“Stop making everything sexual!” “Why ruin a perfectly good friendship with sex?” “They’re just friends, chill out!” These are some common criticisms people face for shipping fictional characters, or real people who are just friends.
The word “ship” is short for relationship, and people who ship are called “shippers.” Shipping is generally a fandom practice in which fans ship characters from their favorite TV shows, movies and books. People also ship famous figures together, such as Canada’s prime minister Justin Trudeau and former President Barack Obama (Trubama).
Fans get a bad reputation when expressing the intense desire for platonic friends to engage in a romantic and/or sexual relationship. They are seen as hypersexual, desperate and unsophisticated for not appreciating the beauty of a friendship as it is. But I think such a negative perception of shippers doesn’t show the whole picture.
A lot of people are put off by shipping because the shippers threaten to taint their favorite friendships with the complications of romance and sex. Sure, it might annoy you to see explicit fan art or fan fictions popping up everywhere, but what goes on in the fantasies of others cannot change reality. Writers have their own vision of plot development, and the chances of real people getting together because of some strangers’ enthusiasms are even slimmer.
However, a lack of real-world consequences from shipping may not do much to comfort those who scorn it. That is, many people are frustrated less with the mere existence of shipping but more with what shipping symbolizes — a lack of appreciation for platonic relationships and an oversexed pop culture that dominates society.
I think such concerns are certainly valid in this day and age, but they are not necessarily what make shipping problematic. First, there’s no need to worry that shippers only care about the physicality of sex and fail to appreciate the things that make a platonic relationship great, like trust, intimacy and loyalty. People start shipping precisely because they are attuned to the warm ways characters interact and can see those same interactions operating on a more emotionally intense level. Famous ships such as “Johnlock” and “Destiel” (John and Sherlock in BBC’s “Sherlock” and Dean and Castiel in “Supernatural”) grow to be immensely popular because fans pick up on how much the characters care for each other.
For many fans, shipping is a way of visualizing the perfect relationship. The subjects of fans’ ships banter playfully, behave comfortably around each other, trust each other and make one another better people. Even when they’ve hurt each other, they always demonstrate the interpersonal skills to fix the damage. How many people actually enjoy such relationships in their own lives? Intimacy is hard to build, because you can get hurt in your most vulnerable states and people you hold dear can abandon you.
Because such relationships are perfect, one of a kind and fictional, they provide the ultimate ground for fantasy. In shipping, romance and sex will never spoil the friendship, nor are they supposed to. In the shipper’s fantasy, all the good qualities of the friendship stay the same — trust, fulfillment and the ultimate connection — but everything else is just icing on the cake.
But why do people feel the need to add icing at all? Isn’t the cake enough? My take is that people want to intensify whatever they love about the friendship, to bring it to another level. When shippers add the element of sexual fantasy to platonic situations, it doesn’t simply show that they have dirty minds. Maybe for them, sex just represents a higher measure of connection.
The imaginative aspect of shipping is also important in understanding why people participate in such fantasies. For people who find real-life dating situations disappointing, shipping can become a safe way to explore and better define love. They can invest themselves wholeheartedly into a relationship that they know will not break.
They can also mentally insert themselves into a ship, as one of the “characters,” so to speak, in order to expound upon the type of ideal romantic situation they would like to pursue, and thereby avoid settling for something less.
Of course, this is not to say that everyone who ships is romantically deprived; they may have fulfilling relationships in their lives but still engage in the practice because, overall, shipping seems to come as a result of the strong desire humans have to surround themselves with love and community.
I think people are drawn to shipping by the up-close-and-personal facets of love, not just by sex for sex’s sake, because if they wanted to be voyeurs, they could more easily watch strangers have dramatic yet meaningless intercourse on the internet. Instead, shippers spend hours upon hours creating artwork and stories, making Facebook pages dedicated to their ships, discussing their ships on Reddit, and making video montages of their ships to post on YouTube.
People are genuinely excited about love, and they are bonding over how much love they see and believe in. Now, this is a trend I’d like to see continue.