And Now Kiss: An Introduction to Shipping
At a party, a friend of mine who had been only casually involved in fandom turned to me and said, “Today, I was introduced to the concept of ‘shipping’.”
I put a hand on her shoulder and replied, “You’ve taken your first step into a larger world.”
If the word “shipping” makes you think of incoherent sobbing, overwhelming emotions, and really dirty porn, I imagine you’re probably nodding and making noises of agreement, right now. If, on the other hand, you’re confused about what feelings and porn have to do with FedEx and handling fees, this post is for you.
Say there’s a TV show that you like, and the Protagonist has a
boring and lazy will-they-won’t-they romantic thing with the Love Interest. You and most of the people who watch the show cannot wait for Protagonist and Love Interest to get together, and sometimes you talk to other viewers about the romance and what you’d like to see happen between the two characters. When the almost-couple shares a moment on-screen, you squee.*
That, my friend, is shipping at its most basic. You’re a fan of a text (show, movie, book, etc.), and you’re invested, to whatever extent, in the romantic relationship between two characters. Congratulations, you are a shipper.
Okay, now, wait a second. I can hear you rolling your eyes and saying, well, obviously I’m invested in that relationship; that’s what a story’s supposed to do. Sure, okay, if the writers are doing their job, then of course you should be pulling for those characters to get together.
How about this: the Protagonist on your show also has a Best Friend, with whom they spend a lot of time and go on lots of adventures. They have really great chemistry, and, as the show goes on, you start to wonder if maybe it would be cool if they weren’t just friends. Maybe they could be friends and make out, too. Maybe you spend a lot of time thinking about this. Maybe it gets to the point where you have a hard time imagining either character hooking up with anybody else.
You have now discovered your first One True Pairing, or OTP. Well done.
But wait! In season three, Love Interest also develops more of a personality and is allowed to grow as a character, renewing your interest in seeing Love Interest and Protagonist live happily ever after! You don’t want to let go of the great love between Protagonist and Best Friend, though, so maybe you start to imagine… things… like the three of them… together. At this point, you might be having a shipping crisis, but, at times like this, it helps to remember the fannish saying: The only resolution to a love triangle is a threesome.
Sound good? Good. You now have what we like to call an OT3. Feel free to increase the number as needed.
At this point, some of you are probably wondering if I’ve lost touch with reality. Sure, I admit, a polyamorous relationship isn’t likely to show up on mainstream American television any time soon, but that’s the point of shipping.
As of a casual study run in August of 201, out of the twenty-five most-written relationships on the Archive of Our Own (AO3), all but two were romantic relationships between two men. I probably don’t have to tell you that there’s not a lot of gayness running around in most mainstream western media, and, of those twenty-three ships, only two are explicitly canon (i.e. featured in the published text). So that gives us twenty-one sets of boyfriends with hundreds of thousands of words written about them and little-to-no official basis for even existing.**
So, why? Why do we invest so much time and energy in something that will probably never be acknowledged outside of a relatively small community? The simplest answer, in general, is because we can, with the additional justification: because we want to. Fan fiction gives audiences a space in which to express and play with ideas and desires that can’t or won’t be given a voice elsewhere, often because they focus on marginalized types of relationships.
There are a lot of factors at work in the wonderful world of shipping, but one I want to mention is the ladies. That is, the vast majority of fan fiction writers and readers (and the simple majority of media consumers) are women. By contrast, the vast majority of media creators and producers are men, which means, however you slice it, that women’s perspectives straight up aren’t getting shown in any significant way. The answer, obviously, is for women to take the stories we love and make them into whatever we want them to be.
Apparently, what we want them to be is lots of attractive men crying and giving each other blow jobs. Which, y’know, there are worse choices.
*If I have to explain to you what “squee” is, you have no joy in your life, and I pity you.
**My personal OTP comes in at number nineteen, and the two characters have had a grand total of one interaction on-screen. Forty-seven seconds FTW!