Tuesday, February 4, 2014

What is "Shipping?"

(I've been meaning to write this post forever, but in light JK Rowling reigniting the Harry Potter shipping wars this past weekend, I thought writing it now would be apt.)

If you frequent tumblr or the geekier sides of the web, odds are you know what I mean when I say "I ship it." However, interactions with people outside of the internet has taught me that not everyone is familiar with this term, or at least how the term tends to be used in fandom. 

Granted, writing a blogpost about shipping to answer the questions of people who don't frequent the web is something of a silly notion, but I know I have friends and family reading this who are not as deep in fandom as I am, so I figured the least I could do was explain the term I tend to use on Facebook, Twitter, and tumblr to their continued confusion.


First things first, it has nothing to do with the postal service. In fandom "ship" is a verb that is derived from the word "relationship" (get it? relationSHIP). To "ship" people is to wish they would get together, aka have a romantic relationship.

The easiest pop culture example is Twilight. You'll remember that Twilight fans generally divided into one of two camps "Team Edward" or "Team Jacob." In shipping terms, this meant there were two major ships: Bella/Edward and Bella/Jacob. The angst and arguments between the two groups of "shippers" is what we call a "shipping war."

(NameOne/NameTwo is the common notation for a ship, though you'll often also see name combinations, like Clint Barton/Natasha Romanoff combined to form Clintasha, Tony Stark/Steve Rogers makes Stony, and perhaps most adorably Tony Stark/Pepper Potts is Pepperony.)

Shipping Wars can and do get ugly, much to my sadness, because I think all ships should be able to coexist in peace. But...I'm getting ahead of myself.

If you're not heavily involved in fandom, you may be wondering why people care and what exactly is involved in this shipping business. To answer the first question, there are a lot of reasons why people care.

The most common--the one that everyone usually has at some point regardless of whether you're a hardcore fan or a casual reader--is that you're trying to predict who a person will end up with in a work that is as yet not complete. For example, as readers we had years between Harry Potter books. Years between books to hypothesize and wonder and try to figure out how things would turn out. One those aspects is who would end up with who. If you'd only read the first four books of Harry Potter and you're waiting the TWO LONG YEARS for the next book, you're going to wonder everything from "How are they going to defeat Voldemort?" to "Do House Elf rights ever get taken seriously?" to "Do Ron and Hermione end up together?" It's just one of the many hypothetical questions to be considered when trying to suss out the future direction of the story.

Thus the Shipping Wars of Harry Potter fandom were EPIC. The Harry Potter shipping wars also had the distinct honor of being the first major worldwide phenomenon among kids and teens during a time when the internet was in its infancy. All of this built into the perfect storm of Harry Potter fandom that was both beautiful and ugly.

(If you missed it the first time, you're now getting a taste of it with JKR's announcement over the weekend. The Harry Potter shipping wars got ugly. And now they're reignited. Thank you, JKR.)

But guessing what will and will not become canon is not the only reason people ship characters. People ship characters even when there is a zero likelihood of them being a couple becoming a reality. So why do they do this? Why do we ship things that are never going to be canon?

Chemistry between characters is a big reason. Fans look at characters who are fantastic friends and think "but what if it wasn't platonic?" Fans also look at characters who have never met and think "but what if they did meet? They would get along famously!"

And this directly leads to another reason: a lack of gay and lesbian characters and couples in canon.

When you look at a show like Star Trek, which manages to represent almost everything else under the sun but not gay and lesbian relationships, its easy to see why people might look at the Kirk/Spock relationship and say, "They're such good friends, but what if it was something more?" People are looking for representation, a reflection of themselves in the world.

Which is not to say that everyone who ships "slash" and "femslash" couples (gay and lesbian ships, respectively) is gay or a lesbian. Remember people ship based on chemistry. And as we move into a world that is more accepting of gay and lesbian couples, we move into a fandom that is more and more willing to pair characters into gay and lesbian relationships. (Arguably fandom has always been ahead of the curve when it comes to this. John Watson/Sherlock Holmes is probably the oldest ship in the book, followed by LOTR ships and Kirk/Spock.)

The final reason for shipping leads straight to the discussion of "what exactly is involved in this shipping business." And one of the big answers to that is Fan Fiction--which is a topic in and of itself and will be discussed later this week!

Still the most common use for a ship is geeky arguments. For those discussions at night in the college dorm where someone asks, "Who do you think Sirius Black dated when he was at Hogwarts?"

And those are some great discussions.


  1. Sirius Black dated *EVERY GIRL*

    Also, he was the lead singer in that band that time.

    1. I can definitely see that: Sirius Black being a complete player. Bet he could get the girls with just a smile. :)

  2. so, i knew what shipping was when i caught myself up on your blog ramblings, but i'd only found out about it a week ago (at least in the sense of finding out that Shipping was the term accepted to describe that particular fanfic activity).

    still, this is really interesting and insightful (your whole series on shipping). also, while i agree with you on some, i totally disagree on others (i tend to follow cannon in most cases) but whole-heartedly agree 'to each their own ship'.

  3. This comment has been removed by the author.