The manga series Soul Eater ended its run in 2013, a year after I got into it.
For all that time, I’ve shipped two of the main characters, Soul and Maka, so hard that my enthusiasm for seeing them together has pushed me to keep developing creative skills I didn’t have the courage to engage with before. They’ve motivated years of art and writing projects that would otherwise have been too tiring, too embarrassing to work on long enough for any improvement to happen.
While I enjoyed the anime adaptation as a fun watch with a charming cast, Maka and Soul are the only reason I moved on to the manga, and their story is the only reason I’ve maintained my creative activities for over five years now.
My ship, not the canon it came from, is my fandom.
Okay, so maybe that’s a little provocative. When you get down to it, though, it’s the truth about me, and it’s the truth about a lot of fans. We’re not in it for the story. We’re in it for the characters and their relationships. To us, the story is just the vessel in which they’re delivered.
It’s completely understandable that some people think our priorities are off, but that’s not really a fair assessment. Our fandoms — ships — are about which chunk of media spoke to us, which parts ignited passion. That’s all any fandom is, when you get to the heart of it. If relationship potential was somehow eliminated from the equation entirely, we wouldn’t suddenly see the light and start appreciating the rest of the media more; we’d just be less interested.
In other words, you are totally entitled to the opinion that shippers are Doing It Wrong, but our priority interest in relationships is something we are equally entitled to — a reality that many of us can’t change. Can you force yourself to feel those thrilled butterflies in your tummy for something you never cared about before? No? Then you can certainly understand — some passions are innate, and for many people, shipping is one of those passions.
The sooner we can admit that, the sooner we can figure out how to handle it responsibly — and yes, by asking others to accept that shipping is a legitimate fan priority, I am also acknowledging that shippers have their own unique responsibilities.
There are a few arguments that seem to surface on a regular basis: that romantic relationships are usually not the most important part of a story’s plot and therefore should not be the most important thing to the fans, that obsessive shippers ruin their fandoms for other fans, and that obsessive shippers treat the creative teams behind their favorite media with extreme disrespect.
(Let’s clarify before going any further: this essay is about the general notion of shipping, and fans who prefer shipping content to all other content. It assumes that the ships or non-ships in question are on pretty equal social/moral/ethical footing. Many people are interested in discussions about shipping and morality, but those aren’t the discussions here because they are a separate issue. Although I find those topics interesting too, they would require a whole separate opinion essay that I am not prepared to write.)
The first argument about why it’s wrong to prioritize shipping, that romantic relationships are not the most important part of a story’s plot and therefore shouldn’t be a fan’s primary interest, completely misses the point of shipping. It also fails to understand the reasons why (many) people relate to fiction in the first place.
A lot of people are fascinated by the plot — the way the story progresses, the way everything comes together at the end, the surprises, the predictions. And those are legitimate, thrilling, wonderful experiences. I’d never want to take that away from people. Same goes for fans who are more driven by individual character stories rather than relationships, or fans who are excited by worldbuilding.
A lot of fans — the ones I’m talking about in this article — are more invested in the relationships between characters; we start a story that mildly interests us (or perhaps stumble upon it by accident) and end up with a passion because the interactions in the series were so charming.
From these interactions, we create more, spin thousands of new stories about people being together. Do they have to be romantic or sexual? No. But there are individual and cultural forces at work that tend to push us toward romantic interpretations, so that’s what you see most often.
The prioritization of shipping is a more emotional approach to fiction, but why is this wrong? Are we not exploring our hearts and minds while we socialize? Or is that not a reasonable pastime? The point is: yes, shipping is different from some traditional approaches to media. But it’s just as valid as any other pursuit of fictional enjoyment.
The other two issues — of shippers making fandom an unfriendly environment for people who aren’t really into shipping, and of shippers attacking creators — boil down to fan behavior, and those are of more concern to me. “Stop caring so much about fictional characters kissing!” is thought-policing, but bad behaviors have real-world importance. They are about human decency. They’re also about preserving the fandom’s health, making it habitable and enjoyable for new people — new friends, maybe.
For anyone who isn’t sure what I’m talking about: think about fans who post aggressive shipping or ship-hate content in main fandom tags on Tumblr. People who comment on art with, “I don’t ship it, but…”. People who tell creators on Twitter that their show sucks because of some relationship development in the storyline. People who — and I can hardly believe this happens, but we ARE a weird species of ape, after all — send death threats or suicide bait to fellow fans or creators over their shipping opinions.
Bad shipper behavior runs the whole gamut from “inconsiderate” to “monstrous.”
For these resolve these issues, a few things have to happen. As an incredibly ardent shipper myself, I can say with certainty that many shippers do indeed need to just grow up. A culture needs to be created where people accept and understand, for example, that sending threatening or hateful messages to fans and creators over a ship is never justified. Such an action should be unthinkable. Fans who don’t prioritize ships can help create this atmosphere, but really, passionate shippers are also going to have to step up by holding their peers responsible.
Shippers can also help create a culture in which online boundaries are respected. Ships in content need to be tagged/indicated/labeled appropriately so they can be blocked by people who don’t want to see them. Hateful content about fellow fans should be avoided.
Hateful or passive-aggressive posts about fictional characters and ships should simply be kept to personal blogs, not tagged for fans to find. There should be no shame in unfollowing/unsubscribing or blocking users who post content you don’t like, even if it’s “just shipping,” because unfollowing and blocking are some of the precious few ways we have to curate our experiences in online public spaces.
One more thing? Shippers should treat platonic headcanons and ships with the same respect we’d give to someone else’s romance ship. I see complaints, at times, like: “Everything is romance, it seems like nothing in this fandom can be platonic, and that bothers me.” This may have to involve some simple live-and-let-live, agree-to-disagree compromise, since you can’t just make someone create platonic content they do not care for.
Shippers can help, though, by tagging and warning clearly, avoiding arguments with people who state preferences for platonic relationships, and not pressuring for romantic content from other fans when those fans don’t enthusiastically leap into romance themselves. You can’t just make someone create romantic content they do not care for, either.
Remember, you don’t have to respect someone’s opinion, or even like them as a person, to act with enough consideration for others to keep the peace in your fandoms.
But I think one more thing folks of all shipping or no-shipping preferences can do for the overall health of our fandoms is accept, without moral or intellectual judgment, that some shippers are essentially their own fandom. Some people would identify more with the “ship fandom”; some will choose the original media as a whole when push comes to shove; some really cannot choose which is more important to them, so they might be consdered to be in “both fandoms”.
The most ardent shippers should respect the boundaries of other people who are in the overlapping fandom(s) as much as they expect their own boundaries to be respected.
Related to this: accept that many of us have strong feelings about fiction and that’s okay! In my experience, fans think it’s silly and immature to care a lot about ships. So they either force themselves to interact with fans who don’t really share the same interests, or they try to generate moral justifications for their strong feelings even when there are no major moral issues involved.
Trying to deny one’s genuine interests, or creating moral issues where there are none, makes it very hard to develop emotional literacy, the ability to understand emotions in yourself and others. And when people don’t have the knowledge to express passion in a healthy way, they understand themselves and each other less. It leads to more pain in the long-run than just admitting that yeah, you’re a big dork who cares a lot about fictional characters kissing and you want to meet people who feel the same way.
If the story or a group of characters (rather than a pairing/poly romance) is the part that interests you, that’s awesome! We can all relate to that! Fans should support each other in their enjoyment of fictional worlds! I am merely arguing that a ship is one of many valid, complex reasons for immersing in a fictional world, and one of many valid reasons for dropping out of it.
The bottom line is that in any ship-or-no-ship context, your treatment of other people, and your ability to let them do their own things in their own spaces, is far more important than the specific opinions you hold dear. But by the same token, you have the right to do your own thing in your own space. And if that means you couldn’t care less about canon anymore, or you’ve ceased to follow a series in favor of reading fix-it shipping fanfic, well, that’s your right.
Even if your presence in a fandom is contingent on your enjoyment of a ship, you have every right to be there. You’re not entitled to demand that artists meet your every desire, but no canon content creator, and no fandom, is entitled to your time and energy on an ongoing basis for any reason other than the thing that brings you joy.