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Shipping Discourse: Do Ships Need to Be Unproblematic?

Rey talks to Kylo Ren in Star Wars: The Last Jedi.

(Lucasfilm)

There are few things in fandom that get people’s passions as ignited as shipping. Across almost every fandom, arguments and disagreements about which ship is best and which ship is “right” pop up all the time. In some fandoms, there are such strong feelings about competing ships that the term “Ship War” has become popular. For an example of this, think of the deep divide between those who ship Steve/Bucky and those who ship Steve/Tony in the Marvel Cinematic Universe.

While having strong opinions about shipping can be fun and exciting, just as with anything on the internet, things can be taken to an extreme degree. Harassment is common, and while this isn’t unique to fandom, it’s also part and parcel of the experience much of the time.

Recently, shipping and harassment have come to the forefront again as a topic after the release of Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker. With many fans having a lot of ideas and passionate opinions about the Reylo ship and the handling of representation of other characters, things blew up on the internet, especially on Twitter.

While the Reylo ship did cause a lot of contention in the Star Wars fandom, this isn’t just happening in one specific fan community. Anyone who is involved even somewhat in a shipping fandom might have noticed a lot of discourse surrounding shipping, harassment, and “antis.”

Much of the recent discourse and discussion has been around the idea of which ships are healthy and which ones aren’t. On the extreme ends of these arguments, there are two ideologies. One says that fiction and shipping impact real life so deeply that all ships must be pure and have no problematic aspects. On the other far end, people argue that shipping is only fiction, and that anything goes with no consequences.

It’s not uncommon to see Twitter posts talking about one of these extremes, but the truth is a lot more complicated than can be boiled down to just one or two sentences. There is some truth in both positions, and the role that fiction and shipping plays on reality is complex, to say the least.

First, when looking at the claim that all ships must be pure and unproblematic, there are some obvious flaws. There are very few things in life that are ideologically pure. While a ship might seem healthy to one person, it might not to another. Trying to prove that your ship is better than another can often become an argument about which ship is morally superior, and this often leads nowhere good.

Another issue here is that fiction is often a space to explore complex or even troubling ideas. It’s unrealistic to say that things such as abusive relationships or imbalanced power dynamics can never be explored. For some people, these are just fantasies being worked through in an environment that doesn’t hurt anyone, or exploring certain shipping dynamics can be a way to work through trauma. The role that fantasy plays is complex, and most of us aren’t deeply educated on these subjects. It’s important not to play armchair psychologist.

Third, many of  these “anti” arguments tend to come for more marginalized populations. While a lot of problematic content is produced in the mainstream—imagine ships from things like Game of Thrones for example—in shipping communities, the vitriol is often targeted at queer people and/or marginalized genders. This is what is often referred to as punching across or down, instead of punching up. The harassment rhetoric can often come across as censorship of LGBTQ+ people exploring sexuality, gender, kink, and fantasy in a safe environment.

On the other hand, the other extreme of this spectrum also has some issues. The claim that fiction and the way it’s interpreted don’t impact our realities is also false. Storytelling, especially shared stories as a culture, do impact how we view ourselves and others. This is why so many people talk about the importance of representation for marginalized groups in both mainstream media and in fandom. What we see in the media does play a role in what we view as normal and acceptable. So, to say that “anything goes” in fandom and shipping seems inaccurate.

One way this often plays out is in representation and race. Many fans of color have pointed out that sidelining characters of color or writing fanfic that has them in stereotypical roles can be especially harmful. Star Wars gives many recent examples of this, with how Finn, Rose, and Poe were treated in the narrative, and that extends to fandom, in the way that Reylo has become so popular, yet other ships, such as Rey and Finn, have been met with a lot of harassment. Criticisms about problematic ships often have validity to them when they are critiquing racism in fandom. At the same time, racism can also lead to bad-faith criticism of even canon ships, a prominent example being The CW’s The Flash.

These points need to be taken seriously and understood as valid and real concerns. Fiction and reality do impact one another, and to say they don’t seems to ignore the role that stories and art play in society. Looking critically at media and critiquing issues, even in shipping, does have a place. It’s always worth asking questions like: Why are ships with white people more popular? Or, why are LGBTQ+ ships often sidelined and seen as less valid? This doesn’t mean you can’t enjoy heterosexual ships or ships with two white people, but looking at trends and how they reflect society is important.

At the end of the day, some of the extreme harassment, especially toward people of color and LGBTQ+ people, has been out of control. Even if someone is shipping something problematic, if there’s no evidence of them harming a real person, there is no excuse for trying to dox people. These issues are more complex than what can be summed up by a tweet, and trying to address these shipping discussions in a less violent way is essential.

(image: Disney/Lucasfilm)

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Amanda Steele is a freelance entertainment journalist who splits her time between Salt Lake and NYC. Her work has appeared in Screenrant, Culturess, The Beat, and many more. She would definitely die for Captain America.