As is often the case in Supernatural, something struck me in this week’s Supernatural, which when I picked at the thread, seemed to reveal a pattern throughput the whole show. I was struck how Dean is presented as both the owner and the object of the gaze within the show.
This “Twlight-esque” image is on the front of one of the vampire books Dean finds.
Look at this. Watching her sleep, how is that not rape-y
Dean encapsulates in this statement the concept of the male gaze. In film, women are typically the objects, rather than the possessors, of the gaze. Basically the gaze = looking + power. But hey I was drunk the day we studied feminist film theory in my agricultural science course, so here let talking dinosaurs explain it for you.
The reason this image disturbs us is because the power of the gaze here (active male watching an unconscious vulnerable woman) conveys his total power over her. It’s an image fitting of a crime or horror novel. Yet here (and in Twilight) this image is meant to represent what is presented as romantic love in the text.
Later Dean finds himself re-enacting the scene with Lisa, but he is conscious this signals his devolution into evil – again acknowledging the power inherent in the gaze.
However in the same episode, Dean is also the object of the gaze - most significantly as Sam stands and watches Dean get attacked and infected. Sam is in the position ofa power here s he watches and chooses not to intervene. We also have the vampire Boris looking Dean over and announcing “You’re pretty.”
Dean most often owns the gaze. When we first meet him, he ogles Jess’s boobs in her smurf shirt, and throughout the series Dean is the one in the position of power when he looks at women, or on monsters. But regularly interspersed through the series, we get a shift from Dean as the subject to Dean as the object.
The first significant incident of Dean as the object of the gaze is the iconic scene at the beginning of Phantom Traveler. In a scene not dissimilar to that on the book cover above, Dean is shown sleeping, and a large shadowy male figure enters the room. The camera (the gaze of both the audience and the male figure) gives a long slow pan up Dean’s body presenting him as a vulnerable, sexual object.
The reveal is that Dean is not helpless – he has a knife – and the there is no threat – the figure is Sam. This the gaze is a common technique in horror movies, where it is used to set up an expectation of where power lies, only to reveal that ITS BEHIND YOU.
Dean being watched – by the audience, by Sam, by Castiel - while he sleeps becomes a repeated image through the series. (oh we love a little Dean burrito)
In the last one with Cas, I think it was Misha who related that Kim Manners was concerned in the original cut of the scene, Cas watching Dean sleep read as very gay. Cas sitting on the bed (rather than standing over him) with Dean shifts the gaze from ominous to sexual. Of course Cas owning the gaze when it comes to Dean is a feature of their relationship.
In many instances, Dean is also the object of an unambiguously sexual gaze. “Don’t objectify me” he tells Bela, and of course to Cas “Last time someone looked at me like that, I got laid”. Along the way others like the demon Casey, Nick the siren, the Chief and others objectify Dean sexually. Even when he's not quite himself in It's a Terrible Life, Dean immediately assumes being the subject of Sam's gaze is sexual ("Save it for the health club pal")
ETA: JDM forgive me! thanks to errant_jane
for reminding me of Dean as object to YED's gaze, and other crossroads demons, on many occasions.
This season on meeting Dean, Gwen Campbell looks him over and says “My God, you have delicate features for a hunter.” This last one is a great example of how the object of the gaze is disenfranchised. Dean Winchester, hunter and world saver, is immediately disempowered by being just a pretty object.
Well, you are kind of butch. They probably think you're overcompensating.
But what does it all mean? My theory is that having Dean as the object of the gaze is necessary to make him a more relatable, sympathetic character. Dean Winchester is a hero. He embodies an almost hyper-real masculinity and heterosexuality. I do think he’s over compensating, although not because he is concerned people will see him as gay, but as an armor against the world seeing the scared little boy he feels himself to be much of the time.
The audience does get to see this side of Dean when his strong powers of repression crack, and he cries. I think having Dean as the object of the gaze occasionally is a half way point, something that allows us to see him as not in control, as not the one with power, in a more subtle way. Because of the strong coding of his gender and sexuality, Dean (and the audience) can bear him being the object of the gaze , without it disrupting his character.
It does interest me that Dean is the object of both a male and female gaze within the text, and of course from the audience. It certainly gives me as a queer female viewer more ways to identify with the characters, and intersect with the text.
Plus who doesn’t like looking at Dean Winchester?