Put on your thinking caps and check out this fascinating article by guest author PurpleHairedWonder.
How the Power Shifts in the Show Represent the Evolution of Modern Storytelling
Modern storytelling spans many mediums beyond print. Television shows and films tell increasingly expansive, involved stories with complex characters that can arguably rival even the traditional greats of novels. Meanwhile, metafiction has become particularly popular in recent years. It has helped shape narratives in new, imaginative ways, exemplifying experimental modern storytelling. Novels like Nabokov’s Pale Fire, a fictional collection of criticism on a fictional poem, and films like Stranger Than Fiction, which features a story about a man who finds out his life is being written as a novel in which he is fated to die, are prime examples.
And then there is Supernatural, with its infamous fourth-wall-eviscerating episodes.
In an era of social unrest and media digitization, the identity of narrative has come under question. Roland Barthes’ seminal lit theory essay “The Death of the Author” declares the death of the author’s power over the narrative and instead invests that power in the reader. But we can take that a step further. If the reader owns writing, then the audience owns the narrative, meaning that popular entertainment—the embodiment of modern storytelling—is the new frontier. And the prevalence of metafiction, such as in shows like Supernatural, is one way that shift has become apparent.
What is metafiction?
So what is metafiction? This is fiction, according to literary critic Patricia Waugh in Metafiction: The Theory and Practice of Self-Conscious, that “self-consciously and systematically draws attention to its status as an artefact in order to pose questions about the relationship between fiction and reality.” Or, in non-academic-ese, metafiction is fiction that is not only aware of its construction as a fiction, but also makes outright reference to that fact. The goal is to make the reader uncomfortable and question the line that exists between the fictional realm within the text and the world he or she inhabits.
The rise of metafiction
Self-reflexive fiction has become increasingly prevalent since the 1960s. Many critics see this as a reaction to political upheaval, as societal unrest leads to questions about the self, about natural order, and about culture. Metafiction’s rise in popularity has also coincided with the technology-based evolution of storytelling. As film and television have become staples of the American entertainment industry, the craft of storytelling has had to shift to accommodate new mediums.
And metafiction has appeared across these mediums through this shifting landscape. Though metafiction has mainly been defined in the literary realm, it is simply, according to Waugh, “an elastic term which covers a wide range of fictions.” And, as the evolving narrative indicates, fictions can be found across many mediums and thus described as metafictional. It is the process, not the medium, that matters. In essence, “the lowest common denominator of metafiction is simultaneously to create a fiction and to make a statement about the creation of that fiction.”
In the tradition of fiction about fiction, filmmakers instead “film that they film the filming” and “television shows are increasingly concerned with television shows,” writes critic Winifried Noth in “Self-Reference in the Media.” Television shows about people who make television shows? Films about filmmaking? We’ve all seen them.
The media has been enveloped by the intertextuality prevalent in literature, preferring to make allusions over original work. But that is not to say that there is nothing original in the media anymore. Rather, Noth adds, “self-reference is at the root of every medium. Each individual medium has a historical precursor to which it refers back in media history.” And this is true of literature as well, which habitually alludes to older works, particularly the Bible and those of Shakespeare.
Intertextuality and cinema: “Hollywood Babylon” in a nutshell
Like literature before it, “[p]opular entertainment constructs a world of complex allusions to the fabrications of the entertainment industry itself. Nowhere is intertextuality more manifest than, for example, in the structures of cinema,” writes Vincent Colapietro in “Distortion, Fabrication, and Disclosure in a Self-Referential Culture.” This brings to mind Supernatural’s second season episode “Hollywood Babylon,” which was the show’s first foray into the metafictional realm.
In this episode, Sam and Dean work a job on a Hollywood film set. Film buff Dean takes on the job of a P.A., which Sam assumes are “kind of like slaves.” The episode goes on to poke fun at everything from the actors—referencing Jared’s previous role on Gilmore Girls—and crew—actual executive producer McG is an over-the-top director for the film—to logic of the show—questioning salt as the condiment of choice for dispelling ghosts or why ghosts appear for summoning rituals—and criticisms from the network “suits”—producer Brad in the episode complains the horror film is too dark and depressing, echoing complaints series creator Erik Kripke received about Supernatural.
This episode teems with intertextuality, meshing allusions to the industry that spawned the series and the people working on the series with a typical monster-of-the-week type episode in which Sam and Dean hunt a supernatural entity without advancing the overall plot arc of the season. It is a television episode—cinematic narrative—about filmmaking. Season three’s “Ghostfacers” is also a direct parody of reality shows like Ghost Hunters, making it another episode about television and, therefore, intertextual.
So where are we going with this? Why should we care about self-referential fiction, especially when it has to do with our favorite show? Because, by taking Barthes’ theory of the death of the author, we see a shift in power dynamics. And in metafictional narratives, this shift happens not just once, but twice. When it comes down to it, the power of metafiction comes from the fact that, regardless of the medium, these types of narratives give power to the characters and the readers, actually representing a double death of the author.