Fandom, the time has come to talk of many things, about ships and shippers and anti-shippers. While shippers do their fair share of bad behavior, there’s bad behavior from anti-shippers too. For some reason this seems to get less discussion, combined with a lingering, difficult-to-budge perception that shippers are to blame. That shipping is to blame.
Let’s get real.
It’s time to stop blaming shippers for all of fandom’s problems.
Now, let me start by establishing we already know the ways shippers can go over the line. There’s been any number of highly visible blog posts about that: “When Shippers Go Too Far” being the usual refrain. Yes, at times there are factions among shippers that show they have lost common sense regarding boundaries or why aggressive behavior will not somehow force anyone to make their ship canon, or that it’s simply not okay to send death threats or personal insults in defense of their favorite ship. It’s never okay to send death threats over a fandom conflict. It’s not okay to send death threats. I’m not condoning bad behavior from shippers or from anyone.
But it’s time to stop conflating defense of the shipper point of view with saying death threats are okay. In fact you can condemn bad behavior while also understanding that there’s a valid reason many get upset and those issues warrant discussion.
It’s time to stop treating shippers like they’re a hive mind.
It’s time there’s more discussion of the fact that while the overboard actions of shippers gets heaps of attention, often even worse behavior from anti-shippers keeps getting overlooked, and this is hurting Fandoms all over. My thoughts are based on my direct experience with a number of fandoms, and what I know of what has happened in others. I always return to the same conclusions.
Namely, that while some shippers are capable of embarrassing, toxic behavior, there are anti-shippers who deserve their own special gold star of fail. It’s the year 2017, and Not Shipping still seems to be the default standard of what’s regarded as automatically Sane. Shippers are assumed to be by default The Freaks regardless of behaviors, especially the bad behaviors I’ve witnessed from the allegedly “sane.”
What do I mean by “bad behavior”? Anti-shippers have done any or all of the following: sending death threats, threats of physical violence aimed at actors or fans, flat-out lying to smear shippers, spamming showrunners with anti-shipping hate or demands the story be kept to their exact specifications, harassing and bashing shippers to tell them how they are allowed to watch or enjoy their media, concern trolling (adopting a legitimate issue and artificially and falsely claiming a particular ship is in violation), shaming shippers for wanting a ship to become canon, stalking in real-space at conventions as a way to sabotage or shut-down shipper voices, disparaging comments or even physical intimidation in convention spaces, and targeting and hating on actors, all motivated by dislike of a ship.
Sending death threats is wrong, whether you’re a shipper or anti-shipper, but what’s also wrong is being so entitled you believe your dislike of a ship allows you to behave however you want without objection. There’s been plenty of talk about how entitled shippers can get. I have seen it all, people. But let’s talk about the entitlement of antis too.
When I say “anti-shippers” keep in mind that a lot of this toxic behavior aimed at shippers or a ship arises from defense of their own favorite ship. So in that sense, shipping does carry some burden. But it doesn’t make sense to blame shipping and ships themselves for the negative behaviors. Shipping a pairing doesn’t make fans behave badly. Hurtful behavior in a fandom arises from a number of causes, and over things other than ships–fixation on one particular character or actor, for example, that leads to intense fandom rivalries, or inappropriate actions taken against other fans or even towards the worshiped idol themselves. People are people, they have issues. It’s not an excuse, but it is how it is. Fans have choices as to how they behave. There are any number of positive ways to defend and support your favorite ship without tearing down others or attacking or hate trolling.
Anti-shippers will often deny being a shipper while attacking others because there’s a relationship that is obviously the center of their world, and they feel the existence of squee and attention for another relationship is a threat even when it actually isn’t. They not only want to worship their own holy pairing, they don’t think any other should be worshiped either, and have few boundaries about how far is too far. Again, this behavior can arise from fixation on a favorite actor or character or over platonic relationships as well.
Yet it is romantic “shipping” that keeps getting the blanket condemnation.
This also isn’t solely about overtly bad behavior motivated by “ship warring,” where fans of rival ships act aggressively towards each other. “Ship-warring” has become a simplistic, sometimes mis-applied label. Anti-shipping behavior can come from inordinate aggression of fans of one ship towards another. It can come from fans who really aren’t into that whole shipping thing whatsoever, who can be extreme or subtle in their antipathy towards shipping.
Note: there’s a difference between anti-shippers and non-shippers. The stating of a mere opinion: I don’t see it, I don’t ship it, is valid and isn’t hate or shaming. Non-shippers and shippers in my experience can co-exist peacefully. Nobody is perfect, so occasionally there’s some conflict even among well-intentioned fans from either side, but non-shippers are not the same thing as the anti-shipping biases at work or the extremity of behaviors from anti-shippers.
This bias against the act of shipping itself is part of a larger, more complex relationship Fandom has with the act of shipping. Fandoms are in love with shipping, and the immense popularity of particular ships is self-evident. However Fandom also has a self-loathing element where it distrusts its own love of shipping in a way that doesn’t stop at merely criticizing negative behavior from shippers.
The act of shipping itself is misunderstood and vilified, and it’s worth discussing why.
There are all kinds of ways and reasons to ship. Sex is a part of it but the idea that shipping is all about sex is a myth. It’s character and emotional dynamics, often but not always entwined with sex. It’s about the glance, the touch, the care the characters show for each other, watching a relationship grow and evolve in canon in a way that inspires a strong emotional response, or about unexplored possibilities.
There are crack ships with not even a remote chance at canon, but the shippers don’t care. They’re too busy having fun. There are ships that forever seem tantalizingly on the edge of canon, built on strong canon relationships, but the romance never emerges from its subtextual restraints. There are “oh my god that’s so WRONG” ships and while it’s valid to criticize normalization of harmful elements in fiction, fans also have a right to ship what they want and get what they want out of it without being hate trolled. Most of them are perfectly aware how transgressive it is and will go right on shipping, so save your breath. There are canon supercouples as well, and gratifyingly, more are emerging lately offering LGBT rep—pairings who are partners on every level and have a satisfying narrative. There are troubled canon couples that are like a car wreck. There are pairings who did it that one time in canon and everyone is confused if it’s considered canon or not. There are ships that get a lot of attention as ships that should become canon but aren’t, and ships that become canon that seem like a terrible idea. It’s often subjective.
Good luck to anyone trying to flatten all ships into the same box. They’ll never fit. Stop being shocked when people actually notice and mind over-simplifying statements, inaccurate generalizations, misinformation, lies, shaming, or vitriol.
So there’s Fandom’s love-hate relationship with shipping, despite its immense popularity–maybe it’s because of it. There’s quite a bit of self-shaming that goes on along with external shaming from hostile anti-shippers or wider societal biases. This shaming seems to apply both to het ships and same-sex romances. However the bias against same-sex shipping is far more intense, and that’s due to in part to biases clinging to heteronormative mores. There are frequent assumptions that male/female romance is “normal” while male/male or female/female romances are freakish, weird, not normal, not really part of the “story,” or inappropriate for younger viewers or family-themed narratives. Insisting that fully realized same-sex romance that breaks past the boundaries of its subtext isn’t okay for canon and is only okay for fanfic—in other words, only suitable for fandom fantasies—is a deeply fetishizing and shaming viewpoint on same-sex romances.
Considering the still dire lack of representation of LGBT characters and satisfying same-sex romances in the media, and the high numbers of LGBT fans who ship same-sex romances, it’s not surprising some non-canon same-sex pairings get adopted and rooted for so strongly. Straight and LGBT fans ship for any number of valid reasons, but the role representation plays for LGBT fans in why they root for non-canon, subtextual ships to become canon matters. There is a reason it matters if those ships become canon. Regardless of identity, it’s rude to tell other fans how they can feel about something they love, but in particular telling large numbers of LGBT fans they can’t want their ship to become canon, that they have no right to want to see themselves reflected in their heroes, that they’re “delusional” for seeing it, is downright harmful.
The biases against shippers and shipping also arises from sexism. Fandom is a female-dominated space where women often are able to express themselves more freely than they can in other settings. There’s a wider societal bias against romance as a genre, even for straight romances. Caring about romance is regarded as inherently silly or frivolous, no matter what kind of pairing, and is associated with female voices. In societal terms, there’s a perception that female=weak, therefore romance=weak. This despite the timelessness of love stories and their universal popularity over centuries to all genders. It’s still also regarded with distrust.
In Fandom, romance is often assumed to be not a valid part of the story, even with wave after wave of examples where romance is a key element in some of our most beloved, iconic pop culture narratives, or even in the very narratives fans are told aren’t about romance and they should sit down and shut up.
“I actually watch for the plot and characters!” is a common shame-phrase aimed against shippers, yet shipping is about characters. It’s concentrated character. It’s about how two characters fit together (or potentially could fit together). Shipping arises from a fascination with character and the alchemy of how characters can fit together, clash, complement each other, get into each other’s hearts, under each other’s skin, and set off each other’s strengths and weaknesses, fears and capacity to love.
“It’s not about that!” is a habitual shut-down aimed at shippers, by officious voices who feel it’s their duty to tell others how to respond to fiction.
Fiction is interpretive by nature. Yes, there is a “canon”—the actual events that take place in a narrative, the surface text whose meaning is not ambiguous. Canon is not and should not be irrelevant. Canon is also the foundation that leads fans to an interpretation. I don’t believe authorial intent is irrelevant, and I don’t believe right to interpret means that canon events should be ignored or denied to suit an agenda. But often, the very fans who claim to defend The Shrine of Canon from the alleged ills of a hinted-at romance often distort canon severely to suit this agenda, at the expense of the actual textual canon narrative.
The mere act of shipping something is not inherently a negative or distorted lens, but it keeps getting equated with one. A lot of the dialogue of shaming aimed at shippers goes against how stories work by nature. Whether it concerns ships or not, once the story is consumed it is transformed. It’s unavoidable, inexorable. We all bring our own histories, insecurities, experiences, needs, and context to a narrative and how we respond in our hearts. This is out of anyone’s control, be it the creator or fellow fans.
Subtext, which powers a lot of the shipping lens, is an essential part of storytelling, not just for implied romantic tinges. It adds texture, layers, and flavor for all types of relationships, individual character arcs, or greater themes. Storytelling would be barren without it. Decry subtext and you might as well decry the role of lighting, music, camera angles, foreshadowing, parallels, unreliable narrators, and other cinematic and literary devices that are essential to vibrant storytelling.
The distrust of subtext and misunderstanding of why it’s so important seems to go hand-in-hand with ship-shaming. It’s a two-part problem. There are the overtly bad behaviors mentioned above (death threats), while the more subtle shaming and distrust creates an environment in Fandom that enables those more extreme negative behaviors.
Canon is not a shrine, canon is a framework where imaginations catch fire. Without viewers or readers, what is a story? Fans become participants in the act of creation, particularly in the serial storytelling format of television. Fans cannot dictate how a story goes and shouldn’t try (when they do, it’s a mess), but fans can ask, fans can show support, fans can criticize without being demanding or hateful. Creators do listen to fans, and without fan support, the story ends. There’s a fine line between listening and being governed by fan feedback, but fan feedback is part of the package and it also makes no sense for showrunners to completely ignore their fanbases.
Love your thing. Respect that others love their things. Show support for your thing and ask, don’t send hate. Learn to criticize without being hateful. Respect fellow fans. They’re going to watch for the reasons they do and telling them they can’t won’t actually stop it so you might as well chill out. Squee and let squee. Ship, don’t ship, it’s all good.
In the end we’re all fans. We care for our own reasons, and there should be room for all of us.
Author: Dot R
Dot has been bouncing around various fandoms for many years now writing essays, episode reviews, commentary, and reporting news and conducting interviews, among other things. Along with being a Marvel, DC, Star Wars, and Supernatural fangirl, she’s also a fan of fantasy and science fiction television shows, everything from Farscape to Killjoys to 12 Monkeys to X-Files to Wynonna Earp. Currently Fangirl at Large covering numerous geek culture related topics, convention news, casting spoilers, show news, and interviews.
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