Team Free Will Takes on Voter Suppression
by: Tanya Cook, PhD
Supernatural wrapped up its historic 15 year run last month, but tonight, the Winchesters continue the good fight with Georgia political leader Stacey Abrams. Actors Jensen Ackles (Dean Winchester), Jared Padalecki (Sam Winchester), Misha Collins (Castiel), and show creator Eric Kripke, are participating in a virtual event to help fundraise for Fair Fight, an organization founded by Abrams to fight voter suppression. Abrams started Fair Fight after losing Georgia’s gubernatorial race in 2018 to Secretary of State Brain Kemp who was in charge of voter rolls despite having a massive conflict of interest.
This event is the result of a fortuitous convergence of: celebrity and political engagement on Twitter, pandemic-influenced scheduling opportunities, and a national shift in the conversation around anti-black racism and social justice. Knowing Collins’s political leanings and based on our research into how fandoms function like social movements, this pivot was not unexpected for me and my research partner Kaela Joseph (more on that below). In terms of the celebrity engagement on Twitter variable, though, a few weeks ago Eric Kripke (creator and former show-runner of Supernatural) learned of Abrams’s love for the show.
Ackles, Padalecki, and Collins joined forces earlier this summer with Senator Cory Booker and MJ Hegar, both politicians and Supernatural fans, in a fundraising/get out the vote effort. Collins and company also hosted conversations with candidate Andrew Yang and Senator Doug Jones and even phone banked for democratic candidates ahead of the 2020 election.
Collins has been outspokenly political throughout his tenure on the show, and is a former White House intern. That said, in previous election cycles, while Collins expressed personal political opinions, most explicitly opposing President Donald Trump, the other Supernatural stars did not. Previously, Collins’ efforts were mostly around get-out-the vote and other bipartisan efforts. What shifted things this year, however, were what I have heard some call the “dual pandemics” of anti-black racism and COVID.
Many fan studies folks (including Kaela and me) have written about how fandom is inherently political. The way that fans express themselves, define what it means to be a fan, and interact with the products they love and one another, are all political acts. We have studied and written about how those individual actions add up to collective action, activism, and charity work in fandoms — in other words how fandom blurs the lines between the institutions of market, politics, art, and service work. This year, however, after the murder of George Floyd and the renewed Black Lives Matter marches and protests, the norms around public political participation were redefined.
As Dr. Ibram X. Kendi put it:
“But there is no neutrality in the racism struggle…One either allows racial inequities to persevere, as a racist, or confronts racial inequities, as an antiracist. There is not in between safe space of ‘not racist.’ The claim of ‘not racist’ neutrality is a mask for racism.” — Kendi, How to be an AntiRacist
It was no longer acceptable among many Americans to opt out of expressing support for Black Lives Matter and actively committing to the work of antiracism. Those in positions of social and cultural privilege were expected to lead by example in denouncing police brutality, educating themselves, and backing their statements with antiracist action. Not saying anything led the public to assume you were on the side of the status quo, in this case on the wrong side of social justice.
I assume that the Supernatural folks have long held values they are now being much more explicit and public about. Collins, especially, has intentionally created his celebrity persona to leverage the power of fandom toward social good (a phenomenon we have labeled a ‘starticipant’). The reason Ackles, Padalecki, Collins, and Kripke are vocal and explicitly Political now, though, has everything to do with what is socially expected of them as wealthy people of privilege who have a lot of influence. In other words, they are not just able to be political, they are expected to be, and they can turn the volume up on their microphones much louder than most of us.
So how does a genre show about two monster-hunting brothers end up blurring those institutional lines between consumer markets, activism, and civic engagement? The answer, in part, is the emotional energy created among the fandom. The Supernatural finale, while satisfying for some, was deeply disturbing and hurtful for others. Wherever folks land on the finale reaction spectrum, one thing is certain, the passion and intensity of emotion it brought up are exactly what has made this series successful. Hoping to leverage that energy, the series leads — Jensen Ackles, Jared Padalecki, and Misha Collins — continue to engage with fans on social media platforms in order to lasso fandom into their new projects. Supernatural fans are no strangers to rallying for social good. After recognizing fan passion and engagement both on Twitter and at conventions, Collins’ founded GISH, the Greatest International Scavenger Hunt in part to benefit non-profit Random Acts. Together Supernatural fans and their networks have worked together to save over 50,000 acres of Rainforest, fund a girls’ school in Nicaragua, and literally rescue folks from Hurricane Harvey. As we wrote in our chapter of Zubernis’s There’ll be Peace When You are Done, this is the legacy of Supernatural and the way the fandom will continue to save people, and possibly, the world.