I’ve realized that, were I to meet Dean Winchester casually in real life, without the intimate knowledge of him that I’ve gained from two seasons of Supernatural, I would definitely NOT be attracted to him – despite him looking like a dead ringer for Jensen Ackles. That prompted me to contemplate what it is that draws me to characters in a show or a book, and how that differs from my experience with real people in the real world. Welcome to another session at
My thesis for this class is a simple one: that when it comes to building attraction, fictional characters have a distinct advantage over people in the real world precisely because the structure and conceits of fiction provide direct insights into the hearts and souls of those characters that we don’t get into the people we meet every day. Through stories, we are given the gift of seeing past the façades of fictional characters to understand and appreciate their true essence. In the real world, that kind and depth of knowledge comes only with time, experience, and effort, if it comes at all. And if our first surface impression of someone is a negative one, we may never choose to try to learn whether that surface is the truth or whether it conceals a priceless treasure that friendship could unveil.
What attracts us to people? We each have our own criteria for what we find attractive, what draws us to one person and repels us from another. Many of our first-line criteria are physical. For example, most of us are drawn to physical beauty and to rich voices. It’s no wonder that women in particular find Dean, Sam, and John Winchester initially attractive from the physical perspective, given that they are portrayed by Jensen Ackles, Jared Padalecki, and Jeffrey Dean Morgan, all of whom rank high on the scale of our common Western societal perception of male beauty. Even among those three, however, and purely on the basis of physical appearance, not perceived character, most women would declare an order of preference, ranking them according to which one they consider personally to be the most handsome – and those rankings would differ from one individual to another. Our tastes are not all the same and will be affected by multiple variables, from hair and eye color to relative height to the shape of hands or facial features. Grooming and dress also affect our perceptions, depending on whether we prefer clean-shaven, scruffy, or bearded faces, whether we’re most comfortable with white-collar, casual, or outdoorsy looks, and whether we’re more drawn to elegance, boy-next-door wholesomeness, or ruggedness.
[My apologies here to the testosterone section for the discussion focus on the boys: feel free to contemplate Samantha Ferris (Ellen), Samantha Smith (Mary), and, say, Julie Benz (Layla, from Faith) or Tricia Helfer (Molly, from Roadkill), or any of the other female guest stars in your own comparative ranking exercise.]
Personality and manner also play strong roles in initial attraction. Our own personality types help to drive our perceptions of the people who attract us, and play a role in whether we prefer outgoing, boisterous types or quieter, more inwardly focused people. Sense of humor plays into this part of perception as well; we’re more immediately drawn to people who share our taste for what we consider to be funny, who can tell stories that appeal to us and also genuinely laugh at our jokes. Intelligence, education, and interests also factor in. We prefer spending time with people with whom we can enjoy conversation, and that generally means we need to share interests in common and be able to understand each other when talking about them. People who bore us, overwhelm us, or simply don’t ‘get’ us tend to be put on a less-visited shelf.
Initial attraction, however, doesn’t automatically translate into friendship or emotional importance. Think about the friends who are most important to you right now, and concentrate: what drew you to them in the first place, and how does that compare to what keeps them close to you? Physical attributes, no matter the role they may have played initially in drawing your eye or ear, pale in comparison to personality, shared interests, humor, and the emotional connection born of understanding and shared experience. The psychology of attraction moves from an initial superficial physical and basic interest judgment to a more important and complex connection built on mind and heart.
And now let me bring this discussion back to Supernatural. I mentioned at the outset my realization that I would react very differently in the real world to Dean-the-man than I do to Dean-the-character. As a consequence, I would never have gotten to know and appreciate Dean had I met him in real life, and that would have been a shame. And that realization makes me wonder what human gems I’ve overlooked in real life simply because I never made the effort to learn whether they, like Dean, concealed qualities I couldn’t see at first.
The amusing beginning of this realization came many months ago, when my friend and carpoolmate John (Hi, John! You’re guest-starring in my blog again!) was trying to figure out, on the basis of what I found attractive in a man, which actors and which characters would most appeal to me. (He’d already discovered that he couldn’t predict which actors and characters his wife would prefer, and was curious to discover whether he couldn’t fathom female tastes and choices at all, or whether he simply had a blind spot where his wife was concerned, given that she had, after all, chosen him!)
John predicted that, of the Winchester brothers, my preference would be for Sam, because he embodies so many of the qualities that I generally find attractive in a man – he’s intellectual, given to introspection, conversational, well-read, polite, analytical, gentle, social, and genial. John was astonished to learn that I found Dean more personally compelling and attractive than Sam. Talking it through, we figured out that a couple of things were in play. On the physical level, Jensen/Dean scores higher than Jared/Sam does for me, just based on my personal preferences in features, voice, hair, eyes, body type, carriage, height, and overall look. (This is not to denigrate Jared/Sam in any way; he’s a prize, both of him! But he is, for me, uncomfortably tall, and – to my middle-aged eyes, at least – very young …)
But the character aspects were the real driver. We had a good laugh over noting that, in real life, I would be instantly put off by Dean’s aggressively sensual, crass, horndog nature, sophomoric humor, brazen attitude, and lack of apparent education or social skills, and wouldn’t be able to find any shared conversational topics beyond classic rock and the Impala, on both of which I would be hopelessly outclassed and therefore uncomfortable. On the surface, Dean and I have virtually nothing in common, while Sam and I would appear much more compatible. (This is ignoring for the moment that I will soon turn 51 and could be a mother to either of them … except that I couldn’t have passed on such killer looks to any kids I had, and would never have drawn their eyes in any case.)
Beneath the surface, however, Dean’s complexities resonate with me. His deep love of family, his inability to lie to people he loves, his selfless commitment to them, his refusal to assume or accept defeat no matter the odds, his dedication – despite himself – to saving others no matter the cost to himself, his compassion, his constant self-abnegation – all these things make Dean irresistible to me. They trump Sam’s personal insecurities and self-identity confusion, even when combined with his more educated intelligence and social polish. (This is not to say that I don’t love Sam; I do, but the point here is relative comparisons.) Dean’s heart is the essence of his beauty, and his character – with all its flaws, idiosyncrasies, illogic, passion, and bitter truth – is simply part of that picture. Dean’s heart, the heart that he hides beneath that “no chick-flick moments,” devil-may-care, insouciant, irreverent exterior, is nonetheless visible throughout every episode of Supernatural, and it’s precisely because I can see that heart that I love him.
How many people in our real lives do we get the opportunity to know and understand as well as we know characters in fiction? Damned few, if any, in my experience. In real life, we don’t get to see the formative events that made people what they became before we met them, and most times, we don’t recognize the character-building significance even of events that we share. Television, movies, and books let us see inside characters in ways that we rarely can see inside real people. Is it any wonder that we give our hearts to characters, when we understand them more intimately even than the closest people we truly know and love? In the hands of gifted actors and writers – and believe me, Supernatural has some of the most gifted artists on the planet – we get to watch characters think and grow and change, and they give us reason to love them for what we see them becoming. We know that they’ll never betray us or fail our expectations, because we truly know and appreciate them. And because we can see the reasons for the actions they choose, as we can’t always perceive the reasons behind the actions of people in the real world, we can understand their choices even when we disagree with why they made them, which we can’t always do for the people with whom we live. We’re willing to forgive characters the choices they make with which we disagree; sometimes, we can’t seem to do that for real people, whose true motives aren’t transparent to us as the motives of fictional characters are.
And so, I wonder: have I missed seeing the Dean Winchesters around me, who would attract me if only I saw past their off-putting (even if physically attractive!) exteriors to perceive the beauty of their hearts? Have I been unfair in judging my family, friends and co-workers on the basis of things I assume, simply because I can’t see enough to know the true reasons for their choices as I know the reasons behind Dean’s and Sam’s, and excuse them because of that understanding? Have I made too many choices based on the initial superficial judgments of the psychology of attraction, without penetrating to the deeper levels where friendship and even love can form?
Have I learned yet from Dean Winchester to open my eyes and my heart and take chances on seemingly unlikely people, who might yet become friends without peer, pearls beyond price?
cakehole_catfor the "subtext" avi!