Love gets expressed in some wonderful and very weird ways in the world of television, from a passionate kiss to a penetrating bite on the neck. But last spring on Fox’s Fringe, Peter Bishop (Joshua Jackson) set a radical new standard for romantic gestures: He tried to change the future in order to save the life of his destined-to-die soul mate, Olivia Dunham (Anna Torv), and wound up erasing himself from history (and her memory) in the process. All together now: Awwwwwww.
Exec producers Jeff Pinkner and J.H. Wyman — whose careful cultivation of the relationship between the two sci-fi heroes over three seasons includes monitoring message boards and social media for fan feedback — believed that viewers would be moved by Peter’s trippy sacrifice. Fox and Warner Bros. Television, which produces the show, were cool with the decision. But they did warn the writers that their heartbreaking cliff-hanger could backfire with fans deeply invested in the Peter/Olivia relationship. Fans who write sexy fan fiction and produce music-video valentines about the characters, and who would be suspicious and alarmed by any move that kept them apart, even temporarily.
Turns out the suits were right. ”The shippers,” says Wyman, ”have not been very happy with us this year.”
No, we’re not talking about Fringe‘s legion of seafaring viewers. We’re talking about an increasingly influential subset of TV fandom fixated on romantic relationships (hence the name ”shippers”), or the potential for romance, between characters. Once, shipping was mostly a sci-fi/fantasy thing. Today, shipping — like love — knows no bounds. 30 Rock has Jack-and-Liz shippers. NCIS: Los Angeles has Kensi-and-Marty shippers. There are even — no joke — Simon-and-Paula shippers. (They’re grieving, so please: soft giggles.) Most showrunners in Hollywood consider shippers to be a minority voice — but an important one. ”Shippers are the people who are the most engaged with a show, so they don’t represent the biggest statistical sample,” says Andrew Marlowe, creator of Castle. ”But they really are your core audience, and you can gauge the level of investment of your entire fan base by their interactions with you.” And because shippers express their passion so publicly, they produce a noisy energy that showrunners can’t ignore, even if they wanted to. ”I put all my efforts into shutting out the shippers,” says Bones exec producer Hart Hanson, who last season finally allowed Dr. Temperance ”Bones” Brennan (Emily Deschanel) and FBI agent Seeley Booth (David Boreanaz) to consummate an epic, six-season will-they-or-won’t-they dance. ”But it had to have an influence. It had to.”
Most TV shows are flattered by the intense attention paid by their shipper fans. The producers of ABC’s rookie hit Once Upon a Time were thrilled to see the quick emergence of shippers devoted to the budding relationship between Emma Swan (Jennifer Morrison) and Sheriff Graham (Jamie Dornan), as it meant their fairy-tale fantasy was accomplishing its mission. ”Romance, the journey to find love, that’s all ingrained in the very DNA of what we’re trying to do,” says exec producer Edward Kitsis. ”It’s great to go online and see that choices paid off for you.” (Not long after fans fell for Emma and Graham, the producers broke their hearts by killing Graham off. Teases co-creator Adam Horowitz: ”All great relationships start off with hope, and the hope that it can overcome all obstacles. What greater obstacle is there than death?”) The CW’s Supernatural — which owes its seven seasons to a fiercely loyal and dynamic fan base — has periodically winked at its ”Wincesters,” shippers who write sexually charged fan fiction about bogeyman-hunting brothers Sam (Jared Padalecki) and Dean (Jensen Ackles) Winchester. ”We have no judgment about that,” says exec producer Sera Gamble. ”We’re glad we spark people’s creativity.”
Yet other shows can have a more tortured relationship with shippers. Case in point: Bones. From the get-go, Hanson envisioned a franchise that offered weekly murder mysteries and ongoing romantic tension between its opposites-attract leads. He routinely goes online to look for useful feedback, which means slogging through posts by more virulent shippers — Hanson calls them ”the dim nasties” — who resent him for doing his job: sustaining the very chemistry that hooks shippers by producing obstacles (romantic rivals!) and complications (emotional baggage!) designed to keep would-be lovers apart for as long as possible. ”It was like I was messing with their own romances!” says Hanson. ”You do everything you can to get people to care that much. But if I had listened to the shippers, Bones and Booth would have gotten together at the end of season 1.” Somewhere, shippers are asking, And that would be a problem why?
Shipping existed long before the term was coined. See: Moonlighting, Cheers, decades of soap operas. Oh, and Star Trek. Gene Roddenberry’s groundbreaking sci-fi series from the late ’60s was the big bang of modern-day fan culture. Among those first Trekkers was a subset of fans, mostly female, energized by the fanciful notion of a romance between Captain Kirk and Spock. They began writing Kirk/Spock fan fiction, and in this way, ”slash” shipping (which focuses on same-sex couples) was born and remains popular today. According to scholars like Kristina Busse, who teaches at the University of South Alabama, shipping and slashing became ways for marginalized, neglected female sci-fi fans to express their passion for their favorite shows, lay claim to the narrative, and even impishly subvert a geek fan culture that until recently has been largely male-targeted and male-driven.
But shipping as we understand it today began with another sci-fi saga about FBI agents investigating the fringes of weird science. ”The fans of The X-Files were among the first to take their fandom online,” says Christine Scodari, a professor at Florida Atlantic University. ”It was really two groups: those who called themselves ‘shippers,’ who wanted Mulder and Scully to develop a relationship, and the ‘noromos,’ who didn’t want that in any way, shape, or form.” X-Files shippers were largely women who identified strongly with Gillian Anderson’s Scully (or crushed hard on David Duchovny’s Mulder) and found something inspiring about an intimate rapport between a man and woman who respected each other’s intellect and were struggling together through life’s rich drama…which, for them, involved exposing an alien takeover via killer bees and black oil. Says Scodari, ”It really was a commentary on contemporary relationships.” By the end of The X-Files‘ nine-season run, Mulder and Scully had knocked trench coats and produced a child. But creator Chris Carter always kept the hot-and-heavy off screen, not wanting to upset the show’s winning chemistry and irk the ”noromos.” Prior to the release of the 2008 film The X-Files: I Want to Believe, Carter told EW: ”I want you to take that relationship and imagine it could be real…. Maybe I’m the original shipper.”
Two more shows key to the development of shipper culture were Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Xena: Warrior Princess, an early example of a show that played to — and with — its shipper following. Xena‘s emotional heart was the friendship between Lucy Lawless’ titular heroine and her young sidekick, Gabrielle (Renee O’Connor). The show would occasionally hint that they were lovers, which activated the Xena/Gabrielle slashers, which spurred the producers to push it even more. ”Once the fans picked up on it, it was like gas to the fire,” says Xena creator Robert Tapert, who during the sixth and final season recruited to the writing staff a fan named Melissa Good, whose well-regarded slash fiction dramatized what the show would only imply. Xena and Gabrielle’s kiss in the series finale, says Tapert, was a farewell reward for the show’s ardent shippers.
Today, shipping isn’t just a rebel call or DIY wish fulfillment but one more way for fans to be fans in an era in which geek is mainstream and romantic fantasies, dark and otherwise, are all the rage. Shippers don’t just ship unlikely couples — they’ll ship anything with a romantic pulse. Evoking Twilight‘s Team Edward-vs.-Team Jacob clash, Scodari says: ”These days it is not a question of ‘to ship or not to ship.’ Now it’s a question of competing desires. Which couple will win?” The object of their affections may be fictional, and yes, their pop culture crushing can be scary. But for many, the benefit — and perhaps true motivation — is community with other fans. Elmedina D., 15, a fan of The Vampire Diaries, is attracted to two competing ships — Damon and Elena, and Stefan and Elena — and makes music videos dedicated to both couples. ”When I hear a song, it just reminds me of a certain couple, just screams ‘This is perfect for them!’ and you want to make a video,” she says. Jodi Zeramby, 40, has written fan fiction imagining a romance between Alicia (Julianna Margulies) and bisexual Kalinda (Archie Panjabi) from The Good Wife. Authorial intent is a hotly debated topic among shippers, and Zeramby is convinced she’s onto something: ”When you look at how close they got on the show, what they’re willing to do for each other, I think it’s there.”
Kara Estes, 29, is a slightly more typical TV shipper. She’s a longtime Nathan Fillion fan and loyal Castle viewer, which automatically makes her a shipper, as the ABC drama is all about slowly bringing mystery novelist Castle (Fillion) and police detective Beckett (Stana Katic) together. ”I’d say 90 percent of fan fiction is about the relationship,” says Estes, who spends about four hours a week blogging, tweeting, and chatting online about Castle. She doesn’t write fan fiction, but she reads it, and her affection for the Castle fan community inspired her to create the Castle Fanfic Awards. ”Everyone has a hobby,” she says. ”My dad rebuilds old cars; I have Castle.”
The explosive outbreak in shipping is surely an outgrowth of the radical shift toward target-market TV since The X-Files. Today’s prized demo? Adult females. Hart Hanson says he was spurred to create Bones after reading a study of TV viewing that concluded that women, not men, choose what to watch in the household. While Hanson says he never heard the term ”shippers” before Bones, the producer acknowledges that a romance starring ”one of the great shipper icons of all time” (i.e., Buffy‘s Boreanaz) has certainly ”mined the mother lode.” Adds another top showrunner: ”Networks would love to have the next Lost, but they’d rather have the next Bones and Castle. They’re cheaper, easier to manage, and inspire the same buzzy interconnectivity that sci-fi does. They also encourage the thing that TV needs more than anything: passionate loyalty over time.”
Of course, shows that desire to stoke the fire of shipperdom have to know when to give the fans what they want. Some of the solutions are cheeky — think dream sequences and doppelgängers — and others are maddeningly, and cleverly, evasive. At the end of Castle‘s third season last May, Marlowe, who felt that the time was right for the stories and the shippers, finally allowed Richard Castle to declare his love…just as Detective Beckett was slipping into unconsciousness after getting shot. Lost exec producer Carlton Cuse — no stranger to the shipper wars after six years of Jack-Kate-Sawyer couplings and decouplings — explains that the conventional wisdom is that any show that hinges on romantic tension will implode once satisfied. ”The conventional wisdom is that once you consummate sexual tension, you zap a show of its magic. I’d love to see some bold showrunner go against that conventional wisdom and produce something great,” he says. For frustrated fans of Fringe, the good news is that their favorite ship may be coming home: The March 23 episode — ironically titled ”A Short Story About Love” — will be ”the be-all and end-all in terms of expectations about the Peter/Olivia relationship,” says Wyman. ”We know the shippers are saying, ‘We want them to be together,’ and we get it. We want them to be together too. We do believe that their fate is to have incredible impact on each other’s lives.” Adds Pinkner: ”There are certain shows and stories that we’ve all fallen in love with where you end up feeling betrayed. We’re very intent on not doing that.”
(Additional reporting by Shaunna Murphy and Nuzhat Naoreen)
Olivia and Peter on Fringe
Relationship status: Peter and the Olivia he loves are separated by time, space, and history… That’s all.
Ziva and Tony on NCIS
Relationship status: They spent the night together, but we may never know if someone used the couch.
Castle and Beckett on Castle
Relationship status: He said ”I love you,” she pretends she didn’t hear him, the dance continues.
Booth and Bones on Bones
Relationship status: They’re having a baby!
Jack and Liz on 30 Rock
Relationship status: Codependent co-workers, nothing more.
The Shipper Glossary
If it feels like shippers speak their own language, it’s because they do. Here we run down the key phrases to understanding the wacky, weird world of shipping
Shipper Derived from the word relationship, a fan who’s deeply invested in the romance — or the possibility of romance — between two characters. Shipping runs the gamut between ”just having fun” and ”scary-stalker serious.”
Noromos Dating back to the days of The X-Files, these are fans who oppose the idea of romance between characters. (Get it? No romance.) They’re often hardcore geeks who think the mushy stuff gets in the way of more interesting things, like investigating mysteries, flying spaceships, or killing monsters.
Shipper War Conflict between rival shipper groups. The battleground: website message boards. See below.
Stelenas vs. Delenas Shippers of The Vampire Diaries are typically divided into two camps: those who want to see Stefan and Elena hook up, and those who want to see Damon and Elena hook up.
Smooshing That annoying thing where people cook up nicknames, like Stelena and Delena? That’s smooshing.
Fanfic Short for fan fiction, a very popular, creative way for shippers to express themselves.
Crossover Shippers who forge an imaginary coupling between characters from different pop culture properties — say, Princess Leia and Harry Potter.
Mary Sue When fans write fanfic that includes an idealized character clearly based on themselves, that character is called a Mary Sue. (Mary Sues often get romantically involved with the fan’s favorite character.)
Slash A type of shipper — or subgenre of shipper fanfic — that advocates for a relationship to blossom between two same-sex characters.
Wincesters The out-there group of Supernatural fans who fantasize about romance between the show’s heroes, brothers Sam and Dean Winchester. Yes, we said brothers.
Meet the Shippers
From high school students to teachers, everyone’s doing it. We talk to the real people behind the phenomenon (and the fan fiction). —Shaunna Murphy
Day Job High school student in Mesa, Ariz.
Online Makes YouTube videos using clips of Damon and Elena from The Vampire Diaries, set to love songs.
Why She Ships ”I think everyone has the right to their own couple or ship. It’s not worth arguing over the Internet.”
Day Job Part-time novelist who teaches real estate law in Tucson, Ariz.
Online Writes slash fiction on pairs such as Alicia and Kalinda of The Good Wife.
Why She Ships ”There are so many relationships that aren’t defined. You see these moments of true connection…but it’s never really explored.”
Day Job Claims adjuster in Springfield, Mo.
Online Runs the Castle Fanfic Awards.
Why She Ships ”The actors have great chemistry together and it translates over into the characters. The looks. The winks. The nods. The little callbacks to previous episodes. It all works together. You can tell they’re meant to be together.”
Day Job Develops online teacher-education courses in Great Meadows, N.J.
Online Runs her own fan-fiction website, Fanfic.me; she also ships Brittany and Santana from Glee.
Why She Ships ”There are a lot of young kids writing fan fiction, and I think it’s a terrific outlet for them. So, from the educator’s standpoint, I like that it gets kids engaged.”
Day Job Works in network security in Virginia.
Online A ”Wincester” who writes fan fiction about brothers Sam and Dean Winchester from Supernatural.
Why She Ships ”There are all sorts of theories out there for why women like to write and read slash, and I’m not sure exactly what it is. But I think that two men being vulnerable together — women find that appealing.”