Academic journal article Genders

Latchkey Hero: Masculinity, Class and the Gothic in Eric Kripke's Supernatural

Academic journal article Genders

Latchkey Hero: Masculinity, Class and the Gothic in Eric Kripke's Supernatural

Article excerpt

"Redneck Aliens Take Over Trailer Park."

--Weekly World News (2006)

[1] The gothic, a pan-media mode that migrated from novels to drama and poetry and then to film and television, has a long history of engaging the binary construction of gender and race as well as class (see, for instance, Palmer, Thiele, and Wright 186-94). The television series Supernatural (2005-), created by Eric Kripke, not only exhibits the superficial features of the gothic--gloomy settings, suspense, supernatural threats--but also participates in this larger gothic tradition, particularly in its depiction of white, blue-collar masculinity. The first two seasons, widely available on DVD, are my focus here because they trace a larger narrative arc; the third season is, at time of writing, airing on the CW network (formed in 2006 by CBS and Warner Brothers). In the series, Sam Winchester (Jared Padalecki) and Dean Winchester (Jensen Ackles) follow their father, John, in what is euphemistically called "hunting": they scour local media for news stories that indicate supernatural phenomenon, road-trip to the locale, and end the supernatural threat, putting ghosts and vengeful spirits "to rest," exorcising demons, and killing various creatures from vampires to werewolves.

[2] The series was conceptualized, according to Kripke's "Commentary," as a way of exploring "urban legends and American folklore" through a narrative that combines some elements of Jack Kerouac's On the Road (1957) and George Lucas's Star Wars (1977) in its use of the quest motif and its characterization of the two "blue-collar" "tough guys," Sam and Dean. In his "Commentary" and numerous interviews, Kripke highlights the series' engagement with a wide, multi-media array of cultural materials, and on terms that suggest not only the semiotics of bricolage (Hebdige 103-06) but also overt cultural referencing, akin to literary allusion. Indeed, Padalecki has indicated in interviews that, for Supernatural, preparation unusually includes extra reading: "There's so much literary value to the show, so I wanted to know the deeper sides to the stories" ("Celebrity"); for a third-season episode, he read Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm's "original stories" for the first time (Rudolph 36). At the same time, Kripke's well-documented awareness of cinematic and television genres, as well as the very conventionality of the interrelated gothic and horror modes in general, make it easy to identify typical features that link the series to other television and literary works in popular culture: a bevy of supernatural series to begin airing around the same time, including Medium (2005-) and Lost (2004-); American fantasy filmed in and around Vancouver, Canada, from X-Files (1993-2002) to Smallville (2001-), Battlestar Galactica (2004-) and The 4400 (2004-2007); the Route 66 tradition in literature and film after Kerouac (overtly invoked in the Supernatural episode, "Route 666"); the law-and-order programs that emerged post-9/11 to indicate that danger is everywhere but that various agencies are working to protect Americans (for instance, NCIS [2003-] and Criminal Minds [2005-]); and a very long tradition in the gothic of addressing national fears as a kind of haunting or possession by the "Other" (see, for instance, Hogle, Malchow, Savoy, and Sedgwick).

[3] The first two seasons of the series, along with Kripke's slightly earlier work, the film Boogeyman (2005), also participate in what recent critics have framed as a post-Clinton interest in masculinity and an alienated white underclass (see Ducat, Glass and particularly Malin), an interest now emerging in interesting ways on mainstream television. While they do not seem to have been much discussed (if at all) in connection with each other, the similarities between Supernatural and the comedy series My Name is Earl are striking: both air on Thursday nights, premiered just one week apart in 2005, were renewed for a third season, foreground rebuilt classic cars (a 1967 Impala in Supernatural and a 1973 El Camino in Earl), and are recognized for their retro music choices. …

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