You know, I’m always baffled by people who believe there are no girls in fandom, because one aspect of fandom was made very visible to me from the moment I first stuck my 13-year-old toe in: shipping.
If you’ve ever spent a lot of time around fan fiction, fan art, or tumblr., you’re probably familiar with the concept of shipping, which I also briefly covered in an earlier post. In that post, I gave the Wikipedia definition of shipping, but there’s also this definition from Urban Dictionary:
The act of pairing any two characters together. Lonely people do this to try to suppress their own loneliness. It usually leads to making terrible fan art.
So, is this a fair criticism? Is shipping a pathetic symptom of loneliness that leads to a plague of bad fan art? Well…in some cases it could be, but I really don’t know enough about the personal lives of shippers to make a judgement on this.
What I do know is that shipping can get intense. As alluded to in the above image, one of the biggest consequences (and I think causes) of shipping are “ship wars.” In these Internet-based, sleepless-night-driven bloodbaths, fans of different ships wage war on each other via comments, blog posts, and fan art. The arguments are often over which pairings will or will not become “canon” or officially part of the show, but these battles are just as often about which pairings would be better, even if they’re not canon in the show/book/movie.
Twilight gave us what is perhaps the most famous ship war: Team Edward vs Team Jacob.
Not being a Twihard, I’m not very familiar with why or how this ship war manifested itself. I don’t know if Team Jacob actually thought their ship would become canon, or if they just thought Jacob would be the better man for Bella. What I do know is, if you knew anything about Twilight other than sparkly vampires, you likely knew about Team Edward vs Team Jacob.
While few other fandoms are as known by the general public for their ship wars, they have proven to be a device force in many fandoms. Harry Potter fans battled it out over whether Hermione should get together with Ron or Harry. Some fans even went so far as to totally re-characterize Ron and his family as evil, greedy leeches who manipulate everyone to get their way. It wasn’t pretty.
My favorite show, Avatar: The Last Airbender also suffered an intense ship war. In fact, the TV Tropes page on ship wars uses a panel from a fan comic about Avatar‘s ship war as its main picture.
Here’s the full comic:
I’m not sure if the creators of the show anticipated the intensity of the infighting that eventually broke out, but they certainly didn’t shy away from fanning the flames after they found out what was going on.
Creator involvement in shipping can go both ways. In some cases, fans fall in love with the canon ships, but, in others, there’s a pretty strong backlash.
Take, for example, Avatar‘s sequel show Legend of Korra, which included this love square:
The thing is, many fans were unsatisfied with the relationships and how they developed on the show. So, instead of fighting it out over whether Mako (top right) should be with Korra (top left) or Asami (bottom right), many fans went with this alternative:
The most popular ship in the Legend of Korra fandom is not only not between any of the established relationships but is also between two women designed to be rivals for another character’s love.
While this isn’t an unknown concept (same sex rivals superficially competing for a third party of the opposite sex as a way to homosocially interact with each other), I doubt this ship’s popularity was something the creators of a cartoon on Nickelodeon were expecting.
Then again, maybe they did expect it. After all, Korrasami is an example of one of the more infamous products of fandom, slash fan fiction.
Slash fiction is a genre of fan fiction that focuses on interpersonal attraction and sexual relationshipsbetween fictional characters of the same sex. While the term was originally restricted to stories in which male media characters were involved in an explicit sexual relationship as a primary plot element (also known as “slash” or “m/m slash”), it is now used to refer to any fan story containing a pairing between same-sex characters. Many fans distinguish female-focused slash as a separate genre, commonly referred to as femslash (also known as “f/f slash”, “femmeslash”, “altfic” and “saffic”). The characters are usually not engaged in such relationships in their respective fictional universes.
In my last post, I mentioned the ability of fandom to transcend traditional gender roles. Slash fiction is one of the biggest ways by which fandom tends to subvert heteronormativity. Fans have been challenging the restrictions placed on character relationships by society and an often surprisingly conservative media for decades. Spock and Kirk fan fiction, for example, has existed as long as Spock and Kirk have, predating the Internet and starting in the very early days of the Gay Liberation Movement. Fans, most of them women, saw more to Spock and Kirk’s relationship than a platonic friendship; many also thought Kirk and Spock were both hot didn’t want to settle for just one man in their erotica.
The mindset that contributes to shipping is, I think, very easily drawn towards slash fiction because shippers make a habit of seeing romance where others don’t or can’t. They are drawn to seeing between the lines of character interactions to reveal what they believe to be deeper and more intimate connections. It doesn’t matter if the characters are “meant” to be together. Villains and heros who apparently show nothing but contempt for each other can, in the minds of shippers, become tragic lovers. Characters with ages decades apart can, to the right shipper, share a sexual compatibility rarely portrayed in the media.
And characters of the same sex are not bound by restrictions generated by focus groups and nervous advertisers terrified of alienating audiences uncomfortable with gay sexuality.
So, is shipping just the past time of the lonely and the pathetic? It’s true that passions run high when it comes to ship wars, and the infighting can sometimes be intense enough to drive people from the fandom. However, people who are passionate about a ship are also often passionate about the source material, which helps keep fandoms thriving. Shipping can also ad a certain freedom to these works and characters, allowing them to show flexibilities and depths not permitted by the restrictions of their original mediums.
I suppose some people would say changing or messing with the vision of the original creators/authors is defiling the source material, but I’m a literature major, and it’s our job to see connections and layers other people might miss or ignore.
So, am I saying shipping is some form of literary criticism?
I’ll let you decide while I draw some bad Korrasami fanart.