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Supernatural University: To See Ourselves As Others See Us

Welcome to another human studies class at Supernatural University! This class explores the perceptions that each of the Winchester brothers has of himself, and the ways in which seeing themselves from the perspectives of others either have or have not prompted them to change themselves or to take action to alter the perception of the other.


A previous class focused mostly through the viewpoint of Sam Winchester addressed the perceptions that he had of his father and brother, and how those perceptions changed due to experience. This class is intended to go in the other direction, and examine changes in the self brought about through realizing what someone else perceived. The thesis of this seminar is an exploration of the times when Sam and Dean were able to see themselves through others’ eyes, especially each other’s eyes, and how that experience affected them.


Much of the inspiration for this class came from the February 15, 2007 episode, Tall Tales. We and the boys got the chance, in the worst of very peculiar circumstances, to see each of the boys through the other’s somewhat jaundiced eyes. That prompted my contemplation of the last verse of the poem “To A Louse” by Robert Burns, which is probably the best known Burns quote:


O wad some Pow'r the giftie gie us
To see oursels as others see us
It wad frae monie a blunder free us
An' foolish notion
What airs in dress an' gait wad lea'e us
An' ev'n Devotion.


For those who don’t speak Scots, the loose and non-poetic translation would be, if God would give us the gift of being able to see ourselves as others see us, it would free us from many mistakes and foolish ideas, and could prompt us to change the way we dress, how we move and act, and even what we believe in and how we express it.


I would posit that the boys have been given Burns’ gift more than once, but have responded to that insight only when it really mattered, and never for insignificant things. 


On to the explanations. Many of the views that the brothers have gotten of each other and presented of themselves have been superficial ones, and Tall Tales epitomizes that. In Tall Tales,  as each of the brothers recounted his view of things for Bobby, Sam described Dean as a gluttonous lush hitting on anything female, no matter how sleazy, while Dean described Sam as an overly emotional, prissily uptight nerd. Attempting to counter each other’s impressions, Sam presented himself as being very reasonable, mission-focused, rational, and patient despite the provocations of Dean’s juvenile behavior, while Dean featured himself as being equally mission-dedicated, but also James Bond suave, in control, and irresistible. Neither brother accepted the other’s views as accurate, so no behavioral changes resulted. Both views were in fact exaggerated in both directions, so the choice not to take sober lessons from them was reasonable.


The amusing thing about the minor, irritating traits that the boys chose to pick on in each other in Tall Tales was that we’d seen all of them expressed, pointed out, and criticized before, although not in such exaggerated fashion, and we never saw behavioral change as a result. Dean’s hilariously uncouth behavior with food won Sam’s open disapproval and embarrassment in Nightmare and Provenance in particular. Dean is more of a drinker than Sam, but that isn’t a trait that Sam has openly criticized, although his stiffness implied disapproval of both Dean’s drinking and his party attitude in such episodes as The Benders, Provenance, and Bloodlust. With the exception of the Halloween party in the pilot, his desperate drunken binge in Playthings, and one swig from a flask in Houses of the Holy, we’ve never seen Sam go beyond beer. Dean, on the other hand, goes for whiskey nearly as often as beer, and often combines them; think of Shadow and Bloodlust as examples. Dean’s libidinous, womanizing ways were almost constantly on display in season one, so much a part of him that they featured in his normal, casual behavior even when he wasn’t trolling for companionship – remember him checking out the girl who passed him on his way out of the copy shop in Phantom Traveler? – and were a frequent, open irritant for Sam in such episodes as Dead in the Water and Provenance. Dean’s usual response to Sam’s implied or overt criticism in each instance was a dismissive headshake for his moralizing, with his own implied disapproval for Sam being excessively strait-laced and narrow-focused. Dean, in turn, has teased Sam about tarnishing his choirboy image by showing an interest in inappropriate sexual material ever since walking in on him watching a certain television channel in Children Shouldn’t Play With Dead Things. These things are funny precisely because they are inconsequential in the larger scheme of things.


With that said, there have been a couple of instances in which one brother experienced an epiphany concerning something truly important about how the other saw him, and either changed or took a specific action to address that perception as a direct result of realizing it.


Something that complicates this discussion is that no one has a single complete perception of  “self.” Our internal vision of who we are and what face we think we’re presenting to the outside world is affected by both the immediate situation and the people we’re addressing. We can hold mutually inconsistent self-images, and self-images that are markedly different from the mask we project outward.


Take Dean, for example. His self-image and projected image are generally confident and competent ones: he’s secure in his skin and his abilities, comfortable with who and what he is, confident of his ability to attract the opposite sex, and not much concerned with others’ opinions of him. At the same time, however, we’ve seen that he has virtually no sense of his own self-worth (Faith, anyone?), which would seem inconsistent with the rest of his self-appraisal, and he’s afraid of failing the people who depend on him. His sense that all other lives are more important than his is nonetheless an essential part of his being, and lives side by side with his confidence in himself. The mask he projects outward is one of absolute assurance, with no hesitation or fear, no matter what he actually feels; his success at wearing that mask varies. He’s only admitted to wearing the mask once, in conversation with Gordon in Bloodlust, but we saw it almost constantly on display throughout season one.


Sam sees and projects himself as rational, logical, compassionate, intelligent, and competent. At the same time, however, he seems convinced that he will be unable to resist the “destiny” planned for him by the yellow-eyed demon (YED); he has no trust in his own strength, competence, and compassion. So far, Sam has worn the mask of confidence with everyone but Dean, with whom he’s shared his naked fear.


I would posit two seminal moments of self-discovery through another’s perception for Sam, one in season one and one in season two, and one such extended moment for Dean, in season two. In all of these instances, I would posit that it was the realization by one brother of what the other was seeing in him that prompted the change.


Mind you, both brothers adjusted their views of themselves and each other based on events. My earlier blog focusing on Sam went through the various things that developed and changed his understanding of both Dean and John. The focus here is on things that made Sam or Dean change something in himself, rather than just changing his perception of the other.


I would hold that Sam’s first altered vision of himself as seen through Dean’s eyes was actually the gift of the YED in Devil’s Trap, when the YED’s taunting of Dean made Sam realize that Dean would have seen Sam’s relationship with their father entirely differently than Sam himself did. Up until that moment, Sam had perceived his constant fights with John as an indication that John didn’t value him, that John preferred obedient Dean. The YED’s cruelty showed something else: that Dean perceived Sam as favored, because John always worried about him and gave him attention, even if the attention came in the form of argument, but that Dean still believed both John and Sam to be more important than himself. We saw that realization hit home in Sam and shift his world on its axis as he saw both himself and John as Dean did, and I believe that this altered perception played a key role in changing what Sam would otherwise have done once he had the Colt in his hands. I would argue that this altered self-perception saved Sam from making the mistake of satisfying his and John’s vengeance quest by killing the YED in his father’s body, which would also have killed John, crippled Dean, and damned Sam himself.


In my thesis, Sam’s second taste of Burns’ divine gift came in Everybody Loves a Clown when Dean, in their argument on the road after ditching the minivan, held up to Sam the true but unflattering mirror of Sam projecting onto Dean his own issues concerning John’s death – Sam’s need to resolve his own resentment of John and guilt for that resentment. Come the end of the episode, Sam admitted to Dean that his view had been correct: that Sam had been avoiding acknowledging his own shame, guilt, and loss. Faced with the truth of Dean’s perception of him, Sam changed, and that change opened the way for him to begin to heal.


But while admitting to the change, Sam also made very clear that he knew that the mask Dean was presenting, of being able to cope with John’s death, didn’t reflect reality and wasn’t concealing Dean’s brokenness from Sam. Beginning in ELAC and continuing through Bloodlust and into  … Dead Things, Sam pushed Dean to confess to the truth of how Sam saw him. Dean resisted, until the moment in  … Dead Things outside the professor’s home when Sam’s outright fear of losing him finally forced Dean to see himself through Sam’s eyes – sinking out of reach – and admit that the way he was acting wasn’t fair to Sam. Even with that, it took a while longer for Dean to bring himself to share the first part of what he’d been concealing from Sam; his conviction that John deliberately had died to save him. Changing enough to share the rest of the burden – John’s secret – took Dean seeing Sam’s reaction to Dean’s evident spiritual fatigue, despair, and willingness to die in Croatoan.


Both of the brothers have become more willing to let the other see inside the masks they present to the rest of the world. I believe that they each still sometimes deny Burns’ divine gift in what may be its most important sense, however. Sam still can’t manage to see himself as Dean sees him – as a strong and moral man who can be trusted to do the right thing – despite the evidence of others (for example, Gordon recounting Dean’s unshakeable belief in Sam in Hunted), and Dean’s own steadfast conviction throughout Born Under A Bad Sign. And Dean still fails to see himself as the rock underlying Sam’s foundations, disregarding the faith and trust that Sam places in him because of the way Sam expresses it, as the need for Dean to be ready and willing to kill him. Sam demanding that of Dean is blinding both of them to what that demand says about the way that Sam sees Dean: as the one he trusts absolutely, as someone most worthy of trust.


There is something sad in each of these two brothers being able to accept the other pointing out his own flaws, but not his virtues and strengths. Being able to see ourselves as others see us should be a gift not only through turning a critical eye on our deficiencies in order to correct them, but through learning to recognize and credit ourselves for the ways in which we shine. Some of the “blunders and foolish notions” from which true perception should free us are our own excessively harsh judgments of ourselves, and that is a lesson that I think both Sam and Dean have still to learn.


Class dismissed. Enjoy watching The Usual Suspects on March 1, and wish Jensen Ackles a happy 29th birthday.

Tags: meta, psychology, supernatural, supernatural university

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