The shipping news

By Lorenzo

The IT explosion has led to a dramatic increase in the casual use of TLA’s (three letter acronyms) and neologisms.  One of which is “shipping” — postulating a relationship between two fictional characters (typically from a TV series) which is not an explicit part of the story. A lot of fanfic (fiction written by fans) is based on such “ships”. It is connected to “slash” — erotic stories based on imagined relationships between characters. For example, Kirk/Spock — i.e. Kirk “slash” Spock.

All of which is a natural response to TV series which grab your imagination.  Long before I knew such things as slash existed, my hormone-racing, deeply closeted teenage self was imaging steamy sex scenes between Bodie and Doyle from The Professionals. Fan fiction is, after all, based on the proposition that the story doesn’t stop until the fans say so.

Not that it is an entirely new phenomenon. As a medievalist friend of mine noted, a lot of medieval Arthurian stories were, in effect, medieval fanfic.

Making connections

A YouTube by the singing parody duo Not Literally Productions presents the shipping phenomenon rather sweetly. Their filk* includes the lyrics:

You’re on the canon ground, I’m up in crack ship space
Let’s start a shipping war, don’t care if I get hate.
Don’t like my pairings, well, then you can hit the bricks.
This is my OTP, I’ll go down with this ship!

“Canon” is, of course, what actually happens in the show. Thus, ships are not canon, though fans may wish they had been (if the show has finished) or will be (if it has more episodes to come).

Ships have a strong tendency to be same-sex pairings. They have become so much a part of the experience of TV series that there have been competitions run on the most popular ships. (An amusing commentary on shipping becoming mainstream is here.) An annual shipping contest is run by Slashdot (the 2013 competition garnered over 7 million votes) and is limited to same-sex pairings. Of which there are many.

Two years running the Slashdot final has come down to Destiel versus Sterek. Ships are often named by conjunctions of the people involved. So, Destiel is Dean + Castiel, from Supernaturalwhile Sterek is Stiles + Derek, from TeenWolf. The other major contenders were Johnlock (John Watson + Sherlock from Sherlock) and Wincest (the Winchester brothers, Sam + Dean, also from Supernatural: a ship which has some winks and nods from the series). Not all ships have such names, but many do.

Shipping has become so mainstream, that actors Dylan O’Brien (Stiles) and Tyler Hoechlin (Derek Hale) did a YouTube deliberately playing into the Sterek ship to promote voting for TeenWolf in the Teen Choice awards. (For 2012, in which TeenWolf got two wins.)

And here is Not Literally commenting on The Game of Thrones character death toll:

Fan Joke: George R.R. Martin, Steven Moffat and Joss Whedon walk into a bar and every person you ever loved dies.

As part of the same shift in the cultural zeitgeist, within the realm of romance novels — which are apparently dramatically increasing in sales due to e-readers: romances are cheap in e-book form and folk can read romance novels in public without exposing embarrassing covers — there has been a surge in M/M romance. That is male-male romance, often written by women. Presumably on similar grounds as straight guys watch girl-girl porn — no matter where you look, there is someone you are attracted to doing something intense.

Being wolfie

Indeed, there has been such an explosion in M/M romance that it has sub-genres — such as the burgeoning sub-genre of male-male werewolf stories. A part of the larger shift in the role of werewolves from ravening predators destroying hearth and home to tragic outsiders seeking a place. A shift very nicely expressed in Patricia Briggs‘s Mercy Thompson and Alpha-and-Omega stories. Given most people nowadays live in large, anonymous cities, the combination of connection to nature, sense of power and sense of belonging (albeit to a pack) that werewolves can embody has clear resonance. Conversely, having the animals you rely on to live, or your children, taken by wolves is no longer an experienced fear.

As recently as the mid-C20th, fantasy worlds such as Narnia and Middle-Earth featured wolves as figures of threat and evil in keeping with longstanding Northern European tradition. But, by the early 1980s and the Belgariad, wolves have become rather more cute and fluffy. Or, rather, their connection to nature, power and belonging has become shorn of any sense of direct threat to you and yours.

The land of the lonely housewife


Boys doing it for the girls

Largely female-written and female-read male-male romance has a longer history in Japan, where shounen-ai (or “Pretty Boys in Pain” as Helen McCarthy describes it in a useful introductory essay in this essay collection) has been a recognised manga (comic) and anime (cartoon) genre for some decades. Given the still rather socially-constricted role for women in Japan, the desire for an emotionally engaging, yet distanced, form of romance makes a certain amount of sense. Japan’s fertility rate fell below replacement in the early 1970s and has apparently plateaued at well below replacement. Given the way being married — and, even more, married-with-children — tends to put Japanese women into a box of financial dependence and social subservience, the persistent low fertility rate is not surprising.

Mind you, Western countries seem to be clumping into the Anglosphere/France/Scandinavia mode of fertility rates around 1.9 per woman and the Mediterranean (Italy/Spain/Greece), Germany and Japan mode of fertility rates around 1.4. (Basically, the countries where you can have children and work/have your own income and countries where, not so much.)

But the genre of M/M romance blossomed earlier in Japan, almost certainly because it is the first non-monotheist advanced industrial society. In the late C19th, Japan briefly banned anal sex to show how “modern” it was but, prior to that, Japan had long history of male-male sexuality and romantic attachment being an accepted part of the culture. Indeed, Buddhism was popularly credited with having “introduced” male-male sex and romance.

Missing the zeitgeist

The romanticising the queer, queering romance and queering TV series involved in M/M romance, slash and shipping is a sign of how the culture has evolved. Emotionally investing in queering one’s favourite TV shows is a much more personal act than holding a torch for queer rights. Though each no doubt feeds into the other.

Which is why the conservative opposition to queer emancipation is a losing game. They are, literally, fighting the culture. An odd thing for conservatives to be doing, one might think.

Or, perhaps, not so much. The most distinctive feature of Western civilisation is precisely its dynamism. Which generates a perennial problem for Western conservatism — what does being conservative about the most dynamic of human civilisations mean? Hence the importance of that prudential liberal Edmund Burke in Anglosphere conservatism. His meditations on managing change, on connecting the present to the past without imprisoning the future, provided something for conservatives to work with when de Maistre‘s throne-and-altar pessimism was a dead end.

The dynamism of Western civilisation produced the Emancipation Sequence — abolishing the slave trade, then slavery, Catholic Emancipation, Jewish Emancipation, Female Emancipation, civil and indigenous rights, Queer Emancipation — which conservatives are typically and recurrently on the wrong side of. Each step in the sequence being castigated as a threat to social order and then proving to be no such thing.

Sung China — with its meritorious bureaucratic rule, its deliberately encouraged technology, its managed belief — may have been the first modern society, but if the essence of modernity is expanding possibilities, then the Emancipation Sequence expresses modernity quite profoundly. Though expanding possibilities can seem frightening to those focused on the felt fragility of social order.

Particularly if they buy into lazy thinking about the legacy of history; as if oppression, privilege and exploitation are not also part of the selection processes of history. There was, for example, no “social learning” involved in the anathematisation of the queer; that was just the brutal imposition of religious doctrine against a highly vulnerable group. (Since queer folk grow up as isolated individuals in overwhelmingly straight families and social milieus.) Which made them ideal targets for outcasting, for expressing the power and authority of clerics as gatekeepers of righteousness.

Better even than Jews, for while it is possible to have a Judenfrei society (if one kills or expels all existing Jews) it is not possible to have a queerfrei society, because new ones are continually being born. Hence they offer an endless target as an endless “threat” to a religiously-conceived social order who make such great outcasts because they are so inherently vulnerable. No matter how socially powerless you are, you can always pick on the queers and feel effortlessly virtuous and entitled.

Committing to an endless war against human gender and sexual diversity is not about expanding possibilities, it is about closing them off, and closing them off for others. It is a war against both modernity and the dynamism of Western civilisation. Sacrificing understanding to a narrow (and, in the end, deeply ignorant) sense of order. Including the impoverished epistemology that goes with declaring that not everyone with a human face is “properly” human. Because then their experience does not count and provides no lessons and no understanding.

Romancing the feels

But what if queering the culture provides a very different sense of power and engagement? A way of taking what is offered and making it your own. Of feeling connected to others. Even of being part of a morally grander society and understanding experiences beyond your own.

And do shippers really want their OTP to become canon? Or is the fun of adding in, of imaging that extra, really the point? Of being not merely audience but, in a sense, also a creator? Particularly when they do fanvids as clever as this (warning: some of the dialogue has been shifted around to ship it better).

Likely so. I came to TeenWolf through Sterek, but I am not at all sure I really want Stiles and Derek to go there. Adding it in is part of the fun. But it is also a way of acknowledging the breadth and diversity of the human, even getting joy from it, rather than being hatefully afraid of it.


* NOTE ON FILK: Allegedly, the first filk was the Ballad of Bilbo Baggins, performed by Leonard Nimoy (aka Spock) — for example, here. (WARNING extreme Sixties camp.)  Mr Nimoy recites some of it in the Spock v Spock Audi ad (one of the greatest TV ads ever: though I also like the Hyundai toy boy ad). The stars of The Hobbit have done a reading.


  1. Herding cats
    Posted January 23, 2014 at 6:43 am | Permalink

    Thankyou for, um, ‘updating’ me. Language is a peculiar beast, but mostly joyous.

  2. Herding cats
    Posted January 23, 2014 at 6:47 am | Permalink

    P.S. Probably irrelevant – but the ‘old’ saying among people who really know something about traveling on a ‘real’ ocean is – ya can put a boat on a ship, but ya can’t put a ship on a boat.

  3. Posted January 23, 2014 at 9:26 am | Permalink

    [email protected]!

    Language is a peculiar beast, but mostly joyous.

    What a lovely phrasing.

    [email protected] Clear and pithy. Thanks for the cheerful and informative comments.

  4. Movius
    Posted January 25, 2014 at 1:50 pm | Permalink

    I feel like ‘shipping’ is a product of tumblr more than anything or at the very least popularised by it to an extent not possible beforehand.

  5. Posted January 26, 2014 at 4:52 pm | Permalink

    [email protected] Tumblr has certainly encouraged shipping in that it is very friendly to anything fannish. But there is a lot of shipping on YouTube too. A lot of slash fiction at the very least implied ships, so the roots of it well pre-date Tumblr.

    But the interesting question is that, given Tumblr is such a fan-dom friendly medium, why shipping specifically?

  6. Movius
    Posted January 29, 2014 at 12:00 am | Permalink

    The roots of the phenomenon go way back obviously. I see shipping as basically a fusion of random gossip “OMG Did you hear that Bob and Kate are dating.” and more traditional Internet fan stuff like slash fictions or original-content-do-not-steal Sonic the Hedgehog clones.

    Tumblr’s suite of tools was just the most effective means for bringing together the act of looking for specific interests and ‘mundane’ social networking into the same process. Over time Tumblr has collected its own social baggage, it’s just that shipping just happened to already be on the inside of it.

  7. Posted January 29, 2014 at 8:16 am | Permalink

    [email protected] That makes sense.

  8. Paul May
    Posted February 7, 2014 at 8:00 pm | Permalink

    A huge amount of shipping has been happening on sites like for over a decade and a half–well before Tumblr and so on. they did make it more widespread, as it’s easier to photoshop a ship image and caption it than to write a fic.

    But my wife and ex-housemate have been writing ships–well-received ones–for a long long time (about 15 years), and a few years more than that for my ex-housemate writing solo.
    They are well regarded enough they have their own TVTropes page. 😛 (written by one of their fans)

  9. Posted February 14, 2014 at 11:16 am | Permalink

    [email protected] Thanks for the further and better particulars 🙂

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