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Forget about catharsis, rapture or frissons – we are all shippers now

Does the phenomenon of shipping reveal a deep loneliness at the heart of modern life?

shipping

Do you want Rey and Kylo Ren to become a couple? Ross and Rachel? Hermione and Harry? Or are you really against these pairings? If so, you’re a shipper. Shipping is the dominant way of engaging with fiction now – and it has a great impact on contemporary literature, film and TV.

You are shipping a couple if you really, really want two fictional characters of a TV show or film franchise (or any other serialized narrative) to have a romantic relationship. The term ‘shipping’ comes from ‘relationshipping’ and it has a long history going back all the way to Star Trek. It became widely used when the world was fascinated with the apparent sexual tension between Fox Mulder and Dana Scully, the two main characters of the TV show, The X-Files. And shipping became a truly global phenomenon with two extremely popular serialized narratives, Harry Potter and Friends.

The creators of Friends discovered something revolutionary from a marketing point of view: You can double, triple or quadruple the number of viewers if you manage to get them to ship a couple on your show – in the case of Friends, Ross and Rachel. Sitcoms before Friends didn’t use this trick. But after Friends it was not possible to ignore the shipping aspect of the genre. All the big sitcoms have been using it systematically – the more intelligent ones, like Community or It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia use it ironically or comment on the phenomenon on a meta level.

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"Shipping also reveals a lot about our society and about just how lonely and unloved people often feel. It is this loneliness that fuels the need to experience romance and love at least vicariously."

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But shipping is not only for TV show junkies. Probably the most visible shipper community, even now, is the Harry Potter fandom. What makes shipping in this context even more a question of life and death is that there are two (well, at least two) couples to ship: Hermione and Ron or Hermione and Harry. Here is J. K. Rowling’s account of her encounter with the phenomenon of shipping:

"Well, you see, I'm a relative newcomer to the world of shipping, because for a long time, I didn't go on the net and look up Harry Potter. A long time. Occasionally I had to, because there were weird news stories or something that I would have to go and check, because I was supposed to have said something I hadn’t said. I had never gone and looked at fan sites, and then one day I did and oh – my – god. Five hours later or something, I get up from the computer shaking slightly [all laugh]. ‘What is going on?’ And it was during that first mammoth session that I met the shippers, and it was a most extraordinary thing. I had no idea there was this huge underworld seething beneath me."

Harry Potter is somewhat atypical inasmuch as shipping had no visible effect on the books themselves (at least according to the author). But most serial narratives are radically transformed by the phenomenon of shipping.

This is especially clear with TV shows. There are two characters in the sitcom How I Met Your Mother, Barney Stinson and Robin Scherbatsky, who seem to have good on-screen chemistry and this got the shippers going. The writers noticed this and turned the narrative in a way that lead the shippers along with the usual will they, won’t they play. The shippers became more and more vocal and more and more desperate. But finally Barney proposed to Robin and all was well – in the last season they got married and the shippers were extremely happy.

Just when the shippers could breathe freely, the showrunners pulled a nasty trick in the finale – they had Barney and Robin divorced and got Robin together with the shippers’ grand enemy, Ted Mosby. The shippers were outraged, but, from a cynical financial point of view, this outrage came too late – the show was over, the ratings soaring throughout the last seasons. If the shippers burned their DVDs and merchandise, this did not really influence the show’s revenue.

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"The truth is that it is not possible to understand contemporary TV or film franchises, even the most highbrow and sophisticated choices the artists make, without understanding shipping and its influence on the creative process."

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This is a clear example for how shipping influences the actual work. But what is even more fascinating is the way shippers engage with the work. To stick with the Barney/Robin example, you can have some taste of this from this shipping site, where you can find all kinds of delicacies, from the analysis of the symbolism of the trench-coats of the two characters to the hidden visual message about the love of Barney and Robin in a blue and yellow trashcan. Clearly, a lot of mental and emotional energy is spent on this.

How new is shipping? If you want Romeo and Juliet to end up together, is that shipping? I don’t think so. What I take the main characteristic of shipping (and a somewhat frightening thing about it) is that all other considerations are deemed irrelevant compared to the interest in getting the shipped couple together. Shippers have no patience for anything else – whatever does not move the two characters towards each other is time and energy wasted. And once they are together, happily engaged, everything else is seen as a distraction from showing the two of them holding hands being happy.

J. K. Rowling described shipping as a ‘seething underworld’. I’m not sure that is a helpful way of thinking about shipping. It also suggests that shippers are somehow irredeemably lowbrow and they are not elevated enough to engage with the fiction properly. The truth is that it is not possible to understand contemporary TV or film franchises, even the most highbrow and sophisticated choices the artists make, without understanding shipping and its influence on the creative process. Even HBO’s The Young Pope – in my opinion the most highbrow TV show ever broadcasted and definitely not one whose subject matter would cry out for romantic entanglements – is playing with the audience’s shipping reflexes.

Shipping also reveals a lot about our society and about just how lonely and unloved people often feel. It is this loneliness that fuels the need to experience romance and love at least vicariously. And what better way is there to do so than shipping?


Image credit: Nihterne / Tumblr

17 10 05 News MPU

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