This is kind of sort of a continuation of my previous post on fanfiction. I’m writing more generally about the fandom but also more specifically about shipping characters. Once again, this is all my personal opinions. I encourage you to seek out other resources and information, if you are interested.
tl;dr: I lean more towards a positive view on shipping, but acknowledge the dark sides.
Warning: I will be touching on some unpleasant topics, such as rape, abuse, homophobia, etc. Please take care if these are triggering or make you uncomfortable.
Let’s start off on a good note. It’s well established that humans are social creatures. We tend to want to form connections with other people, and these connections are very important for general life satisfaction, and even play a role in mortality. And romantic and/or sexual relationships are generally regarded as the closets form of a relationship (though I personally disagree with this). So it’s not a surprise that people also like to imagine other people or characters in relationships. And it’s not necessarily a bad thing.
From my personal experience in fanwork, shipping fictional characters seems to be the norm (I’ll touch on shipping real people later in this post). In the broadest sense, shipping fictional characters basically has no boundaries. Nothing is impossible, because it’s fiction. And that allows for many, many possibilities: some of which are good, and some of which are bad. The good is that this creates a safe space for people, who might lack the relationships they seek in real life, or just have an active imagination, to fantasize. Because most shipping is so established as entirely fictional, anything goes. For example, for younger teenagers just developing sexually, and maybe just starting to discover people they might be attracted to, shipping fictional characters in the types of relationships that they are anticipating in real life might be a safer option than going out and actually trying to experience those relationships. Especially if whoever they are attracted to is someone who society tells you not to be attracted to (I’m leaving it very broad because yeah same-sex couples, but also the other, vaguer orientations). We can include exploration of gender identities and gender expressions in this too. With fictional characters, you can headcanon them any way you want. So if you want to ship that male character with that canonically female but headcanon nonbinary character, that’s totally fine. Maybe you want to explore the relationship dynamics with people who are like that. Maybe you’re afab nonbinary and want a safer way to “try out” a relationship with a man before actually getting into one. Or maybe you just think that those two characters would work well in a relationship together and don’t care about their gender.
From being in fandoms with a whole lot of rampant shipping going on, I’ve seen fanworks tackle some important social issues and help raise awareness for marginalized groups. I’m not just talking about the LGBT umbrella, but also ships where one or more of the characters has a mental or physical disability, and character in some sort of non-traditional family structure. And of course, there’s the shit ton of college AUs (I mention it because those are my favorites because I want to go back to school lol). Anyways, back to the point- by shipping characters in such a way and creating and spreading fanworks that can really get popular, the creators can introduce people to previously unheard of things. A big example is from the Sherlock fandom, where a lot of fans headcanon Sherlock as asexual (sometimes also aromantic?). And there are a lot of really good fics out there that are Johnlock but also feature asexual Sherlock. I know several people who found out that asexuality was a thing from reading Johnlock fic about it. So I think that’s really great.
And now on to the dark side. One of the most frustrating things I find about shipping culture is the focus on sex. I was just talking about asexual Sherlock too. But whenever I log into fanfiction websites, or come across fanworks on tumblr or something, I just see a lot of it? I mean, for most of the general population, romance and sex tend to go hand-in-hand. Which is totally fine. And I talk about this in my fanfiction post, so I won’t rant too much, but yeah, perpetuating unsafe, damaging, and/or wrong info on sex. While yeah, if you have like a rape kink or whatever, whatever. But then people don’t tag or warn properly, and people also try to pass off abusive relationships as acceptable, and it’s just a giant no for me. This is especially scary for fandoms where oc/self-insert ships contain “acceptable abuse” whatever that is. Like okay, that person was really shitty to their partner but somehow everything is okay? Ugh.
Again, going back to a previous point, about shipping being accepting of all sexual and romantic orientations. Well, yeah, theoretically. But in practice, a boatload of it is ships of two cis men. It does depend on the platform, though. I see some more variety in some areas of Tumblr, which is always great. You find nice headcanons of poly ships and such. FFnet is giant and has everything. AO3 is literally all gay sex in some fandoms. Wattpad seems to be completely made of fangirls who write mary sue oc/self insert fanfiction with their favorite boy band members? Idk. There are so many possibilities, and people just end up shipping to cis men a lot of the time smh. Once again, I’ve written about this already in my fanfiction post, but the prevalence of just gay ships can lead to fetishization of gay relationships, which is bad, because there are actual people out there who are gay and don’t deserve to be the object of some sick idealization. Like, I’ve been in shipping-heavy fandoms for years, and I still don’t understand mpreg?? I mean, it’s completely possible if the guy that’s pregnant has a working uterus, but no??? All the ships are of two cis men and then one of them somehow gets pregnant???? Why couldn’t you have just headcanoned their reproductive organs differently??? They can still be men?????? It’s very strange. I don’t know why people seem to like anal sex so much that they actually come up with a way to get pregnant through it.
And lastly, real person shipping. Oh my god. Opinions of this seem to be divided pretty heavily. I actually never realized it was even a thing until a few years ago. On some level I think I can understand the thought process of people who ship real people? Especially with celebrities, they seem so far from our ordinary lives that they might as well be fictional people. So people ship them like they do fictional people. Personally, I think that as long as there’s no delusion or misconceptions, and it’s kept where the people in the ships don’t get uncomfortable, I guess it’s okay? Like as long as it’s not hurting anyone? But then you always get those boy band fangirls who are, like, completely convinced that this member is in love with this other member, and there are shipwars? These are actual real people’s lives that people are speculating about. Obviously, people are free to imagine and fantasize however they want to, but these fangirls get very overzealous sometimes, and I think that’s where the problem is.
I don’t want to end this post on a negative note, so let’s talk about oc/self-insert ships again. Like I implied in my previous post, I’m actually cautiously supportive of these, despite their terrible reputation. Very often written by young teenage girls, these ships allow them to imagine themselves dating their favorite character (or in the case of rps, their favorite celebrity). And because these girls hold that character in such high regard, they create a persona that they think is perfect enough to be able to match that character. So in the end, they get this self-insert oc who is basically a more “perfect” version of themselves. And I think that can be very empowering in some ways. There’s an image of the person you always wanted to be, and that person is good enough to be the partner of your idol. That can be a good boost for your self-esteem. After all, this self insert oc bears enough resemblance to you that it could be you. So then you can extrapolate that to: You are good enough to date your favorite character. Isn’t that a nice thought?
Of course, it’s not great to live in fantasies all the time, but everyone has times when they want to get away from reality for a while, so I think shipping is okay. The fandoms around it have their problems, and some forms of shipping are pretty bad, but generally I’m still fairly supportive of it. Not to mention I have my own ships that I will go down for. I’ve got luxury cruises for some fandoms, man.
Cheers ( ˘ω˘ )☞♡☜( ˘ω˘ )