Supernatural Re-Watch: “Home,” “Scarecrow,” and female characters

I don’t have enough to say about “Home” to fill a whole post, so I’m just going to make a comment about it here before moving on to “Scarecrow” and the general topic of Supernatural and its female characters.

So, I don’t like “Home” very much. It’s a competent episode in general (as is the case with most of S1), but even taken in its own right, I feel like it fails to do anything sufficiently momentous with the idea of Mary’s spirit hanging out in their old house. It just comes across as . . . random. “Oh, okay, it’s Mom. We’ll be teary-eyed for a moment and then move on.” Taken in a broader context, I feel like it doesn’t fit. I would not be at all surprised to find out that Kripke hadn’t yet thought up the stuff with the Campbells that comes out in S4, because I kind of feel like a Mary Winchester with that context behind her would have a very different role in this episode. So “Home” doesn’t hit the way I want it to, and I think I have a subconscious tendency to forget Mary’s part in it and just remember Missouri, etc.

I also don’t like “Scarecrow” all that much, largely because it introduces Meg. And I do not like her at all.

Supernatural‘s issue with female characters is, to begin with, a structural one. The series is overwhelmingly populated by one-off characters; its core cast is all of two people, at least until you get into the last season or so. Because Kripke made the decision to focus his story on two male protagonists, this means that almost every female character is automatically assigned to a one-off role.

(Let’s be clear: the decision to focus on two male protagonists is not inherently a bad one. Kripke very obviously has an interest in discussing the theme of brothers and their relationship to their father, and does a good job of carrying this out. It’s only bad in the context of a media landscape where dudes are overwhelmingly the protagonists of such stories, and their relationships with each other are considered the most interesting things to talk about. I’m sad that nobody filled the Yuletide request for a Sleepy Hollow/Supernatural fusion where the Mills sisters drive around the country in a muscle car fighting monsters, because I WANT TO READ THAT STORY.)

So: two male characters in every episode, almost everybody else relegated to one-shot appearances. In a given episode plot, there are three significant roles a secondary character can appear in, those being Monster, Victim, and Ally. Allies do not figure into every plot, so that means that the most common non-spear-carrier roles for a female character are Monster and Victim. And, well: both of those are problematic, in a context where women are never the protagonists. (It is also a problem for minority characters of any sort, as this show abundantly demonstrates.)

You do get some female Allies, like Haley in “Wendigo,” Amanda in “Phantom Traveler,” or Sarah in “Provenance.” These are the characters who face down the bad stuff alongside the Winchesters, contributing in some conscious fashion to their efforts. But ultimately, they’re going to be assistants to the main heroes, because the audience is not here to watch how some random individual we’re never going to see again solves the problem with the brothers looking on. Sam and Dean are the protagonists, so they’re the ones who save the day. I like a number of the Ally characters, but they don’t solve the underlying problem of women being bit parts in the story, and often bit parts that are either evil or dead.

The problem can’t all be attributed to the structure, though. That’s just a bad foundation on which the larger issue stands.

When the show does start working in more recurring characters, they are often male . . . even when they don’t have to be. Okay, so Bobby kind of needs to be a guy, because a surrogate mother figure would play a very different role in the story than a surrogate father figure, and wouldn’t contribute to the theme Kripke is exploring. But what about Castiel? I liked Anna, but she showed up all of a handful of times, whereas Misha Collins becomes a main cast member and is pretty obviously immune to being removed from the plot. Chuck Shurley is male: why? It would have made for an interesting twist if the person writing about the Winchesters was a woman, especially given all the meta jokes that eventually happen about their fanbase. Or how about the guys from “Hell House,” who later come back as the Ghostfacers? Yes, they’re a parody of a particular type of nerd, one that tends to be male — but there’s still a good story to tell if one or both of those nerds are female. Zachariah, Gabriel, etc, etc . . . too many of the recurring characters are male, even when there isn’t a strong reason why they have to be. Even when maybe there would be an equally strong story to tell about a woman instead.

Exceptions: Ellen. Jo. Bela. I liked all three of them. Unfortunately, what I’ve always heard is that women in general and Jo in particular ran afoul of the SPN fanbase, who haaaaaaaaated having a female character get in the way of their mad shipping of Sam and Dean. I don’t actually know if that’s true; I’ve heard it often enough, but never seen actual textual evidence to back it up. (If you have some, feel free to provide.) Bela I think got shortchanged by the writers’ strike, which curtailed S3 — more on that when we actually get to her in the course of the re-watch. But Ellen and Jo are the ones I’m the most upset about, because I think they were good characters who contributed a lot to the show, and then they got dropped without much ceremony.

And then there’s Meg. And Ruby.

Unfortunately, somebody on the show — maybe it was Kripke; maybe it was somebody else; maybe it was the gestalt of the writing team in general — seems to have been prone to writing a type I think of as the Blonde Bitch. (The haircolor honestly feels like it’s relevant; I found Ruby much more bearable after they recast her with a brunette actress. And the worst offenders always seem to be blonde.) This character is abrasive and unlikeable in a way that I think I’m expected to read as “strong.” Those two are the worst offenders, being recurring characters, but similar sorts turn up as one-shots in various episodes, rubbing me the wrong way despite for their short time on screen. Even Jo has elements of the type in her, though she’s ultimately a much better character than that.

I don’t like Meg. Not “I don’t like her because she’s a villain;” I just flat-out don’t want to watch her on the screen. Her dialogue isn’t good. Her role is annoying. I detest the way the actress plays her. I felt the same way about Ruby most of the time, at least before she was recast. If this is what’s on offer for recurring female characters, a part of me says “let’s just go back to the guys.”

I’ve got more to say about “Scarecrow” on a structural level, but I wanted to touch on the gender issue first, because, well, yeah. Given that S1 is mostly just competent, rather than particularly good, and it starts off with two women refrigerated in the space of an hour, I can understand why the ongoing issue of female characters puts some people right off. I know the show eventually gets to a level I think is good enough to make me acknowledge this problem and then put it aside, but not everybody wants to stick with it that long or forgive it that failing, and I can’t say they’re wrong. If you’re looking for cool female characters, this is not the place to find them.

Comments are closed.