Shipping wars: Who's really to blame?

Contributed by
Sep 27, 2018

Let’s talk about ships, baby.

Not those bulky, slow-moving hunks of wood that transported ill-fated sailors to their watery grave back in the 18th century. No, the ships I’m interested in are full of angst, sexual tension, longing looks, and the kind of frustrating will-they-won’t-they that has you screaming silently into your pillow in the dead of night. They’re the catalyst for sexual awakenings, the foundations for the most delicious of fanfictions, the alternate-realities we all wish we were living in.

Shipping in fandom can be a beautiful thing. When the audience is invested enough in two characters to craft entire relationships from subtext alone, as a writer and a showrunner it means you’re doing something right. Ships are valuable by-products of the larger story, they move plots along, they give us characters to root for, a chance to delve deep into the backstory of a hero or heroine, a reason to care. And in genre, ships are pretty much a necessity. Whether it’s a sci-fi series about a bunch of delinquents colonizing a post-apocalyptic Earth, a buddy-drama about a pair of brothers vanquishing evil supernatural beings, a space opera full of Jedi and Sith Lords, or a bunch of magical teens heading off to wizarding school, ships help to ground the fantastical in reality. They bring something tangible and familiar to worlds that feel wholly alien and sometimes isolating.

This isn’t a commentary on people who ship, the reasons why people ship, or appropriate shipping behavior. Everyone ships, not just tween girls with Tumblr accounts, so anyone rolling their eyes at their screen right now can just take their pompous ideology and choke on it. (Sorry, that was harsh, but in all seriousness, admit you ship or move the f*ck on.)

The reasons why people ship are just as straightforward – it’s a communal experience. It allows fans to interact, be heard, feel they have a stake or even a bit of control in stories that truly matter to them. And by now, I’d hope we’d have all realized how toxic fandoms can be when they’re dominated by shipping wars. Whether yours is OTP (that's one true pairing for the un-Tumblred), canon or not, that’s no excuse to attack writers, actors, showrunners, or fellow fans on social media. As mama always said, if you wouldn’t say it to their face, don’t tweet it to their handle. (I’m just kidding. I’m pretty sure my mom thinks Twitter is a brand of clothing they sell at Forever 21, but I stand by this completely fictitious golden rule.)

Now that those basics of human decency are dealt with, I want to dig deeper into a space that’s a bit trickier to navigate: the genesis of any shipping war. As with every story – on TV or film – the responsibility to create meaningful arcs played out by well-rounded, thought-provoking characters begins and ends in the writers’ room. Admittedly, it’s a terrible responsibility. It’s the kind of responsibility that Uncle Ben warns Peter Parker about in pretty much every cinematic revival of Spider-Man.

Creative freedom is a beautiful thing, but some of that is lost, or at least put in check, once your creation is unleashed upon the masses. Writers and showrunners aren’t beholden to their audiences, but no one can deny that input from fandoms, positive and negative, eventually makes its way into the “room where it happens” in some form or other. That’s fine, too. Fans bring a different point of view to characters that can sometimes live a bit too close to their makers. It’s why I need an editor to clean up my rambling nonsense before you read it on SYFY FANGRRLS. The whole “killing your darlings” thing is the ultimate literary cliché but, frustratingly enough, it’s true. In some ways, it’s our duty, as critics, fans, innocent bystanders, to recognize and verbalize when a show, a story, or a ship makes a confusing and concerning 180. When fans become just as invested in the characters of any show or film franchise as the writers of those characters, they have a right to express that – respectfully, of course.

Which is what I’m doing right now. I’m a lover of genre in any form, but especially on TV. The collection of sci-fi/fantasy series I have sitting in my Netflix queue just waiting to be watched … well, it keeps me up at night, to be honest. I appreciate the hard work and worldbuilding that goes into shows like Supernatural, The Originals, Teen Wolf, The 100, and more. Honestly, I admire the writers of those shows and their ability to mold entire seasons from the most batsh*t crazy of premises, but I’m a bit tired of seeing some of my most cherished creatives pass the buck when their own creations begin to inflict damage on the fandom. I’m talking about just how much blame for those dreaded shipping wars should be placed on the storytellers themselves.

To be clear, I in no way advocate fans harassing, bullying, or threatening showrunners, writers, or the actors themselves when it comes to shipping wars. I feel like I’ve already said this, but it must be said again. If you’re being a douchenozzle on Twitter, the only one to blame for your douchenozzle-ness is yourself. Period. Full stop.

But, just as I can confidently spout off the word douchenozzle multiple times in one sentence, I can also, just as confidently, recite the definition of culpability. It’s the measure of the degree to which a person is responsible for something, usually a crime. Now, starting a shipping war is not a crime, but crying wolf when that shipping war which you fueled for seasons, a shipping war you baited fans with, teased entire story arcs with suddenly implodes on itself, begins tearing fandoms apart and becomes detrimental to your series? That definitely should be criminal. There’s a way to build sexual tension on TV. There’s a way to draw out a canon OTP for a few seasons, building something on solid foundations that feels earned and satisfying. There’s also a way to use a ship seen by many fans as canon, to undermine character development, pit your leads against each other, grant redemption arcs to characters at the expense of others, and so forth. And if you’ve been writing on a show for three seasons, for five seasons, for 14 seasons, you should know the difference and the consequences of both.

I’m not here to argue that every OTP ship should eventually become canon on a series. I’m not here to argue that every ship forged by fandoms based on subtle nods in the writing of certain TV shows, should eventually become canon. I ship Poe Dameron and Finn as much as any other woman wishing for more queer relationships in the Star Wars universe, but realistically, I know that probably won’t happen.

What I do draw objection to is this trend of baiting audiences, particularly shipper audiences, with promises of eventual couplings, both queer and straight, with no intention of following through. I draw objection when that same baiting creates a shipping war, and when that shipping war is tweeted or talked about by its creators as a sad consequence of “crazy fans.” I draw objection to creators being calculative in their writing and in their promotion of a show or film, only to backtrack, to renege, to scoff at the idea of certain ships once that show or film premieres. When a series deliberately stages a potential romance between its two leads, when a film pits two adversaries against each other only to use that conflict to draw them closer together in a decidedly romantic way, when male characters are written to show interest in one another, when a bisexual female character finds love with another woman only for that woman to be killed off just a few episodes later and then the ghost of her memory used to both fuel and weaken another character’s arc... well, that’s problematic. It’s problematic on many levels – it does a disservice to the characters and the actors involved, it’s a slight to the community the character represents, and worst of all, it unnecessarily pits fans against each other and sometimes, against the story itself.

I think that both fans and creators have equal culpability when it comes to this toxic shipping war culture that’s risen on social media recently. As fans, we should always remember that what we bring to a series or film franchise is unique. I won’t view a certain ship the way someone else might. That’s okay. That’s great even, because it allows for discourse, for creativity, for a personal investment. As fans, we should also remember that creators, even creators of our most beloved genre, are just human. They don’t deserve to be accosted for every decision they make regarding a story just because we might not agree with it. Leave that kind of entitlement to the old white guys debating “abortion-inducing drugs” on Capitol Hill.

But showrunners and writers need to remember something too. You are ultimately responsible for what you create. The words you write, and the subtext of those words, have meaning. The characters you create are characters that audiences become fully invested in. And, at the end of the day, your job is to the story itself, not your personal preferences. Whether you personally appreciate a certain ship, whether you personally root for two characters to be together, whether you personally abhor even the word “ship” is irrelevant. It’s your job as a writer to walk that thinnest of lines: the one between personal gratification and service of the larger story.

So, fans, let’s be more respectful of the burden placed on writers, directors, and showrunners when it comes to crafting and sustaining the stories and characters we’ve come to love. And creators, be more respectful of your audience, of your own characters. A writer’s room may not be a democracy, but a showrunner, a creator, shouldn’t be a dictator either.

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