugh, that’s precisely the danger of climbing into bed with a show as slick as Supernatural—in their own pursuit of pleasure the producers might neglect what it is fans really want: a good story.

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shannon cole © 2012