May 26

“He Was My Gay Thing”: Representations of Queer Experience

Originally published March 6 2013 on Tumblr.

The scene between Aaron and Dean in the pub was an interesting one, to say the least, and my view on it seems to be a bit different than most of what I’ve seen. A lot of the meta written about this focuses on what it potentially suggests about Dean’s sexuality. I’d like to take a different focus and look at the scene’s representation of queer experience. For the record, I’m queer, and I enjoyed it and found it to be a positive scene, both in my initial casual viewing and on subsequent more analytical viewings. For me, it’s about queer sexuality and its representation onscreen.

This is somewhat lengthy, but I’ve divided it into five sections. The first part is a basic analysis of the scene, focusing on Dean’s reactions, with possible interpretations. The second part discusses what the scene says (or doesn’t say) about Dean’s sexuality. Third is an analysis of the humor in the scene, and why it isn’t about “lolgay.” This is followed by an interpretation of the scene as queer-positive. The final part is an examination of how the writer’s history informs my interpretation of the scene’s intent.

Part One: A Look at the Pub Scene

The pub scene starts with Dean interviewing two attractive young women about what happened to the Rabbi; he notices a man looking over at him as he takes a seat some distance away. We, as the audience, don’t know what is going on at this point—we know only that this man is distracting Dean. The man watches Dean and waves to him in a definitely flirtatious “Hey there” manner, and Dean abruptly finishes his interview and walks over. Again, the audience has no idea what is going on. We know only that Dean was distracted by this man’s attention, to the point that he hurriedly finished an interview to walk over to him.

Once Dean reaches Aaron, the mystery of Dean’s distraction and interest in the man is apparently resolved: He pulls out his FBI badge and demands to know why the man has been following him. He’s suspicious, possibly a bit angry, definitely on alert. Aaron then makes an unmistakable suggestion that he thought Dean was flirting with him with the reference to “eye magic” in the quad. Here Dean definitely realizes what is going on, and Aaron further suggests, based on this supposed mutual interest, that they should get together later.

This is where the scene gets interesting. Dean now slowly shuts the badge holder and pulls it back. It’s not really clear why he does this, although the camera lingers on him doing so, making certain that we notice it. Perhaps he thinks the badge’s role is done; he’s established himself as “FBI Agent on the Job” so he can now put the badge away. The withdrawal of the badge symbolizes the fact that Dean is now choosing to address Aaron as himself. He’s not creating an alternate persona to distance himself. He’s clearly a bit thrown off at this point; possibly because he was prepared for a different kind of confrontation. His response may also  have had more to do with “was I not doing my job well” than “was I accidentally flirting with this guy,” because if he’s on the job, and eying someone he thinks is following him, the last thing he wants is for that person to notice that he’s watching them. I think a lot of Dean’s initial flustered response actually has to do with this.

Dean’s response to the offer of “later we could…” also has multiple potential interpretations. “Yeah, okay…” is how he begins. This could either be an acknowledgement, “Yeah okay, now I see what’s going on, you thought I was checking you out and now you want a date” or an affirmation, “Yeah, okay, let’s get a beer or something.” Either is equally plausible, since he concludes his response not by negating the offer but by informing Aaron that his perception that Dean’s noticing of him was anything other than professional: “The job, you know…” At this point, Aaron responds “Is that supposed to make you less interesting.” Dean looks up at him suddenly. I see two ways to interpret his look here. One is that he’s annoyed that Aaron isn’t playing this properly; he’s clearly held out the badge and “the job” as reasons for lack of interest.

The second possibility for Dean’s sudden look at “is that supposed to make you less interesting” is that this is something new for Dean. Aaron is suggesting that he is flirting with Dean because he thinks Dean is interesting. Not because he’s hot, or pretty, or attractive. Just because Dean seems like someone he might like to know. And Dean’s look reflects surprise at that. There’s definitely something different in Dean’s look than had been there previously, and Aaron notices it too—he switches off the flirting abruptly and apologizes, backing off. Given what we learn later it seems very likely that Aaron interpreted Dean’s look as genuine interest, and backed off quickly because he had no interest in carrying their interaction beyond their current conversation.

Dean’s extremely flustered response to Aaron’s sudden change is also interesting. If we interpret Dean’s look as an expression of genuine interest, then Aaron’s rejection of that interest is what throws him off. In this scene, Dean has been flirted with by a man who thinks that he was interested in him; he first uses “the job” to deflect interest and noncommittally turns down an offer to get together, then after the man calls him “interesting”, he seems to change his mind—only to be summarily rejected. One wonders what Dean’s further response would have been if Aaron had not turned around so abruptly. It’s possible that he would have resorted to “thanks, but I don’t swing that way.”

The later scene in Aaron’s house, where he reveals that he was using the flirtation as an excuse to find out what Dean was up to, is significant in what it reveals about Dean’s reaction in the pub. Dean’s sarcastic smile, “You really had me, it was very smooth” shows that he is genuinely hurt by the fact that Aaron really wasn’t interested in him. This does not suggest that Dean was necessarily interested in him, but it does show that Dean was not in the least “freaked” or upset by the idea that the man was interested in him.

Part Two: Dean, What Does it Mean?

I don’t think Dean’s reaction necessarily meant he was actually interested—but rather that he was thrown off because he was flattered by Aaron’s approach. Because Aaron plays it as “you’re interesting.” I think if he had gone the “thought we had a moment and you’re really hot, so…” Dean would not have been the least flustered and would have given him some variation on “yeah, flattered but not interested.” But he doesn’t. He tells Dean he’s interesting. He suggests that he might like Dean as a person. And that throws Dean off. I really don’t see this scene as suggesting anything definitively about Dean’s sexuality. He’s, at the very least, flattered that someone shows interest in him as a person and disappointed when that interest is revealed to be subterfuge. So he could be interpreted as flattered and disappointed because he’s attracted, or because it’s nice when someone shows interest in you and disappointing when it turns out they were feigning interest to get something from you. Based on what we see onscreen, either one is equally plausible.

Part Three: What’s So Funny?

Watching the scene, what I noticed was that while on one level it’s played for humor, none of the humor derives from the fact that they’re both men and it’s a “gay” flirtation. The humor lies in Dean’s flustered response, in mistaken (and deliberately misleading) intentions. You could replace Aaron with Erin and it would play out with the same humor. There is homoeroticism in the scene, and there is humor in the scene, so there’s always a possibility that the humor is based on presence of that homoeroticism—that the scene is an example of “lol gay stuff is so funny.” But the presence of “funny” and “gay” in a scene does not inevitably lead to the conclusion that the funny is about the gay. As I stated above, the “funny” in the scene plays entirely off the flirtation, and the gender of the players is irrelevant.

The humor of the scene lies in mistaken assumptions – Dean thinks the guy is stalking him, Aaron (claims to) think Dean was checking him out. The flirtation itself is funny, as both players try to establish what is going on, and then try to keep their balance as the other changes. It’s also worth pointing out that the writer of this episode is a humorist, and a satirist, whose writing often has multiple layers of meaning and intent. Just because there’s humor on one level of the scene does not mean that every aspect of the scene is being played for funny, or that even the humorous parts don’t also have a serious intent.

Part Four: Showing Queer Experience and Why That Matters

Beyond the speculation on either character’s sexuality, there’s the fact that the scene plays on each character’s assumption that someone of the same gender is expressing interest in them. So there’s a portrayal of homo-sexuality there, which is separate from a portrayal of a queer or gay identity.  And here’s why I thought this was a positive scene: it displays same-gender sexuality as equal to opposite-gender sexuality. It’s shown as just another form of human sexuality. Aaron flirts with Dean to try to figure out what he’s doing (and possibly throw him off guard), but he could just have easily taken the same approach to a Deanna. And Aaron—while we aren’t told what his sexuality actually is (I read him as straight), only that he isn’t interested in Dean—has no problem flirting with another man if he thinks that will achieve his goal. (I have problems with that, in terms of the likability of Aaron’s character, because he was a condescending jerk about it later.) In short, it treats gay sexuality as being no different than straight sexuality—which in its own way is important. It’s shown as not a big deal—gay, straight, bi, whatever—it’s all human attraction, human interaction. And that’s a good thing. I don’t see it as anything extraordinary—it’s basic decency and awareness.

Representation of queer identities—through the inclusion of explicitly queer-identified people—is one thing; representation of queer sexualities is different but also important. It normalizes nonhetero sexualities. That is, too my mind, a very important part of queer representation onscreen. It shows not only queer-identified people, but queer experience as a normal part of the fabric of human existence. I am not devaluing the importance of including actual queer-identified characters, but I find that the value of showing queer sexuality and interactions is often dismissed. I think the interpretation of the scene as being queer-negative because it did not involve explicitly queer-identified characters is an example of that dismissal. But we should not have one without the other.

I think an important method of examining that scene is looking at what it says about social construction of sexuality and sexually-oriented behavior. (I’m counting flirtation as such a behavior. It’s not explicitly sexual, but it implies sexual attraction and potential future sexual interaction.) It asks the audience, “Did you find that odd? Or uncomfortable? Did you react differently than you would have if this had been an opposite-gender couple? Why did you react that way? And what does that say about how we observe and interpret same-gender and opposite-gender sexuality?” There seems to be an underlying intent in the scene to make the audience question the general normalization of opposite-gender interactions and the exotification of same-gender interactions in scenes like this.

Part Five: In Defense of Ben Edlund

I think it’s true that Supernatural has a problem with queerbaiting and lolgay, both on and off-screen—although I don’t see the onscreen problem as being particularly prevalent. That, I think, makes it a bit too easy to dismiss anything “gay” (especially if it’s presented with humor, as this scene was) as Supernatural playing mock-the-queer again. But that summary condemnation ignores the fact that the writer of this episode has a long history of pointing out ridiculousness of normalizing hetero-sexuality and exotifying queer sexuality in his work.

Most often, he places characters that are either ambiguously identified or explicitly straight-identified in homoerotic situations. (Again, this is not about queer identity, but about normalization of queer sexuality.) One example is the Crowley/banker kiss at the beginning of 5×10. When he talked about this scene at SDCC, he expanded on a statement that it was important to show “two men kiss” by adding that it was also important that they not necessarily be “super hot men.” In other words, it isn’t about the observer. It isn’t about titillating the audience. It’s about noticing the difference in the way straight and queer sexualities are treated onscreen and in society and pointing out the absurdity of that different treatment.

It’s a minor recurring thread in nearly all of his work, and he has talked about it briefly on several occasions. And his responses always have a basis in social criticism and commentary, not “lol gay is funny.” (And believe me, if he was doing it because of that, he’d say “because I think it’s funny.” But he doesn’t.) I don’t want to get too deeply into that here, because I want to stick to this particular scene, but I think it’s important to interpret Edlund’s intent in this scene based on his past work and what he himself has said about similar scenes he’s written in the past.

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