Banished to Oz: The Vanishing Ladies of 'Supernatural'
The female characters of Supernatural shouldn't always have to be sacrificed to develop the plots of their male costars.
In the CW program Supernatural, Mary Winchester (Samantha Smith) is burned alive in her son's nursery. John Winchester (Jeffrey Dean Morgan) raises their sons while fighting monsters in search of revenge against the demon who killed her.
Jessica Moore (Adrianne Palicki) dates Sam Winchester (Jared Padalecki) and, when he returns home, she is burned alive. Sam joins his brother Dean (Jensen Ackles) to seek out revenge against the demon who killed her.
Jo (Alona Tal) and Ellen (Samantha Ferris) Harvelle, who help search out the devil himself, are willing to blow themselves up to defeat a pack of hellhounds on the group's tail. This fuels the Winchester boys' drive for revenge against Lucifer.
Most recently, resident nerd-turned-hunter Charlie Bradbury (Felicia Day) refuses to give vital information she's decoded to the bad guys, instead securing the information and letting herself be killed by said bad guys. If the previews for Supernatural's 10th season are any indication, this serves as fuel for the revenge machine that is Dean with the Mark of Cain.
The names and stories vary, but one thing remains the same:
Mary and Jess die.
Jo and Ellen die.
Then the boys get mad and use that to get even.
Supernatural is a highly masculine show in many of its details: everything from the cherry '67 Impala, the plaid clothing, the guns, and the pretty local girls in bars. It is a story of family, but it is especially a story of brothers, of a father and sons, as seen in the parallel relationships between John-Dean-Sam and God-Michael-Lucifer. There is nothing wrong with these features, certainly; a lot of them are what give the show its charm.
This is also not to say the show is stereotypically masculine from cover-to-cover. In a lot of ways, the show questions, manipulates, and twists these sorts of expectations. Dean struggles with showing emotion, but it's not hailed as a strength of his; in fact, his brother Sam often calls him out when he fails to do so. Additionally, many of the female characters are just as complex and strong and capable as their male counterparts. When the boys first meet and Jo and Ellen, the ladies don't know who the brothers are and successfully hold the Winchesters at gunpoint until they get answers. In later seasons, it's revealed Mary herself was a hunter, skilled enough to take on an angel and be fairly evenly matched when the occasion called for it. At the same time, she's compassionate, and has desires outside of the monster-hunting job.
Supernatural is well-known amongst its fans for killing off just about every character at least once; in fact, a running joke about the program is that everyone has lost count of Sam and Dean's numerous resurrections. Why is it an issue, then, that all of the aforementioned women die? Is it a problem, or is it something one can point to simply for an excuse to complain?
Secondary characters who have come to the forefront -- the Winchester boys' surrogate father Bobby Singer (Jim Beaver), the fallen angel on their shoulder Castiel (Misha Collins), and King of Hell Crowley (Mark A. Sheppard) -- are never women. Even women who become regulars that are equal in skill to the men -- Jo and Ellen in season two or Ruby (Katie Cassidy and Genevieve Cortese) in seasons three and four -- are not given the same kind of on-screen time and explicit exploration as Bobby, Castiel, or Crowley. When Bobby dies, he is not suddenly swallowed up in an explosion or stabbed with no warning. He spends an episode in a coma before his death, then lingers for a time as a ghost, giving the audience much more time to say goodbye to a character they have come to care about. His death is not glossed over as an excuse to light a fire under the Winchesters' butts so they can in turn go after the latest Big Bad Guy without dragging their feet quite as much.
Yes, men on the show have been killed. Occasionally, some, like the young prophet Kevin, are even used to motivate revenge plots. Yes, there are female characters who have not been killed yet. But even in instances such as the still-surviving Sheriff Jody Mills (Kim Rhodes), when she shows up in an episode, many fans anticipate this will be the one where Mills dies.
Why does any of this matter? Supernatural is a masculine show, but it has attracted a very strong female audience, especially amongst young women. Men who watch this show have Sam, Dean, Bobby, Castiel, and John to relate to and find role models in.
Similarly, female fans have plenty of strong and complicated women to look up to and identify with. They can understand that Mary would want her children raised out of the dangerous and demoralizing hunter's life, that Lisa wants to help her boyfriend find a normal life and recover from the PTSD monsters and hell gifted to him, and even that villain and witch Rowena seeks power and safety by any means necessary. It's not that women and men can't relate to stories of the opposite gender, but there is something important about representation, and seeing female stories told well.
The ultimate fate awaiting these gun-toting or whiz-kid-researching or heaven-defying women? It's being avenged by men after their premature and often shortly-mourned and even shortly-recognized deaths, or just disappearing from the narrative altogether. What does this tell the young females in the audience? What does it tell the males?
Charlie's death, in particular, is a blow to a core audience of Supernatural. Yes, some Supernatural fans may be fans of Felicia Day, a darling actress amongst the Internet nerdom, and are sad or perhaps outraged to see Day leave the show the way she did. But Charlie, as a character, fulfilled something more than that for the audience. Previously, characters like Becky (Emily Perkins) -- well-intentioned but socially inept, clingy, and obsessive -- represented a stand-in for the audience as a fan of the series of books within the show itself, written by the prophet Chuck (Rob Benedict) that details the Winchesters' lives. She's relatable in some ways, perhaps, but not nearly as strong a character as other females on the show. Ultimately, she's not a hero.
Charlie is (now was) a nerdy female who had skills that could help, who had compassion for the boys, the drive to do the right thing, and a desire for adventure. Whether you think the character is or isn't done well, she represented what the best characters tend to display: a relatable aspect for the audience, something to which they could aspire. She grows into her ability to be a true asset to the team, and we see over several episodes her development from being scared by this paranormal world to a world where she's equal to the boys. What's more, she does this typically not with brute strength -- though she can handle her own when she has to -- but with her quick mind. She is a nerd who young women can look at and want to emulate. Before she was sent to Oz, it was feared among the fandom that she would be killed. When she returned from Oz, it was feared again that she would be killed.
Characters like Sarah Blake (Taylor Cole) made the apprehension warranted. Sarah only previously appeared in episode 19 of the series, and returns in episode 171 simply to be used by Crowley as a threat, a bargaining chip to make a deal. When the Winchesters don't budge, Sarah dies. In the following episode, Crowley then threatens to do the same to Mills. We've seen this with several female characters in the show's run, dragged back after a long stretch off-screen simply to be killed: vampire Lenore who had been allowed to live because she refused to attack humans, angel Anna who was suddenly evil with little-to-no-explanation, and psychic ally Pamela, just to name a few. So when Charlie survives and goes to Oz, and when she returns from Oz and survives again, it is a relief each time that, finally, a female character gets to live a little bit longer.
Cue a bloodied Charlie laying lifeless in a tub, despite the fact that she knew better than to leave a safe place when there were people after her. Her death is more or less the result of an irrational and immature decision that is out of character for someone previously depicted as highly intelligent.
Both men and women alike have found value in Supernatural, and it's not hard to see why: the cool muscle car affectionately nicknamed "Baby"; the brotherly love; the fun of watching the Winchesters battle any monsters-of-the-week like Wendigos and Werewolves or Big Bads like Lucifer and Leviathan; and the compelling and conflicted characters who don't always make the right choices. But when women are not brought to the forefront and/or are unceremoniously killed as plot devices to motivate the males, the writers and showrunners cut a ripe opportunity at the knees.
Why did we never see an Ellen/Jo hunting team until just before their deaths? Why do we never check in with reluctant friends and odd couple Sheriff Mills and Sheriff Donna Hanscum (Brianna Buckmaster) without them calling the boys in for help? Sure, the focus of the show is on the Winchester brothers, but we get asides of Crowley that develop him as a character. We get asides of Castiel that develop him as a character. Of course, this is just fine, as they are both gripping characters.
But female characters should not be sacrificed -- both literally and figuratively -- in favor of an all-male cast, only diversified by the occasional and usually short-lived female. The function of these female characters should not be reduced to their service of the males' plots, especially with the support of many young female fans driving the viewership of the show. Women should not be immune from death, certainly, but they should be treated with the same consideration as their male counterparts. Not all the ladies have to die or be sent packing to Oz.
Supernatural has been thoughtful enough to make the ladies capable, multifaceted, and flawed. They know how to do female characters. The writers should take that extra step and not shy away from keeping the ladies onscreen as much as possible while still staying true to the show and its narrative.
Queens, NYC native Audrey T. Carroll is an MFA candidate with the Arkansas Writer's Program. She graduated with a BA in Creative Writing from Susquehanna University. Her work has been published or is forthcoming in Fiction International, Hermeneutic Chaos, Foliate Oak, the A3 Review, and others. She can be found at Weebly and on Twitter.