10 October, 2013

On shipping, and being wrong

I came across a Tumblr post the other day with a set of gifs from a recent movie, showing the two nerdy scientist characters (both male) grinning and hugging each other from the moment in the movie right after they help save the world. The OP's tags were quoted below the gifset, saying something like, "I actually thought they were going to kiss", or something similar.

The person on my feed who reblogged the post had amended it with tags of her own. Paraphrased, she said that she didn't understand "why a fandom refuses to just let dudes who are friends be friends", that not every fictional friendship "involves touching penises".

This made me, to understate, a little mad. Not because I happen to enjoy that particular ship (though I do) but because of the self-righteous queer-phobic sentiment behind the tags. It's the nature of the fan world that you'll come across ships that make you go "Huh?" or "Yikes" or downright "Ew." It's just a fact of fanworks, and being part of fannish culture. Some people see a ship where you cannot imagine one existing. Eat your vegetables, kids; some people like things that you don't like.

So I'm not taking issue with the fact that this person doesn't ship these two characters. That's her gods-given right as a person; to ship or not to ship, as she sees fit. But I am taking issue with her castigation of "a fandom" seeing a ship where she doesn't see one-- of her taking the fact that people ship these particular characters and turning it into a general interdict against ships she doesn't enjoy. I don't personally understand why people ship Draco/Hermione or Mal/River or Dean/Sam or any number of the roughly five million ships that scroll down my Tumblr dash every day. But frankly, it's not for me to judge.

Because here's the thing about shipping. Non-fannish people often have a hard time with the concept, because they don't tend to be the types of people who think a lot about fictional canons and characters when they're not watching/reading/playing that canon. But fannishness-- broadly speaking, and shipping in particular-- is about seeing the possibility of the story to go a different way, for it to contain more than just what's shown on the screen or the page.

To date, one of my favorite things the internet has ever churned out to talk about slash fanfiction is this post by dreamwidth user Cimorene, in which she talks about representation (gay characters and relationships in the textual context of the canon) versus slash (queering the canon through your own interpretation). A few years ago I also wrote a post about queer representation in media, especially genre fiction, and my participation in fan culture-- specifically fanfiction, even more specifically slash. If you're new to the concept of shipping or slash, those are good places to start.

When we talk about slash, we're talking about dragging the lens from mass media's obsessively heteronormative view to something that feels more like what we experience in reality. I love this blog post, which discusses the "script of desire", the expectations we're taught to have and the incredibly narrow roles men and women are "supposed" to fill when interacting with each other.
Heteronormativity isn’t just about the presumption that everyone is heterosexual. The expectation that boys woo girls feeds into your mind the expectation that relationships are necessary for fulfilment, and you are less than if you are not having particular kinds of sex with a particular, and a particular kind of, person at particular intervals.
And if you don't have that kind of sex, if you aren't even remotely interested in it, then what? Where do you find those people that you remind you of yourself? When I watch a movie and I look for someone to cast myself in the role of, it's almost never one of the leads. It's usually the socially awkward geek; the brainy bookish kid with the sharp tongue; the withdrawn angry kid with the enormous chip on her shoulder.

And when I see that character form an attachment to another character, especially one of the same sex, I can't help but wonder how it might grow beyond attachment to attraction-- because that's how I've experienced attraction, sex, love, in the past. That's the story my brain tells, because it's the story I've lived.

So what's the basis of this Tumblr user's bashing of this ship-- and not only this ship, but a group of fans who choose to look beyond what is only textually a friendship? Why the resentment that exists from someone who doesn't ship a particular pairing, towards the people that do? Her tags came off as not only self-aggrandizing but also snobbish-- as though just knowing that some people enjoy shipping these two characters was threatening to her, was somehow tainting what she saw as the "right" interpretation of their relationship.

I talk with my friends periodically about what makes a geek a geek. We've basically boiled it down to the fact that being a geek, at least in the current hipster culture of detachment and "ironic" enjoyment of things, has a lot to do with not being afraid to get excited about stuff. I'm a geek because I get excited about wizards, werewolves, made up worlds, giant robots fighting monsters in the ocean, and a host of other things. I get excited by shipping. And I think people who get down on others for their ships are not only betraying the spirit of geekdom, but seriously detracting from the safe space that most of us consider our fannish lives to be. Like I said in the post I linked above; fandom is where I come to find people like me. And it's contrary to that fraternal feeling to tell someone their ship is lame, or wrong. You wouldn't want someone to do that to you.

In the immortal words of Vin Diesel: Don't be a dick, Dick.

Sure, not all friendships between two dudes involve sex. But the point of participating in a fandom is that you have a platform from which to posit that it could-- that any friendship could turn into romance, regardless of the gender of the characters involved. That if you want to, you could read the friendship between these two secondary characters as being the prelude to, or simply the outward expression of, a romantic relationship. That that's a story that's just as valid to tell as any other.

And if you read a piece of fanfiction that speaks to you-- that tells you the story of someone you relate to, having the kind of sex that you want to have, falling in love in a way you can imagine yourself falling in love-- who the hell is anyone else to tell you you're wrong?

Till next time, geeks, stay frosty. And incidentally, if you're on tumblr, you can see my incredibly nerdy collection of reblogs at opentheyear. :)

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