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a queer and pleasant danger
Looking at Dean Winchester: the gaze in Supernatural 
29th-Oct-2010 12:26 pm
im a sex object
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.
Sam, Playthings.

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?

29th-Oct-2010 01:42 am (UTC)
I love reading when other fans write deep thinky thoughts that show things going on at levels way deeper than it looks like from just the surface. And I always wonder how much of that is consciously put in and how much we are reading into it.
29th-Oct-2010 01:53 am (UTC)
Thanks! I don't think this is a conscious construct by the showmakers, but I do think it arises subconsciously from their writing of Dean.
29th-Oct-2010 01:45 am (UTC)
Oh. So very interesting. I'm going to have to go away and think about all that. I mean, the other blatant example of Dean being the object of the gaze is in The Kids are Alright, when the women ogle him to the point of his retreat. There it's clearly sexual; and in this show, whoever has The Gaze is most often the predator, and being gazed upon is, as you say, to be the one who is less-powerful, so there's a ready conflation of both desire and violence.

With regards to Dean and his crying, he never does that face to face - he's always facing away, so that he does not have to look at anyone or acknowledge anyone looking at him. (I can only think of him being emotionally honest and actually *looking* at someone a few times - talking to Bobby in AHBL2, and Sam at the end of that ep; at the end of NRFTW, etc).

ETA: Hee! Dean burrito!

Edited at 2010-10-29 01:46 am (UTC)
29th-Oct-2010 01:51 am (UTC)
Oh yes that example from TKAA is another great example. And yes, Dean is very much the subject of the camera's/our gaze when he cries. I don;t know that any of this is conscious on the part of the showmakers, but its very interesting!
29th-Oct-2010 01:52 am (UTC)

Go on. I could read your SPN thoughts forever. I almost always go, YES! There! What she said! It makes so much more sense now. Or else its like, OMG! I never even thought of that. You're like a LIGHTBULB!

I love looking at Dean btw.
29th-Oct-2010 01:55 am (UTC)
Thanks!After a weekend of talking Show at Wincon, my head is bursting with thinky thoughts! Or possible some mutation took place due to the combination of alcohol and awesome fangirls *smishes*
29th-Oct-2010 01:56 am (UTC)
Great entry !!!
29th-Oct-2010 04:20 am (UTC)
29th-Oct-2010 01:57 am (UTC)
I think it's part of the ways that the show has coded Dean as feminine all along. Yes, of course he's a macho hunter who loves the ladies, but he's also explicitly Sam's mother-figure, the one who steps between John and Sam.
29th-Oct-2010 02:05 am (UTC)
Yes, definitely. I think there's a lot to say about how the show sets him up as a representation of traditional masculinity, and then also makes him a nurturer, and ultimately someone who helps save the world not through violence but through the power of love!
(Deleted comment)
29th-Oct-2010 02:43 am (UTC)
29th-Oct-2010 02:25 am (UTC)
Oh, I love this meta! I actually do think it's at least in part conscious on the part of Show. Sera is certainly aware of the power of the gaze, and has been a big influence since the beginning, unlike other shows with only male (and mostly straight) showrunners, resulting in female objects and male/viewer subjects. I also think it's a wonderful nudge at the fourth wall, because this fandom is mostly female and explicitly turning its gaze on the boys. That Show facilitates and encourages (and canonizes) that gaze is pretty awesome. Much like this post :)
29th-Oct-2010 02:34 am (UTC)
Thanks so much! I think its a complex construct on part of the show, and I note that the recent presentation of Sam's body for our consumption was written by Ben Edlund. (and of course within the scene Sam while the woman may look at Sam, she does not have the power in the scene). More broadly i think Kim Manners style esp wrt to his extreme closeups, had a big influence on "the look" in the series.

I am interested as to how these scenes read to male viewers (as remember while fandom is female, the audience is more evenly gender divided) Interestingly male viewers of horror films commonly identify with the female protagonist, so I think the audience intersection is a quite complex thing.
29th-Oct-2010 02:30 am (UTC)
OMG I love it when you talk meta!! <3<3<3 I want to wallow in your thinky thoughts.

Also, Dean is generally the object (often with sexual overtones) in scenes with pretty much every demon ever, especially (off the top of my head) crossroad demons and Azazel.
29th-Oct-2010 02:36 am (UTC)

Edited at 2010-10-29 02:42 am (UTC)
29th-Oct-2010 03:04 am (UTC)
Gazing at Dean Winchester.... pretty much a hobby.

Really interesting meta all objectify Dean aside though -- especially in concern to the last epsiode, especially when he ended up mirroring that book cover in Lisa's bedroom. I loved that they chose to stage it thusly, it was very telling and interesting.
29th-Oct-2010 04:04 am (UTC)
Yes, i thought that was a great juxtaposition of those scenes.
29th-Oct-2010 03:17 am (UTC)
Oh, feminist film theory! Be still my beating heart! The gaze is not unproblematic in Supernatural, but Dean being the subject of the gaze is definitely interesting. For one thing, I think you could draw a distinction between scenes like the Phantom Traveler scene where the gaze is used in the cinematography, but isn't commented on within the narrative and scenes like the ones with Gwen and Boris where Dean and we the audience are conscious of the gaze being used in this specific, disempowering way. And what does it mean that the gaze can be used on a man at all, and that this gaze is both male and female? And well said, who doesn't like to look at Dean? *g*
29th-Oct-2010 04:04 am (UTC)
For me - as a woman who often holds the gaze wrt to other women - I don't believe that being the object is always disempowering. There is always a power differential at play - but hey thats the basis of much kink. It can be sexy without being bad. And I see some of this reflected in Dean.

or maybe thats just my fantasy at work ;D
29th-Oct-2010 03:25 am (UTC)
Your brain, I love it. <3
29th-Oct-2010 04:20 am (UTC)
thank you m'dear!
29th-Oct-2010 04:02 am (UTC)
Laura Mulvey, the most famous of all feminist film theorists, posited that the gaze in cinema is inherently masculine, essentially that we as viewers are pushed into a masculine space. It's like a set of dominos. Dean is the owner of the gaze, but also the object, as is Sam when you factor us into the equation. Sucks for Lisa.
29th-Oct-2010 04:19 am (UTC)
I would argue that while the gaze inherently holds power, it is not essentially male (Although of cause traditionally that's where power was located).

I think Mulvey's work provided an important beginning for how we examine power relations through the gaze, but I think later work esp queer theory and Ettinger's matrixial gaze theory, and a lot of the feminist work around the viewing of horror movies has teased out more of the complexities of the gaze esp wrtthe female subject and the queer viewer.
29th-Oct-2010 04:39 am (UTC)
Oh, super fascinating! I was just discussing how the creator of Madmen being a gay male , and the show having some talented female writers creates such an interesting dimension to the show, with Don Draper being in a similar position to Dean, as a gazer and gaze-e.

But what I find so fascinating about the gaze is that it calls into question double-standards. For instance, are there fewer males in fandom due to the fact that the show presents the main characters in a way that makes men feel uncomfortable, and in some way disenfranchised just as I often do watching horror flicks in which the majority of violence is inflicted upon some idealistically beautiful, skimpily dressed female?

Obviously, the power of the gaze does not have as many historical implications of rights violations, violence and sexism for men as it does women. That's why the objectification of men in the media so often read as light-hearted and funny, as it does in the exemplary scene from The Kids are Alright. But in Live Free, we see Dean objectified by a male, which is very different. Not only threatening because Boris is male, but because he is also a vamp. And I have to give the writers credit for having it play out much like most other moments where Dean has been threatened by monsters or demons in a sexually provocative manner: creepy, sexy and kind of disconcerting.

I could go on, but this isn't my post, it's yours! Very insightful, thanks for the thinkie-thoughts!

29th-Oct-2010 05:00 am (UTC)
Thanks. I think LJ fandom is a female space regardless of the show, and of course the viewing audience for Supernatural has a strong male following - in fact it often rates highest amongst men for its time slot. Also while presenting I think an interesting construction of masculinity, Sam and Dean are nonethless heroes.

Viewing of horror movies is interesting as there is often a tension between wanting to identify with the subject (which may be evil), and the object (who may die). Basically if there is a scantily dressed girl on screen I will be gazing at her!

29th-Oct-2010 07:16 am (UTC)
This is very interesting - I've seen quite a few other metas about how Dean's role on the show is often oddly feminine for such a stereotypically macho tough guy - saving the world through the POWER OF LOVE, and all that :) I like the idea that the writers are subverting some of their own gender-tropes.

I would add, though - despite the fake-out from Phantom Traveller, I think that while the viewers, Cas, demons, and all sorts of others have made Dean the object of their gaze, until this season I don't actually think Sam did. I think Sam always wanted Dean to be looking at him, in that little brother "pay attention to me" kind of way. Or he wanted Dean not to look at him, because he was afraid that Dean would see him as a monster. But either way, I don't think Sam was complicit in that objectification of Dean until this season. It is one of the many skeevy characteristics of new, possibly-evil Sam.
29th-Oct-2010 04:06 pm (UTC)
THIS. I totally agree.
29th-Oct-2010 07:49 am (UTC)
Oh. I love your thinky thoughts here.

I loved the way the show played with that "Look at this. Watching her sleep, how is that not rape-y.." set up. Love it when Show shows that it is thinking about this stuff.

Thanks! :D
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