“Sweetheart, this is Gender Studies”: Jo Harvelle, Female Strength, and Fandom in Supernatural
by Victoria Farmer
[page 85] Supernatural premiered on the WB on September 13, 2005 and is currently in its eleventh season on the CW. It follows the adventures of two brothers, Sam and Dean Winchester, who were raised by their father John to hunt and kill demons and monsters after a demon violently murdered their mother, Mary. The world that the brothers Winchester inhabit is a very masculine one—they drive the back-roads and deserted highways of the United States in their black 1967 Chevy Impala listening to what Sam calls “the greatest hits of mullet rock” —Metallica, Led Zeppelin, Black Sabbath, and the like—going to whatever town is currently being plagued by something that goes bump in the night, pausing only to drink beer and ogle the nearest waitress in a short skirt (“Pilot”). Their favorite insults for the monsters they fight are “bitches” or “sons of bitches” if the antagonists present as male, and “whores” if those antagonists present as female.1 Sexism seems a forgone conclusion in this universe.
Supernatural works to establish a negative view of women who transgress a narrow vision of appropriate femininity beginning in its pilot episode. In it, Sam and Dean defeat a Woman in White, a spin on the Vanishing Hitchhiker legend who targets unfaithful men by making them pick her up on the side of the road. When these men take her to her destination (her creepy, abandoned house), she flirts with them until they give in, and then rips out their hearts. Sam and Dean kill her vengeful spirit by forcing her to confront the ghosts of the children she drowned after finding out her own husband was unfaithful. When she enters her home, the watery spirits of her children engulf her own airy one, and she is gone.
After their victory, Sam and Dean return to Sam’s apartment, which he shares with his girlfriend Jessica. Sam tells Dean that he enjoyed the rush of the hunt and seeing his brother again, but that he needs to get back to his normal life. His father raised him to hunt, living in a series of seedy motels and subsisting on diner food, and that is not the life he wants for his and Jessica’s future children. He is going to law school and breaking the cycle his father began. Shortly after he enters his bedroom, Sam finds Jessica pinned to the ceiling with her abdomen slashed. She bursts into flame, a near-mirror image of what happened to his mother in his infancy, right down to her white nightgown and flowy hairstyle. Sam now understands his father’s motivation for their hunters’ lifestyle. The [page 86] pilot episode ends with a shot of Sam’s duffel bag being thrown into the Impala’s trunk with its coterie of homemade weapons. We hear (but do not see) Sam say “We’ve got work to do,” before the screen goes black (“Pilot”).
While this pilot does provide both exposition as well as motivation for the future actions of its characters, it contains some troubling depictions of gender roles. The catalyst for both sets of parallel action (father John and son Sam) is a dead woman whose white clothes and association with the domestic sphere set her up simultaneously as a visual echo of and a philosophical foil for the episode’s the first villain.2 Furthermore, that villain earns her fate for transgressing her appropriate roles as good mother and submissive wife. These points set up Sam and Dean’s very masculine, very lonely world of muscle cars, “mullet rock,” and misogyny.
This male world widens somewhat in Season Two, when Sam and Dean stop at Harvelle’s Roadhouse. There, they meet Ellen and Jo Harvelle, the mother-and-daughter proprietors whose clientele are, like Sam and Dean, hunters of supernatural demons and monsters. This meeting occurs in episode 2.2, “Everybody Loves A Clown.” When the brothers arrive at the roadhouse, Ellen and Jo, suspecting intruders, fight them, with the skirmish ending with the women holding the men at gunpoint, triumphant. It is immediately apparent that Ellen Harvelle can take care of herself, and that she has taught her daughter to do likewise. Indeed, it is Jo who collects the information about the demon the brothers fight in the episode (a rakshasa, a Hindu demon who befriends children in order to kill and eat their parents), proving that she has been surrounded by hunters long enough to pick up some skills of her own. Despite this, she is viewed as incapable by both her mother, who will not allow her to work the case herself, and Dean, who sees her as a “barmaid” (“Everybody Loves a Clown”).
Jo is set against Dean in a different way late in the episode. Sam, prompted by meaningful glances from Jo, senses sexual tension between the two and awkwardly exits, saying, “I gotta go … over there … right now.” Jo then pursues Dean, asking, “Am I going to see you again?” When he asks if she wants that to be the case, she coyly responds, “I wouldn’t hate it.” He then implies that he is not emotionally ready to enter into a romantic relationship, and she accepts this, though not before implying that she thinks he is scared of what her mother will do if the two of them become involved. In this brief exchange, Jo takes on the stereotypically masculine role of sexual aggressor while also employing typically feminine hard-to-get language. She both creates the occasion for and begins the flirty conversation, but she also avoids direct suggestion by using phrases like “I wouldn’t hate it.” By doing both of these things in a [page 87] single conversation, Jo shows herself to be a more complex figure of femininity than has been previously present on the show.
Such variance likely stems from her understanding of her marginal role as a woman within the male-dominated community of demon-hunters. Spurred by an obvious come-on from Dean, Jo reveals that the Roadhouse clientele often reduces her to a sex object: “Most hunters that come through that door think they can get in my pants with some ... pizza, a six pack, and side one of Zeppelin IV” (“Everybody Loves a Clown”). This subtle dig at Dean’s musical preferences allows her to criticize his unoriginal approach while emphasizing her experience in the world of hunters. She’s seen it all before, and she is unimpressed.
The theme of musical preferences is used to elucidate character traits again in episode 2.5, “Simon Said.” As Jo cleans up for the night, she selects REO Speedwagon’s “I Can’t Fight This Feeling” on the jukebox. When Dean mocks her song choice, she responds, “Damn right, REO [lead singer] Kevin Cronin sings it from the heart!” Hard-rock-loving Dean responds incredulously, “He sings it from the hair. There’s a difference.” Even Jo’s musical tastes, which she is sure of and defends strongly, clearly not ashamed, are seen as weaker and less valid than Dean’s hypermasculine rock, his tastes for which, it should be noted, he inherited from his father. Jo’s preferences, though, are her own, as far as viewers know. From there, they go on to discuss a case file that Dean has asked Ash, the Roadhouse’s resident stoner genius, to put together.
When Dean discourages her questions on the matter, citing “a family thing,” Jo says, “I could help.” He responds, “I’m sure you could, but we need to handle this ourselves, besides, if I ran off with you, I think your mother might kill me.” When Jo questions if he is really afraid, he responds, “I think so,” as the camera cuts to Ellen’s stern face. Here, Dean directly acknowledges not only his confidence in Jo’s abilities as a hunter, but also Ellen’s strength as a person and a woman. In the scene directly following, Dean sings a few bars of “I Can’t Fight This Feeling” a capella when driving with Sam, who can’t believe his brother’s atypical song choice. When Sam questions him, Dean responds, “I heard the song somewhere; I can’t get it out of my head. I don’t know, man.” This evasive response suggests that the song means more to him than he is letting on, perhaps that he is considering Jo in a new light—that it is her, and not just the song, that he can’t get out of his head.
Any trace of that positive view is gone by Jo’s next appearance, in the episode immediately following “Simon Said,” “No Exit.” The episode begins with Sam and Dean at the Roadhouse walking in on a fight between Ellen, who doesn’t want her daughter to hunt on her own, and Jo, who wants both to establish her independence and to prove her skill [page 88] as a hunter. Ellen forbids her to go, and, in what will soon become an ironic question, Jo asks, “What’re you gonna do, chain me up in the basement?” When she hands Dean the case file filled with information that she collected on a series of young blondes who have disappeared from the same apartment building, he asks “Who put this together? Ash?” When Jo says that she did, Dean responds with a disbelieving, dismissive, “Hmm.” The brothers initially doubt Ash’s intelligence due to his odd appearance, but trust him after he proves himself only once. It seems odd that Jo is not given the same courtesy. Dean is still upset at what he sees as her presumption of her abilities as a hunter when he and Sam arrive at the haunted apartment complex. Though Sam says that he “feel[s] kind of bad snaking Jo’s case,” acknowledges her skill, and gives her ownership of the work, Dean says “She did put together a good file, but can you see her here, working one of these jobs?” Despite the fact that she notices a pattern no one else does and has a great desire to prove herself, Dean still doubts her abilities. It is true that she is thus far inexperienced as far as viewers know, but she cannot gain that experience if no one lets her try, and nothing we have seen up to this point shows that she is unaware of the skill required or the danger involved.
Even though her mother forbids her and Dean dismisses her, Jo joins the brothers in their attempt to kill the ghost of America’s first serial killer, H. H. Holmes. In fact, she beats them to the scene, and convinces the building’s realtor that she is Dean’s girlfriend and that they are interested in the newly vacant apartment. This proves that Jo realizes the power of performing stereotypical femininity in the service of her job’s overall goals, as well as pointing to the possibility of her having feelings for Dean at this point in the show’s run. Though it is Jo who discovers a pattern to Holmes’ abductions and saves the women whom he has already captured, she must ultimately act as bait, literally chained up in Holmes’ basement allowing Sam and Dean to save her. Her only path to independence is restraint, despite the fact she has the skill to notice the pattern that proves that the case exists in the first place.
Additionally, Jo notices Dean’s hypocritical attitude toward her. When she shows up at the apartment building to work the case, she accuses Dean of believing “chauvinistic crap” and “think[ing] that women can’t do the job,” he responds, “Sweetheart, this ain’t Gender Studies. Women can do the job fine. Amateurs can’t” (“No Exit”). Though he denies it, Dean’s gendered condescension is evident when he refers to Jo as “sweetheart,” and his denial of her experience contradicts his earlier belief in her ability. Though Bronwen Calvert argues, “it is clear that [Dean’s] problem is with ‘amateurs,’” and that “Jo is represented as competent,” she neglects to mention either Dean’s previous expressions of confidence in Jo’s hunting talent or the significance of the “sweetheart” [page 89] dig (Calvert 101).
In a later scene, Jo explains her connection to hunting as a profession, as well as gives insight into the stress of being a hunter’s family:
I was still in pigtails when my dad died, but I remember him coming home from a hunt. He’d burst through that door like, like Steve McQueen or something. And he’d sweep me up in his arms, and I’d breathe in that old leather jacket of his. And my mom, who was sour and pissed from the minute he left, she started smiling again. And we were ... we were a family. You wanna know why I want to do the job? For him. It’s my way of being close to him. Now tell me what’s wrong with that. (“No Exit”)
Jo is motivated to hunt out of a sense of familial loyalty and obligation, just like Dean and Sam. If such a motivation is valid for them—and it must be, since the entire premise of the series rests on it being so from the pilot on—what prevents it from being valid for her as well, if not her gender? Furthermore, what about Jo has changed in just one episode that Dean now finds her inexperienced in “No Exit,” but was “sure [she] could” help in “Simon Said”? The answers to these questions lie partly with the people responsible for the show’s production.
One important change in Jo’s character can be found in the content of her Hunter’s Blog, first accessible as hidden content on the Season One DVDs. Taken together, Jo’s blog entries cover a period from April 7, 1993, to June 16, 2006. This period begins on Jo’s eighth birthday and extends through what would be the end of Season One, as all of the scenes from Sam and Dean’s lives are marked “Present Day” when they air. The most notable thing about Jo’s blogs is how they are subsequently edited to reflect a change in her character. While initial posts track her progress as a developing hunter, saying things like, “Daddy bought me a bow and arrow set … and he’s going to teach me to shoot” (Jo’s Blog 04/07/93),” and “I’m officially a hunter. My first hunt was amazing!” (Jo’s Blog 04/10/03),” those posts are deleted and replaced by seemingly out-of-character musings about a hunter named Rick with whom Jo seems to want a romantic relationship’. These changes retroactively validate Dean’s impressions of Jo as an incapable hunter as well as remove any threat she poses to the fans as a rival for Dean’s affections by giving her someone else on which to focus her romantic intentions. I will return to a discussion of Jo as fandom threat later in this article.
In the official companion book to Season Two, creator Eric Kripke states that, while Jo was initially going to be a love interest for Dean, she turned out to be more of a younger sister type, and that, “in hindsight, [page 90] Dean wouldn’t be attracted to that character ... He’d be attracted to someone who walked in the door, slaughtered everybody, and walked out, and then he would say, ‘Who’s that?’” (Knight 15). This is interesting for several reasons. First, Jo’s first appearance (in “Everybody Loves a Clown,” in which she and her mother best Sam and Dean in a fight without uttering a word, without even questioning who it is they are fighting) suggests that Jo is exactly that type of woman. Second, Kripke is essentially saying that Dean of Season Two (whom he describes on the first page of the same companion book as “a shoot first, ask questions later type”) would most like to be romantically involved with a female version of himself, which seems at best a narrow-minded preference, and at worst a narcissistic one. Alona Tal, who played Jo, agrees that Kripke’s little sister label does not track with the way the character is introduced, saying that she thought Jo was “kind of a badass,” and that she based her portrayal of the character on her own experiences fighting in the Israeli army (Knight 14). This disconnect between Jo’s conception as a character and her initial embodiment suggests that, while the show’s male creator is slow to affirm the natural existence of female strength, the actress playing the character sees such strength as true to her lived experience. Though relatively few female fans have likely performed military service as Tal has, it seems plausible that they, like her, would at the very least, accept Jo’s strength as valid, and at most, desire to see such a strength depicted in popular culture due either to examples in their own lives or to their desires for themselves.
That was decidedly not the case, however. Hints at a Dean/Jo relationship like the one I mentioned in “Everybody Loves a Clown” were met with harsh criticism from fans. In a post on the popular fan forum Television Without Pity, a post whose goal is to convince more people to watch Supernatural, several commenters express disdain for Jo, while others shed light on the source of this disdain. Commenter mysticowl posts a graphic with a picture of Jo pointing her gun at Dean in “Everybody Loves a Clown.” The caption reads, “HATRED BEGAN AT episode 2.6, a.k.a the point at which Jo Harvelle forgot this is a show about TWO BROTHERS.” Commenter abgrubb responds that as far as she is concerned, “the season went straight from [episode] 5 to [episode] 7” (Television without Pity). The first comment oddly gives Jo agency as she is treated as a real person who “forgot” the show’s object. However, it simultaneously devalues her by citing her as the genesis of hatred. The second comment points to the impact of fan feedback on the canon of a given fandom, as abgrubb’s mental exercise of figuratively erasing Jo mirrors the literal erasure writers and producers performed on her through her blog. A third, anonymous commenter defends the fact that there are “no strong lead girls” on the show because “the main characters [page 91] are two sexy men,” suggesting that the show’s focusing on Sam and Dean necessitates their being sexually available in the eyes of fans.
While such reactions cannot be proven the sole cause of the change in Dean’s attitude toward Jo, the vast change in the way that Jo interacts with the brothers in both the rest of Season Two and in subsequent seasons seem to suggest that the Powers-That-Be in production listened to the fans. The biggest proof of this outside of actual episodes comes from an interview with Kripke in which he announces that, should the show introduce subsequent female characters, they would only serve as antagonists to the brothers (Ausiello). Such a statement suggests that, due to the possessiveness that Supernatural’s female fans feel for its male leads, the show’s women cannot simultaneously possess agency and romance, leaving them only the realm of polarized stereotypes—they must be either the passive madonna or the feisty whore.
In addition to direct responses from the production team, the rest of Jo’s episodes confirm this hypothesis. After disobeying her mother in “No Exit,” Jo goes to live and hunt on her own in Duluth, Minnesota. Viewers catch up with her in episode 2.14, “Born Under a Bad Sign.” She is working in a bar, and Sam, who has had a fight with Dean and is traveling alone, approaches her. Unbeknownst to her, Meg, a female demon with ties to the demon who killed Mary Winchester, is possessing Sam’s body. He spitefully teases her about her relationship with Dean, saying “Boy, you’re really carrying a torch for him, huh? ... Dean likes you, sure, but not in the way you want. Maybe as kind of a little sister, but romance? That’s just out of the question.” He then takes her hostage, tying her up and dominating her physically. As he does so, he holds her to him tightly, strokes her face, and murmurs into her ear, “I could be more to you, Jo. It doesn’t have to be this way.” Such sexually charged behavior, when combined with Sam’s physical power over Jo, is very discomfiting onscreen and suggests rape. The scene, like a more disturbing version of Jo’s capture by H. H. Holmes, works to disempower a previously powerful woman by emphasizing her fragility and powerlessness in the face of Sam’s sexually fueled masculinity.
Later in the scene, they begin to discuss their fathers; Jo finally shares both her dad’s fate and how John Winchester was involved in his death:
Our dads were in California: Devil’s Gate Reservoir. They were setting a trap for some kind of Hell-spawn. John was hiding, waiting, and my dad was bait ... The thing showed up. John got too eager, jumped out too soon, got my dad exposed out in the open. The thing turned around and killed him. (“Born Under a Bad Sign”)
Jo’s recounting of these events is matter-of-fact, neither offering [page 92] unnecessarily gory details nor placing blame. She, like her father before her, is cool under pressure. This not only reveals what happened to Jo’s father, but also why Ellen is so protective of her, especially where her associations with Sam and Dean are concerned. Additionally, this story may suggest why Jo was willing to act as bait when she and the brothers were hunting the ghost of H. H. Holmes—that act connects her to her father in a way that, while dangerous and perhaps a bit psychologically disturbed, feels noble and memorable to Jo because her father performed the same action so selflessly in order that evil would be beaten. Taking advantage of Jo’s current physical and emotional vulnerability, Meg-as-Sam provides her own version of Bill Harvelle’s demise: “You see, Bill was all clawed up. Holding his insides in his hands. He was gurgling and praying to see you and Ellen one more time. So my dad . . . killed him. Put him out of his misery like a sick dog,” and concludes in a disturbing sing-song, “My daddy shot your daddy in the head!” (“Born Under a Bad Sign”).
It is central to my argument that, in this scene, Sam is not himself, but is being controlled by Meg, a demon who presents as female. This female presence uses Sam’s masculine strength (in particular, a strength that is sexualized within the scene) to threaten Jo, a woman whose calm strength appears to be a threat in its own right. Additionally, it treats any attraction Jo may have had to Dean as a sick joke and “out of the question.” Taken together, these readings of the scene suggest that Meg serves as a metaphor for the majority fan response to Jo. Indeed, fan feedback to the events of the episode seems to affirm this perspective. YouTube user LovelyLJ posted a clip of the scene in which Sam restrains Jo and knocks her unconscious titled “Why Jo shouldn’t be a hunter” (“Jo and Gender Studies”). Commenters who agree repeatedly cite two facts as proof. First, they agree that Jo is “annoying” and steals the spotlight from Sam and Dean unnecessarily. Second, they are attracted to Sam’s dominance of Jo, with commenter smileyface1388 saying that “Sam looked totally hot beating Jo up” (“Jo and Gender Studies”). Together, these claims suggest that female strength and male sexual expression are mutually exclusive.
After this disturbing plot twist, Jo is absent from significant events until episode 5.10, “Abandon All Hope.” Sam and Dean are trying to stop the coming Apocalypse and enlist Ellen and Jo’s help. After the group plans their method of attack for the following day, Dean comes onto Jo one final time, saying, “I guess it’s time to eat, drink, and you know, make merry.” The end of the standard phrase—”For tomorrow we die”—hangs unsaid, a hollow attempt at bravado. Jo’s response is incredulous, but flirty, and recalls her earlier observations on hunters’ masculinity in the Roadhouse: “Are you giving me the ‘last night on Earth’ speech”? [page 93] Again, she’s heard it all before, and so often that the attempt has a codified name. When he asks whether that speech would work, she leans forward, touching her face to his in what is almost a kiss, pulls away at the last second, and says, “No. Sweetheart, if this is our last night on Earth, then I’m going to spend it with a little thing I call self-respect” (“Abandon All Hope”). This scene seems to validate Jo’s inner strength, and her referring to Dean as “Sweetheart” implies that the events of “No Exit” are still with her; she still has a strong desire to prove herself as a hunter despite institutional prejudice within the profession. The way she accomplishes this, however, leaves something to be desired for feminist viewers.
Later in the episode, Jo gets attacked by a group of hellhounds, and she and Ellen eventually sacrifice themselves for the cause by trapping the hellhounds in a hardware store with them and rigging themselves with explosives, blowing up the building and killing both the evil animals and themselves (“Abandon All Hope”). Before Jo dies, Dean kisses her on the forehead, and then on the lips. The first is the ultimate gesture of platonic affection, cementing her position as asexual little sister, while the second suggests a more intimate connection. Their relationship is still unclear. Furthermore, it is significant that Jo’s biggest contribution to hunting—at which she appears to be quite skilled at this point, since she has already studied schematics of the area and gathers supplies to make explosives “just in case”— is to sacrifice herself. A supposedly inexperienced character only gains that experience (and the validation that accompanies it) by dying. In an interview for the official Supernatural magazine about the episode, Alona Tal says that she feels that Jo “went out on top” because she “called the shots” in her final hours (Cairns). While it is true that the plan to build the bomb was Jo’s, and it is admirable for Tal to defend a character in which she has invested her time despite the fact that that character was obviously unevenly written, ultimately, I feel that any redemption that may exist within Jo’s final living moments seems a case of too little, too late.
In Season Six’s “My Heart Will Go On” (episode 6.17), the brothers explore an alternate reality in which some people fated to die on the Titanic do not. The ship not sinking creates a ripple effect in which many people are born who should never have been. Likewise, some of those who should have died still live, namely Ellen and Jo. Zack Handlen, who writes for The Onion’s A-V Club blog, notes the following in his review of the episode: “Jo is also referenced as being upright and breathing, though the actress who played her never makes an appearance. I still think [Ellen] and Jo’s death was a bad call, if only because it left the show with a painful dearth of solid female characters” (Handlen). First, Handlen, a [page 94] man, points out Jo’s conspicuous absence. She is mentioned and supposedly talked to on the phone, but we never see her or hear her voice. Even when Jo is magically not dead, she is not on the show. While there were perhaps practical reasons for this, i.e. scheduling conflicts, it not only suggests that those responsible for production of Supernatural are remaining mindful of fan reactions to Jo, but also suggests that those same fans are perhaps not as hostile to Ellen. Women are allowed to be strong next to the Winchesters if they are also motherly, and therefore not sexually threatening within the fans’ fantasy lives.
Handlen’s second comment is encouraging, as he acknowledges that the Harvelle women are “solid female characters” without whom the show is suffering, calling their absence a “powerful dearth.” If reviewers, and male ones at that, can see this lack, why can’t the show’s female fans see it, along with its deeper cultural meaning? Sadly, these women seem to find it more comfortable to see themselves as in competition for the affections of people who do not exist than to see themselves represented on television as self-assured and strong. While such a view allows for a sexualized female gaze in a way that could be progressive, the fact that it does so at the expense of other women negates much positive progress.
Jo does make one more appearance, in episode 7.2, “Defending Your Life,” in which Dean is forced to justify his life choices in front of the Egyptian god Osiris, who “can see directly into the human heart” and will “weigh [a person’s] guilt” and assign a harsh punishment if “he finds more than a feather’s worth” (“Defending Your Life”). In this trial, Jo acts as the first of Dean’s three “witnesses”—ghosts who will help Osiris determine Dean’s relative guilt. When asked to state her relationship to the defendant, Jo responds, “We work together.” A quick montage of silent flashbacks follows that statement. The scenes depicted come from “Everybody Loves a Clown” and “No Exit”—episodes that most closely embody the tension between Dean and Jo’s work philosophies and the fan-perceived tension regarding Jo’s character type(s). Osiris then asks Jo, “Isn’t it true that you admired him?” Jo qualifies her positive response: “As a hunter, yeah. As a guy, he was kind of a jerk.” When Osiris says Dean was “a mentor of sorts,” Jo says she “wouldn’t put it like that.” When asked how she would put it, she responds, “I don’t know…I trusted him.” Jo’s responses show that she allows Dean multiple simultaneous personae. He can be good at hunting and bad at personal relationships while still earning her trust. In the context of the show, this seems curious, where Jo is not allowed to occupy both roles, neither by producers of the show, nor the majority of its fanbase.
When Osiris pushes further and questions if “it was hard working with him [because of her] feelings,” Jo snaps, “I know what you’re getting [page 95] at, and it’s bull!” Osiris implies Jo only pursued the Holmes case as a way of pursuing Dean, and that she would not have “ended up in that hardware store holding a fuse” otherwise. More silent, rapid flashbacks from “No Exit” follow: Dean examining Bill Harvelle’s knife, Jo inside the walls of the Holmes building, Jo phoning Dean in distress, Dean chopping a hole in a wall with an ax in order to find Jo, Holmes’ ghost gazing at Jo hungrily, all culminating in the image of Sam and Dean rescuing Jo from Holmes’ basement. After his implication that Jo was blinded by romance, Osiris lets Sam (who is acting as Dean’s counsel on the basis of his Stanford pre-law studies) cross-examine her. Sam argues that it is Bill Harvelle, not Dean, who influenced Jo’s desire to be a hunter. Jo agrees, saying, “Daddy issues, definitely,” and then tries to talk to Dean about her responses. Osiris, apparently angered by Sam’s line of questioning and Jo’s response, cuts her off mid-sentence and causes her spirit to disappear. This exchange further highlights the fact that the show’s production team is aware of the multiple ways that Jo’s character has been perceived over the course of the show, as well as the ways that these perceptions affect perceptions of Dean. Osiris and Sam, like this fan majority, are unwilling to let Jo be connected to the job and meaningfully connected to a romantic partner—she cannot occupy both identities at once, even as the progressing flashbacks from “No Exit” suggest that she does, since they connect a desire to please her father with a desire to be saved by Dean once she is in over her head. This enforced lack of complexity is even clearer because Jo is literally silenced during an attempt at communicating with Dean.
While those familiar with the show’s later seasons may argue that both Sam and Dean struggle with the tension between love and duty common to those partaking in Campbellian hero’s journeys as well (namely where Lisa Braeden and Amelia Richardson, Dean and Sam’s only sustained human love interests, are involved), Sam and Dean both choose to end those relationships in order to protect the women involved.3 They choose duty over love and still have their jobs as hunters to fulfill them. Jo’s sacrificial death shows that, for her, duty is love. Ultimately, to be a hunter is to give up hunting—to give up everything so that Sam and Dean may continue to hunt. On one hand, such a sacrifice points to Jo’s position as a secondary character more expendable than the show’s two leads. On the other, she is the first in a series of female hunters who pop up to suggest that female hunters can and do exist, only to die as soon as she has assisted Sam and Dean in their current quest. Others in this series of women include Pamela Barnes and Tamara. The first appears in two episodes before dying, the second only one, and in conjunction with her husband, Isaac, who is also a hunter (Palmer 83).4 [page 96]
“Defending Your Life” continues to explore the nature of Jo’s sacrifice once Osiris sentences Dean to death at Jo’s hand. Viewers are reminded of their closeness, if not given clarification about its nature, when Dean knows Jo’s ghost is present before she reveals herself. That personal connection takes a darker turn when Jo’s method of murder is revealed: she turns the room’s gas stove on high and holds a lighter in her hand, all while saying Osiris is controlling her actions because he wants “some kind of twisted eye for an eye.” If Jo’s plan succeeds, Dean and she will have died in similar explosions, linking them even further to one another. Additionally, he will have died in the typically domestic, feminine space of a kitchen, an interesting opposition to her death in an industrial, typically masculine hardware store. Of course, this gendered inversion does not happen; Sam kills Osiris before it can, and, as Dean tells him later, “regular Jo” “fade[s]” away. He corrects the “regular” comment, saying she looked “maybe a little happier.” Not satisfied with having Jo die one sacrificial death in service of Dean, this episode forces her to do so a second time, in a way that seems to absolve any guilt he may have regarding his treatment of her. If she seems happy to die for him again, who is he to argue? Unfortunately for representational politics on television, fans and producers seem to agree.
Representational politics, in fact, seems to be one of the few areas in which this show is not willing to take risks. Past episodes have contained such atypical storytelling techniques as the Winchesters’ traveling through television genres in order to satisfy the whims of angels (“Changing Channels”); use of an alternate universe in which Sam and Dean enter the bodies of actors Jared Padalecki and Jensen Ackles, who are playing Sam and Dean on a television show that fictionalizes their lives (“The French Mistake”); and an episode that takes place primarily from the point of view of Dean’s car (“Baby”). This is why the fate of Jo Harvelle as shaped by both producers and fans is such a disappointment. She inhabits an escapist universe where nearly anything is possible—where souls are regularly sold at crossroads, where time travel occurs as long as you have access to an angel in a trenchcoat, and where humans can stop the apocalypse armed only with basic mechanical knowledge, willing friends, and some luck. This is a place where people seem to have much more power to effect real change in their world than we as viewers of the show do in ours. Yet even in this fantastical universe, gender inequality is not only insurmountable, but seemingly undesirable, even and especially by female viewers themselves.
1. I say “present as” because the show’s demons and monsters are not gendered in and of themselves, but project the gender associated with the body they are possessing at any given time. [page 97]
2. For more on the ways Mary and Jessica represent the Victorian archetype of the Angel in the House, see Brownwen Calvert’s Angels, Demons, and Damsels in Distress: The Representation of Women in Supernatural (ECW Press, 2011).
3. These choices occur in 6.21 (“Let it Bleed”) and 8.10 (“Torn and Frayed”), respectively. While Ruby could be said to be a sustained love interest of Sam’s as well, her being a demon places her in a separate category.
4. Two later-appearing characters—Charlie Bradbury and Sheriff Jody Mills--could be argued to break this pattern. Both are women who work multiple cases alongside the Winchesters (Mills is in ten total episodes from Seasons Five to Ten, and Bradbury in nine from Seasons Seven to Ten), but unlike Jo, neither of them acts as a threat to the female fandom. Bradbury is a lesbian and thus not a viable love interest for either Sam or Dean. Sherriff Mills, like Ellen Harvelle, is middle-aged and acts temperamentally as a mother figure to Sam and Dean, even as it is they who teach her how to be a hunter.
Ausiello, Michael. “Supernatural Exec: ‘We Won’t Be One Tree Hill With Monsters.’” TVGUIDE.com. 21 July 2007. Web. 15 Apr. 2011.
Cairns, Bryan. “Like Mother, Like Daughter.” Supernatural: Official Magazine 14 (Jan./Feb. 2010): 60. Print.
Calvert, Bronwyn. “Angels, Demons, and Damsels in Distress: Representations of Women in Supernatural.” TV Goes to Hell: An Unofficial Road Map of Supernatural. Toronto: ECW Press, 2011. 90-104. Print.
Handlen, Zack. “Review: ‘My Heart Will Go On’.” The A-V Club. 15 Apr. 2011. Web. 17 Apr. 2011.
“Jo and Gender Studies.” YouTube. Web. 17 Apr. 2011.
“Jo’s Blog.” Supernatural Wiki. Web. 23 Apr. 2013.
Knight, Nicholas. Supernatural: The Official Companion, Season 2. London: Titan Books, 2008. Print.
Palmer, Lorrie. “The Road to Lordsburg: Rural Masculinity in Supernatural.” TV Goes to Hell: An Unofficial Road Map of Supernatural. Toronto: ECW Press, 2011. 77-89. Print.
“Supernatural: Tales from the Edge of Darkness.” Dir. Kim Manners. Perf. Eric Kripke, Kim Manners, Jensen Ackles. Supernatural: The Complete First Season. DVD Special Feature.
Television without Pity. Web. 23 Apr. 2013. [Archives wiped under new ownership.]
“Abandon All Hope.” Supernatural. Writ. Ben Edlund. Dir. Phil Sgriccia. CW. 19 Nov. 2009. Television.
“Baby.” Supernatural. Writ. Robbie Thompson. Dir. Thomas J. Wright. CW. 28 Oct. 2015. Television.
“Changing Channels.” Supernatural. Writ. Jeremy Carver. Dir. Charles Beeson. CW. 5 Nov. 2009. Television.
“Defending Your Life.” Supernatural: The Complete Seventh Season. Writ. Adam Glass. Dir. Bob Singer. Warner Home Video. DVD. [page 98]
“Everybody Loves a Clown.” Supernatural: The Complete Second Season. Writ. John Shiban. Dir. Phil Sgriccia.Warner Home Video. DVD.
“The French Mistake.” Supernatural. Writ. Ben Edlund. Dir. Charles Beeson. CW. 25 Feb. 2011. Television.
“My Heart Will Go On.” Supernatural. Writ. Eric Carmelo and Nicole Snyder. Dir. Phil Sgriccia. CW. 15 Apr. 2011. Television.
“No Exit.” Supernatural: The Complete Second Season. Writ. Matt Witten. Dir. Kim Manners. Warner Home Video. DVD.
“Pilot.” Supernatural: The Complete First Season. Writ. Eric Kripke. Dir. David Nutter. Warner Home Video. DVD.
“Simon Said.” Supernatural: The Complete Second Season. Writ. Ben Edlund, Dir. Tim Lacofano. DVD.
MLA citation (print):
Farmer, Victoria. "'Sweetheart, this is Gender Studies': Jo Harvelle, Female Strength, and Fandom in Supernatural." Supernatural Studies, vol. 3, no. 1, pp. 85-98.