Reaching across all fandoms in the geek pantheon and encompassing people of different genders, races, economic status, social status and ages, the practice of Imagining two (or more) of your favorite characters from fiction in a relationship together is something that people do every day. Don’t believe me? Spend a little time reading the FanFiction tag on Tumblr. Tumblr is a shipper's paradise.
It also generates a lot of passion. Anger, joy, sadness, annoyance, sexual awakening; shipping is something different for everyone, whether they're engaging in it or just observing. As someone who “ships” and considers herself to be a pretty rational human being (put that eyebrow down) I'd like to talk to those of you with a negative opinion, especially those of you who think you'd never be the kind of person to ship anyone or anything. I have news for you ...
Everyone. In some way, somewhere, somehow, you are exactly like those people who tune into a TV show and talk about the couples (or potential couples) they love with like-minded friends. You may think shipping is a fairly recent trend, or that it's only done by tweens on the Internet or weirdos who feel the need to write fan fiction because they don't know how to have a relationship. You may not understand the passion for Destiel, Steroline, Clexa, or the more recent (and my personal favorite) Stormpilot. You may not even know what the heck those names even mean. But I guarantee you, there are people all over the world who are very invested in both the characters in each of those relationships and the stories behind them.
I believe people have been shipping since way before the Internet. It just looked different than it does today. The late '70s and early '80s had Kirk/ Spock, the '90s had Scully and Mulder, and there have been countless pairings since. How many of us would watch one of our favorite shows and hold our breath waiting for that one moment, that one line of dialogue that finally proved what we knew to be true: these people were destined for each other?
Soap operas have been feeding ships since they were invented back in the '30s. Reach back further and look Jane Austen’s books. How many readers have fallen in love with the Catherine Bennet/Mr. Darcy ship (Carcy? Darnnet? Bency?), and there's no doubt that Romeo & Juliet is a classic and still beloved ship. How about Helen and Paris? Penyssious anyone? I’m also sure that those works of fiction have their own alternate ships: Romeo and Mercutio, anyone?
Shipping doesn't stop at fictional characters, either. While Brangelina and Bennifer (both of them) may have been some of the first to incorporate the name combination, people have been shipping celebrities since there were celebrities to ship. Movie stars have been shipper fodder for decades. Why do film studios make romances? Because they know romance sells. What about the gossip magazines? The publishing business may be the greatest font of shipper based material of all time. From musicians to scientists, someone on the planet imagined a great love for anyone they admire.
According to psychologist Jared DeFife, shipping is totally normal. In an interview with Huffington Post, DeFife has this to say about both fanfic and shipping in general:
"The vast majority of people who are engaging in this are [doing so] in an affirmative, positive, socially engaging, feeling really connected with other people way. There's always this move to pathologize this process. I don't think it's a pathological one at all. I think it's really normal. I think what it says about you is that it says you care about connections and relationships to others -- as we all do. So to engage in this inherently normal."
Shipping is a way to express feelings you may not be able to express in real life. Many of us learn about what we do and don’t want in our relationships from what we read and see in fiction. But, even if it’s just about having something to swoon over, I fully believe that daydreaming is good for you, and shipping is daydreaming about love when it comes right down to it.
It builds fandom.
Like-minded people have a tendency to find one another on the Internet and, as people share and open up, more people are added to the discussion. Not only do those groups of people introduce their friends to new fandoms, thereby bringing more people into the fold, but the sense of community gives shippers the confidence to share their passions. Art, stories, convention pictures, cosplay, and discussions about those fandoms all happen in a social space for others to see and build interest.
As a steadfast Star Wars Rebels Kanera (Kanan and Hera) shipper, I’ve not only found people who ship them just as passionately as I do, but people who never saw the relationship previously who now see hints due to discussions we’ve had. My love of Star Wars has been constant, but Kanera pulled me into Rebels in a significant way, and I’ve made new friends and deepened connections based solely on the imagined love affair between two animated characters.
Star Wars shipping, fanfic, canon, and fans have been co-existing for decades. I asked Star Wars fan and blogger James Floyd if he thinks shipping helps build the Star Wars fandom and, if so, how? His answer is a great insight, so I had to include it in full.
"For any fandom, shipping is a sign of a healthy property with well-developed characters, and a solid fan base. This means that fans care about the characters as people, and put themselves into their point of view when it comes to connections with other characters. Fans who ship add value to the overall Star Wars fan community by sharing their love of their favorite characters and finding ways to better understand them. Like fans who want to dissect the technical details of the workings of the Millennium Falcon or the cinematic and mythological legacy that has influenced Star Wars, shippers dissect the mindset and motivations of characters, and use them as a springboard for their own explorations of character.
From Wackbar to Jaina's love triangle with Zekk and Jag to Poe and Finn, shipping within Star Wars has opened up the community to more people, more voices, and new ways to express one's Star Wars side. Because, at its core, shipping is projecting one's own imagination and conclusions onto a common set of beloved characters and their relationships, sharing in this community can help build a stronger culture for respect and tolerance, especially of diverse points of view. In a fandom that can sometimes be hindered by gatekeepers and "this is right or wrong" fans, shippers can be more open-minded in the world of "let's pretend." and from an entry point for the creative side of fandom: Role-playing, fanfiction, art, etc. Is Star Wars about lightsabers and starfighters? Or is it about the people who wield lightsabers and fly starfighters? It's both, and Star Wars fandom reflects that.
Because the characters and their relationships are so well developed and so watched by shippers, it makes creating new stories, whether on film, or in novels and comics, or elsewhere, a challenge: not only is there a need to maintain continuity for the details of the Star Wars universe, there needs to be a sense of continuity for a character and their development, especially when different creators push an established character into new directions. A storyteller can't just use a popular character, they have to get that character right, especially when it comes to how they interact with others within the ebb and flow of relationships. Star Wars shippers hold the creators up to a high bar -- and when the storytellers know that there is a benchmark set, they have opportunity to excel, building better Star Wars."
Jules Wilkinson, Editor in Chief of SupernaturalWiki.com had this to share regarding the very strong and passionate Supernatural shippers:
"Shipping is an integral part of any fandom – hell, of all fandoms...Shipping provides a strong point of connection for fans. In the Supernatural fandom, there is even an annual fan convention for Destiel (Dean/Castiel) fans.
Shipping is the nuclear reactor at the heart of fandom – the passion of it provides a lot of power for fandom, but prolonged exposure may cause irreversible changes! Plus when it explodes, in shipping wars, it can be very, very, dangerous.
The SupernaturalWiki has covered fandom ships, including Destiel and Wincest [Sam/Dean shippers], since our inception in 2006. We've never been part of any shipping wars, mainly because we embrace all ships!"
Fan fiction is becoming mainstream fiction.
50 Shades of Grey started as fan fiction that shipped Twilight’s Bella and Edward and became a best selling trilogy and a financial juggernaut. Publishers are actively looking to fan fiction for new stories and ideas. The After book series by Anna Todd originated as One Direction fan fiction. Death Comes to Pemberley by P.D. James was a continuation of Jane Austen's Pride & Predjudice. In a sense, it is somewhat fan fiction-esque and was so well received that it’s been made into a BBC TV movie.
“Fan fiction has absolutely become part of the fiber of what we publish,” said Jennifer Bergstrom, vice president and publisher of Gallery Books, a division of Simon & Schuster. “This is changing at a time when traditional publishing needs it most.”
All over the world, people are writing about their favorite ships and writing about them. From G-rated stories to hardcore kink, there’s something for everyone. That well of creativity has barely been tapped. Imagine what can happen once people really start looking for new talent and unearth all kinds of new stories. (Did I mix my metaphors there? Oh, well!)
One of the most recent (and utterly wonderful) examples of the fun that comes from the crossover between shipping and fandom is the new craze that’s begun on Tumblr regarding General Hux’s cat, Millicent. Millicent was the offhand and joking comment of Lucasfilm’s Pablo Hidalgo. Hidalgo is considered the Jedi Master of Star Wars lore, so even his jokes spark all sorts of Star Wars head canon (definition: this is the official story an individual had decided is true, regardless of actual canon). In this case, people are not only shipping Hux with Millicent in a platonic sense, but Kylo Ren! Kylo Ren covered in ginger cat hair because he loves Hux’s cat. It’s amazing.
That dust that Kylo puts his helmet into? Litter box for Hux's cat, Millicent. #canon— Pablo Hidalgo (@pablohidalgo) February 6, 2016
Millicent (pictured). pic.twitter.com/LExm4giVNS— Pablo Hidalgo (@pablohidalgo) February 6, 2016
That’s all it took. Now the Star Wars fandom on Tumblr is creating stories and art of Hux’s ginger cat named Millicent. And it’s GLORIOUS.
It can be a metric of social change.
Extremes happen (shipping wars are very real), but they’re not the larger base of people who ship daily and have a blast with it. Do I get a kick out of ships like #Stormpilot? Yes! But it’s not because I personally think Finn and Poe are a couple. Granted, I fervently hope that Poe’s gay and I’m crossing my fingers that, after the warm welcome the idea got from the fanbase, we’ll see him in a relationship with another dashing young man. The people who love Clarke and Lexa (aka Clexa) from The 100 inspire me, as well. Those ships show me how much more open people are to LGBT relationships in their fiction and, in Clexa’s case, on TV. Love and romance inspire people. They also educates and expand horizons. All of those are good things as far as I’m concerned.
In the end, we all do it, in one form or another. So, the next time you want to judge someone for being a little too enthusiastic about what happened on their favorite show, just take a look at how you ship. Maybe it’ll help you understand those people a little more and accept them just as they are.