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Fans & Fantasy: Shipping as... Activism(?)

On the eve of the release of this column, I have had some serious second thoughts about it as a topic. Someone I very much respect, a gay man who is also a shipper and a dear friend, has raised an objection to the very concept of shipping as activism. And yet I feel as though I must explore it, both in the ways shipping -- particularly slashing and the push for same-sex couples to become canon in more shows -- does affect culture and attempts to affect culture, and in the ways it does not and cannot do so. I expect this topic to bring out some strong opinions, and I'll likely let you all discuss them here without my interference. Only the conclusion and the final hypothesis are my own.

So why even use the phrase "shipping as activism"?

Let's be clear -- the very act of shipping a couple is not activism. That's simply a desire, or a creative impulse, or a reading of a text. Where activism (such as it is) comes in is in the efforts to persuade creators to act on the possibilities of non-canon and particularly same-sex couplings, potentially but not universally as part of a larger effort to increase media representation of same-sex couples and diverse gender and sexual identities on television.

There's no doubt that there's a need there. Television has always struggled with issues of diversity, and many of the shows with the strongest fanbases are also the shows that suffer greatly in those areas. And it's only in the past few decades that television has offered any meaningful representation to same-sex pairings, or to people with non-cisgender, heterosexual identities. Disparities persist.

But is shipping, and pushing for a shipped couple to be canon, the way to address those disparities? Perhaps it's a step, but it's not one without its own problems. Among those problems:

Creator autonomy issues. If a fanbase pushes for a ship to become canon out of desire for respect for individual sexual, romantic and gender autonomy, then where does respect for the creators' autonomy, and their choice for the direction of the show come into play? There are different ways of approaching this issue.

Some say any form of feedback encouraging a show to go in a different direction is disrespectful. "I know people will. But I think often it goes well beyond feedback from the audience into an intrusive place where showrunners don't feel free to create and may feel a little held hostage by fans. Or, having been cornered by people enthusiastic about my work (professional or fannish), just becomes an uncomfortable situation from which there is little escape," says one writer and shipper.

Says another shipper, "I think it's good to contact them to support what they do and to some extent to criticise (if there is a legitimate complaint, not just if there's a plot point you don't enjoy) and if that includes a ship so be it, but it makes me quite uncomfortable when people constantly tweet at show runners begging for their OTP."

A different approach is to identify three appropriate contexts or reasons for which to contact creators regarding a ship:

1) Awareness-raising about a ship's potential. (In many cases, though, that cat is long since out of the bag. and that's where a lot of backlash comes: "Repeatedly pestering TPTB about it crosses over to the annoying/obnoxious side and insisting that the pairing be made canon is not something I think is appropriate," says one shipper. "Also I do not feel that asking if a show will go there is appropriate mostly because shows want to control their spoilers and it is not productive.")

2) Support for creators/showrunners should they choose to take that route, against the inevitable backlash that comes with unconventional story choices. Says one shipper: "Creators need fan response to gauge what developments would influence their TV ratings/book sales positively or negatively. How would they know a certain path is open to them, if conventional opinion deems it too risky and the fans don't tell them otherwise?"

Another says, "I think that showing support for lgbtq pairings broadcasts a clear message to media executives that viewers are increasingly ready, if not impatient, for these types of characters/relationships."

3) Respectful explanation of the hurtfulness of half-measures, queerbaiting, and other ways a show is unwittingly disrespectful -- not to the shipping community, but to people who are actively looking to see themselves represented and don't take kindly to, say, gayness being the butt of a joke or a "no homo" moment. For more on this, please see Changing Melodies.

Anything more, in the eyes of most, is entitlement; creators have no mandate to give any section of fandom what it wants, and fans are not entitled to anything they see onscreen. In the end, shippers (and, indeed, non-shippers) are not owed anything. They can only hope.

Fan privacy concerns. There's a significant portion of the shipping population that sees shipping as a safe space for their fantasies, creativity, and personal preferences to play. The more that is exposed to creators and showrunners, the more one safe space is exchanged for another. In the effort to see a different representation of romance and sexuality onscreen, are we in fact making it less safe for people to express their individuality? Whose right to be who they are is more important, and is there really a need to choose, when the desire for representation can also be achieved in other ways (for example, by suggesting a canonically gay or bisexual character be introduced, or by suggesting a character explore his or her gender/sexual identity without a partner in mind)?

Representation in the service of shipping -- the "cart before the horse" problem, and its attendant problems. This is the big one, and I think it's a question that all of us who ship and who choose to make the desire for their ship to be canon known need to wrestle with.

The friend I referenced above says the following:

There's an image on tumblr of a fangirl holding a poster saying "let my gays marry" with a picture of Sherlock and John. This image makes me so very angry. We shouldn't be fighting for LGBTQ rights because some straight white privileged teenager wants to write marriage!fic fetishising my sex life. Yeah, you write fanfic and are vaguely knowledgeable about the mechanics of gay sex, that does not make you a fantastic ally. We fight for LGBTQ rights because it is the right thing to do, in order to right an injustice and as well meaning as the girl with the banner may be, she is drawing attention away from the fact that there are LGBTQ people suffering under the present conditions, and, much as straight privileged people tend to do, this girl has made the battle for LGBTQ rights all about her, marginalising the people whose rights are lacking."

It's true. We must ask, do we ask for ships to be canon in the service of larger representation, or do we ask for representation so we can see our ships become canon? For whom are we really doing this, for those who seek acceptance or for ourselves?

Are NoH8 and other gay rights slogans, appropriated to fandom, really carrying the same message? And how can we consider the yearning for representation "activism" if it's only those particular pairings we want to see?

Most importantly, what are we doing for real people in the real world who are discriminated against? Can we call ourselves activists if the only LGBTQQA people whose freedom we work to ensure are fictional ones?

For some, these questions may be easy to answer. For me, they're not. And they're questions that cause -- and should cause -- great discomfort.

But let's look, also, at the ways some shippers characterize their own activism. I'll let them speak for themselves:

• "I think that any representation of lgbtq relationships, especially good relationships, in the media serves to increasingly normalize those images in the mainstream culture. I do think that these increase the likelihood of social justice triumphs such as marriage equality."

• "Kurt and Blaine being made canon had a huge impact. ... Their romance connected people of all orientations and showed people that loving another is a good thing and that non-straight couples aren't that different from straight couples."

• "I would love for my son to see that 'gay' or 'bi' doesn't have to mean flamboyant, fashion-loving, or feminine. It CAN, but not necessarily -- sexuality does not determine behaviors. I'd love for him to see that a man can love another man and still be a badass. He's too young to know what he may or may not identify as, but I'd love for him to grow into his own as open-minded as possible, and the more representation LGBTQ people get in media, the easier that will be for him."

• "I work in politics so I always think that it's possible for people to influence things when they speak up. That said, I don't think a showrunner can or should map out a future season based on what fans clamor for, but it never hurts to let them know when you see a potential path as positive. If enough people speak up it may free them to something they want to do but were worried might not be appealing to viewers."
Looking back on the problems raised above, can these claims of true cultural movement be thought of in any way significant, or do they pale in the face of the problems that they cause? Is there a valid way to refer to shipping as activism without insulting those who feel it is a misappropriation of the term?

And here's where I offer my two cents, and my opinion:

My friend Paul (see A Conversation With the Other Side) once used the term "culture bombing" as a way to characterize this aspect of shipping. I took to the term immediately. If nothing else, I think the newly public push for shipped couples to become canon does push the culture of television in a certain direction. Maybe slowly, and maybe not with the immediately desired result of shippers who are in it for Couple X or Couple Y. But it's a change in TV culture. And television culture does affect culture at large.

Can we call ourselves "activists" in terms of bringing about immediate social change? Perhaps not. Can we really call what we do "fighting for social justice?" Most likely not. But it is activist, insofar as anything that pushes for change is activist. And to point out the problems inherent in shipping activism is fair, as it is with the problems inherent in all activism. It's our responsibility to be self-reflective and own those problems, and also to understand the scope of what we are doing, and know its limitations.

But I have another hypothesis I'd like to throw out, and that is that what we're doing as shippers seeking for our ships to be canon isn't necessarily advocating for LGBTQQA representation. We're advocating for a change in media, and particularly for something I like to call "organic romance," which I think will be a new paradigm when we break from the age of pre-packaged supercouples and characters being brought in as love interests. That's been TV's M.O. for a long time, and it's as far from organic as you can get, but it still happens because the possibility of romance still sells, no matter how flat it may be in the execution. We're activists for change in the way we get our romance fix. We want it to flow from fully realized characters and happen without breaking the pace of the show. We want our monster hunters to fight monsters, our princes to rule and our scientists to analyze, but we want their human relationships to be present and natural, not a dramatic device. We don't want our shows to become romances just because they contain romance. But we want romance to happen, because it's part of life, and it should be part of a fighter's life or a king's or a detective's in the way that's natural for the way that character lives.

And part of being organic is showing the natural diversity that occurs in the world, to pick up on existing chemistry between characters and to explore the very real possibility that it could lead to romantic or sexual relationships. And if, for example, the only women a male character knows are brought in as love interests, as opposed to characters with their own stories, why shouldn't we believe he's more likely to fall in love with a character he knows well and has been through hell with, even though that character may also be male? You don't fall in love with a sex, you fall in love with a person, and usually, by the time you're in love with them, you already know them well.

I would love for my shows to reflect that. That's the change I personally want to see. And that's the chance I think (and hope) we're making, as shippers, in the minds of creators and showrunners.

Of course, that's just my opinion. What's yours?

Next week this column will be on hiatus. After that, we will begin our series on Shippable Shows. Please use the following survey to suggest those shows I might not think of otherwise. Currently on the list to do: Supernatural (duh), Teen Wolf, Merlin, Arrow, Doctor Who/Torchwood, Sherlock, and Suits. These are the ones I'm immediately familiar with, so I'll need your help with the rest! Please fill out the survey here:

Survey

See you in two weeks!

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