This weekend, I found my branch of the SPN Family.
I am not gonna lie, folks: I have been uber resistant to the whole “Supernatural fandom as family” idea. Not because I don’t dig a lot of the people I’ve met through SPN, but because I’ve seen that rhetoric used once too often as a means of division, rather than inclusion.
Supernatural fandom eats its own sometimes, is what I’m saying. Loudly. And in public.
But on Saturday, man, I don’t know: I guess I finally got it, what being part of that family—or one branch of it, anyway—can feel like. And how great it can be to be in a room full of smart people who love/hate/gnash their teeth over SPN as I do, as you can only do over something you adore even when it disappoints you, and have a chance to talk about it in depth.
Now admittedly, Charlie’s death hung over the day, a shroud of discontent that shadowed every panel I attended. The circumstances of her removal from the series were also a central topic of conversation in Robbie Thompson’s keynote Q&A.
[Dude was totally charming, by the way, and a better lecturer in terms of both the psychology and logistics of writing than some of the composition profs I’ve had. Shhhhhh.]
Both my friend Shannon and I were struck by how many people in attendance are still writing + thinking about the show, but aren’t watching it anymore. Indeed, based on what we heard, it seems that Charlie’s death is poised to push some folks away from the show for good. Which may not be a bad thing.
As Louisa Stein put it: “We have the right not to watch.”
But! Central to the event’s success was that the format of its panels flipped the script on those at traditional academic conferences.
At those conferences, the panels are usually 75 minutes in length, with three or four panelists (all academic types) who each talk for 15-20 minutes. Whatever time is left over (~15 minutes or so) is used for a Q&A with the audience.
In my experience, even in the most collegial of environments, there’s a definite power dynamic in panels like that: the speakers are there to talk at the audience, and while the audience is given leave to respond, it’s in a way that keep the presenters at the center of the discussion.
The set-up on Saturday was the reverse. In the panel I moderated, “Beyond the Fourth Wall: Meta and Supernatural,” me and my two fellow panelists talked for a total of 15 minutes, with the remaining 45 minutes devoted to a conversation to which the audience and the presenters contributed equally.
Honestly, y’all? It was an awesome experience. Just amazing. Because I can’t remember being in any space, AWK or online, that so seamlessly integrated fans and academics into a single kairotic discussion, be about Supernatural or anything else. What made it beautiful was that the panel produced a genuine conversation, a real-time exchange of ideas about this weird and messy series that everyone in the room knew and loved, albeit in different ways.
We may not have all been the same kinds of fans, but on that day, in that room, that was more than ok. It was fantastic.
[The last panel I attended, for example, featured a 17-year old fan, two scholars who’ve published on Supernatural, and a medievalist: and everyone was on equal ground. It was fucking gorgeous.]
Anyway, the energy in the room during our panel was great, which was especially cool given that, as a very kind audience member said to me later, “That kind of discussion [about meta] could have gotten really heated or negative. But it didn’t.”
And, yeah, some of that had to do with my moderation style, with the tone I tried to set with my attitude, but honestly? A lot of that positive energy came from people’s willingness to really listen to each other. That doesn’t mean they always agreed, no way, but the back-and-forth of perspectives was productive, rather than confrontational, with one person adding on to the next and to the next and coalescing into these gorgeous moments of crowd-sourced insight, e.g.:
1) Supernatural is multi-authored text, so it’s impossible to resolve all of its internal logic problems into a single, always coherent text.
2) That said, there are few shows were the audience is so keenly aware of who is writing a given episode, and thus what the audience might expect from said ep in terms of characterization (or not), plot, etc.
3) Thus, at some level, we’re no longer talking about Supernatural writ large. It’s Robbie Thompson’s Supernatural. It’s Robert Berens’ Supernatural. It’s Those Who Shall Not Be Named’s Supernatural, etc.
4) Who decides what makes an episode “meta” or not? Is it the audience’s reaction–a moment of interpellation, a recognition of a reference to themselves within the text? Or is an episode “meta” when TPTB explicitly mark it as such (as in “The French Mistake” or “Monster at the End of This Book”)?
5) The series is increasingly marked not by meta eps, but meta moments in individual episodes.
For example, the moment in S9 when Sam and Dean are torturing an angel and the camera goes angel POV: the boys seem to be directly addressing the audience and taunting them for their misplaced affection for the show.
(See also: the character of Charlie Bradbury. Sigh.)
6) These moments (just like the meta eps before them) suggest that TPTB are certain that they know “The Supernatural Fandom” onto whom they’re turning the show’s (the boys’) gaze. But really, while individual writers (cough*Robbie Thompson*cough) seem to grok some fan attitudes and practices, many of these meta moments suggest that the writer or creatives behind them really don’t fucking get us at all.
7) There is no Supernatural fandom. Period. There are many. And because of that, the gaze of the meta episodes (or moments) looks back at just one section of the fandom at a time. In doing so, this gaze invariably cuts out/ignores other parts of fandom–which, depending on your perspective might be good or bad.
8) The “canon” in SPN is enormous, and includes not only the eps themselves but paratexts (like Osric Chau’s Winchester Gospels, the fake S9 “Behind the Scenes” documentary), the actors’ social media presence, and all the shit that goes on at cons (and now, Kings of Con, too!).
9) Thus, to be an “informed” viewer of SPN (as defined by the text or by the fandom? hmm) requires you to look outside of the events of the series itself and make extra efforts to engage with alternate platforms like Twitter, Facebook, tumblr, etc.
[For another perspective on our discussion, you can read an audience member’s notes on the panel here. She’s also posted write ups of several other panels from the event, if you’re interested.]
So what does it mean that I feel like part of the SPNFamily? I don’t know yet. I’m still basking in the unexpected afterglow, I think. I don’t know what I expected from participating in SPNDePaul, but it wasn’t the warm and fuzzy feelings that I walked away with.
Not gonna lie, though: it’s weird. But good. Weirdly good.