director's cut of a tumblr post from last week

Sep 18, 2013 23:04

This a subject that I've  had so many thoughts about for so long that I could never quite figure out how to pin them all down into a structure. Then I spitballed a reblog on tumblr a while back and, because I was just intending to make a quick comment, ended up accidentally forcing myself into organization. So here is the greatly-expanded version of the same general idea.

I think the ways all three leads do and don’t play with gender roles are extremely interesting. As individuals, Dean, I would argue, has a psychological profile with a lot of traits tending to be more heavily associated with women, and Cas, as an angel and therefore an inherently genderless being who acquires maleness and masculinity, can be read as an exploration of how being a man is socially learned. Sam, by contrast, plays a structurally feminine role. Examples below.

The Stanford Debacle: This idea that a desire for book-learnin’ on the part of the the least-empowered family member is a desertion, a betrayal, them getting above themselves with their aspirations of intellectual and financial autonomy, is frequently wielded against women. (Swap out some pronouns - you’re too much of a demon, your friends will know what you are, this is just a phase to get at us - and you effectively have Tara Maclay’s storyline in the Buffy episode Family.)

Monstrous Sexuality: This one actually starts out in the Winchester backstory as well. It’s seemed to me that John’s policy of keeping Sam in the dark about monsters was not just gaslighting, but had some parallels with old-school attitudes about sex and childbirth, where children would live in environments where they’d know people were put in danger, and sometimes died awfully, but be kept in the dark about how or why. Sam would know that John would come home hurt and that Dean would be on edge, but John’s intention was that Sam wouldn’t know why his family members were in constant danger or why his mother died, even though he was of course expected to grow up into that life without question. The “monsters are real” flashbacks were situated as a “there’s no Santa” moment, but it struck me just as being just as applicable to a kid finding out where babies come from and not liking it a bit.

Our acceptance of the characters' later characterization of this state of affairs as Sam as having been "protected" as a young child becomes a lot less tenable under this framework. The years of lying to Sam about the existence of demons doesn't sound to me like a family that decides to play along with the tooth fairy story. That's one, fairly benign, story which can lay on top of an honest discussion of the world around them. Given that the existence of and danger posed by demons is the central fact of their daily lives, lying about that strikes me as some full-on Yellow Wallpaper shit.

So obviously he learns some fucked-up attitudes he carries into his later life, where he develops a pattern of attraction to the abhorred Other: his sexuality is marked as “deviant” in a way that is commonly used to police women. This culminates in the (clearly abusive) relationship with Ruby, where Sam’s sexuality becomes the symbolic locus of his corruption.

Turning to viewer reactions about Sam/Ruby, it s remarkable to me that the IKWYDLS was taken by a significant minority of fandom as a reason to condemn the poor guy. It struck me as clearly being an exploitative beginning to a relationship which was not even arguably anything other than abusive. I struggle a bit to sign on to the reading of the encounter as an unambiguous rape, but I think the argument has a lot of merit, to the point where I experience some healthy discomfort with my own reading of it. (nb: I ultimately go down a different tack from this for a couple of reasons, only some of which I am comfortable with. The first is that we see the scene through Sam’s POV, so we know he perceived himself as having had agency in the whole thing, and I'm uncomfortable defining the incident so hard against his own perception of it. And yet - he is incredibly psychologically compromised, he's drinking, he says no a whole bunch of times; I'm really uncomfortable ignoring that, too.)

This is a part of the story that seems to cause a lot of viewers a lot of understandable discomfort, but it's something I really appreciate. IMO, the erosion of Sam’s sexual agency is a purposeful part of this story about the horror of having one’s personal autonomy attacked and undermined to the extent that Sam experiences. While this is difficult to watch, I appreciate that the show is acknowledging that sexual control and exploitation are not inherently tied to the typical male-perp/female-victim romantic dyad, and that sexual policing, abuse, and assault happen on a continuum which is both a means to and result of oppressive control.

Lucifer’s vessel: Vesseldom is a fairly straightforward examination of objectification, which is ofc highly relevant to women’s lives and narratives. This was powerfully tied to an exploration of rape culture through the not-really-consensual aspects of angelic possession - Lucifer stalks, berates, intimidates, holds the whole world hostage in pursuit of a formal “yes.” The people around Sam, though they claim to be supportive of him, interpret his experience as the hottest commodity in town not as an aggressive affront to Sam’s personhood, but with heightened suspicion of his “weakness,” treating his experience as a reason to preemptively other and shame him for the inevitable “giving in.”

Although the primary relationship between the two characters of Sam and Lucifer is victim/victimizer, there are also numerous narrative parallels between the two, and I'd argue that Sam's association with Lucifer also locates him as being outside of and opposed to normative American masculinity. Certainly there is nothing inherently feminine or feminist about hereticism. However, some level of defiance of patriarchal religious orthodoxy is necessary (though not sufficient) to challenge patriarchy. Even laying aside the general (and valid) point that even by American Judeo-Christian standards generally, the theology of the SPN verse is deeply patriarchal, the eventual Michael-vs-Lucifer conflict is heavily gendered. Michael s possession of John situates his line as being patrilineal. Therefore, as per MBV, it is implied that the Lucifer connection comes through the Campbells, from Mary down to Sam. And indeed, Mary s attempt to leave the life is a rebellious (heretical) break from Samuel in the same way as Sam s is from John; her initial yes to Azazel is both the thematic echo of Lilith s and Eve s mythical corruption by the Morning Star and the in-universe beginning of the chain reaction ending in Sam s own yes to Lucifer. For all the telling that Dean is his mother s son and Sam his father s, S5 structurally positions Sam within the matriarchal line.

Soulless: After surviving the trauma of S5, Sam’s psychological autonomy and emotional unavailability, as expressed specifically by his unconstrained sexuality and matrilineal alignment with the Campbells over the Winchester nuclear family unit, are construed as literal “soullessness.”  Like an overly-independent mid-20th-century woman forced into ECT, Sam is effectively forcibly lobotomized - in a scene disturbingly reminiscent of a rape scene, no less - when he is re-ensouled and his memory wiped against his will. For his own good, the sake of his immortal soul, no less.

On a less miserable note, I do think that Robosam's hyper-sexuality was an intense exploration of sex as personal ownership. He has a massive FUCK YOU, YOU DON'T OWN ME chip on his shoulder, which makes a ton of sense. Sam learned in Swan Song that so many of the people he tried to have a safe emotional tie with (because his ties with his family, then and now, were extremely unsafe) were actually Lucifer's plants. I suppose it's possible that wasn't true, that Lucifer was trying to mess with Sam enough to kep him under control until the battle with Michael was over, but Sam clearly believes it, and since he was inside Lucifer's head at the time I don't see any reason to believe it was a lie. So I don't think the long string of mostly-anonymous sex partners was just about physical pleasure. I think he was very deliberately trying to prove to himself that he could have superficial connections that weren't going to be used to jerk him around. This also explains why he starts in with the hookers after he starts working with Dean again. If it was really about maximizing rewards and minimizing costs, he wouldn't have insisted on paying the girl. I think even the tentatively re-establishment those real emotional ties with Dean, however much more distant Dean felt like they were, was a big threat to Sam's post-SS equilibrium that pushed him to exercise that need to depersonalize elsewhere.

The Trials: I cracked one or two mpreggy jokes at the time, but I really was intrigued by S8’s parallels to a pregnancy narrative. Sam is physically tired and nauseous; he’s psychologically laser-focused on one task and increasingly fuzzy about everything else in the world. It tears up his body over a period of time delineated into distinct trimesters.

What really struck me as symbolic-pregnancy, though, was how the trials interacted with Sam’s and Dean’s relationship. Sam takes on the trials because he believes offering up his body is the way he can prove his mettle, his strength, and his dedication to Dean, and be accepted and respected as a peer, similarly to how adult womanhood is assumed to require maternity. But rather than winning acknowledgement of his agency, the increasing vulnerability caused by the trials becomes an excuse Dean tries to use to shut Sam up in the home while Dean flits off with other partners. It’s classic madonna-complex disempowerment-by-idealization.

In turn, this brings us back around to the question of objectification, which is the central issue of Sam Winchester's life, right back to the moment where Azazel weaponized him with the initial blood doses. If we had to ask the character, in his subjective judgment - ie, where he is the subject, if we take him as the authority on his own experience - whether he was better off in S7 or S8, I feel fairly confident that the character would choose S8. Going into why I think that involves picking through a lot of subtleties that are outside the scope of this post, maybe that's me projecting (me? onto Sam? GET THE FUCK OUT!), but I stand behind it. And I think if you asked Sam in S7 whether he would rather be seeing Hallucifer everywhere or if he would prefer to be ill but in full control of his mind and confident in his sense of reality, he would choose option 2 in a heartbeat. Therefore, if the characters in-universe and the fandom outside of it accept Sam as subject and authority on his own experiences, we would expect to see less understanding and compassion for Sam in S8, not more.

And yet, this is manifestly not what happened. People seem to be claiming they have developed more understanding and appreciation for Sam recently. In-universe, Dean's treatment of Sam has changed notably for the better on every level - whereas last season he preferred to openly mock Sam for his panic attacks and drag and guilt him into the field routinely even if he was miserable and clearly unfit for duty, S8 has Dean worrying about Sam, listening to Sam's concerns, just generally more likely to take Sam's welfare under consideration in the decisions he makes. This is because Sam, for whatever reason, tends to be perceived as object, not subject. Objectively - in terms of "abstract, generally-applied standards" - physical suffering is usually considered a priority over mental suffering. Sam is not only held to objective standards, but he is objectified. Dean's POV on Sam's well-being overwhelmingly prioritizes physical over emotional, the damage Dean can SEE and understand, incurred toward a goal Dean supports, being treated with much more urgency than the internal horror of Hallucifer, which was not connected in any way Dean wanted to comprehend to the season focus on the leviathan. Sam becomes the object of Dean's attentions or affections or whatever, while Dean remains the subject who decides whether or not to give those attentions or affections.

This all pretty clearly messes with Sam's head on its own. But that struggle between Sam's subjective consciousness and the extent to which the object of his body is the important thing about him to others. Whether about his vesseldom in S5 or Dean's, Crowley's, and Heaven's reaction to the Trials in S8, it's all about what Sam can bring into the world; Sam as the conduit between dimensions which incidentally happens to be a sentient, autonomous entity. In retrospect, I think this is a big part of what I loved about the trial arc? Sam was seizing ownership of the thing that the world has tried to reduce him to his whole life; closing the gates of hell wasn't about a revenge quest in the end, it was a grand-scale reappropriation of self. And....look, this is not me getting pissed about THE RITURRRRZZZZ, I loved it as a storytelling thing, but I found it so painful and real that for all the stuff above, about how hard he's fought so hard to create a subjective identity for himself, this is what it comes down to. Sam throws himself on the grenade for this miserable physical task because he's totally bought that what's useful about him is his body; for all the life has ripped him apart for years and years, that doesn't seem to make much difference to anyone until his precious meat suit starts to show some wear and tear.

I think a lot of us can relate.
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spn: sammay!, supernatural, masculinity, feminism, spn: dean what even, abuse, rape culture

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