So I decided to ask AfterEllen.com readers what they thought about the prevalence of shipping wars — both on our site and on the internet at large. Of the 3,500 participants in our survey, 68 percent identify themselves as shippers, which is the same percentage of people who said they participate in online fandom activities. That’s a pretty interesting statistic because it suggests that shippers are responsible for most of the Tweeting and Tumblr-ing and LiveJournal-ing and Facebook-ing going on out there. (As opposed to the old X-Files days, when online chatter was split pretty evenly between “Relationshippers” and “Noromos.”)
Nearly 80 percent of our survey participants said they care more about lesbian TV couples than they do about straight TV couples.
That statistic alone may be one of the reasons lesbian shippers have a reputation for being combative. AfterEllen.com reader Jessie told me: “I do sometimes get aggressive in my shipping, because I don’t feel like I’m just fighting for my preferred couple; I feel like I’m fighting for lesbian visibility. How often do you see a lesbian or bisexual character break up with a girl and get into a relationship with another girl? Not often. She’ll usually go for the guy. So I feel like the choice is my lesbian ship or another straight relationship on TV.”
It’s a good point. We saw some mild shipping wars in the Pretty Little Liars recap comments when Emily’s first girlfriend was hauled off to juvie camp and Emily started up a romance with another girl. But even the most hostile of those comments didn’t compare to the shipping wars that went down on the ABC Family message boards, where the debate included not only Maya and Paige as potential love interests for Emily, but also Toby Cavenaugh.
Another pretty obvious reason for impassioned lesbian shippers is that humans always have (and always will) project themselves onto fictional characters. People have been making sense of their own lives via narrative projection for as long as stories have been told. And for loads of psychological and physiological reasons, love stories are some of our favorites to tap into. The pool of lesbian couples isn’t exactly deep. Take even one away, and we might not be able to find a way to replace it. Maybe shipping for visibility jolts gay viewers into “fight or flight” territory, like we’re shipping for our own romantic survival.