The Shipping Paradigm
If you’ve ever been a part of a fandom you would’ve come across shipping in some form. If you haven’t then let me explain: “ship” is short for “relationship” and describes a romantic relationship between at least two characters in a series. A “ship” is a preferred couple that you like and “shipping” is wanting them to get together. This is a major part of fandom for some people and if you think a series doesn’t have shipping then you’re not looking into the fandom that hard. The video game series Portal only has one human character and she has been shipped with the homicidal computer trying to kill her and an inanimate lifeless cube. Fans will find something to ship, no matter what.
So why do we ship? Well it’s part of our nature to want to pair up with someone else, so we already have a vested interest in relationships. That combined with our empathy for others leads us to have an interest in the relationships of others. Then there’s the fact that the media itself encourages shipping because they want to capitalise on that vested interest. The news and tabloids have built an empire out of celebrity gossip and who is sleeping with whom. Certain parts of fiction are made to get people invested through shipping. The “will they/won’t they” unresolved sexual tension popularised by Moonlighting, the “will Bella get together with Jacob or Edward?” love triangles that are the rage now, or even just leaving characters and their connections with the other cast ambiguous so anyone can be shipped together, like some Anime’s do. All of these are designed so people will stay with a series hoping to see their ship come together.
Not every series does this of course, but it happens enough that it’s clear there’s a large viable market for it. If a series doesn’t encourage shipping it will still happen regardless. If two characters are thought to be “cute together” then it doesn’t matter if they’re straight, gay, different species, have never met, or inanimate objects. Fans will ship anything and everything, even if there’s no chemistry or if they come from different series. There is no such thing as a nonviable ship.
Then there’s Slash fiction. Slash is the name for gay ship pairings, so named because of the “/” between the first big Slash couple “Kirk/Spock” in Star Trek, which was written about in fanzines decades before the internet. However now most ship couples are named “X/Y” regardless of it being a same sex pair or not. So even though the term doesn’t make much sense now it’s still the official name for these ships.
On the other end of the gender spectrum there’s Femslash. As the name implies it’s for lesbian pairings. Both are fairly prominent in fandoms, though the degrees of which vary depending on the series as something like Supernatural has more Slash than Avatar. Part of the reason why Slash often done is because of the absence of gay characters in the media, it’s a way for fans to add them to world that are lacking anything homosexual related. It’s a freedom for diversity that is offered through shipping. Star Trek, for example, through all it’s preaching of a future utopia for humanity doesn’t have any gay characters in any of its 11 movies or 5 TV series. There are even episodes that imply homosexuals either don’t exist or aren’t accepted in the future. So shipping and fanfiction are a good way to add such diversity to such a classic series.
Now just because Slash is prominent doesn’t mean it’s universally liked. It draws a lot of criticism for a variety of reasons, chief among them is homophobia and that 90% of the characters aren’t presented as homosexual in their series. I’m not saying everyone who doesn’t like Slash is a homophobe, it’s just I’ve seen a lot of homophobia against the subject. What is a perfectly valid criticism on the other hand are the characters not being gay.
The characters in most series are usually depicted as straight so it would be “out of character” for tem to suddenly like the same sex. Of course using that argument any non-canon couple is equally as wrong since those characters clearly aren’t romantically interested in each other because they never hooked up in canon. That isn’t a problem for regular shippers of non-canon pairings so it shouldn’t be for Slash fans. They should equally get to justify why they think their ship works like every other fan. I’ve seen Slash that works better than the canon couple, straight ships that make me scratch my head, and visa versa. They’re all equal in my mind.
That isn’t the case for other though as there’s the “shipping wars.” These are internet fights over which ship is superior, because humans are possessive and would rather ‘fight’ than accept other opinions as being equally valid [insert political commentary joke here]. This usually comes about over which ship is going to become canon, such as Team Edward and Team Jacob or Kataang and Zutara from Avatar. There are always sour looses in these that can’t accept their ship didn’t come in and then sore winners who will rub it in any chance they can get.
What I find amusing about all of this is that the Slash community has a much lower mount of shipping wars, though it still happens. It’s because a lot of Slash fans know there’s no way their ship will become canon so they’re not too bothered about such things.
Then there’s what I call “Anti-Shipping” which is disliking a canon ship but not wanting it to be replaced by anything in particular. Not really a wide spread thing but there are always a few who just don’t like how the relationships end up in canon.
All in all shipping is something that can be fun so long as it’s not taken too seriously. It should never be the be all and end all for a series but part of a larger fandom. If you’re going to ship then ship responsibly.