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As promised last week, this week I'm bringing you a conversation I had with a friend. Paul is a gamer, and a roleplayer, and we first started talking about whether shipping had anything in common with roleplaying; in terms of its worldbuilding or in terms of stigma. But the conversation took a turn when Paul started talking about the difficulties he's had with interacting with shippers in the past. In the process, he brought up a lot of valid points in a very eloquent way. I hope the excerpts from the conversation below are as interesting to you as the whole conversation was to us.

On the definition of canon

Paul: I'm somewhat anti-shipping, but I really don't care what people do as long as they don't demand I accept their headcanon as true.

Tiptoe39: One of the ideas I'm trying to promote is that by saying "It's canon, it's totally canon," a shipper is not actually saying "You must think it's canon too." He/she is saying, "I see this possibility in the subtext," and because that possibility has to do with romantic/sexual chemistry, it's shot down where ideas and possibilities with no romantic/sexual aspect would be considered as valid ideas whether they were agreed with or not.

While I agree that shippers need to learn to speak in a language that's accessible and non-threatening to non-shippers, I don't think they're really doing all the "pushing their ideas on others" that they're being accused of. And I won't even dignify the small minority of folks who really do that with acknowledgment that they're part of our group. They aren't shippers, they're tinhats, and I don't speak for them or want to speak for them.

But in general, I think the line between "arguing for one's own headcanon" and "demanding others believe their headcanon is true" is not where most non-shippers think it is. If non-shippers were to respond to shippers with "I don't see it, personally, but OK" instead of "STOP INSISTING I SHIP IT, YOU NUTBAR," they might not get such a powerful and outraged response. You see, in this moment I'm seeing two groups both shouting because they think the other group is shouting louder, and in the din nothing's getting heard at all.

P: That's a case of jargon then. "It's canon" being short hand for "there's subtext that supports it" as opposed to "This is an official part of the story; accept it as such" is new to me, and is a particularly useful bit of information when discussing the topic.

"This is my head canon, let me explain it" vs "ACCEPT MY HEAD CANON": This is a street that goes both ways, and I'm not sure how to clearly explain my position. There are times I've felt like merely disagreeing with a given pairing is opening myself up to get screamed at by a shipper, so rather than engage them in a discussion I just dismiss them and move on. It's a shame, too, because I love bantering. But I don't see the value in dealing with the backlash. So we're back to people responding more vehemently because it's a relationship rather than, say, a mystery to be solved that's core to the plot.

T: Yeah, the "it's canon" thing is a weird one, because really what it means is "I see it as canon, happening behind the scenes." The best response to this is usually no response. No amount of shipper yelling "it's canon" is going to make it your headcanon, no matter how they try, so why is it necessary to say to them "stop saying it's canon"? What's heard there is "You're wrong, what you're seeing is wrong and talking about it is wrong." What does it accomplish, then, to nay-say the shipper, besides riling both sides up?

P: Because the word canon is being used in a weird way. We're not hearing your use of it. We're hearing "This is an absolute truth in the context of the show; accept it". Going to Leverage, you can tell me Hardison/Elliot is canon until you're blue in the face, and I'll keep saying you're wrong. But even I will concede that there's some subtext.

So, the short version? Saying "There's subtext" is one thing. Saying "This is officially part of the product" is another. "It's canon!" will be perceived by the non-shipper as the second even if you mean the first. Maybe a change of terminology would help, I don't know. There's a reason I start my crackpot statements about series with "My pet theory is that...". It lets the other person know it's my personal interpretation of events, and I'm not expecting them to buy into it.

On social justice

T: The flip side of the question is, of course, why does the shipper feel the need to say "it's canon"? And the answer, as far as I can tell, is twofold: One, it's an expression of joy, it's the pronouncement of a theory and the delight in finding another piece of evidence that supports one's theory.

The other is, there is an element of social justice to shipping - there is the desire to be seen as part of the larger community and there is a desire to say 'Look, we are seeing chemistry between two characters that, if they were of different genders, you'd all want them to be a couple. We're pushing past that barrier because somebody's got to." And to be shut down and called deluded, to not even be heard when we're trying to be represented, is problematic. And it's got nothing to do with personal egos or validation, it's got to do with the fact that this stuff happens in the real world and it's about damn time it should happen on TV.

P:I'm not trying to be a jerk here: that's not social justice in and of itself. That's giving showrunners feedback about what you'd like to see for whatever reason, be it you like seeing boys kiss, you think the relationship is well done, or you want to see more gay couples on TV. Good on ya.

T: It is social justice, because it's trying to change the "straight unless explicitly shown otherwise" paradigm. And in this case it kind of is addressed at other fans, because while nobody's going to accuse folks of outright homophobia, there is a greater good in pointing out that hey, look, you -- yes, you -- do assume people/characters are straight unless otherwise shown. That's because media has done that to you. That's because that's all that media shows. And with the exception of Willow Rosenberg, we've never seen a major character (and we've still never seen an outright hero/main character) on a show go through seasons straight and then discover otherwise. That's trying to change the way sexuality is portrayed in the media, and that does have a social-justice purpose.

P: It honestly never occurred to me that culture bombing could be the purpose. I think that's cool as hell.

Here's the thing, for me. Saying "If they were different genders, you'd want them to be a couple" presupposes that is the conclusion I would draw. You can't know that, and the assumption that the only reason I'm interpreting the evidence differently is due to the gender of the characters is aggravating to the point where I won't engage in the discussion.

BOTH sides would do well to remember that they aren't in the other person's head, and shouldn't go around assigning motivations to them, be it accusations of homophobia or insinuating that the shipper is just after validation.

T: I really hadn't thought about the angle where the non-shipper would feel like they were being accused of homophobia. I don't think that's the angle that's intended; I think what the shipper is saying, in that context is that the showrunners and marketers are the ones who are locked into those ideas of gender being determinative of what kind of relationship two people onscreen can have. It's not intended to be a slight to the person who doesn't see it, but very often, the backlash that the non-shippers give (you're delusional, you just want to see pretty boys kiss, etc) is insulting to the shipper in a way that does sort of smack of homophobia. So because the relationship we see is a same-sex one, it's because of our own particular fetish, not because we honestly see something there?

On the reasons to ship

T: What's frustrating is the way the conversation gets shut down and shippers are considered lesser fans who are working off delusions/their own wants rather than subtextual clues in the actual show. Instead of saying, "I don't think Dean's interested in Cas that way," it's "Why do you feel like you have to push this on me?"

P: Delivery, for one ("It's canon!"; I'm seriously starting to hate that phrase because of the ambiguity in this context). Overexposure for another. Being all but called an idiot for not picking up on the clues for a third.

T:Nobody can make you feel like an idiot without your permission. And that's something that I would address to shippers as well - there's no need to try to shout down people who don't think it's "canon"/"real", because their saying "I don't ship it" doesn't actually mean "you're stupid for shipping it." So I agree with you about the terminology, I honestly do. But being called an idiot... I really do wonder how much of that is terminology differences and how much of that is both sides hunkering down in their tent firing off warning shots, each thinking the other is a wolverine. Ahem. Bad analogy is bad.

It's not pushing or demanding to argue for what one sees in subtext. As a friend of mine brought up the other day, when Snape killed Dumbledore, it brought the "Snape is evil!" cohort to cheers, and rivalry with the "Snape is good" cohort was played up to the extent that it was part of a marketing campaign. That kind of he is/he isn't was totally acceptable to discuss. But in terms of a character's sexuality, the I-don't-even-want-to-hear-it is palpable, and it's frustrating.

P:Let me turn this around on you, though: why is there even a need to discuss [a character's] sexuality? If it's to justify fanfic, roleplaying, or any other fan thing, find your arena of choice, agree what you and your fellow fans are saying is true, and go nuts. I'm not stopping you. But I certainly can't remember any point in the [Harry Potter] books where [Snape's] sexuality mattered to the overall plot.

T: My answer to you is twofold. First of all, what does it matter what the purpose is? It's no stranger than wanting to figure out a logic to fit a continuity hole, or wondering how Star Trek's warp drive really works, or arguing as to whether Han shot first. It's part of being a fan. It's filling in gaps and discussing subtext, and it shouldn't be relegated to its "arena of choice"just because it has to do with sexuality. Every other topic is perfectly acceptable on a general forum. Shipping is singled out as particularly stupid/irrelevant/tinhatty, when there's plenty of other tinhatty discussion going on. And it's not fair.

But the other reason is this: character matters to plot. What's going on in a character's head is tremendously important to how that character proceeds in the plot. And it's a trope of TV, as it is of life, that as people face their demons and fears, and as truths come out, characters develop. That's what we watch for. We're not watching episodes of COPS here, we're watching a serial drama, and we keep tuning in because we want to know what happens to these characters next. A storyline in which a character meets their long-lost father and has to deal with conflicting emotions and old traumas? Incredibly compelling TV. A storyline in which a character has to face a fear that's been keeping him from effectively doing his job or fighting his enemy? Keeps us on the edge of our seats. A storyline in which a character has to deal with the increasingly undeniable realization that the best friend or the acquaintance he's been working or talking with all this time means more to him than that, and that admitting it will change everything in his life? Yeah, that's been done too. But a storyline in which the character who faces his fears and takes that next step is doing so with regard to sexuality - and is saying "I need to take this step to be more myself, to be better at what I do, and it's not gonna make me less of a man or less heroic," and then has to face down the prejudices of the world in addition to the prejudices his own heart has held dear for so long? How the hell can that not be an amazing storyline?

Especially when the subtext has already laid the foundation stones. And sometimes, it's hard to believe those stones are not laid on purpose.

So "it's canon," definition number seventeen, is: "This could be made canon if someone would just have the cojones to do it."

And maybe once somebody does, we'll all feel less need to shout about the fact that it could happen. But until then, we go to forums and we go to nerd/geek/fandom places to talk about it because we know those places from the other aspects of our life and we know how accepting and creative and imaginative they can be. And what we find when we broach the topic of shipping has continued to disappoint us and beat us back.

P: Fair points, all of them, and I definitely get the filling in the holes aspect. I certainly do it with some shows. But I'm also not as big on character development as some folks, so I just kinda shrug about it. Is Dean gay for Castiel? I don't care, he's a monster slaying badass. So I suppose it's differing priorities on the part of the consumer.

T: But Dean is more than that, he's also a protector, and part of his heroic identity is the sense of martyrdom, and that he has to sacrifice himself for his brother,and that he doesn't deserve anything but eventually dying at the hands of some monster. There's a sense of the epic-tragic about him and it makes him such a compelling character. And one of the things Castiel does for him as a character (whether friend or lover or whatever) is parallel that and reflect it back to some extent, so Dean is forced to face the funhouse-mirror reflection of himself and realize how others see him. So to accept Castiel as a friend - and as a soulmate to some extent - would be character development for him. And it would probably make him even more of a badass, honestly. Because I wouldn't want to see Dean reduced to romantic woobie either. I'd want to see him fight as fiercely as he does for his brother, for someone else who's come to mean a lot to him.

P: The last sentence is key. Too often it seems like shippers want to woobify/fetishize the people in question and that, to me, is what cheapens the character.

T:: Agreed. To be honest and a bit prejudiced, I think there's an age difference here, too. I would love to see a demographic breakdown of various kinds of fic readership, and I don't mean to say there aren't fetishizing adults or highly thoughtful teenagers. (Hell, I'll admit to being a fetishizing adult on some fronts.) But I think that as you grow and discover new aspects of romance and sex and relationships in your own life, what you want from your media may change as well.

But that is far too much speculation on my part :)

However, and this is a flip side, sometimes woobification/wanting that happy ending is in itself a form of fandom wish-fulfillment that can bring joy to the fan. So I'm not going to condemn that for its own sake, as much as it may annoy some people. Whether I think it's something that ought to be brought up in forums... meh. I'm not gonna proscribe it, either. But it's certainly probably not something non-shippers would want to engage in, as they don't go in for that part of it. In which case, again, my wish would be for the non-shippers just walk away, and not be too derisive on your way off to another thread, you know? Because that is needlessly hurtful, and it also can reach a wider audience than intended.

On shippers in general fandom discussion

P:The arena thing could use some clarifying on my part. I don't see the problem in a "are Nate/Sophie a couple?" thread on a general Leverage forum, nor a "Are dean/cas a couple?" on a supernatural forum. I'll avoid them, because it bugs the hell out of me when characters are trivialized into being half of a couple.

But, I will also admit here I've been burned. A lot. Too many people trying to define too many characters by who they're sleeping with or their orientation. Happens to me quite often when I GM and it pisses me off to no end.

This is where that overexposure thing comes in. When I go from A to B to C to D and I get confronted with a ship everywhere I go, it wears me down after a while because it's ultimately, to me, the same discussion. The same way that someone who's not a gun afficianado will get worn down by constant discussions of the firearms used in various shows if they're constantly seeing it everywhere they go. Sooner or later you're going to say "ENOUGH!".

T: If you're going to say Nate/Sophie and/or Dean/Cas disussions are OK in a TV forum, they need to be equally OK, and all topics dealing with their relationship need to not be lumped into one topic simply because it's dealing with the relationship between two characters.

And conversation topics are repeated ALL THE TIME in forums.

There is no Supernatural forum that doesn't have twenty topics on whether Dean is getting a better storyline than Sam or Sam is getting a better storyline than Dean. But I feel like all shipping-related topics are lumped in as one topic, again, being seen as this monolith when it's not, and the questions within shipping are in fact just as varied as the questions without it. For example, you can have a thread on "Is Dean bi, does he have attractions to men, or is it just because Cas is in a male vessel that he's attracted to him?" and you can have a thread on "Should Dean and Cas become canon or is it better to just keep it within the fan sphere?" and you can have a thread on "Would a canon relationship between Dean and Cas undermine the bond between Dean and Sam?" and these are all not the same question, but they are perceived as such. Within shipping, there's a million different topics of conversation, but I have the feeling -- and maybe that's my perception -- that they are lumped in as one question.

P: And the fact that it happens is crap, but I can see how they get lumped in. They all come back to the fundamental discussion about whether Dean is gay/bi/whatever. For those to be valid discussion topics, you must concede that Dean likes men, or at least has single-target sexuality for Castiel. Now me, I can partition my conclusions off and delve into hypotheticals if the topic's interesting enough. A lot of people can't, just like there's a lot of people that wouldn't be able to accept me saying "I still disagree with you, but I will pretend you are right so that we can discuss this". They get hung up on "I still disagree..." and don't even try to discuss.

"Is Dean bi, does he like men, or does he just like Castiel" actually sounds pretty fascinating; probably because Cas is an angel. But again, this is a case where the non-shipper has no clue just how broad the topics can be.

T:Honestly, the points I made above about the character development for Dean should he accept Castiel as more than just a sometimes-ally are equally valid points should the relationship become romantic or not. There's fodder for discussion there that shippers and non-shippers CAN discus. If we can not get sidetracked as to whether we're talking about a romantic or a non-romantic relationship, which is secondary to the character development question. Which direction do you want Dean to go in the future, and what would be key to getting him there? That's a question on which both shippers and non-shippers can weigh in, and they should be able to without one side being disparaged for "not seeing what's obviously there" or for "seeing what's obviously not there" (larger accusations of homophobia or delusion notwithstanding). I'm just trying to figure out how to get there, I guess.

P: Approach it like it's a scholastic dialogue and not a religion debate. It's no different than those "Find symbolism in this novel and write about it!" papers we all did in high school, and accept that people aren't always going to agree. And I’m pointing that at both sides.

Also accept that people disagreeing with you doesn't invalidate your enjoyment and your interpretation; again, both sides. Going back to RP, there are a lot of people who disagree with how my WoW guild handles game lore. But you know what? They don't matter. We're internally consistent, we stick to game lore as much as we're able, and you know what you're getting into when you join. We don't force it on you if you're not a member. The fact that there are people out there telling us we're bad, and wrong, and we're terrible people for having fun? Screw 'em.

T: Doubly agreed. Again, the nobody-can-make-you-feel-inferior-without-your-consent thing. But with the caveat that people are allowed to disagree with you and they're allowed to raise questions that are based on a different premise than what you see, and they don't have to wait until you (not YOU, obviously) are out of earshot to do so.

Which invites disagreement, which we need to learn to take in stride.

But from where I stand, I see a lot more being dismissed/derided out-of-hand for bringing it up than I do pushback for disagreeing. When I do see pushback, it's usually to that derision, not to the disagreement itself.

P:So maybe overexposure is the wrong term. Maybe fatigue? I'm tired of dealing with it because I see it so much, so I write it all off.

T: I wish I could erase the fatigue that you feel and try to reset the relations on this.

P: You're doing that by having this conversation. I had always seen shipping as purely an exercise in justifying why two people should be together, primarily for fetish purposes and without any further analysis. The idea that it's not just about determining who the OTP is, but also analyzing why the relationships work or don't, or what they bring to the table, or why it's such a great match from a story perspective even if the relationship is doomed to fail...that's all new to me.

Next week, I'll be starting a new series: "Shipping as...." focusing on the different aspects of what shipping does for those who ship -- different sides of the culture. For those of you who ship, please tell me in comments what shipping does for you personally, and how you see it -- as joy, as art, as social movement, etc. For those of you who don't, what do you imagine goes on within shipper communities? What are your questions about how shippers interact? And, as always, your thoughts on this column are most welcome. Thank you!

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