Celebration of Supernatural Panel: Breaking the Fourth Wall: Meta Supernatural
KT Torrey (panel chair)
Linda Howell: director, writing center, U North Florida
Howell: Started watching in live w/S6, which had The French Mistake: looking back at the viewer. Thesis: The show never breaks the fourth wall. The show is trying to build a fifth wall, enclosing the viewers inside the text. Tropes: the fan in text, the author in text. Chuck and almost simultaneously Becky: a Janus figure of author/reader almost coexisting. As Chuck leaves the text, so does Becky; her character gets assassinated. But the show can’t let go of the meta—Metatron and Charlie, author and fan again through very different lenses. The show intuits something blatant in TV watching. Equivalent to The Talking Dead: now you have authorized space of commentary, authorized meta—SPN intuited that because it was allowed experimentation that other network shows don’t get. How does that relationship actually affect the interpretation/hermeneutics (fancy word for interpretation) of SPN? By SPN including the fan/author, it creates a crisis of interpretation. Struggle over meaning becomes center of narrative, which you see in increasingly frequent meta episodes. If you have this hermeneutical crisis, is the show disowning its own authorship? Is Fan Fiction a love letter to fans, or a deed of ownership to fans? Happens in X-Files and Buffy too, but SPN does it in very concentrated fashion.
Schmidt: My fascination w/meta episodes is with emotional reactions to them. What makes SPN unique? As a fan scholar, you have to ask yourself: is it really because X, since those things happen in other shows/fandoms as well? Nonetheless, meta experiment is uniquely intense in SPN, though other shows are doing it. Participatory television: increasing across the board, not just American Idol. Address to audience: reference that only a person in the know would recognize: an indirect offer of participation. That’s what much of the meta episodes are doing. You couldn’t understand why The French Mistake was so funny if you didn’t already know a lot about the actors/production details. Agree they don’t break the fourth wall.
Monster at the End of This Book: reaction was both pleasure and embarrassment. And then came Becky. At first, mildly annoyed/okay—then Season Seven, Time for a Wedding: can’t watch again. Her theory of what’s going on: fans are in a love relationship with show/objects within show, and it’s like being in love with someone who’s always distant. When you want to maintain a relationship, you want to maintain knowledge by knowing them and having them know you. Show reaches out to us is like saying we know you and you can know us. When the wedding episode occurred: it was “you don’t know me, and this is what you think you know about me—slash writers are obnoxious, immature, can’t keep hands to themselves, bad writers.” Then came Fan Fiction, and I truly felt like someone had made an effort to educate themselves about fandom, and it was an apology. It felt like recognition, and like them letting me know them. Marie the writer: fierce, kooky, someone I want to know. There is a real intimacy being created, which is a dangerous thing to say from a fan studies perspective. Fan studies started out with the idea of “fake relationships”—it feels like a real relationship these days.
Torrey: does the text make it meta? Or does our reaction make it meta? For example, Charlie as a figure of the fangirl—the one that SPN wants to have, not Becky which it thinks it has. Does that mean every episode with Charlie is meta? Or are there parts? When Sam & Dean look straight into the camera when interrogating a demon in S9, is that a meta moment? Hollywood Babylon and Real Ghostbusters seem to give creators space to reflect on their own foibles—how bored the grip operators, or how Dean’s tropey dialogue is mocked. Meta episodes have felt more like self-reflection and more like “we’re doing meta.” Fan Fiction is very giving, accepting: does that mean we are suddenly understood? Understood by one writer? What’s the difference? Can we treat the paratexts around SPN as SPN meta, such as Osric Chau’s Winchester Gospels? Misha Collins’ TSA shorts which are Destiel fanfic (I don’t know this so I may have misinterpreted)? Or the behind the scenes short in S9?
Comment: Fan Fiction was supposed to be love letter to fans/respectful, it was also polarizing among people I knew in fandom. People who hated it felt like it got too close to what they held dear about fandom, or didn’t like the interpretation.
Schmidt: same with Monster at the End of this Book: some people felt they were being outed/exposed in a way that meant them uncomfortable.
Howell: the gaze is really not the gaze—it can never really look back at all of thus. Every time the show enacts looking at you, there’s someone saying “it’s not me.” That’s where my concern for meta on the show comes from—it’s an incisive gaze, cutting someone out.
Comment: also a way to control the message. Building a fence.
Howell: like Talking Dead. SPN did it successfully to a certain extent by putting it in the text, but that’s a dangerous game.
Comment: some things like Moose & Squirrel ultimately made it into the show from the fandom.
RT: The concept of interpellation—being hailed by a text—is quite entrenched. I’d like to hear more about how this is different. I also remember a friend’s reaction to Ginger Snaps, the girl werewolf film: “this text is addressed to me and my interests, and I’m so unused to that! Is this what straight white guys feel like all the time?” Is this why we need explicit address in the show, because this audience is unused to being hailed? (Also a note on Destiel in Fan Fiction: a dead space because we’re told the actors are dating in “real life” and thus unlike the Sam/Dean bits it doesn’t read on the SPN master narrative in any way, either as authorization or shutdown.)
Comment: Changing Channels as meta, progressing from looking at themselves to looking outward at fans in Fan fiction.
Comment: older fans anecdotally react worse to meta episodes; younger fans happier to be engaged.
Howell: at some point the text is the text and its annotation. Authority spaces now include things like conventions, DVD commentaries—fans have access to information. That becomes part of the hermeneutics (she wants to insist on the term because of the connection to religion—fans adopt texts as lenses into the world). Annotations/midrash emerge that intense readers, those who want to be priests/proselytizers, have access to. We know what Charlie means for fans, but not all the casual viewers do.
Comment: the relationship as illusion—but as we’ve grown in social media that enhances the sense of relationship. Generationally, is that dangerous in giving the illusion more feeling of reality?
Schmidt: Yes, because the show is still the show. I don’t know if it’s a real connection, but I can’t say for certain, and that’s the danger.
Howell: who gets to decide whether the relationship is real? The show or the fan?
Schmidt: I think it’s real, b/c they went to the effort to address me. Believe they care about the message they’re sending, want to make us happy (or not).
Comment: lack of connection between casual viewer and fan creates different reasons and reactions. In the beginning they were speaking more to casual viewers; now they’re speaking to more passionate fans. May be difficult for casual viewers to handle. (RT: that’s pretty much necessary for a non-episodic show that goes on 10 years.)
Schmidt: this is true of much TV over the past few years—narrative complexity reliant on reader’s knowledge and expertise. You can’t watch the show if you haven’t been watching the show.
Comment: Kings of Con reinforces legitimacy of fans—they recognize we’re the reason they exist (RT: and they’re the reason we’re here).
Comment: serialized TV existed before prime time, in soap operas. That’s a commitment people have been making for a long time! You could be in depth or casual.
Torrey: the assumption is that there is “a” SPN fandom and there is not.
Comment: it’s a multiauthored text, not one that makes coherent sense, just like other sacred texts. It’s a mistake to demand/infer coherence.
Howell: the people who wrote the episode last year in which Sam & Dean stared into the camera and said “you’re obsessed, you’ll never get what you want” to a “demon” also wrote Dark Dynasty, which killed Charlie.
Comment: Marie from Fan Fiction as the multi-fan: she didn’t just have Destiel or Sam/Dean, she had both, and also robots! She represents “us” in a different way.
Howell: Had one student upset with portrayal of Marie: I am not a teenage girl! This goes back to the issue that having a character in a show that you can own, from Becky to Charlie to Marie, is always fractional. She was already upset w/ the show, and this was her moment. Then I think about Real Ghostbusters, and all the fans in the audience being men. There’s a strange iteration/redundancy of trying to see/fit the fans in the show. The sentimentality of Marie might not be recognizable to some fans.
Schmidt: Multiple representations! With Charlie, we get another view.
Howell: Right, but her reaction is still legitimate as her reaction.
Comment: interesting from a generational perspective—teenage girls working within a high school, versus adult women. Felt like they were making an apology to teen girls specifically. A lot of the fanbase may be teens—as a teen, I found that affirming.
Torrey: if audience’s power comes from resisting the text, what does it mean that things like Wincest and Destiel are now acknowledged in the text? Does that take some power out of them if it’s not a resistant reading, just reading into what the boys already know?
Comment: variety in writers we have—in not many other shows can we recognize the writer’s tics.
Comment: where is SPN in larger horror genre?
Schmidt: SPN is not a horror show any more. Melodrama and horror are related, and melodrama in SPN is just using horror tropes to make the melodrama more impactful—whether the world ends! They started out w/a desire to scare people, but that’s not what they do any more even though they use ideas of horror. Horror goes back to the gothic, and gothic meets melodrama.
Comment: there’s a tendency to conflate Dean’s reaction to fandom with producers’ reaction to fandom. Dean may confuse cosplay with LARPing, but he’s kind of a bonehead that way, and it’s consistent w/ his character.
Torrey: good point about role of creatives.
Comment: if the episodes by certain writers like Dark Dynasty are lowest-rated on the show, should we really count it as canon?
Comment: meta as a purging fire for fandom. Pushes away people less inclined to be obsessive fans?
Howell: the more the story becomes consumed by its own meta, the more the authors are disowning the story, complicating the idea of canon and authorization. Charlie’s death is definitely a meta moment.
Comment: the more the show is meta, the more the fans may be protagonists, which may mean we need the writers to be bad/to be a foil.