One of the things that it would be hard to deny about Supernatural is that it’s a male-centric show. That is, the story primarily revolves around two brothers who work with an angel (who has taken a male meat-suit) in an attempt to fight the forces of demonic evil, which is almost invariably headed by one male demon (or demon who also prefers a male meat-suit) after another. That’s not to say the show doesn’t have female characters, of course. But most of the female characters fall into very specific categories. There’s the single episode guest star (who may or may not be involved briefly with one of the brothers) and the recurring but gee-it’s-been-a-while character. Oh, occasionally, we get an Abaddon or a Ruby. But even they tend to be short-lived. No female actress has ever been made the jump from guest star to series regular; even the character of Ruby, who appears in seventeen episodes, couldn’t, but then she was played by three different actresses. And yet, despite this apparent misogyny, both the fanbase and weekly audience for the show has been women. So why do we watch? There are the superficial reasons, of course. One of my most feminist friends readily admits that Jensen Ackles is the most gorgeous man she’s ever seen, and while Jared Padelecki leaves me largely cold, the same is very much not the case with Misha Collins. The show has consistently been populated with beautiful men. And women, contrary to conventional wisdom, do respond to the visual as well as the more sensual. But there are plenty of series out there with ridiculously attractive men—shows with lots of equally attractive women—which don’t have anything even close to the female audience that Supernatural has enjoyed for almost a decade. So it’s more than that. Yes, the women on the show are few and often fleeting. But they make a difference, and the writers rarely stoop to using them the way we’re so used to on more male-centric shows (like the otherwise excellent Hannibal). The last two episodes have been good examples of this, although to quite varying extents. In “Girls, Girls, Girls,” writer Robert Berens has a couple of demons, eager to make points with their disgruntled boss Crowley (Mark Sheppard), going into the business of pimping, turning girls out not to make money but to barter sex for the souls that Crowley seeks in order for him to really re-establish his place as the king of Hell. Unlucky for them, even before the Winchesters pick up their scent, they are disbanded by a powerful witch named Rowena (overplayed by Ruth Connell) who walks into their cut-rate bordello, snuffs out the leader, and then rescues the girls with the supposed intention of training them to be witches themselves. Which might be all well and good, except that Rowena is anything but a savior. She is quickly revealed to have little regard for the girls she’s saved, condemning one of them to death only hours later in order to secure her own escape. And though she promises the remaining hooker to treat her better, it’s clear neither we nor the surviving girl are meant to take her at her word. So why is any of this a good thing, women-wise? Well, it all comes down to expectations, particularly those based in stereotypes. And that’s where Supernatural constantly surprises. We believe that men victimize women, especially when it comes to the sex trade. So of course, Raul’s girls would be better off with a powerful female witch than they would be with a low-life male demon. Except, we soon see, that they aren’t. Raul may have been brutalizing and even killing his girls when they stepped out of line, but Rowena shows zero remorse when she kills one of those same women to buy herself just a few extra minutes to get away—after all but promising to give them a new life free from the danger they’ve experienced with Raul. Her callous behavior goes beyond denying the usual stereotyping around men vs. women in the sex trade. It actually inverts it to some degree by acting in juxtaposition to the responses of the regular male characters to this same trade. When Crowley learns of his minions’ endeavor, he rejects it, calling it tacky and making it clear he’s not okay with a sex-for-souls trade. And Dean, who has no problem with no-strings-attached sex makes it equally clear that that does not include indulging in the sex trade. His policy, he tells us, is “No cash for ass,” which ordinarily might be written off as ego or even parsimony, but when followed up by his confronting her when she claims to love her job, it becomes clear (Ackles does some great acting here) that his objection is moral rather than something less noble. We are unsurprised to learn that Sam takes just as dim a view. Unfortunately, while it looks like “Girls, Girls, Girls” means a new recurring female character in the form of Rowena (who has an interesting connection to another recurring character that I won’t spoil here), it appears also to be an end to one of the more interesting older ones as well. Hannah (Erica Carroll) has been an extremely dynamic character since her introduction, going from backing Metatron (albeit unwillingly at first) to being the one to ultimately shift power away from him, and from arguing that Heaven requires order to—in this episode—siding with Castiel in his appreciation of the creative chaos that marks humanity. And it is this that leads to her making a sacrifice. And we’ve seen women making such sacrifices—yet another sexist stereotype—on the show before. But as I argued in my review of “Paper Moon” earlier this season, these moments often do precisely the opposite of what Rowena does: rather than highlight how much better the men’s attitudes are about a key point, Hannah’s departure shows just how removed some of those male characters have become from an essential morality. For angels or demons to achieve human form, they must steal it by inhabiting the body of an actual person, either shunting that personality into a dark place in the body or simply killing it and wearing the non-decaying corpse as a “meat suit.” Either way—angel or demon intruder—the human rarely survives. For demons, this is a non-issue, of course, but as Hannah reminds Castiel, the first mission of the angels is humanity. And the human body count has been almost as high in the struggle between angel and angel as it has been between angel and demon. When she comes face-to-face with her host’s abandoned husband, the pain she feels from the soul she has pushed aside reminds her of that mission, and driven though Hannah has repeatedly shown herself to be in fighting for Heaven, she chooses to do what Castiel will not—put humanity first. Luckily, it appears that this is not lost on him as spends his last moments in the episode looking up his own host’s life online. Much as we’d hate to lose Misha Collins, it reminds us that, if he is the character we’ve been led to believe he is, it’s only a matter of time before he follows Hannah’s compassionate example. While “Hibbing 911” is far less successful, by most measures, than “Girls, Girls, Girls,” this is likely at least partly a matter of genre—as the episode title suggests, the former is a comedy, while the latter is anything but. But it is an even more woman-centric story, focusing on one of those recurring female characters, Jody. The comedy comes in the form of a forced sheriff’s retreat and the equally—at first—forced pairing of Kim Rhodes’s Sheriff Mills with another returnee, Sheriff Donna Hanscum (Briana Buckmaster) from last season’s “The Purge.” When victims begin showing up in the small town of Hibbing where the retreat is being held, obviously eaten by something other than the local wildlife, Jody initially reaches out to the hunter brothers to see if they might have any ideas on the culprit. Learning they do not, she declines their offer of assistance and decides to solve the mystery by herself. It certainly isn’t the first time she’s taken on evil on her lonesome, after all. The boys do show up, but it’s clear they are looking for an excuse to fight boredom, not because they think Jody actually needs their help. Instead, she largely leads the investigation, with the help of Hanscum, and they discover a nest of vampires which the four of them dispatch. What puts a novel spin on this more pedestrian “freak of the week” episode is the contrast it creates between how the boys solve such crimes, and how the women do it—and what pressures the latter operate under. Certainly, it’s true that Jody is not caught up in an almost constant struggle between the forces of Heaven and Hell that the brothers are, she has lost much to it—both a husband and a child. On top of that, though, the boys aren’t also running a small-town sheriff’s department, nor trying to raise a rebellious teen who used to be a vampire. And Sheriff Hanscum has her own challenges, including an abusive, fat-shaming ex-husband, a poor self-image, and a job that seems to leave much to be desired. In the end, that contrast reflects one we see all the time in the less-than-Supernatural world: men for whom work is everything, and women for whom work is simply one of many things they must do to keep the more mundane world moving. And if that was all “Hibbing 911” did, it would be pretty disappointing. But while the writing by Jenny Klein is weak in places, the acting is not, and it’s really this that saves the episode. Kim Rhodes has put in consistently good performances, so it’s hardly surprising that she does the same here. The conversation between she and Hanscum after Jody finishes a call with her troublesome ward has a nice transition from buttoned-up cop to struggling mom as she begins to see that perhaps Hanscum is more than she seems. Certainly, Jody could use a friend, isolated as she is by the knowledge of what’s really going on in the world. The same is true of Hanscum, though for her it seems to be more a matter of being isolated by being the only woman in a male-dominated profession. But it’s Buckmaster’s performance that is surprising. In the “The Purge,” she was a throwaway character created for laughs. In “Hibbing 911,” she instead inspires pathos at first and as the episode moves along, more and more empathy for Hanscum, primarily in the way she has the character react to what’s going on around her. The transition is not a gradual but steady one, as we are used to seeing in such roles, but instead is done in the fits and start that mark the way most of us operate: two steps forward, one back. Nor do the writers expect us to swallow her going from timid mouse to roaring lion in a weekend. While she is instrumental in the battle at the end, she is not the champion, and that’s fine. Believable even. As is the parting of ways between her and Jody. They are not best friends, but the door that is opened between the two of them in a way that suggests that maybe they can make each other’s daily struggles a bit easier. Which, to answer my own question about the show’s female viewership, while Supernatural almost universally fails the Bechdel Test, that doesn’t mean that female characters don’t matter in this narrative. This is more than a numbers game. Most of the characters, male and female, on the show fall into these same two categories: one-offs and now-you-see-them-now-you-don’t recurring roles. They all serve to illuminate the central conflict in some way: they are there to provide continual opportunities for Sam and Dean to try to work out their familial issues. That said, I think a big part of why Supernatural works is because of how well it uses those same characters to not just to shore up its storyline, but to question it. And the women, like the men, have been used to great effect to do both. We watch because we get that sexism (or the lack thereof) is never just a numbers game. If it were, it’d be easy to fix. Instead, it requires as much attention on quality as it does on quantity. And that is precisely where the women of Supernatural continue to deliver. Share this:TweetShare on TumblrLike this:Like Loading... Related Leave a Reply Cancel ReplyYou must be logged in to post a comment.