Bechdel Things: Viking Girls vs. Hermine Granger

The Date That Never Was

I could never wrap my head around the fuss my dorm mates at college made of this show called Supernatural.

The only real exposure I’ve had had to the show beforehand was during a very lukewarm four-day date. I had travelled no less than four-hundred kilometers to meet them, it was Hamburg in the middle of winter and we were stuck in their tiny apartment due to them argualy being on the brink of a cold. All we did during those four days was watch all available episodes of Sherlock and the first half of the first season of Supernatural.

And like many of the women in those first episodes of the show, it felt like I was mainly there to be one thing: Eye-candy. Which I did not feel like being.

I had just come out of a horrible project that had me work three people’s shifts, crunching through nights and nights worth of rendering issues for months. Which resulted in me having one of two nervous breakdowns I had in college. I was disillusioned, sleep-deprived and up for anything but having to play sweet. Compared to the light, summery picture in my bio, the other person must have felt almost cheated when I actually showed up, sleepless, limping and in non-cute travelling clothes. The person proceeded to ghost me the very minute my ride back home had picked me up.

That visit did one thing – it got Supernatural on my radar, even though I wasn’t entirely on board with it yet.

Cozy Road Movie Vibes

When I finally picked up the show again in 2017 – thanks to a flatmate who kept enthusiastically harping on about how great it would get later on – I did so with a large portion of skepticism.

Nonetheless, I needed something to put on in the background while I was busy writing my Master thesis and just had gotten Netflix. So, one evening, I decided to give Supernatural another go. And like I remembered, it was still cheesy, it was still corny, it was filled with tropes and monsters I had seen a hundred times before. But the more I watched, the more I came to like the mixture of suspense, horror, banter and the familiar, cozy road-movie vibe evoked by the “home on wheels” that was the infamous Impala Chevy. It was like a soothing drug for my once-again sleep-deprived brain.

Then, after the fervent high of the season 5 finale, followed by the absolute letdown that was season 6, the Leviathan arc realized it was time for a change to breathe new life into a series that had seemingly gone past before its best-before date. The show had established most of its female cast as either dead, demons, werewolves, vampires, sirens, double-crossing human bitches, groupies, short-lived one-night stands with slit throats by the next morning or the scantily-clad extras in heels and thongs inhabiting the many “nightclub infiltration” storylines.

Something needed to change, so Robert Singer and his team took a closer look at the actual main demographic watching the show – not the dads and young men the show had clearly originally been intended for. The show had become a hit series primarily for young women and teen girls – who liked the spooks and revelled in the bond between the two lead characters and their later angel sidekick.

Something Different this Way Comes

The writers were ready to embrace that viewership, and proceeded to absolutely roll with it. Episode 200 (aptly titled “Fan Fiction”) took the time to acknowledge and celebrate the Supernatural fandom itself, by having a girls’ school re-enact the brothers’ adventures as a musical (all of course whilst there being an actual monster loose on campus for the main characters to hunt down so Dean doesn’t get to spend the whole episode philosophing about the terms Destiel and subtext).

And they gave us Charlie Bradbury, arguably one of the most popular side characters on the show – a ginger, brilliant, lesbian hacker who collects figurines, leads a LARP group, has social anxiety issues. She is one of the few people the Leviathans can’t and won’t just replace with one of their own because she is just too unique and “difficult to pull off” to be replaced. Chances are that if you were an outcast, nerdy girl with odd hobbies, you heavily rooted for Charlie, who was not only effortlessly likeable, but relatable. She was anything but another underwritten, overstyled stereotype to pad out screentime, but felt like an actual person – not despite, but because of her complex character traits and the bravery she displayed while being visibly afraid at the same time.

This is where all those LARP sessions finally come in handy.

The lesson she taught us was: Being yourself in a world of conformity is endlessly frightening, but worth it by all means, no matter how scared you are. And for that lesson, we have no one other to thank than her actress Felicia Day, who co-wrote Charlie’s character and is best known for authoring what was essentially the dinosaur mother of all webseries, The Guild (2008). The lady herself is deserving of her own post, and I will get to writing something on her in due time.

But back to Supernatural. Charlie Bradbury instantly became a recurring special guest on the show, as the cool younger sister the brothers needed. Meanwhile, Mary Winchester was still seasons away from being retconned as the actual original demon hunter of the family, the delightfully fun and morally ambiguous witch Rowena McLeod would take another four seasons to make her first appearance, not to speak of the concept of the Wayward Sisters and the main arc of Chuck/God having an ignored, forgotten and rightfully pissed-off sister. Even Death got recast as a woman – one of colour at that, and the introduction of fellow deaf huntress Eileen Brady scored so many points with viewers that the writers decided to bring her back from being turned into a ghost via a one-time resurrection spell (which turned out to be just a whim from God/Chuck, but hey, it would be less fun if that would work on everyone).

But all those things took a long time to change – most of them more than ten seasons.

But they did, radically so, and with a bunch of setbacks afterwards – but this series, with its more-than-often downright imcompetent writing of female characters, managed in a single episode what eight parts of Harry Potter movies were unable to achieve – pass the freaking Bechdel test.

I know it has been done to death by now, but in case you havent’t heard of it yet, the parameters of the Bechdel test are simple: To pass it, two women in a film script need to have a conversation with each other that is not directly related to the men in their lives. Really, it’s not that hard. Heck, even the two Viking fightresses in Kung Fury (2015) manage to display enough solidarity to one another to pass with flying colours – while having almost no dialogue throughout their entire screenime. Upon having beaten up some Nazis, they heartily lock hands and congratulate each other by proudly smiling at one another. That’s literally how little it takes – a wordless moment of solidarity. Two women congratulating each other on a job well done. It’s surprising, and saddening, to see that that sort of interaction is still very rare in many pieces of what we consider mainstream media.

United, but by no means friendly: The nerd and the witch.

Viking Girls make a team – Hermine does not

Notwithstanding newer shows like She-Ra and the Princesses of Power (2018) or classics like good ol’ Sailor Moon (1992) – old and Crystal (2015) alike, even though the latter, despite its obvious budget strains, fares a lot better on the not-bringing-in-Tuxedo Mask to decide every battle the Senshi would have been able to handle pretty much fine by themselves in the manga (while, admittedly, still objectifying its female characters by a great deal – it’s a mixed-audience show not without its problems. But much like Felicia, Sailor Moon is a topic for another post).

Hell yeah – we just beat up Kung Fu Hitler and his zombie goons!

In all her supposed brilliance and genius, Hermine Granger does not shine once for herself, but only in helping out her male friends and in giving up everything she loves for the “greater good”. The entire Harry Potter franchise gleefully avoids its female characters growing with one another’s help since every interaction ultimately needs to be about getting the “chosen one” and his group from A to C within three hours of screentime. That the girl’s personal growth is stilted, her brilliance objectively wasted on paving the way for a male hero for whom she eventually sacrifices her own family sends an underlying message to girls: know your place and accept that you are not the ones to shine, no matter how hard you work, how good you are at something or how much you sacrifice for others – especially that last bit is just part of your natural duties. While she never gets to have a relaxed cup of tea with Madam McGonnagal or a scene of teaching a Griffindor first-year a spell or two (at least in the movies, and it’s been a while since I’ve read the books) – at least Hermine ends up being Minister of Magic, which is still only mentioned in passing, and perhaps not quite as interesting as Harry being an auror who gets to fight Dementors for a living, rather than managing the integrity of an entire magic society.

The Reverse Bro Code

While there may be more and more exceptions as outlined above, this sort of narrative is still being spoonfed to young girls and is mirrored in how they are treated at work: don’t ask for too high a salary in negotiations or you will be regarded as greedy and full of yourself. That goes hand in hand with being taught to view other women as competition, not friends – basically, to enact the opposite of the “Bro Code” that keeps men well-connected amongst one another and well-equipped to get into favorable positions. Women’s harsh judgement of one another has been born of being judged harshly themselves.

And that is mirrored in their social behavior. Many won’t go to the spa, to the club, to concerts, or to festivals by themselves – for fear of being singled out, catcalled, or worse, when everybody else has brought their respective attachés with them (which, by the way, includes rainbow couples with strangely “traditional” relationship dynamics – one party dictates, the other complies, even if unhappily so. It all seems to be better than being alone with oneself). Upon seeing my style of cooking, I’ve had to listen to a liaised friends’ tirades of “My boyfriend would be furious if he saw you handle a spatula like that”. The same girl berated and beat herself up after a doing only semi-well on a test – not because she feared for overall results, but because she did not score the grade her boyfriend had wanted her to bring home, as if her doing well was a trophy for him to put on a shelf. To me, that is neither love nor care. It’s power play disguising itself as care, making somebody else’s efforts about stroking one’s own ego. Of course, that sort of dynamic words vice-versa as well, and men suffer just as much from the unhealthy standards put against them.

Regaining SELF-RESPECT – and Perspective

Needless to say, I’ve found myself in similarly-unbalanced power dynamics, being on the receiving end of someone else’s mercy with nothing to give and little means to get out of my dependency. Instead, I let myself be stockholmed into learned helplessness by sentences such as: “There’s no other place for you to go” and “no way you should be living by yourself”, with every syllable telling me unmistakingly that their benevolence was the only thing keeping me fed and housed. I chose not to confront the issue directly, and ended up not daring as much as breathe too loudly anymore, yet alone laugh, smile, sing, or make jokes. My powerless state of homelessness and unemployment made me slide into a negative feedback loop where I felt more and more worthless, which in turn began to affect my negotiation and rethorical skills. If I wasn’t able to regard my abilities as a valuable asset to anybody, how would I make companies do the same?

I put a full stop on the situation, moved out without bells and whistles and began to remember that my intrinsic value wasn’t determined by how easy to deal with I made myself or just how little space, basic human interaction or even food I could survive on (yes, starving yourself to save money and avoiding the kitchen not to be told off for dirtying it in the slightest is a thing).

Re-establishing my boundaries and accepting the uncertainties in my life, as well as the unavoidability of episodes of loneliness helped me regain some of my sense of self.

Speaking of which, my mind is at relative peace about all the things it cannot control right now, and I have more time and energy which I can dedicate to experiment, improvise, create, re-focus – and maybe finally watch Supernatural’s final season all the way through.

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