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An Open Letter to Eric Kripke | The Angry Black Woman

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An Open Letter to Eric Kripke


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.

Sincerely,

Alaya Dawn Johnson

259 thoughts on “An Open Letter to Eric Kripke”

  1. Cil says:

    Hi all. I am black and I find this post through Google while trying to find some information about if Missouri will be back in season 5 because I loved her character. This is the first show I really care about after the end of Buffy/Angel. Joss Whedon, like Kripke, had the same pattern. Black people didn’t appeared at all or were killed or were in gangues in LA and ultimately turned evil in the comics (see character Gunn).

    I do agree with the post about destinies of Black characters in shows. I sooooooooo wished that Uriel stayed a little more instead of Zacchary (they could have changed actors or something). Why Anna, the fallen Angel, couldn’t have been a black woman? At least one of us would be good. Eheheheehehehe.

    I’m Brazilian, so don’t shut out because of my bad English. I do agree with Ann in some points. Here in Brazil many black people still talk about Slavery every time, that we have some kind of debit

  2. Cil says:

    debit with black. I do agree that black people tend to use this as an excuse for everything that is happening in their lifes today. Here in Brazil, even the government is using this as an excuse to their irresponsibility in providing a lot of things, as education. Now they decided to have quotas in universities for black people. So, now am I unintelligent so only with the help of government I’ll go to university? I have to say they are doing this because they are stealing money (literally) instead of investing in schools and education for all people, including the blacks, so many of us can go there with honor as I did in my time. The point is, we can’t keep pointing out the whole slavery thing. It is really boring and it’s in the past.

    Coming back to the subject, maybe, unfortunately, many directors and producers are racist (and they could not really know it conscientiously) maybe because people who cast today are still from a time in which black people have no right at all. For example, we had one black slayer who was killed in Buffy. The only black man in the show up to season 7 was a vampire (Mr. Trick), and this in a show in which the main characters were at some level different from the mean, the ones who “didn’t belong”. Even after the activation of so many slayers, no black one is one of the main characters in the comics. I don’t know much about Pete in the Superman comics, but in Smallville, the only black man had to leave the show. Let’s not talk about Spiderman (series, movies, comics). How many romance movies do you watch in the last five years in which one of the main character was black? Someone saw the last Harry Potter movie? In the book, Dean and Ginny were the fountain of pain to Harry, but we barely saw the couple in the movie? That is something we can’t change, but hope that the new directors and producers in the time coming can do better. Let’s not forget that there are tests and the winner is the best actor (or we hope so). How much the racist view of the producer, director, casting person, or whatever, is influencing this view we won’t really now?

  3. Joanna says:

    well,lisa with all due respect, many of the websites I go to that are Supernatural related and these were topics that I raised and got flamed, attacked and even called a ‘reverse racist’. From what i have noticed anyone that goes against the majority of views held by the mostly ‘white female fanbase’get salted and burned.and if anyone questions this, I dare themm to go on any of them and tsee what happens.

    Concerning the strong female that I mentioned, I do apologise. let me reiterate. Strong, YOUNG , female. Ellen is above 35 and thereofore in the SPN universe and CW land not a threat.Thus she is a Fan Favorite.

    as for the overlap, at the time SPN came out, there was a dearth of young, urban sci-fi shows with their own special mytharc, so i’m assuming the same fans would be there and SPn with all its faults is the only show that comes close to Angel and Buffy and sometimse the occassional gem-like last thursday’s episode-makes you almost forgive the crap in between.It’s still ranks one of the best if not the best urban fantasy show on TV.

    But I guess whet makes it even sadder that the fans that used to push for strong female xters, diversity and an accurate representation of reality have now become stuck-in -the-rut pretty boy watchers. maybe it has something to do with grwoing older. i done’t know.But it’s sad.

    leverage…I’m not so sure about that info.

    I am not absolving K of all his responsibilty, but if the truth to be told, I have to say, the man needs to get paid and if he doesn’t do what his fans tell him- which he has done time and time again for the reasons stated above-he’ll get cancelled. So he figures the smart thing is to listen to your fans-no matter who they are-and move on. Whedon probably just had more will power and belief that he could sway the fans.And it worked.He was lucky.

    Again all I have to say is….Charles Gunn.

    1. lisa says:

      Joanna, I’m sorry you’ve had those experiences at the websites you’ve visited. I can only speak to my own experiences, which have been overwhelmingly positive when I’ve brought up concerns about the portrayal of minority characters on the show.

      Thanks for the clarification. The main problem many fans (I’ve spoken to) have with some of the young female characters is that they were so poorly written. I think the young women the fans have reacted most positively to (e.g. Sarah in “Provenance”) have been the strongest and most capable of the bunch.

      On a side note, I don’t think there’s anything inherently wrong with wanting to look at attractive people. :)

      I guess we’ll have to agree to disagree on how much power fandom has over the creative direction of the show. I think these things are dictated much more by other factors. As fans, we aren’t the consumers in the marketplace. We’re the product. And the network often would rather try to appeal to a wide demographic that’s NOT already watching the show than cater to those who are loyal viewers, especially when those loyal viewers are not a target demographic.

  4. Joanna says:

    Thanks for your psot, Lisa. I’m really glad you could see my point of view on this even if you don’t agree. Thank you.

    and yes, I have to say. Sarah was actually a memorable character because she was well written.

    I would just like to agree with you that YES there is nothing wrong with looking at attractive people. That’s why they go into so much trouble making themselves beutiful I guessLOL

    But when the lines or for lack of a better word FORMS of beauty are dictated by the CW who decide they want to dictate who they think is beautiful, thus warping our kids even more, I draw the line.

    When a person of color, an ordinary looking plain woman or normal looking white teenager is not sufficiently represented on TV and only a certain group is( in this case Dean and Sam), it gives the society at large a rather skewed and biased view of what beauty is. The result? A world where people that look like the stars are accepted completely, faults and all and everbody else is termed a bad actress or actor or get booed off the screens by their fans because their looks or general appearance or race don’t fly with the general public.

    This is probably why the CW is generally ignored by the Emmy community while the world of HBO and the major four networks are accepted.

    And even though I wish it wasn’t the case but in SPN, the loyal viewers are not only the target demographic, but they are the ONLY demoographic.

    1. lisa says:

      Joanna,

      I definitely agree with you about the casting at CW. Most of the young men on that network have what started to call “CW face” a few years back. They just all kind of looked the same to me. And I agree with you that it’s a huge problem, not just with that network (although CW *does* seem especially culpable), but with the entertainment industry as a whole.

      I haven’t seen any recent CW shows other than Supernatural, so I don’t know about the network as a whole, but the production values and acting on the show are not nearly as good as what I’ve seen on other networks. I love the show, but I can’t see it as deserving of an Emmy. And I really, really love the show.

      There are casual viewers of Supernatural. I don’t know about the demographics in America, but here I know many of my students have watched the show, but aren’t “fans” in the hard core meaning of the word. That might have to do with the different distribution of media here.

  5. sandie says:

    The letter to Kripke makes sense to me. When I watch the show (and it’s the only TV show I watch) I am mindful of how characters are casted and portrayed. I do think the show could do more to add diversity. I do know that most of the casting calls are open to all races unless they are searching for someone specific like the 3rd brother. But really, couldn’t the 3rd brother have been bi-racial? See that is the kind of rasicm I notice. Or, when Sam gets lucky with the doctor, could it have been a hot black woman?

    The most recent episode had a Latina maid and I was about to die, because somebody shoot me on that stereotype, but alas I think the point was to have a moment where Sam is a geek and speaks Spanish.

    There needs to be more over weight characters too. Becky the fan girl should have totally been overweight! :)

    There are/were positive Black men on the show like Hendrickson (who was also young and handsome) and Rufus. And how could I forget! The two doctors who tell Sam his brother isn’t going to make it? Both black! So I guess we can add that doctors with bad news are black men and doctors with good news (Croatoan and Faith) are white women.

    I’m still looking for the boys to hook up with a non-white woman this season! But in general, I can’t complain about anyone dying. It is a well known fact that EVERYONE on Supernatural dies, that’s not a matter of any type of prejudice.

  6. Panee says:

    I love your letter. My daughter and I am also a big fan of the show, and have watched every single episodes from DAY 1 of the show very faithfully. We always feel exactly the same as you stated in the letter. It was so amazing how there could not be a single one redeeming black character in the show that was not a bad guy. We were quite disappointed, but thought that since we are also a minority, we are powerless as always. One thing that bother me a lot in the show. I don’t know whether any one cares. I am Asian. And I do hate those “Busty Asian Beauty” magazines that kept showing up in the show. We are human too you know? Normal human who go to work, and come home. I am Buddhist and … oh never mind. Still watching and still a fan. I wonder about Mr. Kripke though. Is his world really removed from all minorities? May be. ^_^

  7. Joanna says:

    I don’t knwo aboout the comic books but on the TV show, Charles Gunn was adored.

    And Cil, if you think that black people tend to compalin a little bit too much about their plight maybe you should read your black history again.

  8. Kate says:

    Thank you for writing this; a lot of what you said is frequently moaned about, but not often coherently presented in a public forum. Thank you.

  9. Kat says:

    Got linked here following links – so I’m hoping I’m not too late to the party.

    (A site note – some of the required reading links are locked – I don’t have permission to view them.)

    I’m curious what – if any – the show’s horror genre affects it’s dealing with minorities. I am a white, female horror fan. It’s a known event in horror: minorities and women are scary to Hollywood. They die or are compartmentalized or are held on the pedestal (the better position for a tragic death).

    I’m often left wondering if Kripke isn’t just so determined to kill EVERYONE that he isn’t aware of the repercussions. Following the horror trope so blindly he’s never stopped to look. (Which is one of the many reasons I love this post.) He’s heading for the “Rocks Fall. Everyone Dies.” build up.

    You said you weren’t a spoiler follower – I have noticed that the casting calls have started specifically mentioning “submit all ethnicities” on the roles. I’m not sure if that’s awareness but it’s something.

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