Contributors: Jules, Kenedi
Welcome to the final article of our 2021 Pride Month Series! Each day in the month of June, we will be highlighting a different member of the LGBTQ+ community who we think is a great example of representation and dynamic characterization. We will focus on fictional characters, celebrities, and activists alike — the positive voices within the LGBTQ+ community and in mainstream media.
Ever since Castiel burst onto our television screens in a shower of sparks, he has been a fan-favorite character on Supernatural. Viewers loved him for both his quirks and angelic powers, an utterly unique character who instantly brought a fresh perspective to the show. Since his introduction, fans have speculated about whether the character identifies as queer. He is depicted as an outcast from his family of origin who eventually finds a found family and happiness in the love of his life, something incredibly relatable for queer fans. His romantic declaration of love for Dean in “Despair” confirmed fans’ reading of the character as queer, and to close out our 2021 Pride Month Spotlight series, we are taking a closer look at Castiel’s queer journey on Supernatural, the impact Castiel had within the show, and the arguably greater impact he had on a generation of fans and the world.
Cas’ Queer Journey on the Show
Throughout Castiel’s journey on Supernatural, there were many subtextual clues and narrative choices that hinted at his character’s queerness — something that caused fans to speculate for years on whether or not he could be a part of the LGBTQIA+ community.
From subtle lines like, “He’s in love … with humanity,” to more direct addresses like, “You draped yourself in the flag of heaven, but ultimately, it was about saving one human, right?” and, “Your memories, your little feelings, yes. I know what you hate. I know who you love, what you fear. There is nothing for you back there” — not to mention the countless teasing lines from villains about Cas and Dean’s relationship — it felt obvious to fans that Castiel was queer coded early on in his journey. Cas and Dean’s connection was always palpable — both on-screen and to other characters. The hunter and angel’s “profound bond” was always of note to friends and foes alike, showcased by many lines like the ones above.
Castiel’s time with the Winchesters, especially Dean, lead to a visible transformation over the years. Along with discovering free will (and pop culture), Cas discovered his beliefs, his identity. While this process happened gradually as the angel learned to navigate the nuances of humanity and emotion in general, season 9 (when he has a brief stint as a human) was a very obvious turning point in the angel’s journey of self-discovery. After having experienced what it was like to be human firsthand, Castiel became more compassionate, more attuned with his feelings. This could be seen in moments of increasing vulnerability and honesty for Castiel with lines like “You’re my family. I love you. I love all of you.” This paved the way for his character arc down the line. In accepting that part of himself, he was able to let his love for his family flourish — even more so when Jack came into the picture.
But of course, none of these small nods could hold a candle to Castiel’s beautiful yet heartbreaking confession to Dean in episode 15×18, “Despair.”
“I always wondered, ever since I took that burden, that curse, I wondered what it could be? What my true happiness could even look like. I never found an answer because the one thing I want … It’s something I know I can’t have. But I think I know … I think I know now. Happiness isn’t in the having, it’s in just being. It’s in just saying it …
I know. I know how you see yourself, Dean. You see yourself the same way our enemies see you. You’re destructive, and you’re angry, and you’re broken. You’re ‘daddy’s blunt instrument.’ And you think that hate and anger, that’s … That’s what drives you, that’s who you are. It’s not. And everyone who knows you see it. Everything you have ever done, the good and the bad, you have done for love. You raised your little brother for love. You fought for this whole world for love. That is who you are. You’re the most caring man on Earth. You are the most selfless, loving human being I will ever know. You know, ever since we met, ever since I pulled you out of Hell … Knowing you has changed me. Because you cared, I cared. I cared about you. I cared about Sam, I cared about Jack… I cared about the whole world because of you. You changed me, Dean … I love you.”
In that moment, the enormity of the significance of Cas’ metamorphosis from the cold angel we met 11 years prior to the celestial being who learned how to embrace humanity in the deepest way possible was finally realized. This beautifully written and executed speech confirmed once and for all that Castiel was undeniably in love with Dean Winchester, canonically cementing him as somewhere on the LGBTQIA+ spectrum in the Supernatural universe. Though his sexuality was never specifically labeled, this declaration meant so much to fans across the world who have always seen a part of themselves in Castiel, especially after years of wondering if their suspicions would ever be confirmed.
Cas’ Impact in the World of Supernatural
In the world of Supernatural, love was often seen as a weakness by friends and foes alike — it held too much potential for loss. Consequently, many characters (especially angels) saw Castiel’s ever-diminishing celestial powers as a consequence of the rise of his humanity, his capacity to feel love and other emotions as something that made him lesser. They were wrong. With love — love for Dean, which helped nourish Cas’ love for his found family, humanity, and the world — firmly embedded into who Castiel was as a person (er, angel), Cas managed to turn that very thing that was supposed to make him weak — his identity — into one of his crowning attributes, his greatest weapon against Chuck. Cas’ love was the one thing that was real amidst all of Chuck’s manipulation because Cas was the one thing Chuck could never even partially control.
You know what every other version of you did after “gripping him tight and raising him from perdition?” They did what they were told. But not you. Not the “one off the line with a crack in his chassis.”– Chuck
While other characters often tried to frame his love as a weakness, an intrinsic character flaw, Castiel was ultimately able to own that love and in a broader sense own who he was, all of which culminated in that confession scene that served as the character’s swan song.
Castiel’s confession shook Dean on such a deep and fundamental level, something that’s clearly demonstrated on-screen in the wake of Cas’ departure. No matter if you interpret Dean as reciprocating Castiel’s feelings or not, Cas’ confession unequivocally had an impact on the elder Winchester; in fact, it was the key that allowed Team Free Will 2.0 to defeat Chuck — in more ways than one. In addition to saving his life, allowing Dean to live to fight another day, Cas confessing his feelings allowed Dean to see himself in a different light. Throughout the show, Dean had long been shackled with the idea that he was a disposable, violent grunt who could only contribute to the world through blood — giving blood for his family and drawing blood from others. Cas’ confession gave Dean the tools to view himself through a lens of love and break free of those hateful, doubtful notions of himself that had burdened him throughout the years. In the moment where TFW beats Chuck once and for all, Chuck tries to control the narrative one last time, saying, “But this, after everything that I’ve done to you… to die at the hands of Sam Winchester … of Dean Winchester, the ultimate killer … it’s kind of glorious.” However, Dean doesn’t accept that.
See, that’s not who I am.– Dean Winchester
With those simple words, Dean breaks out of the cycle that he had been in for so long and TFW closes the chapter on Chuck’s life by burdening him with humanity — the very thing he’d forsaken. Cas’ confession played a crucial role in this, in that he helped Dean see himself the way Cas saw him and finally realize the type of man he truly was, which helped usher in Chuck’s defeat.
Cas’ legacy of love left other lasting impacts on the show. The angel’s ability to forge his own nontraditional path (from stopping the Apocalypse all the way to co-parenting the Devil’s kid) was an important example of how characters could escape the roles/cycles that fate and society placed them in. As Supernatural progressed, the theme of “family don’t end in blood” grew to be one of its greatest legacies, and Castiel played a key role in showing the impact of found family (arguably being one of the earliest and greatest examples of it in the series). Cas, the angel that was programmed to unflinchingly follow orders, came to learn and eventually embody the very concept of free will (one of the show’s biggest motifs), breaking free of the role Heaven thrust upon him and integrating himself as an ally of humanity and an essential and beloved member of the Winchester clan.
Furthermore, Castiel proved that there were different ways to be a hero than the traditionally gritty, hypermasculine models set by previous generations of hunters. Cas paved the way for characters like the Wayward Sisters, Cesar and Jesse, and Charlie, integrating nontraditional depictions of love and familial structures into “the life.” Though his celestial powers may have declined as a byproduct of his love as he became more and more human, this didn’t make him any less of a formidable weapon. While other characters pointed out how far he’d fallen from the emotionless killing machine we first met (“too much heart”), in the end, the only way he could and did save the world was by unleashing the depth of his love rather than his angelic might.
Cas’ capacity for free will, his constant endeavor to do the right thing, sometimes doing the wrong thing for the right reasons, and the love — which should’ve been impossible — he held for his found family, humanity, and the world despite the obstacles stacked against him was his most profound impact on Supernatural, something fans will never forget.
Cas’ Impact on Fandom/Pop Culture
But Castiel’s impact went beyond the boundaries of the series itself, having a profound influence on a generation of fans and indeed fandom itself. He’s an iconic character on par with Buffy, Sherlock, or the Doctor (exemplified by the SuperWhoLock era of fandom that Castiel is one of the biggest symbols for). You couldn’t walk into a Hot Topic in the years following Castiel’s introduction without seeing a wall of Castiel t-shirts and Funko Pop!s. His trench coat and tie were a cosplayer’s dream, and seeing “Castiel” walk around convention halls became ubiquitous. Tumblr was overrun by posts about Castiel, and fans eagerly scoured episode descriptions and tuned in live for episodes in which a Castiel appearance was teased. There are many fans who only began watching Supernatural after seeing Castiel’s character in online fandom spaces and becoming intrigued enough to hunt down the show to catch up.
There was something about Cas that spoke to fans of Supernatural. Fans adored the character so much that they launched the “Save Castiel” campaign when it seemed the angel would be written off the show in season 7. The passion of the fandom for fundraising in honor of Castiel and the actor who brought him to life helped launch Misha Collins’ charity Random Acts, funding acts of kindness large and small worldwide. As we discovered when asking staff members and fans their thoughts on Castiel’s enduring popularity on the 10th anniversary of his arrival in Supernatural, Castiel means the world to fans regardless of their sexuality. Castiel’s otherness spoke to fans who felt the same way in their own lives, whether they identified as queer or not.
But as a queer-coded character from early on, Castiel especially spoke to queer fans. His “otherness” comes in the form of his being an angel and thus not human, much like the queer-coded sci-fi monsters of the past. Castiel’s role in the narrative made queer fans predisposed to claim him as one of their own even before being provided with textual evidence later. By the time “Despair” made canon what fans had long suspected and hoped for, Castiel was already a queer icon in fandom. As previously discussed, while Castiel’s declaration of love makes him unambiguously queer, there is a lot of room for interpretation of what that specifically means for Cas. This means legions of LGBTQIA+ fans can truly see themselves in Castiel.
But most importantly, Castiel caused a real-world effect that had a tangible impact on the lives of LGBTQIA+ individuals with or without a connection to Supernatural. Fans have long used Castiel’s iconic lines on posters and even dressed up as the character at Pride marches. The impact of seeing an angel of the Lord who initially symbolized conformity (and religion) openly accepting all sexual orientations on screen cannot be overstated, as evidenced by the fan reaction to Castiel’s words in “Meet the New Boss.”
“And who says you speak for God? You’re wrong. I am utterly indifferent to sexual orientation. On the other hand, I cannot abide hypocrites like you, Reverend.”– Castiel
Queer viewers, many of whom started watching the series when they were discovering their own sexuality as teenagers and young adults, fully embraced Castiel and the love he represented, with some even choosing his name as their own. As of this writing, The Castiel Project in the character’s honor has raised $64,000 to support The Trevor Project, a massive fundraising effort that goes to show how much Castiel meant (and continues to mean) to fans.
Castiel was a beacon of hope to the fans who saw themselves in him. If this angel who came off the line with a crack in his chassis could love and be loved for exactly who he was, so could they. Castiel’s love is what saves the world within Supernatural in the end, and his impact as a character is felt in the real world just as strongly. As we wrap up our Pride Spotlight series for the year, it seems fitting to end on Castiel, our angel of Thursday whose profound bond with humanity (and the hunter who taught him to love it) truly did change the world for the better.