An Informal Introduction to Shipping

Alysha Boynton ‘17 / Emertainment Monthly Staff Writer
Do you often find yourself sitting alone in your room, puzzling over what the big deal is with this whole “shipping” thing you’ve been hearing so much about? Or maybe you have absolutely no idea what it means, and are pretty confused as to why so many people care about FedEx. Well friend, you are not alone, but as the cultural phenomenon known as “shipping” becomes more and more relevant in our modern society, you should take action to educate yourself about what it is, and why people care so much.
Let’s start with the basics. The term “ship” comes from the world “relationship,” and refers to a pairing of two people, real or fictitious, who have either an established romantic connection or the potential for one. A “shipper” is a person with an emotional tie to one or many of these pairings, who may or may not spend the majority of their time writing, reading, and crying about their epic love. A ship can be from a book, a movie, a television show, a video game, and can sometimes be between actual people (although this is generally frowned upon). If you want to learn some more shipping terms, you can refer to the glossary at the end of the article.
Shipping is likely as old as time itself, but in the modern context and in relation to television specifically, it really began with the characters of Kirk and Spock on the original series of Star Trek. Fans loved the chemistry between the two, and their enthusiasm and passion sparked something that no one could have foreseen. Fans began rooting for romantic and sexual relationships to occur between characters who weren’t already together on many different TV shows, and sometimes they were rewarded by the writers.
Some of the most famous “will they or won’t they” relationships from television history (which you may have shipped without realizing there was even a word for it) were Mulder and Scully (The X-Files), Ross and Rachel (Friends), Booth and Brennan (Bones), Jim and Pam (The Office), House and Cuddy (House), and Jack and Kate (LOST). Entertainment Weekly also has a pretty comprehensive list.
However, as you may have picked up on, all of those pairings are heterosexual white couples. As you also may have noticed, they all got together in the end, too. This formula, while sometimes compelling, can become boring and, to the LGBTQ+ and non-white communities, pretty insulting. It’s socially acceptable to ask show runners and writers about ships that are between a man and a woman, and they’re acknowledged as “will they or won’t they,” but gay ships, or “slash” ships, are often scoffed at.
It’s possible that the popularity of slash ships was born out of a resentment towards this social norm, but it’s also true that many of the most compelling relationships on television are often between two men (or two women, but the conversation about the lack of well written female characters is for another day).
In 2014, it’s hard to ignore the fact that when people talk about shipping, 99.9% of the time they’re talking about a slash or femmeslash ship. Television audiences are getting fed up with being spoon-fed the same old heterosexual love stories over and over again, and that’s why they latch onto certain pairings. The most popular slash ships of the past few years have been Merlin and Arthur (Merlin), Dean and Castiel (Supernatural), Stiles and Derek (Teen Wolf), and Sherlock and John (BBC Sherlock).
Fans respond to the subtext involved with these pairings, often accepting the small scraps that the respective show runners will give them. This is where the concept of queer baiting comes into play. Over the past couple of years, especially, as show runners and writers became more aware that the majority of their fan bases were shipping these male/male pairings, they started to cater more to them in small ways. Unfortunately, because they have no intention of actually making the characters get together romantically, they’re basically just teasing the fans: the television writing equivalent of screaming “no homo” over and over again.
In some cases, like with the ending of BBC’s Merlin, the writers can find respectful ways to honor the shippers without taunting them. In other cases, though, the writers manipulate their fans by giving them distinctly homoerotic scenes to get them to keep watching, but never actually taking the pairing seriously. Stiles and Derek especially have gotten a lot of media attention because of the slightly different circumstances surrounding their show (an openly gay show runner, the show is set in a universe with no homophobia, mainly young and open-minded audience) but it’s still mostly accepted by the fans that it’s never going to happen.
You may still be asking yourself, though, so what’s the point? Why the heck do people care so much about this? Well, there are a few answers to that question.

  • In the case of queer ships, members of the LGBTQ+ community genuinely just want to see characters like them on television, instead of the same predictable pairings.
  • The communities of shippers all over the internet can become like a family, causing a once surface-level infatuation with a pairing to become more meaningful
  • It sometimes boils down to being a hopeless romantic and wanting to believe that two people who are perfect for each other (even if they’re not real) could be happy together

Finally, it seems prevalent to address some of the stereotypes associated with shippers. First of all, a lot of these stereotypes are true! Shippers are deeply passionate and opinionated people, which can sometimes translate to “loud and obnoxious,” but it’s important to remember that shippers are harmless, and are just trying to enjoy what they love. It’s also common to hear the criticism that shippers are just straight teenage girls fetishizing homosexuality, which is also true for a percentage of them, but certainly not all. It’s impossible to generalize shippers because they come from all walks of life, and are interested in shipping for many different reasons. Many of strong friendships are forged through the sharing of ships, and you might not want to knock it until you’ve tried it.
Helpful Glossary of Terms:
Ship: The concept of a fictional couple
Shipper: The fans who want a couple to get together/appreciate an established relationship
Multishipper: Someone who likes one character paired with multiple other characters
OTP: “One True Pairing,” a person’s favorite ship, or the one they care the most about. This can sometimes be a misnomer because many shippers have multiple OTPs
OT3: A play on “One True Pairing” where three characters are involved; a polyamorous ship
BROTP: The friendship version, used to refer to platonic relationships (think Turk and JD from Scrubs)
NOTP: A pairing that someone absolutely cannot stand, often involving one member of their OTP with another character (ex: If they shipped Wincest, then Destiel might be their NOTP, or vice versa)
RPS: “Real Person Ship,” can become creepy when the actors/people involved are told about it, generally frowned upon, especially when it involves hating on someone’s actual boyfriend or girlfriend publically
Canon: Something that has actually happened in the show/movie/book (ex: it’s canon that Stiles and Derek have saved each other’s lives multiple times)
Slash Ship: The term originated from Kirk/Spock; means a ship between two men (see also: Femmeslash)
Het Ship: A heterosexual pairing
Crack Ship: A ship that will never ever happen; sometimes gross or downright confusing
Fanfiction/Fanfic/Fic: Stories that can sometimes reach novel-length, wherein fans write about scenarios between the characters they ship (Ancient shipping proverb: You know it’s real when you start searching for fanfiction)
Endgame: When two characters end up together (ex: Chuck and Blair in Gossip Girl)
UST: “Unresolved Sexual Tension,” often referring to long, meaningful glances and sexually charged banter (ex: Spike and Buffy from Buffy the Vampire Slayer)
Portmanteau/Ship Name: The mashup of two character’s names (ex: Kurt and Blaine from Glee make “Klaine”). Sometimes they can be more creative if the character’s first names don’t sound good together (ex: Swan Queen/Swan Thief/Captain Swan from Once Upon a Time)

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