May 25

“A Real Tight Rope You’re Walking”: Satire, Meta, and Corbett in “Ghostfacers”

Originally published March 23 2014 on Tumblr.

There are probably few episodes of Supernatural that have as wildly divergent opinions on their treatment of queer characters and issues as “Ghostfacers.” On one side, this episode is often viewed as queer-positive, based on Corbett’s presentation as the hero of the story and taking certain lines as genuine and sincere (on behalf of the episode’s writer) pro-gay statements. On the other side, it’s also been criticized as a blatant display of deliberate homophobia in which a gay man’s sexuality is presented as a threat and subsequently ridiculed after his death renders him “safe.” I propose that neither of these assessments is accurate; that Corbett—the emphasis on his sexuality, his death, and the reaction thereto–is satirical criticism in keeping with the metafictional nature of the episode as a whole.



Part 1: The Trope in Play—Corbett is Your Dead Gay Hero

Corbett’s death is fairly plainly a use of a gay character trope that goes back over many decades of cinema and TV, referred to by TV Tropes as “bury your gays.” While its purpose and format has changed over the years, its basic structure is the same: The queer characters die. They do not survive. They do not ride off into the sunset. They do not have a happy ending. Historically, gay characters’ deaths were plainly and openly intended as a commentary on the “essential depravity” of homosexuality (or nonheterosexuality.) If you were gay, you could not be happy—you had to be punished. Homosexuality had to be presented as something that led inevitably to suffering, destruction, and death in order to preserve a heteronormative and heterosexist view of the world.

More recently, given the unacceptability of blatantly presenting homosexuality as inherently doom-worthy, this trope is often used in a less-obviously offensive way. The gay character marked for death can be sympathetic, even heroic. Their sexuality is often not even presented as the reason for their death. But in some ways, the trope used this way is even more insidious in its apparent sympathy to queer characters. Because even though they may die heroes, their death removes their sexuality as an issue for their straight co-protagonists. They become safe and nonthreatening in death—a way of preserving heteronormativity without the unacceptable offense of directly attacking homosexuality or queer people themselves. And, of course, either way the queer characters end up dead.

Corbett’s death clearly follows the latter format of the trope. Alan Corbett is one of the relatively few identifiably queer characters in Supernatural. He is introduced as a distinctly sympathetic character. His sexuality is also placed front and center from the beginning as his introductory moments focus on his crush on Ed and Harry—a main character for this episode—comments on it, mentioning that it “could spell trouble for the team.” Corbett is the only one of the three supporting characters to get such attention. Then Corbett is killed—notably, the only character to die. His death makes it safe for his sexuality to be addressed as there can no longer be a consequence; he then returns to die a second death as a hero, saving the rest of the characters and providing resolution to the main conflict. He is the sympathetic gay hero whose death very conveniently removes his sexuality as a source of discomfort or conflict.

The essential question, then, is whether the trope being ignorantly or maliciously played “as is” or used as a vehicle for satirical critique. That violence is done to Corbett, that his character and specifically his nature as a gay man is exploited and used for humor, is inescapable. But “there is a difference between using violence to attack a group of people and using that violence to make a legitimate point.” (The Celluloid Closet, p. 260) The simple use of the trope does not in itself condemn the episode; it is vital to place its use in context. That requires, first of all, an examination of the framework of the episode as a whole.



Part 2: A Fiction Within a Fiction—The Episode as Satirical Metacommentary

Corbett’s narrative cannot be viewed separately from the structure of the episode as a whole. The entire episode is a parody and satire, and has significant metanarrative elements. “Ghostfacers” is the first major departure from Supernatural’s typical episode structure. Most of the episode is presented from the point of view of the Ghostfacers group, who are painfully aware that they are presenting themselves on camera for an audience. Sam and Dean, our erstwhile heroes, are outsiders. The episode is primarily a parody of reality shows, with significant satirical elements. (The distinction being that most of it is simply played for humor, but there is some commentary on the nature of “reality” shows and their participants, which is where the satire lies.

The setup of the episode is the key to understanding that Corbett’s story is not as it seems. From the first moments, we are taken out of our usual SPN-verse. The title glitches, fractures, and “our” show is taken over by the supposed “reality” show Ghostfacers, complete with unique theme song and credits. From the first moments, our view is changed. This new perspective is reinforced throughout the episode. Harry refers to the (then just ended) WGA strike: “Those fat cat writers…”  At a later point, they also refer to Sam and Dean as “those [assholes] from Texas”, which dually takes us out ofGhostfacers as a show (Ed and Harry did indeed meet Sam and Dean in Texas in “Hell House”) but also reminds us that Supernatural is just as constructed a fiction as this “reality show.” (Jared and Jensen are, of course, both also from Texas.)

Not only are we removed from the usual Supernatural world, viewing Sam and Dean through the handheld cameras of the Ghostfacers team—reinforcing that we are in fact viewing them through a camera every week, that this is all a construct, a fiction—but we are reminded that what we are watching is a reality show—Ghostfacers—within another show –Supernatural—that we are watching. It is a construct within a construct, a fiction within a fiction, and every piece of it is invited to be examined, parodied, criticized. It is not until the very end of the episode that we snap back—mostly—to our usual SPN-verse point of view, as we return to the usual camera view and the “real” credits roll.

The way the episode is shot also contributes to the viewer-as-deconstructor of the episode’s content. The handheld style is both immediate and intimate and yet distancing as the show-within-the-show invites us to examine how the internal story is played out, and therefore how the characters int eh framing structure of the episode—that is, the Supernatural aspect—interact. Contributing to this, the episode itself also has heavy metafictional elements. Ed and Harry’s opening pitch presents their show as superior to scripted shows driven by “those fat-cat writers,” a direct reference to the 2007 WGA writers’ strike.  All of these aspects of “Ghostfacers” give a roadmap of how we should address Corbett’s story.

The characters address the audience in an exaggerated manner. Ed and Harry speak with parodically extreme sincerity and faux-deepness. Potential conflicts—Corbett’s crush, Maggie and Harry’s relationship—are exaggerated for the sake (within the “reality show”) of making the show more dramatic and interesting. “I can smell syndication,” Ed comments at one point, bringing home the point that even this “filmed reality” is a deliberately constructed story.


Part 3: The Exploitation of Alan J. Corbett

The satire and hyper-awareness of a show in production are present from the moment Corbett is introduced. His sexuality is also placed front and center from the beginning, emphasizing that it is going to be a plot point, an issue. His introductory moments focus on his crush on Ed, and this is given especially close attention as Harry even comments on it, mentioning that it “could spell trouble for the team.” In an episode that is entirely constructed as metacommentary and parody of common tropes and the nature of television, this blatant emphasis on Corbett as Gay Character is absolutely deliberate, setting up his character and story as satirical critique.

After Corbett’s death, the discussion between Ed, Harry, and Maggie takes the exaggerated “We’re Making a TV Show” form to an extreme.  Maggie and Harry in particular are at once absolutely sincere and well-intentioned, and playing up and trying to be deeply meaningful, making dramatic statements for the sake of their audience that takes the exchange into the territory of satire.

HARRY: I…I know how we can get through to him.

ED: How?

HARRY: Ed… He had feelings for you.

ED: Huh?

HARRY: He wanted you.

ED: Wa— wanted me to what?

HARRY: You know. And you know what you’ve got to do. You can do it, Ed. You’ve always been the brave one. Yes, you can. You make us brave — Maggie, right?

MAGGIE: Yeah. Yeah you do. You totally do.

HARRY: Ed…You got to go be gay for that poor, dead intern. You got to send him into the light.

While Ed is genuinely distressed and appears to have mostly forgotten about The Show since Corbett’s disappearance, Maggie and Harry remain obviously aware the camera’s presence; that all that is happening is still part of the show. They champion Ed to speak to Corbett, but continually glance at and address the camera. They blatantly play up the drama, still aware that this is their show. Emphasizing Corbett’s crush on Ed, playing it up, adds to the conflict. Now there is not only the potential danger of Ed stepping outside the salt circle, but the drama of hidden feelings, interpersonal relationships, potential (if one-sided) romance. While they had been told by Sam that one generally needed a personal connection to the deceased, Maggie and Harry could have easily chosen to tell Ed that Corbett looked up to him, or otherwise emphasized other aspects of their relationship. But unrequited love is, well, sexy, and attention-getting, and makes for a more involved show. Do they do it deliberately? Perhaps not, but we are shown throughout that all the team are intensely aware of the camera view and The Show—even finding the remove of the camera comforting, as in this exchange between Maggie and Dean: “Does looking at that nightmare through that camera make you feel better or something?” “Yeah…yeah, I guess it does, yeah.” In the end, though, intentionally or not, both Corbett and Ed are exploited in service of The Show.

Then we have Ed’s “oh man I know you mean well but no” eulogy for Corbett at the close of the “Ghostfacers” show:

ED: War changes man. And one woman… You know Corbett, we just… ah gosh, we just like to think that you’re out there, watching over us.

HARRY: As far as we’re concerned, you’re not an intern anymore. You have more than earned full Ghostfacer status. Plus, it would be cool to have a ghost on the team.

ED: Yeah. Heh heh. And here we were thinking that, you know, we were teaching you and all this time you were teaching us, about heart, about dedication, and about how gay love can pierce through the veil of death and save the day. Thank you, Alan J. Corbett.

They start with tired platitudes—hoping Corbett is watching over them, he’ll always be part of the team, we learned from you. All of this seems to be not quite enough—Ed is on camera, and he is acutely aware of that. This is his show, and he needs to sell it. The way to do that, in his mind, is to be profound—to make Corbett’s death not just a tragedy but something Deep and Meaningful that Changed Them All. This results in the infamous “You taught us that gay love can pierce through the veil of death and save the day.” He is intent on being sincere on trying to reassure the audience—and Corbett—that they had no problem with his sexuality. But by singling out Corbett’s sexuality with such a ridiculously extreme statement, setting “gay love” apart from any other type of love, it has the opposite effect. Not only Corbett’s death exploited, but his existence as a gay man–his sexuality–is no longer his own but is used by the Ghostfacers to promote their show.

This goes back to “Ghostfacers” as a satirical commentary on reality shows. Ed and Harry are the showmakers and Corbett their exploited gay character. (Adding to the offense, in their world Corbett is not a “character” but a real person.) That eulogy is their defense for using his death, pointing out especially that they had no problem with him being gay, and even setting him up as their Gay Hero. The extremity of their defense—it’s not only okay that he was gay, it was the most important special thing about him—is not only a parody of faux-profound reality shows, but of defense of use of the “bury your gays” trope. “Yes, we killed off our gay character, but see we don’t have a problem with the Gay, in fact, it makes him extra-special.” The scene is practically an eye-rolling “Do you realize how ridiculous you sound?” commentary on such a defense.

The final exchange with Dean and Sam is absolutely critical to understanding the narrative position on Corbett’s treatment. At this point, the point-of-view of the episode has switched back to our “normal” SPN view. The normal credits are (finally) showing (although out of order) and we now have the normal camera view. The Ghostfacers’ show is over, and we are back to the pretense that an audience does not exist, that we are simply watching events unfold. Significantly, this means Sam and Dean are once again our main point of view characters.

After watching the Ghostfacers’ show, Sam and Dean comment on it. Metatextually, they are also commenting on the episode of Supernatural we (and they) have just watched. For obvious reasons—he was, after all, the one who died—Sam and Dean focus on Corbett’s death:

 SAM: Yeah, um, I mean it’s bizarre how you all are able to honor Corbett’s memory while grossly exploiting the manner of his death. Well done.

DEAN secretly slips something into a backpack under the table.

DEAN: Yeah. It’s a real tight rope you guys are walking there.

The significance of this exchange cannot be overemphasized. Remember, again, that they are in essence criticizing not only the Ghostfacers but also the show we have just watched. They are now standing in for us, the viewers. They have just watched it as we were watching it (except, of course, they also lived it.) Sam’s faint praise is no praise at all—“it’s bizarre” gives away that he’s not really impressed; he’s willing to grant that they intended to honor Corbett, but all they have in fact done is exploit him and his death. His sarcastic “well done” completes the message. It’s a commentary on the “heroic sacrifice” justification of the bury your gays trope. “I realize you meant to make him a great hero and thought it would be good to claim that being gay is what made him special—but in fact by placing him into the position to be killed”—the Ghostfacers do not, of course, have quite the same power as a writer of fiction, but they are in the writers’ position here—“and emphasizing his sexuality you have done nothing but grossly exploit him and his identity. Well done, because by putting the emphasis on his gayness in his death, you continue the stigma of his sexuality. Well done, and by well done I mean not well done at all.”

Dean agrees with a “Yeah, real tight rope you guys are walking there.” He is pointing out that what they are doing with Corbett has a very, very thin line of acceptability. And, as with so much else in this episode, it’s also a statement on the episode’s treatment of the Corbett character, and of the trope itself. To use this trope–to use any trope of this kind, with its potential negative impact–is to walk a tight rope. It’s not something that can or should be done casually, or in ignorance of the historic and current dynamics of its use.

During this commentary Dean and Sam share a look and agree to destroy the Ghostfacers’ pilot. The timing here is significant. They make the decision, and Dean slips the bag with the magnet under his chair, as they criticize the Ghostfacers for their treatment of Corbett and his death. The ostensible reason for this of course has nothing to do with Corbett, but it’s hard to see the timing here as anything other than further critique. They decide to trash the show, to destroy it, to erase it from existence, at the same time they are calling out the Ghostfacers, and by extension the episode of Supernatural we have just watched for their exploitative treatment of Corbett.


A couple of final notes:

  1. Vito Russo’s The Celluloid Closet is a good resource for the history of gay sexuality and characters in film, including extensive discussion of the purpose and effect of the “bury your gays” trope (though obviously not by that name.) While it only dates to the 1980s—and thus does not really see the trope develop past “death as punishment for the evil gay”—Russo does essentially predict the inevitable evolution of the trope to include the Tragic Gay Hero.
  2. While I could find no statement on authorial intent as regards Corbett, the episode has been explicitly described by its writer as “meta” “metanarrative” and “playing with form and genre.” I believe that any interpretation of Corbett or his treatment by the narrative should keep this in mind, as I have done here.

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