Hi guys. I’m going to cautiously title this ‘About Zimbio, Destiel, my personal struggle with the idea of wlw vs. mlm, and why what we achieved in the vote today says a lot about our magnificent fandom’.
This is a reminder in advance that I make generalizations but I don’t mean any harm by them. I’m happy to discuss this topic and capitulate on some things, because my experience of shows is extremely limited right now (unless I want to watch them in French). Just like Dean I say ‘we’ a lot but please assume sometimes I mean ‘I’, I by no means make any claim to speak for all of the following groups at any point: bisexuals, mlm shippers, wlw shippers, television executives, social media marketers, the mainstream audience, destiel shippers--etc, etc, you get the drift.) If any of the following upsets you, please let me know, it’s not my intent to cause any harm, only reassure my friends that they did a good job.
I promised I was going to write a post on this, because I’ve seen just a little mumbling and unhappiness that Destiel didn’t make it through in the semis. I get it, it’s only natural that it’s going to lead to some hurt feelings, but I wanted to really put across to you all why I say I was proud of us for our semi-final performance, rather than you just take it for granted.
We are an old fandom. Thirteen years is a long time; it makes Supernatural the longest single run fantasy/sci fi series on American TV (and I mean I think it’s unfair to compare it to non American shows like Doctor Who anyway just on pure numbers, especially since Who has gone through thirteen fourteen? fifteen? are we counting radio drama? actors in the lead role; it’s like a different show every time.) So. It’s had a superb run. Fantasy/sci fi shows are typically considered to be niche, not massive hits (comparatively speaking; SPN isn’t Grey’s Anatomy or NCIS I’ll grant). But what networks are finally waking up to is the power of the fandom of those ‘niche’ shows, dedicated viewing power which can grow a network’s brand, particularly online, and networks are eager to wrangle that.
This modern era of television is fandom’s era of television. Netflix are promoting gamification of television watching (even for kids) as well as choose your own adventure style TV. Binging and rewatching box sets is a whole thing now, not just the domain of the “geek”, and shows which can convince people to stick around and watch something instead of moving on when they run out of material--they’re the ones gaining success, while traditional shows slip further and further as they fail to capture new demographics. We’re making strong social media contracts with the creators and actors of our shows, and making it clear to them - in a way that is increasingly being recognized for the opportunity it represents - that there must be give and take with modern audiences, especially if you seek gratification through social media. (I read a great article I reblogged that called it the ‘Brandom’ effect.)
It’s wonderful, and it’s terrifying, because both fans and creators don’t know what to do with it. They can give fans too much power and the show goes off the rails, or deny it to them entirely, and earn only vitriol. Some shows rub their power right in the face of their fans and increasingly they pay for it. Some showrunners are outright incapable of talking to their fans at all without being respectful (I’m looking at you The 100), and some fans are ghastly, aggressive and outright disrespectful in pursuing what they want (it is a different thing showing joy over your ship as it is to dox actors and send their wives hate mail). Some showrunners, instead, are more embracing of their fans, like the Earpers, and if you want an idea of how actors should be engaging with fans, check out David Haydn Jones’ twitter. That man is a saint. It’s a delicate game of mutual respect, and occasional drama, and intent is the name of the game: do you have good intent, is it honest? People crave honesty on the internet where everything and everyone is fake--and that honestly is a tough thing to achieve when studios are too heavily concentrating on their bottom line.
So, this is a changing landscape, like I said, and people are struggling with new marketing techniques, trying to find their place in the world, running into walls when they realize that in fact they don’t understand their queer audience members. When something works, shows are very quick to jump right into it, almost relieved to have evidence that if they do X thing, their fans won’t all jump ship in horror, but here’s the thing, networks are in a lot of ways far slower to respond than shows. If you want to do something, you have to prove to the person holding the purse strings that it’s a profitable endeavor. Producers are set in their ways, especially old school producers, not realizing how quickly the landscape is changing, and writers are fighting against that all the time, because they’re often a lot more in touch with the creative fandoms they’re trying to inspire. Many have come from fandoms themselves. Queer writers should mean more queer storylines, right? But it means fighting money men to make it happen. Oftentimes that leads to the whole ‘one queer ship is enough’ standpoint, and when it comes down to it, those money men are more likely to put stock in safe investments, in proven investments. Consequently, wlw is flourishing because it draws in audiences without losing them. It’s arguably less risky to make Alex Danvers gay than Castiel. It’s more PC, accepted by wider audiences, groundwork laid by Dark Angel and Buffy in my own recent memory. When good results come from featuring those kinds of ships, they appear increasingly on TV, and it’s AWESOME. There were 16 wlw ships in Zimbio March Madness, and 11 of them got through all the way to 8vs8. There were only 2 mlm ships in 8vs8, and 3 het ships. Internet fandom, passionate and social and dedicated? It speaks, and it says ‘More LGBT rep please’.
We’re in a transitional period. Changes are coming, but when you look at the big mlm ships of the last few years, you can see the uphill climb that’s still ahead of us. I spoke with our Hannigram and Johnlock friends last year about what their experience with this was like. (I haven’t spoken to Sterek folks, but I know there’s disappointment from that front too). Johnlock shippers are largely furious about how explicitly the finale no-homoed their ship when there was absolutely no reason to. Having watched the finale myself, I feel like they really went hard against shippers explicitly. Hannigram suffered too. I haven’t finished S3 even now, but what I recall of the conversation went like this: they’re together, but there was a kiss that didn’t make it to air, and then the show was cancelled. In any case, what I’m saying right here is that this is part of a pattern, a theme I’m struggling with, where mlm fans are dispirited and disappointed and feeling disrespected by the very mainstream shows they’re watching.
(Which isn’t, I’ll quickly note, that I’m saying the same isn’t true of wlw audiences. The last two ships in Zimbio this year are non canon ships, and the fans of both have been hurt by the shows they watch, but they still keep coming back and watching the show. Swanqueen is ending, but the pair have been consistently mirrored - dark and light - with the emotional journey of the show largely being made over the shared custody? I don’t know, they changed it every week while I was watching it of Emma’s son. Supercorp is clearly full of eye sex thanks to the actress’ chemistry (and McGrath is so gorgeous she’d have chemistry with a brick wall) and yet has been outright mocked by the show’s cast. If that sounds familiar to Destiel fans, I almost want to say that Supercorp have it worse; just as with Swanqueen, they’re often told simply to shut up because there's already wlw rep on the show.)
But where shows are willing to go there now, diminished risk is the key, especially as resale value of shows reflects multiple, competitive platforms constantly needing to purchase content to fill their airspace. Naked women, women kissing and women having sex - bisexual women who are explicitly still available to men - that sells, but as far as I can tell networks are struggling to sell the same narrative about mlm. Maybe that’s my perspective only, maybe that’s me watching the wrong shows (and not at all because I don’t enjoy looking at women’s bodies, I do, but variety is the spice of life) Look at the outright surprise last year when GOT gave us a beautiful, pus covered, full screen dick. GOT, of course, which is insulated because it is a Number One performer. I present to you, in terms of dicks on screen, American Gods, then. Neil Gaiman is my hero, selling the network on the premise that they could have his great stories if only they were willing to gleefully integrate peen on every episode. Or so I’m told. There’s a lot on my ‘to watch’ list that I haven’t got around to yet. I will tell you, of course, that mlm is out there, Evak were voted out against Supercorp in the quarter finals) but on a big show like Supernatural that risk is exceptional. That’s why when we talk about Destiel ‘going canon’, we make the shockingly ambitious request of them HOLDING HANDS, or mutually saying ‘I love you’, and sometimes feel like expecting anything more, like a kiss, or god forbid a sex scene, is too much to ask. Why? When lesbians and bisexual women are presented on TV, kisses and sex scenes are a matter of course. In Alex’ coming out, in Thirteen’s coming out in House, Angela’s coming out in Bones - huge ensemble shows where main characters, all women, have come out and kissed (and returned to male partners in the case of the later two). (I should point out I am talking about genre “mainstream” shows in general, not for example Queer as Folk, where the primary aim is to explore sexuality, not fight dragons or solve crimes)
Now in addition to this problem, an issue that I’ve seen for years is that from inside the fandom world we are made to feel as though we are somehow obscene or inferior for shipping mlm ships, a projection that comes from the way mainstream folks will react to you if they happen to discover you drawing dudes together. Sometimes we hide our online selves from the real world out of shame that has only built over the years, where it’s considered that supporting mlm ships instead of wlw ships makes you fetishistic, or objectifying of gay men. I’ve seen it in fanfiction spaces and in rp spaces on dw and lj that shipping wlw has been raised to a point of being considered ‘more pure’. If you ‘claim’, they say, to be a queer woman, you should wholly be supporting wlw ships. When I started hearing this dialogue I was THIRTEEN. This was before Willow/Tara. There were just less wlw ships on tv, and there were less female characters whose autonomy didn’t depend on men, or portray them as being fragile, the weakness of their gender or whatever. There were standout female characters in my youth, absolutely, but they were all independent (mostly) straight women: Kathyrn Janeway, Sam Carter, Clarice Starling, Dana Scully. They kicked out against the system, the world they lived in, intelligent and defiant ladies I still idolize. Nowadays, though those wlw ships are available, and populated by so many beautiful, powerful, progressive female characters - and yes miraculously even strong female characters who still embrace their own womanhood. In contrast mlm ships are not keeping up because, in some way, I think that the ‘impurity’ of shipping mlm has stuck. I struggle to think of even straight non toxic male role models, nevermind male role models who are in engaging, romantic relationships with the same sex. This stagnation of masculinity (apart from the rise of the geek hero which often, as in the case of TBBT, doesn’t break away from inbuilt misogyny) troubles me immensely. (I’m not saying all male characters are awful, incidentally, but it’s not a positive message to outright expose the flaws of toxic masculinity without offering understanding, lessons, and growth. But that’s another essay.)
Trust me, I’m not saying everyone feels that TV is being stacked against mlm, but as a bisexual I really feel fractured by the whole thing. I feel like I’m supposed to loathe myself for shipping mlm, particularly when that mlm ship is ‘two white guys’. The fact that I as a woman enjoy male and female bodies is irrelevant, because one desire is pure, and one desire is fetishism. There is no balance. I’m allowed to be titilated by members of my own gender kissing each other and only that and heterosexuality. As a bisexual who is currently leaning toward wlw myself (sexuality existing on a sliding scale imo), it is the power imbalance in heterosexual couples which puts me off. It’s painfully true to life. I have a particular loathing for Booth and Brennan from Bones, for example, where his toxic masculinity is unilaterally forgiven because it’s true love, while Bones, once independent and stubborn herself, is increasingly nudged further out of character in order to forgive him his trespasses. But when I ship mlm, or write fanfic of my favorite couples, any power I give them is not based on their gender. The same I imagine is true of wlw. (An unfortunate consequence of this is people project it onto real life, where power inequality and abuse can exist regardless of make believe ‘purity’, and consequently people end up believing that something is wrong with them rather than their relationship, similar issues as people face when they imagine marriage is the goal, and everything else is happily ever after, because Disney told them so. In which case I advise you to rewatch Mary Poppins.)
During voting, I was reticent to address why voting for Destiel over the other ships was important to me. It was personal. (Of course anyone could have sent me an ask if they were curious). But why I was voting didn’t matter. It was enough that I was voting for the couple I love, whose relationship my blog is devoted to, and whose love story I hope is resolved. But there is more to it than that. What’s important, I guess, is how I feel about Dean. My reading of him is of a bisexual, still in the closet - perhaps even to himself - in his thirties. He made it out of high school, but that’s it, because he dropped out of higher education for family commitments. He likes rock music and classic cars. He loves pie, and dumb medical TV dramas, and cowboy hats, and riding rodeo bulls and chatting to strangers. He struggles with voicing his true self with people who know him, and might judge him in a way he will never come back from. Dean is basically me. I am all those things. And in this case, he’s in love with a genderfluid (has been both male and female) guardian angel whose love for Dean explicitly and singularly, has been described as a profound bond, and the greatest love story ever told. Castiel’s love for Dean, his willingness to do anything for him, is all I think any of us want from a romantic partner. And yes, we all find different things in our ships, and presumably other people connect with Destiel for reasons that aren’t the same as my own, but that’s okay. My reasons are my reasons.
And yet I am still thrown into that emotional disconnect: that because this couple is an mlm couple I’m wrong to ship it, that I would be better putting my energy into watching shows I don’t necessarily enjoy as much so I can find my representation in more respectable (or potentially less queerbaity) fandoms. That Supernatural isn’t good enough because I’ve been repeatedly told by people inside and outside the fandom that it isn’t good enough. I’ve got to tell you I agree that it struggles with being progressive. While season 3 of Grey’s Anatomy was showing the struggles of a pre-op mtf woman and her wife in an ep that made me actually cry for the dysphoria represented, on the other channel SPN had just got done killing a token ‘woman with an off screen girlfriend’ character. By season 11, we’ve had two gay male couples, both holding hands and leaning into each other to express their relationship. SPN is slow. Nobody in the world would deny that.
But to be quite honest, also, finding representation doesn’t have to mean ‘a ship’, it can just be a well written bisexual woman with a badge, and you aren’t restrained to just one rep either! In fact, the more the better. I find myself particularly starved for that rep, especially since - having been fetishized for my bisexuality irl before - I see painful reflections of that on television. That’s obviously going to be related to bad writing and TV’s particular way of objectifying women in general, too, but when a woman (say Angela Montenegro from Bones) has a two episodes storyline where she makes out with another insanely attractive actress, the music rising, lit with soft shades, the camera focused in on their mouth--before the plot is forgotten entirely, it is incredibly difficult not to see that as objectification and not bisexual solidarity. I want more mlm on TV because I want more bisexuals of both genders on TV, and because of the harmful insinuation in mainstream thought that a guy who comes out as bi late has somehow been lying to himself and was gay all along, while women who are bi are just exploring their sexuality and somehow more up for it. Those views need to be constantly, constantly challenged, because, honestly, people believe them. (Probably not me or you, but it’s out there).
(As an aside: mainstream is also harsh toward female writers who write mlm stories. There have understandably, as a result, been female writers who chose male pseudonyms to pen their gay romance novels. I first experienced this to a lesser extent back in Gundam Wing fandom, because if you were a ‘male’ author it legitimized you and people would read your stories in preference to those penned by girls. Back then it was a numbers game. The prejudice does remain. Audiences are sometimes outright cold to female authors who pen mlm stories! You need only look at the conversation about boycotting Love, Simon because it was written by a straight woman to appreciate just how deeply we’ve built this disconnect, as though to write something the author must always write from personal experience. If that’s the case, I feel terrible for Thomas Harris and Jeff Lindsay, and JK Rowling (who speaks about choosing her moniker because it was genderless) must certainly have had an exciting childhood, what with all the magic and dragons.
As a result I think we (or at least I) have internalized some harmful things about who has the right to interpret themselves in stories told about men, or male protagonists. And in lashing back at girls who for years have been doing just that, considering it to be lesser if I find a role model in Dean instead of Angela, we have harmed the integrity of mlm fans themselves, who increasingly struggle under a burden of self imposed guilt. It is reflecting back poorly on mlm performances, even as wlw stories flourish. In this raising the pedestal of wlw purity, the ‘ethical’ alternative, we dismiss what people can learn about themselves from male role models too, something that we instead encourage if it’s a teenage boy finding a role model in Elsa. My closeted bi self loving Dean Winchester harms nobody, but I am still made to feel lesser for doing so, even if sometimes that feeling is ridiculously self imposed. Hell, maybe I’m alone in this feeling and the rest of this is bullshit, but that’s why I said ‘I vs we’ was definitely a part of this commentary.
In any case, this is what I think this means to the Zimbio vote: As wlw rep has been increasing, mlm has been facing a disappointing deficit. Those once big fandom movers ‘Superwholock’, the Hannigrams, the Sterek shippers--have fractured and splintered off. Destiel has come in waves but it’s still somehow here, without its original opponents from back in the day. It’s here, even with setbacks after season 8 and 10 that had fans breaking away from Supernatural entirely. Optimism now reflects optimism felt before, but let’s face it Castiel was killed permanently at one point, and Bob Singer said outright, even just a few years ago, that Destiel and social media stuff just didn’t come up in the writing room (pr is not showrunning, etc). People are hugely entitled to struggle with optimism for non canon mlm ships because history repeats itself. Add into that feelings like I described above, and the struggle is real. It can sometimes feel like you’re fandom’s three legged, one eyed donkey.
Add to that how old Destiel is. Every fandom coming into existence now, every ship built around, comes into contact with Destiel at some point. If you type ‘queerbaiting’ into Wikipedia, our ship is cited. In Google, we come up first. Thanks to antis (and some genuinely bad behavior from bad apple shippers over the years) we’ve earned a reputation, and it moves before us into every ship interaction we have. Because of that, we can appear both intimidating and as something to be avoided, because ‘what if you meet a crazy one’? You’d think seniority would be a good thing, but few people see us as a ship that’s been there and done that, as they do Swanqueen. We aren’t the ship that can perhaps offer advice on things going on in whippersnapper fandoms based on our experiences, as it would be in an ideal world. We’re not a ship to be aligned with, and because of this odd perception of wlw vs. mlm, there was simply never any potential that support for Supercorp wasn’t going to skyrocket. It was a fight against ‘That monolithic mlm ship that just won’t stop’, as it were, because here we still are hanging onto threads hoping our ship will go canon, and based on past evidence, the fall of other mlm ships, and only looking in from the outside, that seems like wishful thinking.
So we were unlikely to gain allies from heartbroken mlm fandoms. We were unlikely to find allies in wlw fandoms. It’s sad, of course, because for all the talk of representation in media, the desire to express a balance and cheerlead for mlm, imo an obvious representation underdog, simply doesn’t ever come up. Our friends and relatives roll our eyes at us if we talk about Destiel because we get that ridiculous light in our eyes when we do. Ultimately, that meant that Destiel was on its own. It had to unify. It had to pour its passion into voting and be a family again. It’s been knocked out in previous years - honestly based on what I’ve heard it’s been a disaster - but THIS YEAR we pulled out all the stops. That was all us. Despite antivoting, Destiel shippers - and only Destiel shippers - fought and fought - thousands of votes after thousands of votes, as we made small leads only to slip three times further. We didn’t stop. We were there and fighting right up until the end. And it may just have been a silly online poll, but I think it really goes to show what we can do when we put our hearts into it. We more than doubled the amount of votes cast in the previous round, over the exact same time scale, even though Supercorp fought back with everything they had, all the vibrancy of being a fresh, shunned ship determined to prove themselves, using social media strategy and unity to bring in votes from wherever they could get them. They fought well. They were wiley and smart, and so passionate; passionate like I thought I’d forgotten how to be.
And we kept fighting. We were in the semis, with twice as many votes more than Swanqueen, and we fought tooth and nail and almost got there, slipping just in the last half hour.
I have to believe that that’s because some people in the Destiel family have hope. I know we’ve drawn in a lot of new and returning shippers recently, I’ve seen you following me and starting out in meta writing yourselves, joining Destiel exchanges for the first time, sharing your first codas. The DCBB and Pinefest have had ENORMOUS turnouts. We are, despite all odds, growing as a ship again.
I really hope that we can overcome the shame that has somehow been drummed into us for shipping mlm. I hope that we can all, whether we ship wlw, mlm, het or poly or whatever peeps are doing these days, make sure not to raise one as an ideal over the others, because it’s not in the spirit of family, of fandom. It is never ‘us against them’, it’s never a case of moral or ethical superiority, definitely not even in everyday parlance and least of all in a shipping popularity contest.
And maybe despite the risk, we’ll get an ‘I love you’, some hand holding. Hell, maybe even a kiss (Supernatural never even gave us a kiss between Jesse and Cesar, though, so I have my doubts.) But God if that wouldn’t pave the way for better deconstruction of toxic masculinity on genre TV, more presence of bisexual men and gay men on genre TV, and more men kissing and open expression of sexuality on genre TV.
So here’s my final word. Maybe the bunnies will kiss. Maybe they’ll even do what bunnies do, who knows? And maybe next year we’ll win it.
I hope I didn’t step on any toes with this post. I felt like these words needed to come out of me, though, so here they are. Thank God there’s no more Zimbio until next year, right? Please refer back to my first paragraph for disclaimers. Thanks, though, if you read this far.