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The ship wars: what it means when fans don’t agree who belongs together

Shipping is a complicated and subversive way of responding to a story’s characters – there’s a whole lot more to it than just “getting them together”.

Last week, my friends across the fannish internet started to notice something going on in The 100 fandom. Like many shows with robust fan bases, the CW’s post-apocalyptic teen drama is currently grounds for a ship war. Shipping is about enjoying the idea of characters together, onscreen or in your head, and ship wars erupt when people disagree about which characters belong together. This one positions the protagonist between two potential rivals – one male, one female – for her affections (or none of the above, as some fans insist the show simply isn’t “about” romance). And people who felt strongly one way or the other were making that known.

Ship wars are par for the course in certain corners of the fannish world. When you’re on the inside, they can feel all-encompassing and inescapable and, frankly, pretty awful. Most of the time they remain largely invisible to people outside those communities, but this one caught my attention because the show’s creator, Jason Rothenberg, was finding it difficult to ignore, especially as canonical developments on The 100 delighted one camp and infuriated another. “This ship war has to stop,” he tweeted. “Everyone, on both sides, please chill the fuck out. It’s just a show. Watch or don’t, but show respect.” Later he added, “I hate shipping. Good night, Twitter.” Eventually he bowed out of the public discussion for good.

This could be a story about fan/creator interaction, about how showrunners or writers or actors wade into the messiness of their fans’ shipping factions and drastically tilt the balance of these cultural exchanges. See, for example, J K Rowling’s pronouncement in 2014 that Hermione might have been better off with Harry than Ron (that dredged up memories of epic ship wars, let me tell you). Or examine the idea of queerbaiting – a topic for another day, really – when writers tease at queer ships, onscreen and off, to play up fan reactions. (The baiting part? They’ll never follow through.) As with a lot of evolving points of fan/creator interaction, there’s always tension when creators talk back to fans with the language that fans themselves have created.

When creators voice opinions on ship wars or shipping in general, it’s easy to see just how fully the practice has permeated the mainstream dialogue about our media. But for all that people are tossing around “shipping” and “OTP” these days, the practice (and, especially, the feelings that drive that practice) is still widely misunderstood – and it’s often dismissed out of hand. “It’s not about romance” or “it’s not about feelings” or, as Rothenberg wrote, “chill the fuck out, it’s just a show”. He echoes the often exasperated sentiments of non-shippers across the internet; to some, caring about the romantic fates of fictional characters might seem totally ridiculous.

But shipping is important: it’s a complicated and subversive tool, even when (maybe especially when) it’s being wielded mostly for pleasure. Last month I came at shipping from a different angle, working to separate a yearning for queer representation from the act of queering the narrative yourself. But what about the act of shipping, as both a marker of status within a group and as an expression of desire? If we’re inclined to ship, why do we do it, why does it bring us together in a collective version of that desire – and why do we get so riled up when we disagree?

If you’ve never just wanted two – or more! – characters to get together (or perhaps enjoyed seeing characters who are already together navigate a relationship) it might be hard to understand what shipping is about. In the abstract, it’s as straightforward as that: we see something between them – romantic chemistry, or sexual tension, or a great friendship, or a really epic hatred – and we itch to push them closer. Sometimes it’s about sex; sometimes it’s not. A lot of the time, it’s just really fun, either to imagine it or to create and consume art about it. Shipping dominates transformative fandom – fanfiction, fanart, and the like. “Getting them together” is one of the rock-solid foundations of the fanfiction world: a lot of fic falls within the romance genre, where much of the pleasure of the story lies in the ‘how’ of the budding relationship. And just like professionally-published romance, these stories are largely written and read by women.

But if much of fandom is about finding people who get just as excited about the thing – and, ideally, the way you get excited about the thing – a fair portion of shipping is about finding your people, too. Ships grow richer and more nuanced in communal spaces, and in some parts of fandom, they work to serve as identity markers. Who you ship, and how you ship them, might say something about how you read the show and its characters, or how you interpret the world. Or you might just bond over thinking a certain pairing is hot. Fans love to organise themselves into tribes, marked by shorthand and common tropes. Ships might let you know that you’re entering a certain kind of fan space, and what sorts of conversations you’ll find within.

This is, of course, where those warring factions come in. After all, identity markers are a source of tension just as often as they’re a source of cohesion. Plenty of shippers exist in perfect harmony with people who love different pairings – but plenty do not. Just like other sources of fandom wank (the long-held term for fandom in-fighting, and let me tell you, that choice of term feels very apt some days) and much like arguments on the internet at large, disagreements about shipping can get brutal. Part of the trouble is shipping is messy and complicated: it’s desire wrapped up in your interpretations of the characters and the story you love, plus your personal experiences, maybe your sexuality, and your position in a broader group of like-minded shippers. It’s no wonder a ship can feel very close to your heart – something worth fighting for.

(This seems like an opportune moment for an aside, in case you’re scratching your head and saying, “But they’re fictional characters! Stop getting so worked up!” I’ll note that the sporting press rarely feels compelled to run articles explaining why people get worked up over the teams they support. We form groups to get excited about things we love, and get mad at people who like things other than what we love. That’s humans, all of us silly, emotional creatures.)

There are all sorts of reasons behind individual ship wars. Perhaps people feel the existence of one ship negates another – if Hermione has to pick Ron or Harry, for example (poor Hermione, can’t she have another choice) – essentially, one set of fans’ read on the source material negates the other. Or perhaps the same pairing that sparks passion in some sparks hatred in others. And some shipping arguments are framed ideologically: fans pit one ship against another by touting queer representation or better portrayals of women or depictions of the healthiest relationships.

Things can get especially thorny when we overlay real-world politics onto fictional desires: some ship wars are fought over the moral high ground. I’ve seen many fan communities fall apart under the weight of arguments about morality and shipping, whether fans had the right to celebrate problematic ships, or depict things like rape in their fanworks. These are complicated issues – and there are valid arguments on all sides. I found some clarity when I talked to my friend Anne Jamison about it (I’ve recommended her invaluable book on fanfiction, Fic, so often that she probably owes me a cut of the royalties), and she said,

“I think framing shipping in terms of representation and real world equivalence misses part of the point. Shipping is also about pleasure – I think it is about narrative pleasure as well as sexual pleasure, and it’s about assertion and control in both those cases. I think it talks back to the culture that suggests women’s fantasies are responsible for women’s actual treatment – often it asserts a right to fantasies and desires that aren’t in line with political beliefs or personal life goals, and it stakes out a place for those desires. That in itself is political – especially in the case of women’s sexual desires – but it is a different politics.”

We feel the urge to ship because it’s pleasurable – and we go ahead and act on that urge. That’s the subversive part of shipping, as the mostly female, often queer shippers of transformative fandom refashion narratives and refocus character relationships to suit their desires. The mere act of shipping can be political, regardless of what kind of political statement your pairing makes: whether it’s wholly divorced from canon or directly tied to the source material, whether it’s light and fluffy or utterly serious, it’s the idea of shipping that’s important.

Shipping is often derided as a distraction from or a trivialisation the real and valid parts of a narrative. But the people doing the deriding have trouble seeing that shipping can shift our perspective, offering us new, fresh, and often more inclusive ways into that narrative. We ship because it’s fun or we ship because it’s sexy, but most of all, we ship because that’s the way we see the story – that’s our way in.

Elizabeth Minkel is a staff writer for The Millions, and writes a regular column on fan culture for the New Statesman. She is on Twitter @ElizabethMinkel.

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A Lab of One’s Own: the forgotten female scientists who shed stereotypes about women’s abilities

Every woman in this book deserves a biography of her own.

You might assume that there’s not much left to be written about the suffragette movement. But what has been ignored is that in the quiet corridors of university science departments, important battles were fought by women whose names were quickly forgotten. They weren’t always high-profile campaigners, but by forcing open the gates to the male-dominated worlds of science and engineering they helped shed stereotypes about women’s abilities.

In A Lab of One’s Own, the Cambridge historian Patricia Fara documents these scientists’ stories, painting a picture of a world that clearly wanted to remain male. It was the First World War that gave women unprecedented access to careers for which they had until then been deemed unsuitable. From all walks of life, they began working in munitions factories, developing chemical weapons (at one point, 90 per cent of industrial chemists were women) and building war machinery, while male scientists were on the battlefield.

These weren’t safe jobs; 200 women producing TNT died from poisoning or accidental explosions. Their achievements were so immense that even the prime minister Herbert Asquith, who opposed female suffrage, was forced to admit that there was hardly a service “in which women have not been at least as active and efficient as men”.

There is understandable anger in Fara’s voice. Despite their skill and dedicated service – often working for less pay than their male counterparts, or none at all – female scientists faced appalling resistance. Women were shunted into the worst roles, mocked for what they wore (trousers or skirts, they could never seem to get it right), and their ideas were ignored. Trade unions fought to protect men, meaning most women went unrepresented, promptly losing their jobs once the war was over.

Again and again, they had to carve out spaces for themselves then battle for the right to keep them. Britain’s scientific societies pulled elaborate tricks to block female members in the first half of the 20th century. One graduate, Emily Lloyd, managed to gain admission to the Royal Institute of Chemistry only by cleverly using the gender-neutral “E Lloyd” to sit the qualifying exam.

But getting through the door was only half the challenge. At Cambridge, men stamped their feet while women walked to their reserved seats at the front of the lecture theatres (imagine how they must have felt when Philippa Fawcett, daughter of the suffragette Millicent Fawcett, beat them all to come top in the Cambridge Mathematical Tripos exams in 1890). Women-only labs were given inferior facilities. Even scientists who worked alongside their husbands sometimes weren’t given credit when their joint work was published.

Every woman in this book deserves a biography of her own. Martha Whiteley, for example, who did pioneering work on mustard gas and wounded her arm when she tested it on herself. And the chemist Dorothea Hoffert, who researched varnish and food before having to give up work when she got married. The personal tales of these remarkable figures could benefit from more spacious storytelling, but as a scholarly account, Fara’s book offers a window into this fascinating chapter of history.

What’s also intriguing is the unease that men felt on seeing women doing “their” jobs. Soldiers worried about “the masculinisation of women” back home. There were fears that uniforms and protective overalls would drain femininity, and that by choosing to study and work rather than reproduce, clever women were depriving the nation of clever babies.

Unsurprisingly then, after the war, things went back swiftly to how they were before. Even in medical schools, where women had made huge strides, “the traditional masculine culture reasserted itself”. Women did win the battle in the end, although the war continues. As Fara makes clear, this was not only through the force of their intellects but also by taking the example of male clubs and forming their own networks. Women’s colleges became hotbeds for campaigning, particularly Newnham in Cambridge. The Women’s Engineering Society, the British Federation of University Women, and others were set up partly to help women fight entrenched efforts to hold them back.

“It is with much interest that we learned a few weeks ago that women chemists in London had formed a Club,” a snobbish editorial in the journal Chemistry and Industry began in 1952. “Most men are clubbable one way or another, but we did not know this was true of women. We wonder if this formation of a Club for women chemists is another sign of female emancipation.”

It was. By banding together and defending their rights, women found a strength that many before the war assumed they would never have. These pioneers not only helped win women the vote, they changed what it meant to be a woman. l

Angela Saini is the author of “Inferior: How Science Got Women Wrong – and the New Research That’s Rewriting the Story” (4th Estate). Patricia Fara will appear at Cambridge Literary Festival, in association with the New Statesman, on Friday 12 April.​

A Lab of One’s Own: Science and Suffrage in the First World War
Patricia Fara
Oxford University Press, 352pp, £18.99

This article first appeared in the 15 February 2018 issue of the New Statesman, The polite extremist