Lesbian Shipping Wars: The Fight For Visibility vs. The Fight to be Right

This article was written in response to an AfterEllen.com poll asking our readers for their opinions about online shipping wars.

I was 11 years old when I read Little Women, and the first thing I did when I finished the book was rewrite the ending — because it seemed preposterous to me that Jo March and Laurie didn’t get their happily ever after. Reprogramming my imagination by bending other people’s characters to my will was so satisfying that I began writing stories about all of my favorite books and TV shows. It wasn’t until I was in my 20s, looking for an online place to discuss my theories between Harry Potter books, that I discovered the name for people like me: fan fiction writers.

Funnily enough, Louisa May Alcott’s Little Women was the front runner to modern day online fandoms. Originally, Alcott ended Little Women with Meg and John’s engagement — but fans, many of whom wanted a Jo/Laurie wedding, assailed her with letters begging for a sequel. Because she needed the money to take care of her family, Alcott did write a follow-up novel, but before she started work on it, she famously said, “I won’t marry Jo to Laurie to please anybody!”

If Little Women had been published in 2010 and 2011, instead of 1868 and 1869, it would have been a shipping war for the ages.

Ah yes, shipping wars. To the uninitiated, shipping wars are naval battles. But to the brave men and women manning their threads at fanforum.com, shipping wars are much more serious (and dangerous!) than a skirmish on the high seas.

Shipping is the word used to describe people who support various fictional relationships. Alcott’s collection of pleading fan mail suggests that shippers have been around since the American Civil War, but shippers didn’t really start making waves until The X-Files, the first TV show that inspired fans to use the Internet to debate the pros and cons of a romance between its two main characters.

These days, nearly every popular book and movie and TV show has its own fandom, and almost all fandoms have shippers. Shipping is a shapeshifter; it comes in many forms. It can be as detached as seeing two characters on-screen, sensing their chemistry, and thinking to yourself, “Hmm, it’d be cute if they got together.” Or, it can be as involved as memorizing the nuance of every scene involving two characters, and going into battle if anyone on the Internet suggests that the people in your ship aren’t really suited for/going to end up with one another. (Somewhere in the middle lives fan fiction and fan art and fan forums and all kinds of inside fandom jokes.)

It seems to be a universal law that shipping wars follow shippers — and that vitriol follows shipping wars.

A gay writer buddy who works for a mainstream recapping site told me: “I’d rather be flogged than be forced to write about Glee. It’s a giant shipper orgy, and you know how shippers are: they can go from kissing you on the mouth to eating you for breakfast in two seconds — especially when you’ve got that many gay viewers breaking down every look and every touch. If they’ve been talking about something in the forums and you don’t agree with it in your recap, watch your back.”

I started asking around, and a lot of my writer friends shared similar sentiments; many of them actually seem scared of shippers. So I began questioning my non-writer friends, most of whom are TV fanatics. Nearly all of them said the same thing: I like to read fan fiction/track the Tumblr tag/Tweet about my favorite TV couples, but that’s as far into fandom as I’m brave enough to wade.

“Is the militancy more pronounced in gay and lesbian shippers?” I asked. The answer was a resounding yes.

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