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25 Apr

Written by Michael Fuchs
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Supernatural's Showrunners, Creative Teams, and Fans: Television Authorship in the Age of Participatory Culture

Toward the end of Supernatural's fourth season, the show's viewers met Chuck Shurley, writer of a series of pulp fiction novels about two handsome brothers called Sam and Dean, who fight ghosts, demons, vampires, and other supernatural creatures. The book series was appropriately called Supernatural, and the individual books apparently not just mirrored the events in the show's diegesis to a T, but, in fact, preceded them. In other words, Chuck effectively wrote the lives of Supernatural's (i.e., the show's) characters by penning an intradiegetic book series, thus introducing a meta-twist like few others in the history of television to the show. In the episode, Chuck cannot fathom that his tales depict (let alone create) 'reality'. When he starts to accept the situation, he concludes that he must be a god. Fan discussions were rampant after the episode (which also featured references to the show's fan community by mentioning slash fiction and other fan practices) and even more so when Chuck disappeared alongside long-time writer-producer-occasional director Eric Kripke after season five—was Chuck-the-writer Kripke-the-auteur's representative on the show?1 And what about authorship in the post-Kripke era?

Whenever the idea of authorship is addressed in film or television studies, auteur criticism emerges as an issue that cannot be avoided. In 1954, Cahiers du Cinéma published an article by François Truffaut titled "Une certaine tendance du cinéma français," which is generally considered auteur theory's foundational text. But it wasn't until the early 1960s that Andrew Sarris distilled what came to be known as 'auteur theory' from Truffaut's article and ensuing discussions in Cahiers. Sarris argued that a movie director filled a tripartite role: "those of a technician, a stylist, and an auteur."2 Commenting on Truffaut's original article in his book The American Cinema, Sarris explains that the French filmmaker's "greatest heresy was not in his ennobling direction as a form of creation, but in his ascribing authorship to Hollywood directors hitherto tagged with the deadly epithets of commercialism."3 When Sarris introduced Truffaut's ideas to Americans, he featured directors such as Douglas Sirk and Edgar G. Ulmer (then considered nothing more than hired hands in the B-movie business) next to the likes of Orson Welles and D. W. Griffith in his pantheon of directors,4 thus granting artistic legitimacy to the industrialized studio system. However, the guardians of good taste were quick to point out Sarris' inclusive gesture: "[A]uteur critics seem [...] deeply involved, even dedicated, in becoming connoisseurs of trash," underlined Pauline Kael in an early response to Sarris.5

While Sarris' arguments have been dissected from a variety of perspectives over the years (most of which miss the fact that Sarris' playful writing style reveals that he didn't take his suggestions as seriously as those critiquing him did), one aspect of Truffaut's original argument which Sarris' appropriation practically turned on its head seems significant within the context of this chapter: "Une certaine tendance du cinéma français" excoriated a tradition in French film criticism that overvalued polished literary adaptations produced by people who underestimated the art of filmmaking. Instead, the French filmmaker argued for the artistic independence of the medium of film. Truffaut saw this independence realized in movies made by "homme[s] de cinéma"6; that is, directors producing movies based on their own scripts. As Kael highlights, American "auteur critics tend to downgrade" this group of filmmakers, even though they "are in the best position to use the film medium for personal expression."7 Writer-directors, according to Truffaut, enjoy total creative control over the film text, for they conceive of narratives removed from the usual confines of literary masterpieces and put these narratives into the plurimodal texts characteristic of cinema. In this respect, Truffaut's article truly stands out, for most of Cahiers's later (and practically all of first-generation American) auteur criticism emphasizes the artistic genius of directors more so than the multi-talented endeavors of writer-directors.

Even though the process of producing serial television is very different from making a movie, through its focus on these multi-skilled individuals, "Une certaine tendance du cinéma français" may be considered a precursor to television scholarship's idea of authorship, for television authorship is usually granted to similarly hyphenated personae. Today, writer-producers (a.k.a. 'showrunners') are generally considered the 'authors' of television shows. However, this is a rather recent phenomenon. Until the late 1970s, numerous voices both inside and outside the TV industry viewed producers as the primary creative forces in television. This idea emerges, for example, in Muriel Cantor's study of the Hollywood TV Producer, in which she compares the television producer's tasks to those which "in the motion-picture industry are assigned to the film director."8 She explains that "[t]hree of the major creative parts of television-series production—story, casting, and editing—are under the producer's control," and even though the "director shoots the picture and on the set he is in control," he "turns to" the producer "for final decisions."9 Anthony Smith's appendix to the Annan Report (1977) similarly grants the producer creative control: "His situation within the fairly complex processes of broadcasting is always a special one, in that he is working as a kind of 'author' directly inside the manufacturing and distributing process."10 As Edward Buscombe was quick to point out, though, "Smith's bestowing of author on the producer […] would [have] be[en] unlikely to gain universal assent," for "[w]ithin television, critical work ha[d] scarcely begun and so the argument about authorship ha[d] not taken place."11

Indeed, Horace Newcomb and Robert Alley famously opened their book on the Producer's Medium by claiming that "television [was] anonymous"12—that is, 'authored' by non-human corporations or networks rather than human agents.13 However, in the aftermath of the network era's demise in the 1980s, an increasing number of directors and producers stepped out of the networks' shadows. As a result, "[d]irectorial and producerly distinction" had developed into an important "part of the popular discourses surrounding television" by the late 1980s.14 And starting in the early 1990s, "producers/auteurs" became increasingly "able to exercise a greater degree of creative control over their programs than they had before,"15 especially on the new networks, which tried to carve out their niches and utilized these television auteurs to create their brands and communicate their USPs.

It would be all too easy to succumb to the lures of overgeneralizing matters, but it should not be forgotten that "[w]here TV is concerned, the 'author-function' tends to be restricted to television drama which is industrially and critically positioned as 'serious' [...] or which can be valorised via discourses of 'cult' TV."16 Indeed, as Matt Hills elaborates, "it is rare for viewers of soaps to pay attention to [...] who has written a given episode [...]. And 'ordinary TV' such as game shows and reality TV tends not to be linked to discourses of authorship."17

Current discussions of television authorship both in the academy and in popular discourses have emerged from a combination of television's recent bid for cultural legitimacy (the 'serious' programs mentioned by Hills) and television's search for niche markets (the 'cult' shows mentioned by Hills). Still, at first glance, it may appear somewhat surprising that these discussions have evolved decades after Roland Barthes famously put the nail in the author's coffin and film scholar Bill Nichols noted that "the debate about auteur criticism [was] passé."18 However, upon closer inspection, two reasons for the renewed interest in authorship can be identified relatively easily: On the one hand, the emergence of the DVD (and, more recently, the Blu-Ray) has fueled authorship debates, and, on the other hand, participatory culture has entirely changed the complexion of the mediascape, especially in terms of redefining the dividing line between producers and consumers.

When it comes to the DVD's significance to television's legitimation and re-evaluation, Derek Kompare has insightfully demonstrated how DVDs re-structure television shows into coherent, unique, and integral texts "without the 'noise' or limitations of television."19 However, DVDs also add 'noise' to TV series in the form of bonus features. Many of these bonus features revolve around the question of authorship. In fact, Catherine Grant highlighted DVDs' tendency to emphasize authorial discourses as early as 2000 when she wrote that "[t]he interactive, intersubjective formulations of […] auteurism have recently been 'commercially enhanced' by the 'infotainment extras' supplied on […] DVDs."20 More recently, she has proclaimed DVDs as 'auteur machines' that encourage "a comprehensive attentiveness or responsiveness to the […] authorial context."21

This renewed focus on authorship must, however, also be considered within the contexts of participatory culture. In one of his first publications, Henry Jenkins argued that Star Trek fans appropriated the show in ways that countered the dominant ideology perpetuated by the program—an argument that was more fully fleshed out in his Textual Poachers.22 Alongside John Fiske, Jenkins was at the helm of a group of scholars who underscored the active role of popular culture's ostensibly passive consumers, an idea that paved the path for the notion of 'participatory culture' to emerge as a key concept in media studies—not the least because the term was part of Textual Poachers' subtitle. In Confronting the Challenges of Participatory Culture, a research team headed by Jenkins describes participatory culture as having (among others) "relatively low barriers to artistic expression and civic engagement" and "members who believe that their contributions matter."23 As a result, participatory culture generates communities which "provide[] strong incentives for creative expression and active participation."24 This environment is characterized by the increasing importance of what Pierre Levy has called "collective intelligence"25 and introduces an important shift in power "from institutions that have always been run top[-]down, hording information at the top, telling us how to run our lives, to a new paradigm of power that is democratically distributed and shared by all of us."26 Of course, this renegotiation of power also requires a reconceptualization of authorship—collaborative rather than individual.

In the following, I will demonstrate that Supernatural serves as an illustrative example of how television authorship is both constructed and renegotiated on the playing fields of contemporary participatory culture. From the show's active fan community, which not only creates fan production but which has, moreover, actively shaped some of the creative team's decisions, and DVD technology's propensity for cultifying television shows, as it "promot[es] sustained engagement with moments and sequences through a process of repetition and return"27 (a process typical of cult viewing) to cult media's passion for celebrating authorial figures and DVDs' focus on authorship, Supernatural is surrounded by discourses that centrally revolve around questions of authorship.

Eric Kripke and Chuck Shurley: Authorship in Supernatural's Diegesis and in the Blu-Ray Bonus Features

The production of serialized fictional television programs is a highly collaborative process. Still, as Jason Mittell points out in his Complex TV, "a romantic notion that a writer's creative vision starts as 'pure' and then gets compromised through the process of realizing that vision, especially in the commercially inflected world of mass media" has persisted, especially in popular discourses.28 DVD bonus features are often employed in order to support this romantic notion and, in this regard, Supernatural is no exception to the rule. In the commentary track to the pilot episode, for example, David Nutter, the episode's director, introduces showrunner Eric Kripke as "the creator and inspiration of Supernatural, the man who made it all possible."29 McG, executive producer from season one to seven, presents Kripke as a visionary storyteller at another point, noting that "everything" Kripke "had done in his career was leading him to this very point; to tell these stories; these American road stories."30

In addition to these paratexts highlighting Kripke's 'vision', his role as Supernatural's author is supported by the existence of Kripke's fictional double in the diegesis. As indicated above, Chuck Shurley, who published under the pen name Carver Edlund (a name composed of two of the show's lead writers' last names, Jeremy Carver and Ben Edlund), was the author of a series of pulp novels entitled Supernatural and had several appearances on the show between the highly metatextual season four episode "The Monster at the End of This Book" and the season five finale (plus his recent re-emergence in season ten—see note 2), which Kripke had originally planned to be the series finale. The individual books written by Chuck share their titles with episodes of the television series and their storylines mirror the show's. Tellingly, toward the conclusion of the season five finale (Kripke's final episode as Supernatural's showrunner), Chuck, in a metatextual nod, disappears into thin air, a gesture that left fans wondering whether he was merely a prophet (as underscored by the show's text) or, in fact, God's worldly form. Not coincidentally, Chuck wondered about being a god right away when the show's main characters Sam and Dean confronted him about him effectively writing their lives into existence:

On the one hand, the idea of a divinely inspired Author-God presents a playful engagement with Roland Barthes's well-known essay on the 'death of the author' (an engagement that is made most explicit in "The French Mistake", in which Eric Kripke—the character, not played by the actual Kripke—is killed in a Desperado homage). On the other hand, Chuck's presence in Supernatural's world—as the representative of the author's voice in the diegesis—effectively suggests that 'Eric Kripke' merely exists in mediation. This eternal existence in textuality supports Barthes's assertion that even though "the author is dead […] as an institution, […] in the text, in a certain way, I desire the author"31—who thus continues to exist—while also signposting the friction between the collaborative realities of television production and the romantic notion of singular authorship embodied in the concept of the showrunner.32

But the box sets' bonus features underscore these conflicts between the romantic notion of singular authorship and the realities of television's collaborative production processes in other ways, as well. First, a tension emerges between the construction of Kripke as the creative mastermind and the recognition of how the commercial interests of television production and distribution clearly re-shaped his original idea. When Kripke reconstructs the show's genesis, he never fails to underline that Supernatural was originally meant to feature a reporter touring the United States, an idea that quickly transformed into a story about two men on the road:

In another bonus feature, Kripke relates how "[c]reating […] the pilot was a very difficult birthing process."33 He explains that "[t]here was a whole other version of the Supernatural script. The Woman in White was not in it, Dad died in the teaser," and even though Kripke "worked […] hard on the script," "it was just a mess."34 Although commercial interests as well as network and studio decisions thus clearly influenced Supernatural's final shape (rather than being solely Kripke's child), these aspects are overshadowed by the strong emphasis on how Kripke's creative 'vision' still manages to outdazzle the commercially inflected world of television.

In addition to the creative interventions by the studio and network(s), Kripke and company have repeatedly stressed the creative input by various members of the creative team. In the pilot's commentary, for example, Kripke underscores that director David Nutter (whose first sixteen pilot episodes were all picked up—a feat unmatched in television history) "saved all of [their] asses," for he "took" the pilot "to the next level."35 Kripke adds that he "like[s] to take credit, but […] it was David Nutter saying, 'I'm gonna direct this pilot,' […] that pushed [them] over the top."36 Nutter, on his end, emphasizes the work by cinematographer Aaron Schneider, who "won an Academy Award in 2004 for a short film he directed" and established "the look of the show."37 And numerous comments highlight how "[Jensen] and Jared" (the leading actors) "make [the team] look good,"38 because they "are better than the material they receive."39

While these elements of the bonus features acknowledge the realities of television production's collaborative nature—that, in the words of Eric Kripke, it's "a kind of team sport,"40 they—somewhat paradoxically—still contribute to Kripke's authorial role. As Colin Burnett has suggested, in massively collaborative media, authors should be conceived "as creative 'managers' in order to refine our sense of the flow of practical intentions between authors and their teams."41 And Kripke is frequently depicted as an inspiring leader who succeeds in convincing the entire creative team of his 'vision', which thus becomes the entire crew's:

Whereas collaboration during the show's production thus still supports Kripke's authorial role in a way characteristic of television, there is yet another aspect that further complicates (the paratextual construction of) Kripke's claim to authorship. Kripke shows an obvious awareness of the various intertexts he drew on during the creation of Supernatural—from TV shows such as The X-Files and movies like Poltergeist to urban legends and American history, thus underlining that the show's "text is a tissue of quotations."42 As a result of this emphasis on the various textual influences and the collaboration both in the writer's room and during the actual shooting of individual episodes, Supernatural's 'author' "has no unity."43 The show's 'author' thus emerges as an increasingly elusive construct and the program's "origin" becomes "indiscernible."44 Indeed, it repeatedly seems as if Kripke truly embraced this effective untraceability, for "[t]o give a text an Author is to impose a limit on that text, […] to close the writing."45 Not coincidentally, Kripke once said that "what [the creative team] set out in the beginning to obtain [was] a […] self-contained universe in which fans c[ould] come and go" and "find new ways to expand and explore other corners of that universe," for Kripke and company wanted to "create a universe where [they could] welcome others to come and play."46 In addition, the notion of the text without origin underscores that the 'author'—that is, this entity created by discourses surrounding the text—has rather limited power, since "[h]is only power is to mix writings."47

The questioning of authorship thus goes hand in hand with the questioning of authority, for the author cannot entirely control his fictional world. The first media players that limit authorial control are the network and studio behind the show. The intervention 'from above' most often commented on in the bonus features concerns the introduction of Harvelle's Roadhouse, a bar frequented by Sam and Dean's 'colleagues' who also hunt supernatural creatures, in season two. As Kripke relates, "Creating the Roadhouse was a note from The Powers That Be. They wanted a home base for Sam and Dean, where we could have more recurring characters."48 However, "[t]he core concept of the show is two brothers who don't have a home. And giving them a home, like a place where they could have a beer and feel comfortable, relax, and play darts, was a safety net that they shouldn't and couldn't have."49

Kripke's use of the phrase 'The Powers That Be' implies an understanding of the fans' fears and expectations. After all, fans employ the term primarily to denote the creative team in control of the characters' fates. In Kripke's appropriation, 'The Powers That Be,' of course, are the network and studio that influence creative decisions. Through the seemingly naïve use of fandom speak, Kripke underscores that "[b]oth the producer and the consumer can […] suffer from a lack of control over the story, being subject to the whims of corporate decision making."50 However, Kripke wouldn't be the auteur he is if he didn't re-assert authority over 'his' text by burning down the Roadhouse after it enjoyed only a relatively brief stint on the show (it first appeared in season two's second episode and is burnt down in the season finale). When he sees Dean and his father-like friend Bobby scouring the building's ruins, Kripke emanates a nearly child-like fascination:

While the creative team has thus struggled with 'The Powers That Be' over authority over Supernatural's text, the show has also experienced similar conflicts with its fan base. This (primarily female) fan community has been described as "completely bats*** insane," for it "love[s]" the show "to almost clinical levels."51 The bonus features reveal how fan feedback has especially influenced the incorporation of female characters in the show: "The fans […] value […] that brother relationship so much that they view that anyone coming in the middle of that relationship somehow will alter that relationship," notes executive producer-and-frequent-director Bob Singer in one of the season one bonus features.52 This issue became especially pertinent in the run-up to season three. As the fan site Winchester Bros. reports:

With Season 3 casting news hitting the internet, announcing that two new female characters will be added to Supernatural as possible series' [sic] regulars, the fandom reacted immediately. The majority of fans objected. It didn't matter that we knew almost nothing about these new characters. That we still don't. It didn't, and doesn't, matter that no one knows who's going to play Bela and Ruby. The reactions were almost unanimously: NO.53

And only after a handful of episodes featuring the two new characters, some fans went as far as suggesting that "Katie Cassidy or Lauren Cohan" (the actresses playing Ruby and Bela, respectively) shouldn't appear "at a Supernatural Convention without body guards [sic]."54

Winchester Bros. echoes Bob Singer's aforementioned argument when it concludes that these seemingly illogical reactions are triggered by the fear that female characters would "change the Winchesters' […] dynamics."55 However, since the show's creators were (and are) well aware of these fears and the fact that "[t]he most valuable commodity the show ha[s is] the relationship between Sam and Dean,"56 one of the female characters introduced in season three was disposed of rather quickly again (a fate shared with a female character who was introduced in season two but then only enjoyed irregular appearances until her self-sacrifice in season five).

Yet, there is also another explanation for these emotional reactions to the introduction of female characters that could become love interests for the two main characters: An anxiety of being dispossessed of these characters, onto whom fans have projected all sorts of fantasies and whom fans have employed as vehicles for subversive practices. This fear, I would argue, has also affected the fan community's relationship with Kripke's successor as Supernatural's showrunner, Sera Gamble.

"Kripke left her gold and she crapped all over it": Loving the Fanboy Auteur, Hating the Fangirl Auteur?

Even though Kripke never fully embraced the role of author inscribed upon him (at least, not in the traditional way), this didn't stop various players in the media industry—most prominently WB and the CW, the networks narrowcasting Supernatural, and Warner, as the distributor of the DVDs and Blu-Rays—from constructing Kripke as Supernatural's author. While Kripke's 'vision' has been repeatedly highlighted in various paratexts to this day, during his run as Supernatural's showrunner, his image was also constructed in a way that somewhat contradicted his 'visionary' status. Kripke was decidedly not constructed as the aloof and solitary genius generating all sorts of innovative creative ideas, but rather as what Suzanne Scott has called the 'fanboy auteur'. Scott explains that "[f]anboy auteurs are relatable because of their fan credentials, which are narrativized and (self) promoted as […] integral part[s]" of their personae.57

When again turning to the Blu-Ray bonus features, one quickly notices how Kripke never misses a chance to emphasize his status as a fan. In his commentary to "What Is and What Should Never Be" (the first episode he directed), for example, he narrates: "I'm a fan of Buffy. And one of the episodes of Buffy that I really remember is the one where she woke up in the mental institution and you don't know quite what was reality, and what was her old life and what was her new life."58 Kripke thus not only self-identifies as a fan, but, moreover, links "What Is" (an episode in which a djinn makes Dean see an 'ideal' world) to a fanned object of his past. The same rhetorical gesture occurs in his commentary to "In the Beginning," in which Kripke stresses that he is "a huge Hellblazer fan" and explains how Castiel's trench coat is deeply indebted to John Constantine's typical attire.59

By underscoring his own pedigree as a fan of various media texts, Kripke is constructed as an author figure from whom Supernatural's fans can expect "stories which reflect the aesthetic traditions and shared tastes of the fan communities from which [he] emerged and which [he] now seek[s] to court" and is thus "positioned to engender loyal fans of [his] own."60 These discourses on his own fan status effectively allow Kripke-the-fan to become a member of the Supernatural fan community, reducing the distance between the fans and Supernatural's creator in the process. This reduction of distance is supported by the register employed by Kripke in interviews and DVD commentaries. As Lisa Schmidt has correctly noted, Kripke's "tone of […] address […] tends to be personal and chatty, as though he is speaking directly to a friend."61 A 2008 article in Eclipse Magazine has even suggested that Kripke becomes "practically orgasmic" when he can engage in face-to-face discussions with fans at conventions.62 But despite the virtual vicinity between creator and fan, one should remember that since Kripke is fashioned as both member of the fan community and auteur, this discursively constructed role, in fact, presents a "form of reification" that allows Kripke to become "'one of us'" (that is, the fans) yet at the same time to remain "somehow special."63

Kripke has retained his special status even after he abandoned ship after season five. His successor, Sera Gamble, who had been a member of Supernatural's writing team since season one, had huge shoes to fill when she stepped in as showrunner for seasons six and seven. Gamble was highly regarded among the fans, for she (co-)wrote some of the show's most critically acclaimed episodes. In addition, she confessed to having written Twin Peaks fan fiction during her high school years and being a Trekkie.64 She also demonstrated an awareness of fan practices early on when she alluded to slash in an interview during season two by referring to Supernatural as "the epic love story between Sam and Dean," a phrase fans have latched onto.65 Through theses gestures, Gamble assumed a role not unlike Kripke's—a fangirl to complement Kripke-the-fanboy. Her two-year stint as showrunner was, however, pervaded by behind-the-scenes conflicts and fan dissatisfaction.

Blast Magazine's Jennifer Dussourd has expressed the feelings shared by many (former) fans of the show in the following way:

The season six premiere, "Exile on Main St.[,]" was the first episode to have long[-]time Supernatural writer and producer, [sic] Sera Gamble as show runner [sic].
She completely butchered the show.
Watching the episode was almost painful and left viewers thinking "this is what I waited months for?" It was a mess from beginning to end. Every episode after that, with a few exceptions, have all been equally painful to watch. It's sad that this beloved show went from great writing, great storytelling, to just another show on the CW network. It's become so bad that fans who still watch out of loyalty can tell you how bad it is.66

While seasons six and seven doubtlessly lacked the coherent narrative of the show's first five seasons and turned many established rules of the Supernaturalverse upside-down, there is one element of criticism repeatedly voiced by the fan community that deserves special attention: Whereas Kripke's fanboyism was very much embraced by the fan community, Gamble's status as a SamGirl at first and later as a fangirl at large became prime targets of fan anguish. Concerning Gamble's positioning as a SamGirl, it should be mentioned that Supernatural's fan community is largely divided into two main camps, SamGirls and DeanGirls. Cory Barker explains:

The battle between SamGirls and DeanGirls powers conversations on series-specific LiveJournals like SPN Anon, but also pops up in the comments sections of mainstream web sites like EntertainmentWeekly.com, TVGuide.com, etc. […]. The arguments between the two groups have exploded so much over the years that each side has their own private web sites, LiveJournals, etc. that allow them to enjoy their specific Winchester brother without the hostility of the [other] group.67

And whenever one of the two main characters steals the other's spotlight in one—let alone two or three consecutive—episode(s), the camp that feels its beloved brother has come up short will complain—a lot. DeanGirls, in general, felt that much of seasons six and seven were ego-trips by both Gamble and her beloved Sam (Jared Padalecki repeatedly noted that Gamble had a crush on him—whether these were winking remarks at the fans remains unanswered), because Gamble—as the showrunner—couldn't get enough screen time for her favorite character, which—according to these fans—also made her kill off more or less the entire cast of secondary characters, which truly were essential ingredients of the show. In addition, many fans noted that seasons six and seven were filled with plot holes and thought that whenever Gamble became aware of these narrative shortcomings, Jared/Sam was allowed to take off his shirt.68 While Kripke's fanboy status was very much appreciated and highly valued (although sometimes also feared, as it could lead to him knowing 'too much') by the Supernatural community, Gamble's fangirl status very much reduced the respect she enjoyed. Indeed, in fan circles, the show's qualitative downfall during seasons six and seven was frequently linked to Gamble being a fangirl who was so obsessed with the show (and Sam/Jared, in particular) that she exhibited lapses of good judgment and succumbed to impulsive behavior. Fans thereby effectively employed the very same arguments that have tainted fandom's image for decades.

From another perspective, it is interesting to note that a primarily female fan community so much more harshly attacked female author Sera Gamble than male creator Eric Kripke. Even though Kripke's relationship with the fan community wasn't always without problems, the radicalness with which fans attacked Gamble was of an entirely different level and repeatedly turned personal. Of course, one of the author's most crucial functions is, as Jason Mittell notes, "conveying authority, mastery, and control of fictional universes,"69 and these attributes are gendered as masculine in American culture, reinforcing the perceived authority of male writers.70 The question that emerges from Supernatural fandom thus is: Are these gendered attributes so indoctrinated on women that they seemingly have no problems attacking one of their 'own' (female and fangirl) while apparently accepting the powerful role of the male author? Although cultural indoctrination could explain the treatment Gamble received, it is not entirely convincing.

Henry Jenkins has wondered whether the fangirl auteur "might […] reflect the female fan's search for community, reciprocity, and multiplicity."71 I would argue that two of Gamble's main problems can be located in the aspects of reciprocity and multiplicity. After all, Supernatural had already established a committed dialogic relationship with its fan base when she took over creative control. As a result, her merely being female couldn't help further develop (let alone introduce) this reciprocity. The aspect of multiplicity is directly linked to the potential of subversion inherent in fan productions. Even though Gamble could be considered a female agent in a patriarchal system that still perpetuated (and perpetuates) dominant discourses, her fangirl credentials rather implied that Supernatural (under Gamble's guidance) was an inherently subversive text. Creative fans thus found themselves in a dilemma: How to subvert a subversive text? And if they did, would subverting a 'feminine' text not entail undesired ideological implications and repercussions?72

"There's SamGirls and DeanGirls and—what's a Slash Fan?" Fan Productions and Authorship

The backlash against (female) authorial power provides just one of the many examples of how formerly ostensibly passive consumers can assume a much more active role in the contemporary media environment, in which "fans and other consumers are invited to actively participate in the creation and circulation of content."73 While earlier generations of fan studies in the wake of Jenkins' and Fiske's writings in the late 1980s imagined idealized prosumers that eagerly undermined "discursive and productive monopolies" and "delegitimize[d] institutional authority" through fan activities, more recent trends in fan and media studies have recognized that participatory culture "has not evacuated media authorship of its powers of distinction and its claims to hierarchy, authority, and power within the creative process."74

Supernatural's creative team has asserted these claims to authority by incorporating real-world Supernatural fandom into the diegetic world. As already indicated above, starting with season four, Supernatural has repeatedly drawn attention to certain activities of its fan community, one of these being writing 'Wincest'. Wincest is a very specific kind of slash fiction which fancies an incestual relationship between the two Winchester brothers that sometimes even culminates in one of the brothers becoming pregnant (called 'mpreg' in fandom-speak). In "The Monster at the End of this Book," Sam and Dean first encounter these fan practices when they search the internet for information on the strange Supernatural books that depict their lives:

This scene may be read as a pretty clear stamp of disapproval on Wincest by the show's creators. Yet Wincest has been included in the show in even more explicit ways, for the season five premiere opened in a bedroom featuring several Supernatural (the books) posters. A voice—later revealed to be Becky's, a Supernatural fan—can be heard: "And then Sam touched, no, caressed Dean's clavicle. 'This is wrong,' said Dean. 'Then I don't want to be right,' replied Sam in a husky voice."75 In the course of the episode, Becky is represented as the stereotypical fangirl who obviously can't differentiate between fantasy and reality, is socially awkward, which is why she can't get sex in the real world, and which, in the next step, is the reason why she projects her sexual appetites onto imaginary characters.76

Fan reaction to Becky wasn't all too favorable for primarily two reasons: First, as Katherine Larsen and Lynn Zubernis note, "Becky personifies the stereotype of the out-of-control fangirl […], calling up cultural fears of overt out-of-control female sexuality and hysterical women" while simultaneously "reinforcing gendered stereotypes of fangirls as 'only there for the hot guys.'"77 In other words, even though Becky emerges as somewhat heroic both in this episode (Chuck cannot contact the Winchesters, which is why she becomes his—divine—messenger) and a few episodes later in "The Real Ghostbusters" (in which her knowledge of the books allows her to fill Sam in on some details the brothers were unaware of), the stereotypical ways in which she (and the other fans in "The Real Ghostbusters") was represented clearly outweighed the (probably) well-intentioned inclusion of the character in the diegetic world. Yet on top of that, the character of Becky outed certain practices the fans would have preferred to remain a secret, tearing down the imaginary wall separating fandom from 'The Powers That Be' in the process.

The second point is more interesting in the context of authorship: By featuring a Supernatural fan fiction writer on the show, Kripke-the-author appropriated and incorporated fan practices into the canon. He thus upset the balance of power that was traditionally the fans' to challenge and effectively engaged in activities that were the fans' to purview. In other words, even though fan fictions, especially those adding or changing character traits or events occurring in the storyworld, may challenge or even undermine authorial control of any given media text, Supernatural's incorporation of fanon makes explicit the power hierarchies at work, for it demonstrates that Supernatural's creators can just as easily make fan productions their own as fans can take possession of the canonized text.

However, the creative team may assert its control over both the canonical text and fan practices in other ways, as well. One especially telling example is included in the season nine box set, a mockumentary called "Behind the Scenes of Supernatural: A Fan's Perspective." This short film focuses on a girl named Gina who won a contest, which allowed her to spend a day behind the scenes of Supernatural. Gina performs the role of a stereotypical fangirl, gasping for air whenever she sees Jensen, and the depiction of Jensen Ackles, Jared Padalecki, and Misha Collins taps into various aspects the fans obsess over when it comes to the characters they portray (such as Sam's hairstyle), thus satirizing these obsessions and, arguably, mocking fan practices at large. In addition, the apparent staginess (not to mention the forced funniness that's just not there) of a video that purports to present a fan's 'insider' perspective on Supernatural highlights how 'The Powers That Be' are, in certain ways, always in control of the fannish experience.

In effect, Supernatural thus limits, if not entirely undercuts, fan productions' potentially subversive powers. In addition, Supernatural's creators can easily decide to ignore slash writers' wishes to remain closeted, unknown to the public. And if fans did something (I am being decidedly elusive here) to the text that would entirely upset Supernatural's creators, legal steps would be possible.

Television Auteurs, Fanboy/Fangirl Auteurs, and Fans: Television Authorship in the Age of Participatory Culture

Supernatural perfectly illustrates how elusive the agent formerly known as 'the author' has become in the contemporary mediascape. From Kripke-the-creative-mastermind to Kripke-the-manager, from Kripke-the-fanboy to Gamble-the-fangirl, from Kripke-the-filterer-of-culture to fans as powerful authors in their own right, Supernatural has it all. While the show demonstrates that both corporate powers and fans cling to the idea of 'the author' (and may use it to construct an Other to define oneself; i.e., the fan community), Katherine Larsen and Lynn Zubernis rightfully note that "the relationship between fans and the creative side" has become extremely "reciprocal" in our day and age. Thanks to "face-to-face interaction at conventions" and technologies such as "Twitter, Facebook, and instant feedback," the hierarchical walls "separating fans and fannish objects" have come tumbling down, "ensur[ing] that the relationship between fans and creators is no longer unidirectional."78 Indeed, through its responses to fan feedback (maybe sometimes to the show's detriment) and metatextual nods to its fans, Supernatural has demonstrated that the series engages in a constant dialog with its fans and has effectively suggested, in the words of Henry Jenkins, that "[w]e are collectively and individually the authors of the stories we are consuming, no matter what the auteur says."79

Notes

01 In a rather surprising twist, Chuck reappeared in the season ten episode "Fan Fiction", which was not created under Kripke's guidance. While it could be argued that this appearance contradicts the idea that Chuck represents Kripke, there are two aspects that still support the notion: On the one hand, "Fan Fiction" primarily references episodes from the Kripke era, thus highlighting how (the absence of) Supernatural's first showrunner still haunts the show. On the other hand, Jeremy Carver, who has been running the show since season eight, and his team have effectively turned the show's entire mythology on its head. Thus, employing Chuck as a figure that does not represent Kripke would not be unheard of by season ten. | return to main text |
02 Andrew Sarris, "Notes on the Auteur Theory in 1962", Film Culture 27 (1962), pp. 1–8, rpt. in P. Adams Sitney, ed., Film Culture Reader (New York: Praeger, 1970), pp. 121–35, p. 133. | return to main text |
03 Andrew Sarris, The American Cinema: Directors and Directions, 1929–1968, with a New Afterword by the Author (New York: Da Capo, 1985, repr. 1996), p. 28. | return to main text |
04 Andrew Sarris, "The American Cinema", Film Culture 28 (1963), pp. 1–51. | return to main text |
05 Pauline Kael, "Squares and Circles", Film Quarterly 16:3 (1963), pp. 12–26, p. 17. | return to main text |
06 François Truffaut, "Une certaine tendance du cinéma français", Cahiers du Cinéma 31 (1954), pp. 15–29, p. 20. | return to main text |
07 Kael, "Squares and Circles", p. 18; italics in original. | return to main text |
08 Muriel Cantor, The Hollywood TV Producer: His Work and His Audience (New York: Basic Books, 1971), p. 8. | return to main text |
09 Ibid. | return to main text |
10 Anthony Smith qtd. in Edward Buscombe, "Creativity in Television", Screen Education 35 (1980), pp. 5–17, rpt. in Toby Miller, ed., Critical Concepts in Media and Cultural Studies, Volume II (London: Routledge, 2003), pp. 58–72, p. 64. | return to main text |
11 Buscombe, "Creativity in Television", p. 64. | return to main text |
12 Horace Newcomb and Robert S. Alley, The Producer's Medium: Conversations with Creators of American TV (New York: Oxford University Press, 1983), p. xi. | return to main text |
13 This argument has recently reappeared, for, as Elizabeth Evans notes in her book Transmedia Television, "[i]n many transmedia television texts a sense of authorship is not necessarily attributed to an individual but instead to the larger production and broadcast institutions behind those individuals." Elizabeth Evans, Transmedia Television: Audiences, New Media, and Daily Life (Abingdon: Routledge, 2011), p. 33. | return to main text |
14 John T. Caldwell, Televisuality: Style, Crisis, and Authority in American Television (New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 1995), p. 105. | return to main text |
15 Michele Hilmes, Only Connect: A Cultural History of Broadcasting in the United States (Belmont, CA: Wadworth, 2002), p. 309. | return to main text |
16 Matt Hills, "From the Box in the Corner to the Box Set on the Shelf: 'TVIII' and the Cultural/Textual Valorisations of DVD", New Review of Film and Television Studies 5:1 (2007), pp. 41–60, p. 46. | return to main text |
17 Ibid. | return to main text |
18 Bill Nichols, "Auteur Criticism", in Bill Nichols, ed., Movies and Methods, Volume 1 (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1976), pp. 221–2, p. 221. | return to main text |
19 Derek Kompare, "Publishing Flow: DVD Box Sets and the Reconception of Television Sets", Television and New Media 7:4 (2006), pp. 335–60, p. 352. | return to main text |
20 Catherine Grant, "www.auteur.com?", Screen 41:1 (2000), pp. 101–8, p. 107. | return to main text |
21 Catherine Grant, "Auteur Machines? Auteurism and the DVD", in James Bennett and Tom Brown, ed., Film and Television after DVD (Abingdon: Routledge, 2008), pp. 101–15, p. 111. | return to main text |
22 Henry Jenkins, "Star Trek Rerun, Reread, Rewritten: Fan Writing as Textual Poaching", Critical Studies in Mass Communication 5:2 (1988), pp. 85–107; Henry Jenkins, Textual Poachers: Television Fans & Participatory Culture (New York: Routledge, 1992). | return to main text |
23 Henry Jenkins, Ravi Purushotma, Margaret Weigel, Katie Clinton, and Alice J. Robison, Confronting the Challenges of Participatory Culture: Media Education for the 21st Century (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2009), pp. 5–6. | return to main text |
24 Ibid., p. 6. | return to main text |
25 Pierre Levy, L'intelligence collective: Pour une anthropologie du cyberspace (Paris: La Découverte, 1994). | return to main text |
26 Henry Jenkins, Convergence Culture: Where Old and New Media Collide (New York: New York University Press, 2006), p. 211. | return to main text |
27 James Walters, "Repeat Viewings: Textual Analysis in the DVD Age", in James Bennett and Tom Brown, ed., Film and Television after DVD (Abingdon: Routledge, 2008), pp. 63–80, p. 79. | return to main text |
28 Jason Mittell, Complex TV: The Poetics of Contemporary Television Storytelling (New York: New York University Press, 2015), ch. 3. | return to main text |
29 Peter Johnson, Eric Kripke, and David Nutter, "'Pilot' Commentary Track", in Supernatural: The Complete First Season (Burbank, CA: Warner, 2010), Blu-Ray. | return to main text |
30 McG in "Tales from the Dark Side", in Supernatural: The Complete First Season (Burbank, CA: Warner, 2010), Blu-Ray. | return to main text |
31 Roland Barthes, The Pleasure of the Text, trans. Richard Miller (New York: Hill & Wang, 1975), p. 27; italics in original. | return to main text |
32 These tensions are further complicated by the show's transmedia dimension, for figures such as comics auteur Brian Wood have contributed to Supernatural's transmedia storyworld. | return to main text |
33 Eric Kripke in "Supernatural: Tales from the Edge of Darkness", in Supernatural: The Complete First Season (Burbank, CA: Warner, 2010), Blu-Ray. | return to main text |
34 Ibid. | return to main text |
35 Johnson, Kripke, and Nutter, "'Pilot' Commentary Track", Blu-Ray. | return to main text |
36 Kripke in "Supernatural: Tales from the Edge of Darkness", Blu-Ray. | return to main text |
37 Johnson, Kripke, and Nutter, "'Pilot' Commentary Track", Blu-Ray. | return to main text |
38 Eric Kripke, "'What Is and What Should Never Be' Commentary Track", in Supernatural: The Complete Second Season (Burbank, CA: Warner, 2011), Blu-Ray. | return to main text |
39 Ben Edlund, Eric Kripke, and Bob Singer, "'The End' Commentary Track", in Supernatural: The Complete Fifth Season (Burbank, CA: Warner, 2010), Blu-Ray. | return to main text |
40 Jeremy Carver and Eric Kripke, "'In the Beginning' Commentary Track", in Supernatural: The Complete Fourth Season (Burbank, CA: Warner, 2009), Blu-Ray. | return to main text |
41 Colin Burnett, "Hidden Hands at Work: Authorship, the Intentional Flux, and the Dynamics of Collaboration", Jonathan Gray and Derek Johnson, eds., A Companion to Media Authorship (Malden, MA: Wiley-Blackwell, 2013), pp. 112–32, p. 128. | return to main text |
42 Roland Barthes, "The Death of the Author", in Stephen Heath, ed. and trans., Image—Music—Text (New York: Hill & Wang, 1978), pp. 142–8, p. 146. | return to main text |
43 Roland Barthes, Sade—Fourier—Loyola, Richard Miller, trans. (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1989), p. 8. | return to main text |
44 Roland Barthes, S/Z: An Essay, Richard Miller, trans. (New York: Hill & Wang, 1974), p. 164. | return to main text |
45 Barthes, "Death", p. 147. | return to main text |
46 Eric Kripke qtd. in Katherine Larsen and Lynn Zubernis, Fandom at the Crossroads: Celebration, Shame and Fan/Producer Relationships (Newcastle: Cambridge Scholars, 2012), p. 214. | return to main text |
47 Barthes, "Death", p. 146. | return to main text |
48 Eric Kripke in "The Devil's Road Map", in Supernatural: The Complete Second Season (Burbank, CA: Warner, 2011), Blu-Ray. | return to main text |
49 Ibid. | return to main text |
50 Lisa Schmidt, "Monstrous Melodrama: Expanding the Scope of Melodramatic Identification to Interpret Negative Fan Responses to Supernatural", Journal of Transformative Works and Cultures 4 (2010), online. | return to main text |
51 Tim Surette, "TV's Craziest Fan Bases … with Video Proof", tv.com. CBS Interactive, 4 March 2010. Online. 10 Sept. 2013. | return to main text |
52 Robert Singer in "The Devil's Road Map", in Supernatural: The Complete First Season (Burbank, CA: Warner, 2010), Blu-Ray. | return to main text |
53 lyric, "Supernatural Fans and the Series' Female Characters", Winchester Bros. MediaBlvd, 5 July 2007. Online. 13 Sept. 2013. | return to main text |
54 padackels, "Comment to 'Writer Shares Thoughts on Supernatural Girls", BuddyTV. BuddyTV, 22 Nov. 2007. Online. 13 Sept. 2013. | return to main text |
55 lyric, "Supernatural Fans and the Series' Female Characters", online. | return to main text |
56 Sera Gamble in "The Devil's Road Map", in Supernatural: The Complete First Season (Burbank, CA: Warner, 2010), Blu-Ray. | return to main text |
57 Suzanne Scott, "Who's Steering the Mothership? The Role of the Fanboy Auteur in Transmedia Storytelling", in Aaron Delwiche and Jennifer Jason Henderson, eds., The Participatory Cultures Handbook (New York: Routledge, 2013), kindle. | return to main text |
58 Kripke, "'What Is and What Should Never Be' Commentary Track", Blu-Ray. | return to main text |
59 Carver and Kripke, "'In the Beginning' Commentary Track", Blu-Ray. | return to main text |
60 Henry Jenkins, "The Guiding Spirit and the Powers That Be: A Response to Suzanne Scott", in Aaron Delwiche and Jennifer Jason Henderson, eds., The Participatory Cultures Handbook (New York: Routledge, 2013), kindle; Suzanne Scott, "Dawn of the Undead Author: Fanboy Auteurism and Zack Snyder's 'Vision'", in Jonathan Gray and Derek Johnson, eds., A Companion to Media Authorship (Malden, MA: Wiley-Blackwell, 2013), pp. 440–62, p. 445. | return to main text |
61 Schmidt, "Monstrous Melodrama", online. | return to main text |
62 Liana Bekakos, "Supernatural Creator Eric Kripke Answers Fan Questions: Part I", Eclipse Magazine. Daydream Productions, 23 Apr. 2008. Online. 10 Sept. 2013. | return to main text |
63 Alan Wexelblat, "An Auteur in the Age of the Internet: JSM, Babylon 5, and the Net", in Henry Jenkins, Tara McPherson, and Jane Shattuc, eds., Hop on Pop: The Politics and Pleasures of Popular Culture (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2002), pp. 209–25, p. 225. | return to main text |
64 Larsen and Zubernis, Fandom at the Crossroads, p. 224; Ben Edlund and Sera Gamble, "'Clap Your Hands If You Believe' Commentary Track", in Supernatural: The Complete Sixth Season (Burbank, CA: Warner, 2011), Blu-Ray. | return to main text |
65 Sera Gamble qtd. in Mary Borsellino, "Super Women: Supernatural's Executive Story Editor Sera Gamble", Sequential Tart. N.p., 1 Dec. 2006. Online. 13 Sept. 2013. | return to main text |
66 Jennifer Dussourd, "5 Ways Sera Gamble Ruined Supernatural", Blast Magazine. B Media, 13 Oct. 2013. Online. 18 Oct. 2013. | return to main text |
67 Cory Barker, "PCA/ACA 2011: SamGirls and DeanGirls: Anti-Fan Fans in Supernatural", TV Surveillance. WordPress, 26 Apr. 2011. Online. 13 Sept. 2013. | return to main text |
68 See, for example, the "Worst Showrunner Ever" meme. | return to main text |
69 Mittell, Complex TV, ch. 3. | return to main text |
70 Granted, Jeremy Carver and his team have also been harshly criticized for practically tearing the show's mythology to pieces. Carver, however, is not surrounded by fanboy/-girl discourses the way Kripke and Gamble were. Plus, one could argue that Gamble had already tainted the image of Supernatural's 'author' to such a degree (and the fans taken possession of the show) that Carver couldn't re-assert masculine control over the text no more when he took over for season eight. | return to main text |
71 Jenkins, "The Guiding Spirit and the Powers That Be", kindle. | return to main text |
72 It should be noted that, more recently, parts of the fan community (even Gamble 'haters') have expressed nostalgic feelings for her tenure, as the seasons following her time as showrunner have become even more incoherent. Both Gamble's and Carver's 'failure' as showrunners have, on their end, also negatively impacted some fans' perception of Kripke, as they have felt that he has abandoned them. | return to main text |
73 Jenkins, Convergence Culture, p. 290. | return to main text |
74 Derek Johnson, "Fan-tagonism: Factions, Institutions and Constitutive Hegemonies of Fandom", in Jonathan Gray, C. Lee Harrington, and Cornel Sandvoss, ed., Fandom: Identities and Communities in a Mediated World (New York: New York University Press, 2007), kindle; Derek Johnson, "Participation is Magic: Collaboration, Authorial Legitimacy, and the Audience Function", in Jonathan Gray and Derek Johnson, eds., A Companion to Media Authorship (Malden, MA: Wiley-Blackwell, 2013), pp. 135–57, p. 136. | return to main text |
75 Eric Kripke (writer) and Robert Singer (director), "Sympathy for the Devil", in Supernatural: The Complete Fifth Season (Burbank, CA: Warner, 2010), Blu-Ray. | return to main text |
76 Becky may be considered a stand-in for Sera Gamble in the same way that Chuck represents Kripke. Becky had her (so far) final appearance in the season seven episode "Season Seven: Time for a Wedding," in which she—in 'perfect' SamGirl fashion—turns her dreams into reality when her fannish idea of marrying Sam (probably repeatedly expressed in fan fiction) comes true thanks to a love potion. | return to main text |
77 Larsen and Zubernis, Fandom at the Crossroads, p. 165. | return to main text |
78 Ibid., p. 14. | return to main text |
79 Jenkins, "The Guiding Spirit and the Powers That Be", kindle. | return to main text |