Shipping, or the act of writing about, drawing or being enthusiastic about a particular fictional couple, has become a part of what it means to be a fan of something. It’s also older than you think.
This post originally appeared 1/9/18.
The origin of shipping is often attributed to Star Trek fanzines, which became ubiquitous in the 70s because of a greater access to copiers, making it easier for fans to mass reproduce their content. Fan-made magazines in science fiction date back to 1943, and the history of derivative works goes back even further. What is Paradise Lost if it isn’t just fanfiction for the Bible? But with the Star Trek zines, beginning in 1967, you can begin to see a kind of concentrated, documented discourse of fan attitudes towards a particular property. These zines would start to codify certain kinds of terminology, derivative works, or even discourses in fandom, especially when fanfics about Kirk and Spock in a romantic relationship began being published in zines in 1974. In particular, most people accept the fandom habit of referring to stories about these two characters as “Kirk/Spock” stories to be the origin of the term “slash.”
In Star Trek zines, that slash between the characters’ names would indicate a close bond. Over time it became associated with romantic and erotic fiction. Slash fiction came with controversy, though one that seems tame compared to later conversations about what’s permissible in fandom. Arguments against slash have remained consistent throughout the years. In this letter to the editor from a 1992 issue of the science fiction zine Strange Worlds, the author writes, “I would think science/fiction readers/fans … would not like their heroes being used in this facetious fashion. Pairing Kirk and Spock (K/S), Starsky and Hutch (S/H), or Riker and Picard (R/P), or any other of the possible combinations of TV’s S/F genre tales in — of all concepts — a homosexual relationship, strikes me as a bit of camp.”
People who enjoyed slash fiction would see this kind of argument—that slash is gratuitous and out of character, or in more extreme cases, immoral or perverse—through the 90s, 2000s, and even in this decade. In 1999, a Blake 7 fan named Susan Beth compiled a series of quotes and responses to the most common criticisms of slash and called it “The Generic Slash Defense Letter,” saying she would, “post it in its entirety each time the subject is re-introduced.” Despite its popularity, slash remains controversial.
The term “shipping,” meaning to be in support of a particular romantic pairing in fandom, began in the X-Files fandom, on a Usenet board. At this point “slash” refers to pairings that are specifically gay, while “shipping” can mean a pairing of any sexual orientation. Slash as a term is not as widely used as it was in the 90s and 2000s, only really lingering on in the term “femmeslash,” which refers to lesbian pairings.
Although everyone who feels enthusiastic about a ship wants to see it as canon, if you shipped a same sex pairing in the early millennium, it was because you knew it probably wouldn’t happen. While there was some LGBT representation in mass media like Buffy the Vampire Slayer or My So-Called Life, being gay was still controversial in both fiction and the real world. If a gay couple couldn’t marry in your country, you probably weren’t expecting a gay couple to appear on a popular television show. Fandom became a place to talk about and explore the possibility of characters not being straight in a way it was not being explored on television or in comics or in science fiction and fantasy novels.
There’s always conflict in fandom. You have to think of something to do while the next book, episode, issue or whatever came out. But for a little while it appeared that slash fiction existed intentionally in opposition to the canon, as a way to queer a text that may have homoerotic elements but never brings it to the surface. This punk approach to media changes when there’s even the slightest hint of your ship being canon.
In the early 2000s, most fans gathered to talk on blogging services like LiveJournal about the things they like, as well as write and read fanfiction. I was around ten or eleven when I started participating in fandom myself, as a lonely nerd eagerly awaiting the next Harry Potter book. I had two major ships: Sirius/Remus and Ron/Hermione.
Sirius and Remus seemed like a no-brainer to me. Remus Lupin was a werewolf and a very transparent metaphor for someone who suffers from HIV. Sirius Black was a close friend of his from childhood, and they’d grown close to each other because of their outsider statuses. When they reunited after many years, they embraced each other. In a later book, Dumbledore would tell Sirius to “lay low at Lupin’s.” So they share a deep emotional bond, know each other from childhood, one of them has some queer coding, and they’re cohabitating. “Their love is so canon,” became a common refrain amongst other shippers. The Harry Potter novels themselves were a story about how discrimination was bad, so it seemed appropriate for a gay couple to show up at some point. Why not those two?
Of course, it wasn’t canon. Sirius Black would die and then Lupin would marry Black’s shapeshifting cousin, Nymphadora Tonks. Because I had talked myself into seeing foreshadowing of a queer relationship, being wrong was not just hurtful but infuriating. I had been emotionally invested in a particular outcome, and it had been denied to me, despite the mountains of fanfic and art I had saved on my hard drive. When you ship something that has the potential to be canon, however slim that may be, not seeing it happen is heartbreaking. Being right, on the other hand, makes you feel like a god.
Although slash was very popular in Harry Potter fandom, two of the biggest ships were the diametrically opposed Harry/Hermione and Ron/Hermione. Prior to Ron/Hermione becoming canon in the last book, they fought. A lot. Although shipwars are sometimes associated with flaming or harassment, they just as often led to passive aggressive essay writing. There’s still essay length textual analysis of whether Harry is attracted to Hermione on the internet.
This passion for the text didn’t just come from wanting to be right. If you shipped a heterosexual couple, the mere fact that it had a possibility of being canon was an unusual position to be in in a fandom. Harry/Draco shippers knew they had an iceberg’s chance in hell of seeing their ship acknowledged in the books. If you had a stake in H/Hr or R/Hr, it was a lot more likely that JK Rowling would in a small way acknowledge that your reading of the books was correct. Although fansites had more visibility to creators than before the internet, this was a pre-Twitter era of fandom. You couldn’t just send a message to Rowling asking that she make Remus and Sirius kiss. You had to wait until the series was over to lord it over the other fans, and with that kind of investment comes a lot of passion and frustration. These fans waited years between books, and had a lot of time to hash out their reasonings. There’s still a part of me that’s braying for the blood of Harry/Hermione shippers—I was right and you were all wrong.
As fandom moved from LJ to Twitter and Tumblr in the early 2010s, fans began to have both better LGBT representation in media and greater access to the creators of the shows they liked. That meant fans could celebrate with the showrunners themselves when Korra and Asami’s romance was confirmed in the finale of Legend of Korra. Creators like Teen Wolf’s Jeff Davis could also coyly tell fans that he could make Sterek canon if they baked him enough cookies. While the newfound closeness of fandom and creators can lead to chumminess, it’s also opened the door for uncomfortable, or even hostile conversations between fan and creator.
The idea of “fan entitlement” isn’t new. Author Neil Gaiman wrote on the subject in 2009 and members of fandom were writing about it as early as 2003. But shipping, and all the impassioned defenses, arguments and derivative works that come with it, are both more visible and more voluminous on the current platforms fandom uses.
On LiveJournal, you could make private, invite-only communities and still be participant in the larger fandom. While shippers definitely fought, they didn’t have to interact with each other if they didn’t want to, and could go to their own forums or fansites. You can still do that, but it cuts you off from the day to day goings on of fandom. It’s perfectly possible to just keep track of your favorite fic and talk about it with a close group of friends. If you want to write fic or make art, it’s more of a requirement to have a public persona and to make a lot of content.
Tumblr and Twitter have the option for private accounts, but they have far less utility than LiveJournal, where you could comment and post all you like on public communities but still have a private journal. Tumblr and Twitter have also only released tools for muting keywords relatively recently, and they don’t always work.On Tumblr, you can save a specific search, like “Genji Shimada,” and have access to all the new Genji content whenever you want. That also means you might run into content for a ship you don’t like, like Genji/Mercy, and after a while that will grate. You can mute “Gency” but more often than not, something’s gonna slip through. That kind of friction between fans can even lead to people stirring the pot intentionally by doing something like writing “This ship is bad” and then tagging it “Gency,” so those fans will see it. When you combine this with more direct access to creators, you get fans who argue more frequently, and who can ask the creator of the thing they’re a fan of who is right.
That environment, where fans are encouraged by the platforms they use to post very visibly and passionately, has lead to something altogether new for fandom: news coverage. In the rare instances in the 70s that Star Trek conventions would be covered on the news, the idea of being included in a report was mortifying for fans. Now, conventions like New York and San Diego Comic Con are packed with movie stars who answer questions directly from fans, sometimes speaking off the cuff or giving them some fanservice. Anjali Bhimani, the voice actress for Overwatch’s Symmetra, is even a shipper herself. The day to day activities of fans will also get write ups on outlets like Vox, Buzzfeed, and right here on Kotaku. How fans react to the franchise they love is now just as newsworthy as the actual content of the franchise, meaning that the minutia of fandom is more in the public eye now.
When Jesse Hassenger wrote about fandom in 2016 for AV Club after the controversy surrounding the all female reboot of Ghostbusters, he mentioned a fan campaign centered around a hashtag #GiveEslaAGirlfriend. These fans didn’t have a particular ship for Elsa, but they wanted to have an LGBT Disney princess, and Elsa is thus far uncoupled. In the same year, fans of other Disney franchises like the Marvel Cinematic Universe would also get hashtags trending for ships like Steve/Bucky, also known as Stucky.
“This kind of fannish delusion runs deep, and when paid any mind (as I admit I’m doing here), it threatens to turn creative endeavors into clunky Choose Your Own Adventures,” he Hassenger. “More broadly, though, the idea that hashtags, even progressive and non-sexist ones, might determine plot points of movies is a little chilling.”
While Hassenger is right to say that we shouldn’t determine a plot of a movie via Twitter hashtags, and does acknowledge that none of this is new, it’s still alarmist to see this kind of expression as a threat. That isn’t to say that fans don’t cross the line with creators—director Adam Wingard got death threats before he even started filming Death Note, and was later harassed off Twitter by anime fans. That’s mostly because there’s more access to creator and more content—more art and more fic—and it’s more visible. People who get invested in shipping have always been like this, and they’ve always gotten the same pushback. They just have different means of expression now, and a culture that cares a tiny bit more about what they have to say.