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”.

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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.