“Shipping” — fans cheering on a relationship between characters in a story — is nothing new. The concept drives most love stories, after all: the writer wants the audience to pull for a given potential pair and then either pays that off or smashes it, depending on what effect they’re going for. Usually shipping happens with pairs that are deliberately telegraphed by a writer, but sometimes unintentional ships develop. This is especially true of same-gender, or “slash” ships, and other relationships that are underrepresented in popular media: interracial or multi-partner ones, for instance.
Historically, much of this shipping, whether of a canon-obvious pair or something less visible, has been done among fans, with little to no contact with the people making the story. The rise of social media, however, has changed that. Fans are now very vocal about their ships, and communicate directly with writers, actors, etc. who are involved with the characters they’re backing. While before, very few fans would expect their clamor about a ship to have any effect on what ends up on the page or screen, now creators are starting to listen. In the past few years, many ships that weren’t obviously going to be paid off in canon–including some that canon is actually incompatible with–have started getting attention, and some are even getting paid off.
Unfortunately, most of these payoffs are happening only with conventional male/female ships. Even when a given slash ship is the biggest one in a fandom, the most fans of it can hope for is a bit of wink-and-nod innuendo, designed to keep slash fans watching while not alienating homophobic ones. Fans of het ships are seeing their wishes come true more and more, but slash fans are still shamed for even shipping in the first place. We’re definitely not allowed to hope, much less expect, for payoff.
This isn’t about overall representation of LGBT characters in popular media. That’s happening more often now, and it’s great, in most cases. We still need more, and it’d be great if they didn’t default to minor character, curiosity, tragedy, or comedy, as happens so often, but progress is at least being made. Slash shipping is a different beast, though, because it almost always involves at least one character that hasn’t been established in canon as anything other than straight. There are enough out characters now that, in combination with bisexual erasure, audiences assume that unless a character is already out in canon, they’re not queer, and could never genuinely have interest in a same-gender partner, no matter how close and bonded the characters are. Never mind that the reality of human sexual and romantic feelings is far more complex than that, and also never mind that even people who are 100% gay often go years trying to be straight before they figure it out. One m/f kiss is all it takes for people to presume complete heterosexuality. This, plus heterosexuality still being a statistical majority, means a slash ship, no matter how obvious in canon, is seen as inherently implausible, and therefore paying it off wouldn’t be as easy or as fluid as it can be for other-gender ships, even if they’re downright preposterous in some other way.
Beyond that, however, it’s really just a matter of homophobia, period. There’s still enough anti-gay sentiment in much of Western culture that even including LGBT characters at all is seen as risky by the people paying the production bills. Challenging the fallacy of binary orientation is even scarier. If [popular, assumed-straight character] can turn out to be queer, the theory goes, then anyone could be queer. Quelle horreur! And next we’ll be hearing about a plague of locusts or something. Such a frenzy of negative reaction has already happened in two recent cases: The Legend of Korra and Black Sails. I’ll get into that more below, but first I want to illustrate how easy it’s been lately for fans of other-gender ships to get canon payoff. (Note that the below includes many spoilers for recent popular SFF media! Venture in at your own risk!) Continue reading