Thoughts on shipping.

A ship-shipping ship, shipping shipping ships. source (for the image, as well as the caption)

A ship-shipping ship, shipping shipping ships. source (for the caption as well as the image. I’m not that clever).

Not that kind of shipping. Shipping. Like when you write fan fiction (on paper or in your head) in which fictional characters fall in luuuuve with each other and (presumably, at some point) have sex and/or are permanently joined together in sacred and/or fleshy bliss. It comes from the word “relationship” – hence “shipping,” as in: “I ship Harry and Ron, everyone knows they were the real love story at Hogwarts!”

And if you don’t know it yet — yes, that really is a thing, all across the various realms of geekdom, and recently more broadly in popular culture. So you’ll have fan communities who create art or write stories or make videos that bring together two (or more) characters who were not imagined by their creator as romantically involved.

Coupla things. Thing the First, and let’s just get this out of the way: I have a thing about canon. The creator is, to my mind, God in the universe of these characters to whom we feel so attached, and thus, if JK Rowling didn’t think that Harry and Ron would fall in love — well, she would know. Plain and simple. It’s one thing to create fan art that builds on the creator’s world, but I honestly think it’s another thing entirely to upend the story as the creator intended for it to be told. In my always humble (and probably minority) opinion.

But here’s Thing the Second, and Thing the Second is actually the thing that I believe is most important.

Most of these imagined relationships (Harry-Ron, Kirk-Spock, Jess-Jules [Bend It Like Beckham], Arthur-Merlin [Merlin], Katniss-Peeta-Gale, etc and so on, ad infinitum) don’t just upend the story as originally conceived, they upend the sexuality of those involved, often because the characters are so close — their relationship runs so deep — that we do not know how to let it be friendship. We do not know how to understand need and longing and fierce loyalty, unless it’s about romance and sexuality.

And thus, to my mind, when we ship Kirk and Spock, or Arthur and Merlin, or Sam and Frodo, we’re not only doing a disservice to the creator’s vision, we’re dishonoring the characters, and revealing more about about ourselves and our society than we may have intended. 

Note, for instance, that most shipping seems to entail male characters — as a society, we’re usually ok with girls and women loving each other and expressing that love in a way that is not romantic or sexual. Men on the other hand? We really don’t know what to do with that.

So we change it. We diminish and dismiss men’s capacity for loving each other — truly, deeply loving each other — and insist that such love can only find true expression in something akin to 21st century notions of romance and sexuality.

Once upon a time, in mid-19th century America, men wrote love letters to each other — honest to God, “I haven’t been able to stop thinking of our last hours spent together,” love letters to each other. Like, it was thing. You wrote to your friends and told them how you felt.

And true to late-20th/early 21st century form, letters such as these have led some to conclude that Abraham Lincoln himself was gay, despite copious evidence to the contrary — because why else would he express such tender affection for a man? Even though I presume that at least some of the men writing these letters were, in fact, expressing an emotion to which they were otherwise unable to give voice, sheer statistics would suggest that most of them weren’t. Which is to say: We weren’t always like this, America.

I do understand that some fan fic/shipping comes in response to the appalling dearth of LGBTQ love stories in our culture, and I guess it’s easier for me, a straight woman, to not want to validate the work that some people create around a love they’d like to see expressed. I will concede that.

But beyond that, mostly it just cheeses me off. You cannot tell me that a romantic, sexual relationship between Sam and Frodo would have been deeper or more real than the relationship we are told they had; you cannot tell me that Merlin’s love for Arthur was any less because they didn’t have sex.

I’m tired of telling boys and men that they cannot, may not love each other — frankly, shipping of this kind is little more than the flip-side of guys who yell “No homo!” after a big hug. There is nothing wrong with men falling in love with other men; there is also nothing wrong with men having loving friendships.

And with that, I have likely sealed my fate in the geek community, and so I bid you adieu. It was fun while it lasted. I’ll just be over here, reading my books.


  1. Wow, apparently I am having exactly the kind of day when what I feel like doing is rambling at sustained length on precisely this subject! 🙂

    I look at it this way. From where I sit, fanfiction is a form of midrash, exploring pop culture texts instead of scriptural ones. (I’ve written about this at some length before — there’s an essay in Religion & Literature, let me know if you want me to send you a copy.)

    If all of our different midrash (about any Biblical story, you name it — the creation of the first humans, Noah and his family aboard that ark, the Akedah, whatever) can coexist without any one of them having to be the “right” answer to what Torah “means”, then surely an infinite number of fan stories (arising in conversation with any source text, be it Jane Austen or Star Trek or Harry Potter) can coexist without any of them having to be the “right” interpretation.

    Would JK Rowling (or any canon creator) necessarily agree with all of the fanfiction that’s out there about any character or two or six? Of course not; she couldn’t possibly; different stories posit different possibilities. But those different stories don’t cancel each other out, and nor do they cancel out whatever the original source text says.

    I’d also add that fan creativity isn’t *for* the creators of canon; fan creativity is by fans for fans. The purpose of a story or a vid or a piece of fanart isn’t to please (or displease) Joss Whedon or JK Rowling or the spirit of Jane Austen, may she rest in peace. Their purpose is to say something that a fan yearns to say, to other fans who are part of that communal conversation.

    The original author gets to be the one who created the canon; that’s a distinction no one can take away. But if s/he’s going to be the creator, then s/he doesn’t get to be part of the *fan conversation* about that canon — whether the conversation takes the form of a book review, or a conversation about an episode, or a piece of fan creativity which makes an argument which might spin the canon in a new direction or might run counter to the canon or might highlight something the fan sees in the canon which the original creator didn’t intend to put there.

    I’d argue that we have the right, as readers / viewers / fans of a beloved source text, to form our opinions about that text — what we love, what we don’t love, what we wish were different, what we’ll choose to squint at and understand in a different way — even if our opinions are counter to the original creator’s opinions. And we have the right to express those opinions not only in discursive ways, but also in creative ways.

    The creators of the texts we love (and the texts we despise!) don’t have to agree with our interpretations, but I don’t think they have the right to wish our interpretations away. Once you put something into the world, people are going to respond to it; it’s what humans do, and most particularly, it’s what fans do.

    • Once you put something into the world, people are going to respond to it; it’s what humans do, and most particularly, it’s what fans do.

      I agree absolutely with this. I don’t have a beef with fanfic generally (although most of it is terribly written and I don’t choose to read it).

      But I also absolutely agree with Emily that taking what is portrayed as a deep, true, loving, nonsexual relationship (e.g., Sam and Frodo — and let us not forget that Sam spends most of the journey longing for Rosie Cotton!) and turning it into a homosexual relationship diminishes men and their capacity for loving friendship with other men.

      I don’t know how to tie this in with a neat conclusion, but I was just watching the Medal of Honor ceremony for William Swenson. Part of the story is that in helping evacuate Sgt Westbrook, Capt. Swenson kissed the other man on the forehead. About the kiss, Swenson said: “I was just trying to keep his spirits up. I wanted him to know it was going to be OK. And I wanted him to know that he had done his job, but it was time for him to go.”

      That’s an awesome, loving gesture from a soldier to a brother in arms.

    • Neocortex

       /  October 15, 2013

      The midrash bit amuses me because my Gentile geek friends have expressed impressed curiosity about how Judaism has, as they see it, its own fanfic. So, same idea, from the other side.

  2. First, let me agree with you, Emily: while it’s great that people are so into characters and universes, and that people are able to conceive of such unions, they do tend to run roughshod over the characters themselves. If we wish to believe that these characters are real to a degree, then we must be further willing to believe that they, within the confines of their world, are as equipped (or not) to express such things as we are. We have to understand that the author/screenwriter had a particular milieu in mind for a character to inhabit, and wrote them as such because that fit the overall scheme.

    Take Kirk & Spock (and McCoy, if you really want to do a professional job of it); are were men whose enduring relationship, forged in triumph and tragedy, perhaps bring them closer together in the bonds of love than many of us would understand. It was that bond that made Spock heartsick at the thought he had killed Kirk in “Amok Time.” It was that bond that made Spock realize that McCoy was the best vessel to carry his katra. It was that bond that drove Kirk to throw away a sterling career in order to have just the possibility of resurrecting Spock. They did not act in those fashions simply out of duty — it was love.

    Now, let me disagree to an extent, because while I am OCD enough to appreciate canon and its importance in creating a coherent universe within which characters can operate, I think it’s my love of Doctor Who that makes me think there’s nothing inherently wrong the possibilities “shipping” fantasies explore, mainly because it may be that the author, saddled with long held, deeply rooted thought patterns, could not conceive of what those encounters might mean for their characters. Perhaps these flights of fancy might encourage authors to be slightly more open about their approach to characterizations in the future, which would no doubt ameliorate the dearth of positive LGBTQ stories there are.

    Just my two credits.

  3. Darth Thulhu

     /  October 15, 2013

    with that, I have likely sealed my fate in the geek community, and so I bid you adieu. It was fun while it lasted

    Don’t worry. We’ll always cherish your memory! ; )

    In your absence, perhaps we can ship you and Felicia Day. Where would you like the lesbian Jewish nerd wedding to be held?

  4. Dear Emily:
    Count me among the ‘Shippers who pine for Katara-Zuko, Peter-Claire (dammit! they didn’t have to be blood relatives! Totally ruined “Heroes” doing that!), Laurie-Jo, and Mulder-Scully!

  5. Neocortex

     /  October 15, 2013

    I’m frankly a little puzzled at the assumption that people who ship male characters don’t think that men can have platonic friendships. I mean, I can see where one might get that idea, but if you actually interact with and talk to people who write slashfic roughly none of them believe this. They’re exploring different takes on the characters. They’re interpreting. They’re also simply creating a form of erotica – a lot of young women, who tend to be a large share of fanfic writers, find the idea of two (or more) (attractive) men getting it on just as hot as a lot of young men find the idea of two (or more) (attractive) women getting it on. With occasional exceptions, they don’t have their version confused with canon.

    Also, a lot of ships are not male/male. Look at all the people who would practically kill for the Harry/Hermoine ship (which I have seen WAY more often than Harry/Ron). And some ships are female/female. People like the idea of the fictional characters they enjoy getting it on, whether it’s because that’s a part of life that is glaringly absent from the source material like in Harry Potter, or because they hunger to see more fictional portrayals of LGBTQ relationships that actually include sex and not some desexualized “La la la, straight cis people don’t actually want to hear about what you do in bed” fuzziness, or because they are yentas who want to play matchmaker with these characters who are a part of their lives.

    Also, pretty much everything that Velveteen Rabbi said.

  6. 10/17/13: Please note – About two and a half minutes after I hit “publish” on this post, I had to go give the final exam in the class I taught this fall on politics and the media; the next morning, the cold I’ve been battling for four weeks or so took a turn for the worse.

    Thank you everyone for chiming in and please keep the conversation going – it’s just that when I’m not in a heap under a blanket on my couch right now, I’m having to churn out work that I’m already behind on, so I can’t join in. Carry on the good fight without me…!

  7. I have several points in addition to the ones commenters have already raised:
    1. as regards “upending the sexuality” of characters involved, how do we know the sexuality of most characters? We assume, and the author leads us to assume, they are (in most cases) heterosexual. That is not a neutral assumption, that is a profoundly heterosexist assumption. I like women and I like men and I like trans people and I like ungendered people – none of those cancel each other out, and which one I express and which past relationships I will reveal to others depends entirely on how much I trust them and what kind of context we are in. Most characters do not come out and say “I’m strictly heterosexual!” and even if they did, human sexuality can change over time, in response to different people, etc.
    2. You said that you “concede” that there is a dearth of LGBTQIA characters in our culture, but then you kind of dismiss that. That’s not fair, and I think it is a function of your privilege as a straight person. Why shouldn’t I alter a favorite universe of mine so it looks more like me? Why should I have to wait for a writer to toss a shittily stereotypical, underdeveloped queer romance my way? It is profoundly, profoundly! heterosexist to say that slash fiction is primarily motivated by an inability to imagine non-romance between male characters – we see non-romance ALL THE TIME. Few but the hardest-core slash ficcers will say that the non-romantic canon relationship is UNLIKELY or UNREASONABLE – they just think it could also be more, and want to tease out the implications of that. So why shouldn’t we throw in some LGBTQIA romances to make the world reflect ourselves, speak to us more?
    3. Would you make the same argument about creator’s interpretation being law for paintings and other creative media? Because I don’t think it holds any firmer there. And most authors who aren’t jerks and prosecute fanfic writers write to that people can enjoy, resonate with, explore and feel connection to their works, and fanfic is profound way to do that.

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