The Supernatural fandom attracts a wide variety, but a large majority are teenage and college-aged girls. Another large majority of them write fanfic; more than enough whump, fluff, and novel-length fic to appease any palate. One in particular, frequently talked about since being posted last October, is also one of the most popular—if not THE most, if you base that off of most hits in its category on AO3: that story is Twist and Shout. Much praised and little criticized, you’re hard pressed to find someone in a particular subsection of the fandom who hasn’t read it. It is held up as superior in accuracy, story, and, above all, feels. It is also gilded in a fandom that tends to overlook glaring flaws in order to enjoy certain things.
This is no exception.
It is because the fandom is filled with the fresh, malleable minds of teenagers and young 20-somethings with a growing awareness, or ignorance in more cases than not, of rape culture in an increasingly hostile world environment for sex and gender equality that I’m first and foremost bothered by said fiction’s popularity.
There are a few instances in which generally melodramatic and stereotypical of generic romantic dramas take center stage. But, first, literally right off the bat, we meet two young girls in college with cardboard personalities stripped from some 50s teen beach picture. Every line, you’re expecting a vapid ‘gosh golly gee’ (or maybe in impromptu performance in front of the Bowl-A-Rama) as they gush over the archetypal bad boy on a motorcycle- again, straight from the 1950s in our mid-60s setting. Neither seem incredibly intelligent or interesting, falling instead into the trap of a lot of gay fiction in which it seems to go out of its way to say, “Welp, THIS is why our protagonist is gay.” Maybe it’s simply a giant, canon-aggravated pet peeve of mine, but supporting characters should intrigue or help plot along whilst also keeping their own established agency, not be stand-ins for protagonist attributes to be reflected upon. It’s portrays literary laziness and disregard for the characters you’re creating.
(Characterization I would like to argue, but the fandom will freely admit this fic is in no way Dean and Cas, even though it’s deemed the ‘best Dean and Cas fic’. Which strikes me as entirely indolent as even ‘inspired by’ is supposed to have a glimpse of the canon character they’re derived from.)
The next situation can be found in so many movies, TV shows, books, plays, anything, everywhere you look: the character portrayed as weaker (whether simply by their sex, damsels in distress we see in most everything, or by being some lesser equivalent in types, i.e. a nerd to a jock) denies the advances of the stronger.
It’s a scene reminiscent of Twilight (and the reasons just one single scene is tremendously problematic stated in this post), and a lot of scenes like it. “No.” Doesn’t mean “Until you sway me.” Coercion is an underlying factor in too much media portraying the beginning of relationships. It is seemingly innocent until you realize how much pressure is being placed until the ‘weaker’ caves. And whether or not they then enjoy it and consent, it didn’t start like that, and it’s gross.
Take also the popular television show, The Vampire Diaries. The character of Caroline was compelled into a sexual relationship by the vampire Damon, though the problematic issues of consent and Caroline’s complete inability to say “NO” are stripped away, glossed over, and forgotten by the show and most of the fandom. Issues of consent are important, saying no—and having the ability to say no—should never be taken for granted, and should certainly not be exploited for the sake of cheap drama to build the tension of a relationship. If you have to write a story in which two people come together by means of whittling away at one of the character’s resolve, please, just don’t bother at all.
Castiel, numerous times, seems uncomfortable and gets angry at Dean for being insensitive and frankly awful, but it’s brushed off as ‘he’s an asshole…but he’s intriguing.’ Dean laughs at him, and Castiel’s problems are belittled. Basically, ‘Dean’s terrible, but I’m not good enough for someone who won’t make me feel bad.’ We’re ingrained to believe this is the way it goes, and here we have it in a story that is boasted as realistic and wonderful. And if realism is what you’re going for, well, maybe it’s not as far off as I think, given the examples above.
This fact also fits into another problematic flaw, which can be perfectly explained in the scene following Dean’s return from Vietnam. In response to Dean’s not being able to get an erection, Castiel throws a fit you would expect from an inexperienced woman/young girl. Begging, forcing, then literally throwing things and slamming things around the apartment. Most men simply wouldn’t do this. Even if Castiel was unaware of the large effects of PTSD (which, goes into another point I have to make later, but, in short, he would know to the extent they knew at the time), he wouldn’t be so insensitive to Dean’s problem of not getting it up. Men don’t take it lightly at all, and another man would absolutely understand and not make a big deal of it.
This is only the first instances of Castiel’s temperamental personality, akin, again, to some melodramatic teenage girl (not ALL teenage girls, but in general, inexperienced teenage girls who make huge deals out of things they wouldn’t with age and said experience). His fretting and constant flip-flopping are only interrupted by his emotional outbursts. It’s exhausting. It also provides a glaring plot hole: where he is rather pure and lacks the know-how when he meets Dean, and is then quite happily monogamous with Dean, Castiel (immediately upon Dean’s retreat) goes and sleeps with someone else, unprotected and unthinking. These traits don’t fit together and are absolutely forced for story, rather than story coming to meet character.
Not only does Castiel’s instant change of heart to run to a stranger show major character inconsistency, it perpetuates a dangerous view of gay men. Not all gay men are promiscuous and involve themselves in impersonal and unprotected sex and equally dangerous intravenously drugs. The time can obviously be called in as a witness for the defense, but a lot of people—straight, gay, bi, whatever—did both in the late 60s, into the 70s and 80s. The idea is also shown early in the fic, with Dean’s admitting he had oral sex with another man in public when he propositions Castiel the night they meet (and, if anything, Dean pulling out the ‘you’re special even though we just met’ spiel in that scene as well is another tired trope of the romantic genre), and it implies he does this a lot.
Now, there is nothing wrong with individual characters being promiscuous, whether their motives are due to emotional damage or simply choice, but it’s a major problem when it promotes problematic perceptions, or when it interrupts the story, and again, forgets character to propel drama toward some predetermined direction.
In the same vein, take into account the amount of public sex Dean and Castiel have. Which, in and of itself, is a perfect example of stopping a story for a sex scene to happen, but for the constant argument they seem to have to drag out the drama in which Castiel is of the belief they will be killed at any moment, and Dean doesn’t seem to see the danger at all. Each extreme is exploited. It makes for trivialization of the real struggles gay (and lesbian) couples had at the time. While it was absolutely dangerous, both before and after sodomy was deemed legal, and especially so in the hostile environment of upheaval in the 60s, it was not the basis of every gay relationship. A relationship would not survive on fear of being found out, not for a second, nor would it be the subject of every conversation the two had. Caution and discretion were the name of the game, while others decided to be out and proud and deal with the consequences that came as such without any protection from the law (though of course more towards the late 60s and into the 70s, i.e. Harvey Milk). People lived lives around the danger, some more lucky than others, but it was not the entirety of their personalities, and it’s ridiculous to portray it as such.
(I’d also like to add, because it doesn’t quite fit in with anything else, the sex. Which is definitely fic quality, and I think that implies all I mean to, and this can be said for a lot of fan fiction [read: MOST fan fiction]. Lube and prep: learn it, live it, love it. I enjoy nothing when I can only imagine the characters’ complete disregard for their partner’s pleasure, using only spit, which is basically shoving a dry dick into a dry asshole. Gay men aren’t and weren’t stupid, especially two men in a relationship where they’ve been together and learned the way their bodies’ work during sex. Those who talk about ~the burn~ have probably never had something shoved in their ass. Lube. And. Prep.)
This leads me directly into historical accuracy. Now, in fiction there usually isn’t a problem with a little tweak in history if it makes sense and if the point of the story isn’t being true to the time period. But this story, however, was boasted as such, and therein lies more flaws. Castiel’s obsession with Elvis is not ‘vintage’ or quirky as it is portrayed. Elvis only gained popularity when he enlisted in the late 50s (when, mind you, the characters would have been around ten years old, an age his coolness and danger would intrigue endlessly), and after he maintained that popularity in Hollywood. His ‘comeback’ would be just three years later than when the story begins, and in all that time he was never less than or “uncool.” It’s certainly not their ‘mother’s music.’ Even if they didn’t ‘dig Elvis,’ they wouldn’t call him old news. An obsession with Buddy Holly (given the glasses and the sweaters, mentioned only about 50,000 times) would’ve been a lot more convincing both for character and in the time frame. Hell, even the Beatles were still quite poppy in 1965.
Then, in the diner, Dean asks Castiel is he’s ‘queer.’ Which I’ve seen made into a joke, and I don’t think anyone realizes is not accurate at all. Queer, prior to WWII, was slang for masculine gay men, who shunned everything feminine, including ‘fairies’, the feminine gay men. Take for meaning the same thing, straights took the names and turned them derogatory, and started to erase the difference subsections and identify all gay men as the ones who didn’t pass as straight. Gay was introduced in the 20s, and after the second world war, became the accepted all encompassing label within the community (source, and I’ve seen similar information during my own research). If Dean had heard the word ‘queer,’ it would’ve been in a derogatory sense, and he certainly wouldn’t be inquiring about another man’s sexuality using the word.
At the same time, the fic assumes that Castiel would be totally aware of his sexuality, when you take a fairly straight-laced young man from a time when heterosexuality was assumed, not even forced because what else would there be, would he be absolutely aware of his inclinations towards men? It’s not exactly a believable conclusion to jump to. Simply watch an episode of Mad Men featuring the character Sal, who, for all intents and purposes, passes as straight. He is married to a woman who had no clue and gets away with being stylish and dapper because he’s both an artist and Italian. It’s made obvious that he doesn’t know, not really, but he has several interactions with men who are aware of what they want, and he turns them down. To know there is something different about the way you feel and have no point of reference because society HAD none at the time is an interesting and challenging position to have a character in.
It’s a realistic view to have, rather than a young man, confusing time as that is on its own, being educated about things there certainly were no formal education for. (Not to say there weren’t men who just knew, of course there were, of course that’s how the community got started was finding other gay men because you KNEW that’s what you were, but not every single of one them woke up one day and went ‘oh I like guys.’ It’s not that simple)
As far as the PTSD goes, it was no secret. Shell shock, combat stress, acute stress, all things either related or a precursor to PTSD (and given the time, probably full blown PTSD, they just didn’t have the name). Just because it wasn’t called PTSD, and they didn’t have the knowledge they do on it now doesn’t mean people were ignorant. Especially if you’re saying Castiel was an educated, socially aware young man. Dean was drafted, so that late in the war no way they hadn’t seen soldiers who’d come back already and weren’t in the best of shape, and that’s putting it nicely. He wouldn’t be yelling at Dean or throwing things, he would be aware that something had happened and he couldn’t relate. Pulling yourself up by your boot straps, getting over it, I’m sure was a common attitude still. But psychiatry was no secret at the time, either, but rather was budding into mainstream popularity. The character of Castiel, while old timey for quirkiness’ sake, isn’t exactly an old timer. He wouldn’t be so ignorant.
Two things I can say, not calling it AIDS and knowledge of the draft lottery were accurate, but both can be looked up in a few minutes, less maybe.
And finally, the writing itself. I won’t lie, there are short stories from both of the writers which I have enjoyed, so this is not a complete and total dig, this is not ‘hate’. The grammatical and structural errors in this story are really uncalled for. There are a handful of errors in the first paragraph alone. Missing periods, commas, quotations marks nowhere to be found, name inconsistency (Castiel, Cas), and a sloppy POV change later in the story make for a physically hard-to-read piece. Two writers and, I assume, a beta? There is no excuse for this piece to be so haphazard.
I’m distracted by every overly detailed micro-movement of each character and how the focus is never on the dialogue, unless of course we’re talking about the lines you see everywhere. Handpicked, I’m sure, for the purpose of the feels. Ultimately, the dialogue leave anyone not in it for angst and tears shrugging at their forced coolness.
The same can be said for certain dramatic scenes, like the lottery where Castiel drops the milk and it soaks into his pants and shirt and the towel (which is, if you read, a LOT of milk). It’s going for a ‘people are weird when they are overwhelmed or faced with tragedy’, which is difficult, but comes across here as entirely melodramatic and hilarious. This is only seconded by the confusing sentence structure and nonsensical phrasing that leaves more to the imagination than should be. Sense traded for ostensibly clever analogies and comparisons, until you realize the blade of a guillotine cannot swing because it is kept in place by a groove on each pole to be dropped straight down.
In a few scenes, I literally did not know they had changed entire geographical areas until they were already there or what exactly was happening between one sentence and the next. Even publish works have errors, but this is just ridiculous for a fic held so high I can’t see it up there in the clouds.
Some would say the expectations should be lower for two young girls writing fic for an angst-hungry fandom, but in a climate where it’s a luxury to maintain ignorance, I say it’s exactly the reason to judge this story and its popularity with the utmost critical eye. It would be glossing at its finest to ignore how everyone adores the obviously sheltered worldview from which this story seems to take place, and indeed have been written from, and is only magnified by its attempt to exploit the difficult and still very relevant subject of homosexuality in a changing society.