ETA: As there seems to be some confusion, Alaya Dawn Johnson is NOT the Angry Black Woman. She is a guest blogger.
The following open letter to Eric Kripke contains spoilers for all currently-aired seasons of Supernatural (though nothing about season five). It also includes a racial critique of all currently-aired seasons.
Dear Eric Kripke,
I want you to know that this is a fan letter. I’m saying this upfront because I’m aware that it might not seem like that as I go on. There are some problems I need to discuss, some issues that have repeatedly cropped up on your show that I just have to talk about.
But this is still a fan letter. I love Supernatural. In my opinion, it’s the best speculative genre show on the air at the moment. I love the snappy dialogue, I love the dense, multi-faceted characterization, I love that the plots hold together and continually surprise me (especially the season finales!) I love the actors, I love the writing, I love the car and I love the endless American landscapes. I love that the boys never eat in a Denny’s or stay at a Motel 6. I love that such a strange premise became such an intelligent show, when it could so easily have turned into self-parody.
Like I said, I’m a fan.
I’m also a black woman, and I’ve gotta tell you, that’s been giving me some grief.
Because as a black woman, I can’t ignore the aversive, stereotypical and damaging ways that your show deals with race. I can’t ignore the fact that there hasn’t been a single black woman on your show who has lasted more than one episode. This includes Cassie in “Route 666″– the only woman the show ever states explicitly that Dean loves. And even that was so frustrating. First, because it put a promising character in a ham-fisted Very Special Episode about a racist monster truck. Second, because instead of taking her out of that context and providing some depth to Dean’s relationships with women, she vanishes completely from the show. (This is, of course, an issue with most of the boys’ relationships with women, but I don’t want to get into that here).
Perhaps you will understand the extent of my problem when I say that I can count the named black female characters who have appeared on four seasons of a television show on one hand: Missouri Moseley (in “Home”), Cassie, Taylor (in “Hookman”) and Tamara (in “The Magnificent Seven”). That’s four women–there were none in third or fourth seasons.
You know your show better than anyone. You know that the boys are spending a significant amount of their time south of the Mason-Dixon line. There are black people everywhere in this country, and even setting your show in, say, the pacific northwest really isn’t much of an excuse, but I find it mind-boggling to watch episode after episode where Sam and Dean drive through a landscape of such exquisitely evoked Americana…except without the black folk.
It’s like some sort of freaky horror movie.
Not the kind you were going for? Then let’s talk.
Because it’s not just the black women. In fact, that’s the mildest part of my problems with race on the show. Because, for better or worse, it’s difficult to mess up the portrayals of a demographic you have excised from the world of your characters.
Black men, on the other hand? Well, that’s where I really hit some brambles.
Because you have some black men on the show. They have major roles across multiple episodes. They engage the plots, have multiple interactions with all sorts of people and have as much of an emotional life as any other non-Winchester character does. But there’s a problem. A big one, really, and this has to do with the space in the story that these black men occupy. Because every single time they are tragically evil, and they are killed off to add to the emotional angst of your white leads.
Nothing is wrong per se with a tragically evil character. You have plenty of tragically evil white people on the show, too. Ruby comes to mind, but also Travis (in “Metamorphosis”) and Eva (one of Azazel’s other special children).
But something is wrong when you follow the same pattern with every single black character of any importance on your show across four seasons. First there was Jake, the Iraq War soldier who was manipulated by the yellow-eyed demon into killing Sam and opening the Devil’s Gate. He lasted two episodes, and ended with a clip of bullets pumped into him.
Then we met Special Agent Henriksen. He was awesome: tough, ironic, smart. A worthy adversary for the boys. When Henriksen is finally confronted with unequivocal evidence that The Supernatural Is Real And About To Fuck You Up, he responds with those same qualities that made him such a scary opponent. And then…he dies. Within twenty minutes of his final empowerment as a fully-fledged good character (as opposed to good, but doing bad things mistakenly), Lilith murders him, along with everyone else in the police station. It was a dramatic, breathtaking moment in the context of the show, but once again I had to check a black man off of my list of characters I enjoyed.
Next came Gordon Walker. He was a lone hunter whose philosophy of a black and white world clashed brilliantly against Sam and Dean’s increasingly murky shades of gray. He was insane, but enjoyably so: I loved watching him hunt Sam, and his role in “Bad Day at Black Rock” was hilarious. He was a quintessential tragically evil character: doing bad while convinced he was good. When he was turned into a vampire, I couldn’t wait to see where the show would go with him. Imagine all the drama in that situation: the man who hates supernatural creatures more than anything has become one. Does he still hunt them? Does he struggle with himself?
No, of course not. Sam kills him.
And then there’s season four. Uriel is an angel, so it’s understood that he’s simply possessing his body, but for the purposes of us in the real world, he’s still a black character. I’m pretty sure he was still a black character for you writers, as well. Because isn’t it funny that he’s the one who wants to lay waste to municipalities and break Dean’s psyche by forcing him to torture, while Castiel (the attractive white male) has the emotional arc and the implied romance and the tortured wrestling over the nature of free will and the existence of God?
Did I mention that Uriel also dies, tragically evil?
I suspect that if you were going to grasp my point, you’d have done so by now, so I won’t belabor it. Suffice it to say that now when a black character appears on Supernatural I wince and reach for my pillow, because I’m pretty sure he’ll be checking out in some less-than-pleasant way in a few episodes.
But, like I said at the beginning, this is a fan letter. It’s one in more ways than you might appreciate right at this moment. It’s only because I am such a fan that I am sticking with this show and hoping you’ll do it better. And it’s only because I’m such a fan that I’m writing you this letter.
The fifth season starts on Thursday, and I’m so excited I could sing. I can’t wait to see more of your deliciously amoral angels, your conflicted demons, and–inevitably, perfectly, fraternally–Sam and Dean. The final season four scene of them gripping each other’s shirts as the screen fades to white was one of those storytelling moments where I felt the pure contentment of a well-executed narrative. There is so much going for Supernatural into this season that part of me just wants to lay back and enjoy the ride.
The trouble is, I can’t. Each episode, these problems worm their way inside my head. They’re too obvious to ignore. As a black woman who consumes a lot of pop culture, I’ve learned to compartmentalize. To acknowledge problematic aspects of things I like and still enjoy them. But I’m aware of the process, and when I find myself doing that to such a degree with a show that I otherwise love so much, I can’t help but feel sad.
Mr. Kripke, I certainly hope that you care about social justice and historical power imbalances and the struggles for racial equality in this country. But I don’t actually intend for this letter to appeal to your ideals. Because you’re a writer. A damn good writer, and I can tell from the way you handle the rest of the show that you prioritize characterization and narrative flow and plausibility and other major touchstones of good fiction.
So, consider this as a bit of advice from one professional writer to another: in this aspect, you have really fallen down. The patterns I have identified above don’t just harm black people, or people of color. They harm every viewer of your show.
Every single person who watches and enjoys Supernatural for a hundred good reasons is being subjected to this shoddy, sub-par evocation of one of the most important aspects of the American experience. Every fan you paid homage to in “The Monster at the End of This Book” is damaged by the utter absence of black women (particularly the one that one of your two main characters fell in love with). They might not notice it, they might figure it doesn’t matter, but even so it takes away from the power of the story.
Here’s my point: a richer, fuller, more completely-evoked America with black people and Native Americans and Asians and other people of color (and more women who don’t only exist as sexual objects) would make Supernatural even better.
Maybe I’m the first person to seriously lay out these issues for you. If so, I hope you won’t dismiss this critique reflexively. I assure you, if no one else has said this, it’s not because the problems don’t exist, but because racism (particularly aversive racism) is still so prevalent in this country that many white people can go their entire lives without thinking seriously about race. That doesn’t mean it doesn’t exist– it means you don’t see it.
Mr. Kripke, I wish you the best of luck with this season. I can’t wait to see what you do with it.
And I hope I’ll get to see what my favorite TV show would be like with a black man who doesn’t die; with a black woman who has a voice.
Alaya Dawn Johnson