As a self-confessed multi-shipper for over a decade, shipping has been a big part of my geek experience. It also had a profound impact on my life because it helped me discover and accept my sexuality. Yes, it is a homophobic fear come to life: shipping made me queer. But that didn’t happen until MUCH later.
What exactly made me a shipper in the first place? I guess I was always (and still am) a hopeless romantic at heart. From superhero stories, to manga, to video games, I was always attracted to the connections between characters. I certainly had my share of “canon” ships. I swooned over Tuxedo Mask and Sailor Moon. I laughed at Clark and Lois’ banter in the Lois and Clark: the Adventures of Superman television series. I cheered when Wonder Girl and Superboy shared a kiss in Teen Titans #6. I was sad when Cory and Topanga broke up for half a season. But what really got me hooked on shipping weren’t canon ships but the ships that weren’t actually together characters still had enough chemistry for me to ask “What If?”
I was no stranger to the idea of “What If.” Marvel Comics always seemed to ask that question. DC Comics had their own version of “What If” called “Elseworlds.” When I was a kid, one of my favourite graphic novels was a DC Elseworlds story about Superman if he landed on Apokolips instead of Earth. In that story (SPOILERS), Kal-El and Big Barda find a connection and are together by the end. I watched Superman: the Animated Series and Lois and Clark: the Adventures of Superman. I read a LOT of Superman comics that were set just after Lois and Clark got married. I don’t think I ever considered Clark Kent being with anybody but Lois until I read that book. Soon after that, I picked up Kingdom Come and that book introduced me to the Superman/Wonder Woman ship and I never looked back. Don’t get me wrong, I still love Lois and Clark (and the show Smallville helped me remember why that particular dynamic works so well) but I can see Superman and Wonder Woman together just as easily. When I say I never looked back, I meant that I never stuck to what canon tells me is “endgame.”
No matter what the fictional medium or fandom is, there’s always the idea of the “endgame” ship. There’s Brittana, Joey and Pacey, Haruka and Michiru, Chuck and Sarah, Katniss and Peeta, etc. When you reach the end of a series, the endgame couple should be the one walking into the sunset together. The idea of an “endgame” ship is so detrimental to fandom because of the ridiculous amount of vitriolic fighting that happens (AKA ship wars). As much as I love supporting and analyzing different ships, I don’t think it should be the be-all-end-all for a fictional work. The characters and the plot should be really strong too and they don’t have to rely on “endgame” couples. That being said, I’m just as guilty for letting a ship take over my enjoyment of fandom. In this day and age, shipping wars erupt online and are often the reason why so many people have such bad impressions of shipping and fandoms. I try to avoid that altogether, choosing instead to retreat into the realm of fanfiction instead of getting angry with actual people. (Remember Wheaton’s Law?)
I was introduced to the community side of fandom shipping when I was in 8th grade. Though I had always been a geek and favoured certain couples, it wasn’t until I became more Internet savvy that I became more aware of the whole phenomenon. All of a sudden, I wasn’t the only person who believed Harry and Hermione belonged together. That was a revelation. I could be a Harmony shipper and there would be people out there who didn’t tell me I was being stupid because that’s not what happened in the book. You could take this chemistry between characters and transform it into something you want to see in fiction. You could put out your story and other people would agree and take it as their “head-canon.” I thought it was genius.
If you’re familiar with any kind of critical literature studies, you could probably make a connection to the works of Derrida and Roland Barthes, in which they go into lengths to discuss the disconnection between author and their work. According to Barthes, the works we attribute to authors don’t solely come from those people. They “created” that specific work by mixing different pieces of culture that is already out in the world. Barthes argues that authorial intent isn’t relevant when we look at a text, it’s how we interpret it. WE give meaning to it. We decide what it means and the possibilities for interpretations are basically unlimited. If this is true, then shipping is just another way in which we can attribute meaning to texts, movies, television series, etc. Note: this is a very, very simplified summary and does not even BEGIN to cover what Barthes is arguing but for the simplicity’s sake I’ll just stop there.
Fast-forward to my early years at University (very, very sad years, and coincidentally the years in which I learned about Derrida and Barthes) and you could find me still reading fanfiction and not really engaging with the various fandom communities I knew existed online. At some point in my late high school career, I fell down the musical theatre rabbit hole. Spring Awakening was a Broadway success and I loved Lea Michele and Jonathan Groff so when I found out the former was going to be in a show with lots of singing, I was all for it. Glee became my newest obsession and because it started the same year I started university, it was a comforting obsession amongst all the changes happening in my life.
When it came to shipping, I understood what that show was trying to push with their small town girl and boy but I wasn’t really feeling it. As soon as the bad boy was introduced as a possible other romantic interest for Rachel Berry (Lea Michele’s character), I jumped on that ship instead. They only “dated” for less than an episode and didn’t really interact after that so I did what I always did when I wanted more of a ship that doesn’t exist in canon, I read fanfiction. I’m very picky about which fandoms I go into for fanfiction. Usually, the stronger the writing in canon, the less I look for substitutes in fanfic (but I digress, there are a lot of exceptions to that rule). Glee had a very steep drop in quality and there were plot holes galore to explore through fics and I loved it. Puck/Rachel (or Puckleberry) was my first Glee ship and the reason I joined Tumblr. I stayed in the Glee fandom for a long time because at first the musical theatre geek in me loved getting to see a lot of Broadway stars cover popular songs but it was when I discovered femslash on Tumblr that my eyes were open to a whole other side of shipping.
Fanfiction and shipping are really interesting ways of interpreting fiction. When I saw somebody online shipping Rachel Berry with Quinn Fabray (the head cheerleader/Rachel’s antagonist for the first half of season one), I thought they were crazy. Then out of curiousity, I read a fanfic that featured Rachel as a male character (gender-swapped) and I found that gender didn’t affect the undeniable chemistry between the two characters. Why should it?
While I don’t want to seriously say that shipping and fanfiction made me queer, they did something that I never saw before in popular media and fiction. They normalized queerness. They took heternormativity and threw it out and in fanfiction, fanart and manipulated gifsets, queer stories were front and center. Shipping Rachel and Quinn (or Faberry) made me realize there is so much more than the typical small town boy and girl story.
From there I fell down the femslash rabbit hole and I never looked back. I didn’t know I was ignoring so many great stories by overlooking same sex subtext. Of course Poe has heart-eyes for Finn. Captain Marvel and Spider-Woman? Gal Pals for sure *wink.* Don’t even get me started on Swan Queen. No, not all stories have to have romance but in mainstream media, we really only get heteronormative storylines in the forefront. If it’s gay then usually there’s a big coming out story or a really sad angsty story about not being able to come out or one of them dies. Mostly it’s all of the above. That’s not to say that those aren’t valid LGBTQ narratives because they do happen in real life. Those stories just can’t be the only narratives out there. And that’s why I ended up being such a big fandom shipper. In fanart, fanfiction, and fandom communities, we get to take control of the narratives we’re given and retell the stories we want to read, hear, and/or see.
Being a shipper in geek communities can often lead to somebody giving you the stink-eye and I can understand why. But I wanted to tell you guys about my history with fandom and shipping because I wanted to present a different way to look at shipping. Fangirls and boys can be pretty nasty about their ships, especially now that social media changed the way we can interact with creators, actors, and with each other. The vitriol and craziness are probably the only representations of shipping that people are used to seeing so I wanted show a generally positive experience.