Dean is often perceived as the more masculine of the brothers Winchester. He drinks, drives and flirts his way through life, his attitude accentuated by tough-guy talk and the occasional Dirty Harry moment.
Many people have taken Dean’s particular brand of masculinity as sexism- his dismission of Sam’s mannerisms as ‘girly’, his promiscuous lifestyle, etc. I’ve always thought of these things as pretty harmless- the sexist language he most likely picked up from John, and would probably be totally shocked if called out on it, and as for the promiscuity, he seems to enter relationships with a mutual understanding of the terms.
Dean is violent, yes, but only to those deserving of violence- his moral compass is generally pretty straight, despite occasionally needing Sam to help guide it. He’s charismatic without being an attention hog. He is what keeps Sam’s heart in the right place, and vice versa. Overall, it’s not a bad kind of masculinity.
Of course, all this changes when he gets the Mark Of Cain.
There are two variations on Dean when the Mark is involved- MoC Dean and Demon Dean. MoC Dean comes before Demon Dean, and he is high on the angst- his libido is gone, as is his appetite, and he takes a dark satisfaction in violence- see Annie Alex Alexis Ann. Sam is bleeding out on one side of the room, and yet Dean turns his back and draws out the death of a vampire, shouting, ‘look at me, bitch’. It’s ugly.
Sam, however, can still get through to MoC Dean. It’s eloquent that Dean has to turn his back on Sam in the ‘look at me, bitch’ scene- as if he knows that if he meets Sam’s eyes he will cave. This, of course, is what happens in Brother’s Keeper, with the puppy-eyes moment to end all moments. Seriously, all that drama and in the end all Sam needed to do was look at Dean beseechingly.
MoC Dean is basically a bundle of angst and self-loathing. But the potential for him to become a Knight Of Hell is there, if only in the violence. It’s clear that that potential terrifies Dean- the look on his face as he repeatedly stabbed Josie Sands’s corpse in King Of The Damned, and that same look surrounded by the bodies at the end of The Things We Left Behind- not to mention the end of The Executioner’s Song.
In a way, MoC Dean is the chrysalis from which Demon Dean emerges. Demon Dean is almost an archetype of obnoxious masculinity- he hogs the mic at kareoke, looks for fights, calls the very nice woman in his bed a ‘skank’ to her face, and, horror of horrors, plays table football. Yet he seems totally content in his skin in a way that Dean rarely does.
He is also seemingly impervious to Sam. In Reichenbach, after being tortured by Cole and escaping, Sam finally staggers into the bar where Dean is sitting alone. The contrast between them is awful; Sam looks exhausted and ravaged, his arm in a sling, and is looking at Dean like he’s the centre of the universe. Dean is sleek and predatory, with his hair slicked back, moving like a big cat. Dean asks if Sam is here to kill him. Sam says no. Dean says he might have it coming. Sam’s response- ‘I don’t care. Because you are my brother. And I’m here to take you home.’
It’s a raw moment. I’m pretty sure thousands of hearts collectively broke. Dean’s response was to laugh.
The stereotype of masculinity, which does not allow for men to have emotions per se, and certainly not to express them, seemed to have prevailed in Demon Dean- he is unaffected by Sam’s pleas/loving gaze/vulnerability in that moment. Yet he is not wholly indifferent to Sam. At some point I’m going to write an entire meta on the note Demon Dean left Sam- ‘Sammy let me go’- and Dean’s attack on Sam in Soul Survivor is intensely personal. When choosing a weapon to go after Sam with, Dean rejects an axe and instead picks up a hammer. He would have been able to feel Sam’s skull caving in. He really, really wanted to make little brother bleed- suggesting that Sam has got under Demon Dean’s skin in some way, punctured what he thought was his impenetratable masculinity. The hammer Dean brandished was positively phallic, a symbol of stereotypical masculinity in itself. It makes sense that he would use his newfound ‘masculinity’ to crush his last link to humanity.
The fact that Sam could provoke him that much in the first place suggests that Dean’s new idea of manliness was more fragile than he thought. In the end it was his original, self-hating but relatively (relatively) harmless state that Sam managed to pull him back to, before the Mark Of Cain turned him into MoC Dean again. It’ll be interesting to see what changes for Dean next season now that he’s ridded of the MoC after having it for a season and a half.
In a way, the Mark Of Cain’s type of masculinity was a direct contrast to John Winchester’s teachings regarding that. John taught Dean to be the good little soldier where the Mark let him rebel against Crowley; John drilled it into Dean’s head to look after Sam, but the very nature of the MoC means that it will compel Dean to kill Sam.
Except that that is where the JW philosophy and the MoC philosophy cross over, crossing paths also with the angel vessels plotline. John said Dean might have to kill Sam, and it seems that this was the one quirk of fate the Winchesters could not bypass- even as different as John’s teachings were to those of the Mark Of Cain, they share this one identical point. Sam is what ties Dean to humanity, to childhood in a way, and so the idea of killing him is almost like a rite of passage for Dean- severing his last tie on the way to his legacy as one with the blood of Cain. Only when Sam is dead can Dean conform to the idea of masculinity that is enforced on him by the public gaze and by the Mark- perhaps on some level this is why he couldn’t hack it when Sam died in AHBL, even though it wasn’t Dean’s fault. After all, Dean still ended up with Sam’s blood literally on his hands.
Perhaps the Season Ten finale will finally have laid the spectre of fratricide to rest. Chaos is encroaching, with Death’s death and the Darkness. Destiny’s rules could be fully eradicated without a framework to hold them up- which means that Dean will not have to kill Sam.
In the end of course it was Sam who broke the Mark’s hold over Dean, broke the pull of that male ideal. Sam’s always seemed comfortable in his own maleness- in Frontierland, for example, while Dean is fussing around buying period clothes and trying too hard to fit in with manly 1850s society, Sam goes in his modern clothes and fits in just fine. He wears his hair as long as he damn well likes, drinks girly drinks, eats nothing but salad, and his hookups are so few and far between that the last one was early Season Eight, but his masculinity is only ever called into question by Dean, and it never seems to bother him. But when the shoe is on the other foot Dean is nonplussed. A prime example is in Playthings, when Dean is wondering why everyone thinks they’re gay and Sam replies easily that ‘you’re kind of butch, they probably think you’re overcompensating’. It’s barely even a tease, but Dean looks taken aback.
Sam seems comfortable in his sexuality and masculinity (if not in his sanity). Clearly he would have to be the one to save Dean from the literally demonising influence of the MoC.
And perhaps next season will see Dean settling into a less destructive brand of maleness, to go alongside a new less destructive version of his and Sam’s relationship. I’m sure we’ll all cry many tears of pure angst before then, but hey, hopefully they’ll get there.