Why We Ship Who We Ship

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“Shipping,” the act of supporting and rooting for an established, potential, or unlikely romantic couple (a “ship”) has undoubtedly been part of human behavior since the first stories were told around campfires millions of years ago. Becoming emotionally invested in the lives of others—fictional or real—and their romantic relationships is a natural extension of the human trait of empathy. It’s so inherent to who we are that when small children play with dolls and make them “kiss,” they are “shipping” in some sense.

The act of shipping has evolved over time from an individual, largely private pastime to an often collective, transnational obsession, driven in large part by the growth of the internet, which has enabled shippers to connect to each other and even to the ship creators. Today, shippers and their ships are everywhere, from SwanQueen (Once Upon a Time) to Shoot (Person of Interest) to Cophine (Orphan Black) to Bechloe (Pitch Perfect) to an infinite permutation of pairings across all media.

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Throughout history, members of the LGBT community have probably always covertly shipped queer pairings (the oldest known epic poem, The Epic of Gilgamesh, written circa 2100 BC in ancient Mesopotamia, for example, can be read as being about either Gilgamesh and his male friend Enkidu, or shipped as Gilgamesh and his lover Enkidu). However, “slash” shipping, as same-sex shipping is called, only really came out into the open in the 1970s, when some Star Trek fans began publicly shipping Captain Kirk and Mr. Spock. Particularly since the early 2000s, slash fan fiction has exploded in popularity even among heterosexuals—as evidenced by the popularity of Harry Potter/Draco Malfoy fan fiction, as just one example.

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The shipping of real people has also evolved, and today the media and even some of the individuals involved have embraced some ships. Camren, for example, is the portmanteau for singing group Fifth Harmony members Camila Cabello and Lauren Jauregui (Lauren herself created the “Camren” portmanteau). Fifth Harmony and some news blogs actively engage with the Camren fanbase, and both Camila and Lauren ship and read fan fiction about Camren).       

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But why, in the end, do we ship? What compels us to invest so much emotional energy in fictional characters? Several bloggers and journalists have speculated that fans ship for two reasons: first, because shippers want “more love in the world” or are “rooting for love,” and second because shippers want to exert some control over their favorite characters, which they often do through fanfiction or fan art.

The former explanation feels mathematically weak: for Emison to exist as the active relationship on Pretty Little Liars, Paily cannot (barring a love triangle or polyamory). Providing a character two love interests doubles the number of potential pairings, but given persistent societal mores about monogamy, one ship almost certainly must “lose” to the other; only one ship can sail at a time. The latter explanation, the desire to exert control over characters, may contribute in part to why fans write fan fiction, but would not explain shipping among fans who do not create fan fiction or fan art. Plus it’s super-Machiavellian.

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Perhaps another good way to understand shipping is to say that in ships, we create a canvas upon which we project our own thoughts and feelings, hopes and dreams. We develop affinities for characters because we admire their traits, see ourselves in them, or see what we wish we could be or who we wish we could date, and then because we like these characters, we want them to find love and happiness with other characters we like. The ships become what we would like to see, in an ideal world, in our own relationships or in the relationships of others.

If that is the case, who we ship tells us a lot about the types of relationship we want to be part of or see. On Pretty Little Liars, Emily Fields dated Maya St. Germain, Paige McCullers, Samara Cook, Talia Sandoval, and Sara Harvey, and yet the ships that caught on were Emaya, Paily and Emison. Why didn’t Samara, Talia, or Sara resonate with viewers? Or conversely, what was it about the three that did garner ships that made them accessible to viewers? SwanQueen won last year’s AfterEllen Femslash tournament for the second year in a row, which surely means something about what queer female viewers are attracted to, but it’s also notable that Faith/Buffy Summers from Buffy the Vampire Slayer made the second round even though those characters have been off the air for 12 years.

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Some ships probably gain smaller followings than others because of weak writing or weak acting which causes one or both of the characters in the ship to lack emotional accessibility for viewers/readers. It’s hard to ship a relationship in which one of the characters is about as deep as a cardboard cutout. Other ships probably fail because something subjective about the “canvas”—whether the plot, the setting, or some other intangible—isn’t right to the individual viewer or reader. Still other ships may fail because they are in competition with a fan favorite One True Pair—such as when Mandy was introduced in Series 4 of Skins to flirt with Emily Fitch when she and Naomi Campbell were broken up. 

Some wonderful, popular ships last far beyond a show, movie, or book is over, and they reflect well on the writers and actors that created the ship. Luckily for most writers and actors, the reverse, the complete and utter failure of a ship to capture even a few viewers, is rare. The shipper wars that sometimes break out in fandoms are unfortunate, and in many ways unnecessary; because shipping is inherently individual (even when we collectivize to form shipper fandoms), everyone has a different canvas. All ships, even the ones we don’t like as much or that are in competition with our preferred ships, are equally valid because they represent those individual canvases.

So viva la difference and onward, you thousand ships!   

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