A friend of mine only recently discovered the term “shipping”, as in “to ship a couple” commonly associated with fictional characters and the offshoots of fan fiction they inspire. She is understandably confused about this term and others of you out there may likely be confused as well. It might help to understand that the the word “ship” is shortened from the word “relationship”, and to ship someone means you support the development of that relationship. These fans of certain relationships are called “shippers.”
When did this all start?, you may ask. Some would trace it back to the origins of online fandom and the cult of Mulder and Scully. This would be mostly accurate, but shippers have actually been sharing fan fiction via fanzines since the days of Kirk and Spock. And I’m going to go out on a limb here and assume that if my friend discovered shipping that she may also come across the term “slash.”
This started out as a general term to indicate a pairing, as derived from the slash that denotes that pairing (ex. Mulder/Scully or Kirk/Spock). These days it mostly refers to same sex pairings. There are plenty of more specialized terms related to shippers and fan fiction that I really won’t get into, but there in a nutshell is the breakdown of shipping. While every pairing under the sun has been imagined together under infinite situations, there are a handful of classic pairings out there that really informs the colorful history of shipping and the cult of fan fiction.
You might notice that this pairing technically goes back to the 1880s, which makes the history of shipping very long indeed. While contemporary readers may not have specifically “shipped” Holmes and Watson in the sense that we ship pairings now, there was a certain Victorian subtext and subculture that indicated Holmes and Watson may have been up to more than just fighting crime. Holmes is described as a Bohemian, which was often used as a euphemism for homosexual in Victorian parlance. Considering also his aversion to women and his close, live in relationship with Watson, its not a stretch to wonder exactly what Holmes’ sexuality might be. As time went on, of course, Holmes/Watson became a very common and important pairing in the fan fiction world, and especially so now with the success of Guy Ritchie’s Sherlock Holmes and Steven Moffat’s Sherlock. While many people may not understand the practice of shipping and fan fiction, for a lot of people its an important tool to explore and express their own sexuality and relationships.
This is a hugely important pairing in the fan fiction world. As I mentioned in the introduction, fans have been sharing fan fiction and shipping together since long before the internet. There used to be specialty fanzines that would publish these stories. In fact, one of the most important Kirk/Spock fan fictions was actually published (don’t forget that 50 Shades of Grey started out as a Twilight fan fiction). It’s called “Killing Time”, written by Della Van Hise, and unlike “50 Shades of Grey” its actually very well written. The publisher obviously wouldn’t allow a blatant Kirk/Spock pairing, so there are some heavy cuts to some of the more explicit excerpts, but the book still reads heavily of an implied relationship between Kirk and Spock. Even in the TV series and movies, Kirk and Spock are obviously each other’s most important relationship through life, so its not exactly a stretch to write something in which their connection spans time and space.
If you’re wondering when the internet became a place to celebrate fandoms and interact with the fans, creators, and actors of your favorite TV shows or movies, this was it. The X-files was the first show in which the internet became the platform that connected fans to their fandoms. It was also when online fan fiction began to thrive and the term “ship” came into being. Like Holmes/Watson and Kirk/Spock, Mulder/Scully share a similar, intense dynamic that is informed by their drastic personality differences as much as their common ideals. Mulder and Scully became the most desired ship on television, with every episode and every online discussion fueling the fandom flames. Even years after the series ended, Mulder/Scully has a huge online following and a fandom about to be revived by an upcoming mini-series.
This Supernatural pairing is slightly disturbing because it crosses that delicate incest taboo. If you don’t know anything about Supernatural, Sam and Dean Winchester are demon hunting brothers. Their bond runs pretty deep and there’s a lot of tears and face touching and insane acts of sacrifice for each other. Huge amounts of people really do ship them. As for Castiel, he’s an angel trying to find his humanity and shares an intimate bond with Dean. It’s pretty sexy. And angels, as we’re made to understand, don’t really have defined sexualities, so anything could happen.
The Harry Potter fandom holds the distinction for having created the all time worst fan fiction. It’s called “My Immortal” if you’re at all interested in reading something that was either genuinely terribly written by an adolescent goth girl, or maybe was written as a satire by any number of authors. It’s honestly pretty steeped in mystery, but it’s terribleness is profoundly entertaining. Aside from that, the Potter fandom has produced fan fictions featuring all possible pairings – anything from Harry/Snape to Sirius/Remus to the less interesting Harry/Hermione.
A Mary Sue is when the author inserts themselves into their fan fiction as the perfect/most desired/most interesting character. This is what “My Immortal” does, as the main character of the story is the author, who interacts with every character in incredibly unlikely ways. In serious fan fiction writing, this is a major no-no and seen as being very adolescent. Also, Mary Sues (or for guys, Marty Stu) more often than not show up in badly written pieces. I mean, why does a M*A*S*H fan fiction need a telekinetic goth girl as a main character (yes, that’s a real fan fiction)? That just doesn’t even make sense. However, reading bad fan fiction can be incredibly entertaining in an MST3K kind of way. So if you’re looking for a place to start, Topless Robot has a bad fan fiction Friday feature that is pretty fantabulous.