November 5th, 2020: the anniversary of Guy Fawkes’ plot to blow up Parliament, votes still being counted in the U.S. presidential election, COVID-19 keeping the world in quarantine, tabloids spreading rumors that Vladimir Putin might step down. Yet amid the constant flood of tweets that week about global uncertainty, a dark horse entered the competition for Twitter’s top trend. By midnight of November 5th, the number one trending topic in the U.S. wasn’t any of these things, but instead one portmanteau word: “Destiel.”
Though it may be unfamiliar to those with no experience in fandom spaces, to anyone who has ever used Tumblr or dabbled in fan fiction communities, this phrase is instantly recognizable. For those unacquainted, some explanation: “Destiel” is the fan created couple name for two of the main characters in the television show Supernatural, Dean Winchester (Jensen Ackles) and Castiel (Misha Collins).
Many people in fandoms delight in “shipping” characters—that is, imagining them in a romantic relationship even if they are not actually in one in their story. Shipping is often found in fan art, fan fiction, discussion, and tweets badgering the creators to make their favorite imagined couple real. The characters being ‘shipped’ are often same-sex pairings, as in the case of “Destiel.” In Supernatural, Dean is a rugged, sarcastic hunter of demons who drives a Chevy Impala; Castiel is a trench coat wearing angel who is introduced rescuing Dean from the depths of hell. In fans’ eyes, the stage was set for certain romance; shipping fans were hooked on their dynamic and began enthusiastically creating fan works featuring the two as a couple. Destiel became so popular that it was ubiquitous among fandom spaces, becoming the most frequently reblogged ship on Tumblr in 2014 (as reported by The Daily Dot) and clocking a whopping 89,473 fan fictions hosted on Archive Of Our Own.
The fandom for Destiel was so vocal that the creators eventually got wind of it, both through social media and convention interactions (Supernatural hosts several fan conventions each year across America for fans of the show). Misha Collins confirmed this at a 2013 convention when asked: “The producers and the actors don’t really talk about it that much. I mean, it does come up occasionally. But I do think we all pay lip service to it.”
For many seasons, the show has included many obvious winks at their shipping audience about the pairing—from villains mockingly referring to the two as “boyfriends,” to actually mentioning “Destiel” in meta episodes where the characters discover their own fandom after a book series is published about their adventures.
But most shippers, especially for queer pairings, know by now not to expect too much; queer romance in media created by straight men, starring straight men. Queer relationships on prime time television are rare, even when fans make it clear how much they want them. As the show is on its 15th season, many of the fans had given up hope entirely that their favorite ‘ship’ would ever actually happen in the show.
That all changed on this fateful November night. In its last season, mere episodes away from the finale, Castiel confessed to Dean, “I love you.” For real this time—not just in someone’s fan fiction.
The episode aired and the tweets poured in. Old fans, current fans, people who’d seen the ship peripherally on Tumblr in its heyday, and people who were just confused as to what a ‘Destiel’ was tweeted in droves. The name “Dean” was trending in conjunction with “Putin” as people made jokes that the latter’s announced resignation and the latest Supernatural episode were being tweeted about with equal weight and importance (More jokes evolved as people admitted they found out about Putin’s resignation through it being mentioned tangentially on tweets about Supernatural).
As someone who follows Twitter content about fandoms as well as politics, my dashboard was as chaotic as I’ve ever seen it—setting a new record even by 2020 standards. Nevada’s final ballots were being counted, inching the state towards blue, speculation was rolling in about Putin’s health, the Bolivian president was attacked with a stick of dynamite, and through all of it Destiel had just become canonized and was holding the number one spot in global Twitter importance.
Memes were being created and videos or screenshots of the latest episode were being shared en masse. Yet while Destiel being made an official couple in the show was something fans had been waiting 15 seasons for, the event was not a wholly joyous one, and for many what should have been a spark of cheer in an otherwise terrifying news cycle was instead a familiar disappointment.
Fandom regulars familiar with the term “Destiel” are probably equally familiar with the phrase “bury your gays.” An idiom that has been in rotation since the mid 70s, “bury your gays” refers to the trope that gay characters are likely to be killed off in their story, especially if they’ve just come out of the closet, finally confessed their love, or achieved a happy relationship. When a character is shown making a positive development in their sexuality and is then immediately killed off, it narratively links the two events, suggesting that death is a natural conclusion to their expression, possibly even retribution for it. It is a disturbingly prevalent trend in TV and film (especially among queer women characters), one that feels at best like an oblivious or insensitive writers’ room choice, and at worst, a punitive promotion of negative stereotypes. One of the first instances of overt same-sex attraction shown on TV occured in the 1976 soap opera “Executive Suite” with a lesbian character. It was arguably also the first example of “bury your gays” when she was hit by a truck while chasing after her lover. Scholars and critics have noted that many of the earliest American depictions of gay or queer-coded characters on screen were negative, often shown as depraved villains whose deaths the audience were meant to cheer for. Even as gay representation cautiously grew more positive over time, gay couples were frequently depicted as tragically doomed—especially during the AIDS crisis, when gay characters dying from AIDS was so common it became an archetype in itself.
“Bury your gays” has filtered into mainstream online discourse in recent years with the high number of lesbian character deaths that occured between 2016-2017, sparking debate among fans on social media (For more on the recent prevalence of “bury your gays,” see Elizabeth Bridges’s 2018 essay in The Journal of Fandom Studies, “A genealogy of queerbaiting: Legal codes, production codes, ‘bury your gays’ and ‘The 100 mess’”).
It’s true that Castiel uttered the words “I love you” while looking at Dean, but the scene was not a joyful one. The love confession was unreciprocated by a very tight lipped Dean (some fans interpreted his facial expression to suggest he was barely repressing the urge to say a homophobic slur). It was also immediately followed by Castiel dying, sucked into a portal that sent him to hell.
While this episode was in fact written by a gay man, it was hardly a model example of queer representation. Though some tweeting about Destiel were celebrating the acknowledgement of their fan couple, many were incensed about the poor handling in line with the same “bury your gays” trope we’ve all come to know and hate. Castiel being sent immediately to hell only twists the knife on the problematic elements of the scene, as it hints at a recognizably Christian homophobic subtext (especially as he tells Dean right before sacrificing himself that “the one thing I want is something I know we can’t have”).
The creative team and cast of Supernatural have a history of disappointing its fandom with its treatment of even the suggestion of gay romance in the show. Whether it’s for female fans who enjoy the subtext, or queer fans looking for representation, a considerable chunk of Supernatural’s audience watch the show primarily for the tidbits of interaction promoting their favorite queer ship and hoping for it to be at least acknowledged. The show’s creators seem content to benefit from this group—these fans attend conventions every year, paying to see panels featuring the writers and actors—that fuels the show’s popularity, but have rebuffed their vocal requests for these characters’ friendship to evolve into something else.
Creators shouldn’t have to be beholden to their fans, but because fandoms and creators have a closer relationship than ever before due to social media, the aversion to making characters openly queer feels more pointed.
At recent Supernatural conventions, guests were often told ahead of panels to not ask any questions related to shipping. When one fan in a New Jersey Q&A in 2013 even brought up the possibility of Dean being bisexual, Jensen Ackles responded with “don’t ruin it for everybody now” and moved on without answering, sparking questions about whether he had some prejudices to work through.
It may be an exaggeration to accuse Supernatural of queerbaiting; fans were the ones to first read this subtext into the relationship between the characters. However, it’s clear that with this half baked “coming out” scene, the writers are doing essentially what they’ve always done—acknowledging their fans who want this relationship just enough to keep the fandom hooked, but not so much that they might offend the sensibility of more heteronormative viewers.
Supernatural still has the finale. In a show that has often proven that anything is possible—including a Destiel love confession, apparently—there’s still a chance Castiel could be revived from the dead and that he and Dean could live happily ever after and avoid falling into a disappointing cliché. But based on the history of the channel on which the show runs, it’s not likely.
The CW has, in its recent history, another infamous case of burying its gays. On their show The 100, a romantic relationship between two of the female main characters was finally consummated in 2016, much to fans’ delight, and then immediately ended when one of them was killed—accidentally, in arguably a meaningless way. The backlash after that episode was so massive that creators had to eventually address it, admitting that their reason for killing off the character was “to heighten the drama.”
Obviously, not every gay character has to live to the end of the movie or show. But handling queer storylines without sensitivity not only frequently alienates the audience members in search of representation, but can also have a harmful impact when it communicates that gay characters are disposable, that there are no happy endings for queer people, or that the creators want the attention and shock value of showing a character to be gay but don’t want to follow through on having to actually write and show a queer relationship in anything more than its earliest stages or tragic ending.
Either way, anyone who spent this week of November extremely online will remember it not only as one of exceptional Twitter chaos, but for its reminder of how much further we have to go in terms of queer representation. Regardless of whether fans were disappointed or excited about Castiel’s love confession, Destiel will always live in fandom. Since the airing of this episode, more than 300 new fan fictions have already been added to the Archive Of Our Own tag for Dean/Castiel—most of them specifically addressing, rewriting, and providing alternate outcomes to the latest episode. Fandom has always been a place where queer subtext can become legitimized through fans’ creative engagement with the text to ‘fix’ flawed representation, imagining new possibilities for characters—and by extension, imagining and articulating a desire for on screen queer romance that is be overt, fully realized, and not always ending in tragedy.
https://gcml.org/representation-of-lgbtq-characters-through-the-bury-your-gays-trope/ https://www.dailydot.com/parsec/supernatural-destiel-biggest-tumblr-ship/ https://www.dailydot.com/society/jensen-ackles-homophobia-supernatural-fandom/ https://twitter.com/edgeworthlez/status/1324592753875976192?s=20
KATE HOCSHWENDER is an obsessive, a full time critic of reality, alleged vampire, occasional writer, self proclaimed sex symbol, and lover of the bizarre. They graduated from Bard College after writing their thesis on horror movies and have since worked as a photographer’s assistant, model, writer, researcher, and Spirit Halloween sales associate. They currently live a semi-nocturnal lifestyle in Connecticut and have watched over 250 films during quarantine.