‘Supernatural’ shouldn’t have buried its only gay lead

After 12 years of queerbaiting, the series proves not every coming out is a clear-cut victory for queer representation

Castiel.
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If you’re a fan of Supernatural, you might be feeling down for two reasons: last night’s series finale, and the show’s disappointing execution of its final bid for positive queer representation.

Before it returned to air its final seven episodes, I wrote an article condemning the series’ pattern of queerbaiting that spans over a decade and suggesting Supernatural would end its run without ever confirming romantic feelings between two of its main characters, monster hunter Dean Winchester and Castiel, his angel best friend. I stand corrected—sort of.

In the third-last episode of the series, Castiel told Dean he loved him. Destiel—the fan-given name for the relationship between the two characters—trended number one on Twitter, above even the ongoing US election results. Despite some ambiguity, Misha Collins, the actor who played the angel, confirmed the scene was a “homosexual declaration of love” in a virtual panel after the episode’s release.

The canonical confirmation of Castiel’s feelings for Dean was a moment of vindication for long-suffering fans like myself, who’ve spent years feeling misled and exploited by the series’ tendency to queerbait. That vindication, though, is stained by the show’s execution of Castiel’s ‘coming out.’

The declaration felt forced by necessity and life-or-death circumstances, and within seconds of admitting his love for his friend, Castiel is dragged into the Empty, a hellish afterlife where angels are sent when they die. Castiel’s “I love you” went unreciprocated, and Supernatural wrapped the storyline of one of its main characters for good.

That’s right: Castiel confessed his love for another man, and was immediately sent to super hell for angels.

Aside from feeding into a transparently damaging narrative that associates queerness with punishment and damnation, the show also participates in the reductive ‘bury your gays’ trope, which marks queer characters as more expendable than their straight counterparts. You might think they’d know better, considering Supernatural has faced criticism for this very same issue when a fan-favourite lesbian character was arbitrarily killed off in season 10. Unfortunately, you’d be wrong.

Even in 2020, LGTBQIA+ audiences can still be hard-pressed to find representation in television that isn’t reductive or hurtful. There are a plethora of homophobic tropes that remain prevalent in contemporary television—they’re far more common than the casual straight viewer might realize—but ‘bury your gays’ is among the most damaging. Whether it’s homophobic hate crimes or continued stigmatization of HIV/AIDS, storylines that disproportionately kill off queer characters bolster the subliminal narrative that the natural conclusion to gay lives is an early death.

The Empty taking Castiel moments after his confirmation as a queer character is such an egregious example of ‘bury your gays’ it’s almost comical. That creative choice—which admittedly created a dramatic and memorable moment on the show—might have been slightly more forgivable if Supernatural didn’t have a decade-and-a-half long track record for spotty to obviously harmful queer representation.

That’s the crux of the issue: we’re past the point of forgiving the ‘one step forward, two steps back’ mentality when it comes to queer representation in television. It can’t always be perfect, but gay characters whose circumstances do more to harm queer narratives than advance them just don’t cut it anymore.

The only kisses between two men I can remember on Supernatural were between a literal demon and two very unwilling old men, and both sealed the deals that damned their souls to hell. That’s not exactly groundbreaking positive representation. Supernatural has never been a safe space for queer viewers, making the poor execution of Destiel’s confirmation something I can’t look past.

Castiel’s death feels like cowardice, and it’s reduced Destiel to another example of the showrunners letting down their queer audience in a moment they should be uplifting them. In killing off the angel, Supernatural avoids taking meaningful ‘risks’ in the name of queer inclusion. Dean never has to respond to his best friend’s admission, and the possibility of his character being confirmed as bisexual is all but erased; no two-sided romantic interaction between the two men—like a kiss—is ever depicted, and there’s practically no disruption to the show’s hyper-masculine, heteronormative storytelling and plotlines.

We can still acknowledge the polarizing effect of Castiel’s coming out in both its positive and negative aspects. Most fans of the show who have been rooting for Destiel never actually thought anything would come to fruition given Supernatural’s unwavering adherence to queerbaiting for 12 years. And considering how many similar shows never go so far as to explicitly acknowledge chemistry between same-gender characters, the fact that the show at least gave fans confirmation that Castiel is gay is fairly unprecedented. The intention behind Castiel’s coming out from Collins and the episode’s writer, Robert Berens, was well-meaning.

Unfortunately, Supernatural squandered an opportunity to do something great for queer fans. Destiel may technically be canon, but a lot of viewers like me are left with a bitter taste in our mouths. After 15 seasons, Supernatural’s legacy in terms of queer representation is a muddled one.

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