Catherine Tosenberger talks about “Supernatural”

This is cross-posted to my LJ here.

Sequential Tart’s Suzette Chan has just published an interview with acafan Catherine Tosenberger entitled “Supernatural love: Catherine Tosenberger on Sam and Dean’s transformative love story.”

Tosenberger published an essay on Supernatural in the first issue of Transformative Works and Cultures (TWC) entitled “‘The epic love story of Sam and Dean’: Supernatural, queer readings, and the romance of incestuous fan fiction,” and it is among the most viewed articles on the site: 11,020 views as I write this. She is also guest editing a special Supernatural issue of TWC entitled “Saving People, Hunting Things,” planned for spring 2010 (call for papers here, and fannish meta is absolutely welcome).

In ST’s interview, Tosenberger talks a bit about TWC and why it fills an important niche, and she discusses fan engagement with the show. Her call for papers for TWC’s special SPN issue is linked too! She speaks generally about such things as fan fiction, so the article is a good, informed overview of topics of interest to people interested more generally in fan studies, especially those just entering the field.

But for most of the interview, Tosenberger discusses specific things about SPN, such as characterization, fan engagement (and yes, she touches on J2 RPS), and story arcs, including a season 4 arc that dealt head-on with what she calls the main characters’ “emotionally incestuous relationship.” The show’s tight focus on the two main characters provides an emotional center to the show:

When you talk about that externalization, that shows up on Supernatural in the monsters and the ghosts they fight, but it’s always commenting back on Sam and Dean’s own relationship. The concept of two guys who are in some way, shape or form isolated from the rest of society and have to depend on each other is a really common factor in a lot of classic slash fandom, that sense of isolation and the way it can break down the traditional masculine heterosexual barriers. […] But Sam and Dean? It ratchets it up several notches: they are each other’s entire universes.

The show’s big success, I think, comes from the dual nature of the storytelling: in addition to compelling individual stories that are themselves arranged into season-long arcs, it is also emotionally rich and complex. If a story doesn’t work on the level of story, then the satisfaction that watchers gain from the show’s emotional aspect may suffice.

ST’s interview came at the perfect time: last Thursday’s episode, 4.18 “The Monster at the End of This Book,” was a fabulous meta episode, with the first 9 or 10 minutes of the show being about fan reaction to the series. It directly addresses Sam girls, Dean girls, slash fanfic (Dean: “What’s a slash fan?” Sam: “As in Sam slash Dean. Together.”) edging into Wincest (Dean: “They do know we’re brothers, right?” Sam: “Doesn’t seem to matter.”), and the brothers’ emotional intimacy.

I am convinced that at about 9:15p last Thursday night, that sharp keening noise heard up and down the East Coast was the squee of fangirls, exclaiming aloud in utter joy that SPN knew all about them, and valued SPN fandom enough to write it into the ep as homage and not as freak show. (It doesn’t hurt that we get to see Sam and Dean pretend to be fanboys.) The episode is also intriguing because it’s one of those metaepisodes, where someone is writing existence into being (you can read a spoilery plot synopsis here). I’ve seen this trope used over and over, and I always like its self-reflexivity, but SPN does it one better by cleverly embedding it into the show’s angel–demon milieu…and by talking about fans OMG, even giving a fangirl a face and voice: that of Keegan Connor Tracy. But this isn’t just any fangirl: it’s a fangirl who is fan while also being producer and gatekeeper. She has power by having something Sam and Dean need, and she isn’t going to give it away to anyone unworthy.

In addition, Entertainment Weekly‘s latest issue, dated April 10, 2009, has a SPN article. The article focuses more on season 4’s angel–demon arc, which resulted in a 13% audience increase (30), and notes that executive producer Eric Kripke, not to mention the two leads, Jared Padalecki and Jensen Ackles, want to end the show after 5 seasons. Although the emotional bond between the brothers is a hugely important aspect of the show, it’s clear—and EW even comes out and says this in general spoilers about the season 4 finale—that the two of them are going to do battle. This article is not as respectful to fans as I might like, choosing instead to go the extreme route so common in mainstream journalism: the article provides an example of a stalkery fan who conned her way onto the set, and it says of the whole incest fan fiction thing, “There’s also a unique and very creepy subset of romantic fan fiction dedicated to siblings Sam […] and Dean […] called ‘Wincest’—the less said about it the better” (30).

Actually not, as Tosenberger’s interview makes plain. The more said about that, the better, if you ask me: the whole notion of Wincest begs for analysis—like this remark by Tosenberger:

This show is putting the incest really front and centre. In the first two seasons, whenever they referenced the Sam/Dean subtext, it was always in this jokey way. It was always, a-ha-ha, the boys are being taken for a gay couple: isn’t that funny? It was always there, but it was always played for laughs. But this season, it’s starting to get deadly serious. “Sex and Violence” didn’t play off the connections between Dean’s love for Sam, and how every single other model of love that we saw the siren invoking was romantic, sexual love. It just played it absolutely straight-faced and very tragic and miserable.

I had to be dragged into SPN kicking and screaming, but now that I’m caught up, I’m with Tosenberger and the other fans of the show: TV is the best genre for densely layered, emotionally rich, long-form storytelling, and these texts show us that it’s possible to link storytelling with nuanced, changeable human characters. Thanks to ST for running the interview, and thanks to Tosenberger for taking on the role of acafan ambassador.

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