As Supernatural wraps up its record-setting 15 year run, we wanted to share our thoughts on the show as both fans and academics. Luckily, Lynn Zubernis offered us the opportunity to write a chapter for her latest edited volume on the legacy of Supernatural. There’ll be Peace When You Are Done was released May 5th and includes essays by actors and fans on how the show has changed our lives. In this post, we share a brief overview of our chapter and our personal experiences with the show and fandom.
I found Supernatural at a particularly low point in my professional life. I was nearing the end of my graduate training, and despite doing well in my program overall, I was struggling to match to an internship (a necessary step in completing my degree in clinical psychology). It was the first time I really felt like I had “failed” on such a significant scale, causing me to question my future in the field, and all of the hard work I put in up to that point.
I tuned into Supernatural for the first time as I was putting together my first round of internship application materials. I caught the end of season 2 in reruns on TNT, and I was instantly hooked. At first, it was just a daly respite from my grad-school stress, daly reruns on my DVR to round out my work-filled weekdays. As is often the case with good TV, however, I started to watch a little more avidly, which led me to the fandom and conventions.
When I attended my first Supernatural convention in 2012, I had never attended a fan convention before, mostly because I knew little about them. If I’m honest, I booked that first trip because I wanted to see gorgeous celebrities, and a short trip to Los Angeles sounded like an excellent break that would happen right after internship match day. I joked with a friend that it would either be a nice celebration if I matched, or the perfect reset button if I didn’t. When the latter happened, Supernatural changed my life.
It would take me three rounds of applications to eventually match with an internship, which translates into two additional, unplanned years in graduate school. I watched nearly a whole cohort of friends and future colleagues move on without me. I was Dean watching Sammie move away while I was stuck fighting the same old ghosts and demons. What that time allowed me, however, was the opportunity to grow and to find the person and psychologist I would become, rather than just taking the road that had been laid out for me.
In this time, conventions became more than a vacation. They became the reason I took crafting supplies out of dusty boxes and started making art again for the first time in years, a process I wrote about in the essays that eventually landed me the interviews I needed to match to internship. Through conventions, I built the confidence to join a GISH and dive into the most creative and unique parts of myself with reckless abandon. As I moved forward in my career, GISH was this presence in my life that assured me anything was possible if I just kept fighting for it and asked for some help; whether it seemed like there was no way we were going to be able to make a car look like it was breakdancing (GISH), or whether it seemed like there was no way I was going to get a transgender clinic off the ground with limited resources (my eventual job).
One day, my fandom world and my professional world collided! I had read Fandom at the Crossroads by Katherine Larsen and Lynn Zubernis, and saw that the things I was experiencing at conventions were studyable. There were other women who were having experiences like mine, even other queer women who loved this show about (mostly) men. This is how I ultimately met Tanya, reaching out over a Tweet about her research because, just like with GISH, it never hurts to try something, right?
I am not a “casual viewer” of television. I never have been. I either love something and put my “whole ass” into loving it as Ron Swanson of Parks and Rec would say, or it doesn’t appear on my radar. Supernatural was a bit of an exception to this rule for me. I have always been a huge fan of scifi and fantasy, pop culture and movies in particular, but after I had three children in five years, my days of seeing new release movies in the theater were limited. Fortunately for me, the years I was taking care of young kids coincided with a new golden age of television and increasing availability of content via streaming services and DVD rentals.
I had heard about Supernatural from a friend and remember seeing the original promo for it on what was then the WB network. It had hit my radar, if you will, but I dismissed it as a show about pretty men fighting monsters, all style, no substance. I was an Adult, dang it, and I watched “Adult Shows” like Deadwood and Lost. And YES, okay, lesson learned not to judge something by a first impression, and to get over my own internalized judgey voice about what was and wasn’t appropriate entertainment for a middle aged person.
Supernatural had been in my Netflix queue for months when I finally started watching it in early 2014. My oldest child, then 12, had a friend who was really into the show and seemed to also love all the shows I did as a younger person — Buffy, Angel, Star Trek: The Next Generation. I think I originally decided to watch it to make sure the content was appropriate for my kid. I kept hearing about how much I would love the character “Castiel” from my kid and his friend, and I was like, he doesn’t show up until Season 4, how am I supposed to wait that long?! I thought the show was cool and the leads were certainly not hard to look at, but I wasn’t a big fan of the Monster of the Week format. But I kept watching and by the end of Season 1, I definitely loved it with my “whole ass.” Little did I know at that point how much this show would shape the next six years of my life.
I blasted through the eight seasons available on Netflix and then purchased the 9th season on Amazon so that I could watch the episodes close to when they aired. I fell head first into the fandom, seeking out fandom content online and learning about this weird scavenger hunt that Misha Collins ran every year. That summer, my family participated in our first GISH and my kids and I attended Denver Comic Con in cosplaying as characters from Supernatural.
The more I learned about GISH and Collins’s non profit organization, Random Acts, the more I thought this was something special. As a sociologist, I have a background that includes social movement studies. When a friend asked me for some advice on a proposal she was submitting about the mythology of Supernatural to a conference, it hit me — what Supernatural fans were doing through GISH and online, what they experienced at conventions, was not substantively different from what people who become activists experience through social movement participation. I ended up writing my own proposal for the conference and presenting the initial ideas for what would become our research project, Always Keep Nerd Fighting, at the PCA/ACA’s annual meeting in Seattle. Then, thanks to a fan who tweeted at Misha Collins, this happened:
I thought it was a joke at first. I mean, it was a joke, but I thought someone pretending to be Misha was messing with me. But then my social media and email inbox…um, exploded?, and suddenly I was at the center of a transformative fandom moment. As an academic, we are not used to this kind of spotlight, and I think I literally went and hid in my hotel room for several hours. It was also surreal to have this kind of attention for work I’d just started rather than just finished. Fortunately, Kaela reached out after seeing Misha’s post, and we got started on the project.
Thinking back, it surprised me at first how many fans of Supernatural are women. Okay, yes, I am aware of how attractive Jared and Jensen are, but the show seemed geared toward that targeted demographic of 18–35 year old men that seems to only exist in some sort of marketing mirror dimension. Part of what turned me off initially about the show was the male gaze, the sexism, toxic masculinity, and Dean’s womanizer persona. Thankfully, the longevity of Supernatural has led the show to hold up a mirror to its treatment of women, if you will, and amend many of its early mistakes. Many women, myself included, also identify with both Sam and Dean as individuals. Those of us from working poor, working class, rural, and lower middle class backgrounds grew up knowing that although our work was crucial for society, we would never be thanked for it and instead would forever be marginalized outsiders. And who are bigger outsiders than Team Free Will?
Our chapter in There’ll Be Peace explores how the show has grappled with gender and sexism in critical dialog with the largely female-identified fan base. Supernatural fans, through their interaction with one another and the actors online and in person at conventions, have become a community of like-minded individuals whose collective identity as fans includes a normative expectation of community engagement and charity work. While there are certainly divisions among groups of fans and not all fans are active in GISH and other volunteerism, enough of them are that they have become a self-sustaining critical mass of social action. The legacy of Supernatural is the fandom and their inspiring work to Save People in their communities and beyond.
There’ll Be Peace is available here.