The Sexualization of Violence Against Women in Supernatural
Author’s Note: And now I give you, as a brief break from my meta series on Monsters, Humans, and Hunters, the following: This started as a paper for a gender and women’s studies class, and I’ve stripped it down to function more as meta and less as a works-cited academic-esque essay. (Admittedly, I wrote it on this subject because I couldn’t get out of meta mode; there was literally no other way for me to write this paper at this time.) I’m sure this has been examined before—I’ve seen a few posts floating around on the subject, especially in the wake of Samandriel’s torture scene in “Torn and Frayed” and that one tweet that Jim Michaels retracted—but I’m going to throw in my two cents, too. And a warning: I’m not going to include screenshots in this meta, but this is still an incredibly squicky, triggering subject for me, and I can only imagine that it is for a lot of you, too. I’m going to be describing pretty explicitly what goes on in these scenes to get at the core of the thing, so if you get triggered by the concept of sexualized violence, I would suggest not reading this. Chances are you already get my point, anyway.
Periodically—and inevitably, since the world of Supernatural is at a state of near-constant, grueling war between humanity and everything else—torture scenes occur. They seem almost formulaic in how they present: the men under the knife are left upright or at least sitting up, fully clothed, and never gagged, while the women are stripped naked and bound flat on their backs to a table. I’m thinking specifically, here, of Meg 2.0 in “Caged Heat”, and Ruby 2.0 in “Heaven and Hell”, versus Samandriel in “Torn and Frayed”, Alastair in “On the Head of a Pin”, and the Alpha Vamp in “Family Matters”. This isn’t an accident; nothing that formulaic is. And it is formulaic—the same leather straps are used to bind both Meg and Ruby, though Meg isn’t gagged; they’re positioned similarly, on nearly identical tables; if that isn’t formula, well…I don’t know what is.
It’s not just the positioning or the clothes, though—oh, no. It couldn’t just be that. It’s the way that they’re both eventually released from their captivity that makes it all so, so much worse. Let it be said that Supernatural produces some amazing, capable female characters, but let it also be said that they’re very good at reducing these characters to nothing more than damsels, even when they’ve clearly demonstrated before that they don’t need anyone to save them.
Both Ruby and Meg’s torture scenes squick me out. Not surprising, since torture issupposed to be squicky. But the torture of Alastair, the Alpha Vamp, Samandriel? Thosedon’t squick me out. During Ruby’s couple minutes my insides squirm. Breath gets tight in my chest. My skin crawls. I want to look away, even as I’m rewatching it to write the damn paper. Meg’s is only marginally better, and only because she isn’t gagged, so let’s talk, in detail, about her scene first.
When she is captured and tortured during an attempt to kill one of her longest-standing adversaries, Meg’s torturer is male. Demon!Christian removed her clothes, strapped her to a table on her back, and bound her hips, breasts, wrists, and presumably ankles (we don’t see them) with leather to hold her down. She’s been allowed to talk—the gag is off, because the entire compound is already warded against demons leaving their hosts, and maybe Demon!Christian really likes to hear her scream—so she gets in a few barbs while she’s on the table, in typical Meg fashion:
Demon!Christian: So, Crowley wants to know… well, everything. Told me to carve out of you.
Meg: Whatever makes you feel like a man.
Demon!Christian: Ha ha. You talk a mean game. But you’re scared.
At this point, I think, well, none of this is good—but at least Meg points it out; at least there’s some kind of attempt to subvert the status quo. She’s drawing attention to the fact that this makes the demon feel like a man—but it certainly doesn’t make him one. Okay, good enough.
Meg: You know, you’re sticking that thing in all the wrong places.
Demon!Christian: Really? You sure were squealing.
Meg: Knock yourself out. It’s a host body. Some girl from Cheboygan, moved to LA to be an actress. It’s probably not even the worst thing that ever happened to her.
All right, we’ve gone downhill from here. We all know what this implies; her host body’s promiscuity before its possession, probably to land jobs, probably for the sake of necessity. We’re back to the sexual aspect of the violence (as if we could forget, with her nudity being slathered all over our screens). And this implies that Meg, too, thinks that that kind of sexual violation is the worst kind—and if it’s the worst kind, then the thing that it’s destroying must be our most important thing as women, the thing that we’re worthless without: our sexual presence, integrity, purity, whatever the hell you want to call it, that’s it, that’s the thing. So, yeah, she gets a voice—and that voice just confirms all our worst fears.
From here, Demon!Christian’s position near her lower body, and the act of kneeling down beside her thighs before the camera pans away, indicates that he is using the knife on her genitals. (Squick. SQUICK.)
She is given a profoundly sexualized visibility in this scene: the things we as an audience notice about her are her nakedness, which highlights the femininity of her body, especially the swell of her breasts above the leather and the long, bare expanse of her stomach; her vulnerability, due to her forced positioning flat on her back while she is held down and spread open; and her pain, as she cringes and screams while the sound of slicing fills our ears, at the mutilation of her womanhood. The demon caresses her breast with the business end of the knife before getting to work. She’s restrained in a position that would make it very easy to rape her. Everything about the violence against her issexual. It’s not just cutting and slicing and torture, because if it was, she’d have all her clothes and they wouldn’t bother drawing attention to her anatomy with a sharp, phallic object.
This is all bad enough; it’s putting Meg’s sexual presence in the forefront, which puts everything else about her on the backburner. Think about it: this demon fucked shit up. She was the worst, the thorn in Sam and Dean’s sides, the one who razed the Earth, asoldier—and a damn good one. But all of that suddenly evaporates for the sake of torture porn. She’s a woman, so the violence done to her has to be sexual, because that’s the worst thing for us, isn’t it? A mutilation of our womanhood? Apparently, it is. Apparently, the worst that can happen to us is sexual violence, because the most valuable thingabout us is our sexual price tag, and that value decreases when we’re violated by men.
Yeah. Gross, I know. So let’s talk about what happens next.
In this scene, Meg has already been reduced to absolute weakness, her agency utterly stripped. And we’re meant to equate all this with femininity, because that’s what our noses are being rubbed in during this scene: her femininity. Her screams of agony suddenly turn to manic peals of laughter, her torturer straightens up to ask her why she’s laughing, and she sneers triumphantly, “Dean Winchester’s behind you,” just as her torturer is stabbed in the back.
Meg is an ancient soldier in a mythic war of conquest against humanity, many centuries older and infinitely more experienced in combat than Dean; she has been a constant thorn in Dean’s side for six long years, and has hurt or killed many people he holds dear over that time span. In short, she has been long-established as a force to be reckoned with, and certainly not someone Dean would voluntarily rescue under typical circumstances, no matter how temporarily he’s allied with her. Yet, suddenly, she is a damsel in distress for the purpose of underscoring Dean’s heroism—and, by extension, his masculinity. Dean doesn’t need her to accomplish anything; their alliance is tenuous, built on a shaky basis of threats and reluctant promises of assistance; he could have accomplished their mission without her after she was captured. Instead, though, he returns to rescue her, and she gratefully accepts his helping hand.
While Meg’s femininity—and therefore her helplessness, despite all canonical evidence to the contrary—is highlighted by the forced removal of her clothes and her immobilized form on the table and the violence to her sexuality, Dean’s masculinity is underlined by his status as protector. The dichotomy enforces itself: Dean’s masculinity is proven by his deliverance of the damsel in distress, and Meg’s femininity is determined by her inability to extricate herself from the situation on her own.
When a male is tortured, however, the situation is presented entirely differently. Back in “On the Head of a Pin,” Alastair is chained, but left standing upright; he also keeps his clothing. When he’s tortured, there is no sexualization of the violence against him: his genitals are not mutilated, and all torture occurs above the waist; his body is draped in loose clothing that does not emphasize his shape, and covers all skin; he is firmly bound, but not prone, and is in fact still taller than his torturer, since he is allowed to stand upright. Perhaps least surprising, Alastair does not require saving; he breaks free of the trap himself while Dean is preoccupied, proving that he is certainly not a damsel in distress, and does not require saving.
In an article called “Material Girl: The Effacements of Postmodern Culture,” Bordo comments that in film, “there is … the viewer’s gaze, which may be encouraged by the director to be more or less objectifying,” and that in many cases, “the female body is offered to the viewer purely as a spectacle, an object of sight, a visual commodity to be consumed.” This happens with vicious clarity in “Caged Heat,” because by contrast, in “On the Head of a Pin,” we see that a torture scene can occur without the victim experiencing sexualized violence—but Meg does, nevertheless, experience that sexualized violence, all for the sake of her physical form to be sold as spectacle, all for the sake of stripping her agency. Where Alastair is covered up, she is exposed; where Alastair is subjected to pain to his physical body, Meg is subjected to a violation of her sexual body.
Alastair is allowed to have the thing that Meg doesn’t: agency. (Which is bullshit, by the way. In previous canon, Meg had oodles of agency. Oodles and oodles. But then, put her on the rack, and suddenly she’s not allowed to have it anymore. Rude.) Meg is, quite literally, incapable of action: she is bound so tightly, and in such an exposed, vulnerable way, that she is utterly without agency; it has been forcibly removed from her by her captor, who is, not coincidentally, male. Her agency is then returned to her by Dean—also male, again, not coincidentally—implying that men have the legitimate right to take and give agency to whomever they choose.
Because Alastair is male, he possesses the ability to afford himself agency—thus his sneaky, disastrous escape—but Meg isn’t allowed to do the same. Not only that, but he is allowed more agency by fellow men; Castiel and Uriel bind him upright and let him keep his clothing in the first place. You could almost begin to argue that this is just a difference in angelic interrogation techniques, but, no—Samandriel is tortured by Crowley in “Torn and Frayed,” and Crowley is arguably the most off-the-rails, codeless evil of the story, but even Samandriel gets to keep his clothes; even Samandriel gets to sit upright. And that’s not just when we’re torturing angels, either. The Alpha Vamp is put in a similar position in “Family Matters.” Clothes on, sitting upright.
So, let’s consider the one other female torture scene in the series: Ruby 2.0. (You could make an argument for torturing Meg 1.0 in “Devil’s Trap,” back in season 1, but as it was really just a clumsy exorcism, I don’t count that as an explicit torture scene.)
It’s a similar situation: male demon (Alastair 1.0) with the special knife; Ruby, bound naked, flat on her back on a table. There are a few key differences in “Heaven and Hell,” the first Ruby is gagged, and the second that there’s no real explicit indicator of genital mutilation, which, great, yes, let’s do without that. Everything else is, again, bad enough.
When Ruby first confronts Alastair, she offers up Anna with the stipulation that she and the Winchesters walk away. Alastair replies, “You know…I’d always heard that you were a devious, cowardly little slut.”
Because that’s the worst thing you can call a woman, right? Accuse her of being sexually promiscuous, oh, man—she’ll take offense to that. Because our sexual presence is ourmost valuable characteristic, amirite? </sarcasm> Let’s hear some of the slurs that menhave been called on Supernatural, for example: I love Dean, but every time he calls someone a bitch so help me, I want to punch him in the face (it’s a word I’m still trying to scrub out of my own vocabulary, with variable success); Samandriel isn’t even called anything icky, other than “flying monkey,” while he’s being tortured; Alastair isn’t name-called by Dean in “On the Head of a Pin,” but Alastair does call Dean “daddy’s little girl” for breaking on a rack in Hell after three decades of fucking torment. Because not only is our sex the only important thing about us—it’s what makes us weak.
Alastair then caresses Ruby’s cheek with the edge of the knife, while two demons twice her size hold her still. Great. We’re off to a good start, here. Already sexualizing the violence. You don’t see them do this kind of thing to the men they torture—it’s very businesslike, almost clinical, the way Dean injects Alastair with holy water, the way Crowley turns screws in Samandriel’s head, the way Granddaddy Campbell zings the Alpha Vamp with electricity. None of it is sexual. And yet, get a girl anywhere near the rack, and suddenly…
It’s the same visual here as with Meg in season six. All a little more obscure—a lot of close, tight camera angles; a lot of quick takes that just show blood dripping, or Ruby’s black, wet eyes, or her heaving chest beneath the bonds—but with the same restraints as Meg, and the gag pulled up over her mouth to keep her from escaping. She screams, a lot of muffled, animal noises of pain. She’s exposed, vulnerable, open, wild and out of control, her own weapon turned against her.
It’s such a stark contrast to Alastair’s torture later that season, because they’re in very similar situations. They’re both demons; granted, one of them’s pretending to play for the good guys, and one for the bad, but both demons, nonetheless. They both have valuable information that the other party, their interrogator, desperately needs. But Ruby gets the gag until Alastair wants to hear her, and Alastair—Alastair is just allowed to run his mouth to Dean, the entire time he’s being tortured. Man giveth agency, and man taketh away—down to the very voice, apparently.
Ruby is, of course, eventually released. The big reveal is that she knew all along she would have to endure this, believably, and then talk, leading the demons right into a showdown with the angels—etcetera, etcetera. And the whole thing might’ve been forgivable, if it was her idea.
But it wasn’t. It was Sam’s. Sam sent her into that mess; Sam made the call.
I mostly believe that this is almost certainly unintentional on the part of the writers and directors; it is hopefully unrealistic to believe that their creative meetings revolve around depriving their female side characters of agency or choice. Instead, it is likely that the damsel in distress is so ingrained in fictional archetype—and, by natural extension, society as a whole—that it is difficult for them to imagine a torture scene for these women that doesn’t include sexual violence.
When a Twitter user tweeted at Jim Michaels that she found the torture of men on the show “weird” because the women were stripped and the men weren’t, he replied, “One word… ratings” (this is the screenshot I could find of the Tweet on Tumblr). He later deleted the Tweet, and issued a new one, apologizing and stating that “the previous comment was not meant to be serious.” Serious or not, though, the men running the show get it. They get the commodification of women. They get that torture porn, for whatever reason, mostly sells.
And is that disheartening? Hell yeah, it is—because as long as you keep selling it, people aren’t going to question it, not enough. As long as you keep offering it in these mindless little packages, no one’s going to notice the implications, or the consequences. No one’s going to think it matters.
But it does matter, because when I look into the Supernatural universe, this is what I see: a cool world, beautifully crafted—one that I only rarely have a reflection in. One that I don’t belong in. And when I do see a reflection, it’s too often an ugly one, one that weights my value based on certain parts of my anatomy.
We craft stories for specific audiences, but, seriously: aren’t we done serving this one audience yet? Isn’t it time for women to see a different reflection than this?
- FYI: (bras are not the protectors of virtue, among other things)
- Hey, IGN–remember that cover letter I wrote you a few weeks ago?
- ‘Man of Steel’: Good For Seizures, Not Much Else
- The scenery will stun you, but at some point, Amalur runs out of steam.
- Resident Evil 6: A Precarious Balance Between Action and Survival Horror
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