Wayward Sisters: An Appreciation
Amazing things are afoot.
First let’s go back to the start. I want to tell you a story about a fandom.
Having watched Supernatural since the pilot episode aired in October 2005, I’ve seen the fandom change and evolve. One particular concern is the female characters—their presence in canon, the fandom’s response to female characters, even perceptions of the fandom’s view of female characters.
From the beginning, many Supernatural fans were protective of the show keeping its focus on brothers Sam and Dean Winchester, which is understandable. Supernatural at its center is a “bottle” show mostly focused on the Winchester brothers, although that often encompasses their extended family. It’s also a show that revolves around male point of view. However, women have always been important on Supernatural, and not just to be mourned by the male leads, although it didn’t help that the main impetus for the show starts over the death of two female characters.
However there have been plenty of recurring or memorable one-shot female characters who have agency. It’s both a misperception and a truth that early Supernatural fandom was negative towards newly introduced female characters. While some fans were a bit more intense in their desire to have the show remain “only about the brothers,” many fans welcomed new characters and felt that, even if Supernatural is a show about the male emotional landscape, that wasn’t a reason to exclude women.
For example, resistance to the introduction of Jo Harvelle, a female hunter, in season 2 was high--but so was the love. Many fans rooted for her to be more of a regular presence on the show. Unfortunately that didn’t come to pass, perhaps because the support didn’t manage to gain enough foothold to outweigh the backlash. Season 3 saw the introduced Bela, a dealer in mystical objects, and Ruby, a demon. Bela’s arc had a lot of potential that the show cut too short and the character was killed off by the end of the season. Ruby had a more extensive, complex arc with the Winchesters, but was eventually revealed as a villain and killed off.
Yet there was always significant portion of the fandom that wanted more positive representation of women (and minorities) on Supernatural. Some fans were wary, out of a protectiveness of keeping the show centered on Sam and Dean, but not against having more characters around. Some were more resistant, some even hateful—which is where the fandom’s reputation for being unfriendly towards female characters originated, but it’s not the full picture.
That full picture is far more complicated, and took time to emerge.
One of the biggest reasons for change was shifts in social media, and with that, fandom’s relationship with creators. Concepts about what fandom should be changed. During Supernatural’s earliest seasons, fandom was more insular, with less interaction between fans and creatives. The internet wasn’t as accessible to as many people as it later became, and the nature of social media was constantly evolving. Fans heard each other’s voices more than they were heard by the people who made the stories. As the nature of fandom changed, so did Supernatural fandom.
While there’s an argument to be made that showrunners shouldn’t be too governed by online opinion, they also ignore fan voices at their peril. It’s not true that the only “real” fans are the quiet ones who never ask for anything, or question anything, who don’t look deeper—there’s value in respectful criticism, and change and growth are part of storytelling. TV shows survive by fan engagement, and yes, online engagement matters. Supernatural itself would not have become the longest running genre show in US history without its fanbase, without more than one type of fan supporting it, and without newer fans as well as older ones. The more fans engage, the fuller the picture of what a fandom really is. Creators need to honor long-standing characters and elements at the foundation of a series while allowing for expansion, and this balance can be precarious to maintain. But change itself is not the problem. Additions to the cast can make a strong show even better.
The advent of high speed internet, greater accessibility, and the arrival of sites like twitter and tumblr, along with the rise of conventions, caused some seismic shifts. Fans more readily engaging with the people who made their shows has advantages and disadvantages, but a wider range of voices being heard has a ripple effect, especially given that diversity in storytelling can have such an important impact. Stories are a reflection and a commentary on the world we live in, even if they’re fantasy or science fiction, and can help inspire and open minds. For a show with the longevity and pop culture footprint of Supernatural, it definitely matters to expand the definitions of who gets to be the hero.
The portion of Supernatural’s fanbase that welcomed more characters gained a stronger voice over time. It became more and more evident that the fandom was more complex and diverse than it had first seemed. An aspect of fandom that got drowned out in early seasons began to move to the forefront.
There is a large and thriving part of Supernatural fandom that sees nothing odd whatsoever in watching the show for more than one reason, and who fell hard for recurring characters of all kinds. Fans care deeply about them as they do about the Winchester brothers who are still the show’s main focal points and fandom touchstones. The introduction of the angel Castiel was one watershed moment. The character moved to the forefront of the show’s long-running arc about family defined by more than blood, and ignited a fanbase to rival Sam and Dean’s. The resistance to new characters isn’t entirely about sexism--even with a male character like Castiel, there’s a portion of the fanbase who still flat-out balks at anyone but the Winchester brothers getting too much attention or support. Castiel’s “break-out” helped usher an environment that no longer stigmatized the idea of watching for more than one reason.
The concept of Supernatural as a whole world has grown since the earliest seasons. It’s a universe, with many rich characters that deserve their stories told. Those barn doors cannot be un-opened. And along with that, fans of female characters have become ever-increasingly vocal. Fans strongly supportive of female characters and LGBT characters and characters of color, who embrace the idea of Supernatural as a wider (if still personal-scale) canvas have become a force to be reckoned with.
When the character of Sheriff Jody Mills, played by Kim Rhodes, arrived during season 6, no one was sure how long she would survive. The character was accepted, though, and then embraced. She continued to return each season, growing as a character. Jody, like the Winchesters, had her family ripped apart by supernatural forces, and became a hunter. Fans also embraced Kim Rhodes, who became a regular fixture on the Supernatural convention circuit. When Sheriff Donna Hanscum arrived, it was to a much more welcoming environment already in place. Briana Buckmaster’s portrayal of the smart, tough, yet somewhat more innocent and naive Donna, who gets pulled into the hunting world, also won fans over.
Individually and as a team, Kim and Briana are some of the warmest, most caring actors a fandom could hope for. They’re smart, they show us their hearts, and admit to their fears. They engage with us on twitter and do frequent livestreams on facebook. Kim often makes wonderful, raw & honest, heart-first tumblr posts. With Kim and Briana, along with other women from the cast, the Supernatural convention circuit went from almost no women on panels, progressing to regular appearances and finally headlining the weekend. They’ve become among the touchstones in Supernatural fandom.
In season ten, the series re-introduced Claire Novak, played by Kathryn L. Newton. Claire, the daughter of Jimmy Novak, the man who gave his consent to become Castiel’s vessel (Jimmy’s soul went to heaven seasons ago), had some tense initial interactions with Sam, Dean, and Castiel but wound up as an adoptive little sister. Supernatural also introduced Alex, played by Kat Ramdeen, a young woman fleeing the pack of vampires who raised her, who Jody took under her protection. Both young women found refuge with Sheriff Jody.
The fanbase inspired by the friendship between Jody and Donna also blossomed, even though they had interacted in only one episode so far. Another episode showed the inner workings of Jody’s household, and the relationship between Claire and Alex appealed strongly to fans as well. Genre tends to depict male bonding far more often than it depicts female relationships.
Fans started talking about the specific concept of Wayward Daughters when Claire first went to Jody’s place, and the enthusiasm for the idea just kept growing. The fandom movement of Wayward Daughters, while based in a push for a spin-off, became about more than a spin-off. Wayward Daughters is about advocating for women in Supernatural fandom and on the show, and providing a support network that may be focused on women but is inclusive of all genders and fans of all backgrounds. The #WaywardAF tag is an expression of individuality as well as a way to connect with others.
The yearning for a spin-off centered on pre-established characters, especially female characters, had been voiced before, but the Wayward Daughters movement in fandom was when it took hold in a big way. The momentum of the love Supernatural fans have for Jody, Donna, Alex, and Claire continued to grow. Bringing us to Wayward Sisters.
The CW has announced a backdoor pilot in season 13 for a female-led Supernatural spinoff, “Wayward Sisters.” It will star Kim Rhodes, Briana Buckmaster, Kathryn L. Newton, Kat Ramdeen, and newcomers Clark Backo, who will play Patience (the granddaughter of Missouri Mosely, a memorable one-shot female character from season 1), and Yadira Guevara-Prip, who will play Kaia, another young “wayward daughter” taken under Jody and Donna’s wing.
It’s a “how did we get here” feeling in all the best possible ways.
Supernatural is still chronically too quick to mash the “kill characters for drama” button. It’s doubtful many fans will ever forgive the show for killing off Charlie Bradbury, played by Felicia Day, a geeky female character who was also a lesbian, who endured for a while, or Eileen Leahy, a deaf hunter portrayed by a deaf actress, Shoshanna Stern, who was introduced and killed off after a few scant episodes. But female characters have still made deep footprints in canon and in fandom. The fact that Supernatural is primarily a show about male characters hasn’t precluded that happening, and doesn’t mean female characters shouldn’t be allowed to be significant in that world.
After all, far more than male point of view, Supernatural is ultimately about people. It’s about family, friendship, grief, loss and regaining of hope, fighting on despite being kicked in the stomach, and shooting monsters in the face. It’s universal. It’s about the fact that strong emotions and nurturing behavior can go side-by-side with badassery and are not limited to any one gender. It’s about the bond between two brothers as well as how family forms in varied ways. And just as the stories of male characters are relatable regardless of gender, the same is true of female characters. One of the show’s greatest strengths is tapping into that universality. Despite its flaws, Supernatural gets that people are people and the commonalities that lie beneath appearances.
I’m delighted this backdoor pilot is a thing, that this series will have its shot at becoming. I feel the concept will work. Supernatural’s previous attempt at a spin-off, Bloodlines, failed for a variety of reasons. One was because it didn’t tap into the show’s rich and beloved array of pre-existing recurring characters.
It took many things to get us here.
The road to Wayward Sisters is a testament to the fact that fan voices do matter and can make a difference, and how fanbases and viewpoints evolve over time. Properties such as Marvel, Star Wars, and DC are changing too, as women and minorities and LGBT fans--fans who were always there, but not recognized--have their voices heard more often.
Supernatural’s fanbase is often incorrectly categorized still as overwhelmingly male-driven. That is not the case. Women built most of the fandom’s online spaces, women have been a predominant force keeping the show renewed season after season, women relate to Sam, Dean, and Castiel, women spend money on conventions, merchandise, and DVD’s, and women are a strong support for female characters on the show.
The world of Supernatural, like Star Wars, is a girl thing too.
This is a fandom story over a decade in the making of how fan love and support makes amazing things happen.
Keep raising your voices. Keep showing what you love. It took so much to get us here, but we are here.