Dean being effemiphobic, bisexual, the adult child of an alcoholic who struggles with substance abuse himself, having his sex drive affected by PTSD and depression. Sam seeking domesticity, having a narcissistic streak because of his childhood, being good at code switching, going into emotional shutdown when grieving. Castiel’s questionable capacity for certain emotions, complex sexuality, struggles with agency, suicidal despair and guilt over his body count in Heaven, devotion to Dean.
History. Phobia. Subconscious. Instinct. Impulse. Trauma. Predilection. Habit.
All the building blocks are there…or at least we think they are. And they form clear images to meta writers…or at least we think they do. Where does observation cross into overanalysis when discussing the psyches of fictional characters? Is it even possible to reasonably put a fictional individual “on the couch”? Is there any way to determine who’s right in something like that? Does the actor know? The writer? Does a right answer exist? How well can we know someone else’s creation? Are we just, as so many people - including sometimes authority figures such as parents, friends, or teachers - accuse us, just being silly, obsessive fan twits?
I would argue yes to the analysis, no to twits, and in fact take it further to say that we have the ability to analyze many fictional characters more completely and accurately than any “real” people, including ourselves, and that far from being invalid, it actually helps us apply these principles to non-fictional individuals.
With fictional characters, we are granted the detachment of dealing with someone other than ourselves, the much-vaunted advantage of third-party perspective. At the same time, however, we are granted an astounding amount of information. We see them in the moments when no one is watching, at their times of greatest extremity, making choices weekly that a normal person might be driven to once in a lifetime, and are even sometimes offered the opportunity to hear their private thoughts through telepathic plot devices or voice-over reveals. We are often even given similar information on the people who influence them most closely - parents, siblings, lovers, friends – and even insights to what they may have done or who they may have been under difference circumstances. Small wonder that we connect to them so profoundly…we are literally offered more intimacy with them than anyone in the real world.
It is literally no exaggeration to say that we, as the audience, know more about Dean Winchester than his brother, his father, his partners, his psychologist (if he had one), any similar person in our own life…or Dean himself, were he real. Given that it is considered acceptable to analyze real individuals on a fraction of the data, why should analysis of a fictional character be invalid? I’d like to offer argument against the three most common reasons I’ve seen presented.
You have no right to try to analyze him, you’re not a professional.
The reason that proper certification is vital for “real” psychoanalysis is accountability. When one is dealing with a non-fictional individual, the potential for harm is substantial, especially if one has the authority to prescribe medication, file reports with law enforcement, or require hospitalization and/or medical treatment against the patient’s will. As a result, not only is it vital to require that people given such authority be held to minimum standards of training, but that they also be licensed to provide both an atmosphere for peer review and a structure for professional regulation and, if necessary, sanction.
With a fictional character, there is no potential for harm. If I am completely wrong about everything I’ve ever written about Dean Winchester, it doesn’t change his life one whit. I can’t put him in jail or in a mental hospital, I can’t prescribe him medications, I can’t even make suggestions that he change his behavior. I can’t hurt him. This is the same reason there are no restrictions on psychoanalysis of historical figures.
Ironically, at the same time, the value of my work is determined by the exact same methods as it would be if I were a licensed professional: peer review, comparison against existent works, and ‘patient outcome.’
By posting my meta in a forum that encourages open commentary and exchange of ideas with peers who have full access to the same basal data from which I was working – far more completely than if I simply offered transcripts or recordings or charts from patient sessions, which would be considered sufficient in a true professional format – my conclusions are subjected to rigorous scrutiny. Arguments may be made about “BNFs” or “shipper wars” or “fishing for followers” influencing such review, but is this really so radically different than the potential bias of university rivalries, famous experts, or sponsored studies?
Further, the internet has opened up massive amounts of data previously available only to licensed professionals to the layman. Studies, papers, textbooks, pop psychology, and even the DSM itself…and all the professional critiques thereof. I may not have attended university to attain a degree in psychology, but I can get more information from Google in a month than a university department chair could in an entire career two generations ago, and all that data is also at the fingertips of my potential critics. If I’m spouting total bullshit, I can be called on it, not just with emotional rhetoric, but with cold hard research.
And of course, there is the ‘patient’ themselves. While I might not be able to influence Dean’s behavior, my analysis can be compared against it. If I claim that he has been raised to consider his greatest value to be his capacity as a protector figure and then in the next episode he states (without sarcasm, possession, or other extenuating circumstances) that nothing matters as much to him as how good a mechanic he is, my analysis becomes at the very least suspect, if not entirely discredited.
With the liabilities of amateur analysis diffused by the lack of patient vulnerability and a framework established for comparative review of content quality, we are left with a strongly positive practice. By analyzing fictional characters, both the analyst and the reader are encouraged to lead Socrates’ “examined life.” In understanding Dean’s spectrum-based bisexuality, for example, one might recognize it in oneself, or at least be more open-minded towards others and recognizing of societal biphobia and bisexual erasure. In fostering consideration, empathy, and learning about mental health, societal constructs, and behavior patterns, it can be a powerful force for positive personal and interpersonal growth in fandom and beyond.
- You’re reading too much into things.
Ah yes. Sometimes a cigar is just a cigar. True, of course, but it’s also sometimes a phallus – especially when inserted in an intern – or an addiction, so the question becomes how we know when?
This is a thing no more and no less true in fiction than in life, and the answer to the implicit question is patterns. While it’s entirely possible that on a given day, I might just happen to stop by Five Guys for a burger and that means nothing, if I do it often enough for it to form a pattern – or conversely, it’s a radical departure from an established pattern – it’s worthy to look at it as an act of significance. The objective importance of an act cannot exist; acts take on or lose significance only as pieces of a pattern within the framework of life circumstances.
For my father to have a burger for lunch is a reflection of the importance of habit for him, clinging to traditions he has held since childhood despite warnings from his doctors that if he does not change his diet in specific regards to cholesterol, calories, and sodium, he might literally die. On the other hand, for Chris Hemsworth, it might simply be a utilitarian means of meeting the high calorie and protein demands of the body type required for Thor, whereas for someone who is usually a vegan like Kevin Tran, it is a sign of psychological collapse and the abandonment of ideals.
These patterns come into play whether we recognize them or not. I often see it insisted that finding patterns in a fictional character is ridiculous because someone like Dean is the product of so many outside influences, and that Jensen himself isn’t trying to show Dean as fitting the behavior structure of the adult child of an alcoholic, etc. Analysis of his eating patterns will be met snidely with an interview clip where Jensen says he just had the impulse to do a bit of business with cocktail sausages in 1.14 and the writers “ran with it.” That is a gross oversimplification and dismissal of three vital things.
First, it would imply that real people never go around tailoring their behavior to particular things, do things on impulse that have significance, or that we don’t have influences from other people. Maybe Dean stands in a particular spot this time because the director needed to hide the box Richard Speight Jr. was standing on to get in frame…but if he usually stands between an untrustworthy figure and the door, that’s a valid point to consider.
What I did with my night last night was determined by a fertilizer factory in Texas blowing up…but I do have a pattern of abandoning sleep in favor of other people requesting emotional support. This is the exact reason that it’s patterns, not moments that are most important, and why it is valid criticism to suggest that someone is overanalyzing an individual moment but ignorant and reductionist to dismiss a pattern out of hand.
Second, it very often displays a disturbing dismissal of the writers’ and especially Jensen’s professionalism and intelligence. I see this applied to Dean far more often than Sam, the idea that he “just wouldn’t consider it that deeply,” and it’s frankly an expression of a very nasty societal concept that is usually applied to women but, like many other misogynistic tropes, gets applied to Jensen by certain segments of fandom. Nice, pretty, or smart…pick two.
EVERY TIME a coworker or other industry professional is describing Jensen Ackles seriously, certain traits are mentioned. That he’s incredibly hard-working, lacking in ego, kind, intelligent, and committed to his craft. There’s that pattern thing again.
As an actor, his craft IS understanding his character deeply, especially one that he has been portraying consistently for eight years, and especially when again, third parties praise him over and over and over again specifically for how intricately he understands Dean. Research is part of that, as is understanding the principles of psychology, and he has access to all the information we do about Dean and more. Why, then, would it be such a stretch to suggest that he has done the homework on the adult children of alcoholics, PTSD, or other factors that fans have noted as prevalent in Dean’s character and might be applying that to his performance deliberately?
And writers? Homework’s part of the deal. Open a good book on writing some time; the majority of it is dedicated to creating psychologically accurate character models, and the rest on following and knowing when not to follow the tropes and shapes and principles of storytelling to manipulate the psychology of the media consumer.
Last but not least, patterns matter subconsciously in fiction for the same reason they do in real life. Sure, maybe Jensen was just sitting there on the couch and decided to do some business with the cocktail weenies. But why did he feel, in character as Dean, uncomfortable with just being still? Because Dean doesn’t usually dress up and impersonate a priest, whereas Sam, who is much better at class-based code-switching, does not get similarly fidgety and nervous. And why go for those, vs the other things on the table? Because a “guy like that” isn’t going to go for the “rabbit food.” Which again says a lot of somethings.
People do stuff for reasons, real or fictional. Just because they aren’t always considered doesn’t mean they aren’t there or don’t matter, especially when they are repeated often enough to form patterns. Yes, sometimes someone does something “out of character” because of bad writing. But there are just as many outliers in real life where someone will do something “out of character” because it was a Thursday immediately following the vernal equinox and what the hell. Yes, Dean’s life is massively regulated by the needs of the one hour serial drama format. Real people’s lives are massively regulated by the needs of social structure and the need to pay rent and put food on the table. Individual actions and reactions are still dictated more strongly by personal patterns, and even if the creative team aren’t specifically asking “what would psychological type X do in this situation,” I guarantee they are creating based on “what would a Person Like John Doe do in this situation.”
No, neither Jensen nor Dean were probably thinking about effemiphobic stereotypes, ancient gender role practices of prioritizing fatty cuts of meat for hunters and warriors, classist code-switching, compartmentalized morality in usurping authority figure positions, or disordered eating habits in the moment they reached for that little sausage. But all those things come into play in what made the choice “just feel right” both to him and the writers who picked up on it. You weren’t thinking about the interplay between your visual and verbal cortex and the reflection of the pattern of light and dark pixels off the cones and rods of your eye being transferred to language and abstract concepts in the process of reading this, but that’s been what’s happening all along.
- But I don’t agree with your interpretation, I think….
Great! Tell me your interpretation of the data, and we can compare it and debate it in a public or private forum as you prefer! See, it’s not an exact science, and it’s ever evolving. If Dean weren’t fictional and were to go to ten different – real, credentialed, leading, super-respected – psychologists, all their interpretations and diagnosis would probably be a little bit to a lot different, though they’d all probably agree on certain points, like that the dude has a seriously iffy relationship with substance abuse, particularly alcohol.
There’s room for evaluation from multiple perspectives, re-evaluation as new material is received, and re-evaluation as the character changes. Sometimes, someone might be empirically, objectively wrong – and that’s relatively easy to catch via application of logical and rhetorical principles cross-referenced on available data, as I discussed earlier – but more often, they’ll simply have different opinions and interpretations and possibilities. Each of those have value, and each of them are worth discussing and evaluating to determine which you agree with most.
And if you think something completely different, you’re encouraged to create your own analysis! It really is a beautifully democratic and borderless process. As long as you are willing to treat other fans and their opinions with basic courtesy, there is room for as many opinions as there are consumers of media, though it is natural for individuals to congregate into schools of thought around those who express commonly held or noted ideas particularly eloquently. This doesn’t mean that they’re sheep or stupid or can’t think, it means that a lot of people quote Maya Angelou because not many people can express themselves like her but almost all people have experienced the feelings she writes about so beautifully.
And before I wrap, I’d like to point out just one other thing….
The field of modern psychology was pioneered by Dr. Sigmund Freud. While most of his specific theories have been since debunked completely or at least radically altered, his basic premise – that the human mind actually does function according to patterns that can be studied, analyzed, and harnessed – has been one of the most significant advances of the modern era, affecting everything from warfare and advertising to the gradual realization of mental illness and neuroatypicality as medical and social issues rather than character defects or spiritual curses. He introduced the modern concept of therapy, as well as developmental stages. And his work included groundbreaking analysis of Oedipus, Electra, and Hamlet…who, by the way, has also been analyzed by such academic nobodies as Goethe, Lacan, Jung, Heilbrun, Showalter, Coleridge, and Voltaire.
So perhaps intradiegetic psychoanalytical fictional character meta isn’t just the provenance of silly fans after all.
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