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Victimhood in SPN

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I've been thinking about the environment that SPN is set in. We know thanks to interviews and commentary done by Eric Kripke that the Midwest and the music of his youth, namely hard rock from the 1970s and early 80s, were central to his vision of the show. What's left out is why. To some degree I think everything that creative people do is informed by their experiences in adolescence so that seems unsurprising, and it's common to increasingly rely on those cultural touchstones the older we get. But I also wonder if it's because the Midwest and some of this music is overshadowed in the media by other representations of the U.S.

I wondered this because my partner is from the Midwest and he had a distinct hatred of major baseball teams from the coasts who dominated coverage of the sport. Even though at the time he was growing up his team, the Cincinatti Reds, was a powerhouse in the sport, and later his favorite hockey team was the nearby Detroit Red Wings, he held firmly to the idea that anything outside of the media centers of NY and L.A. was overlooked in the cultural landscape.

I think there's no question that a disproportionate number of TV shows are set around Manhattan and L.A., but if any region of the country should complain about the way they're represented on TV it should be the South. However, there is a picture of the Midwest which appears to persist, even in news coverage, that everyone out here lives in a small town or that even large cities are essentially burghs inhabited by unsophisticated people. Despite its size, for example, there's still a surprisingly small number of shows set in Chicago even though it's called Second City for a reason.

So I kind of wonder if part of the appeal of the SPN setting and sound to Kripke isn't that of a Midwestern boy with a chip on his shoulder about how the media landscape largely ignored his experience of growing up in the U.S. I can see this reflected in Dean's attitude to a number of things, such as his general dismissal of anything that we could call part of coastal/metropolitan culture. Although there's plenty of the U.S. that looks like what we see on SPN, Kripke's America remains largely as mythical as the urban legends that formed the core of the show's plots. Aside from any real acknowledgment of the size of the country (which I can sometimes overlook by assuming longer time periods in each episode than is obvious, but which in other cases is just ludicrous) there's a general lack of diversity in the portrayal of widely scattered locations. I don't mean this in the physical sense, as the show is, of course, restricted to using Vancouver sites, and the set decorators have often made notable efforts to reflect local aspects in the motels or other sets.

Rather, the way people talk, references to local customs and options, and local styles of dress, population, and cuisine seem remarkably similar from one location to the next. Never do we hear, for example, Dean or Sam talk about how much they like (or dislike) particular aspects of an area, nor do we see Dean relish eating particular things in particular places. Instead the SPN verse seems one divided by class rather than region. The suburbs look the same everywhere; the world the boys live in does as well, whether they're in South Dakota or Chicago. I found it interesting that in Hollywood Babylon, an episode actually set in L.A., we never see them in a motel or a diner, only on the set, in a cemetery (which Dean does find singular) and in one instance, someone's home. (And just as an aside, I'd wondered if the series of photos on the wall of Gerard St. James' house were a riff on the series of "professions" photos JA has done).

The end result seems to me somewhat ironic, in that outside of a few locations, the rest of the country in the SPNverse is this small, undifferentiated mass that looks and sounds much the same from one episode to the next. And since we've seen them in New England, the South, and in a few cases, the West Coast, the depiction of Sam and Dean as outsiders seems particularly tied to notions of class rather than geography.

Of course, with these characters this makes perfect sense. What sets the Winchesters apart from most people is in fact their lifestyle, their economic status, and to some degree, their education –- all of which tend to define class in the U.S. In S5 Dean uses his educational status as a marker of who he is, something which was attached to Sam in the second scene in which he appeared. Although Sam's intelligence doesn't strike me as supremely different from that of his family as a whole (smart is as smart does, after all) he alone had gone on to higher ed. I have always found it interesting to consider that Sam's desire to escape his living conditions and family business could easily be translated into so many other settings. It could have played out like Great Expectations, for example, with Sam thinking he had gone on to bigger and better things as the result of upper class patronage (which is essentially what full-ride scholarships are, particularly at a private school), only to realize that what got him there was something criminal and underclass.

What struck me after last season though, was how rare it is for Sam and Dean to work on behalf of anyone from their own class. There have been some metas that looked at the depiction of suburbia in SPN, particularly in S3, and I wrote one myself about the appearance of families in SPN. But it struck me that in no cases that I could remember were any of the victims in the show in poverty, or even working class.

There were some ambiguous cases, such as Kat and Gavin in Asylum (although I don't know that skeet shooting, as opposed to hunting, is a particularly working class hobby), the family in Something Wicked (she may have simply managed, not owned the motel) or the family in Croatoan. But in most cases there were markers of wealth, education, or profession which marked the people Sam and Dean worked for as at least middle, if not upper-middle class. That list is considerably longer –- Dead in the Water, Phantom Traveller, Bloody Mary, Hookman, Skin, Bugs, Home, etc. Even in the case of Croatoan we have a split between Sarge, the non-comissioned officer and possibly working class, and the doctor and nurse, who are not. The ambiguously classed Tanner family are essentially the villains in this story.

Similarly, the only lower class person I could remember Sam and Dean interacting with in S3 was the "bad Santa" from SPN Christmas. The man lived in a trailer park in poor conditions and was seen to be taking drugs, boozing, and watching porn (the writers were really going for a trifecta there) while lazing about in his underwear. This was not a subtle difference from the true villains of the piece, the upper middle class pagan gods. One good thing about this representation in SPN Christmas was that I felt it provided a turnaround from ElaC. In that episode we have middle class visitors to a carny "carry away" with them something deadly and frightening. The villain of the piece is, in fact, a carny employee. In SPN Christmas, as in much of S3, the evil is shown as being in the midst of, and indeed part of, the wealthier classes. This shift in where the evil comes from, though, does not change who the victims are.

The result seems to me to further emphasize the idea of class immobility in SPN. Despite our beginning example with Sam, who had an upper middle class level of education and job prospects, he was unable to escape that class when it came calling. Dean's words to Sam in Skin about not being able to have friends is patently untrue. The Winchesters had family friends, although they all were in the same business. What Dean means, and what appears to be the case as the series goes on, is that Sam can no longer claim people of different classes as his friends. His effort at upward mobility has failed.

The end result of the four seasons of SPN so far, has been to equate the supernatural and those who fight it to a lower class status, and those who are victimized by it to higher classes. This seems a rather bizarre perspective since it is, in fact, the lower classes who suffer disproportionately from crime, murder and victimization of all kinds, in part because of the rest of society's disinclination to prioritize their safety as opposed to simply walling them off from the upper classes. The Bernie Madoff scandal, for example, would hardly have been such news, nor would he have received such a harsh sentence, had his victims been of the poor and working class. Instead this group was largely ignored or even blamed for the economic crisis as recipients of "subprime" lending, which was largely a matter of upper class individuals failing to engage in due diligence and instead reaping in cash while they could. The lower class individuals who lived in a house they could not afford for one or two years, only to become homeless in the end, did not greatly benefit from their willingness to take what was offered. The people who brokered these loans, however, were able to pocket cash and move on, and many of them still have their jobs even though their institutions suffered.

In anything resembling a realistic world, Sam and Dean's rescued victims would be largely lower class, those who could be preyed on with relative impunity from larger societal notice. One factor is that Sam and Dean still use local media to find new cases, and the media tends to focus largely on those of the middle and upper classes when it comes to crime victims. However even considering that factor, the focus still seems deliberate to me. For example, if we look at Bugs, Sam and Dean came to investigate deaths that happened to working class guys at a building site. However the people threatened after their arrival are the middle/upper-middle class realtor and the site developer's family. What should be happening is that once they're on a case they should be uncovering far more of the victims that the media had previously overlooked, or not connected to recent cases, given that there are far more people in the lower classes than the upper ones.

We should also see them more often because it is the working class who Sam and Dean interact with routinely in terms of their restaurant choices and temporary housing, but they are generally not the ones who benefit from Sam and Dean's work. In five seasons there are various people who could be interpreted to be lower class but fewer who certainly are. For example in S1, the family in Wendigo might be lower class. The younger sibling would presumably not be working full-time, but the other brother, Tommy, is in college and is spending time away, not working, but going camping (and owns or has rented a satellite phone). There's no indication what Haley does. However she doesn't seem particularly pressured to be at work which is pretty atypical for lower and working class people since they hold jobs that generally have no benefits and no paid time off. Instead, she is able to hire a guide at short notice to hunt for Tommy.

In fact in S1 the only family who is almost certainly lower class is the Benders. Their murderous ways aside, I think most viewers would have coded them that way if Sam and Dean had merely come across them as people they were interviewing. By contrast, those whose are not just middle class but at least upper middle-class if not wealthy in S1 include Rebecca's family in Skin, the developer's family in Bugs and Sarah's family in Provenance,

This trend continues in S2 where at least one of the victims in Crossroad Blues is a highly paid physician and another a high profile architect, Sam and Dean work with a doctor in Croatoan, the family in Playthings was certainly wealthy at one time, there are murdered professors in Tall Tales, and a network executive and TV producer in Hollywood Babylon. On the lower class side the notable exception to the rule is in Folsom where not only are the victims prisoners, but it turns out the murderer was not a fellow prisoner's ghost but the nurse. The only other distinctly lower class victims were both prostitutes –- one in Heart and the killer prostitute in HotH (who I might classify as a victim given the case). S3 sees a similar case of lower class characters being simultaneously victims and bad guys in BDaBR, however the season as a whole has a slew of upper-middle class or wealthy characters as victims including those in Kids, Bedtime Stories, Red Sky, SPN Christmas, Malleus, Ghostfacers, Time, and No Rest, not to mention Bela. By comparison, the only character who might be considered a lower class victim is Ritchie in Sin City, a fellow hunter.

The Winchesters and Bobby have largely coded hunters in the series as working or lower class, but this is likely not universal. One could make an argument for Steve Wandell, and certainly the Campbells' home in ItB was itself a spacious middle-class residence, leaving one to wonder how they paid for their lifestyle during a time of limited credit card fraud and a rooted existence. But while S4 is notable for including more people connected with the hunting world than ever before, there is not much of a turn in S4 towards working class people, though maybe there is towards the down-on-their-luck, such as Chuck, Jay and Vernon. And while we do have a mix of classes likely to be coded as dangerous, such as the case of Luther Garland and Dirk's ghosts versus Jack from Metamorphosis and P.T. Sandover in TL, on the whole the victims remain middle or upper-middle class.

The simple answer to this fairly consistent presentation is that television is geared towards the upper classes and that there is a belief that people would not be interested in watching shows, even shows presenting the fantastical like SPN, if the central characters were not like themselves. Given that the two main characters are already coded as working class (especially after S1), with Dean in particular generally ridiculing habits and tastes that are not, it seems likely that this focus is a deliberate way of making the stories more "relevant" to the viewing audience, or at least the viewers that advertisers prefer to have watching.