The fall of fandom etiquette and the rise of the ship war

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May 16, 2018, 6:01 PM EDT

I never feel so fandom-old as I do when I’m confronted with the worst excesses of the next generation of fans. I’m fine with the generational differences, the fact that none of them will ever truly understand what a magical world LiveJournal was before it fell to the Russians, and how my icon-making skills are meaningless in their .gif economy. I’ve made my peace.

What makes me feel the most ancient and out-of-touch is the drama.

Caught between stories of fans trying to blackmail creators with leaked information in order to make their ships canon and fans running creators off of social media for daring to post art implying the support of certain ships, I must admit I am bewildered.

Obviously, the worst outliers get the most attention. There are plenty of Voltron and Steven Universe fans who love their ships just as dearly and yet somehow manage to not bully or blackmail the people who make the thing that they love.


I don’t want to make it sound like pre-Tumblr fandom was perfect, because it was not. The fandoms I cut my teeth on had their problems—hello, slash communities that celebrated queer men while being openly disgusted by queer women, I bet you didn’t contribute to me coming out in my twenties at all! But no matter how epic the post-mortem reports were (and oh, they were epic), these problems were always internal. And people have been fighting over ships since the dawn of time. Star Trek fans complained about all the Kirk/Spock fic in ‘zines, Sherlock Holmes fans have grumbled about Sherlock/Irene because she barely interacts with him in the Doyle canon, and the ancient Greeks argued over whether Achilles and Patroclus were an item or not.

But attitudes towards shipping have definitely changed in the Tumblr era. What was once the love of two characters’ dynamic has become, to a small but outspoken subsection of fans, a zero-sum game. How did we get from “God, I love seeing these two together” to “These two need to be together, so help me God?"

To answer that question, we must go back to the early aughts. (Please do not look directly into the chunky highlights and bootcut jeans, we all made mistakes then and none of us are free from sin.) Specifically, we must got back to Harry Potter and… THE HARMONY WARS.

(Pew pew! Wizard noises! Wizard noises! Epic opening scrawl!)

The Harmony Wars first began when the Harry Potter fandom was coming into its own. Over the course of 1999 and 2000, the fandom was really starting to take off—the first piece of Harry Potter fanfiction was posted on FanFiction.Net, fansites like MuggleNet and The Leaky Cauldron opened their digital doors, and Cassandra Clare began posting "The Draco Trilogy," one of the seminal Harry Potter fics that defined Draco Malfoy for many fans. After Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire was released in 2000, the ensuing “Three-Year Summer” until the release of Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix in 2003 gave the fandom plenty of time to create communities, make fanworks, and, of course, endlessly speculate on what was going to happen next.

Including wondering about who was going to end up with who.


The first skirmishes in the Harmony Wars indicated that it would be a classic ship war: Ron/Hermione shippers on one side and Harry/Hermione shippers on the other. (For those of you blessed enough to have never witnessed a ship war, think Team Edward vs. Team Jacob.) Being a literary fandom in both senses of the word, people spent endless hours on forums, mailing lists, and news groups dissecting the books to analyze every character interaction to make the case for their ship of choice.

But even early on, the tension between these two factions ran hot. Sugar Quill, one of the first Harry Potter-specific fic archives, refused to accept Harry/Hermione fic on the grounds that it was not “canon-compliant” (interestingly, they accepted Remus/Sirius fic as canon-compliant because YOU KNOW IT WAS), which may have contributed to the opening of FictionAlley, which pointedly accepted all ships. Ship-specific fansites and communities became the norm, allowing the factions to more or less peaceably coexist, although the occasional battle still happened.

Harry/Hermione became known as the HMS Harmony (get it!) at some point after the publication of The Order of the Phoenix—the first recorded reference to it that I could find was an August 9, 2003 post from Mad Eye Mike on MuggleNet’s Chamber of Secrets forums.

The HMS Harmony is a reality-based vessel. Unlike other ships, we don't have our heads in the clouds. We can accept the truth about a situation and move on. We've never had to alter things (text, scenes) or create our own (fics) to justify, satisfy and provide proof of our ship. We ship H/Hr mostly because we feel the characters are best suited for each other. If in the end JKR decides that's not the case, so be it. We'll move on.

Mad Eye Mike’s post is interesting for two reasons. First, it’s eminently reasonable—Mike gracefully accepts the idea that the ship might be Word of God-ed out of existence. Second, it insists that Harry/Hermione is the one true ship; that, if you read the text “correctly,” it would be obvious that they were meant to be together.

The idea that Harry/Hermione was the only valid Golden Trio ship was the prevailing philosophy of a particular subset of Harry/Hermione fans who became known as the Harmonians. The Harmonians were die-hard Harry/Hermione shippers whose antics, hardline stance on “the evidence,” and distaste for Ron Weasley earned them the ire of the rest of the fandom. (There was even a LiveJournal community dedicated to killing Ron off in as many ways as possible. I’m not making this up.)

For instance, Harmonians would look at Ron and Hermione’s bickering and conclude that it wasn’t a childish mode of flirting and expressing emotional investment in the tradition of teenagers since time immemorial, but rather symptomatic of the tragic fact that they could never really understand each other. And if they couldn’t understand each other, how could they be a good match? Their insistence that there was only one correct way to read the text and that any other reading that went contrary to their ship indicated that said reader was clearly unable to fully appreciate the genius of Harry Potter was insufferable.

But at least their insufferability and their ire was contained within the roomy borders of the Harry Potter fandom.

That is… until the interview.


After the publication of Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince in 2005, MuggleNet’s Emerson Spartz and The Leaky Cauldron’s Melissa Anelli sat down with J. K. Rowling for an exclusive and in-depth interview. The sprawling interview touches on a great many things, but there’s only one question of relevance to the Harmony Wars.

Spartz, Anelli, and Rowling begin discussing the romance in Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince. When Spartz shares that he and Anelli thought she made it very clear that Harry/Ginny and Ron/Hermione were items, Rowling agrees.

And then Spartz says something Harry Potter fandom has never forgotten: “Harry/Hermione shippers — delusional!”

Rowling, to her credit, distances herself from the word, but goes on to say that she thought she’d dropped “anvil-sized” hints about Ron/Hermione and that, essentially, she considered the entire discussion done with. Ron and Hermione were going to be together, and that was that.

For most fans, the interview was an amazing treat, especially after they finished the new book in one go. But for Harmonians, it was the straw that broke the camel’s back.

Up until this point, they’d trusted that they were correctly reading Rowling’s larger plan — and that they were the only ones doing so. They were heavily invested in not only the veracity of their ship, but the morality of it, valuing a relationship built on friendship over what they saw as a relationship built on conflict, among many other values they assigned to their ship. I can’t get into every last detail of the Harmonian worldview here, but LiveJournal user angua9 sure can in their 2005 write-up of the “Harmonian philosophy.”

Because they’d invested so heavily in this one ship, to the detriment of making wider connections in fandom and developing a diverse interest in the series, Rowling’s revelation threatened to invalidate not only their ship, but their fandom.

So they turned their ire on her. Harmonians began to openly insult Rowling, calling into question her talent as a writer, denigrating her for being divorced, and even insulting her personal appearance. One post even indulges in some pearl clutching, wondering if the “moral” of Ron/Hermione is really one she wants to pass down to her daughters.

In a pre-social media age, none of these could really reach or touch Rowling unless she, for some reason, actively sought them out, but, nevertheless, something had changed; the Harmonians, facing extinction, had decided to double-down and bite the hand that fed them. The ship meant more to them than the fandom did.

This is the moment that birthed zero-sum shipping, a kind of blind gamesmanship that only values a ship for whether it not it wins, not whether or not it is enjoyable. Add in the peculiar moralizing of the Harmonians, and, voila, you’ve got the recipe for fans antagonizing creators over appearing to support ships that are, in their eyes, morally unacceptable.

Were these dynamics at play in other fandoms and other ships before the Harmony Wars? Undoubtedly. Heck, there’s an entire documentary about the push and pull of the Star Wars fandom and George Lucas, entitled, fittingly enough, The People vs. George Lucas.

But you have to remember that the Harry Potter fandom was one of the largest fandoms in history. As of 2017, it has more posted works on FanFiction.Net than any other fandom. Its enormity meant that it was a threshold fandom for an entire generation, and that meant it set precedent.

At the height of their activity, the Harmonians did not have sufficient power or a sufficient platform to weaponize their ire towards Rowling into anything but petty, personal insults. But imagine if they had Twitter…

Well, I suppose you don’t have to.

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