Shipping, derived from the word "relationship", is a general term for fans' emotional and/or intellectual involvement with the ongoing development of romance in a work of fiction. Though technically applicable to any such involvement, it refers chiefly to various related social dynamics observable on the Internet, and is seldom used outside of that context.
Shipping can involve virtually any kind of relationship — from the well-known and established, to the ambiguous or those undergoing development, and even to the highly improbable and the blatantly impossible. People involved in shipping (or shippers) assert that the relationship does exist, will exist, or simply that they would like it to exist.
The activity of fans creating relationships out of some or most of the cast of characters far predates the term. Though "ship" is undoubtedly a derivative of the word "relationship", where and when it was first used to indicate involvement with fictional romance is unclear. However, the archives of the newsgroup X-files show that the word "shipper" was already in established use among fans of The X-Files as early as May 1996 
Notation and terminology
"Ship" and its derivatives in this context have since then come to be in wide and versatile use. "Shipping" refers to the whole phenomenon; a "ship" is the concept of a fictional couple; to "ship" a couple means to have an affinity for it in one way or another; a "shipper" is somebody significantly involved with such an affinity, and so forth.
Various naming conventions have developed in different online communities to refer to prospective couples, likely due to the ambiguity and cumbersomeness of the "Frick and Frack" format. The most widespread appears to be putting the slash character (/) between the two names ("Frick/Frack"). Other methods include
- using the letter X in place of the slash ("FrickxFrack")
- putting characters' names in CamelCase ("FrickFrack")
- abbreviating both names (usually taking only the first letter of each, with additional letters used if necessary to avoid two or more couples in the same fandom sharing a name) ("Fri/Fra")
- using the initials of either the characters' first names or their full names ("FF" or "FAFB")
- forming a portmanteau from the names of the two participants (e.g., "Foobar", when the names of the characters are "Foolhardy" and "Cinnabar"); this is common mostly within fan communities of anime in emulation of the naming conventions for couples used in the equivalent Japanese fandoms. In anime/manga communities, shipping is more commonly referred to as 'pairing' or 'pairings'.
- using codes for the character names that can be used in shipping. For example, in the anime/manga Katekyo Hitman Reborn!, the character names can be translated into numbers. (e.g., "Hibari Kyoya"=18 and "Tsuna Sawada"=27, thus the pairing is "1827".)
- using 'titles/nicknames' for pairings. For example, in the anime/manga Prince of Tennis, Shuchiro Oishi and Eiji Kikumaru play together as a doubles team for tennis and as known as the "Golden Pair" for their talent, thus they are also called the "Golden Pair" when referring to them as a pairing.
Portmanteaus are especially popular among soap opera fans, who use them to describe existing couples as well as couples that they would like to see together, or that they feel should reunite. Some examples are from one of the most popular soap operas General Hospital. Some current GH ships are: Lante (Lulu/Dante), Krithan (Kristina/Ethan), Jolivia (Johnny/Olivia), JaSam (Jason/Sam), Spixie (Spinelli/Maxie), CarJax (Carly/Jax), and Niz (Nikolas/Elizabeth)
Under the right circumstances, fandoms tend to evolve unique trends in their shipping notation. The Pokémon, Harry Potter and Yu-Gi-Oh! fandoms have specific semi-descriptive names corresponding with their ships. In Pokémon the Ash and Misty pairing is PokéShipping, and a ship consisting of Ash and May is called AdvanceShipping, while the two characters May and Drew who both participate in competitions called Contests are paired in ContestShipping. This also occurs in the Warriors fandom, an example being the Firestar and Cinderpelt pairing could become BarbequeShipping. The Harry Potter fandom has taken this a step forward and uses puns on the naval ship/fandom ship linguistic duality in the form of "HMS foobar". The Saiyuki fandom has a system by which each of the main characters is assigned a number corresponding with their name, and a ship could be referred to as "1X5" or "2X4" (a similar notation system is in use among Gundam Wing yaoi enthusiasts).
One unusual example from the TV show Avatar: The Last Airbender is "Omashu," a city named after two lovers, Oma and Shu. This is unconventional in that the name for the pairing is mentioned in the show (not just in fan works), and it is not used to refer to main characters, or even characters that are seen in the show.
Slash and non-conventional ships
Shipping is not limited to heterosexual (or "het") relationships. In the fan fiction community, homosexual pairings are also popular (known as "slash and femslash" or by their borrowed Japanese terms yaoi, male homosexuality, and yuri, female homosexuality). A person who supports homosexual pairings and reads or writes slash fiction may be referred to as a "slasher".
The term "Slash" itself predates the use of "shipping" by at least some 20 years. It was originally coined as a term to describe Kirk/Spock (or "K/S"; sometimes spoken "Kirk-slash-Spock", whence "Slash") homosexual fan fiction, which has been a mainstay of a segment of Star Trek fandom since the early 1970s. For a time in the late 1970s and early 1980s, both "K/S" and "Slash" were used to describe such fan fiction, regardless of whether or not they were related to Star Trek. But as homosexuality became more accepted in society, so too did the terms lose their derogatory connotation. "K/S" eventually fell out of use altogether, but "Slash" became a universal term to describe all homosexual themed fan works.
Parallel to this development, the term "Slash" was also being used in some fandoms to denote fan fiction or other fan works depicting sexual acts with an implied rating of NC-17, whether homosexual or heterosexual. It is likely that this is the same "Slash" term born of the Star Trek fandom, but adapted to the pornographic focus that commonly dominates fanfiction and fan works in the Kirk/Spock ship, as well as the ships of other homosexual couples, allowing the use of the term to spread to heterosexual ships. However, this use of the term has now become largely archaic due to the standardization of terminology by large fandom sites such as fanfiction.net.
Shipping often defies social standards and taboos, perhaps because of internet anonymity. Some online groups support ships which constitute incest or bestiality. Characters of any age, even adults and children, may be paired together in romantic fan fiction.
In fan fiction circles, authors often let their shipping tendencies influence their work and espouse a certain romantic pairing between two particular characters in their fiction; in fact, the pairings found within are considered such a defining factor that story summaries in fiction archives often notify the potential reader of them while neglecting other important features. The extremity of this phenomenon can be found in many fan fiction archives, where fanfiction is searchable by rating, length, genre, date, language, and "pairing". While this in part reflects an emphasis on shipping by many fan fiction authors, it is also considered a useful service to those readers who only wish to read about certain pairings (or conversely, wish to avoid reading about pairings they dislike).
To a lesser degree, this influence still exists in other fan works. Since fan art, for example, is by nature more focused on a particular scene or character(s) and allows for less flexibility in terms of theme integration, it is usually either without shipping influence at all or wholly a tribute to a certain pairing.
Example cases of shipping-afflicted fandoms
Daria fandom was marked through its entire run by shipper debate. From the series' first season, the main conflict was between people who thought that the title character, Daria Morgendorffer, should have a relationship with Trent Lane, a slacker rock-band frontman, whom Daria met through his sister. A common argument against this possible outcome was that such a development would signal a turn away from the more subversive aspects of Daria's character, and thus the show.
The show's writers responded by having Daria develop a crush on Trent, even having Daria go as far as to get a piercing because Trent encouraged her to, as well as having her get rashes on her head at the sight of Trent. Trent, however, remained involved with his off-and-on girlfriend Monique, who immediately became a target of shipper ire. The crush ended in the third season's finale, "Jane's Addition", when Daria realized that Trent could never satisfy her in the long run.
That same episode introduced Tom Sloane, a charming and intellectual son of privilege who nonetheless drove a Ford Pinto. Although Tom became Jane's boyfriend, threatening Daria and Jane's friendship in the process, Daria and Tom warmed up to each other throughout the fourth season, leading up to its finale, "Dye! Dye! My Darling," broadcast August 2, 2000. With Jane and Tom's relationship in crisis, a heated argument between Daria and Tom led up to a kiss in Tom's car. With Daria indecisive as to whether this relationship should be pursued further, Daria and Jane's friendship was in tatters for the rest of the episode. In the made-for-TV movie "Is it Fall Yet?," Daria decided to begin a relationship with Tom, and Daria and Jane patched up their friendship.
This caused an instant uproar. The shipper faction having won the initial debate (in fair part having do with other artistic decisions Daria made after Season 1 reflecting a conceptual desire towards post-modernity, such as a musical episode, "Daria!", extended dream sequences laden with 70s-80s detective show references ("Murder, She Snored"), and human representations of the major holidays (and Guy Fawkes Day) manifesting themselves in Lawndale in "Depth Takes A Holiday"), conversation now turned to whether Tom was more appropriate than the long-dismissed Trent. The debate was satirized by the show's writers in a piece on MTV's website.
In the series finale, the made-for-TV movie, "Is It College Yet?", Daria and Tom broke up over the fact that they were going to different colleges. The debate was over, and so was the series.
In interviews done after the series' run, series co-creator Glenn Eichler revealed that "any viewer who really thought that Daria and Trent could (have) a relationship was just not watching the show we were making," Tom came about because "going into our fourth year... I thought it was really pushing credibility for Daria to have only had one or two dates during her whole high school career," and "teaser" episodes like "Pierce Me" were "intended to provide some fun for that portion of the audience that was so invested in the romance angle. The fact that those moments were few and far between should have given some indication that the series was not about Daria's love life."
Harry Potter fandom
The Harry Potter series generated ship debates with supporters of the prospective relationship between Harry Potter and his close female friend Hermione Granger at odds with supporters of Hermione ending up instead with Ron Weasley, close friend of both.
Quotes from Rowling which seemed to contradict the possibility of Harry ending up with Hermione were usually countered by claiming them to be deliberate obfuscations designed to lure astute observation off-course (though such claims were far from undisputed, given that these allegedly vague quotes included such phrases as "[Harry and Hermione] are very platonic friends", and were repeated on at least three different occasions). The references to Rowling's public quotes often led to the refrain from Harry and Hermione supporters that the Ron/Hermione fandom relied more on Rowling's public comments than the written text.
Another front fans of the Harry and Hermione relationship had to deal with was the alternative of Harry ending up with Ginny Weasley, Ron's younger sister, whose obvious crush on him served as a comical plotline starting in Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets and apparently subsiding in Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix, where Hermione informs Harry that Ginny has "given up" on him. The case for Ginny as Harry's eventual significant other in spite of this was built on Rowling's apparent elimination of Hermione as an option, which left Ginny as about the only viable female character of about Harry's age with the character development to shoulder the role, and various appeals to literary conventions and precedent in the genre.
The resolution did not come until 2005, with the release of Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince. The book contained a prominent sub-plot in which Harry develops a crush on the previously-pining Ginny, convinced that he has missed his opportunity with her. In the end Ginny turns out to never have given up on Harry after all, but merely taken Hermione's advice to try to date other boys to boost her self-confidence and be more like herself around him. Though their romantic relationship becomes one of the few sources of comfort in Harry's difficult life, he makes a bold decision to break it apart for fear that Voldemort would learn of it and target Ginny. Rowling later commented that she had planned Ginny as Harry's "ideal girl" from the very beginning.
The effect of this turnout was dramatically amplified by an interview with J.K. Rowling conducted by fansite webmasters Emerson Spartz (MuggleNet) and Melissa Anelli (The Leaky Cauldron) shortly after the book's release. During the interview Spartz commented that Harry/Hermione shippers were "delusional", to which Rowling chuckled, though making it clear that she did not share the sentiment and that the Harry/Hermione fans were "still valued members of her readership". This incident resulted in an uproar among Harry/Hermione shippers, some of whom announced that they would return their copies of Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince and boycott future Harry Potter books, leveling criticism at Spartz, Anelli, and Rowling herself. Many of them complained that both sites had a Ron/Hermione bias and criticized Rowling for not including a representative of their community, as a way to avoid difficult questions. The uproar was loud enough to merit an article in the San Francisco Chronicle.
Rowling's attitude towards the shipping phenomenon has varied between amused and bewildered to frustrated, as she revealed in that interview. She explained:
|“||Well, you see, I'm a relative newcomer to the world of shipping, because for a long time, I didn't go on the net and look up Harry Potter. A long time. Occasionally I had to, because there were weird news stories or something that I would have to go and check, because I was supposed to have said something I hadn’t said. I had never gone and looked at fan sites, and then one day I did and oh - my - god. Five hours later or something, I get up from the computer shaking slightly [all laugh]. ‘What is going on?’ And it was during that first mammoth session that I met the shippers, and it was a most extraordinary thing. I had no idea there was this huge underworld seething beneath me.||”|
In a later posting on MuggleNet, Spartz explained:
|“||My comments weren't directed at the shippers who acknowledged that Harry/Hermione was a long shot but loved the idea of them together. It was directed at the "militant" shippers who insisted that there was overwhelming canon proof and that everyone else was too blind to see it. You were delusional; you saw what you wanted to see and you have no one to blame for that but yourselves.||”|
Rowling has continued to make references, less humorous and more, to the severity of the shipper conflicts. In one instance she has joked about trying to think of ways of proving to Emerson, when inviting him for the aforementioned interview, that it was really her and not "some angry Harry/Hermione shipper trying to lure him down a dark alleyway"; In another, she has described her impression of the Harry Potter fandom's shipping debates as "cyber gang warfare".
The release of "Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows" in July 2007 saw an epilogue, nineteen years after the events at the focus of the series, where Harry and Ginny are married and have three kids, Lily, James, and Albus Severus, and Ron and Hermione are also married and have two, Rose and Hugo.
Many other couples remain popular among fanfiction writers, including Remus/Sirius, Harry/Draco, Draco/Hermione, Harry/Snape, Lily/James, Lily/Snape, Dumbledore/McGonagall, Draco/Ginny, Neville/Luna, Harry/Luna, Ron/Luna, Hermione/Snape, Rose/Scorpius and, occasionally, ships as far-fetched as Voldemort/Cho, Harry/Giant Squid, and Ron/Pansy.
Xena: Warrior Princess fandom
The Xena: Warrior Princess fandom saw often "shipping wars" that turned especially intense due to spillover from real-life debates about same-sex sexuality and gay rights.
Shortly after the 1995 debut of the action/fantasy series about a woman warrior seeking redemption for a dark past, fans started discussing the possibility of a relationship between Xena and her sidekick and best friend Gabrielle. Toward the end of the first season, the show's producers began to play to this perception by deliberately inserting usually humorous lesbian innuendo into some episodes. The show acquired a cult following in the lesbian community. However, Xena had a number of male love interests as well, and from the first season she had an adversarial but sexually charged dynamic with Ares, the God of War, who frequently tried to win her over as his "Warrior Queen." Gabrielle herself once had a male fiancé, and his death deeply affected her.
In a 10-year retrospective of the show in Salon.com, journalist Cathy Young wrote:
|“||Almost from the start, the fandom was bitterly divided among various factions, particularly subtext fans pitted against those who saw Xena and Gabrielle as friends. Fandom wars over relationships are nothing new: "X-Files" fans clashed vehemently over whether Mulder and Scully should do the deed. In the "Xena" fandom, though, these wars had the added angle of sexual politics. Some of the anti-subtext sentiment was undoubtedly driven by bona fide bigotry. Some lesbian fans, on the other hand, approached the argument as a real-life gay rights struggle and labeled all dissent as homophobic: To them, denying a sexual relationship between Xena and Gabrielle was tantamount to denying the reality of their own lives, and the "Are they or aren't they" tease was an insulting way to keep the characters in the closet.
In a way, knowing that the staff paid attention to fan opinions may have made matters worse: There was an incentive for the rival groups to out-shout one another to make themselves heard. Many fans who had no appetite for these wars fled the online fandom. Storylines that were seen as betraying the subtext, particularly the Xena-Ares relationship in the fifth season, were met with intense hostility from a small but vocal group; at other times, non-subtext fans grumbled about what they saw as pandering to the pro-subtext fan base (such as several sixth-season episodes emphasizing Xena and Gabrielle's transcendent bond as soul mates).
In 2000, during the airing of the controversial fifth season, the intensity and sometimes nastiness of the "shipping wars" in the Xena fandom was chronicled (from a non-subtexter's point of view) by Australian artist Nancy Lorenz in an article titled "The Discrimination in the Xenaverse" in the online Xenaverse magazine Whoosh!, and also in numerous letters in response.
The wars did not abate after the series came to an end in 2001. With no new material from the show itself, the debates have been fueled by often contradictory statements from the cast and staff. In January 2003, Lucy Lawless, the star of Xena: Warrior Princess, told Lesbian News magazine that after watching the series finale (in which Gabrielle revived Xena with a mouth-to-mouth water transfer filmed to look like a full kiss) she had come to believe that Xena and Gabrielle's relationship was "definitely gay.". However, in the interviews and commentaries on the DVD sets released in 2003-2005, the actors, writers and producers continued to stress the ambiguity of the relationship, and in several interviews both Lawless and Renee O'Connor, who played Gabrielle, spoke of Ares as a principal love interest for Xena. In the interview for the Season 6 episode "Coming Home", O'Connor commented, "If there was ever going to be one man in Xena's life, it would be Ares."
In March 2005, one-time Xena screenwriter Katherine Fugate, an outspoken supporter of the Xena/Gabrielle pairing, posted a statement on her website appealing for tolerance in the fandom:
|“||The show existed as it did, when it did. And it enabled many to be empowered on many levels, for many walks of life. So if one definition doesn't work for you, then discard it. If it does, hold it gently. But please, allow everyone the grace to take what they need from the show and make it theirs. Let them have what moved them -- be it that Xena was in love with Gabrielle or Xena was in love with Ares. Please stop the arguing and name-calling and need to be right, because in the end, the show worked, it healed, it changed lives, it created new friendships, new loves and new thought, and it was bloody fantastic. And that's what matters. That it simply lived.||”|
- "Meeting Melissa and Emerson" from J.K. Rowling's Official Site
- "If you're an obsessed Harry Potter fan, Voldemort isn't the problem. It's Hermione versus Ginny." from the San Francisco Chronicle online
- TV Tropes wiki article on Shipping
- The Shipper's Manifesto - A LiveJournal community that documents multi-fandom shipping essays.
- ShipWar - A LiveJournal community which parodies the ship debates.
- A Call to End The Shipping Wars - An essay on Mugglenet.
- Masterlist of Ship Essays - A collection of Harry Potter shipping essays.
- "Creating a Pocket Universe: 'Shippers', fan fiction and The X-Files online", essay by Christine Scodari and Jenna L. Felder on the "shipper" debate within The X-Files community during the 1990s and how fans' reading of the show differs from that of the creators
- Shippers' Paradise - A subsection of the Bulbagarden forums (Pokémon fandom), dedicated to shipping discussion.
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