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Fans & Fantasy: Shipping as... Joy

In the following series of columns, I'll be sharing the thoughts of shippers as to what shipping means to them. I'll be collecting responses via survey, and sharing as much as I can here in the column each week.

Today is the day the WAFF-a-thon starts.

For the past five years, to ease the aches and pains of March with its unreliable weather and impending tax-day grumpiness, not to mention the lack of an actual holiday for anyone to look forward to, I have hosted a celebration of WAFF - Warm and Fuzzy Feelings - in the form of short fanfics prompted and written on my Livejournal. For a week, we halt the rain of suffering and pain that make our favorite characters so compelling and just give them what they want. Wish fulfillment and happiness in its purest form. And it's not everyone's cup of tea, but it can be a welcome respite for some.

And I'm happy to start it today along with the start of this series of columns, "Shipping As...", highlighting what shipping is for different people. Because at its core, before shipping becomes a source of conflict or pain or activism or anything else it may be, it is joy.

We ship because it is a joyful activity.

Loving fictional characters, wanting them to be happy, is fraught with disappointment, because fictional characters inevitably go through hell. Which is great and is exactly what riveting TV should be about. But despite all the pain and disappointment, we still love, and through shipping, we are able to imagine for these characters the happiness they may not ever get, but sure deserve.

Which isn't to say that there isn't happiness to be found in watching what does unfold onscreen. Often, seeing two characters we ship sharing a scene brings us intense joy regardless of what may be happening. Shipper Dracaenai says, "There are so many ways this could go; heart-warming, heart-breaking, or just neutral; seeing it unfold gives me this jittery anticipation and most of the time I'm grinning half-nervously and half-gleefully."

Shadowvalkyrie says, "It's like seeing close friends: a happy, familiar feeling. (Though of course I'll suffer and cry with them, too, if the situation calls for it.)"

C says, "You know that tingly sense of anticipation that unfurls somewhere behind your navel as you're moving in for a first kiss? Sometimes seeing my favorite pairing together on screen, even in a totally mundane context, feels like I am holding my breath waiting for that kiss. "

Other fans echoed this joy just at seeing characters interact, but of course, it's sometimes tempered by the context of events on-screen. So shippers turn to each other, to fanworks, and to their own imaginations to keep that feeling of joy going.

To each other: I was surprised, in this initial survey (thank you very much to the respondents!) to see how very much people felt alone prior to finding the network of shippers online. "If no one in my day-to-day life shares my joy over the relationships I see on the screen, it's oddly lonely. Finding my way into a fandom means I can hear from people who understand how I feel," says one shipper. Lady Ludele echoes that feeling of loneliness: "I truly thought that something was wrong with me when I was younger. ... I had tried to explain it to one of my friends what fan-fiction was and what I liked to read and she flipped out and we stopped talking. ... So when I found out that there were others like me out there, it was exhilarating. It felt like I finally belonged."

But within the belonging is a vibrant set of differing opinions and surprising insights. Many respondents to the survey talked about how interacting with others about shipping brought them new perspectives and expanded their horizons. Anna says, "It shows me things I've never thought of before, perspectives and experiences I would have never envisioned. It helps me be more outreaching and open with strangers, because if my first conversation with a person is about a ship, our first conversation is inherently about emotion, and after that is breached, all kinds of other emotions for each other can come tumbling after."

Sycophantastic says, "I'm not very eloquent, so whenever someone in fandom starts waxing poetic (writing meta) about how the characters feel about each other, I'm relieved they can clearly express what I've only ever felt in a hazy, abstract sort of way. Being able to nod in agreement at words I couldn't articulate makes me happy."

Mooglets sums up how interaction among shippers can both be horizon-expanding and safe: "We can geek out together, indulge ourselves, discuss how the characters are or could be progressing, dissect their personalities, their histories and plot lines - both as individual characters, and as they've interacted - play with our theories, talk about how we would like it to play out if there ever was a chance of the pairing becoming canon and so on. ... We can do this, without worrying about being judged, without being told 'that's wrong' or 'it's never going to happen, that's just silly' or a dozen other things."

Which isn't to say there aren't problems with social interaction among shippers. I will go into some of these when I reach "Shipping As... Community."

To fanworks: Fanworks - fiction, art, vids, mixes, and other ways of reinterpreting or remixing the characters - are a fandom's bread and butter. They are how shippers can indulge their pairing or pairings without needing to see it on screen - it's a world of creativity where anything goes and anything can happen. Just as children play with action figures or dolls of their favorite characters and create entirely new worlds and adventures for them, so to do fanwork creators create an infinite number of alternative scenarios as a means of indulging and sharing pure joy.

"I've always loved to write, and creating fanworks, specifically fanfiction, about ships gives me a chance to really broaden my horizons," says one shipper who also has found it to be an educational experience. "I've become a much better writer and have a lot more of an understanding about how literature is structured through focusing on writing about ships and reading fanfiction as well. Again, it's fun, and generally low-pressure - it really makes you feel good to have people who respond positively."

Another shipper sees a community aspect to writing: "Even though most people create fan works on their own, it has the feel of being involved in a collaborative project. Because everyone talks about characterization, what they think the characters would or would not do, how they see certain things happening. There are certain tropes or scenarios that are repeated over and over again in fanart and fanfiction. It's not just fanon, it's apocrypha, and everyone is involved in creating it together. It's a community endeavor."

And one doesn't have to be a writer or artist to contribute to the world of fanwork. Even for those who prefer to just be consumers, the sharing of joy is palpable. "I am always blown away by the beautiful pieces, the emotional pieces that artists share," says MissVille. "Art provokes so many emotions and, even if your ship is not canon, it feels like it could be when you see the characters drawn/painted/sculpted. It's palpable how much love fans put into their art."

Alistair sums it up well: "Reading fanfiction is enjoyable for several reasons: (1) good works of fiction are enjoyable on their own accounts; (2) I know that I'm going to like the characters; (3) it's free fiction - what's not to like? (4) it's another form of connection with other people about this shared enjoyment."

To imagination and beyond: Other respondents to the survey have talked about the power of meta, of cosplay and role-play, and of sharing common causes with other members of the shipping community. One common thread that seems to run through the responses is that talking about shipping, and being in communities that accept it, allow people to feel accepted and to push their own limits and grow. Sabrina says, "I don't know how I would have grown as a person if I hadn't joined into fandom and shipping,it's really an interesting spectacle. It's brings me small happiness whenever I need it!"

"Shipping allows my imagination to roam which has become a source of inspiration for me. I'm writing again and trying new things in other areas, like cooking (a department in which I lack talent). My muse knocks on my mind's door more often. It's wonderful!" says ColorfulRejoinder.

Judy says, "I feel like the fandom, at least part of the fandom, works to give our favorite characters a bit more happiness and contentment than they get from their own creators. Not to say that the creators are taking them in the wrong direction, but rather that most of these shows require a certain level of drama and conflict. Fic can give them the fluffiness that their shows can't allow. Reading and writing situations of love and tenderness for characters typically have their hearts twisted stomped on and stolen just feels good."

Exactly. And that's why I look forward to the WAFF-a-thon every March ... and to all the shared joy that is inherent in shipping throughout the year.

What brings you joy about shipping or about your favorite shows? What are your sources of joy related to your fandoms?

Next week, Shipping As... Creativity. Shippers, feel free to fill out the following survey to talk about how shipping affects your creativity. Thanks as always!

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