Ship This: An Intro to Shipping (Not the Mailing Kind)
By Nikki Alfaro
What is shipping?
While brainstorming about this article, I asked a couple of geek friends what they thought of the shipping and one replied straightaway with one word: “scary.” A term originating from the word “relationship,” “shipping” is when you find and support the chemistry between two or more fictional characters. This goes from television to books to movies and comics. For those who lived through the Brangelina trend, you’d know that this could also extend to celebrities as well.
Emotionally attached to one ship in particular? That’s your OTP, or “One True Pairing.” This can, and often is, centered on romantic chemistry and subtext but that isn’t necessary. Fans can be attached to platonic chemistry too, referring to them as “brOTP” (a portmanteau of “bromance” and “OTP.”) Personally, I get hooked on a ship when I see their banter. Witty banter gets me every time.
Shipping can be terrifying in its ardent followings but it can also lead to some of the most interesting and wonderful engagements with fiction that fans can have. After all, this fantastic fandom phenomenon is quite possibly the one common thread amongst all fandoms. As most, if not all of us, are comic book fans, you’ve probably come across some familiar debates. Should Sue Storm be with Namor or Reed? Clark and Lois or Superman and Wonder Woman? Mary Jane or Gwen Stacy? Shipping can also be really important to movie franchises and marketing (Team Peeta? Or Team Gale?). Fans of Bioware games or recent RPGs are granted a remarkable amount of agency with their ships, as a lot of them are determined by player choices. I suppose that’s what shipping is for fans. When we’re given so much to consume, shipping represents a choice that we can make on how we interpret fiction.
How do fans use ships to engage with fiction? You’ve probably heard horror stories about fanfiction or maybe you have been traumatized by some pretty raunchy fanart while googling a character. But like most mediums, there are gems underneath all of the ones that make us flinch. Regardless of subjective quality, there’s something admirable about the creative side of shipping. While you don’t have to be a shipper to create fanfics or fanart, it’s still amazing to see these possible outcomes play out through a fan’s perspective. These people write or draw or fan-edit videos on their own time because they care so much about this. I think out of all people, comic book fans would be the most familiar with different creative interpretations of licensed characters. DC’s Elseworlds stories and Marvel’s What-Ifs are like AU (Alternate Universe) oneshot fanfics and fanarts.
If you go to the fanfiction site Archive of Our Own and try to sort through fanfics by category, you’ll find that categories are separated by ships. There’s M/M (male characters, or slash), F/M (het, or hetero, ships), and there’s F/F (femslash or yuri). Interestingly enough, M/M ships dominate the fanfiction categories. There can be, and already has been, quite a few studies based on the slash side of shipping. Check out some really cool examinations here and here.
Social media sites like Twitter and Tumblr have made finding other shippers pretty easy. It’s one thing to find someone who likes X-Men, it’s another to find someone who ships Scott/Emma or Shadowcat/Colossus too! It’s a double-edged sword though, for every like-minded shipper you meet, you’re likely to find someone equally opposed to your OTP. Still, it’s a big playground. There’s more than enough room for all shippers. Not liking the same ship doesn’t have to be the be-all-end-all to a potential friendship. Geek debates are great to have sometimes! The most important rule is to follow Wheaton’s Law: don’t be a dick.
(Also, don’t tag your hate.)
When I asked my group of friends what they thought about shipping, I got some really interesting discussions from various perspectives. Some of my friends are really cool fangirls, the ones I’d probably meet and admire on tumblr if we hadn’t already met offline. They openly admit to shipping Swan Queen (From ABC’s Once Upon A Time) and FrostIron (Loki and Iron Man from the Marvel Cinematic Universe) and their enthusiasm is pretty awesome. Some of my other friends are a little more wary but were surprisingly open to talking about it. I suppose that’s what I’m trying to do here. I want to open up a shame-free conversation about it because I believe that it can be a great part of the geek experience. Fervent shipping can ruin a fandom for some people and yes, there is more to a work of fiction than relationships but it’s still fun to imagine and interpret our favourite characters together. I guess we’re all just romantics at heart.
Let me know your thoughts and questions on shipping or tweet me about your OTP!