*Trigger Warning: this article briefly alludes to the harms of shipping, which entails abuse in all forms, issues around/of consent and issues regarding underage relationships.*
Ah, shipping. In today’s digitally permeated world, the term is nigh inescapable.
Shipping is the act of supporting a particular pairing, either fictive or consisting of real-life figures, most often as a romantic pairing. The term shipping is derived from the coinage “relationshipping”, which sprung up around the fervour felt by fans of the X-Files at the possible coupling up of the show’s lead characters – Scully and Mulder. It’s not uncommon to hear shipping used as a verb, in a sentence such as: “I ship it!” On the surface, then, shipping sounds both simplistic and fairly innocuous.
What precisely is the appeal of shipping? Well, it is first and foremost a psychological and deeply emotional process. A FANDOM.com article notes that shipping is an arena of self-fashioning and introspection, as well as a safe space for our deepest fantasies – both romantic and platonic – to play out within.
Thus, the appeal of eagerly shipping your favourite onscreen pairing, or the celebrity couple you think is supremely cute is easy to see. Notably, shipping is expansive – it’s not bound by heteronormative conventions or gendered stereotypes and encompasses a variety of pairings. This spans all the way from James Bond and Agent Q of the James Bond franchise (in shipper terminology, James x Q or James/Q) to Shrek x Donkey from the Shrek films, to name a few more mainstream ships. Shipping, in fact, has its own terminology; an OTP is a One True Pairing (in other words, one’s absolute favourite ship or ships). Ships that are considered outliers within a franchise, such as the aforementioned James Bond and Agent Q, are crack ships (stylised with an exclamation mark in online tags, so, a crack!ship). A pairing that develops over time and is seen as unshakable is “endgame”. Ships are also referred by their ship names, which are coined by combing elements of the respective characters’ names (Catra x Adora from She-Ra become Catradora). Shipping itself also falls under the blanket term “fandom” which refers to activities of those who are fans of a particular thing, be it a film or novel; this includes shipping. These terms are rapidly developing so even this list of terms merely scratches the surface. Coinage is another area of creativity that shippers engage in with freedom online and it imbues shipping with much liveliness.
However, this is not to say that shipping has no dangers. After all, all fantasies are best in moderation, and still beholden to real-life moral codes. Two crucial elements of shipping are often glossed over when it is only ascribed to the personal fervour of individual shippers/supporters. Namely, shipping itself is both a common practice, dating back so long as humans have explored their imaginative potential, and a boon handed to us, in modern society, by mass media. The pairing and “hyping up” of two influential film stars, (a celebrity couple) for instance, is a practice born out of early Hollywood marketing strategies which saw the marriage of early-Hollywood film stars Mary Pickford and Douglas Fairbanks used as a means to further attract audiences to watch the pair’s respective films. Likewise, rumours surrounding the personal lives of film stars often help drum up interest in those films beforehand. The marketing efforts for the 2005 film Mr and Mrs Smith certainly benefitted from the public furore that exploded around a possible entanglement between its two leading characters, albeit at the expense of those stars’ personal lives.
Therein lies the difficulty of real-life shipping, in particular. The society we live in is complex – and not always a stellar breeding ground for our fantasies, which can can often be perfected versions of reality. The subjects of these real-life ships are not imagined characters. All too often this practice crosses the line and fans begin to fervently insist that their ship is a reality, when there is, in fact, evidence to the contrary. Former One Direction band members Harry Styles and Louis Tomlinson have been fervently shipped by fans for years (ship name: Larry Stylinson) and reportedly admitted that these shipping rumours strained their friendship.
Similarly, TikTok stars Charlie D’Amelio and Chase Hudson were fervently shipped by fans (and likely continue to be shipped by some fans) in spite of their alleged breakup in July. This breakup was highly public, having been reported by certain online publications; it was also fractious, as it included a cheating scandal. This shipping took place in spite of the fact that the former couple was only in their teenage years, and are thus arguably too young to be shipped, in any form. Shipping is also not a site that is wholly free of real-world contentions. In early 2020, Harry Styles and fellow musician Lizzo struck up a friendship which quickly became a full-blown ship – yet fans noted that there was markedly less enthusiasm regarding this interracial pairing than there had been when Harry was romantically linked to white (cisgender) women.
But, as with many phenomena, shipping also has a far more positive flip slide. Platforms like Tumblr abound with fanfiction, fanart and fanzines. For many online users, this space of creative output is one which brings them much joy and even allows them to forge online friendships (although online interactions should always be handled with caution and sometimes even scepticism). Overall, it’s a safe space in which to express one’s passion and creativity, without fear of reproach or awkward social constraints. Furthermore, on a much more basic level, the reason that shipping is so popular – especially amongst younger online users – is simply because it’s fun. When done with healthy boundaries (such as bearing in mind age-wise content and healthy dynamics) shipping and its many forms are akin to a chess game, but one in which everyone has the opportunity to envision and design their own opening gambit and sweep the board from the offset.
Shipping: it’s a phenomenon as complex as any other in this world, and a well of great creativity. Long live the (healthy) ships!