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The Psychology of Shipping

Does the phenomenon of shipping reveal the deep loneliness of modern life?

Do you want Rey and Kylo Ren to become a couple? Ross and Rachel? Hermione and Harry? Or are you really against these pairings? If so, you’re a shipper. Shipping is a predominant way of engaging with fiction now–and it has a great impact on contemporary literature, film, and TV.

You are shipping a couple if you really, really want two fictional characters of a TV show or film franchise (or any other serialized narrative) to have a romantic relationship. The term "shipping" comes from "relationshipping" and it has a long history going back all the way to Star Trek. It became widely used when the world was fascinated with the apparent sexual tension between Fox Mulder and Dana Scully, the two main characters on The X-Files. And shipping became a truly global phenomenon with two extremely popular serialized narratives, The Harry Potter series and Friends.

The creators of Friends discovered something revolutionary from a marketing point of view: You can vastly increase your viewers if you manage to get them to ship a couple on your show — in the case of Friends, Ross and Rachel. Some sitcoms before Friends used this trick, but after Friends, it was impossible to ignore the shipping aspect of the genre. All the top sitcoms have since used it systematically — the more intelligent ones, like Community or It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia, use it ironically, or comment on the phenomenon on a meta-level.

But shipping is not only for TV junkies. Probably the most visible shipper community, even now, is the Harry Potter fandom. What makes shipping in this context even more a question of life and death is that there are two (well, at least two) couples to ship: Hermione and Ron or Hermione and Harry. Here is J. K. Rowling’s account of her encounter with the phenomenon of shipping:

"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."

The Harry Potter series is somewhat atypical inasmuch as shipping had no visible effect on the books themselves (at least according to the author). But most serial narratives are radically transformed by the phenomenon of shipping.

This is especially clear with TV shows. Two characters in the sitcom How I Met Your Mother, Barney Stinson and Robin Scherbatsky seemed to have good on-screen chemistry and this got the shippers going. The writers noticed this and turned the narrative in a way that led the shippers along with the usual will they/won’t they play. The shippers became more and more vocal and more and more desperate. But finally, Barney proposed to Robin and all was well — in the last season they got married and the shippers were extremely happy.

But just when the shippers could breathe freely, the showrunners pulled a nasty trick in the finale — they had Barney and Robin divorce and got Robin together with the shippers’ archenemy, Ted Mosby. The shippers were outraged, but, from a cynical financial point of view, this outrage came too late — the show was over, the ratings soaring throughout the last seasons. If the shippers burned their DVDs and merchandise, this did not really influence the show’s revenue.

This is a clear example of how shipping influences the actual work. But what is even more fascinating is the way shippers engage with the work. To stick with the Barney/Robin example, you can have some taste of this from this shipping site, where you can find all kinds of delicacies, from the analysis of the symbolism of the trenchcoats of the two characters to the hidden visual message about the love of Barney and Robin in a blue and yellow trashcan. Clearly, a lot of mental and emotional energy is spent on this.

How new is shipping? If you want Romeo and Juliet to end up together, is that shipping? I don’t think so. What I take the main characteristic of shipping (and a somewhat frightening thing about it) is that all other considerations are deemed irrelevant compared to the interest in getting the shipped couple together. Shippers have no patience for anything else–whatever does not move the two characters towards each other is time and energy wasted. And once they are together, happily engaged, everything else is seen as a distraction from showing the two of them holding hands being happy.

Rowling described shipping as a "seething underworld." I’m not sure that is a helpful way of thinking about it. It also suggests that shippers are somehow irredeemably lowbrow and they are not elevated enough to engage with the fiction properly. The truth is that it is not possible to understand contemporary TV or film franchises, even the most highbrow and sophisticated choices the artists make, without understanding shipping and its influence on the creative process. Even HBO’s The Young Pope — one of the most highbrow TV shows ever aired and definitely not one whose subject matter would cry out for romantic entanglements — has played with the audience’s shipping reflexes.

Shipping reveals a lot about our society and about just how lonely and unloved people often feel. It is this loneliness that fuels the need to experience romance and love at least vicariously. And what better way is there to do so than shipping?

A version of this piece was also published at IAI.TV.

© Bence Nanay

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