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Fans and Fantasy: Shipping as... Community

Hello all!

A bit of a BTW, as a start.

For the past week I've been at the Popular Culture Association/American Culture Association national conference, learning what academics (and aca-fans) have to say about media today, including the nature of fan culture. As someone without a degree (other than the infamous B.A. in English) or any credentials to speak of, it was interesting to see just how much of the same type of meta and analysis and spirited debate was going on, just with philosophers and theorists as reference points. I was in a Walking Dead panel talking about the treatment of women on the show, and there were a lot of women in the audience who challenged the panel with opposing views -- and honestly, it felt just like a good comment thread on SpoilerTV.

What was remarkable about the conference was how set a language there is about fan culture, including shipping, and what basis there already is for analyzing these parts of fandom and its subcultures. I'm now determined to read everything I can about narrative theory so I can use words like "transgressive readings" and "queering the content" and "resistance narratives" and whatnot, and doubly interested in bringing PCA/ACA participants to this column to give us all a bit of a common base language we can use to discuss the issues that affect us. (If you're out there, drop me a tweet @tiptoe39, would you?)

Next year's PCA/ACA national conference is in Chicago; I recommend it to those of you who have an academic interest in these issues. And you can always check out their website at pcaaca.org.

Now, on to our main topic: Shipping as Community. Of all the "Shipping as..." columns I've done so far, this one has been the hardest for me to get a grip on when it comes to shipping -- versus fandom -- as a creator of community. As far as I can tell, different ships become different sub-villages in the larger community of fandom, and ships put up walls around like-minded people rather than break them down. That's not necessarily a bad thing -- the smaller a community, and the more specifically geared it is toward the things you like, the easier it is to feel at home and comfortable, when a fandom can often overall be so large as to be overwhelming.

So looking at this, and at your survey answers, I've tried to identify the ways in which a ship (as opposed to a fandom writ large) functions as a community. Here's what I've found.

A ship, as a community, acts as:

The bleachers at a ballgame. This is most evident during airings of a show and during "shippy" moments or, conversely, moments that seem to "sink" the ship. Twitter and Tumblr are media of choice during this time, since they will refresh rapidly and can allow people to quickly express and publish their feelings. Everyone lets their pleasure or outrage out, and everyone around you quickly reminds you that you're not the only one feeling this way. It amplifies and validates the reactions.

When new spoilers, information, or images are published between episodes, the result is the same. This is more like hanging out at the bar than the bleachers themselves -- there's more room to talk, and speculation, spinning, discussion, and then anxious hand-holding and clenching of drinks continue until the action starts up again.

Kris says, "Before the episode airs we're often almost giddy, talking and whatnot. I even created a chatroom before the start of this last season, though it's shrunk down to a handful of regular members now. When something positively affects the ship we go into overdrive to incorporate it into our personal headcanons and whatnot. Negative affects are either looked at from every angle to find a new spin on it or worked over with a fix-it fic."

Group therapy. Shipping can feel a lot like abnormal behavior. The average fan doesn't really understand it, but within a ship, your friends "get it." They understand your need to see what you see, the joy it gives you, and they let you know that you're not the only one. Often, contact with other shippers helps construct a new reading of the show or scene being discussed, and that reading is adopted as a group agreement: Yes, this is the way we want to read this, this makes us feel good about what we're watching and what we're feeling.

WeBuiltThePyramids says: "We usually respond to positive news by getting together on a message board, or on Twitter, and, as we put it "flailing in all caps." We post relevant gifs, and we send virtual celebratory hugs. If something negative comes along, we try to spin some sort of positive out of it, or we go and look at character history and try to make sense of why it's happening. Usually we can, and it makes the bad news more tolerable."

An echo chamber. It can sometimes happen that the group-constructed reading or reality veers off the path of what those outside the ship can see. I have seen ships become convinced a speculation or spoiler is evidence of something, only to have the show go in a completely different direction. That can be disheartening, but it happens periodically, and new group-constructed readings arise in the place of the shattered ones -- back to group therapy for all of us, to find a new way to live on with our heads held high.

A hub for action. This can be either ship-related action, charity action, or personal action. I'll let some of my survey respondents speak for themselves here:

@broilthe suspect says, "Last spring, a bunch of Bones fans got together to raise money for NF (neurofibromatosis) to support the daughter of one of the writers on Bones that was diagnosed with NF."

Tom says, "A few months ago there was a young woman and her daughter whose lives were being threatened; over the span of a day and a half the fandom (predominantly of this one group) had raised enough money to move them to a safe location and purchase necessities as well as securing safe transportation. That's something of which I remind myself when the fandom falls into infighting."

An army. Ship wars are everywhere, and they're really rooted -- oddly enough -- in the concept of love. Ships are about loving characters so much that you want happiness for them, and it can feel very personal when you're told your wishes for your beloved character are invalid or lacking. And so, when things get rough, ships band together, raise shields, go on the offense if they need to, and tend to their wounded as needed. And they demonize the enemy as a way of rallying -- talking to each other about how empty their rivals' arguments are, how their rival ships would never work, etc. A common thread received from many respondents in this area is how much better and more maturely each respondent's ship acts than their rivals.

One respondent says his ship treats rival groups "mostly with condescending dismissal. Considering the overwhelming majority of the opposition presented against the pairing is really disgustingly offensive and/or flagrantly illogical and/or hypocritical I see no issue with this."

Crowgirl puts it in perspective: "Shipping communities? Can be vicious. Just like most other communities -- ever seen historians go after each other?"

Which isn't to say there aren't people who happily ship multiple pairings, or that people within a ship aren't able to generally tolerate other ships' existence. But sometimes, people batten down the hatches. It's human nature.

A safe space. I'll go into this more next week, but often among people who ship and think as you ship and think, you can be more vulnerable and free to explain the things that upset you and find solace on personal matters. Just as the conference I went to was a hub for academics not just to talk business but to find new friends (hello, new friends from PCA/ACA!), a shared ship can serve as a peace sign -- I get you, I am your brother, you can trust me.

MoxieGirl44 says, "My dearest friends are those I've connected with on Twitter where we share articles, spoilers, Neilson ratings, pictures, YouTube vids, Tumblr pages, artistic drawings of our celebs, fan fiction - etc. We support each other by commenting on each other's review sites, and by retweeting our friends creativity to our own followers. Our mutual fangirling regularly leads to discussion of just about anything else going on in our lives: our jobs, kids, other shows we like, vacations, illness, love. Everything!"

I'd like to talk more next time about the safe spaces that ships provide. If you have had experience exploring an aspect of yourself -- personal, creative or otherwise -- that you can't do outside your shipping group, I'd like to hear about it. Please fill out the survey here. Thank you!

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