As Valentine’s Day approaches, I find myself thinking a lot about romance. Romance is not something I’ve had a lot of in my life. And I’m super cool with that. I’m an only, introvert child of divorced parents who likes her personal space: Finding someone to “share my life with” isn’t necessarily high on my to-do list. Much of the time it seems like my two great loves are cheesy bread and British television. I’ve got a great group of friends, a good support system, and, thank god, no one saying “why aren’t you putting yourself out there more.”I quite like being alone. I get a whole bed to myself, and I get to introvert to my heart’s content. I’m happy, which is goddamn hard for me, so I’m going to embrace it. Which would be fine, and people would totally get… if I wasn’t so into romance as a concept.
Because the thing is, as much as I feel no need for it in my personal life, I love romance in my entertainment. It’s the most compelling part of most stories for me. Rom coms are my movie genre of choice, and I spend a lot of my time thinking about fictional characters — maybe more than is necessarily recommended. I can root for two characters who’ve never even shared a scene, because I’ve thought so much about how their personalities would complement each other. I am way more invested in dozens of fictional romances than I have ever been in one of my own. I am very happily single with no desire to be in a relationship, but I just want my favorite fictional couples to KISS ALREADY. In other words, I love to ship.
Shipping, for the uninitiated, is “the desire by fans for two or more people, either real-life people or fictional characters (in film, literature, television etc.) to be in a relationship, romantic or otherwise.” Said fictional pairings (or trios, or groups) are often given a name that blends the names of the participating characters. On everyone’s favorite afterlife sitcom, The Good Place, for example, Chidi and Eleanor become cheleanor, Tahani and Eleanor become teleanor, etc. And ships, whether grounded in canon or completely in defiance of it, can inspire whole tomes of fan fiction, fan art, and flights of fancy.
Now ships aren’t just limited to TV. Zelda and I have spent the entirety of the Winter Olympics thus far speculating about whether or not Canadian ice dancers Tessa Virtue and Scott Moir are actually in love (because they must be). I am definitely one of those people who is excited for the next royal wedding (Zelda and I accidentally attended the last one, but that’s a story for a different day). And, yes, I do love me some silver screen love. I squealed out loud when (SPOILERS) Chidi planted one on Eleanor in the finale of The Good Place (even though my preferred pairing is Eleanor and Tahani). I sighed happily as the Wachowskis gave me, and the rest of the Sense8 fans, a sweet, supportive and canon OT3 (aka one true threesome) in Lito, Dani, and Hernando. And I’ve spent the last nine months agonizing about the fact that by the time my favorite show, The 100, comes back, it will have been SIX YEARS since my two faves (aka my One True Pairing or OTP) have seen or spoken each other and god the angst.
Now shipping can often get a bad rap in pop culture. It is often belittled and written off as the domain of teenage girls and therefore without depth or complexity (Since, for some reason, what teenage girls care about shouldn’t be taken seriously? Eugh, I digress. But I have a lot of feelings about how teenage girls should be validated.). For a long time, I hid this kind of enjoyment of things from the world. It wasn’t “serious” or “adult,” not the “right” way to interact with media, I was told. I should enjoy complex storylines and moral ambiguity and dark gritty realism, not meet cutes and steamy love scenes. If you’re shipping and focused on the romance, you’re missing the point. But over the past few years, I’ve let my ship flag(s) unabashedly fly. Because you know what? Seeing my favorite fictional characters in happy fulfilling relationships (and feeling with them through all the angst that leads up to it) makes me happy. And there’s no reason you can’t enjoy all the trappings of “good TV,” with its antiheroes and moody aesthetic, and also love a hard-earned smooch.
It’s okay to want that. It’s okay to ship things, and to read fic, and to seek out fanart when canon doesn’t go your way. When it comes down to it, I’m invested in the characters, and they’re driving me to seek out more stories and bask in the talent of people who are creating things inspired by my favorite characters. It’s okay to enjoy things in whatever way makes you happy. It’s okay to center your experience of a thing around you.
I think I like shipping because it does that for me. Romantic plots often focus on women, which makes it easier for me to find someone to identify with. It takes the focus off the plot and onto the characters and their relationships and specific traits. It allows people to be enthusiastic about relationships they want to see validated, and to validate their own experiences. The best ships present two (or if I’m lucky, three) people who have a dynamic and compelling relationship, who build each other up and grow and change together — and isn’t that just good storytelling? Why does happily ever after make it any less worth our time?
The point is, there’s no right way to enjoy a thing. Whatever way you want find to access and enjoy the story is valid. You want to ship two characters who’ve never spoken? Do it. You want to read fanfic for hours to validate your own opinions of what these characters would do in every situation? Do it. You want to enjoy the gritty realism and moral ambiguity? That’s cool, too. I’ll take all of the above, please.