After 15 series and 327 episodes, cult series Supernatural drew to a close on 19 November 2020. In its final season, one episode stirred especial controversy: ‘Despair’, episode 18, in which the angel Castiel declares his love for Dean, then sacrifices himself for him. This canon acknowledgment of the ‘Destiel’ same sex pairing was criticised for its use of the ‘bury your gays’ trope and as a hollow gesture following years of alleged queerbaiting by the show’s creators, writers and actors. This is an accepted manuscript version of my ‘Jensen Ackles is a (homophobic) douchebag’ study, released into the world following a flurry of fan requests. It delves into the fan debate on whether Dean actor Jensen Ackles is homophobic, framed in the context of the queerbaiting concept.

‘Jensen Ackles is a (homophobic) douchebag’: the ‘politics of slash’ in debates on a TV star’s homophobia
 
Jensen Ackles is a (homophobic) douchebag
‘Jensen Ackles is a (homophobic) douchebag’: the ‘politics of slash’ in debates on a TV star’s homophobia

ABSTRACT

This article analyses discourse on the DataLounge LGBT Internet forum that debates whether Jensen Ackles (star of The CW’s Supernatural) is homophobic. Textual analysis is performed on five relevant threads created between 2007 and 2014, which have attracted in excess of 1150 responses. This discourse is considered in conjunction with existing scholarship on Supernatural as a cult phenomenon, in particular Ackles’ portrayal of the character Dean Winchester, who has been read by scholars (and members of the DataLounge forum) in relation to a certain hegemonic view of masculinity and heterosexuality, often at odds with the popularity of the series among ‘slash fans’, who undertake homoerotic readings. In light of this, I argue that the defensive and offensive posturing of participants on DataLounge can be understood as a case study of what I term the ‘politics of slash’.

This is an Accepted Manuscript of an article published by Taylor & Francis in CELEBRITY STUDIES on 7 November 2016, available online: http://www.tandfonline.com/10.1080/19392397.2016.1249897.

This article analyses discourse on the DataLounge LGBT Internet forum that debates whether Jensen Ackles, star of cult The CW series Supernatural (2005–), is homophobic. The article argues for the wider implications of this particular debate, developed through my concept of the ‘politics of slash’. This concept is underscored by tensions between homosexuals and slash fans – which few scholars have explored (see Brennan 2014a, 2014b) – and related debates on the intentions behind and value of a fan practice that homoeroticises popular media characters. I argue that what this debate is really about is open discussion of homosexual suggestion, representation, and visibility, as well as ownership over this issue. While Ackles is the catalyst for the discourse created, the central claim is that what is most interesting is the insight offered into ‘slash’ as a fan practice, as well as the subcultural groups most affected and energised by this debate, namely male homosexuals and slash fans.

Equally, my reading of discourse on Ackles offers insight into a popular actor’s ‘star persona’ (see Dyer 1979) – as the coalescence of on-screen and off-screen performances. In this regard, this article contributes to understandings of ‘subcultural celebrity’ (see Hills 2003), and of celebrity and politics more broadly, with Ackles being an example of a celebrity who apparently holds more conservative views. But also, insight is provided into the views of particular subcultural communities (male homosexuals and slash fans) grappling with the potential that their object of interest (Ackles) may disapprove of who they are, and what they desire. As is suggested by one participant’s response to an account of Ackles and his co-star (Jared Padalecki) making homophobic comments on set – ‘MY HEART IS BROKEN somebody anybody please tell me the stuff about Jensen and Jared are not true [...] they must know their fans are gay friendly and gays [...]’ (R210)1. I end the article by considering this debate in light of the suggestion that the ‘real issue’ is one of ‘queerbaiting’ of Supernatural fans, rather than a star’s supposed homophobia. This present study brings to bear new insight into understandings of slash by considering the practice as it is constructed through the debate of Ackles’ supposed homophobia, a debate that is itself framed by certain ‘politics’ – of representation, visibility, and identity, for example. Also resultant from the immersion of different demographics within this debate is the potential for certain ‘problematic’ discourses, namely anti-gay (by slash fans) and anti-fan(girl) (by homosexual men), which highlights the sometimes problematic rhetoric in online fan fora interested in sexual subversion.

Jensen Ackles as subcultural celebrity

Jensen Ackles as subcultural celebrity

 

Jensen Ackles is best known for his portrayal of the male lead character Dean Winchester (alongside Padalecki, portraying the character’s brother Sam) in cult series Supernatural (2005–), the 12th season of which premiered in October 2016. Despite the longevity of Ackles’ performance in a successful television series, his celebrity status is clearly ‘subcultural’, meaning that while he is well known to fans of the series and fans of cult media more broadly, he is not instantly recognisable beyond these contexts. This fits with Matt Hills’ (2003, p. 61) definition of the ‘subcultural celebrity’, defined as stars ‘treated as famous only by and for their fan audiences’. As Melanie Bourdaa et al. (2016, p. 200) explain using the example of Misha Collins, who portrays the angel Castiel in Supernatural, ‘while not considered international stars in the vein of actors like George Clooney’, actors such as Collins ‘are highly respected in scifi and cult TV media fandoms’. Being ‘subcultural’ means Ackles represents a more ‘narrow-cast’ (see Ferris 2010) version of celebrity who is deeply implicated in the unique structures and resultant ‘politics’ of cult and television fandom. 

 

Comparison between Ackles and Collins here is deliberate, because both are subcultural celebrities best known for their work on Supernatural yet they engage this status in contrasting ways. Whereas Ackles has been seen to discourage homoerotic fan readings, Collins is perceived as appreciative of such interpretations that involve his and other male characters in the series (see Wilkinson 2010, p. 5 for a discussion of Collins and his engagement with his fan audience, known as ‘minions’). This example is particularly helpful for the purposes of my argument here, because it is precisely Collins’ respectability as a subcultural celebrity (as supportive of the interests of his fan base) that is contrasted with the perceived shortcomings of Ackles (his homophobic views) in the discourse analysed. I juxtapose Ackles and Collins at the end of this article when I consider audience perceptions of celebrity homophobia (Ackles) versus queerbaiting (Collins). 

 

In a study that shares a number of similarities with the present one, Hills together with Rebecca Williams (2005) reads subcultural celebrity James Marsters in accordance with his character ‘Spike’ from cult series Buffy the Vampire Slayer (1997–2003). Hills and Williams (2005, p. 345) argue that by situating himself as ‘like Spike’, Marsters is ‘able to offer up privileged interpretations of “his” character’ while also supporting ‘certain fan readings of Spike’. A similar case can be made for readings of Ackles as ‘like Dean’, in particular with regard to interpretations of this character in line with certain hegemonic views of masculinity and heterosexuality, as will be explored in the following. But first it is worthwhile to consider other aspects of Ackles’ star persona, in particular those relating to melodrama, and also the construction of Ackles’ persona on the DataLounge threads.

Reading discourses of a cult TV star on the DataLounge forum

Reading discourses of a cult TV star on the DataLounge forum

 

Ackles is also known as being one of several actors to play the role of Eric Brady (portrayed 1998–2002) in the long-running daytime soap Days of Our Lives (1965–), and for recurring roles in other long-running television serials such as Dawson’s Creek (1998–2003) and Smallville (2001–2011). Before turning to acting Ackles worked as a male model, which coupled with his early acting work in soap operas has meant his ‘star persona’ (see Dyer 1979) is one that often connotes a man that is both beautiful2 and prone to melodrama. This point fits with Lisa Schmidt’s (2010, p. 1.4) argument that the ‘true nature’ of Supernatural, a series often described as a hybrid of the road and horror genres, is in fact ‘melodramatic through and through’. Schmidt supports her claim by exploring the subculture of ‘slash’ fans the series has attracted, who create fan works dedicated to ‘Wincest’, a scenario of the brothers of Supernatural Sam and Dean Winchester in sexual liaisons, which she refers to as ‘the perfect melodrama’ (2010, p. 1.5). The popularity of Wincest (see Tosenberger 2008) adds an important dimension to Supernatural’s status as a ‘cult text’, which Hills (2004) defines as a complex interaction among television texts, discourses about them and the fan practices these texts inspire. It is not surprising, therefore, that, Ackles’ discomfort3 around this particular following is used by participants on the DataLounge forum as a key example of his supposed homophobia. Other evidence presented includes Ackles’ alleged affiliation with conservative institutions, such as the Catholic Church and the Republican Party. 

 

DataLounge is an LGBT Internet forum founded in 1995. Its format is a ‘Subject’ by an ‘OP’ (the original poster) followed by ‘Replies’, which are predominately posted anonymously or pseudonymously. ‘Threads’ (the combination of the OP’s Subject and its Replies) are generally self-moderated by the posters in the discussion. The quotation used in the title of this article – ‘Jensen Ackles is a (homophobic) douchebag’4 – is a subject from 18 November 2012, in which the OP puts forward a case for why ‘out of all the homophobic actors out there [...] Ackles irritates me the most’. For the purpose of this project and its aims, I have identified five relevant threads that discuss Ackles’ supposed homophobia, created between 2007 and 2014, and which have attracted in excess of 1150 responses collectively. I draw on these threads – labelled August 2007, August 2010, November 2012, July 2014, and November 2014 – in order to explore a number of themes, or ‘scripts’, that help to understand Ackles’ construction on this forum, namely relating to his supposed homophobia and to the value of slash. I employ textual analysis in the cultural studies tradition, with my selections and subsequent analysis of relevant comments being broadly informed by Foucauldian discourse analysis, which is an approach in which ‘social practices are understood to be embedded in discourses that shape, enable and limit the possibilities for action’ (Duncan 2010, p. 22). This discourse is considered in conjunction with existing scholarship on Supernatural as a cult phenomenon, in particular Ackles’ portrayal of the character of Dean Winchester, who has also been read by scholars (and members of the DataLounge forum) in relation to a certain hegemonic view of masculinity and heterosexuality, which I will take as my starting point.

Straight talking: Readings of masculinity in Supernatural

Straight talking: Readings of masculinity in Supernatural

 

At its core, Supernatural chronicles the exploits of brothers Dean (Ackles) and Sam (Padalecki) as they drive through Middle America fighting evil as it manifests itself in the supernatural. While ‘on the road’ the brothers have encountered other key heroes and villains, such as the angel Castiel (Collins) and the demon Crowley (Mark Sheppard), who have become recurring characters in the unfolding drama. The focus on the brotherly bond of two men implicated in a universal struggle between good and evil also makes Supernatural a story in which themes of masculinity and (hetero)sexuality play an important role. As the eldest of two brothers, who by the end of the first episode of the second season ([Season.Episode] II.1) are without both mother and father, Dean is the clearest patriarchal figure in the duo (see Howell 2014). Dean surrounds himself with signifiers of ‘rural masculinity’,5 the most important of which, as Susan A. George (2014, p. 143) argues, is his 1967 Chevrolet Impala, ‘or Baby as Dean refers to it’. The Impala, George (2014, p. 144) notes in the context of its significance to the formation of masculinity in the series, is ‘the quintessential “tangible sign” of “white,”6 if not entirely mainstream, “heteronormative males”’. It comes to connote Dean himself as a character almost ‘stifled’ (see Faludi 1999) by his performance of hyper-masculinity, a performance pointed out at times by his own brother, and by fans of the show. Another ‘sign’ of Dean’s heteronomative performance pointed to by fans on the DataLounge threads is the deep register of his voice in the series. 

 

In the August 20077 thread (August 2007 hereafter), for instance, one comment reads: ‘Does Jensen put on that macho deep voice for his character on Supernatural, or is that his regular voice?’ (R13). Then five years later, in November 20128 (November 2012 hereafter), the following is drawn from the first 10 replies of a thread that garnered more than 580 responses: 

One thing that always strikes me when I watch that show is that he is affecting the pitch of his voice. Is this something that he acknowledges doing? I mean, he’s clearly trying to butch it up (and not very well, I don’t think). (R4) 

[...] His ‘Dean’ voice is lower that his regular voice. It is all growly and rumbly. I think it was done to sort of ‘butch it up’ as you say and now he is stuck with it. (R5)

[...] Jensen and Misha Collins both do that deep/lower voice thing for character purposes in the show. They have both joked about it on those panel interviews. (R6)

[R4] Ha! I don’t even watch the show and thought his voice sounded ‘butched up’ in the voiceover on the CW where he goes, ‘Hey, this is Jensen Ackles ...’ (R8)

Commentary on Ackles’ vocal performance of Dean is a good starting point for discussion of discourse concerning his supposed homophobia; presented in this sample is slippage between fan readings of Dean and those of Ackles, between a performance for ‘character purposes in the show’ and Ackles’ own performance of his masculinity, as ‘butched up’. Comments on Ackles’ voice points to the difficulty in separating his performance as Dean from his appearances as Jensen, both of which contribute to his ‘star persona’. This point is particularly relevant given the context in which this sample appears, namely discussion of a character’s ‘butched up’ voice in response to a prompt claiming that ‘Jensen Ackles is a (homophobic) douchebag’. It also suggests that by attending to debate on Ackles himself, we must also recognise the importance of his best-known character performance, who has also been accused of homophobia. 

 

There is a point to be made here regarding subcultural celebrities and the characters they portray. Given the specificity of Ackles’ star persona, as both recognised and appreciated in a more narrow-cast setting (cult media fandom), there is natural slippage between performer and character that warrants the consideration of both in this context. Sara Gwenllian Jones observed something similar in her 2000 essay on Lucy Lawless, who portrayed the title character in cult series Xena: Warrior Princess (1995– 2001). Jones (2000, p. 10) argues that although ‘Lawless is undoubtedly a star, her stardom is secondary to that of the character she plays’. This is arguably even more the case with Ackles and the character Dean. Because while Supernatural is successful by international standards, it also occupies a much ‘busier’9 televisual space than series such as Xena and Buffy, which rose to prominence in the late 1990s.

Straight acting: Readings of sexuality in Supernatural

Straight acting: Readings of sexuality in Supernatural

In my analysis of Supernatural slash photo fan art,10 I (Brennan 2016a, p. 12) write that given his ‘incessant need to prove his masculine and heterosexual worth, and his requirement that those around him do the same’, an argument could be made that Dean is a ‘homophobic character’. I (Brennan 2016a, p. 13) cite accusations and gay jokes levelled at his younger brother Sam (see III.5) as support, drawn from scenes in particular episodes (see IV.12) in which ‘Dean’s behaviour, mannerisms and interaction with others are driven by acute homosexual panic’. Here Dean’s characterisation and potential homophobia can be read in line with his use of ‘fag discourse’ (see Pascoe 2005) and also what Michael S. Kimmel (1997, p. 224) terms ‘masculinity as homophobia’, which recognises that ‘we come to know what it means to be a man in our culture by setting our definitions in opposition to a set of “others”’, sexual minorities being key among these (also see Brannon 1976). In particular, Kimmel (see 1997, pp. 232–235) argues that masculinity is defined by fear, shame, and silence around the homosexual, with homophobia being ‘a central organizing principle of our cultural definition of manhood’ (1997, p. 233). There is therefore an almost logical connection between an exaggerated masculine performance (an unnaturally deep voice, for instance) and homophobia. 

 

This is not to discount alternate readings of Dean’s sexuality. Rhonda Nicol (2014, p. 162), for example, reads a scene from VI.5 between Dean and a male sexual predator that ‘invokes the specter of homosexual rape [...] during which Dean’s body is mapped with the feminine subject position’. Catherine Tosenberger (2010, p. 5.7) points out the irony of Dean mocking anyone for ‘masculinity-failure’ when ‘the series positively thrives on flirtation with the possibility that Sam and Dean’s love is more than brotherly’, pointing to dialogue in II.11 when, after Dean asks why so many people assume the pair are a homosexual couple, Sam replies: ‘Well, you are kind of butch; they probably think you’re overcompensating.’ However, even in these more alternate readings, suggestion is still made of the ways in which the character of Dean can be read, or implicated, in line with homosexuality, or the threat of homosexuality. It is therefore unsurprising that similar lines of argument appear in the DataLounge discourse, again with slippage between character and star. In August 201011 (August 2010 hereafter), for example: ‘Well, if Jared and Jensen are homophobic, they better start gay-bashing themselves, first and foremost. Never saw two bigger cocksuckers in my life’ (R266); and also in November 2012: ‘[...] he’s not homophobic. Mostly because he’s a big ol’ HOMO himself’ (R34). 

 

It is also worth acknowledging the homosocial12 context in which Dean appears, in a series set on the road and among a central cast dominated by men (see Nicol 2014). This point is explored by Darren Elliott-Smith, who considers the pressure for the men of Supernatural to exhibit suitably masculine traits, in particular through his reading of an episode depicting a gay character’s death (Alan J. Corbett, III.13). Elliott-Smith (2011, p. 106) argues that the series perpetuates ‘the association of a submissive femininity with gay men within a dominant culture that expects heterosexuality of its subjects’. On this expectation, the popularity of ‘slash’ inspired by the series is worthy of consideration in the context of this debate, especially since Ackles’ supposed discomfort – as shown by an unwillingness to entertain slash-themed questions at fan conventions – about this particular subset of the series’ following is a key piece of evidence provided by those on the forum who argue for his homophobia. A refusal of which, of course, is also at odds with what many might describe as certain obligations Ackles has to the fan community, pursuant to his subcultural celebrity status.

Slashing Dean, slashing Ackles: The 'politics of slash'

Slashing Dean, slashing Ackles: The ‘politics of slash’

Ample scholarship exists already on Supernatural’s slash following, both fan works exploring a homoerotic relationship between Dean and other male members of the series (in particular, Sam and Castiel, known as ‘Wincest’ and ‘Destiel’, respectively) and so-called ‘real person slash’ (see Busse 2006), in particular between Ackles and Padalecki, known as ‘J2’. To use one DataLounge example (from August 2007), the following explores the pleasure of J2 fantasies (however ‘wishfully’ conceived): 

 

It’s hot that Jensen and Jared are so touchy-feely with each other. (R11) 

I love supernatural and I love the closeness of jared and jensen! Now if only they were a couple ... (wishful thinking ...) (R42) 

 

This present study brings to bear new insight into understandings of slash by considering the practice as it is constructed through the debate of Ackles’ supposed homophobia, a debate that is itself framed by the ‘politics’ of the DataLounge forum, and other ‘politics’ as well. 

 

To consider in the first instance the forum itself, while DataLounge is an LGBT forum it clearly incorporates viewpoints other than those of LGBT-identifying individuals. This is evident through the discourse, but was also expected prior to analysis. The open, public nature of the forum, and the affordances(/‘problems’; see Levmore 2010) of anonymity, make it logical that a topic such as this would attract commentary from an audience wider than LGBT individuals, namely Supernatural fans, and slash fans in particular, both of whom represent a demographic of predominantly heterosexual women (see Russ 1985, Larsen and Zubernis 2013). This is without mentioning Internet ‘trolls’ (see Hardaker 2010) who, enticed by the loaded subject matter and the forum’s ‘pointless bitchery’ traditions,13 also make their presence clear (one of the threads included in this study,14 for example, was effectively shut down by the intrusive spamming tactics of a troll). 

 

Resultant from these different demographics is potential for certain ‘problematic’ discourses, namely anti-gay (by slash fans) and anti-fan(girl) (by homosexual men), which highlights the sometimes problematic rhetoric in online fan fora interested in sexual subversion, as I (see Brennan 2014a) have explored. In November 2012, for example, derogatory comments are directed both at closeted homosexual men interested in Ackles – R12, for instance: 

 

[R10], [R6], [R5] ... perfect examples of the semi-closeted Log Cabin15 trash polluting this site. They love jerking off to homophobes and attacking openly gay celebrities. YOU need meds, cunts. 

 

as well as to presumed female and slash fan participants on the forum – R39, for instance: 

 

Yeah what is it about some guys who appeal only to fraus16? I believe Damian Lewis is another one who appeals to fraus, has a big frau following. 

 

These comments use derogatory slang (log cabin and frau) to ridicule male and female fans of Ackles who defend him against accusations of homophobia. 

 

Bound up in the defensive and offensive posturing of participants on the DataLounge forum is what I term the ‘politics of slash’. Such politics underscore some of the main pieces of presented ‘evidence’ of Ackles’ homophobia, and are worth bearing in mind when considering the justifications given for readings of Ackles as homophobic, namely his religious beliefs, his family upbringing, and his political leanings, which are all deemed conservative, as is surmised by the following lines from August 2010: 

 

I do know that when Jensen first came to Hollywood from Texas he was very much into Christian doctrine and Christian Youth camps etc. It’s possible he did come from an anti-gay background. [...] But he seemed to move away from the Christian/religious stuff since he started dating Playboy models like Joanna Krupa [...] (R221) 

You’re crazy if you think Jensen Ackles likes slash. I’m a HUGE fan of the show and I have to embarrasingly admit to going to not one but two SPN conventions and slash is NOT treated well there. It’s joked about and not in a kind or funny way. [...] its a whole lot easier for someone with a religious upbringing to reconcile dating a hot playboy model than it is to condone gays. (R225) 

 

Again, connections can be made here with readings of Supernatural, in this case according to familial (see Rosen 2014) and religious (see Engstrom and Valenzano 2010) ideology. As suggested by this excerpt, other defensive reasons given include statements on his sex life (with a Playboy model), which also combats connotative connections between homophobia and homosexuality, a correlation that is not without support (see Adams et al. 1996). 

 

The assessment of Ackles’ conservatism, in particular as at odds with other members of the Supernatural main cast (Padalecki and Collins), resonates with the increasing interest within celebrity studies between stars and politics. Nahuel Ribke (2015, p. 117) explores this very connection, acknowledging the established associations between celebrities of the entertainment industry and ‘liberal politics’, with so-called ‘progressive stars’ also enjoying ‘glamour and popularity’ as a result of their left-wing liberal political views. As one participant demonstrates in August 2010: 

 

Jensen is TOTTALLY against abortion and gay marriage. I was THERE when he gave it away. [...] The other one, Padalecki, he rocks. Read his Twitter. He supported gay marriage and obama. (R284)17 

 

However, I maintain that the most interesting aspect of the Ackles debate is described by my concept of the ‘politics of slash’. This is not only because the ‘evidence’ for homophobia is mostly speculative, but further because to my eye it seems that what this debate is really about is open discussion of homosexual suggestion, representation, and visibility; and while Ackles is the catalyst for the discourse created, when we ‘de-centre’ (see Johnson 1986–1987) these discussions, to examine the wider social and cultural implications (1986–1987, p. 62) – as we do when we perform a textual analysis (see Fürsich 2009, p. 240) – what is revealed are a range of views that offer insight more into the subcultural groups (and subcultural celebrities created by these groups) most affected by this debate (homosexuals and slash fans) than they do of Ackles’ personal feelings towards homosexuality, which as my discussion of slippage between his star persona and his characterisation of ‘Dean’ reveals is near impossible to conclusively uncover. 

 

A focus on the Ackles’ debate with regard to the slash fandom in the rest of this article also sheds light on the anxieties that many slash fans feel around the making public of their subversive fan practices (see Schmidt 2010, Brennan 2014a), amplified by suggestions in the DataLounge threads that Ackles’ homophobia is evidenced by his distaste for slash featuring his character (Wincest, Destiel) and himself (J2). Such interactions between different demographics of the Ackles’ debate point to a surprising line of argument I would like to develop. Namely, that the debate is one concerned with power and ownership over the issue of the so-called homophobia of a popular television star, and who has the right to either call out or defend the issue, which is more complex than it initially appears.

The 'real' issue: Homophobia or queerbaiting?

The ‘real’ issue: Homophobia or queerbaiting?

Often pornographic in its detail, slash is frequently irreverent in the breadth of sexual scripts it canvasses. The following exchange from August 2007, for example, is similar in structure to a real person slash ‘drabble’ (a piece of fan fiction, 100 words or less): 

 

It’s a very well-known fact in the LA hustler community that Jensen will play top dollar to have a rentboy piss on his face and dick, while Jensen shouts, ‘OH, YEAH, JARED! WET ME, JARED! FUCK!’ (R52) 

bump for Jensen/Jared piss play. (R53) 

 

To point to another example, ‘extreme’ images depicting anal prolapse of Sam with Dean by controversial slash manip artist mythagowood (see Brennan 2016a, pp. 11–17) were posted to one of the threads (July 2014) as an apparent shock tactic. Courtesy of its explicitness, slash can function as a pleasurable means of ‘playing with’ (see Meyer and Tucker 2007, p. 115) popular texts and exploring kinks, the popularity of the male pregnancy (‘mpreg’) variant in Supernatural slash being a case in point (see Åström 2010; also see Hansen 2010, who considers ‘darkfic’ slash). However, the ‘political dimensions’ of slash have been less explicit, which Kyra Hunting (2012) refers to as ‘the trouble with slash’. While slash may posit an explicit critique of the heterosexual/ homosexual binary, in ‘playing with’ homosexualised bodies it is often conceived more as a form of ‘romance’ than as a ‘political’ gesture; when discussing the ‘sexual politics’ of Supernatural slash, for example, Monica Flegel and Jenny Roth note the influence of the ‘romance tradition’ on slash, in which ‘romance is a place where women’s problems are explored’ (Regis 2003, p. 29 cited Flegel and Roth 2010, p. 4.3; also see Salmon and Symons 2001, who conceive of slash as ‘romantopia’). This is important, because, as those on the DataLounge threads argue, homophobia is an issue bound up in politics: of representation, of visibility, and of identity. In expanding on this point, I will focus on related arguments put forth on two threads from July 201418 (July 2014 hereafter) and November 201419 (November 2014 hereafter). 

 

Titled ‘CW’s #AskSupernatural twitter campaign brought to halt by Destiel fandom’, the July 2014 thread garnered 89 replies in response to the news that an official #AskSupernatural Twitter campaign backfired when it was ‘hashjacked’ (see Jain et al. 2015) by fans to draw attention to problematic aspects of the series, with canon endorsement of Destiel being key among these issues. The OP included the following hashjacking examples: 

 

#AskSupernatural How do you write two characters in classic romantic tropes and then declare NO HOMO? (@wintersshield, 16 July 2014, 7:07 AM) 

#AskSupernatural There has been 3 bestiality references in supernatural that I’ve managed to catch. Would a kiss between 2 men really hurt? (@Gizzel22, 16 July 2014, 8:48 AM) 

#AskSupernatural Do you believe bisexual Dean would ruin the show? How would you explain that to queer viewers? (@HaelAzalea, 15 July 2014, no time) 

 

Underscoring the ‘Destiel’ advocacy campaign is criticism of a television tactic employed by producers that is gaining increasing currency in the popular and scholarly sphere, namely ‘queerbaiting’, a term used by media fans to ‘criticise homoerotic suggestiveness in contemporary television when this suggestiveness is not actualised in the program narrative’ (Brennan 2016b, p. 1). I would like to consider how debate on DataLounge proceeds from this particular accusation, and how it relates to the theme of Ackles-as-homophobe. The Destiel pairing is well suited to this argument and the development of my concept of the ‘politics of slash’ because it is one concerned more clearly with homosexuality, unlike Wincest where, as Flegel and Roth (2010, p. 4.1) concede, ‘the incestuous nature of the relationship usually trumps its homosexuality’. 

 

Statements of approval for the hashjack begin with the OP – ‘[...] after being burned by all the queer baiting in Supernatural I’m enjoying this’ (July 2014 hereafter) – and are present at various points throughout: 

 

[R1] the makers of Supernatural deliberately created Destiel. [...] I think it’s nice that all that queer baiting has come to bite CW’s ass. (R2) 

Agree with [R2]. Absolutely the makers of the show created Destiel, and it seems quite obvious that it was deliberate. If they did have the decency to make Dean bisexual in the plot, it would not be a stretch at all, it would seem a completely natural and logical step in Dean and Cas’ relationship. (R4) 

I agree with [R2]. Ackles appears to be a homophobe and he’s probably the main reason it isn’t happening. [...] My guess is that Ackles was offended and stopped it. (R7) 

[...] it’s Dean who’s been pinging pretty hard the whole time while Sam has always seemed straight. (R78) 

 

There are of course also contrary opinions – ‘... deliberately created destiel ... Um, no they did not. Nowhere, no how, did the show runners set out to create a ridiculous shipping pair’ (R3) – but most interesting for this present study are the more fandom-centric criticisms, which draw connections between homoerotic suggestiveness and the desires of the (primarily female) fan base, and then deride these Destiel ‘shippers’ for their apparent lack of concern for ‘real’ representations. Consider the following comments (July 2014 hereafter): 

 

Those stupid teenage girls are destroying Teen Wolf and Supernatural.Stop ship stupid fake couples and find a boyfriend for yourself. (R11) 

Just keep making up a bunch of crap to placate yourself, frau @ [R13]. (R16) Whoever invented Mpreg needs to die in a grease fire. (R27) 

Do the Destielers want a full blown romance [...] or is this just about seeing handsome men kissing? (R28) 

[...] fucking fan girl cunt. (R73) 

 

Tension arises here between representations that exist for the purposes of pleasure (and female pleasure at that20) – ‘I think the CW should force Jensen Ackles to film many gay sex scenes. It is simply the right thing to do’ (R8) and ‘Hey! Maybe now that Dean is a demon he will lose all inhibitions and really let loose’ (R11) – and representations that serve the purposes of (homosexual) identification – ‘The thing is though ... I can see where the fangirls are coming from. I do think the writers have been afraid to depict gay characters (as in male I might add). [...]’ (R22) – and perhaps enact change within a popular media landscape still narrowly defined (see Campbell and Carilli 2013). Such tensions enact a male homosexual/ slash fan divide, and make this debate a complex one; and also a debate where, while gender is not always disclosed, arguments proceed nonetheless along gendered lines. This is shown by the following excerpt, in which the gender of the OP is questioned (July 2014): 

 

[...] I’m a gay man who wants to talk about gay stuff in Supernatural. Do you have problem when gay people talk about gay things? If you have then what the hell are you doing here? (Signed ‘OP’ R74) 

I love the show, but this is a world that I have never gotten. This whole Dean and Castiel thing. I don’t understand why some fans are so obsessed with it. Yes, the show has some homoerotic undertones and subtext, but some people take it too far. And then treat the actors like shit and called them homophobes. It’s weird. (R76) 

OP = MARY (Signed ‘Just because you have a cock doesn’t make you a man’ R77)

And why would a ‘gay man’ be hyping a homophobic show on a gay website? OP is a gay baiting stan21 with a hairy pussy. Cunt. Go die. (R80) 

 

In working towards a conclusion, there are connections to be made between my concept of the ‘politics of slash’ and the broader debate of Ackles’ supposed homophobia, and its connection with his status as a subcultural celebrity. In particular, I would like to end by pulling out an alternate perspective on the issue offered on DataLounge, which is that rather than labelling Ackles as homophobic for his unwillingness to discuss Destiel at conventions, perhaps we should consider the potential harm of those (such as Collins, who plays Castiel) who seem all-too-willing to entertain/tease an eroticism that will probably never be actualised on screen. This point seems particularly productive in thinking through the highly fraught (yet underexamined, see Brennan 2014a) connection between, for example, homosexuals and slash fans, canon and subtext, reality and romance; as one commentator writes (July 2014): 

 

[...] The one who queer baited tbh was Misha Collins. He’s the one who always got his ‘minions’ hyped up and led people on. (R13) 

 

I would therefore like to end on an extended example, which is drawn from discourse appearing on the most recent thread included in this study, a November 2014 thread titled ‘TVGuide reads “Supernatural” to filth for Queerbaiting.’ It is a pensive place to end because it suggests that perhaps we should consider whether the accusations of homophobia against Ackles are for certain political aims – for example, of the familiar ‘gay rights as human rights’ cause (see Kollman and Waites 2009) – or simply reflect frustration over an unwillingness to further entertain a pleasurable fantasy, which evokes new binaries, such as homophobia/ queerbaiting, actual representation/slash, Ackles/Collins, something ‘real’/fantasy: 

 

We will not rest until Jensen is repeatedly double-teamed by Misha and Jared on primetime TV! (Signed ‘League of Fangirls’ R4) 

[...] those bitches didn’t give a fuck about real life gays. They don’t care if Ackles is a right wing homophobe. Their shipping of Destiel or J2 has nothing to do with reality. They are just playing with dolls. (R5) 

[...] Everybody needs to leave Ackles alone. Just because he doesn’t want to participate or play along in the mass delusion of that destiel shit, does not make him homophobic. God damn the day that asshole Collins came onto the show. (R8) 

[...] Why is it always chicks who show up and cry ‘queerbaiting’? As a gay man I’m embarrassed and offended to be associated with this behavior. (R13) 

Destial fans are mostly straight women. The writers and producers aren’t baiting gays, they are just satisfying the fangirls by throwing a bone. [...] I do imagine the guys are tired of the slash questions. They played along for years which is why the girls are annoyed now because Ackles is no longer jokey about it, he got bored with the same Destial and Wincest slashers bringing it up when the gay/bi isnt canon. (R14) 

Conclusion

Conclusion

Analysis of the discourse on DataLounge suggests that Ackles’ perceived homophobia is bound up in both his public performance of a character that he is best known for (Dean) as well as his performance of his celebrity persona (Jensen), both of which play a role in his status as a subcultural celebrity. On early readings, the debates that unfold across the threads analysed represent a search for some sense of the authentic beneath the star image that has been constructed and promoted both through performances of the character of Dean (Supernatural) and in public appearances. In particular, participants seemed to engage in a search for something ‘real’ and ‘authentic’ in the persona presented, some hint of Ackles’ ‘private self’ and an ‘inside consciousness’ so as to either prove or disprove a theory, which is that Ackles is a homophobic subject (Marshall 1997, p. 10). But on closer reading, more significant discourses began to emerge, as developed through the latter half of this article. What we can conclude is that what on first reading appears to be a search for what Jensen Ackles the person is ‘really’ like (see Dyer 1979) is in fact something much more substantial. Namely, a heated debate over the value of slash readings of a popular text; whether or not such readings serve any ‘real’ purpose; that is, whether they serve to improve representations for homosexual men, or simply function as erotic fodder for slash fans, conceived on the whole negatively as ‘ugly, smelly frau’ (July 2014, R70). 

 

This line of argument was developed via my concept of the ‘politics of slash’. This concept contributes to understandings of the connections between fandom, slash, and homophobia, which have often been overlooked in studies of fandom and fannish practices. I also consider how ‘queerbaiting’ may alienate certain subsets of fandoms (homosexual men), and also how a star’s own political and social views may be counter to those of the dominant fan culture. This study points to the importance of further research into the relationship between audiences and texts; in particular, to sense-making practices within those audience subsets (homosexuals and slash fans) and how these play out in interactions between and expectations of both viewers and stars, as is bound up in the topical homophobia/queerbaiting debate.

Jensen Ackles, Joseph Brennan

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Jensen Ackles, Joseph Brennan