Me being me, this made me think about Supernatural, as well as the shows I watch and enjoy that DO get the kudos from the old boy’s club and what, if anything, differentiates those shows. The answer of course is the same as above – how the story and the audience fit into the hierarchy of worth that the establishment has, well…established.
Supernatural is going to be my example show here, but a multitude of other shows could take its place. It’s got a huge following, it’s a great show and it will never, ever win an Emmy. On the other side of the spectrum, I’m going to use Mad Men. The show that gets all the praise and all the awards.
I love Mad Men, just so we’re clear. I think it’s some of the most thoughtful, subtle and interesting stuff on TV. “The Suitcase” has an eternal spot in my list of greatest hours of TV of all time. So, I’m coming at this from the perspective of a fan.
The thing is, there are multiple episodes of Supernatural that I think are just as well-crafted, well-acted, well written and amazing as any episode of Mad Men (On The Head of A Pin, Dark Side of the Moon, The Born Again Identity, Sacrifice, just to name a few…). Jensen Ackles, Jared Padalecki and Misha Collins are stupendously talented actors whose work is just as nuanced, subtle and heart wrenching as that of Jon Hamm, Elizabeth Moss or Cristina Hendricks. In fact, from a perspective of the sheer VOLUME of episodes and different characters these boys have done, their 180 episodes is miles beyond the 80 episodes of Mad Men has done.
Of course there are differences between a period drama and a horror-fantasy-comedy-family saga-whatever the hell Supernatural is; but they might be fewer than first meets the eye. Both shows deal with Big Questions – Mad Men with the nature of identity, artifice, media and how we create and change ourselves and what the point is in that, if any; Supernatural with the idea of Free Will, humanism, family, and the consequences and pit falls of choices and mistakes. Both shows have issues (I’m hard pressed to find a show that doesn’t). Mad Men suffers sometimes from being TOO introspective and giving us episodes where nothing actually happens and the navel gazing strays into over-indulgent intellectual masturbation. Supernatural, let’s face it, gave us an episode where a dude was sleeping with his magical pet/slave/familiar, among other gems. The creators sometimes take things too seriously or not seriously enough. And, well, the feminist and racial issues are something for a much longer and much different post – on both shows.
I’m the first to admit that, comparing the two is indeed comparing apples and oranges, that’s true. And that’s sort of the point. The flavors and textures are different, one may be better suited to a certain needs, you may specifically crave another, and everyone has different tastes. Some people just don’t like apples, and that’s fine. Some people like pears.
The problem is that the mainstream, establishment culture says that only one of these shows is worthy of praise, attention, awards and a designation as “great art.” And that’s pretty much like saying, that apples are the only fruit worth eating, or at least complimenting.
I hope I don’t need to point out how dumb that is.
So, why does Mad Men get showered with Emmys while Supernatural will probably never even be mentioned on an award show not voted on by fans?
It’s not about numbers. Mad Men’s season finale was its highest rated hour ever with an estimated 2.7 million viewers. Last week’s mid-season finale of Supernatural? 2.51 million. And, please note that this is a show in its ninth year and that in seasons 3, 4, and 5 viewership was well above 3 million. This doesn’t even count the online viewership and time shifted numbers, which for a show like Supernatural with such a strong online following, are significant.
No, the difference is not about how many people are watching the shows, it’s about who is in charge of deciding what is “good” or worthy of praise. The critics and the taste-makers, members of a literal academy that votes to decide what should be awarded the distinction of ‘best.’ This is the establishment. These are the gatekeepers and arbiters of culture and quality who have been empowered to decide what it worthy of the time of sophisticated, educated, erudite viewers. And these gatekeepers, whether consciously or not, believe that only certain stories are important. The same goes for audiences.
Supernatural is praised and adored, mostly, by females. The narrative doesn’t quite match up with the masculine, linear hero’s journey and since the content deals with magic, ghosts and demons – silly, unrealistic things – it’s just not important. Mad Men on the other hand tells the quintessential story of A MAN. STRUGGLING AGAINST THE ODDS. TO…DO SOMETHING PROFOUND AND MANLY. (I really hope you read that in a movie trailer announcer voice). It’s a show about the ennui and struggles of a rich, sexist, white guy. And, those are the important stories. Supernatural is a genre nightmare beloved of insignificant females. Orphan Black is just a sci-fi show about a bunch of girls, so the establishment giving the actress at its center praise is pretty unthinkable. The same can be said for any number of genres or shows.
Let me put it a bit more bluntly: a culture dominated by Old White Men© is predisposed to hold up the stories of other Old White Men and their man pain.
Now, I’m not saying that manly stories of man pain are bad, or that a well-crafted narrative can’t touch on universal struggles and truths that transcend race and gender. That is something that Mad Men, at its best, certainly does do. And hell, Supernatural has man pain aplenty. The problem is that our culture holds up these stories, this one flavor of apple, as the only story that matters, at the expense of dismissing and diminishing the value of all others.
And that’s the problem. We live in a culture that has a clearly defined hierarchy of quality, and the media placed at the pinnacle reflects the values and focus of the dominant, privileged few. The very existence of written criticism and media producers reinforces this.
Let’s take a tangent into the written word for a better example. A person who writes stories cannot, according to our cultural model, call themselves a real writer or author until they are published. Not only does this delay their admission into the hallowed halls of AUTHORS until they are compensated by capitalism for their work, since that’s the only compensation that matters; but it also serves a gate-keeping function. Work only matters – that is to say, is legitimate – when it has been filtered through literary agents, publishers, editors and critics. Each circle ostensibly refines the quality of the work, leaving only the very best to be published and celebrated…maybe. But these are just the opinions of those privileged few. A person like me, who is more concerned with just telling interesting stories and sharing them with readers is not an author, even though I’ve worked as hard as any other writer on my craft. This is because we rely on the establishment, and not ourselves or even our audience, to declare what is quality, what is good and what is worthy.
The thing is, that in this day and age, media gatekeepers are becoming more and more obsolete. The establishment is still there, but the audience I care about – which the establishment doesn’t really regard as worthy even of its time, is easily accessible to me with the click of a mouse.
To bring this back to television, it begs the question: why do we even care about awards or critical acclaim for the thing we love? I think it is because, even though the establishment represent the tastes and views of the privileged and powerful, because they are privileged and powerful we are programmed to believe we, and the media we consume, need their approval. The culture tells us that things we enjoy should be guilty pleasures – implying that we should actually be ashamed of what we love and are entertained by when it falls outside the strict parameters of quality the establishment has declared. We believe that if what we love is blessed by the establishment that we in turn will absorb some reflected power and importance ourselves.
And that’s utter bullshit.
A perfect world, for me, would have no awards at all. Because what matters about a story is not if someone else says it’s good or worthy. What matters is what YOU think. What WE think. We, the fangirls and nerds, the housewives and obsessives, we are just as important as an Emmy voter. We do not need to rely on gray-faced old men to tell us what is worthy any more than we should listen to them when it comes to what to do with our bodies or our money.
Every story, on some level, is worth telling.You are the one who should decide what you like and what stories are important to you. The quality of one does not diminish the quality of another. And that empowering, to me at least.
As wonderful as it would be to hear the academy agree with me that Jensen and Tatyana are two of the most talents people on television, I don’t need them. My opinion is as important and legitimate as theirs because it is mine.
…of course we can all agree that Glee really sucks since last season, right? 😉
“Establishment Culture, or Why Supernatural is Just as ‘Good’ a Show as Mad Men” ©fangirlingthebook, originally posted in January 2014
The article is very interesting, but I have to confess that, as a female, I have a hard time comparing the quality of Supernatural to that of Mad Men too… Maybe it is because I never quite got into Supernatural (I watched the first three seasons and it just didn’t catch…), or maybe I just quitted before it reached its peak… The thing is, I watched those seasons of Supernatural way after my first episodes of Mad Men and I can’t remember almost anything about them, while I remember a lot of things from Mad Men’s first seasons as if I had watched them yesterday. Certain colours, certain camera angles, certain ideas. I remember Supernatural as well-done, but not particularly special.
I do think Supernatural is a solid show, but I don’t even think it is the best in its genre, while I find Mad Men a bit more unique and experimental (sometimes with bad results). If you had pick two other shows, maybe I would have find the comparison easier, but I struggle with the choice! Maybe I should try Supernatural again.
All this about the shows said, I do think that actors should indeed receive credit where it is deserved independently of the show. If anything encouraged me to stay in Supernatural as long as I did, it was certainly the actors, who were excellent in their roles and got the chance to show a wide range of emotions. Orphan Black has the strongest acting I’ve seen, it reminds me of United States of Tara but on a whole new level.
Definitely things to think about. Thank you for such an insightful text!
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