Who’s Steering the Ship?

This is a blog post in two parts. Mostly, it will focus on the crux of many pieces of fandom and fan generated content, which are the relationships between the characters in any given fandom. In order to really discuss this, a primer must be offered on the terms that will be used in this article and which are used in many fandom spaces.

Many of these terms and ideas are not totally novel, and have been introduced and accepted into mainstream media when speaking about pieces of fictional work that inspire a dedicated following. First, the name of this following is called the fandom. Examples include the Marvel Fandom, the Harry Potter Fandom, and even the One Direction Fandom. These can be further subdivided into fandoms centered around specific characters, places, or even items. There are entire fandoms dedicated to the Silmarils in the Lord of the Rings, or to certain houses of Westeros.

However, the clearest divide of fandom occurs when you ask people whom they ship. Ship, shortened from ‘relationship,’ can be used as a verb or a noun. A ship is a pair (or trio) of characters that a fan has imagined to be in a relationship, through various forms of fan creation, which can include fanart, fanfiction, the creation of ‘meta’, or just participating in fandom discussions about these characters. If you ‘ship’ them, as in, “I ship Draco Malfoy and Harry Potter,” it means that you are a part of a fandom that produces fanwork around this relationship, or you are actively looking for evidence of this relationship in the text. Or, it could simply mean that you enjoy imagining a world in which their canon dynamic can be reinterpreted and rewritten as a romance.

Armed with our established lexicon, we can move on to the real purpose of this blog post.

Why are there so many gay ships?

If you’ve been following along, you might have also read my first blog, The Fanfiction is Female, but you don’t need to have read that in order to understand the real conundrum here.

Out of the most popular ships of 2017 (according to Tumblr’s fandometrics, a very scientific and exceptionally well-established group) seven out of the top ten ships feature pairings consisting of only men, and three feature only women, which means that none of the top ten most popular relationships on the ninth largest social media platform in the world are comprised of heterosexual couples. This is in fact up from last year where there was one (canon!) lesbian relationship, one heterosexual relationship, and eight gay ships.

Fanfiction is comprised of mostly female or non-gender conforming authors (96% of all fanfic authors on Archive of Our Own, in fact). So why do so many of the most popular ships in fandom spaces feature gay male pairings?

The simple answer is that there are more men on screens, and more options if fandom allows gay ships to flourish. Indeed, fandom has deep roots to gay ships, starting with subversive fanzines that featured a lot of Spock/Kirk in the ’60s. And this makes sense of course — they’re the main characters, they have a ‘can’t live with him, can’t live without him’ push and pull, and no matter where Kirk goes or what lady he flirts with, he always ends up back in the captain’s chair with Spock right by his side.

There is another explanation, a little more subversive, and not quite as easy to accept, and that is the fact that the people (mostly men) who write romance plots into books and television shows fail to do so in a realistic and engaging way. They rush it, they get right to the kiss, or they never get to the kiss, or the relationship is fleeting and hurtful, and almost always prioritizes the (usually male) lead over the (usually female) love interest.

If this sounds like I lay a lot of the blame at the feet of men . . .it’s because I do. Again, to repeat the statistics of my last fanfiction blog post, women are still sorely underrepresented both on screen and behind the screens. I’m telling it like it is. There are exceptions, surely, but in general . . .the romance just isn’t right.

And more than just pairing up the two main characters of any given show, fanfiction writers want something more from romance. They want these characters to genuinely care about each other, they want to know that these characters are actually friends, that they actually like each other. Sometimes this is not the case, and to each their own, but by and large, the reason we want to write about Kirk and Spock making out on the USS Enterprise is because they’re best friends! They belong together! It makes sense!

Shipping friends together is easy to do, and frankly, is the logical way that derivations of media can play out. Sure, there are plenty of fics that keep certain characters ‘just friends’ but so many fic writers want to write themselves into the stories they read. The easiest way to explore our own wants and desires is through fantastic retellings of stories and characters where the chemistry on screen or on the page easily translates into a relationship with very little filling-in-the-blanks.

There is another answer, which is that fanfiction and shipping is queer-dominated because its creators and consumers are also queer. Tumblr, which is where a lot of fandom spaces have been created in the post-dreamwidth, post-livejournal exodus of fandom, is just . . .pretty gay. The people writing on Archive of Our Own are, according to this 2013 survey, about 79% not-straight. This goes back to my first point: that women, when we rewrite the narratives surrounding our favorite stories, write ourselves back into the story, by reframing it from our point of view, which is subversively female and unattached from the male gaze.

This is not new. In fact, during my research I came across this article on Slate Why Do Queer People Write Fan Fiction? To See Themselves in Mainstream Culture,” which can make this point for me. Just allow me to say that queer people want to have control over how media represents them, and so often, when we are represented, we are failed. 

The people who write fanfiction are not here for the common straight ships that modern media presents to us. It doesn’t represent us, and it doesn’t show us as strong, as beautiful, as diverse, as caring, or as creative as we, queer, female, and everything else, actually are. We don’t like the canon ships we see on screen, we don’t want it, and when we are growing up in a world that says queer people are not good enough to show on screen, or have families, or be a part of mainstream society, it’s no surprise that we carve out our own genre and write ourselves into the mainstream. We deserve it.