Our hearts “shipping” together
The past two weeks, I’ve been broadly exploring drama and comedy landscapes, but this time, I’d like to analyze how most of us consume television. Luckily for me, the first week of October brought several episodes with spotlights on romantic relationships, a quintessential ingredient of character drama and an oft discussed topic among viewers.
I love television obsessively. Part of it stems from the fun of engaging with a community (or a “fandom”) who shares an interest in a particular show. It’s like a popular school club and the anticipated weekly release of episodes always comes with new chatter subjects.
With the advent of internet forums, communities specifically dedicated to character relationships (“shipping,” the act of investing in a fictional romance) have sprung for many shows, books, and movies. “TV ships” on display last week were Barney and Robin (How I Met Your Mother), Rory and Amy (Doctor Who), Finn and Rachel, and Kurt and Blaine (Glee).
These shipping fandoms are composed of the most enthusiastic fans, who collectively cheer, mourn, praise, and revolt the emotional roller coasters of their couple rides. They watch and re-watch every episode in search of suggested romance hints or to revel in their ship’s established love. They edit fluffy fan videos and write fan fictions as extensions of their devotion. It sounds deluded, but for the faithful shipper, it’s a happy daydream into the fictional pleasures of their perceived perfect couple.
One of the special aspects of shipping (and TV in general) is individual interpretation, which spawns heavy debate. The biggest “shipping war” in history, which coincided with the internet boom, concerned the Harry Potter series. Hermione ended up with Ron, but maybe she “truly” belonged with Harry. The Ron contingent will contend they ultimately “won” once the series ended, but Harry and Hermione supporters stubbornly point to pages of evidence where Hermione showed more love, platonic or otherwise, for Harry. We’re all reading the same books (and gaining visual fulfillment via film) that J.K. Rowling masterfully wrote, but our own ideas of love are unique, leading to this divide.
Chuck and Blair are the heart of Gossip Girl, a pair that’s never together in finality, yet never dies. Both from wealthy families, they symbolize the literal power couple. When they’re not together, there’s extreme angst and yearning. Yet when they are, they discover the relationship is nothing but a tempting chase for each other. Between that desire, Chuck has emotionally hurt Blair multiple times throughout the show. Perhaps they’re ultimately doomed, but there’s an everlasting mutual compassion and an explosive acting (and sexual) chemistry that continues to lift their shippers’ hopes.
Opposing Chuck for Blair’s heart is Dan, who is his opposite in every imaginable way. Dan, a writer and not wealthy, elicits the literary lover in Blair. They share common interests in vintage films and refined taste. In short, the chemistry is intellectual and the relationship is safe for Blair, completely unlike the sexually-charged flavour of Chuck.
This contrast demonstrates the subjectivity in shipping: some relate to Blair’s vulnerability around Chuck and hate the bland Dan storyline, while Dan and Blair shippers are disgusted by Chuck’s cruelty and find stimulation in Dan’s intellectual connection with Blair. Both are logical routes of romance (which is hardly logical in of itself), but one’s preferred ship likely rests on a personal definition of love. In reality, we are attracted to distinctive qualities, which is why we fall in love with different people. Because of this, we respond to depicted joy or heartbreak differently, depending on the character through which we experience these feelings. Those that emotionally touch us the most compel our feelings for a certain couple.
They don’t all become lovers, sadly. But that’s why fandoms exist. They may never live an established romance on-screen, but loyal shippers create their legacies with fan fictions and videos that illustrate the inherent traits of the couple and why they belong together. Because TV is not real, characters tend to have transcendent qualities that greatly intrigue us. The idea of pairing two compatible characters yields visions of spicy romances that we want to enjoy vicariously. Being part of a fandom unites passionate fans that see these visions.
Portraying television effectively requires bonding characters with the viewer. That involves introducing an accessible character, and developing surrounding relationships and resonating experiences that viewers can empathize with. If this is executed successfully, they will identify with every up and down the character has, and wish the best for them, whether it’s a plot outcome or romantic partner. That investment is difficult to attain, then maintain, but love is a useful device for cultivating that viewer-character connection. Shipping two fictional – but relatable – characters in an epic romance is rather quixotic, but that’s why scripted television exists. It’s not real life; it’s an escape from it.