Discussions around queerbaiting on the TV series Supernatural have brought up some interesting, often controversial questions. Many of them have been asked before, and will be asked again. At what point does canonical evidence for a character’s queerness outweigh the writers’ and creators’ denial? Does subtext count as canonical evidence? Is subtextual queerness better than no queerness at all? Do the writers’ intentions matter, and if so, to what extent?
I won’t spend too much time trying to convince you that one of the main characters, Dean Winchester (Jensen Ackles), is bisexual — or would be, if the writers and producers would allow him to be — and that the show is queerbaiting. I’m not arguing that Dean Winchester counts as representation at this point. Queerbaiting absolutely does not count as representation for marginalized sexual orientations. What I am arguing is that queer people do not need a character’s sexuality to be canonized in order to identify with that character and recognize literary tropes that are generally used to align characters with queerness. In other words, just because other people – writers, producers, network executives, and other fans – aren’t acknowledging it, doesn’t mean we don’t know it’s there.
There have already been several articles written about the show’s queerbaiting tendencies, including from TV Guide and The Advocate. There is also a blog dedicated to dismantling faulty arguments against Bi Dean, entitled Arguments Against Bi Dean Are Bad, complete with sections on the most common fallacies. Every time a new episode of Supernatural airs, Tumblr is flooded with blog posts detailing the new evidence for Dean’s queerness, as well as replies arguing that said evidence is just a misinterpretation. It’s an ongoing battle, one that often causes a wide rift in the Supernatural fandom.
Emerging from this discourse are lists of events, interactions, facial expressions, wardrobe details, and other parts of canon that are compiled in order to prove or disprove Dean’s heterosexuality. But what’s fascinating – and infuriating – is watching again and again as the “straight” evidence list fills up with Dean’s interactions with women. “How can you deny how much Dean loves chicks?” people demand to know. This kind of thinking is based on the false assumptions that a man who “loves chicks” is inherently unqueer, that in order to be a queer man, one must prefer other men, and not show attraction to women, or else demonstrate a “50/50” attraction to men and women. The whole premise of Dean being bi is most often rejected based on a misunderstanding and/or ignorance about what it means to be bisexual.
The kind of queerbaiting that happens on Supernatural would not be so effective if it weren’t for the invisibility of bisexuality. In a way, the show takes advantage of bisexual erasure and uses it as fuel for the queerbaiting fire. Dean can throw out an endless barrage of queer signals, but as long as he also makes a comment about a woman being attractive, a large portion of the show’s audience can hold onto the illusion of his straightness, largely due to their lack of understanding about how bisexuality works. This creates an environment in which queerbaiting thrives.
There is also the common assumption that if Dean were to be bisexual in canon, and were to have a relationship with another male character, it would somehow make the show fundamentally different. Some fans seem to think that male bisexuality – or male queerness in general – is aligned with femininity, and that if Supernatural had a bi main character, it would have to ditch its gore, muscle cars, and classic rock in exchange for sappy, romantic, soap opera drama. That’s just not true. And it reveals a lot about the misogynistic, homophobic, and biphobic beliefs of many of the fans.
Some fans claim that people who support the canonization of Bi Dean are only in it for the sake of shipping – the desire for characters to be in a relationship. Sometimes there is even the accusation that they are all a bunch of lonely, horny women who fetishize queer men and just want to see two attractive men kiss on television. While there is certainly a valuable discussion to be had about the fetishization of queer men in fandom, this particular accusation against people who think Dean Winchester is bi surfaces again and again, even when the people in question are bisexual themselves. Many Bi Dean advocates – perhaps even a majority – identify as queer, and want Dean’s queer sexuality to be confirmed in canon because they see something of themselves in his character. It becomes a sort of bisexual erasure to silence that, or to assume that proponents of Bi Dean are always straight women.
As many Bi Dean advocates will tell you, at times watching Supernatural feels like being in a dysfunctional relationship. And that’s the nature of queerbaiting. They reel you in, tease you, drop hints, and convince you that it’s finally going to happen. Then they put an obnoxious one-liner in the script that reaffirms the character’s heterosexuality, or one of the writers sends out a tweet saying that the fans are misinterpreting things. Essentially, they gaslight you. They make you question whether or not your identification with this character and your reading of their sexuality – based on actual, textual evidence – is valid.
Dean Winchester is one of the heroes of Supernatural. He is a deeply complex, flawed, multidimensional character who rescues people from monsters and saves the world on a regular basis. It would be incredibly meaningful for bisexual people to see that kind of representation. After all, there are relatively few representations of bisexuality on television, particularly of bisexual men. But with season 12 of the series premiering next month, many fans are asking, “Is Dean ever going to come out of the closet?”
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Hannah Johnson is a bisexual activist currently pursuing her MFA in Poetry at Mills College. Her writing has been featured in Bi Women Quarterly, Selfish Magazine, The Journal of Bisexuality, and The Minetta Review. She is the co-moderator for the Non-Mono Perspective, a blog for people with non-monosexual identities.