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09 June 2013 @ 09:51 pm
Supernatural University: The Rainbow Connection, Or Can You See What I See?  

Supernatural University: The Rainbow Connection, Or Can You See What I See?

Addressing the emotional fan reaction on the internet to catastrophic events in The Rains Of Castamere episode of HBO's adaptation of George R.R. Martin's Game Of Thrones, Smithsonian Magazine tweeted an excellent article on how and why we bond so strongly with fictional characters. The neatest thing – to me, anyway – about the theory put forth in that article is that it would also explain very simply why we Supernatural fans can all watch the same show and yet have such vastly differing, strongly held interpretations of the characters of Sam and Dean, not to mention other characters in the show. Here's a little Supernatural University psychology and physics discussion about why fandom fights about characters will always be fruitless and never resolve into sense.

The Smithsonian article was a short description of a longer 2009 essay by Howard Sklar of the University of Helsinki, which itself was an adaptation of just one chapter of Sklar's 2008 dissertation. The essence of this one portion of Sklar's argument was that we bond emotionally with fictional characters in much the same way as we bond with real people because we come to know both real and fictional people in much the same way, assembling what we think of them based on partial information augmented with intuition drawn from our own personal life experience, in both cases creating our own picture of who they are.

Sklar began by pointing out that our knowledge of real people is necessarily incomplete. We know only the events and behaviors we see directly and what the subject or other people tell us about them (which may or may not be truthful). We don't know everything they experience, feel, or think, so we often don't have a full understanding of why they do particular things or make certain choices.

The situation is the same with fictional characters. We know only what the writers (and actors, for TV, film, or stage) specifically tell us and show us during a book, a show, a play, or a film. Sometimes we see far more personal aspects of a fictional character than we would ever perceive from a real person – we may share a vision of their dreams, for example, or hear their thoughts – but we never see or are told everything. We couldn't be; ironically enough, the story wouldn't feel real to us if it was perfect and complete, because life doesn't work that way.

This is where the fun comes in. Sklar posits that in both situations, we make do with the fragmentary information we have by filling in the gaps with hunches, ideas, feelings, or impressions based on our own experiences with people, our sense of places, and other factors. We apply our own logic and intuition to make largely unconscious assumptions about who people are, how they feel, and why they do things. Thus, the image of characters (and even real people) we each assemble is unique, based on our own lives as well as what we know about theirs. We fill in the missing details of a character's picture with information our own life experience has provided.

That does two things. Sklar's hypothesis was that it provides a powerful sense of reality even to fictional characters because we build them in part from our own reality, the same way we do with real people. Thus, even though we know they're fictional, we invest ourselves in them and make them part of our reality, and so we share their joys and grieve their sorrows and feel personal pain when they are hurt, die, or get cancelled.

My addendum is that it also means each of us sees those characters (and real people) differently from each other in fundamental ways because we're partially constructing them out of our own unique perspective shaped by our individual life experiences.

That tells me that we each see and are emotionally invested in our own unique versions of Sam, Dean, Castiel, Bobby, John, Kevin, Charlie, and every other character from Supernatural. We're all looking at the same character depictions – we're all seeing the same actors in the same images on our TV sets or tablets or computer screens delivering the same dialogue – but essential pieces of who we each understand those characters to be are of necessity different because we're different, and we are each separately creating part of the reality of the characters we see.

None of us are actually seeing the same Sam and Dean, the same way that no two people ever see the same rainbow.

Think about it. A rainbow forms when water droplets in the air refract and reflect light, breaking white rays into a spectrum of color. Two people in a place standing side by side and looking in the same direction will both see a rainbow, but it won't be precisely the same rainbow. Their angles of observation are different, so they're each seeing different rays of light bent by and bounced off of different water droplets. They're seeing different rainbows. Their difference in perception is minor, based simply on the physical location of their eyes, and it doesn't matter because the rainbow is purely an observational event with no emotional involvement. The observers don't need to apply anything from their own experience to complete the picture of the rainbow, so it's qualitatively very different from fans looking at fictional characters.

My point in all of this is that, with respect to fan viewpoints, Sam and Dean are rainbows (but not ones farted by unicorns!). We fans are never going to share a single common understanding of these characters because we're all perceiving different Sams and Deans. Some of us are close to each other in our perceptions, because – like people standing close together and looking at a rainbow – the life experiences and intuitions affecting our perceptions are similar. We tend to agree with each other because we interpret things in similar ways.

But we also interpret things very differently from people with significantly different life experiences and intuition sets. And the kicker is that we're never going to be able to argue each other out of impressions we've developed through our experiential mindsets, precisely because we're emotionally invested in our own realities. The truism is that you can't reason someone out of a position they weren't reasoned into, and our emotional reality has nothing to do with logic or rationality, so making arguments based in logic, reason, or someone else's emotional orientation won't do anything to persuade us to change our minds.

Your perception of Sam and Dean is going to be different than mine. Our differences may be minor, or I may wonder what the hell show you were watching and you may wonder what I was smoking. But precisely because we stand in different places and invest ourselves emotionally in the characters we perceive from those distinct perspectives, we will never be able to argue or logic each other out of what we believe. Logic and reason aren't the point. Belief is. Emotion is. If I can change your emotional basis, I may be able to change your perceptions. But my chance of doing that is vey small, because you've built your understanding unconsciously through all the years of your life, the same way I have.

My bottom line is that fandom disagreements about characters are fundamentally unresolvable. You're going to believe what you believe no matter what I say, unless I happen upon an explanation that fits your emotional reality and both allows and persuades you to change your point of view. Trust me, those occasions are few and far between. I've seen it happen a few times over the course of the show, but not often.

If you take nothing else away from this little article, take this: we all have reasons for what we think and believe about the characters we've all watched and loved. We've all created parts of those characters from our own experience. On that level, we've established the validity of our interpretations of the characters through our own lives. My life isn't the same as yours, and neither of us has experienced the other's. I can't expect you to see things from my perspective, and you can't make me see things through the life of your eyes.

My approach has always been to not engage in debate about my view of the Winchester brothers, because arguing for the sake of argument is a waste of energy and a recipe for frustration and anger. Think about whether you might do the same.

We can still enjoy watching the rainbow together. Look: there's Sam. And there's Dean.

Aren't they gorgeous?

Class dismissed.

Current Mood: contemplativecontemplative
Current Music: Do I have to name them? Already did!
Danipinkphoenix1985 on June 10th, 2013 06:43 am (UTC)
Bardic-- what a fantastic meta! I totally and utterly agree with you about everything. I do find it sad that people will always bicker about it until the show ends. It is one of the reasons why I chose to stop watching SPN because I didn't see my Rainbow Sam and Dean anymore. In addition to the fact that the wars were way too much. Even now, when I throw in a general comment about the future of the show-- I get my head bit off for having my own personal POV :( (All I said was that I don't know what the fate of the show will be passed S10 which is a lock unless something drastic happen.)

bardicvoice: SU brothers by <lj user=Cakehole_Cat>bardicvoice on June 11th, 2013 03:41 am (UTC)
Thanks, Pink!

I don't visit many fansites and stay outside most discussion; apart from my little corner here, which I share with The Winchester Family Business, I avoid the bulk of what passes for discussion these days. I refuse to let others diminish my joy in the show!

Know happiness ... :)
Danipinkphoenix1985 on June 15th, 2013 02:26 pm (UTC)
I'm really glad that you have your little corner and are able to enjoy the show :) I think that you are one of the very few who really does enjoy the show for both of the boys to varying degrees :D I applaud you for that. Even those who claim that they like both boys, always find fault in one or the other.

Thanks but I'll probably be lurking here and there lol because for some reason I still have a fondness for how SPN used to be. And I love your meta!
askellington: doogie on a unicornaskellington on June 10th, 2013 12:36 pm (UTC)
Very interesting. I do see that people bring their own perceptions of what the show should be into conversation. I also see it in reviews for stories--I've had that same "What show were you watching" feeling reading reviews of a fic.

I agree that arguing is pointless, but it is interesting to see what people's various takes are and sometimes it adds to my enjoyment of the character. Someone else has an opinion that makes sense, and so it gets added to head canon. Of course, when it's not an opinion I agree with, I can happily ignore it. :)
bardicvoice: SU brothers by <lj user=Cakehole_Cat>bardicvoice on June 11th, 2013 03:44 am (UTC)
Thanks for coming and commenting!

I agree that discussion is fun and often enlightening; I've learned a lot from the viewpoints of other fans. Even if I didn't agree with them, they made me think more deeply, and that is always a good thing in my eyes. I just don't deal well with the "I'm right!" "No, I'M right!" variety of "discussion". *wry grin*

Oh, look: a Winchester rainbow!
Invisible Friend: flower rainel1ie on June 10th, 2013 02:06 pm (UTC)
Agree 1000%. I've always said I don't go anywhere without my lifetime's worth of personal baggage and shit and that goes for show and fandom.

I've also often thought that quite a lot of the arguments over the nuances of character say far more about the poster than they do about the character, we just can't distance ourselves from our backgrounds. It's a strange thing but I've noticed some,( say for instance) "John's a terrible parent" from two different perspectives, one I think of as a recognised hurt that makes the 'bad parenting' resonate with sympathy and the other is from the opposite end of the spectrum, someone with a good parenting background or good parents themselves horrified at how he could have treated his children. Of course there's still every flavour in between, but I still think who you and what life experiences you've had very much reflect on which characters you sympathise with and which side of an argument will feel right.

Debate can be very interesting and enlightening, but sometimes there's very little willingness to accept another might just not agree but you can still both be right! As you say, arguing back and forth on something based on a perception is absolutely frustrating and pretty darned useless.

The rainbow is an excellent description.
bardicvoice: SU brothers by <lj user=Cakehole_Cat>bardicvoice on June 11th, 2013 03:47 am (UTC)
Thanks, ellie! It's fascinating how much we can learn about each other from what we say about something supposedly so removed from our lives, hey? So long as we're willing to listen with respect ...

Thank you for coming by and commenting! And praise makes me blush ... *grin*
doylescordydoylescordy on June 10th, 2013 06:23 pm (UTC)
Very interesting article! I haven't given much thought to how we see the characters can be shaped by our own life experiences (maybe I can think about my life and how that relates to my opinions of the show - like how I almost always favored Dean more, for example). But they are both gorgeous indeed! :D
bardicvoice: SU brothers by <lj user=Cakehole_Cat>bardicvoice on June 11th, 2013 03:48 am (UTC)
Any time I can prompt thought, I am delighted and fulfilled! Thanks for reading and commenting!
metanewsmodsmetanewsmods on June 11th, 2013 03:32 am (UTC)
Great post, can we link it at metanews?
bardicvoice: SU brothers by <lj user=Cakehole_Cat>bardicvoice on June 11th, 2013 03:38 am (UTC)
By all means! Thank you!
brightly_lit: wings-casbrightly_lit on June 11th, 2013 07:06 am (UTC)
Ah, I love a good meta post!

I would add that I think part of the reason fans have such widely differing perceptions of Sam and Dean is that the various writers of the show themselves have presented them in such wildly contradictory ways in different episodes and seasons. I run into this problem all the time writing fic--do I write more of a season 1 Dean or a season 6 Dean?

But yes, the arguments make me tired and sad, too, because ultimately, IT'S A TV SHOW! Enjoy it, people!

Thanks for writing this, and posting it.