Were you a fan of the ReyLo pairing in Star Wars, and completely let down by The Rise of Skywalker? Were you team Ross and Rachel or Chandler and Monica in Friends? Team Barney and Robin or Ted and Robin throughout the run of HIMYM? Should Harry have ended up with Hermione instead of Ginny? Are Sherlock and Watson close partners or secret lovers?
Across fandoms and cultures, we’re united by this strange compulsion to pair fictional characters and gush about their cute couplings. This is the practice of “shipping”: supporting the idea of characters ending up in a romantic relationship, even when the characters were not canonically written to be romantic leads. With the rise of the internet, social media platforms and text threads, shipping has captivated pop culture. It’s evolved from individual fan speculation to entire subreddits dedicated to creating relationship theories, fanfiction websites, YouTube compilation videos and fan art galleries.
So why do romances between fictional individuals spark so much emotion? Why are we so desperate to see love bloom on our screens, even when we aren’t experiencing it ourselves?
Why Do We Ship?
There are three theories that seek to explain our shipping behaviour.
Image Source: Voices of Youth
The Empathy Theory
We ship because of our inherent empathy. Even though humans are naturally egocentric — we’re genetically programmed to put our own needs first — neuroscientists have identified that the right supramarginal gyrus and the anterior cingulate gyrus in the brain corrects this egocentrism. These organs guide our empathetic response: the emotional reactions we feel in response to the emotions of others. We’ve evolved to keep these responses, likely because they allowed us to make decisions for the wellbeing of a group, helping our species survive in the long term.
Thus, when we see Character A finding safety in the arms of Character B, we feel their relief, their love, their sadness and doubt. As journalist Michelle Criqui puts it, “when you watch human (or even human-like) characters go through incredibly difficult or monumentally joyous situations, your brain often reacts just as it would when watching a friend or relative going through the same thing”. We root for the protagonist to end up in that satisfying relationship! We root for them to find their happy ending.
The Love Theory
We ship to explore and actualize our own romantic desires. As Lynn Zubernis, a psychologist at West Chester University puts it, “we’re all going around looking for depictions of our own romantic, sexual and emotional fantasies”. She sees shipping as a “self-narrative therapy”, where shippers identify their own goals and values surrounding love.
Lynn harkens back to the idea of “lovemaps”: the blueprints we create that outline our ideal romances. Even without consciously thinking about it, most people have a series of requirements for their partner “type”: perhaps they must love cats, wear leather jackets or have a great sense of humour! If there’s someone you’re crushing on right now (don’t be shy!), do you fantasize about going out for a picnic together or staring into their eyes? When you see these traits or experiences reflected in fiction, you unconsciously connect them to your lovemap. You’ll dream about a relationship with Character A, or mentally pair Character A with Character B to see how certain traits would complement each other, and imagine the dynamics of a potential relationship. Steamy!
This theory may reveal why ships are incredibly important to communities of non-traditional relationships. For example, members of the LGBTQIA+ community often use shipping to channel their sexual identities, exploring their desires through the interactions of fictional characters. Moreover, since LGBTQIA+ relationships are still stigmatized in the real world and lack legitimate representation in mainstream media, shipping helps create an inclusive space. Fans have the chance to empower and validate non-traditional relationships, turning iconic characters into even more iconic role models.
The Loneliness Theory
We ship to stave off the painful loneliness and emotional deprivation we feel on a daily basis.
Well, that took a dark turn.
Bence Nanay, a Ph.D. of Philosophy from the University of California, Berkeley, argues that shipping reflects the loneliness many feel in our modern society. He explains that “loneliness… fuels the need to experience romance and love at least vicariously”.
The truth is, not all of us are able to have that special relationship when we need it the most. Especially during the chaotic months of quarantine, many of us are separated from our loved ones and crave the human connections we once took for granted. Perhaps we’ve started binging our favourite books, movies and TV shows to partake in the joyful moments of on-screen couples, to believe that soulmates do end up together, and to fill our need for love and dependency without having to meet that special someone…
Just something to think about this Valentine’s Day.
Shipping and the Media World
The rise of the internet and social media has blurred the lines between consumers and creators of fiction, dividing creators on their opinions of shipping.
Some creators encourage shipping as another way for fans to interact with their content. After the completion of the Harry Potter series, J.K. Rowling was flattered to see engagement within her Wizarding World and encouraged fans to continue their creativity. Bryan Fuller, the producer of the TV show Hannibal and an openly gay writer, supported fans who shipped Hannibal Lecter and Will Graham, even adding special moments into the show to depict the gay partnership.
Bryan Fuller, producer of Hannibal. (Image Source: The Advocate)
On the other hand, many authors are against shipping culture. Anne Rice, the author of The Vampire Chronicles series, famously opposed fanfiction, even suing and threatening several fanfiction authors. She stated on April 8, 2000: “It upsets me terribly to even think about fan fiction with my characters.” Many other creators, like Mercedes Lackey and the writers of The X-Files had similar responses to fan-made content, citing copyright legalities and personal discomfort.
Diving deeper, however, the practice of shipping and fan creation actually feeds into an age-long debate about the separation between the creator and the consumer. The philosophical belief in the “death of the author” states that art exists as a separate entity from the original creator once it is put out into the real world. Thus, the author’s intentions and original ideas should no longer affect the way we consume the work. People who believe in “death of the author” argue that once a work has left the creator’s hands, they are no longer allowed to dictate the way consumers view it. Fans should be free to reinterpret the world, the characters and their relationships however they wish. However, people who distance themselves from fanfiction often feel that creative media should remain true to an author’s views and opinions, maintaining the intended themes, events and pairings expressed in the work.
Actress Amanda Abbington at the shooting of Sherlock. (Image Source: DailyMail.com)
Philosophy aside, shipping culture has previously created “entitlement” among fans, as described by the YouTube channel The Take. Disagreements about the legitimacy of a relationship have fueled division within fandoms. Some shippers have been so adamant to manifest their personal fantasies into a fictional relationship that they’ve threatened creators to make characters fall in love. Some have virtually harassed writers that put characters into the “wrong relationship”, or petitioned for a different relationship. For example, shippers of Sherlock and Watson in BBC’s Sherlock once sent death threats to Amanda Abbington, the actress that played Watson’s wife. Writers have stated that even when they try to stay original to their view of the work, it’s tough to ignore fan demands and easy to succumb to “fanservice“. So, as fulfilling as shipping can be, it’s important for fans to recognize the distinction between a wish and a command — and to not take their emotions too far.
It’s Not All Doom and Gloom
Despite these extreme cases, shipping is typically a natural and harmless practice. Peaceful shipping unites fans over their shared love of shows, movies and books, and gives fans an outlet to explore their own desires for love and connection. In some cases, shipping can fuel powerful movements that push for the representation of non-traditional relationships in traditional media.
So the next time you feel an overwhelming urge to ship your favourite characters, don’t be embarrassed! Keep rooting for love on the big screen, and perhaps you’ll soon find a real relationship that surpasses anything fictional. Happy Valentine’s Day!