“Ship It” Sounds Cute but May Actually Do Shippers a Disservice
I was really excited about Britta Lundin’s Ship It, a YA novel heavily focused on fandom and convention culture featuring an LGBTQ+ romance. Unfortunately, I was incredibly disappointed with the characters and the way fandom – particularly shippers – were presented. It is a good starting off point for a much-needed discussion about entitlement in fandom, but I think it unintentionally portrays fans in a negative light and could add fuel to some flame wars.
Warning: This review contains spoilers for Ship It by Britta Lundin.
This is going to be a longer review than usual, and for that I apologize, but I wanted to take the opportunity to delve into some deeper discussions about fandom culture in general. Ship It, while being problematic, has some excellent points about representation and sexism. There is some legitimately good stuff being discussed in this book, probably on a deeper level than in other books with a similar theme. However, it’s difficult for me to overlook the issues in the book’s tone and message.
Ship It is the story of Claire, a fan of a show called Demon Heart that sounds almost exactly like Supernatural. She is a fic writer of some prominence who writes slash between Heart and his nemesis Smokey. In the early part of the book, she doesn’t give specific numbers, but her Tumblr apparently has a follower count in the thousands. She’s completely isolated in her little Idaho town, because in 2018 no one else in this school watches television or has a Tumblr. One day she learns that Demon Heart will be doing a convention tour that includes Boise. She’s excited to go to the convention and meet other fans, but is resolved to not ask a question at the panel because she doesn’t have the nerve. But a statement made by the showrunner compels her to the microphone where she asks about the possibility of SmokeHeart going canon. Perfectly audible to the audience, Forest – the actor who plays Smokey – calls her crazy. Claire runs from the panel in tears. (Something like this actually happened at a Supernatural panel in 2013.)
What follows is a completely implausible scenario that screams wish fulfillment in the way a lot of self-insert fanfics (of which I have written several, in my younger days) can’t even accomplish. In order to create some good PR, Claire is invited to come with the cast on their convention tour. They actually rig a contest to get her along. She uses the opportunity to try to force Jamie, the showrunner, to make SmokeHeart canon. In an effort to get Jamie to listen to her, she basically harasses him. She sets up camp outside his hotel room, corners him on the bus, and at one point even steals his phone and hacks his Twitter account. All of this backfires spectacularly, of course. While Jamie admits to queerbaiting for ratings, he fires Forest, deciding that fans can’t ship SmokeHeart if Smokey is dead. (A statement like that proves that he really doesn’t understand shippers.)
Ship It is told with dual perspectives. One POV is Claire, of course. The other is Forest. In Forest’s chapters, we see him try to process the idea of people thinking his character is gay, and equating that to people thinking he must be gay as well. After his faux pas in Boise, he decides to prevent another by having a volunteer at the next convention screen all audience questions. This, of course, does not go over well with fans. But you see, Forest is eager to get the lead in a reboot action franchise for a video game he’s a huge fan of, and he’s concerned that these “gay rumors” will hurt his chances. Sadly, he has good reason to think this, because later he ends up meeting the director of that movie, who is kind of homophobic and sexist. We also learn that Jamie hates his own show for the simple reason that most of the fans are teenage girls. Neither of these guys ever really get their comeuppance – Demon Heart is renewed and the action franchise chugs along – but the important part is that Forest learns to understand fandom better.
The main problem with Ship It is Claire, her attitude, and her behavior. I’m a fangirl. I’m a shipper. I’m still pretty into fandom, though not as much as I was a decade ago, when I wrote fics and made graphics and fanvids. Most of my ships are slash ships. So I get the frustration that Claire feels. But she goes about it in entirely the wrong way, and not only is she never really criticized for this attitude and behavior, she is rewarded for it.
There is a lot of debate in fandom about the “appropriateness” of slash ships, which is ridiculous and dehumanizing and I won’t get into that here. There are fans who believe that questions about slash ships should not be allowed at panels, and there are some of us who – while completely respecting the right of a person to ask it – cringe when it comes up, simply because we know how it’s going to go. Very rarely do fans get the answers that they want. I’m not sure how it is for others, but for me, I’m not holding my breath waiting for my slash ships to go canon, but really, they should have just as much chance as any other ship. This is 20-gay-teen and it would be nice if just for once it was considered as a possibility. There are a lot of het ships out there where the only development was “he’s a guy and she’s a girl”. Love interests can be same sex nowadays, you know. I’d like it if, for one moment, that was a thought that went through someone’s head. Representation is important, and LGBTQ+ fans deserve to see themselves represented on screen, too. (More ace characters, please and thank you.)
So I understand where Claire is coming from on that front. It’s awful and demoralizing to have your ships constantly dismissed for unreasonable reasons. But I’ll tell you where the book started to lose me. In the line for the Boise panel, Claire meets Tess (the love interest). Tess is also a shipper, as well as a talented fan artist, but where Claire is open about her hobbies, Tess keeps that part of her life secret, because her friends would ostracize her if they knew. Claire and Tess naturally have a discussion about SmokeHeart, and we learn that Tess is a “keep fandom in fandom” shippers. She doesn’t care if it ever goes canon because that’s what fanfic is for. I don’t remember the exact conversation, but Tess started talking about how Demon Heart is Jamie’s show, and Claire interrupts her, “HIS show?”
There is an idea that exists that once a piece of media is put out in the world, it belongs to the audience and the fans. I do support this idea to an extent. Everything is open to interpretation, and someone can see something that wasn’t intended. This is how most ships start, especially on TV shows. There is a big difference between the way something is written on the page and the way it comes across onscreen (for example, body language is hard to script), and that is where the interpretation comes in. But for continuing media like TV shows, it’s still the showrunner that makes the decision, even if he’s a queerbaiting jackass. Claire harasses Jamie based on the belief that he doesn’t really have any say in what happens on his own show, that her opinion is the only one that matters, and that’s not a good belief to have.
This is a debate you can have with other fans, provided everyone can keep it civil. (Which, let’s face it, can get difficult. I know a lot of us get emotionally attached to our ships.) And I think it’s important that these debates are more of a “let me tell you how I see it” than “let me tell you how it is”. As we all know, unless a ship is canon, we’re all just spitting theories.
I hoped Ship It would get better, but it actually got worse.
It isn’t just Claire’s behavior toward Jamie that’s the issue in Ship It. Her behavior is also questionable in her relationships with Forest and Tess. In Forest’s case, she’s rather rude and condescending to him because he doesn’t understand fandom. On the one hand, it is kind of odd that someone on a show like that wouldn’t even know what fanfic is – I feel like even someone new to the business has a base understanding of fanworks at this point in pop culture. On the other hand, everything Claire does has the potential to negatively impact Forest’s career, and she doesn’t seem to care about that, despite claiming to be a fan. At one point, she writes an RPF fic about Forest and his costar Rico using information he told her during their conversations and extrapolating that his father abused him. Forest overhears some fans talking about the fic and finds it. He is understandably upset about this, and Claire doesn’t get why. She even gets mad at him for getting mad about it. Later, he finds out that he’s fired – that his death in the season finale, which was supposed to be a cliffhanger, is permanent – and he tweets a final “f— you, Claire”.
Claire’s relationship with Tess is a big part of Ship It. It starts the way most of these stories tend to, with Claire adamantly insisting that she’s straight and getting upset every time someone assumes that she isn’t. (She feels it devalues her argument – that they think she only wants SmokeHeart to be gay because she is.) Eventually she realizes that what she is feeling for Tess is romantic. They go on a date, and things progress from there (keep in mind, YA book) but Claire is still confused. She gets mad at Tess for telling people about their relationship before Claire has the chance to really sort through her feelings, and she ends up shutting Tess out a bit. They talk it over, and everything is fine, but on one of their dates, they run into Tess’s friends – who don’t know about her fandom activities. Claire, in a completely characteristic vindictive manner, almost gleefully announces to Tess’s friends that they met at a convention. In retaliation, Tess outs Claire to her mother. How…cute?
At the final convention on the tour, Claire manages to screw things up with Jamie (by stealing his phone and hacking his Twitter in an attempt to force him to make SmokeHeart canon), Forest (with the whole RPF using actual details revealed in confidence), and Tess (by messing things up with her friends). She goes home early, deletes her blog, and wallows in the fact that she has ruined everything. At this point, I was hoping that I would start to like her a little bit more. She was aware of the fact that it was her own actions that caused her problems, and she seemed to feel truly remorseful about her behavior. Now is the point in the story when the protagonist learns from their mistakes and grows as a person. And, let’s face it, a lot of us did a lot of stupid stuff when we were teenagers. (I mean, I’m pretty sure I never stole anyone’s personal property and then blackmailed them, or outed anyone to their parents, but whatever.)
Then she got invited to the Demon Heart panel at San Diego Comic-Con. Not only invited to the panel, she demanded to be the one to moderate it, and they agreed. And that is where Ship It truly lost me. From then on, I couldn’t care less about Claire or her journey because it was unbelievable that she was ever given that opportunity. She didn’t earn it. She didn’t deserve it.
Ship It ends happily, of course. Claire officially comes out at the panel, and she and Tess (who also happens to be at the panel) kiss and make up. Forest does not get the action film role that he wanted, but he does land a part on another TV show. And I am still wondering how many rounds this went through with people going, “Yep, sounds good!” and no one seeming to realize that their main character is kind of a jerk.
Fan entitlement is actually a very real thing, and it’s hard to discuss without stepping on someone’s toes. It’s not hard to think, as a fan, that TPTB owe you. There are only two things that I really, honestly believe that I am owed as a fan. The first is a good product – a good, coherent story that makes sense and I can enjoy. Unfortunately, there are billions of people in the world, and “good” is subjective, so it’s going to be impossible for TPTB to please everyone.
The second is for TPTB to listen. I don’t mean that they need to pander to fans or follow all of our suggestions. Trust me, I know even I have some terrible ideas. But I believe that showrunners et al should have an ear to the ground in fandoms. It isn’t so much that I want them to do what I say, but more so that I want them to consider the possibility. Not just about ships, but about other things as well. At the same time, I don’t believe in forcing your opinions, but I don’t see the problem with bringing them up at a Q&A or on Twitter, provided you’re polite when you do so.
The problem with Ship It is that it highlights Claire’s entitlement and tries to garner sympathy for her behavior. It’s very hard to find Claire’s story cute or compelling when all I wanted to do was sit her down and go, “Yeah, you need to chill out a bit.” Her behavior is totally out of line, and the fact that she has a couple of adults – namely the PR people – actively helping her does not sit well with me. One of the PR people actually gives Claire Jamie’s Twitter login. This is very wrong. Every fandom has that dark corner that we would all like to disavow – the rude fans who harass the actors, or the racists, misogynists, and homophobes, or the people who purposely stir up drama. You don’t want to police someone’s behavior, because gatekeeping is never cool, but at the same time, you want them to know that they’re ruining it for the rest of us.
On the positive side, there are some very important points discussed in Ship It. As I’ve mentioned, most people don’t question heterosexual ships, but slash ships often get the side-eye. Claire talks about this a bit, and it’s a good point that needs more discussion in Hollywood. When trying to convince Tess to be more open about her interests, Claire points out that it’s perfectly acceptable to be super into sports so it should be acceptable to be into a TV show as well. In one conversation, Tess (who is black) calls Claire out on only caring about the gay relationship and not seeming to care about the lack of good female and non-white characters on TV – and in Demon Heart in particular. There is also a discussion about how, too often, a piece of media is dismissed because its fanbase consists primarily of teenage girls. All of these things deserve to be highlighted, and I think it would perfectly acceptable to raise these questions at panel Q&As.
In the end, I appreciated what Britta Lundin was trying to do with Ship It. I generally am a fan of books that attempt to normalize fandom and shipping because I believe there are still a lot of stereotypes we as a whole are trying to live down. I just don’t think that Ship It gives the best impression of what it’s like to be a shipper – particularly a slash shipper. It ends up doing us more harm than good.
On a semi-related and absolutely no less important note, I think the LGBTQ+ community deserves a cute, fandom romance where the main pairing doesn’t have such problematic issues. (I mean, Tess is a homoromantic pansexual, and how often do you even see that?)
Ship It by Britta Lundin is published by Freeform Books and will be available May 1 wherever books are sold.
Author: Jamie Sugah
Jamie has a BA in English with a focus in creative writing from THE Ohio State University. She self-published her first novel, The Perils of Long Hair on a Windy Day, is available through Amazon. She is currently an archivist and lives in New York City with her demon ninja vampire cat. She covers television, books, movies, anime, and conventions in the NYC area.
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