Elizabeth Woledge, in her essay Intimatopia: Genre Intersections Between Slash and the Mainstream identifies two forms of romantic literature, described as “romantopic” literature, which occurs in the fictional universe of “Romantopia”, and “intimatopic” literature which occurs in “Intimatopia”. Romantopic literature, which is the typical heterosexual romantic type plot found in Harlequin romance novels and are characterized by romance and passion in the absence of intimacy; “although sex might provide a temporary oneness, it is a oneness enjoyed with reluctance, for the hero and/or heroine are generally ambivalent about the love they feel. It is also a temporary oneness that does not extend to other aspects of the relationship; “indeed, in romantopia, the heroine may marry the hero still marvelling at how little she knew him.” Intimatopic romance, which was first described in the context of homoerotic “slash” fanfiction, arises out of prior emotional intimacy. “Intimatopia is a homosocial world in which the social closeness of the male characters engenders intimacy… In intimatopic slash fiction the use of a homosocial backdrop is the ‘logical’ way to explore a homosexual relationship… Sex in intimatopia is used, not unlike the homosocial communities depicted, as a tool to enhance intimacy.”
Woledge associated intimatopic romance with homosexual relationships and romantopic relationships with conventional heterosexual relationships and identified different genres in which the two tend to occur. In her essay, Romantopiais associated with Harlequin, and Mills and Boon romance novels, and with mainstream romance more generally. The same ideas are also present in most Disney princess movies where the prince typically rescues the princess then marries her more or less on sight. Intimatopiais associated with slash fanfiction and a specific subset of professional homoerotic and often explicitly homosexual texts, implying that the two ‘worlds’ are entirely separate constructions.
However the idea of the two approaches to romance can be constructed much more broadly while still retaining their original uses. Stripped of their highly specific genre associations a romantopic romance is based on passionate love which develops despite a lack of emotional intimacy and is coded as heterosexual and broadly heteronormative. An intimatopic romance develops out of previously established emotional intimacy and is coded as queer. Which can be seen in the case of Sam and Dean Winchester in Supernatural.
Sam Winchester’s major relationships throughout the series are all heterosexual and have very clear romantopic elements. Sam’s first serious girl-friend in the series is the short-lived Jessica Moore. Sam’s relationship with Jessica lasted for several years and was obviously a very serious one, as it provides the emotional drive for his continued involvement in Hunting for several seasons. Yet Sam also makes it clear even in “Pilot” that he has never trusted Jessica with any details of his family life or his history with the supernatural. Following Jessica’s death he has a short lived romance first with Sarah Blake in “Provenance”, and then with Madison in “Heart”. He meets both of these women while working supernatural cases, and begins his relationship with them under entirely false pretenses, with faked careers and identities, but still manages genuine, if short-lived romantic connections both robust enough to survive both women finding out both that Sam has been lying to them about literally his entire life. Sam’s next serious relationship is with the demon Ruby. Sam and Ruby’s relationship is complex and characterized by deceit and ambivalence on both sides and ends with Ruby betraying Sam and Sam murdering Ruby in revenge, but prior to that still managed to contain genuine romantic love. After Ruby’s death at the end of season four Sam’s next major romantic relationship doesn’t occur until the beginning of season eight with Amelia Richardson. One of the first things that Amelia notes about Sam is his vagueness about his personal history, yet she specifically begins a relationship aware that Sam is concealing most of his personal history. Sam and Amelia’s relationship is probably the most romantically normative of the series. They meet by chance, develop romantic chemistry despite personal conflict and begin a relationship despite a lack of emotional intimacy. Eventually they move in together, set up house, and Sam goes through the ritual of meeting Amelia’s father (although he ultimately fails to receive his blessing) all without Sam revealing any more details of his history, even though he does learn some more of Amelia’s. Sam then leaves to meet his brother without explanation and returns just as abruptly, but Amelia is still willing to continue their relationship, even leaving her husband to do so.
Each of Sam’s major relationships follow a very clearly romantopic pattern of romantic and physical intimacy which can occur without emotional intimacy, or even in the face of Sam’s open refusal to discuss most of his life, including aspects which could, and do affect his partners. Sam’s relationships also follow a clearly heteronormative script. It is revealed in “Bloody Mary” that, having been dating Jessica Moore for nearly two years, and reaching the end of his undergraduate degree and admission to law school (which would have symbolically represented his final escape from his family and the Hunting lifestyle) he was preparing to propose to Jessica, (apparently completely without her knowledge, in classical romantic style). His romantic relationship with Amelia follows a similar elevator from bickering, to dating, to moving in together to meeting Amelia’s father. In neither of these cases did Sam share, or show any indication of planning to share, some of the most important details of his personal history.
Dean Winchester, on the other hand, has romantic relationships which, despite being with women, follow a more intimatopic relationship structure. The first real relationship (as opposed to a purely sexual one night stand) which Dean attempts to initiate is with Cassie Robinson in “Route 666”. Dean and Cassie’s relationship begins as a primarily sexual one, which Dean then attempts to escalate into a more serious romantic relationship. He does this by explaining his work as a Hunter, his most sensitive personal secret, to her. This initially fails, Cassie accuses him of lying and breaks up with him, but she does eventually call him back when she encounters a Supernatural problem, and although they never really manage to establish a true romantic relationship, they do part on good terms. Sam however, is appalled at Dean’s attempts at establishing emotional intimacy, not because they were unsuccessful, but because he views the sharing of family secrets as a betrayal, complaining that “for a year and a half I do nothing but lie to Jessica, and you go out with this chick in Ohio a couple of times and you tell her everything.” Unlike Sam, who is clearly capable of maintaining both a relationship and a level of secrecy, Dean actually uses the telling of secrets as the basis for forming a relationship (unsuccessfully in Cassie’s case). In doing so he creates the basis for an intimatopic relationship by generating emotional intimacy, and by inducting Cassie into the group of people who know about the supernatural.
Two more of Dean’s serious emotional relationships (as opposed to casual sexual partners), with Anna Milton and Lisa Braeden, follow a similar pattern. Dean initially meets Anna on a case and they go through a series of harrowing experiences together, escaping from demons, discovering that Anna was, in fact, a fallen angel, and recovering her angelic Grace. The lead up to Dean and Anna having sex is an emotionally intense and open discussion of what it means to be human and to have emotions, in which Dean both confessed many of his own insecurities and heard many of Anna’s.
Similarly, Lisa Braeden was an old sexual partner of Dean’s who he met again while working a case, during “The Kids are Alright” in season 3. During their initial reintroduction Lisa is inducted into the world of the Supernatural and Dean and Lisa bond emotionally over Lisa’s son Ben. At the end of the episode Dean leaves, and does not return until the end of season five. Lisa and Dean pursue a relationship during the beginning of season six which resembles that of a conventional domestic relationship running in reverse. Dean returns to Lisa’s house immediately after Sam’s death and Lisa consoles him and Dean lives with Lisa and Ben and acts as a domestic partner and parental figure before he and Lisa begin a romantic relationship.
All three of these relationships occur on a shorter time scale than classically intimatopic romances, and, given that they are mixed gender relationships the homosocial environments common in intimatopic genre romances are not possible, but the key features of an intimatopic romance are all present. In all three cases romantic feelings are predicated on existing emotional intimacy and all only occur when both Dean and his partner are both existing in or adjacent to the isolated Hunting community which provides the ‘social closeness’ which Woledge describes.
Dean has another relationship, with the angel Castiel, which does follow an incredibly classic intimatopic story line. Dean and Castiel’s relationship begin with an act which results in incredible emotional intimacy. Castiel rescues Dean from Hell, meaning that he sees Dean at possibly his lowest point in the series and that he is aware of (and for a long while, keeps) Dean’s most serious secret, that he tortured souls in hell. Dean and Castiel’s relationship has spanned six seasons (a majority of the show’s total running time), developing in the Hunting community but also within the homosocial atmosphere of Sam, Dean, Castiel and their immediate friends and then, briefly in the even more limited group of Benny, Dean and Castiel as they travel through Purgatory.
Dean and Castiel’s degree of emotional involvement and its expressions also become gradually more profound throughout the show. At the beginning of season four, when Castiel is introduced their relationship is largely a working one, and not an especially trusting one. By the end of the season Castiel is willing to forsake heaven in favour of remaining with Sam and Dean, shouting during an argument that “I gave up everything for you”. Cas goes on to make a disastrous attempt to resurrect Sam and to absorb souls from purgatory in an attempt to make Dean happy and spare him a life of Hunting, defending his questionable decisions by explaining to Dean that “I did all of it for you.” Despite this, Dean forgives Castiel for doing nearly irreparable damage to Sam (whose safety is usually his highest priority) and for nearly ending the world, claiming that he’d ‘rather have [Castiel], cursed or not” during their attempt to banish the Leviathans which Castiel released. In Season Eight Dean refuses to escape Purgatory without Castiel and is obviously traumatized by his inability to successfully rescue Castiel. This manifests by seeing Castiel in places he isn’t in a way which mirrors Sam’s reaction to Jessica’s death in season one. Once Castiel returns under suspicious circumstances, Dean continues to seek him out and pray to him despite his increasingly erratic behaviour and it is ultimately Dean’s desperate plea of “I need you” which allows Cas to break free of the brainwashing he had been placed under, even though he had been ordered to kill Dean and had successfully murdered hundreds of virtual copies of Dean earlier in the same episode.
Dean and Castiel’s dramatic acts of trust and emotional intimacy are classic elements of intimatopic romance. The couple have never been acknowledged as having an explicitly romantic relationship on the show, but they remain a popular pairing within the Supernatural fandom (with over 30,000 of works tagged as Dean/Castiel on AO3 at time of writing) and support for reading Dean and Castiel’s relationship as romantic is becoming increasingly mainstream. Either way, canonicity has never been a particularly critical element to intimatopic fanfiction, the ur-example of which is Star Trek’s Captain Kirk and Commander Spock.
The intimatopic romantic plot of romance which arises from environmental and emotional intimacy is an overwhelmingly queer relationship script within fictional works. It is predominantly associated with male same-sex relationships in original fiction and with queer readings of characters in transformative works, again, primarily as applied to male same-sex pairings. With that in mind, it is interesting that all of Dean’s relationships, including the ostensibly heterosexual ones, are intimatopic and therefore narratively coded as queer relationships.
The increasingly mainstream reading of Dean as a bisexual character is, of course, based partly on the combination of his relationships both with women like Cassie, Lisa and Anna, and with Castiel, but even outside of his relationship with Castiel, Dean routinely exhibits bisexual behaviour; flirting with and getting crushes on several other men as well as numerous women over the course of the series. The structure of his mixed-sex relationships then, becomes further evidence of his queerness. Even though Dean’s romantic/sexual relationships are with women and so appear heterosexual, they retain a queer (intimatopic) structure, both reinforcing the idea of Dean as a bisexual man and the idea that the relationships of a queer person remain queer even when they are visually heterosexual.
The concept of intimatopia was developed in the context of same-sex male relationships, originally connected to the idea of homosexuality arising from homosociality. However, it is more broadly applicable to a variety of queer identities. This can be seen here, but it is also embedded in the history of the original idea. Slash fandom, one of the two main intimatopic genres is concerned, is a multifandom phenomenon largely concerned with relationships between male same-sex couples, based primarily on intimatopic subtext.
The focus on white, cisgender men within slash fandom reflects a societal bias in towards that group which is also reflected in the media which slash fandoms derive from, similar pairing featuring two women are much rarer, but there are many fewer female characters for them to be based off. These are commonly described as ‘gay’ relationships but this description is largely due to bisexual erasure; most members of most popular slash ships have canonical female love interests, making bisexual a more appropriate descriptor.
But, as can be seen here, an intimatopic romance can be portrayed in any relationship, independent of the genders or specific sexual orientations of the participants. Intimatopic romance is a way of signposting the queerness or relationships which are hidden in subtext, most often homosexual ones, but it has the potential to be used much more broadly. In Supernatural, however, intimatopic relationships highlight Dean’s subtextual bisexuality through his relationships with Cassie, Anna and Lisa. But, like non-monosexual relationships asexual or aromantic characters in either romantic or queerplatonic relationships, or genderqueer or trans characters in visually heterosexual relationships, among others, are frequently erased or rendered invisible and could be highlighted using the same tropes.
 The term ‘slash’ can be used generally to refer to any fanfiction with a male/male pairing, but in this essay it will specifically refer to pairings which are based on subtext within the original work.