Shipping is as much a part of any fandom as fanart, roleplaying and cosplay. There will always be couples to root for, romances to support, and sexytimes to be imagined in great detail. What makes fandom so striking is its ability to use familiar tropes in unique and creative ways to explore the vast parameters of pop culture. What may seem as simple as wanting two characters from a TV show to get together can actually encompass endless ideas about culture, society, our own desires and the vast landscape of entertainment. We ship because we want, and because we know that deep down, there are few things as satisfying as a happily ever after.
Shipping real people has always been a touchy subject in fandom, especially as this previously fringe community practice has found its way to the mainstream. It's one thing to ship Jamie and Clare from Outlander, but when the focus shifts to the real-life actors behind those characters, the ethics blur.
Real person fanfiction (RPF) isn’t an objectively terrible thing like some people believe it to be. When you think of it as simply another way for fans to create narratives and dive deep into the unexplored, all while using the pre-existing structure of real people, then it’s perfectly fine. What is Hamilton, if not the ultimate piece of RPF? Shakespeare wrote some of his best plays by taking historical kings and queens — some of whom were relatives of his greatest fan, Queen Elizabeth — and making them into rip-roaring entertainment for the masses. How many times have you watched a sci-fi or horror with a villain based on Jack the Ripper? Finding new ways to retell history and the figures who defined it has been a part of the Western literary canon for as long as words have been used to tell stories. RPF is merely the evolution of that, albeit with far less respectability.
One RPF fan anonymously told us of its appeal. "My interest in RPF started when I was a lot younger, back when actually gay characters were hard to come by outside of things like Queer As Folk, which was a groundbreaking show, but it wasn't the only representation 14-year-old me wanted to see as a young pansexual (nor was it the most appropriate). So when the emo scene came around and Gerard Way and Frank Iero started making out on stage yet being cute and caring friends outside of that, or Ryan Ross wrote about the sun and the moon in reference to Brendon Urie... it became a mystery to decipher [via] lyrics, actions in interviews, rumors, and poems on MySpace/LiveJournal. It began with wanting something more real than what fiction offered. I didn't want tragic stories that were all about sex, I wanted depth and something more than what media offered. The mystery, connecting the dots, it was fascinating, fun, and left so much room to fill in the empty spaces with fanfiction/tin-hatting with friends. Writing the fanfiction was much more freeform too, because you could practically write completely original content and merely change the names to whichever RP pairing it was."
Within fandom circles, RPF has always presented problems. In 2001, the legendary site Fanfiction.net banned fic about real people, but the ban has never been 100% effective, with examples of RPF available throughout the site in various categories and written in an array of languages. A quick browse of the celebrities and real people subcategory of Archive of Our Own reveals hundreds of RPF choices, from Smallville to Shadowhunters to Ukranian history. The Marvel Cinematic Universe alone has over 3,100 RPF fics to its name (for those of you wondering, the most popular pairing is Chris Evans and Sebastian Stan). Clearly, business is booming, but the boundaries between real and fiction remain blurrier than ever.
RPF also remains something of a fandom-accepted punching bag. Fics featuring original characters, especially female ones who are paired off with big-name celebs, are seen as one of fandom’s weaker elements.
One anonymous RPF fan who wrote reader-insert stories explained why they wrote such fics. "I suppose writing the reader-insert RPF gave me a greater sense of power, and more pleasure and satisfaction as both a writer and a fan, than writing the regular sort of fanfic. One fic got me a lot of scorn, and even a threat of being banned from the forum where I posted it — even though they had no rules against posting it. I was considered to be letting down the side or making his fans look bad. As if none of them had ever fantasized about something similar!"
Shipping is great! We heartily support your right to explore fandom and the pop culture you love through whatever creative means you choose. However, when you love something, you need to be able to tackle its flaws, particularly when they become a public nuisance, and this particular brand of RPF gone rogue has become impossible to ignore. RPF has its ups and downs, and both are worth exploring.
Fanfiction is more popular than ever, but it’s also arguably more visible to the outside world than we’ve ever experienced. What was once the little secret you never told anyone about is now a publishing phenomenon, with agents proudly scouring fic sites looking for highly-viewed stories they can shave the serial numbers from and publish as original. Talk show hosts forcing their endlessly uncomfortable celebrity guests to live-read the RPF written about them has become its own cruel sport. All of this leads to the question of what happens when such things cross the line. When does RPF go from a fun and commonly explored side of fandom to something altogether more suspect? And when do the people being shipped call for a time out on it?
We could be here all day naming the tin-hat RPF ships of geek fandom, but we’ll narrow it down to a few of the most prominent examples. Robsten (Robert Pattinson/Kristen Stewart) remains a big one after the two co-starred in The Twilight Saga, but there were also the Domlijah fans, believers in a true romance between Dominic Monaghan and Elijah Wood during the filming and promotion of The Lord of the Rings trilogy; the shippers for Sam Heughan and Caitriona Balfe of Outlander fame; the occasionally infamous Supernatural fans convinced in the love of its two leading men; and more recently, Supergirl fandom has various RPF ships that have crossed those lines.
Sometimes, the results of this tin-hat approach have been less than savory. Robert Pattinson’s ex-fiancée, the musician F.K.A. Twigs, received racist and violent harassment on social media from Robsten shippers, and the actor talked about the strain such conspiracies put on his life. The spouses of both Supernatural stars, Jared Padalecki and Jensen Ackles, have faced hate from shippers and accusations of being hired beards. While not directly related to any ship, the fringe fandom conspiracies surrounding Sherlock and Doctor Strange star Benedict Cumberbatch, which includes claims that his wife has entrapped him in marriage with a fake child, caused him to directly call out the menace. This side of RPF is and always has been a small minority of the community. As with most things in fandom, the loudest and most aggressive voices tend to capture the lion’s share of attention. For those in fandom who wish to avoid these tensions, it can be difficult, and also impede on their ability to be fans.
Our RPF fan explained further. "Negativity and judgment toward RPF has always existed, but I think it only really started creeping up once things like show hosts asking the celebrities about the ships and making them uncomfortable started happening and when people started getting really fringe and actively stalking the real SOs. After the fringe people started getting more attention, that's what people and celebrities started to believe all RPF was like, so for the more casual majority of the fandom it became something to not talk about, like an underground trade. Number one rule, don't talk about fight club — I mean, RPF. It damaged the fandom for sure, going from a place with rules of never mentioning it to the people to fringe shippers screaming the ship at them and media talking about it, for me I left the 'fandom' a while back because of the negativity spread by scary and hostile fans."
What makes the tin-hatting subset of RPF so fascinating is that every fandom plays by the exact same rules. With some minor details changed, each of them stick to a surprisingly rigid list of business and psychological explanations that “prove” their ship is undeniably real. There is always some shadowy public relations organization forcing the pair in question to pretend their love is fake; there will always be paparazzi shots circled in MS Paint and analyzed beyond reason for “proof.” Every conspiracy relies on the insistence that various individuals are either hired to be fake spouses for the true lovers or they are forcing people into it on pain of death; the press is always part of the dark plan to keep the truth hidden; and all of this is completely obvious to anyone who isn’t a total sheeple, yet only the tiniest sliver of the population is ever apparently aware of it. No matter how outlandish the conspiracies become, and they’re often beyond ludicrous (from fake babies to secret hand signals), they’re familiar tools of the tin-hatting game.
RPF is going legitimate in a new and unforeseen way. Fanfic used to be a no-go area, one whose creativity came with clearly defined boundaries of legality, yet now it's a profitable commodity. Post-Fifty Shades of Grey, anything goes. We've already seen novels published from One Direction RPF written on Wattpad, and the site even announced last year that it would partner with major YouTube stars to bring fanfic about themselves to life. As a growing side to the ecosystems of fandom and celebrity, this is an unexpected turn, but not one people are especially shocked by. Fandom breeds enthusiasm about its subjects, and that cannot help but bleed into real life in some capacity. If there is a thriving hub of creativity in any corner where money can be made, a company or brand will find it. Our culture is ceaselessly fascinated by celebrities, and that can’t be kept apart from fandom.
This could mean good things or bad for fandom, depending on your point-of-view. On the one hand, greater legitimacy inside and outside fandom, as well as a stepping stone for your creative pursuits, but it could also further jeopardize the already shaky foundations of fandom as a whole. RPF has always been here and will remain a key part of fandom for the time being. Like anything in fandom, its existence is reliant on fans playing by the rules, the major one being the simplest: keep fandom activities separate from your communications with the object of your fascination. It sounds like a great idea to share fic with your subjects on Twitter, but nobody wins in that mess. Fandom isn’t something to be ashamed of, and its continuing destigmatizing benefits everyone, but there’s still something to be said for keeping RPF as a private pleasure.