So, Supernatural is halfway through its final season. I thought this was a good time for a retrospective of the early days of the fandom.
My personal relationship with this drama is basically non-existent. I did not watch Supernatural until 2013ish, and I'm an extremely casual fan who'll catch up with the show every few years when suitably bored. I've never been part of the online fandom.
Major spoilers for the first four seasons of Supernatural, vague spoilers for later seasons. Season 1: a fandom is born
So, what is Supernatural about? According to the first press release on the show:
Gilmore Girls' breakout star Jared Padalecki and Smallville's Jensen Ackles are Sam and Dean Winchester; two young brothers bound by tragedy and blood to a dangerous, "other-worldly" mission. Crisscrossing the country in their '69 Chevy Impala, they carry on their missing father's quest to seek out and silence the supernatural forces responsible for their mother's murder twenty years ago.
Basically, it's a mostly episodic monster of the week show following two monster-hunting brothers, with a larger myth arc that ties things together. It airs on CW, a network famous for soapy teen drama/action shows, but Supernatural, a buddy cop/horror show, falls outside the network's usual purview. (EDIT: It started on the WB, which transformed into the CW during Season 2.)
Supernatural began airing in 2005, with one season a year since. The show made the smart decision to mirror real time, so fifteen years have also passed in-universe, and the less-smart decision to have many characters who canonly don't age. Whoops.
The early layout of the fandom was mostly Dean girls and Sam girls. With, um, shippers in the middle. Most of the fandom was on centered on Livejournal, and a collection of different forums devoted to the show. (Livejournal used to be one of the internet hotspots for fandoms. Basically tumblr before tumblr.)
Before diving in, I want to quickly reiterate that this was back in 2005, so fandom culture in general was quite different. And, generally speaking, the more volatile parts of any fandom are a vocal minority.
The first Dean fanclubs started before the show even aired, by fans of his actor who followed him here. These early fanclubs seemed equally as interested in the actors as they were the characters.
Fan A: yay! Jensen gets his own show! that's great! Can't wait for it to begin.
Fan B: I love Jensen. He's not only very cute but he's also a great actor
Fan C: The pilot is great, and i'm sure you'll love Jensen even more when you see it I hope the show does well too!
The first fanclubs for Sam were significantly less enthusiastic, but don't worry, it picks up steam once the show starts. Most of the talk is about how the actor for Sam played a character confusingly named Dean in the past, who they were not the biggest fans of.
Fan A: I love Jared. He's very hot. I've seen him in Gilmore Girls, New York Minute, and House of Wax. I can't wait to add Supernatural to my list.
Fan B: Theres a Dean on the show but it's not Jared? Confusing.
Fan C: i never liked Dean either, which is why Im really hoping Sam is a more intriguing character. The Pilot didnt give me such high hopes, but I think the show will build on his character and make him good to watch. I saw him in HOW and i thought his HOW character was too much like Dean too, so i hope they make Sam different.
By the time the show started airing, on one of the boards I'm referencing there were already threads about fanfiction, forum games, news threads, and so on. There are references to similar set ups over on Livejournal and other boards.
As Season 1 airs, the fanbase grows. And with it comes the "Wincest." As in, shipping the two brothers together.
In modern fan-speak, "shipping" is short for "relationshipping" aka, wanting two characters to be in a romantic relationship together. However, during 2005, shipping two male characters together was called "slash" or "slashing" due to conventions established in the Kirk/Spock fandom many years prior. This usage has dropped off in modern times, probably as it has become much more normalized to ship gay pairings in the broader zeitgeist, but you'll see it quoted a few times in this write-up.
That Wincest became so popular was probably inevitable. Dean and Sam were the only actual characters for a very long time, their relationship is the heart and soul of the show, and, well, fandoms like to ship. From what I can see of the early fandom, surprisingly few people were squicked by the incest factor, but it might just be that online Supernatural fan-spaces self-selected for that back then.
Even knowing that, personally I still have trouble seeing the appeal, so here's a Wincest fan describing why the incest doesn't drive them away in their own words:
I've never read incest slash before. Ever. I think the reason I can read this pairing is because I can wrap my mind around the idea that Dean and Sam have never lived within the boundaries of our society, and they're SO freakin' alone. They only have each other, and it makes sense to me that in time (in the hands of the right writer) that could have a sexual component added to it.
Of the first eight fanfiction posted on Fanfiction.Net, three were Wincest. During this time, three Livejournals were started related to Supernatural fanfiction. Two of them were mostly Wincest, the third was devoted to it. Looking back at the Supernatural fandom newsletters on Livejournal, about half of the fanfics written during the early seasons were Wincest, and most of the rest were devoted to the platonic relationship between the brothers.
Note that while I say Wincest, the fandom spent just as much, if not more, time devoted to shipping the two men who play Sam and Dean. u/idknewaccount
did a wonderful write-up of RPF, or Real People Fiction in the Supernatural Fandom here
. Basically, in the early Supernatural fandom the only stars were two hot guys who were brothers. Fans who weren't comfortable with incest, but still wanted slash, started shipping the stars of the show together instead. Oftentimes the two different ships occupied the same spaces, and fans would simultaneously ship both.
Fan A: --- good to have you with us! Please make all the slashy banners your heart desires.
The Padackles [Ship name for the actors of Sam and Dean] hump! Do they not beg to be slashed? Seriously now, it's pics like that that put all of our minds in the gutter. We're only human!
Fan B: You know I'll live on this thread, ---. Will make some when I'm off from work.
I know right?! And remember Jensen's hand always always land on Jared's chest! we just answer to the calling.
Fan A: I think I'll be spending all er most er some of my time in here too! we should set up tents...make it a slumber party!
The chest moments sigh How I miss those. ...lately we haven't been getting them. ...but the best one EVER was the double chest pat from the 'day in the life' OMG that killed me! The way they were looking at eachother...plus the chest touching.
Banners and icons were made. (*
The fandom continues to develop naturally throughout the first season. The fandom is most active on Livejournal, where we can see the various pursuits of the fandom through their weekly, then daily newsletters, which documented and distributed fanfiction, episode reviews, fan art, fan videos, news, and meta analysis (*
). Full disclosure, I relied on these newsletters a ton when doing this research. Here's a Livejournal fandom guide written in February 2006 when season one was airing, and last updated during season two, where you can see all the Supernatural communities active during the this time on Livejournal (*
Fans discussing their hopes for Season 2:
Fan A: if john [Sam and Dean's dad] comes back he needs to do that for both and say 'hey...sorry i yelled at you for not killing me.'
because yeah that scene in devils trap is pretty ridiculous. john seriously yelling at sam for not killing him? are you KIDDING ME? although that did get the whole "some things are more important" look from sam when he looks at dean in the back seat, which was good.
i do really want to see sam showing how much he loves his brother too and fighting things off. although i love protective!dean too
Fan B: ^ yeah! protective Dean is great but i think we need more on Sam to show some protectiveness towards Dean. it's about time. some and some it'll be so sweet.
....and more shirtless Wincest can't get them out of my head. the intensity is so hot and its beyond the highest level.
Fan C: I would not have a problem with that at all.
I'd love to see protective Sammy!! We don't get it enough.
Fan D: More humourous episodes like Hell House. Seriously lightened up season 1 after the angst fest that was Shadow.
SHIRTLESSNESS! I'm shallow yes I know but the boys are smoking!
Fan E: Oh yes! Shirtlessnaess is always a good thing! I'd love to see more of that
Also, more awww... brother moments, more protective!Sammy, i'd love to see Dean vulnerable for awhile jsut to have Sammy take care of him
In summery, the earliest start of the Supernatural fandom was completely devoted to Sam, Dean, and their relationship. Fans loved them together, whether platonically or romantically, and could not wait to get more of the same.
However, there was one small thing the fans despised.
A minor character who appeared in only one episode in all of Supernatural, Cassie was an ex girlfriend of Dean's who he left to keep safe. Unlike the other Girls of the Week, Dean actually had feelings for Cassie. The reaction was, well.
Fan A: Cassie's such a horrible person for making us hate an episode like that.
Fan B: Exactly, selfish bitch now we can not enjoy that episode cause she blocks the view totally with her existence.
Fan C: yup, how can one person just totally ruin an episode like that? guh, I hate her
Fan B: I can't believe we had to suffer through her once, if we have to agian I may cry or break my tv, and I really can't afford a new one right now.
Yeah, let's just say she wasn't very popular. Despite the hate threads running for nearly four years after her appearance, she remained a one-off character.
The only reoccurring female character, Meg, also got some hate when her character was first announced, before she was revealed to be a villain (*
Fans loved the relationship between the brothers, and they loved that the show was only about that, with no other reoccurring characters (aside from a few appearances from their missing father.) They did not want anyone else coming in and stealing screen time from their boys, especially not a female character. And anything or anyone that threatened to get in between the brothers? Kill it with fire.
As I'm sure you can guess, a show cannot last fifteen seasons on only two characters, and the fanbase was about to face the first real challenge to their beloved formula. Season 2: More than two characters?!!??!!??! How dare they
When Season 2 finally aired, tragedy struck! Something terrible no one could have predicted was introduced to the show!!
A supporting cast. Even worse, female supporting cast members.
Cue Kill Bill sirens.
Season 2 introduced the Roadhouse, a Hunter-run bar where the brothers could regroup and pick up cases. The bar was run by two female characters, Ellen Harvelle and her daughter Jo.
Horror of all horrors, Jo had romantic chemistry with Dean, and it seemed as if the show was setting them up to be in a relationship.
Now, I do feel some sympathy for the fans. Supernatural airs on CW, a network infamous for romantic subplots hijacking shows originally about more interesting things. I would be mad if a show I liked with no romance was overtaken by it at the expense of everything else, and it was probably a legitimate concern with Supernatural.
That being said...
The backlash was severe. Hate-clubs sprung up on Supernatural fan-spaces across the net, and everything about Jo was harshly criticized. Only two of the above images come from the Jo hate threads, which were hundreds of pages of bashing Jo and wishing her character dead, the rest are from episode discussions. Ellen, too, was hated but not quite as much so.
Not everyone hated Jo, and there was even a small but stable Dean/Jo shipping community, but the hatred was viscous and drowned out the affection by a large margin.
The result was, as one fan puts it:
Eric [Eric Kripke, Supernatural creator and seasons 1-5 show runner] is my hero! ...latest quote from Eric in from the TV guide interview posted in the news thread...
"While we're on the subject of the roadhouse characters, and of any potential romance with them, I do want to say to all the fans: Don't worry. We read the boards, we pay attention, and we take your concerns seriously. As I've said before, we gotta keep trying new things, but we're not going to pursue anything on the show that's not working"
Let's take a minute to Squee over that!
now let's ponder ....
Reads the message boards..knows what we want...then why aren't we getting any wincest?!
The intense fan reaction led to any romantic plotline between Jo and Dean being cut, and the Roadhouse was written out of the show by the end of Season 2.
So, Season 2 introducing a romantic subplot was a dead end. The fanbase threw such a revolt that Jo was completely written off the show, only brought back for a single episode in Season 5 just to be killed off.
The fans had made it clear what they wanted of Supernatural: Sam and Dean and NO ONE ELSE. Parental figures or villains were acceptable to an extent, but anyone beyond that would be attacked relative to how much the fans believed they would come between the brothers. A romantic plotline that will "threaten" the brotherly lovefest? Completely unacceptable.
And, the show runner not only heard them, but bowed to their demands in the face of the backlash.
The evil was defeated, the female characters were no more. The fandom rejoiced.
...Until Season 3 introduced two new female characters. Season 3: So, no lessons were learned
In the pre-release for Season 3 it was announced that there would be two new reoccurring female characters in Ruby, a demon who fights other demons, and Bela, a thief with a complicated past. Adding insult to injury, Ruby was advertised to fans as a hunter more skilled than the brothers.
I think you guys already know how this will go.
Even before Season 3 started airing, the fans were down on the new characters.
Fan A: Right now, I just like the idea of the two of them being antagonists...I still kinda wish Ruby was older, since she is suppose to be "better" than Sam and Dean and experience usually goes handin hand with age. Yet, maybe they'll turn out to be cooler than expected, I mean, after the writers stop trying to pair Dean/Jo, her character became alot better.
Fan B: Ugh. Cassidy opens her mouth and I cringe. I love the sound of Bela but they both look like Barbie dolls in the pictures that were provided, and now Cassidy says Ruby is going to travel with the guys? Why the hell would she travel with them if she's supposed to be an antagonist?
Fan C: Bella: Maybe, we'll see.
Ruby: Bah. As much as I disliked Jo, she's looking better and better compared to THIS option.
Fan D: It's strange to me to be getting season 3 tidbits and interviews--and a good percentage of it NOT be focused on Sam and Dean. I know it's the CW's goal to pimp these girls, but it rankles. That said, Bela still sounds somewhat promising. I won't comment on Ruby, who will now, apparently, sometimes be traveling with them. twitch
After the first episode of the new season aired:
Fan A: I hate that they're making the girls seem all superior and shit. And I'm not even one of those people against chicks on the show.
Fan B: no, i'm with you. i thought that was kind of bullshit.
Fan C: I'm all for girls on the show, as long as it doesn't distract from the core of Sam and Dean. I'd actually like it if a really cool girl came in for a minor role. We'll see how this new chick works out.
I just wish they didn't all have to be the perfect, blonde bombshells.
So, while there was some uproar when the characters were first announced, and a general sense of trepidation, some fans were willing to give them a chance as long as they remained minor characters.
But then... Ruby had romantic tension with Sam, and Bela with Dean.
Kill Bill sirens.
Demons are demons. She has no right to be hanging around our boys like she's some elite part of the demon population. Grr! What the hell makes her so special? Sam should have sent her straight back to hell the moment she flashed her skanky black eyes at him. Evil barbie witch bitch!!
They even wrote some poetry about how much they hate her! Behold: (*
I am so there with you about shipping Dean with Bela WTF!!! are they kidding? that is the most ridiculous thing ever, its absolutely no match there and just plain gross I really hope that bitch die or just go far away!!!
Bela was killed off in a traumatic way at the end of Season 3, and Ruby was revealed to be a villain all along and killed in a moment of catharsis for her hatedom in Season 4.
Kripke admitted that he did away with the character [Bela] partially due to the fans' hatred of her, and also said he regretted how the writers integrated her into the series. (*)
Now, there are some reoccurring characters in the first three seasons that were not attacked by fans. Jess, Sam's dead girlfriend, and Meg, who was strictly antagonistic, did not get that much hate. As one fan says:
Ah, Meg. Surprisingly, not someone I absolutely loathed - sure, she was an evil demon bitch, but I could appreciate her upfront evilness, whereas others like Ruby and Bela should just be nuked off the face of the earth.
Male characters were almost always left alone. The problem seemed to be with female characters that were perceived as threats to the current brotherly dynamic. Fans did not completely turn on Bela and Ruby until they realized that they were meant to be romantic interests for the brothers.
Originally, according to apocryphic sources, Season 3 was supposed to end with Sam, traumatized by being in the Trickster's Groundhog Day loop for a year, going full darkside in order to save Dean from Hell. (That sentence makes perfect sense in context.) However, the 2007 writers strike (*
) ruined their plans, and Season 3 ended with the characters in a completely hopeless situation.
So, in order to get themselves out of that messy cliffhanger, in Season 4 they ended up introducing an element of the mythology which would come to define the show. Season 4: The End of the Beginning
The first episode of Season 4, Lazarus Rising, aired on September 18th, 2008. And the fandom would never be the same.
For anyone who knows anything about Supernatural, really anyone who has glanced at tumblr anytime in the last decade, this was a foregone conclusion. The monster at the end of this write-up, so to say.
Castiel was introduced.
Castiel was an angel who claimed to be one of the good guys. He was also played by a handsome actor, and had an interesting rapport with Dean. The fanbase was intrigued.
For the first time, the Supernatural fans embraced a character other than the Winchester boys (or their father figure Bobby).
And, after a single episode, the first Dean/Castiel-- eventually dubbed Destiel-- devoted Livejournal was started (*
). The first two fanfiction was written within a few days(**
). You can check the comment section to see fans discussing their hopes for Dean and Castiel's relationship. As one fan predicts:
This was -- well, lovely, but totally sad! (I like. g) Now I shall mull on the fic where a) there is a Sam-Dean-Castiel threesome and the fic where Sam and Castiel fight for Dean (with sex, naturally). I rather believe you are the first of quite the long succession of fics coming down the pipeline. rubs hands Way to set a standard!
Fans latched on to the ship, hungry for something that wasn't incest, or, um, something to compliment their incest.
The contrast with his reception and that of most other characters in the fandom was so obvious that when his actor was interviewed after the first episode by TVAddict it was brought up:
As Castiel ... Misha Collins managed to do the impossible: sweep the fiercely protective Winchester Fangirls off their feet. Which is exactly what I congratulated him on when I had the opportunity to chat with the actor over the phone yesterday.
A: I believe congratulations are in order. Your appearance on Thursday’s Supernatural season premiere left quite the impression on the fandom.
MC: Really? I thought this was par for the course.
A: Far from it. [Just ask Katie Cassidy [Ruby] and Lauren Cohan [Bela]]
Disgruntled Wincest shippers, or just fans of keeping the show devoted to the two brothers, had more complicated feelings about Castiel and Destiel.
Some even put up a fight:
Im just so frustrated that this character is still here. Hopefully he leaves in Season 7. I felt this angel/heaven SL went on a lot longer than it should have. And I will never understand the Cas worship this fandom has Season 1-3 are golden because thats when it was just about Sam and Dean. Hopefully next season brings that back. [Written at the start of Season 6]
It was in vain.
Castiel became a regular, and remains on the show to this day. Supernatural went from having two permanent main characters to three. And, while still platonic, Dean and Castiel's relationship takes up the screen time and emotional energy that the fandom once feared a romance would.
And, the fandom changed with it.
The main Livejournal center for the Supernatural fandom, the daily newsletter, divided fanfiction into five categories: Wincest, Other Slash, Het, Gen, and RPF. Soon, more Destiel fiction was being written than Wincest, but the newsletter refused to give them their own category, so the Destiel fans split with the rest of the fandom and started their own newsletter. This was the first ship war in Supernatural, the first major divide in the fandom.
Today, Destiel is arguably the most popular ship, not just in Supernatural, but in all of fandom. It has the most fanfiction on AO3, the largest fanfiction archive in the English speaking web, with 88000 fics. (Wincest has 29000.) About 40% of Supernatural fanfiction is tagged "Destiel." It's won multiple "best couple" online contests against other shipping giants. For a few years at least half of tumblr was solely devoted to it. It's Big. Very Big.
In the modern Supernatural fandom, from what I can see of the iceberg, most fans dislike Wincest. Because, ya'know. It's incest. Fans who joined after Season 4 started never had a reason to learn to tolerate it, because it was no longer ubiquitous in the fandom and it was no longer the only ship possible, so the fandom slowly became less inviting to the Wincest shippers. The ship never went away, but it became a minority.
And, slowly, the cast started to grow.
Seasons 4 and 5 introduced a lot of characters that remained major reoccurring characters besides Castiel. A fair number are still around in Season 15, over ten years later. The show still has a tendency of needlessly killing characters, but it's no longer a two-man show.
On a broader scale, Season 4 changed the story from a monster of the week mostly episodic romp to an epic show about preventing the Apocalypse, with a large cast and a complex myth arc that is relevant in almost every episode. The heart of the show is still the relationship between the two brothers, but they now have more people to play off of, (and the actors are happier, because they have more time to spend with their growing families when there are other characters to carry scenes.)
Supernatural would never really be the same again, with the greater focus on myth arcs and expanded cast, the formula the fans fought for was irreversibly altered.
But the kicker is-- Castiel was only meant to last a few episodes. He was supposed to be killed off early on, not become a main character.
It was the fandom's love for him that saved him (and gave his actor a steady paycheck for the next decade.) The same fandom that doomed every character who so much as looked at the brothers in earlier seasons. Funny thing, ain't it. Over the Years
By the way, I do not want to leave you with the impression fans stopped attacking every female character after the start of Season 4.
They did not.
Even with the insular nature of the show broken, Ruby hate was stronger than ever, Anna got a share, as did Lisa, and many others.
The change did happen, but it was very gradual. The first female character who broke the mold and was truly accepted and loved by fans was Charlie, who was a nerdy lesbian, introduced in season 7.
The way the fandom interacted with these characters changed, as more fans became concerned about things like Supernatural's habit of fridging(*
) female characters, instead of cheering it on. Fans started begging for more female (as well as POC and LGBT) characters to appear on the show, and realized that the cast being almost entirely composed of white men (angels are technically agender eldritch beings but we still see mostly white men on screen) was not the greatest thing.
Nowadays, there are many beloved female characters who are whole-heartedly embraced by the fans, and most of the ones listed here have become much more popular over time. One time in a more recent season, a female character was unceremoniously fridged, and fans complained so much the showrunners eventually brought her back, in a complete reversal from the early fandom. There's even a popular ship between Sam and a female hunter!
It just took time.
The Supernatural fandom would stay almost entirely centered on Livejournal until 2011, when they started their move to tumblr and AO3.
Supernatural would be its biggest during the early 2010s, when it became part of the tumblr behemoth SuperWhoLock, a combination of the Supernatural, Doctor Who, and Sherlock fandoms. I'm not very familiar with these days, as it is very difficult to research tumblr fandoms, and I've only watched Supernatural anyways. Everything I've heard suggests that it was a complete mess, as all gargantuan fandoms are. Today
Supernatural is in its fifteenth and final season. There are four main characters now, and most of the episodes so far have featured popular guest stars from earlier seasons getting a send-off. Not how someone would have pictured the end of Supernatural looking in Seasons 1 and 2!
The fandom is much less active than it was in the heyday of tumblr, as more shows have come out that might have interested the fans more, the two main sites for the fandom (tumbr and Livejournal) are less popular, and Supernatural is a zombie. But Supernatural being "less active" is still one of the largest fandoms on the internet.
As for a small dessert of current drama...
The fandom is currently doing some "conspiracy theory Destiel will totally happen" shenanigans, à la the Sherlock fandom. (u/urcool91
did an excellent write up of the Sherlock version of this drama here
, as well as more info on SuperWhoLock.) Completely unrelatedly, Destiel fans have started calling themselves "clowns" because of how many times they've gotten excited over their ship only to have it not become canon. For some reason they've rebranded their ship to "DeanCas," seemingly to distance themselves from whatever reputation they gained back in their SuperWhoLock days. Uh, I'm just picturing the Destiel fandom wearing a fake mustache, going "Destiel? Who's that? We only ship DeanCas here," but whatever floats their boat.
I also heard something about twitter trying to "cancel" Supernatural on the final day of shooting. I mean, I think any earlier day would have been more productive, but twitter's gonna twitter. The reasons seem to be the "women in fridges," which we've already discussed, and "queerbaiting," which I am not knowledgeable enough to speak authoritatively on. Here are some articles on queerbaiting in Supernatural if you want to go down that rabbit hole. (**
The ending will determine whether it will go out peacefully, or with Game of Thrones style hellfire. The fandom is so massive, with so many different facets and concerns, that it's impossible to have an ending that will leave everyone happy. Yet, after such a long run, I hope it manages to have a satisfying ending. TL;DR:
The Supernatural fandom brutally attacks all female characters, thinking they will steal screen time from the two protagonists. They manage to bully the show runners into following their demands time and again. One day they fail to chase away a cute new male character, and ironically he becomes basically everything they feared those female characters would be.
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