No, I don’t mean shipping as in FREE with a purchase of $35 or more from Amazon.com.
Nor do I mean ship in the Titanic sense of the word (though that is closer, more on that later).
I’m talking about a “shipper,” that is, a fan of a television show who very strongly supports the relationship union between two characters.
The term “shipping” (“shippers” are those who ship) originated in relation to television characters as early as 1996, when it was used within an X-Files newsgroup in reference to Mulder and Scully, one of television’s most famous Will They/Won’t They couples. “Shipping” is derived from “relationshipper,” a word used to describe someone who avidly wishes for a romantic relationship between characters to occur.
Shippers range from the enthusiastic, to the fanatical, to the delusional. The practice of shipping imagines that fictional characters get together, but sometimes these imaginings are canon (that is, they do occur on the show). Other shippers ship unions between characters that are likely to never happen for a variety of reasons within the storyline. But most are so insistent in their belief that characters should get together or will get together despite what may be happening on the show, that they absolutely won’t hear otherwise.
I’ve dangled on the outskirts of this interesting little planet for about 2 years and have dabbled in immersing myself in the culture that is rampant on websites like Tumblr. It’s a fascinating place to be. Shippers have their own language they use and they have their own battles. The acronym “OTP” or “One True Pair” is used to label a ship. OTP’s are the only acceptable pairing, the ship of ships, and usually the person’s favorite pairing of all the various ships they might be invested in (though fans can have multiple OTP’s).
“Slash” is used to refer to homosexual pairings. These pairings usually occur solely in fanfiction. The most famous (and arguable first) slash pairing was Kirk and Spock from Star Trek. The “slash” refers to the punctuation between the character’s names to identify them as a pairing (Kirk/Spock, for instance).
Then there are “Shipping Wars” which occur between supporters of contradicting OTPs—two relationships featuring the same character paired with different love interests. These shipping wars are exacerbated with shows that have a love triangle, such as The Vampire Diaries, which has as many die-hard supporters for Stefan/Elena (Stelena) as it does for Damon/Elena (Delena).
Shipping truly is its own sub-culture on the internet. Fans will write fanfiction featuring these characters, will photoshop their heads onto bodies of people actually embracing, and if the show in any capacity puts these characters together in an episode (even if they’re only sharing the screen and doing nothing else), the fandom will EXPLODE with screencaps and gifs and long posts analyzing every single thing that happened between these two. They’ll include reaction gifs of things like the Titanic sinking with Dido’s White Flag lyrics superimposed, “I will go down with this ship.”
It’s hilarious and wonderful and so intense.
And it’s the intensity that I find fascinating. My interest with shipping was recently piqued with the return of The Walking Dead and subsequently the return of the Daryl/Carol shippers (referred to simply as Caryl). Women love (I love) Daryl. He’s a bad boy with a leather jacket and a crossbow and a motorcycle and a secret, hidden heart of gold. We have maternal, protective instincts about him as we watch his character development slowly progress through now 5 seasons of the show. We love him. And because we love him, we want him to find love.
Enter Carol, who had a storyline with Daryl during season 2 and so it begins. Carol appears a lot older than Daryl, and has had her fair share of excellent character development. Their relationship has certainly been a slow build but my question is: Is the show even taking them towards a relationship?
I’m kind of thinking no. I’m thinking the showrunners put these scenes in because they know it will drive the shippers crazy and they know the shippers are an important demographic of their audience. I think Daryl and Carol share a friendship and a connection but it’s not going to be a relationship. But if you look on Tumblr, these shippers won’t hear of it any other way.
Immediately following every episode of The Walking Dead on Sundays you can find gifs upon gifs upon gifs of mere moments between Daryl and Carol. They’ll analyze each facial expression, each camera angle, each gaze and breath and movement. They’ll caption it with things like, “YOU CAN’T TELL ME THIS ISN’T LOVE” or “IT’S COMING. MY OTP IS HAPPENING” (forever in caps for particular emphasis).
And the thing is, even if I think they’re wrong, they’re so much more invested in the show than the average viewer. Their emotions are higher, their excitement is greater, and their desire is fiercer. They don’t just watch TV shows, they consume them. They pick them apart, they talk to each other about it, they care more. And in doing so, I would argue, they enjoy the show more. They are more of an active audience and they’re having fun. Even if it’s agony to wait and see if two characters will get together, they’re experiencing shows on a level that showrunners can only dream their shows will one day be experienced. I would liken it to the sense of community and the emotionality someone might feel about their favorite sports team winning. It seems crazy. But it’s not crazy, it’s just love. Fanatical love. But love nonetheless.
And isn’t that kind of great?