The Sweet Science of Shipping

Maggie Owens

On one side of the elevator, there’s Keith: rebellious, pensive, and brooding. In the other corner is Lance, cocky, outspoken, and adventurous. The tension between the two frenemies is palpable. On their way to the pool, each is dressed in his swimming trunks, towel, and boyish vulnerability. Suddenly, a power outage strikes and the lights are all off. It’s pitch black, and they’re left there, alone, in that dark elevator.

Let’s take a timeout before this gets out of control. This isn’t a real-life scenario; Keith, Lance — they’re not real people. Neither is it the kind of entertainment that requires a “bow-chicka-bow-wow” sort of soundtrack. All of this happened in an episode of Netflix’s hit animated science fiction show, Voltron: Legendary Defender. For some fans, this was the most pivotal moment of the series so far. Those fans: shippers.

Shippers are fans who support two or more characters becoming involved in a romantic relationship. Identified by a moniker mash-up of the characters they’re shipping (in this case, Keith + Lance = Klance), shippers interpret every microscopic detail as proof that their characters are about to get hot and heavy.

The elevator scene mentioned earlier? On the show, it was meant as a platonic subplot with zero sexual tension. But to a Klance shipper, it was confirmation of a budding relationship. Not only are Keith and Lance the most popular pairing in FANDOM’s shipping community (the Klance page has been visited over 50 thousand times in the past year), they’re a clear favorite across the internet. We’re talking thousands of fan-fictions (many sprung from the shirtless elevator kerfuffle), illustrations of the two locked in a passionate kiss, and even a Youtube supercut of every time they’ve ever touched on the show. (Spoiler alert: it’s not a lot.) Are you in the market for an audio recording of Lance saying “We did it. We are a good team” repeated over and over for four hours straight? Good news — it exists.

So, what’s going on here? Why do fans root for fictional romances with nearly as much enthusiasm as they do their own success in love? Why do we ship, and what does it say about us?

What’s Love Got To Do With It?

Traditionally, we define shipping as supporting the romantic get-together of two or more fictionalized characters. It’s believed to have come from the X-Files fandom in the 1990s. Shippers, short for “relationshippers,” tuned into the show each week not to track down the metaphysical, but instead to hunt for clues that Agents Mulder and Scully were going to get physical. Real physical.

But because shipping is deeply ingrained in fandoms and internet culture, it can get a lot more complicated. Canon and logic don’t necessarily need to apply. You can combine characters from different timelines, species, bodies of work, or types of media. Are you rooting for SpongeBob and Squidward despite the fact that one’s a sponge and the other is a … Squidward? That ship is called SquidBob TentaclePants, and it’s beautiful. Or if that ship doesn’t float your boat, meet Snapetubby: the Snape/Teletubby fanfiction we never knew we always feared. The list of offbeat ships goes on; do enough research and you’ll be able to see renderings of Sonic the Hedgehog pregnant with Shrek’s baby without flinching.

For better or worse, shipping is limitless. Though most often romantic, shipping can be platonic. (Tyrion and Jack Sparrow should be drinking buddies.) It can be demonic. (Hercules’ Hades and Thor: Ragnarok’s Hela = hot.) Or it can be purely iconic. (Santa and Mrs. Clause 4 Life.) Whatever it is, it’s your ride-or-die “One True Pairing,” or OTP.

Ancient History of Shipping

For as long as there have been stories, there have been fans who have borrowed from those tales, taking plots and characters and molding them like Play-Doh for their philosophical and artistic fulfillment. That’s what’s funny about shipping. Curmudgeons want to look at it as if it’s some rabid teeny-bopper craze birthed from the Tumblr era of fidget-spinners and Tide pod challenges. It’s not. Borrowing characters from established works and cheering on fictionalized pairings can be traced back to antiquity.

The Classical Greek philosopher, Plato is an exquisite example of someone ripping notable figures from their context and weaving them together to get his point across. In Plato’s Republic, he takes Socrates (his real-life mentor) and fictionalizes a dream academic conversation with him. In a way, he’s shipping himself with his mentor, creating an unstoppable philosophy dream team. What a little Socratic magpie.

Then there’s the Roman poet, Ovid, who’s best known for his lyrical homages to the Gods, as well as a series of love letters called Heroides. Crack that baby open, and you’ll find Penelope pining for her long-lost Odysseus or a nymph begging the King of Troy for one more chance. Ovid took characters that already existed in lore or print and embellished on their love lives to his liking. That, my friends, is some serious shipping. And this guy was a contemporary of Emperor Augustus (give or take a few millennia before you could purchase a “Team Edward” or “Team Jacob” shirt online). Shipping goes all the way back.

Why Do We Ship?

When asked why we ship, Dr. Lynn Zubernis, a psychologist and self-proclaimed fangirl herself, referred to lovemaps. First popularized by renowned sexologist John Money, lovemaps describe our blueprints for ideal romantic and erotic situations. They specify the physical and emotional attributes we hope for in romantic partners, including appearance, personality and general disposition. It’s no wonder, then, that when creators throw characters that potentially fit the mold into our sandbox, we’ll try them on for size. “Can I imagine this character in a relationship with someone like me?” we ask. And, if not, “who is it fun to imagine them with?”

We’re all going around looking for depictions of our own romantic, sexual and emotional fantasies. Shipping is a self-narrative therapy.

“It’s all about identity exploration,” Lynn says. “We’re all going around looking for depictions of our own romantic, sexual and emotional fantasies. Shipping is a self-narrative therapy.” When you ship characters, you’re identifying, creating or rooting for a fictional relationship that helps you pinpoint your own romantic desires. It says as much about you — if not more — than it does Hermione, Spongebob or whomever the heck you choose to ship.

This helps explain the prevalence of what’s called slash shipping: pairing characters together in a same-sex relationship (usually called femslash when it joins two or more women). A good chunk of mainstream ships is slash.

One of the earliest examples of modern-day shipping is K/S, the proposed romantic union between James T. Kirk and Spock from the original Star Trek. Long before the days of LiveJournal and Tumblr, fans used their home VCRs to edit steamy and/or intimate scenes between the two USS Enterprise employees. These starshipper-slash-shippers were using characters from the show they loved but updated them to represent how they, themselves, loved. (Keep in mind: this occurred long before two men ever kissed romantically on national television, which happened on Dawson’s Creek in 2000). This isn’t to say every slash-shipper identifies as LGBTQ, but instead that they’re ready to expand the definition of love and sex most often served to us by mainstream media.

shipping can be a tool with which fans push the boundaries of romantic representation

So shipping can be a tool with which fans push the boundaries of romantic representation, but it’s not always this noble and complicated. Sometimes fans ship a couple to fix a storyline they think has gone awry (in fan fiction, this is called “fix-it fic”). Sometimes, fans like to share their creativity, swapping art and writing with like-minded people to receive constructive feedback on their work. Sometimes, it’s fun to bet on two hot people kissing. But, at its best, shipping allows fans to validate their own very healthy fantasies. Shipping can move us forward.

I Will Go Down With This Ship

Isaac Newton (who I’ve personally shipped with Albert Einstein, and trust me, things gets physical) said it best: for every action, there is a reaction. And, for every ship, there is a counter-ship. Plunge to the depths of a Stucky fan page (Marvel’s Steve Rogers + Bucky Barnes), and you’ll be hard-pressed not to find a strongly-worded rebuttal. “Steve is toxically attached to his past and is projecting that on Bucky,” says Tumblr user Blushed Azaleas in a post about how Stucky is toxic. “To add to that, Steve is pushing his past relationship/friendship with Bucky onto him. He addresses him as ‘Buck; and other nicknames or pet names while Bucky barely remembers who he is.” Though thoughtful, this is a small act within a broader shipping war: when two shipping communities, whose One True Pairings are mutually exclusive, argue to determine whose is better.

At its worst, it can unravel beyond diplomatic discourse. “Looking to validate their ship, some fans will do whatever they can,” says Dr Zubernis. “If their pairing doesn’t win out in canon or popularity, then their personal fantasies are under attack. It can lead to antagonism and in-group/out-group fighting.”

What these fans forget, especially the younger ones who were born into the age of the World Wide Web, is that this kind of passionate discourse and real-time interaction is relatively new and not to be taken for granted. “Before there was the concept of shipping or even the internet, there wasn’t much reciprocity between fans,” Zubernis says. Consider the fans whose best option was to use a home VCR to create a piece of fan art and snail mail their work to other fans. We’ve come a long way. Zubernis adds that fans today are “passionate, informed, and engaged. They’re stronger together than apart.” It poses a question we’re too often left with online: why can’t we all just get along?

Back To Reality

These days, shipping is no longer relegated to only fictional work. Now it’s entirely welcome to base your ships off of real-life figures. Shippers named Camren root for pop-singer Camila Cabello and Lauren Jauregui (both former members of pop group Fifth Harmony) to get together. “Did you know they have matching onesies?” a fan writes. That has to mean something, right?

Campaigns for the coupling of singer Janelle Monae and actress Tessa Thompson were so vigorous that Thompson had no choice but to address them on her Thor: Ragnarok home release press tour. “What does shipping mean?” Thompson exclaims during an Entertainment Tonight interview. “Does it mean they’re going to put you in a box together and ship you away?”

One of Tumblr’s most reblogged ships is between friends and frequent Youtube collaborators Daniel Howell and Phil Lester (together, they make Phan). Each October, members of the Phandom celebrate the exact date the two met in person for the first time. Artists have artistically rendered the two kissing in photo booths, canoodling in Playboy Bunny get-ups and even holding their hypothetical newborn.

This Time, It’s Personal

Today’s empowered fans have now gone one step beyond and have begun to ship themselves with their beloved celebrities and fictional characters. Creating a quasi-fictional version of themselves (that heavily relies on their likeness), shippers are starting to insert themselves into their OTPs through art, fiction, or even just a quirky ship name.

“Shipping once allowed fans to step outside themselves,” says Zubernis. “This displacement allowed them to tap into their genuine desires and fantasies, all while getting past the shame.” These days, she continues, by incorporating their own names, physical attributes, and identities into the storyline, fans are taking control of their romantic fantasies: “This new phenomenon — maybe it’s a good thing. It’s more overt. People are playing with their own identity in ways that are healthy.” Now, once and for all, fans are taking control of the narrative and their desires.

Has it come full circle? Say you ship yourself with Loki or Tom Hiddleston, isn’t that at its core a good old-fashioned crush just with a little more imagination and empowerment? Gone are the days of secretly drawing hearts in composition notebooks or hanging a celebrity’s image on the inside of a locker door. Now you can skip Keith or Lance and put yourself into that darkened elevator.

Shipping is evolving. It’s no longer the act of completely separating ourselves from our sensual inclinations; now it’s bringing us closer to them. “Fans are expressing what they really want,” Zubernis concludes. “And instead of the silence or the worrying, what they’re getting back is ‘me too.’ It allows for growth.”

So go ahead — crush on. If you don’t see the kind of coupling you’re into in mainstream movies, television, games, comics, or anime, create your own narrative. Push boundaries with your own shipped couples. And, hey, if that One True Pairing doesn’t end up floating your boat, there are plenty more ships in the sea.

Illustration, animation, and design by Hettie Zhang, Ricardo Velarde, and Eric Neff.

Maggie Owens
By day, I'm a content analyst here at FANDOM. By night, I'm still on FANDOM, reading about whatever TV and movies I can.