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20 August 2007 @ 11:14 pm
Supernatural University: The Psychology of Attraction  

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 Supernatural University, this time on the psychology of attraction!


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?


Have you?


Class dismissed.

Thanks to

cakehole_catfor the "subtext" avi!


Current Mood: contemplativecontemplative
Current Music: "Saving Me" by Nickelback
Danipinkphoenix1985 on August 21st, 2007 12:00 pm (UTC)
wow! Bardic- very insightful! and totally correct!!
Diagonally Parked in a Parallel Universeriverbella on August 21st, 2007 01:23 pm (UTC)
Very insightful, both as to the characters' characters and the general point made. I know I have had experiences in which a person I initially did not care for but was thrown together with for some reason--usually work--turned out to be a real jewel and became a close friend. In defense of human nature, we are all bombarded with so much input every day, including people with whom we have to interract, that it is sometimes just self-defense to go with snap judgments. But you are so right that we run the risk of missing out on a lot that way.

Like you, I have thought from early on that Sam is far more my usual type and the character with which I have the most in common. But as much as I adore Sam (and more and more as he has grown through the last two seasons), I am a Dean girl, for many of the very reasons you describe so beautifully in your post.

If you don't mind my making a suggestion, you might want to add "meta" to your tags for your reviews and Supernatural University posts. People search for that tag when looking for reviews and essays as opposed to fic. There is also a community,spn_heavymeta, you might want to join and crosspost your essays there. You deserve a wider lj audience and the Supernatural lj community would benefit from your insights!
bardicvoicebardicvoice on August 21st, 2007 05:49 pm (UTC)
Thanks, riverbella! I definitely don't mind the suggestions; I'm still learning my way around this LJ thing. I'll definitely investigate heavymeta and go back through tagging my stuff! (Readership is love ...)
yourlibrarian: InterestingCordy-dragonydreamsyourlibrarian on August 22nd, 2007 03:23 am (UTC)
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.

That's a great observation. Although I'd add that the other thing that real life has that fiction doesn't is constancy. The problem with characters that are abrasive in some way is that in the day to day that effect can become cumulative. We just don't live with characters the way we do with people because fiction doesn't concentrate on mundanities, but rather tends to give us the big moments. (Luckily fanfic often makes up for this by giving more of those small, repetitive moments). For example we've yet to see the boys shave, brush their teeth, or do laundry -- and living their lives they also don't do dishes, clean (or not) or pay bills.
bardicvoice: Researchbardicvoice on August 22nd, 2007 11:51 pm (UTC)
Tee-hee - we wouldn't be nearly so glued to our television sets if shows aired all the boring moments! (Although I daresay most fangirls would be content to watch the boys sitting still and reading scripts ...)
ehlwyen: forestehlwyen on August 22nd, 2007 04:35 am (UTC)
Very lovely sentiment and I found the gradual realization quite inviting as a reader. I'm a person with a lot of similarities with Dean, so it was intriguing to see him through your eyes. As well as it made me reflect on how others may perceive me. :D

I definitely agree that many people who romanticize Dean wouldn't give him a passing thought in real life. When I picture young Dean I always try to imagine him as the outsider kid who never said much and most people would avoid. In comparison, the Dean we see onscreen has more of the popular, almost frat boy, personality.

I believe trying to see through Dean's charismatic and gorgeous exterior to imagine him as a person you'd be wary of meeting alone gives Supernatural more realism. It helps create the same feeling of apprehension that weekly characters have to when meeting gorgeous boys. LOL, for example: If someone like Jensen came up and said "a ghost is after you, get in my car now," we'd all be fighting for shotgun in the Impala! Whereas, if Dean looked like most people we encounter in our daily lives, we'd take our chances with the ghost. LOL!

I think it is natural for us to seek out those who are similar to ourselves. We like ourselves, so it makes sense that we would like similar people. Unfortunately, we also tend to presume the truth of the opposing corollary of, "we would not like people who are dissimilar." Reaching into different people's lives gives us new perspectives on ourselves. As much as we are happy with ourselves, we are not perfect, and can always better from learning.

Enjoyably with stories we get an inside view on how another interprets and reacts to the world. We often are not lucky to even get that deep an understanding with our closest friends and family, much less a stranger. Most people care and feel much more than they let on to the publc. This is what makes the intimate glimpse of Dean so enticing and endearing to so many of us. We wish others in our lives could be so open and loving, when in fact they actually are if we would pay more attention.

Thanks for the insightful dissertation. We should all take a step back and try to see from other's eyes. Maybe we'll find our own Deans in a place least expected. ;)
bardicvoicebardicvoice on August 22nd, 2007 11:58 pm (UTC)
Thanks for coming by and commenting! Interaction is love ...

I've often wished that I could reliably learn real people the way that I can learn characters. I do my best, but I can't read people perfectly. Some are transparent, but others? Just imagine trying to read through Dean's fully up walls. I'm big into harmony and never want to injure anyone, but at the same time, I'm quick with a quip and know my words might be taken the wrong way.

Life would definitely be easier if people came with descriptive manuals or with the novel version of their past available for perusal!
galathea_snb: winchestersgalathea_snb on August 22nd, 2007 11:03 am (UTC)
This is a lovely meta and mirrors my own sentiment 100%. While I identify most with Sam, because we are very alike, I am fiercly in love with Dean, because of his caring character traits. In the beginning of the series I was drawn to Sam more, but as soon as we saw the layers peeled back on Dean, there was no stopping my falling for him. I know for sure that I wouldn't give Dean a chance if I met him in some bar, no matter how physically attractive I find him.

I did have a 'Dean Winchester' experience in real life, meeting someone whom I dismissed (hated really *lol*)immediately on a superficial level, but grew to respect, become friends and finally lovers with. Granted, it took us about 5 years to get there and actually 'see' the person behind the many walls we had erected, but it was an wonderful experience. With fictional characters we are allowed to see behind the walls, giving us a chance that we might never have in real life, because most people are very guarded around strangers/casual friends. Sometimes I think that's the reason why fictional characters can appear more 'real' and connected to us than real persons. Sometimes ...
bardicvoicebardicvoice on August 23rd, 2007 12:16 am (UTC)
Thank you, galathea!

Funny: eight years ago, my sister bought a Harley with a sidecar, and she, our Mom, and I started taking our vacations together on the bike. Suddenly I was living in a world totally alien to me, a world of boots and biker leathers, populated by lots of tattooed, rough-hewn guys. And what I learned was that bikers can be among the friendliest, nicest people on the planet. Talk about learning not to judge books by their covers!
galathea_snb: h/c secretsgalathea_snb on August 23rd, 2007 08:48 am (UTC)
You're Welcome!

I spent most of my day reading your metas and episode reviews and I loved all of them and was delighted that I found most of my own thoughts about the show/characters mirrored here, so I friended you to not miss any of your metas/reviews. I hope that is okay!
bardicvoicebardicvoice on August 24th, 2007 01:50 am (UTC)
Thank you! I am honored, and hope that I never disappoint!
(Deleted comment)
bardicvoicebardicvoice on August 23rd, 2007 12:19 am (UTC)
I hope haven't missed gems. But I'm definitely going to be looking at people differently from now on.

Thanks for stopping by, and I'm glad you found me! I hope you enjoy more of my maunderings.
emgrace4 on August 23rd, 2007 07:20 pm (UTC)
Wow. I read a lot of books, watch a lot of tv, and fall in love with a lot of the characters and yet, I have never taken this approach or thought about this at all. You are so right.

Thanks for posting this!
bardicvoice: JohnDean Hugbardicvoice on August 24th, 2007 01:51 am (UTC)
Thank you for coming, and for posting!