Supernatural alums Nicki Aycox and Rachel Miner, who both portrayed the demon Meg Masters, share their thoughts on how, despite being male-dominated, the show actually fosters a great environment for women.
Supernatural is, let’s face it, not the first television show one thinks of in a positive light when one talks about feminism or diversity — it’s a show about two presumed-straight white men and an allegedly genderless angel, currently inhabiting another other presumed-straight white man. It’s copped a lot of flack for that less than inclusive dynamic, but when I binge-watched the show for the first time this summer, I was surprised to find that it wasn’t as bad in this respect as the internet had always made it out to be.
Yes, the show has no female lead characters. Yes, we’re all agreed that the death of Charlie Bradbury was gratuitous and unnecessary, a step too far and an LGBT death to boot, and I’ll always call Bela Talbot the show’s hugest waste of potential. Yes, “fridging” has definitely occurred on Supernatural, but the whole deal with the Winchesters has always been that they never get to hold on to any human beings that they love — male or female. Bobby Singer was fridged for Winchester manpain just as much as Jessica Moore was.
But a lot of the Winchester-adjacent women who have survived – from Kevin’s mother Mrs. Tran, hunter’s daughter Krissy Chambers and Castiel’s vessel’s daughter Claire Novak, sheriffs Jody Mills and Donna Hanscum — are resourceful, smart, realistic, inspiring, diverse examples of women we’d like to meet out there in the real world, and the supernatural or villainous women — Billie, Rowena – are just as smart and resourceful and as richly developed as any guest star on any show I’ve ever seen.
Supernatural does not, inherently, seem to me to have a problem with women. It just doesn’t happen to be about women. Does that ultimately make it a negative – or dare I say misogynistic — environment for women to be a part of, either on- or off-screen? I don’t necessarily think so, but to get some more insight on this, I spoke with Nicki Aycox and Rachel Miner — the two incarnations of Meg Masters — at Oz Comic-Con in Sydney.
The actresses portrayed the intrinsically loyal demon, who was eventually an ally to the Winchesters, in very different eras of the show, and appeared together on a panel to talk about Supernatural with Australian fans. They’ll be repeating the experience at Oz Comic-Con Brisbane this weekend, but a certain comment from their first panel in Sydney — plus a coincidentally well-timed tweet from fellow female Supernatural actress Kim Rhodes, who plays Jody and who’s currently on set, inspired this conversation between myself and the two actresses on Sunday afternoon.
Our chat diverged from Supernatural itself — between the two actresses, Meg’s tenure on the show lasted from season 1 to season 8 — to touch on many important points regarding the treatment of women on- and off-screen in the entertainment industry and how those two aspects are separate issues which inform one another, a fascinating and enlightening discussion which we are reproducing in full here.
When you were asked about working with the cast, the first thing that you praised was the way they that treat women, and that’s what I was interested in talking about – the environment for women, working on Supernatural. Somewhere along the way it got this bad reputation about women — mostly onscreen issues. A few years ago there was a little bit of drama – Misha Collins shocked some people by calling the show “gratuitously misogynistic” and it shook the boat a bit, and then last year the death of Felicia Day’s character shook the boat as well. But I just binge-watched the show fairly recently and I didn’t feel like — onscreen — women were treated particularly badly, compared to men. A lot of women die, a lot of men die, a lot of people die… but you mentioned the stuff behind the scenes was very positive.
I wondered how that might translate into what we see with the portrayal of female characters in Supernatural onscreen. Nicki, you mentioned that the character of Meg Masters was created in conjunction with yourself and the writers, and that was in that bubble of time before Supernatural started airing. Can you talk a little about how that process was unusual or positive for the time, in your experience?
Nicki Aycox: I never saw that side of Supernatural that some people have said is there, the misogynistic thing. That was not the experience for me. When I went onto the show they were very open and they had many discussions with me about this character and and how we’d create the character. That wasn’t a normal thing that production did during that time. For the most part, women weren’t given a lot of say or creative time with their characters, they were just kind of told to go where they go and say what they’re supposed to say.
I think that was a very forward and progressive way of bringing a female onto the show, so I actually think Supernatural was great in that sense because TV wasn’t doing it a lot. For me, I give that credit to Kim Manners, because Kim Manners [Supernatural’s late executive producer and director, who oversaw day-to-day production on set in Vancouver] was actually the one that sat down with me at dinner and said “hey, you’re here now, you’re in Vancouver, what can we do with this character?” So it was him that brought that in and allowed me to sort of create the character as well, and nobody argued about it, so I think they were very positive.
Rachel Miner: I want to throw something else in, which is that there are a couple of different issues, and I think they need to be separated out, which is firstly how in general women are represented in film and television, versus the fact that it’s totally okay to have a creative show and have it be about two brothers. It is a male-dominated show, but that’s the story they’re telling and I don’t think there’s anything wrong with that.
On the other hand I will say there needs to be a balance in that I want TV shows that are about strong women and intelligent women and all of those things. I think it’s very important to know that’s not what this was created for and what it’s about and what means so much to so many people. Does that make sense?
Yeah — equity and equality are not the same thing.
Nicki: The female debate is not a Supernatural problem, it’s an industry problem…
Rachel: Right, it’s [a problem with] humanity and the world…
Nicki: It’s humanity and the world, it’s not just the entertainment industry.
Rachel: So I don’t think that those two problems should be combined, because I also think it’s really important as an artist to have artistic freedom. To tell a certain story.
Nicki: You want to tell a story about men, tell a story about men.
Rachel: That’s right. And you don’t need to feel like you have to fulfill everyone’s needs every time that you create a piece of art, because it’s only going to make certain people happy, and it’s impossible. You cant tell a good story and then be completely fair to every human being that needs to hear everything. So that’s why I think the beauty of art is that there are many many many stories to tell.
Nicki: Could the industry open up a little bit and give more material to women or minorities? Absolutely.
Rachel: In general, yes, absolutely.
I completely agree that not every thing has to tick every box as long as boxes are being ticked equally across the board…
Rachel: Exactly, that’s exactly right.
So we’ll try to keep those factors in mind. Firstly, let’s talk about how and why – despite the story being about two men, or four men, or whatever you want to call it — Supernatural is still a great environment for women, as actors, to be a part of.
Rachel: I think that’s the human factor, it just happens that the people working on that show, across the board, are really really good people, and it’s a rare thing. I have to say, as an actress, I’ve run into — a lot of times you’re not in a really, totally comfortable place. It’s kind of like you have to thread the needle very carefully in terms of not upsetting or offending, and maintaining decent working relationships, but not having your sexuality be at play. Because it’s often an issue and its often an uncomfortable issue and there’s often very uncomfortable moments. And I’ve never had even the slightest bit of that on the Supernatural set.
Nicki: No, I haven’t either.
I wanted to ask Rachel specifically about this, cause this is a bit, like, cards on the table here, but you had that naked torture scene [season 6’s “Caged Heat”] which is a very vulnerable thing to shoot. And I wanted to know, if you’re happy to talk about it, was that a positive experience for you?
Rachel: It absolutely was. And I have to say, it’s one of the only sets, cause I’ve done similar kinds of scenes, and it’s one of the only sets where I did that and actually felt totally comfortable. The people are really nice — even the whole crew and everything, there is no kind of skeezy behavior, and usually — like, I’m forgiving. But usually there’s at least a couple of people who are trying to do something that’s a little inappropriate in those moments. And you kind of get used to it — I’ve gotten fairly tough-skinned with that stuff.
But it’s an anomaly that that set does not have that at all. I don’t think it would be allowed. I think any of the people who run the show, who’ve been around forever, the producers or the actors, even sniffed that someone had done that, that person would not be there the next day. [to Nicki] Did you have the same type of…?
Nicki: Yeah. I never felt uncomfortable. There was not for one moment, not for one second, I was never asked to do anything that I was uncomfortable with. As a matter of fact, this is very interesting and I can say this now, I probably wouldn’t have said it in the past, but Kim Manners worked with me on another show on FX called Over There and I had my first part of a nude scene in that episode that he shot. And he came to me the day that we were going to shoot it, and said “I just want you to know that they came to me and they said — we had a meeting — and they said, ‘Get as much nudity as you can.’ Did you know this?”
And I said “No I did not know this. No one told me. It’s not written in the script.” He said “Well, I will do whatever you want me to do. I’m just letting you know this happened.” So we’re lucky, sometimes in the industry, that there are men out there that will come in and do the right thing and say look, this is is what people have tried to do and whatever. I was friends with Kim Manners from that moment forward.
Rachel: But also, can I just say, that’s very rare.
Nicki: It’s very rare!
Rachel: Because I have to say, like — I hope it’s less so now, I hope things have gotten better over the years. But I have to say, years and years of working, and even wonderful experiences too, where it was very rare to be on a set where you don’t have to fight with every ounce of your strength to keep things in a comfortable, decent place.
Nicki: And if you think about that, from a certain aspect, this is also a man that was creating and developing this show. The same man, that came to another show and didn’t worry about himself first. Worried about me first. To let me know that this is what happened. And he knew that he could possibly be in trouble or reprimanded or whatever for talking to me… He chose me first. A woman. That he didn’t know. So, women on Supernatural were treated and still are are treated with the utmost respect, based in the simple fact he’s the one that was kind of starting that show’s culture.
Rachel: I hope that helps answer your question.
Yeah, I think so! Obviously that’s the off-screen aspect. Onscreen, I think the main issue that people call out is that a lot of women die, or that they don’t last.
Rachel: I do think they got better. Because there was a while where I felt like… One thing I will say, and it’s not creative criticism, and it’s not atypical, but I will say the women were often sexy women who showed up for a little bit and got killed. Do you know what I mean? That’s kinda just par for the course. The show also has a certain aesthetic to fulfill, and I totally understand there’s an overall feel that they’re keeping up. It didn’t bother me but it made me happy when they started to break that mold and things started to change.
Nicki: Yeah. I would like — and this isn’t just for Supernatural, it’s for any American television really — I would like to see more women that look their age and exactly how they’re supposed to look and look like they’ve been through the life experiences that the TV show is asking us to believe.
Rachel: Right, right.
I actually think Supernatural does that really well. It first struck me hard in the episode Linda Blair was in [season 2’s “The Usual Suspects”] but I think they actually have shown like an amazing range of guest star women of ages, races, lifestyles… But obviously they’re usually just one-off.
Rachel: I do too. But all I’m saying is I think that that got better. I do think that got better as the show progressed.
Nicki: Plus, you have to understand, from another side of it, people go on the show – Supernatural is a very popular show. And so let’s say that a woman goes on and she has a four episode arc, that immediately makes her in demand. More in demand than in other shows. It’s highly possible that some of these ladies got another job and left. So I don’t think it’s about Supernatural saying kill off the girls!
What do you think a show treating women well onscreen boils down to? What do you think that Supernatural did well for your character or other female characters?
Nicki: I think they brought strength to women. The actresses and everything —
Rachel: Yeah. I think women who are strong. And I don’t just mean physically strong. I mean having strength of character.
Rachel: Yeah. And intellect. Being intelligent. Being able to hold pace with men in terms of wit and so forth. And I think they’ve done all that. I know Meg was a character where I felt that was true, throughout. I don’t know if you have similar things?
I think that they quite often have women in roles that could be played by men. For example, they’ll have female doctors or sheriffs, where it could be standardized as the default man, as often happens where gender plays no part in what the character is needed for.
Nicki: Actually yeah. That’s great thing that they do. They do give women titles and positions in life that are equal to men.
Yeah. And it’s not questioned — Sam and Dean are never like “what, a woman, doing a job?” I feel like women’s role in society is actually quite normalized in that show. Which, when I heard the rumors like “oh yeah this show’s so bad about women,” I watched it and was like “No it’s not. They just die, because it’s a monster show and everyone dies.”
Nicki: Can I ask you a question? Can you give me more context on that Kim Rhodes tweet?
Oh, basically she’s doing an episode and she was on set working and she had a query about her character. Like clearly something happening in this episode they’re shooting doesn’t sit right with her in relation to something that happened in the past. And apparently that’s the kind of issue, that if you brought — I think she took it to one of the guys, and instead of being like, “it’s just in the script, whatever, go with it” they called one of the EPs and was like “hey, Kim has this concern about the character.”
Nicki: That’s great.
Rachel: And they’re very good about that. One of the things that I really first noticed is that, it’s very rare that you get lead actors who actually still care what the audience is going to think. “They’re like, no no no wait. We used the angel blade in episode whatever of the second season, the audience will know that that’s not right. Because it was lost…” and they’ll track all that stuff. I think that’s a wonderful thing and a testament to what good people they are and the fact that they really care.
Fans have reacted quite badly to female love interests for the leads – not just in Supernatural, across the board. Fandom has a history of resenting women introduced as love interests for male characters they’re invested in. It’s another aspect of pop culture that’s getting much better, but it happens. Also, putting it lightly, and again certainly not exclusive to Supernatural — a lot of fans are more interested in reading the relationships between male characters rather than accepting a new female. Do you think that’s a reaction less about interest in sexuality and more about interest in two fully fleshed-out characters, which newly-introduced women sometimes don’t get the chance to be?
Rachel: I think that’s an ownership kind of love. Part of what happens when you totally fall in love with a show is you almost — I don’t personally have this a lot, but I’ve seen people who have this, it becomes a kind of possessiveness? And so it becomes really hard when you see something that’s outside — also, outside your imagination. How you wanted to see things go. So I think there’s a rejection. I accept it, you know? It is what it is. I don’t know what else to say. It exists.
Nicki: I’ll just say I don’t think there should be any resentment toward women who come on and have relationships with the two boys.
Rachel: I don’t either. I’m just saying it’s a phenomenon.
Nicki: I’m not afraid or embarrassed to admit that I think that is a little bit petty.
I agree. I do read a lot of media through a queer lens because that is how I identify, but I don’t like that it often goes hand in hand with mostly-female fans treating canonical female characters badly. But it’s allegedly one of the quote un-quote excuses for why there’s no female characters that stay in the show for a long time. That may now be changing given the introduction of a very non-romantic female character at the end of this most recent season…
Nicki: For me that would make a lot of sense from a production standpoint. If there are issues with a fanbase when the female characters come on and have relationships with these two characters, then it’s professionally justifiable that the women wouldn’t have long runs. They’re their to keep their art and their show going, and so I would understand that.
Rachel: But again — I’m going to separate out issues — the other thing is, I have a problem with anytime that this fandom or any group, turns on each other, because the thing I love about it is that it’s such a supportive, loving place. And we encourage each other. It’s a beautiful thing.
Nicki: Yeah. I like to see the fans do that too.
Rachel: And I know it happens with the shipping, where there’s wars where it’s like “you ship this person with and I ship this and la la la!” And it’s like, let’s just embrace —
Nicki: Everything that’s wonderful —
Rachel: Everything that’s wonderful and the people and let’s knock off any of the warring or negativity. That’s a separate thing. But on the other hand I’m saying I can understand. I can look through people’s eyes and go, “I get what’s going on.” And I also think that it’s not just an issue of sexuality or anything like that. It’s an issue with those boys, that story, that story of those two brothers does mean so much to people that they don’t want anything to distract from that. So I think that that’s an aspect too.
Nicki, you started right with the beginning of the show, which was obviously dealing with the revenge of the death of their mother and the brothers coming together for that. She’s just re-entered the show — not for the first time, but this time it’s for real, in present day reality as a hunter brought back to life who may be a permanent addition to the roster. What do you think that the legacy of Mary Winchester means to the world of Supernatural?
Nicki: I think that set the tone. I think that set the standard. I think that was the start of them really coming out with we are going to put strong women out into the public. And we’re going to treat them in the most strong and positive light. I think that was the decision of all of them entirely, of Supernatural, and I was really impressed at the time by it.
Australian fans can meet Nicki Aycox and Rachel Miner at Oz Comic-Con Brisbane on September 17-18 — tickets available now.
Supernatural season 12 premieres on October 13 with “Keep Calm and Carry On.”