CW’s Supernatural’s queerbaiting: a brief history, and what comes next

Note: this article uses the word ‘queer’ in a reclaimed sense. 

In arguably the most chaotic month of an outstandingly chaotic year, an era of television came to an end with the series finale of the CW’s Supernatural. The somewhat soapy horror series following the supernatural exploits of two American brothers emerged in 2005 and quickly became a cornerstone of rapidly blossoming internet fandom culture. On social media sites like Tumblr, fans congregated to share art, writing, and fan theories for the show’s nearly fifteen-year run. In its heyday in the early 2010s, Supernatural, along with BBC’s Doctor Who and Sherlock, made up a significant majority of fandom culture on Tumblr. 

Fans argue that Supernatural’s impact on both internet culture and popular media is unparalleled––it was one of the first shows to actively interact with its fanbase within the source material itself. Its character development was arguably complex for a melodramatic horror show. 

Yet many also point out the show’s fundamental flaws––its treatment of women and minorities, and more recently, their treatment of queer folk. Queer fans have accused the show of queerbaiting over the years––specifically, in the writing of one of the brothers, Dean Winchester, and his relationship with the angel, Castiel. ‘Queerbaiting’ refers to a piece of media writing a character or their relationships in a way that queer fans will recognize that character as queer, but with no intention to create any real representation. Dean’s desire to appear hypermasculine, as well as his chemistry with male characters on the show, stood out to queer fans as telltale signs of Dean being a closeted gay or bisexual man. His relationship with Castiel seemed to support this reading of his character––their interactions and connection to one another, for many, felt more profound than a platonic friendship. The next logical step, fans reasoned, would be to make the relationship ‘canon’, or explicitly realized onscreen. 

But one season blended into the next, and any acknowledgment of Dean’s ambiguous sexuality or ‘Destiel’ (the fandom’s name for the possibility of a romantic relationship between Dean and Castiel) was yet to be aired. The showrunners continued to walk the fine line between homoeroticism and good queer representation. Many queer fans began to leave the fanbase for media with actual LGBTQ+ representation. Others clung to the small hints and textualities the show peppered through the seasons, every time hoping for a smoking gun. 

Then, without warning, it suddenly came––in one of the last episodes of the last season of the show. In the eighth episode of the 15th season, Castiel explicitly declares his love for Dean, before being swallowed up by an entity that some online jokingly referred to as, ‘super-hell’. The issues with having an explicitly gay character immediately going to ‘hell’ after coming out and the ironic timing of the episode (which aired the week of the US presidential election) weren’t lost on many fans, and the dormant Supernatural fanbase on Tumblr exploded with memes about the confession, the election, and tangentially-related rumors about Putin resigning. 

With bated breath, fans waited for the last two episodes of the series, hoping for Dean’s reciprocation of Castiel’s love, and for the almost-mythical canonization of ‘Destiel’. Old fans who had stopped watching the show years before, exhausted with the showrunners’ queerbaiting, tuned in for the last two episodes to see what they hoped would be a realization of an old dream. Yet the final hurrah of this Internet phenomenon barely mentioned Castiel, let alone his relationship with Dean, and fans were left supremely disappointed.

Some pointed out that this was the ultimate queerbait––giving Castiel a love confession without any intention of it leading anywhere. Others argued that there was an intention on the part of the creators to make Destiel canon, but between COVID-19, the CW’s track record on queer representation, and production logistics, it was removed. Mostly, fans were shocked, exhausted, and relieved that it was all over. Except it wasn’t. For just a few days later, when the Latin American dub of Castiel’s confession was aired, Dean reciprocated the confession––but in Spanish. This, coupled with actor Jensen Ackles’ (who plays Dean) radio silence on how the show ended, gave more credence to those who had posited that Supernatural had intended to make its main couple canon, and scrapped it last minute.  

Others argued that this was no smoking gun––that even if Dean reciprocated, over its fifteen-year run, the show had still exploited its queer fanbase, emulated problematic tropes in writing arcs for its queer, female, and minority characters. It wouldn’t change how the show had treated its queer, mostly young and female fanbase over the years. Supernatural’s pilot marked the beginning of an era––an era of media in which the audience was an active rather than a passive participant in shaping the media they consume, an era in which masculinity and queerness were not mutually exclusive, but integral to another. And Supernatural’s finale marked the end of an era––an era in which queer folk had to be satisfied with nudges and winks to represent them onscreen, an era in which queerness could only exist in the shadows of popular culture. Hopefully this new era––the one that Supernatural started, and the one brought about by its end––can create the space to tell truer, more real stories about groups that have historically overlooked.

Image credits: “Supernatural” by 娜娜. is licensed under CC BY-NC-SA 2.0 

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