PCA/ACA 2011: SamGirls and DeanGirls: Anti-fan fans in Supernatural

This is the working draft of my presentation at this year’s PCA/ACA 2011 conference on Supernatural fans. A few notes: If you recall, I asked for responses from fans, critics, whomever related to Supernatural and its fandom sometime in March. Of course, I quickly realized that adding in a lot of quotes and context from interviews into a 12 minute presentation doesn’t really gel. So while I appreciate all those responses and the directions they sent me and still have them for future work on this paper, there is very little of that information here. Secondly, as you might recognize, this presentation bares resemblance to the work I did with Smallville fans some months ago. You can check out that post here. There’s a longer version of this paper that I had originally written that I will possibly add back in over the coming days, I just wanted to get this version of it up since I had so many people asking me for it. I am a people pleaser after-all. I most certainly want to continue working on this project, so leave your comments below.

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During my undergraduate career, I worked at the Indiana University student newspaper as a television critic/reviewer, where I continually vouched for Supernatural. Near the end of 2008, I wrote a blog post for the paper about the top 50 things of the year and on that countdown was “Jensen Ackles’ performance on Supernatural.” I also unfortunately noted that he had been “carrying” the series over the past few seasons. Oh boy. Somehow the post got picked up by a few fan sites, and by the time that I actually logged in again, the post had over 50 comments, which for a brand-new blog at a student newspaper is shocking. Outspoken supporters for Jared Padalecki’s Sam were (rightfully) calling me out, just as the Ackles/Dean supporters had my back. Before long, the commenters had disregarded the content of my post all together and starting fighting amongst themselves about the inequalities in the writing for each character and who was actually “the favorite” of creator Eric Kripke. Both sides felt like “their” boy had been screwed over, either by me, the writing staff, the CW, the fans and dozens of other people.

This short example frames my presentation well. We expect texts to have their die-hard fans and their fervent detractors. We expect die-hards to write the fan fiction, make the YouTube video mash-ups, send out a constant stream of Tweets and create the interactive, collective intelligence communities that Henry Jenkins has written about. On the other end of the spectrum, we expect the haters to find all the ammunition they can, whether it’s terrible reviews or bad ratings, to bring a text and a fandom down. Scholar Jonathan Gray calls these ardent haters “anti-fans,” and notes that “Cleary, anti-fans construct an image of the text…sufficiently enough that they can react to and against it…[anti-fans] find cause for their dislike in something,” whether that be the genre, the stars, the writing or something else entirely. We also expect the die-hard fans and the anti-fans to be the two extreme ends of a spectrum without much overlap between the two. However, thanks to the world of online fandom, the distinctions between the fan and anti-fan are blurring.

The primary catalyst for the melding of these previously diametrically-opposed groups is “shipping.” Because they can ardently support a specific pairing, shippers quickly become opposed to other pairings that could undercut their primary “ship.”  However, as shippers oppose specific characters or pairings, they do so because they think their ship is better for the characters, and the text as a whole. The conflicting shipper groups create a landscape where certain fans are anti-fans of specific characters and relationships, but still die-hard fans of the text as a whole. Meaning, instead of die-hard fans and anti-fans existing as polar opposites, fans can exist as both in the same space, creating the anti-fan fan. Though the series’ lacks a primary “ship,” Supernatural and its fans still represent the ideals of the anti-fan fan through the fissure between those individuals who identify themselves as “SamGirls” and “DeanGirls.” As the comments from my misguided blog post from 2008 suggest, there are fans who feel connected to one character and actor. Although that might mean they strongly dislike how the series reportedly favors the other lead character/actor, it does not necessarily change how these fans feel about Supernatural as a whole.

The battle between SamGirls and DeanGirls, powers conversations on series-specific LiveJournals like SPN Anon, but also pops up in the comments sections of mainstream web sites like EntertainmentWeekly.com, TVGuide.com, etc. and apparently even the smaller spaces on the internet like my former college newspaper’s TV-centric blog. The arguments between the two groups have exploded so much over the years that each side has their own private web sites, LiveJournals, etc. that allow them to enjoy their specific Winchester brother without the hostility of the group. And even other online communities (such as the Oh No You Didn’t! sub-forum on LiveJournal) have popped up with explicit rules that no one let their SamGirl or DeanGirl flags fly.

For evidence of my claim about SamGirls and DeanGirls, I will primarily be using statements and posts free and open to the public on message boards, LiveJournals, etc. With more time and research, I hope to conduct some in-depth interviews with Supernatural fans, but for the purposes of this short presentation, I will focus on the fans’ own activities and productions. Taken at face value, we can assume that the Supernatural fan discussions online represents some realistic activity that regularly occurs within this community.

The anti-fan fans within Supernatural fandom certainly complicate Jonathan Gray’s definition of “anti-fan” in a few ways. In his construction of the anti-fan, Gray argues that although sometimes anti-fans have never watched the text they so vehemently oppose, their knowledge and hatred comes from the “paratext.” Meaning, anti-fans can further their hatred of a text by passively consuming articles, tweets, Facebook statuses, blog posts or anything even partially related. With the bottomless pit of information that is the internet, it is easy to know a lot about and hate something without ever having to read one page or watch one second. However, the SamGirls and DeanGirls are far from passive consumers of knowledge about Supernatural, no matter what paratextual source it comes from. This helps us define them as anti-fan fans more than just anti-fans. These groups are not only active consumers of both the primary text and the paratext, but they also use the paratextual spaces to help further their SamGirl- or DeanGirl-related agendas in hopes of gaining more knowledge or “evidence” to use against the other group.

It appears that the one primary instigator for most discussions between “SamGirls” and “DeanGirls” is the text itself, meaning the narrative of Supernatural. The treatment of Sam and Dean, how they are written, who gets the “more important” stories within individual episodes and across seasons and all things related to the writing and production of the episodes seem to spur on most of the arguments. There are identifiable secondary flash-points between the groups as well, most importantly the acting ability and physical appearance of the actors. Both groups feel like they have legitimate ammunition for both the long-running primary and secondary arguments. For example, on a June 2010 post that I wrote on my new site summing up the series’ fifth season, one commenter named Lisa had this to say about the last few seasons:

“It wasn’t for no reason Sam was neglected. Kripke was doing fanservice by reading TWOP like the Bible in regards of what fans wanted, Hence the show was made the Dean show and the ratings started falling. The End [a season five episode] was supposed to forever alter the course of the show and it flunked in the ratings which made the Warner relieve Kripke from his duties…That is also why this season felt so very uneven. Kripke wanted one thing, ratings spoke another language and Kripke was forced to adapt. Padalecki was the stronger actor from the beginning; you just need to see what he was given to act when it mattered. Ackles is good but he’s good at doing one type of character only…He’s overly dramatic and very repetitive in his crying scenes by the Impala, or dropping his pants in juvenile humor scenes… And when the rabid Ackles fans find this blog, you will be salted and burned!”

Poster Cecily replied to Lisa, arguing for Dean/Jensen and against Lisa’s Sam/Jared affiliations:

“Lisa is making it up. She goes around making the same claims all the time. She did it in Season 4 too, where she claimed the ratings were down when in fact they were clearly UP and that was why they got a fast renewal and everyone was so surprised. Season 4, the season that focused for the first time on Dean having a role of his own in the mytharc and brought us Castiel, is the second highest rated season after Season 1. Season 5′s ratings are down from Season 4, yet this season was more focused on building Sam’s role up again because of their planned ending than it did on Dean. Kripke was not relieved of showrunner duties..”

These are the kind of comments that defines the anti-fan fans in Supernatural. Lisa and Cecily’s comments are noticeably antagonistic towards one another – heck, it appears that the two of them actually know one another from previous engagements – and they are each on one side of this Sam/Dean war that rages all over the internet. Their roles and allegiances are clearly defined and they have no problem arguing their position. Both commenters try to use evidence from inside the text (such as episode details and actor performances) and from outside of it (such as ratings) to prove their point, which makes this a cordial, but still antagonistic dialogue. Although Cecily accuses Lisa of “making things up,” their use of actual evidence keeps this from totally devolving into a stereotypical internet flame war. And despite the muted hostility between the SamGirls and DeanGirls, neither person mentions an outright hatred for Supernatural as a whole. They have clearly defined frustration with specific characters and how the writers treat those characters, but it is obvious that their fervent reactions to the opposite side and their quick defenses of their side represent a passion for the series as a whole.

Another major example of the fissures between the two groups has occurred during the most recent season. After Kripke ended his intended five-season arc, longtime producer Sera Gamble took over as the day-to-day showrunner. Gamble is identified as someone who favors Sam/Jared over Dean/Jensen and when her promotion was announced, the fan reaction was loud and conflicting. EW.com’s February 2010 story on the matter has nearly 300 comments, many of them powered by the SamGirl/DeanGirl debates about Gamble’s allegiances. Commenter Sarah wrote “So with Sera Gamble running the show it’s gonna be ALL Sam ALL the time…*sighs*. Oh well, there goes my happy excitement for season 6,” which was quickly responded to by rocksnroses, who said “Instead of the last 2 seasons of “ALL Dean ALL the time? I’ll take it, happily.” Countless follow-up comments questioned Gamble’s ability to write and run the series, as many commenters pushed for the promotion of supposedly “non-biased” writers like Ben Edlund. A few commenters went as far to acknowledge that they might not actually watch season six at all. Again, this example represents how the arguments between these two groups get started. These fans have read their personal beliefs and allegiances about the series into not only the text, but those who create the text. Both camps believe certain writers pay more attention and respect to certain characters and if things do not go how some of these fans hope, they are willing to actually boycott Supernatural.

There is no way to tell if the boycotters actually went through with it, but their comments are still important in showing how fans react so strongly. Gray acknowledges that “dislike is potentially as powerful an emotion and a reaction is like,” but in the case of the anti-fan fans, those powerful emotions are clashing together on the macro- and micro-levels. The fans threatening to not watch the series in season six were not haters of the series, but die-hard lovers and supporters of it, and if the writing staff was going to be different (i.e. in their mind, bias), they could not bear to watch the object of their affection change for the worse. On the micro-level, these individuals might feel strong dislike or hate towards Sam/Jared or Dean/Jensen or even the writers who reportedly support one or the other. However, on the macro-level, they love the series too much to watch it be “ruined.” This love makes the boycotters not haters, but complicated anti-fan fans.

Throughout message board posts and comments, the goal for each group is to “win,” or one-up the other. This can happen through the actions of the fans themselves or in the events of the primary text and paratexts. One of the most notable ways these victories are accomplished are through the ratings data for new episodes, which are readily available on by web sites like TVByTheNumbers.com. The comments I read earlier both used ratings as one of the primary nuggets of argumentation, with one noting they had gone down and the other noting they had gone up. Both fans believed the hard, cold data of ratings “proved” that their fandom group was the one in the right, even if that meant in theory that the series was closer to cancelation. We do not expect fans to be trumpeting the declining ratings of their favorite series, but in this case, each episode’s ratings are analyzed by the two groups in hopes of “winning” for the week. This fascination with the ratings data is again tied to the characters/actors themselves. So if an episode that heavily features Dean dips in the ratings even a little bit, the SamGirls are there to take note of it and vice versa.

These struggles for “wins” see the two groups attempt to gain some form of distinction and subcultural capital over one another. Subcultural capital, as discussed by Sarah Thornton, centers on members of a subculture distinguishing themselves through certain knowledge, skills or taste that makes them look “better” or “more authentic” in comparison to other members of that subculture. Thornton constructs her definition of subcultures and subcultural capital in opposition to the mythical “mainstream,” but her work still applies here because SamGirls and DeanGirls exist as sub-subcultures within the larger fan culture that is Supernatural fandom. Therefore, when episodes predominantly focus on Sam, SamGirls feel like they have gained some distinction or upper-hand because they are so invested in Padalecki’s Sam that a positive moment for the character/actor also serves as a positive moment for the fans.

The struggles for distinction have had their impacts not just on the individual SamGirl and DeanGirl sub-groups, but on the fandom as a whole. Both groups still interact with one another, but a good number of fans, both inside and outside of the SamGirl/DeanGirl wars have decided to step away or create separate spaces. For the fans on the outside of this battle, it appears to be all about creating a space where the series can be discussed on an level playing field, where both actors are awesome and attractive and the writing is objectively analyzed. Meanwhile, SamGirls and DeanGirls are separating themselves from the pack as well, opening up character-specific LiveJournals and blogs to avoid dealing with those who disagree with their object of affection.

A negative perspective would suggest that this fissuring between the two groups breaks up Jenkins’ benefits of collective intelligence. Dividing up the fans means also dividing up their minds and ideas and avoids intelligent, but conflicting discourse; this is in direct violation of Jenkins’ suggestions about the open, empowering digital space for fans. However, I choose not to look at the development of Supernatural’s fandom as a wholly negative experience. One could argue that the vitriol between the groups just fuels discussion and discourse more. It is a touchy subject, but touchy subjects can get people talking nonetheless. There are positive real-world impacts of this tension as well, from the super-long lines at conventions to the fact that the series’ has survived into a sixth and is on its way to getting a seventh season, despite never getting much promotional support from its network or the mainstream television critics. Earlier this year, the Supernatural fandom helped the series win TV Guide’s first-ever “you pick the cover” contest. Many Supernatural fans might not be able to agree on their favorite character or how that character is treated within the text, but they can agree on their love for the series, and it shows. This all suggests that Jenkins’ positive outlook for participatory fan communities exists within Supernatural fandom. The so-called collective intelligence pool might not be as deep or as long as it could be, but under the circumstances, it still exists in a substantial way.

The line between super-fan and anti-fan is blurring more so than ever before, thanks to the broad, expansive locale of the internet. Opposing groups can flame one another on neutral ground or retreat to their specific spaces, but all in the name of their love for the series as whole. These fans’ impacts might not be wholly positive, but they are also not wholly negative. Much like the blurred lines between fan and anti-fan, their influence is probably somewhere in the complicated, conflicting middle. 

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