In the wake of Supernatural confirming the heavy “shipped” romantic relationship of Dean and Castiel, Liam Ferguson looks into the history of the phenomenon and asks whether shipping is integral to a film or shows success.
With the recent canonisation of Supernatural’s long gestated 'Destiel' ship (the romantic coupling of main characters Dean and Castiel), certain sectors of the internet were set ablaze with joy and memes. This sudden explosion of Supernatural on our timelines in 2020 was unexpected, to say the least, and raises larger questions around the culture of shipping for films and television. Even those who were never fans of Supernatural found it easy to enjoy the tidal wave of victory felt by longtime and childhood fans when the episode aired. While, obviously, plenty of shows and movies do not rely on shippable characters, it is clear that it can be beneficial for some franchises or series with large followings or fandoms to provide 'shippable' characters or have characters shipped by the audience make reference to it.
The concept of shipping first came about in the public conscience with the mid-70's shipping of Kirk and Spock in the original Star Trek. Many fans clamoured for the pair to get together romantically, and the first signs of the popular 'slash' in reference to male ships was developed with their ship name, K/S. Although shipping is associated with the LGBTQ community, as in many ways the first ship was a homosexual one, the actual term 'ship' first became mainstream in reference to Scully and Mulder of The X-Files, with fans who wanted the duo to couple up calling themselves 'relationshippers' before settling with the simple 'shippers'. As stated by the Oxford English Dictionary, the oldest recorded use of “ship” in this context dates back to 1996 posting on a Usenet group. With these early fandoms, it is clear that shipping predates the internet at large, but the advent of the web has only accelerated the phenomenon.
The popularity of shows aired on the CW Network, such as Supernatural, Riverdale or The Flash is in large part due to the ships and the subsequent audience engagement generated by their respective fandoms. The aforementioned 'Destiel' ship that seemed like a pipe dream to fans becoming canon has many who have not watched the series in years erupt with excitement and provided a massive pay-off for people that have been enjoying the show for the last fifteen years. Every few episodes, a show such as Riverdale will have a character get with someone they were not with the previous episode to build tension and a consistent supply of 'will they, won’t they's for audiences to speculate over. Riverdale also has a tendency to break characters up, only for them to reunite tearfully. It also has used the term 'ship' in the show itself multiple times, as well as absorbing shipping names such as “Bughead” (Betty and Jughead) or Varchie (Veronica and Archie) and having the characters refer to themselves and their friends by these names. CW is very good at promoting their series this way, amassing huge and engaged followings. With a CW series like The Flash, for example, you know you’re turning it on for the superhero action, but you stick with it for the constant change in relationship dynamics between certain characters. One can Google any show airing on the CW followed by “ship” and find a slew of fanart, discussion boards and Twitter threads regarding many fan favourites. Without a doubt, shipping culture is of extreme importance to the soap opera-esqe CW shows.
Moreover, I could not discuss the culture without delving into anime. Shipping and anime go together like bread and butter, especially those that dominate the mainstream such as My Hero Academia, Tokyo Ghoul or Neon Genesis Evangelion. Anime lends itself to a massive amount of shipping as fandoms for these series often grow extremely large on an international basis. Fanart of characters together is often retweeted by the original authors, cosplayers go through elaborate photoshoots with one another to see their favourite ships come to life, and then there is the fanfiction...oh God the fanfiction. It is impossible to scroll for over a minute on websites such as Wattpad without finding anime fanfics. Many stores in Japan have entire floors dedicated to selling fan-made manga from various properties. The anime fandom, in a lot of cases, lives and dies by shipping culture, and the inevitable finality of relationships can lead to reactions such as what was seen with 'Destiel'.
Outside of the realm of TV, shipping can prove to be a huge motivator for success in cinema. I would like to pose a few questions: are you Team Edward or Team Jacob? Do you want Katniss to end up with Peta or Gale? Do you ship Feric or Frake? Many of these questions would lead to full-on internet war a number of years ago, and even though the books were there in all of these cases to provide definitive answers, fans were not stopped from speculating and fighting over whose ship may emerge victorious in the movie adaptations of these YA novels. Over this year’s quarantine, there has been a Renaissance of interest in Twilight, especially with Stephanie Meyer’s new tie-in novel alongside a raised public interest in Robert Pattinson due to his casting as Batman. This has, naturally, led to many renewed discussions around Team Edward V. Team Jacob in a much more comical sense, as many fans of the series are now in their twenties. That does not change that a large part of what makes those films special to many is the relationship drama present throughout the entirety of them. There is no denying these YA adaptations thrived as a result of shipping culture, largely present in Tumblr threads and blog posts.
On top of all of this, 'stan' followings play a large part in the development of shipping. People almost religiously follow or 'stan' actors, musicians, films, TV, and anything in popular culture. Take the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU) for instance; almost every character has been paired with one another in the eyes of fans, with people hungry to ship various Avengers together. The films tend to not acknowledge this in their marketing or execution, with the possible exception of the Hulk and Black Widow briefly becoming romantically involved. Romantic relationships simply do not take precedence in this universe, yet fans still clamour for Captain Marvel to get with Valkyrie, or The Falcon to get with The Winter Soldier. It adds to the overall fun surrounding the film's massive releases to speculate about characters in this manner. These films, clearly, have immense stan followings built onto their success and, just like anime, it leads to a deluge of fanfiction, art and cosplays around them. While monolithic pieces of media that do not market or feed into ship culture and do not rely on it for any gain, it absolutely plays a role in the continued success.
In conclusion, shipping plays a vital role in many fanbases and properties in the media sphere, and it can, in certain cases, contribute to a piece of fiction’s success and longevity. Whether it is completely embraced by the creators like in CW series and young adult novel adaptations, distributed through avid fandoms such as anime, or massive film franchises, it is seemingly ever-present in anything that gains popularity. As evident by the concept dating back to Star Trek, it is clear that it is not going away any time soon and is an inherent part of TV and film culture, particularly in long-running and successful franchises.