Shippers on Shipping
When I was 11 years old, and the word “shipper” was of relatively recent coinage, I would have talked your ear off about how Mulder and Scully belonged together. When Gillian Anderson and David Duchovny had their first on-screen kiss (November 22, 1998, not that it’s seared into my frontal lobe or anything), I’m pretty sure the International Space Station could hear my scream.
In the two decades since my first ship, I’ve had many more. I’ve also grown up and gotten a job studying fandom. For the past four years I’ve co-hosted Fansplaining, the podcast by, for, and about fandom, with Elizabeth Minkel. And over those years, we’ve seen about a billion takes on shipping, from people who are intimately involved in it to people who don’t know what they’re talking about (and everyone in between).
A few years ago, we published an article on the formal dictionary definitions of a few fandom terms, including both the noun “ship” and the verb “to ship.” I defined the latter as:
To pair (or group) people or fictional characters intimately, romantically and/or sexually, or to create a intimate pairing (or grouping) between at least two people or fictional characters.
But that’s just the start—it doesn’t get at what we’re doing when we “group” these characters, or whether we’re all doing the same things when we use the same terms. And as the word has permeated the mainstream (last week, to my horror, I saw it it was even being used by a dating app) these boundaries get even fuzzier. Do most people—whether they’re in fandom or not—share our ideas about shipping? After all, while Elizabeth and I agree on the terms, in practice, our behaviors vary a great deal.
Hence the Fansplaining Shipping Survey, which we launched on April 2, 2019, and discussed in Episode #97, “The Shipping Question.” It ran until April 16th and ultimately attracted 17,391 respondents. (We’ve run two other fandom surveys in the past—the Tropes Survey (Episode #34) and the Fanfiction Definitions Survey (Episodes #46 and #49)—but neither of them were nearly as large.) You can read the questions, download the raw data under a CC BY 4.0 license, and explore the cleaned-up data through an interactive visualization. This is the first of several pieces we’ll write analyzing the results.
We had hoped to reach both fans and non-fans, as well as people who were familiar with the term “shipping” and people who weren’t, but in the end, we mostly reached self-identified shippers, especially people interested in male/male ships (we asked them to list past and current ships). We think the survey spread primarily through Tumblr and Twitter, and we know it didn’t spread evenly across all fandoms—while many of the top ships listed correlate with popularity on social media and fanfiction archives, there were some notable omissions. And we specifically asked people about fictional ships only—saving questions about celebrity shipping for a future survey—but we know that shipping real people is a huge part of fan culture.
In other words: this survey had a large respondent pool, but it didn’t reach every fan everywhere. We’re proud of the data we’ve collected, but it’s far from comprehensive. We encourage you to explore the data on your own and learn more about respondents’ fandoms and demographics!
We designed the survey to serve people different questions depending on if they self-identified as a shipper or not. So, this article will focus solely on shippers’ responses, and we’ll cover other aspects of the survey in the future. With that said...
What counts as shipping?
Once respondents had identified themselves as “shippers” or people who engaged in shipping, we got right into it and asked them to define the noun “ship” and the verb “to ship.” While these open-ended results were fascinating (16,000+ answers!), we wanted to make sure asked a few specific questions about the relationship between shipping and the source material.
Does it count as shipping...
...if it’s canonical?
... if it’s not canonical?
...if the members of the ship have limited to no interaction canonically?
...if one or more members of the ship is in a different relationship in canon?
...if the shipper has no desire to see their ship happen in canon?
In every question, most people jumped to the most expansive definition of shipping. Both canonical and non-canonical ships were OK—indeed, even the most canonically unlikely ships, where the members of the ship haven’t even met on the screen or page, could count.
To explore this data further and see how responses relate to each other, click through to the interactive Tableau viz.
Different kinds of shipping
Throughout our collaboration, Elizabeth and I have discovered we often have different approaches to our personal fannish behavior. As we were designing the survey, Elizabeth wanted to draw a distinction she personally makes and I don’t—between “active” and “casual” shipping.
For Elizabeth, you can casually ship anything, or many things at once. Watching The Good Place, you might think “Oh, Eleanor and Tahani would be cute together,” and that’s that. She draws a distinction between that kind of low-stakes shipping and active shipping—the kind of thing that consumes your thoughts when you’re not actively watching or reading the source material, compels you to write fanfic, draw fanart, or scream every time the beloved pair shares a scene. (Elizabeth would like to clarify that she does not personally scream, but instead makes small, desperate noises.)
On the other hand, I don’t personally draw distinctions between these two types. I see it as all one single continuum: I might write fanfic for a pairing I don’t feel much emotional engagement with, yet obsess over another couple without so much as reblogging a gifset. For me personally, these can’t be divided into “active” and “casual” categories.
We suspected other people might fall into similar camps, so we asked this question. It turns out Elizabeth is with the majority.
Do you draw a distinction between actively shipping something and casually shipping something?
What do shippers say they do?
At this point, the survey branched again. We wanted people to to talk about behaviors—“When you say you’re shipping something, what does that mean you personally are doing?” If you didn’t draw a distinction between “active” and “casual,” you got a single set of questions. If you did, you were asked to talk about what you did when you actively shipped something, and then what you did when you casually shipped something. We offered a series of choices—you could check as many as you wanted—and also gave people the chance to write in additional answers.
What do you do when you actively ship?
These responses came from people who drew a distinction between active and casual shipping.
What do you do when you casually ship?
These responses came from people who drew a distinction between active and casual shipping.
What do you do when you ship (no distinction)?
These responses came from people who didn’t draw a distinction between active and casual shipping.
Compare the responses for “active” and “casual” shipping. You can easily see that people are more likely to create content and transformative works about their active ships, but not about casual ships. So if you generally thought “active shipping means you’re more participatory,” that seems to be more or less correct. We’d expect the third graph, for people who don’t draw a distinction between active and casual shipping, to be a hybrid of the first two—and indeed it is.
Unfortunately, there are still some inconsistencies here. 29.6% of respondents said they consumed or shared transformative works for casual ships, but only 18.1% of people said they did this for active ships. What in the world can this mean? Are there a ton of people out there drawing fanart and writing fanfic without reading or looking at anyone else’s? Another inconsistency: just 1.9% of respondents said they discussed their active ship publicly, but 8% said they discussed casual ships publicly. Can this possibly be right?
It’s possible that people thought that checking off “creating transformative works” also implied that you were consuming and sharing them, and didn’t read the subsequent checkbox. Or perhaps they just flagged the things that they thought were unique to active or casual shipping, even though that’s not what the question asked them to do. Or...maybe most of our respondents just don’t talk about their ships very much? We’re pretty confused and open to any insights.
“Shipping” can be used very lightly
When we were writing this survey, we knew that some people had a very expansive definition of the term “ship”—a looser designation than for either of us, as much my personal definition varies from Elizabeth’s. We began to see that playing out as soon as we released the survey, and people complained that they couldn’t possibly list all their ships when asked.
Indeed, the most common single response to being asked to list people’s ships was simply “too many to list.” Others listed hundreds of ships. We highly recommend clicking through to the interactive data visualizations to see these individual ships, but here are a few of the graphs:
We saw it again when we began to look at free-response results, where people explained what they meant by “casual shipping”—for many, the term meant simply “not objecting to the ship.” We found this absolutely mind-blowing. People really define “shipping” that broadly?
This way of looking at the world suggests that for some, shipping is a sort of default stance. If you feel neutral about a fictional relationship, you ship it; the only way to not ship something is to actively deplore it. But if that’s the case, then do people who define “shipping” this way assume know that others might mean something more when they use the term? How many people think “I don’t ship it” means aggressively rejecting a favorite pairing? These mismatched scales seem like they could potentially lead to a lot of flame wars...
“I’m not like those shippers”
...and flames, harassment, and crossing-the-line investment are all things that shippers are acutely concerned with. Nobody wants to be perceived as too over-the-top, obsessive, or (worst of all) out of touch with reality. Many of our respondents wanted to make it very clear that they didn’t try to impose their shipping opinions on anyone else. Some of them even took the opportunity, in free-response questions, to instruct other shippers not to “behave badly”: no pestering creators, getting into fights online, or “deluding themselves,” a phrase that came up frequently.
In fact, very few people said they tried to convince fellow fans to join their ship, voted for their ship in polls, or lobbied creators in favor of the ship. (Only .3% of people said they lobbied creators, even when they actively shipped something!) Yet we observe these behaviors on social media all the time. And while stuff like this is often associated with the worst fan behavior—specifically, when requests turn to demands, or worse, threats—most fans-lobbying-creators is as innocuous as adding your name to a “please make my ship happen” poll on change.org. As for lobbying within fandom, what about the venerable tradition of the ship manifesto?
It’s possible that everyone’s being perfectly honest, and out of the 16,000+ self-identified shippers who responded to our survey, fewer than 100 have ever signed a petition or tweeted at a creator begging for their ship to go canon. Maybe only a tiny fraction of fans do stuff like this—they only seem more numerous because their posts are amplified. But it’s also possible that some people were fudging because they didn’t want to admit that they take part in that sort of thing—even though this survey was anonymous.
We suspect it’s more likely the latter—we know from past survey responses that fans have a tendency to self-censor, even when they know they’re anonymous and they trust the people running the survey. Many of our respondents weren’t familiar with Fansplaining outside of this project; we wouldn’t be surprised to learn that they weren’t ready to admit to anything they perceived as “bad,” or that they assumed we planned to use the survey to argue that fandom is full of problematic harassers.
Still, we talk about how fans and creators interact all the time on the podcast. Some good starting points, if you want more of our thoughts on this topic: Episode #94 “Save Our Show (It’s A Metaphor)” and #82 “Javier Grillo-Marxuach.”
Sometimes shippers just love to be extra
One of the great delights of this survey was reading expression after expression of puuure emotion:
“Hyperventilating when alone”
“DAYDREAMING ABOUT THEM”
“Every song is suddenly about them.”
“squeeing whenever they interact”
“The ship consumes my life for the time being”
“Keyboard smashing (SKSKSKSK)”
“Screaming into the void“
“*pterodactyl screeching internally*”
“Generally dying over it”
“One memorable time, breaking down crying about the ship while shopping for yoghurt”
We noticed that a lot of people described crying about their ships. It’s difficult to say if they mean it literally or figuratively (we assume that some people meant both).
In seriousness, though, these answers highlight one of the major tensions in this question. We asked people about their behaviors, but we didn’t ask them about their affect—their feelings, or emotional intensity—because emotions are pretty subjective. It’s hard to compare the ways different people feel, or that depth of feeling, because of this subjectivity. And yet many fans felt that, for them, the difference between an “active” and “casual” ship was purely a difference in emotional intensity—not in doing more or less.
How do you relate to your ship?
Another subject that was difficult to cover: how people relate to their ship. As we drafted this question, we talked a lot about “gaze”—when you ship, are you an outsider looking at the couple? Do you imagine yourself as one or both of them? Do you relate to one or both of them? Does this change depending on if you’re looking at a gifset, reading a fanfic, writing a fanfic, cosplaying or roleplaying with other people…?
For my part, I usually imagine myself as all of the members of my ships, jumping from perspective to perspective on a moment-by-moment basis. I didn’t think this was a particularly common way of approaching shipping, but I was definitely surprised to discover exactly how far in the minority I was!
When you think about, read about, or watch clips of your ship, how do you relate to the characters in it?
It’s not the same thing, but it’s interesting, too, that most people said it was possible to ship oneself with a fictional character (though a significant minority disagreed):
Is it possible to ship yourself with a fictional character?
We asked people who put down “sometimes” to tell us more, and their responses were in large part very wholesome, along the lines of “I don’t do it, but people should do what makes them happy.” On the other hand, many respondents worried that this type of shipping might lead people to lose touch with reality. Anxiety about Mary Sues and about people’s fantasies are so common in popular discourse, we’re hardly surprised to see them show up here. (We’ve discussed Mary Sues in an article and an episode, if you’re interested in exploring it further!)
How many ships can a shipper ship?
Elizabeth describes herself as a “shipping serial monogamist”—she has one ship at a time, and she’s usually devoted to said ship for at least a few years. This time it was her turn to be in the (extreme!) minority: it completely blew our minds that only 1% of respondents said that they always ship just one ship at a time.
Do you ship just one ship at a time?
In fact, most people also reported that they simultaneously ship multiple ships in one fandom—and a significant number were true multishippers, people who are happy to see a given character in multiple ships.
Are you or have you ever been a multishipper?
What about OTPs?
If people use the term “ship” very expansively, what about “OTP”? Elizabeth and I both use the term “OTP” to refer to the specific ship that was the most formative and central in our fannish lives (hers was Remus/Sirius, and was also her ship during adolescence). We’ve seen people playing fast and loose with “OTP” in the broader culture over the past few years—often interchangeably with ship—but it turned out most of our respondents also thought of “OTP” as something more.
Do you use the term “OTP”?
Is an OTP different from a ship?
When we looked at the free-response explanations people gave to accompany these questions, some things became clear. First of all, not everyone agreed on the definition of “OTP.” People asserted, in varying combinations:
An OTP is exclusive—you can’t multiship characters in an OTP.
You can multiship characters in an OTP, but you must prefer the OTP over any other possible ship involving those characters.
An OTP is the ship you love most at any given moment.
An OTP is a ship with long-term measurable impact on your life.
An OTP is a ship that you care about going canon.
You can have only one OTP per fandom.
You can have only one OTP at any given time.
You can have only one OTP in your whole life.
You can have multiple OTPs at once, even in the same fandom, if you really care about all of them.
Most of the people who didn’t draw a distinction between the terms “OTP” and “ship” said that in the past, the term “OTP” meant something unique, but felt that language had evolved so the two words shared a definition.
Interestingly, there were two major lines of thinking amongst of people who said they didn’t use the term “OTP.” Some said that when they were younger, they talked about OTPs, but now they knew that every ship feels overwhelmingly important and so they don’t think they should single any one out. Others felt that the term “OTP” led to flame wars, because it encouraged people to think about pairings in an exclusive and obsessive way, so they chose not to use it.
How much does “going canon” matter?
Shifting gears—let’s get back to the issue of canon. The vast majority of respondents acknowledged a ship can be canonical or non-canonical, but how many of them are shipping in hopes that their faves will get together onscreen?
We were curious about the way people think about canonicity because in the past few years, we’ve noticed that people increasingly using the term “endgame” to talk about their ships—sentences like, “Here’s why X ship is endgame,” suggesting the ultimate goal of interaction between those characters is a canonical relationship.
Since we see it so often, we were a little surprised that fewer than half of our respondents said they ever used the term to talk about their ships
Do you talk about whether your ship(s) will be “endgame”?
Regardless of what terms they used, we wanted to ask people directly: How much does it matter to you if your ship goes canon? Based on the free-response answers, it seems like every single person who responded to this survey had at least one BIG OPINION on ships potentially going canon:
“Ships becoming canon are the worst and ruin all the fun. Lol”
“I always care about it being canon. It must be 😤😤”
We asked people to plot their feelings on a Likert scale, where 1 meant “it doesn’t matter to me if my ship goes canon,” and 5 meant “it matters a lot.” The most common answer was 1—“it doesn’t matter.” The average was just 2.16. In other words, no, the people we surveyed really don’t, in general, focus on canonicity.
“Aha!” you might say. “But most people you surveyed are multishippers, and so it’s hardly surprising that they wouldn’t be as attached to a pairing going canon. What about people who say they only ever ship one ship at a time?”
Well, it’s true that those respondents are more likely to say that their ship going canon matters. But the average of their answers is still only 2.41—not even halfway to 5! The group who were most likely to say they wanted their ship to go canon were, unsurprisingly, people who always use the term “endgame” when they talk about shipping. The average of their answers was 3.32, significantly higher than any other group.
There’s way too much to talk about here, so we’ll leave it at that. Elizabeth will be publishing a piece just on canon and shipping soon, and you can always explore the interactive data visualizations in the meantime.
Representation and canonicity
There’s one important way that canonicity mattered to our respondents. While a slim majority of people answered “no” to this question:
Have you ever started watching/reading/etc. something because a ship went canon?
Most people who wrote in a free-response follow-up said they were excited to follow canon ships which improved representation of various marginalized groups on TV. Many responses were extended meditations on how representation interacts with individuals’ shipping practices. Respondents were mostly concerned with queer representation (other types, such as race, were rarely mentioned, supporting the argument that fandom is preoccupied with white queer issues at the expense of all else—for more on this topic, listen to episodes #89 “Rukmini Pande,” #22A “Race and Fandom Part 1,” and #22B “Race and Fandom Part 2”).
Of course this is an enormous issue, and one that largely falls outside the scope of our survey—but it can’t go unmentioned when we’re talking canonicity. If you’re interested in thinking more about it, we recommend you listen to some of our back episodes: #29 “Shipping and Activism” and #56 “Ships and Showrunners.”
But these answers also confirmed something we’ve long observed in fandom—people come into ships and fandoms “in reverse,” as it were, before they’ve seen the show or read the book. So what about fandom’s impact on shipping?
How do fans affect your feelings?
We asked several intertwined questions about this issue, so we recommend poking around the interactive dashboard for yourself. First: How frequently do fans ship something without knowing the source material?
Have you ever shipped something without consuming the original source material?
Although we knew this happened, we were surprised at how common it was. Of course, the only way you’d find out about a ship without consuming the original source material is from fans (or, possibly from a very persuasive trailer). But what about ships you already ship? How much do other fans impact people’s interest in and enjoyment of shipping?
Do other fans’ behaviors ever affect how you, personally, feel about your ship(s)?
Have you started shipping something because of fandom/fans’ behavior?
Do you have trouble relating to fans in your fandom who don’t share your ship?
The hot-button issue in the free-response section? “Antis” and “problematic ships.” Some said that they couldn’t relate to people who were interested in incest ships or ships with age gaps; others described antis as the “scourge” of fandom. I was surprised at how many people said that they got interested in ships out of spite, because they felt the ship was unfairly persecuted as “problematic.” It’s rare to see this kind of discourse separated from specific arguments, expressed in purely generic terms, so this was a fascinating pool of responses.
On a more cheerful and less divisive note, many people reported getting intrigued by a ship because of beautiful fanworks and a supportive community. As one respondent said, “Fandom brings so much dimension to simple fictional relationships.” Amen to that.
So what does “shipping” mean? A lot of things! Our respondents ship canonical pairings or pairings that will never be canon; they ship obsessively for years or just for a passing moment; they ship as a member of a fan community or just in their own mind; they focus on a single ship, or flit between hundreds.
Most importantly, shipping structures many respondents’ fannish lives. The default attitude, for some, is “I ship it”: to not ship a pairing is to reject them, to specifically have something against a particular plot possibility—or even a particular group of fans. Multishipping is more common than we’d ever imagined, and a fixation on “endgame” shipping is less common than we’d thought, though that doesn’t mean fandom has become some sort of post-ship-war utopia.
In the coming weeks, we’re going to have a lot more to say about these results! I’m going to dig into the non-shipper responses, and Elizabeth is going to talk about the relationship between canon and shipping. If you’re wondering about the technical details and the visualizations, you’re in luck: verity, the data professional who spent hours and hours cleaning up the results and figuring out what in the world to do with people’s lists of hundreds of ships, will be publishing a detailed explanation of their process soon. Stay tuned!
Flourish Klink is one half of Fansplaining. They are Chief Research Officer at Chaotic Good Studios.