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Fans & Fantasy: 50 Shades of Canon

"IT'S SO CANON, OK?"

It's the battle cry of the shippers. At least some ships, and at least some shippers, are convinced that even when it's not explicitly shown onscreen, their favorite couples are, in fact, hooking up.

At first blush that seems like a stretch. Anything so significant as a romantic relationship in a character's life would surely be shown onscreen, right? If the creators wanted us to see romance between Character A and Character B, they'd show it to us.

But there are a lot of definitions of "show." And, quite frankly, there are a lot of different definitions of "romance," too -- but that's another story for another time.

Based on a lot of the comments from last week's article, it seems that many of you reading this column have a very strict definition of canon. And yes, what's scripted and filmed and acted and aired is the narrowest definition of canon. But I submit to you that if that's where canon stopped, and there were no further questions to ask, TV wouldn't be nearly so riveting. We watch these stories not for what we know we're going to see but what we don't know and can't see. The mysteries that still aren't solved, the resolutions that haven't come yet. And trying to fill in those holes is fertile ground for discussion. It's the reason we have forums and speculation and columns like this one. There is room for the individual imagination in interpreting art. And in a medium like TV, which focuses almost exclusively on the outwardly expressed and the newsworthy, there are plenty of blanks to fill in. And sometimes those blanks are filled in not solely by fans but by people involved in the creative process.

Here are some of the ways canon can be stretched.

Tie-ins. For many popular series, the story can go beyond the weekly timeslot to fill books, video games, Web series, etc. These are officially licensed, and at the time of their release they fit in with continuity. But not every writer on a show is going to read cover-to-cover every novel tie-in. There are bound to be gaps in continuity, especially in long-running shows. Notably, the Torchwood novels do not go the same way as the TV series with regard to Tosh and Owen, their relationship and how things end up. So which is official canon? It's in the eye of the beholder... or the reader.

Hints onscreen. Sometimes an aspect of a character's past is not revealed onscreen. Shippers use this to their advantage, because it's always possible a character has had a sexual dalliance in his or her past that we don't (yet) know about. There have been hints onscreen about Dean Winchester's sexuality being less than 100% straight, despite the fact that we've only ever seen him flirt with or sleep with women. He seems visibly excited by the appearance of a hunky TV character, and at more than one point seems to lustfully "check out" a male character. These sorts of hints are fertile ground for shippers to speculate that Dean may have attractions to men, even though he doesn't talk about them -- which is in keeping with the character, too, since he's very attached to traditional notions of masculinity and would likely have trouble talking about any aspect of himself that didn't fit in with that. So while we can't say for sure that Dean is or isn't bisexual, canon does seem to be leaving the door open.

Statements by creators or actors. Who can forget the uproar when J.K. Rowling revealed, after the Harry Potter series had ended, that Dumbledore was gay? There weren't any mentions of Dumbledore's sexual or romantic inclinations in the book -- guy was pushing 90 and had enough to do -- but it's been widely accepted that Dumbledore being gay is canon, though it happened outside the realm of the written word.

These days, the same thing is happening on TV a lot. The rise of a culture with Twitter and blogs and conventions aplenty means that we hear more and more from writers, creators, directors, and everyone else involved in a show. And what we hear may be the opinion of one member of the staff, or it could be something the whole team is aware of and using. Comments by the actors and creative team of "Teen Wolf" about Stiles' bisexuality, and teases that the Stiles/Derek relationship could happen... gave shippers plenty of fodder for considering the strong feelings between their favorite characters canon, even if they didn't come to fruition onscreen.

And even when the statement isn't outright, creators' and actors' wishes for the characters can sometimes be considered part of canon. If Benedict Cumberbatch and Martin Freeman have said they wouldn't mind taking Sherlock and John's relationship beyond the realm of the platonic -- that is, if the actors themselves ship it -- then what could be wrong with fans shipping it too, even if nothing has explicitly happened onscreen yet? Couldn't the intention, or at least the inclination, be considered canon?

Holes in continuity. A TV show just can't show everything. Even when there isn't any hint onscreen, it's an open question - what else do our characters get up to offscreen? What feelings and relationships do they conceal? And it's those gaps that keep TV shows going beyond their initial plots. Writers and creators have to find someplace to draw from. That's how you get family members we've never heard of, exes the characters have never mentioned, and yet in the start of a new season, they show up in town and are suddenly critically important.

These things aren't set in stone from a show's inception. The process of creating new parts of an existing canon is how TV continues to thrive over seasons. And shippers are just creating it, too... from a new perspective and maybe not getting paid, and certainly not in a way that earns universal recognition, but in a way that's rewarding and creative.

And maybe that is too far a shade of gray to be called canon. But it comes from the same place -- the heart and the inspiration that fiction provides.

So in understanding the phenomenon of shipping, maybe understanding that canon can be as open, or as closed, as you choose to see it, is a first step.

Do you consider canon closed or open? Is there a difference between how you perceive canon in general, and your "personal" canon? Can you understand the mindset of those who think differently? How can we communicate as people who have, literally, different realities to work from, or is that part of the fun of the discussion? Again, remember to be respectful. Thanks!

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