“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!)
This show’s primary ship was f/f (Bering/Wells.) There was a contingent of Pete/Myka shippers from the beginning, but they were a minority. Repeated in-canon statements that the two saw each other only as siblings and found the idea of getting together romantically actually gross seemed to reinforce the perception that it wasn’t going anywhere. Wells was canonically bi, and Word of God statements from the cast seemed to imply that sexual and romantic tension between the two women was intentional. As the showrunner was also gay, it became a real possibility that Bering and Wells was going to be canon endgame.
At the end of the next-to-last season, however, Wells was revealed to be married to a man and step-parenting a daughter. After a tearful parting scene, there was more or less nothing else. Come the short final season, all of a sudden all the “sibling” stuff between Pete and Myka was spun into an awkward, contrived romance, and it went canon in the series finale. Pyka shippers were, of course, delighted. Bering and Wells shippers were, understandably, incensed.
In the show’s main book canon, Oliver Queen dates and eventually marries Dinah Lance, that canon’s Black Canary. In season one, it was pretty clear they were setting up Ollie and Laurel to eventually become that pair, but there was storyline stuff they had to work through, first (primarily her dating Tommy Merlyn.) Midway through that season, however, they introduced tech genius Felicity Smoak, a character that didn’t exist in the comics. Fans fell in love with the character, and her role was bumped up significantly afterward, eventually putting her on “Team Arrow” as Ollie’s tech specialist and mission-control operator. After another half-season of chemistry between them, the “Olicity” shipping was enormous, and most interest in Ollie/Laurel had fallen off. Even through Ollie’s relationship with Laurel’s (more or less resurrected) sister Sara, who became the show’s original Black Canary, the Olicity shipping was still strong. There were a few people shipping the trio, too, especially after Sara was revealed to be canon bi (and her f/f relationship still affects the plot even now) but Olicity was and still is the show’s primary ship.
So what did the showrunners do? They made it canon. The ship was and is so huge that they jumped through some pretty massive hoops re: Laurel and Black Canary to pay it off. The pair are now split, and they’re finally starting to make Laurel earn her place, but yeah. They paid it off.
I’m not going to pick on this one much because it’s groundbreaking it its own way due to being an interracial ship, but given how the season ended, it’s obvious they’re setting up Ichabod/Abbie to go canon (should the show get renewed.) The major obstacle for them–Ichabod’s wife–is now out of the picture.
Compare, then, these het-pair ship payoffs to the total lack of payoff for literally dozens of same-sex pairs who have become their canon’s primary ship. Some of these ships are based on, to be frank, not much of anything (looking at you, Teen Wolf’s Sterek), but some are based on some deliberate in-canon slash- or queerbaiting, such as Destiel (Supernatural) and Johnlock (Sherlock.) Some have also grown out of the pair’s utter lack of chemistry or relationship development with supposed opposite-sex partners when compared to their relationship with each other. Hawaii 5-0’s McDanno, for instance, are practically married and co-parenting Danny’s daughter, while going through a string of girlfriends who get maybe 1/10th of the screentime and never seem to last long. Granted that this is a problem for a lot of things with buddy-pair leads and next to no well-developed female characters, but this case, at least, really does seem to be getting to the point of implausible denial. The show has clearly been baiting the ship in canon, and some of its writers are even tweeting using the ship name.
Creators, of course, are not at all bound to respond to fan suggestions or demands for plot or character development, including shipping. But what’s happening these days, as dialogue between fans and the people on the other side of the screen increases, is that fan influence IS changing how creators do things. A decade ago, unless it was obviously developing as a show’s in-canon het pair, most fans knew that their ship–regardless of het or slash–was unlikely to ever get paid off. There was a big enough gap between fans and creators that people just went off and did their own shipping and never considered that they might actually influence what happened in canon.
What happened with Olicity and Pyka, and what’s happening with Ichabbie, however, makes it clear that creators ARE listening and responding to fans. They’re just only doing it for het ships. It seems that no matter how big a same-gender ship gets, it’s always only going to be slashbaited, at best. Olicity fans (and I consider myself one), got what they asked for. McDanno fans never will. Instead they’re just going to get things like marriage counseling, “Uncle Steve” and “I love you, man.”
It’s worth noting that there is a bit of hope on the horizon. As mentioned above, in the series finale of The Legend of Korra, a f/f pair that had been shipped by fans essentially walked off into the sunset together (ending a silly love triangle in the process.) It was somewhat ambiguous on screen, but Word of God from the show’s creators was that “Korrasami” was the real deal. Something similar happened with the series finale of Leverage. A wink-and-nod comment from creator Jon Rogers confirmed that a m/f/m trio were indeed intended to be read as an OT3 that had been popularly shipped during the show’s run.
What happened with Black Sails was also a nice step in the right direction. One of the show’s leads, a very traditionally masculine pirate, was revealed in season two to be at least bi, and probably gay, via a flashback scene that included a nice kiss with his male beloved. Subsequent interviews noted that this reveal had been planned from the beginning. Though not a response to shipping, it’s still delightful proof that a character doesn’t have to be out from the start to be revealed as queer later on. This opens up a lot of slash ships to the potential of going canon at some point, no matter how many other-gender partners one or more of them have had. It’s also an illustration of how it’s especially unreasonable to presume heterosexuality for characters who exist in a time or place where being out comes with major consequences. It’s hard to be out even to oneself in 21st-century Western culture. Being out in, say, 9th-century Viking culture? Not exactly easy.
The uproar that followed the Black Sails and the Korra reveals proves that doing such things is still controversial, however. While audiences are becoming more tolerant of queer characters in general, many still don’t like being “surprised” with it once they’re already invested, especially if it happens in a genre–such as children’s animation or adult-aimed violent action–that isn’t known for being all that queer friendly (even though Black Sails already had f/f relationships, I’m sure most homophobes in the audience assumed that was just boilerplate girl-on-girl softcore presented for their entertainment.) Even out characters in these genres get bad reactions–witness the rage by some Game of Thrones fans to Renly and Loras’ sex scenes and the reveal that Oberyn Martell was bi. The books established both of these things, but seeing it on screen still caused plenty of rageflails. There are exceptions–Spartacus managed to have some nice, even explicit same-gender relationships, True Blood finally had a proper male/male love scene in its final season and Da Vinci’s Demons is now in season three with a canon-bi (if only nominally so) male lead–but it’s still difficult to get away with these things.
Additionally, even slash shipping itself is still controversial. In Vikings fandom, for instance, there’s a contingent of homophobic fans absolutely incensed that people (such as yours truly) see Ragnar and Athelstan’s relationship as having romantic overtones. Their relationship has all the hallmarks of a classic love story, and has even had a canon expression of sexual interest, but some people are still angry at “Athelnar” fans for “ruining” their experience of the show just by reading its subtext. One can only imagine the outrage if the show were to cross that line, instead of just going right up to the edge of it.
Like it or not, therefore, it’s still going to be a long time before fans of slash ships can have any reasonable hope that their ship will get paid off in canon. People shipping even an implausible or canonically ridiculous m/f pair aren’t shamed into thinking that they don’t have a right to ship what they want. People don’t tell them they’re being gross or turning a beautiful friendship into something dirty. Fans of m/f ships with other controversial elements, such as being mixed-race, still face some blowback, but by and large, it’s not unreasonable to expect that a given m/f pair could go canon, especially if fans are vocal enough about it. Chemistry between a m/f pair is shipped instantly and openly and that ship is shared without hesitation with cast and creators. Slash fans are starting to get bolder, now, and in some cases, actually obnoxious about it (Sterek and Destiel fans, knock that off, yeah?) However, there’s still a sense that we’re supposed to be closeted about this stuff, regardless of how obvious it becomes in canon–even regardless of whether we’re being deliberately baited. Het shippers are allowed to hope and ask for payoff of their ship. Slash shippers are not. We’re expected to be happy with the limited amount of representation we have and otherwise to leave presumed-straight characters alone, and let het shippers alone have their fun with them.
Progress is marching on, and I believe there will come a day when same-gender ships have just as much likelihood of going canon as other-gender ones. For now, however, it’s unlikely, which is frustrating not just from a shipping or queer-representation standpoint, but from a storytelling one. A love story that spends four seasons getting built up should have some sort of resolution, not just an endless tease, and all fans of good writing should be angry about that. Dave and Maddie and Mulder and Scully had to go there eventually because their stories couldn’t take the tension anymore. When will that apply to equally-intense tension like McDanno’s?