Besides the legion of manchildren that have rallied behind Lauren Faust under a banner of mass-persecution complex disguised as self-assuredness, nothing about the human experience is more vexing, in my opinion, than how we treat and react to this thing defined as “love.” One thing that makes life interesting is the fact that our dealings with this mysterious emotion are so varied and unpredictable.
Once we apply the NUDAU Theorem (the “None Of Us Is As Dumb As All of Us” Theorem) to this particular facet of human interaction, though, things go from zero to distasteful with alacrity that is both difficult and unpleasant to gauge.
Add John Gabriel’s GIFT (that is, Greater Internet Fuckwad Theory), the concept of escapism gone made, and our own cultural sense of self importance to the mix and we end up with one of the more discouraging habits that the information age has seen mankind develop: “shipping.”
Anyone who can call themselves web savvy is probably familiar with the concept: shipping is the tendency of viewers/readers of a serialized, fictional story (usually a TV series, but it can show up in video games, book series, and movies as well) to play matchmaker with two or more of the characters.
At first, it seems harmless. After all, a good love story has one rooting for the couple in question to succeed against whatever odds their relationship faces: their comically mismatched personalities, their respective memberships in opposing factions, dissonant social standing between the two, excess emotional baggage on the part of one or both parties, the intrusion of an ex-lover (or two), the fact that one of them is undead, the fact that one of them is simply just dead, the fact that one of them is simply just dead and their body is beginning to decay, or perhaps some misunderstanding that comes between them.
The problem lies in the numbers. God, I hate math. More often than not, two of these “ships” (that is, preferred couples) both become popular among the work’s fanbase but end up being incompatible with one another. That is, two ships will involve one character in both of them but each ship will see them “shipped” with one of two other characters, respectively. And then, because people on the internet will fight about goddamn anything, the supporters of Ship A and the supporters of Ship B will start slinging shit at one another like the insufficiently-evolved simians they are.
Why does this happen? If you’ve read this far, then telling you that the answers you’ll find are supremely depressing would probably fail as a deterrent. Just keep that in mind when reading on.
But I digress: why does shipping happen, and why does it so unfailingly drive large groups of dimwits to conflict? There’s no one hegemonic answer to this question, just a horrid swarm of smaller ones.
Let’s start with the obvious ones before working our way into the murky depths of human deficiency. The first problem is one of escapism taken to unhealthy extremes. A cardinal purpose of fiction is to provide the reader with a window into a different world, because, let’s face it, the one we have to negotiate with in our day-to-day kind of fucking blows. I myself even admit to the odd bout with post-fiction depression after finishing a book or other story set in a world far more interesting than this one. It actually comes up in therapy a lot, now that I think about it.
Uh, moving on, this concept of escapism breeds all sorts of issues. Issues like compartmentalization and control. See, real life is big, confusing, and frustrating to navigate. A good work of fiction (though the following is by no means an ironclad requirement for the work to be qualified as “good”) both smooths out all the messy details of our meager little existence and puts the reader (or viewer, or what have you) in a relative position of safety above the conflicts that the characters and the world that they inhabit both face; it encapsulates one or perhaps several stories, (usually) wrapping every relevant detail up in a neat little package and, in the end, ideally leaves us with none of the uncertainty that haunts us as we go about our lives in the real world. Even when there still is some uncertainty like that of a cliffhanger or a purposefully unresolved subplot, we’re not as bothered by it because of our ability to distinguish fantasy from reality.
Now, I said ideally because this doesn’t always happen. Any writer worth his salt knows that you can’t count on the readers to react in the way you’d expect. Sometimes, this is a good thing: interesting theories are developed, characters are interpreted in ways the writer never intended, and readers take a liking to certain elements of the story that the writer had merely treated as a matter of course.
Sometimes it’s not. Sometimes, readers (who are human, and thus stupid) start acting against common sense. They might like a story, but won’t like where it’s going. And not because they find genuine fault with the storytelling. Oh no. It’s because this particular reader has already compartmentalized the narrative, and whatever this twist, subplot or development is, it doesn’t agree with their idealized version of the story that exists only in their mind. They were in control (or at least thought they were), and it offends them to learn that this is no longer the case (nor has it ever been).
One reason people “ship” is because of the rude awakening that this sudden loss of control has put them through. Their idealized narrative saw LaFestus and Shahaka end up riding off into the sunset, but Shahaka decided to leave LaFestus in the third act for that borderline sexual predator, Knute.
This angers the shipper. They’ve confused the characters’ agency for their own, and as a result grow irate at the fact that the writer ignored their wishes. After all, LaFestus and Shahaka had way more chemistry. And isn’t Knute gay? You could totally tell by the way he and Angus hugged it out that one time. Whatever. I’ll just have Shahaka go back to LaFestus in my fanfiction. He’s so much hotter than Knute, anyway.
On that note, I posit that it would now be a wise course of action to take a brief sojourn from all the sesquipedalian literary theory bullshit I haven’t shut the fuck up about in, like, two goddamn pages.
Sometimes shipping is simpler than that. Sometimes, like in the case of LaFestus and Shahaka, all that really matters to the shipper (who uses the word ‘chemistry’ only because she saw it in a review for some dumbfuck Garry Marshall movie) is how attractive her ship’s constituents are. In the eyes of the shipper, a knockout like Shahaka belongs only with a steaming slab of manmeat like LaFestus because society has trained her to believe that attractive people belong together.
Think about it: when was the last time you saw a show or a movie with a romance arc between a conventionally attractive person and a conventionally unattractive person? Oh, and the fact that one of them is unattractive can’t be a focal aspect of the arc. Let me answer my own question, here: you haven’t. And if you have, then it’s a goddamn anomaly among the sea of pretty people macking on each other.
I’ve been belittling shippers here because A) they deserve it and B) some people really need to face more adversity in their lives, but in this case, their only fault is being a product of a society that holds up personal beauty as a quality equally important to intelligence, perseverance, or morality. I’m not letting them off the hook, because they should know better, but it’s food for thought at the very least.
Back to the nitty-gritty. I’ve talked about compartmentalization and control, so let’s now move on to escapism’s evil twin brother: projection.
In the days of fiction’s Eden, projection was not the monster it has become in recent years. It was just a tool used so that readers could grow more easily invested in the story. A character who shares positive traits with the viewer (or reader) will, obviously, engage the viewer’s sympathies and get them interested in where this character is going.
This is where the “everyman hero” archetype originates from: he is a regular person with a personality and problems that just about any viewer can identify with who manages to accomplish amazing things. Think Luke Skywalker, Harry Potter, Steve Rogers, or Ishmael. They have their quirks that make them unique and interesting, yes, but they’re all, (at least at first) just ordinary guys thrust into extraordinary circumstances. Because of their status as everyman heroes, they can whisk the viewer along with them on their adventures, who sees at least some of himself in them.
Projection ends up becoming a problem for a few reasons. First, everyman heroes can often end up coming off as being whiney, boring, annoying, or some combination of the three (like Will Turner, Bella Swan, Holden Caulfield, or Sam Witwicky). That’s really neither here or there as far as shipping goes, though, so we’ll leave the issue alone. The second problem with projection is not the fault of the writer but the reader/viewer.
What ends up happening is a well-known phenomenon to anyone who’s ever thought too deeply about this idea of shipping and the sort of people who take it as seriously as they do: projection gone mad.
Whether she be aware of it or not, the most fervent shipper has at least partly become so disillusioned with her own “story” that she decides to insert herself into that of a fictional character whose romantic prospects outnumber and outshine her own. This, I guess, is easier than taking responsibility for the state of one’s life (in the same way that a fifth of bourbon and a revolver are easier than that bitch and her alimony checks, all of which she can pry from my dead hands just like she did everything else).
The shipper then chooses a mate for her proxy and from that point on, everything involving this character’s love life becomes personal. Said mate is either the most attractive male (or female; loneliness doesn’t discriminate based on gender or sexuality) character on the show or possesses all the qualities the shipper has decided she would find ideal in a partner of her own. She bands together with those of the same stripe (they then create a portmanteau based on the names of the ship’s constituents) and from then on, woe be to any whose ship contradicts hers. This is her story now.
From here on out, things get bad. Harsh words are exchanged. Things are said that cannot be taken back. Conflicts erupt. Blood is shed. This is called a shipping war and it’s fucking hilarious to watch happen. The worst (read: funniest) one I’ve ever seen involved the Avatar: The Last Airbender fanbase and it got ugly. You don’t really need to know what the terms “Zutara” or “Kataang” mean, but to some they meant everything. To some, they still do.
Eventually, things will escalate. The war will have become too destructive for simple message boards to any longer suffice. At this point, the big guns will have to come out and the armies take this motherfucker to fanfiction.net.
From then on it stops being civilized. Well-written, well developed characters are hollowed out with rusty spoons and stuffed with straw before being set on fire and danced around by hooting shippers. Men become hungry rapists. Women become vampish whores. Reason is abandoned, and so is grammar.
The only thing that could possibly make things worse/more sidesplitting at this point is a fan comic. In The Last Airbender‘s case, such a thing actually happened. It’s called How I Became Yours, and sometimes /co/ is kind enough to share it. This comic just about the epitome of how fucking intense this shit gets. If you end up giving it a read, try not to be drinking anything sticky. Your screen and keyboard will thank you.
I suppose we’re left with a question: is shipping and the conflict that inevitably follows it really that big of a problem? One might argue that it’s the sign of an intensely loyal fanbase. His friend then might slap the bright-sided fuck upside the head and remind the dumb sod in question that neither of them would ever be caught dead willingly associating with anyone who dedicated real, human effort to proving that Shahaka belongs with LaFestus. Because she belongs with Knute. Anyone who thinks differently obviously isn’t smart enough to appreciate the show’s genius.