Ship, n. Short for romantic relationship. v. To endorse a romantic relationship.
Shipping, n. The act of endorsing a romantic relationship, usually fictional, usually in a fan-created work.
2016 was a poor year, like most years, for queer representation in popular media. In their annual Where We Are on TV report, GLAAD tallied up only 4.8% of regular characters on television as LGBT, while their Studio Responsibility Index found only 17.5% of major studio films were LGBT-inclusive. Queer characters that do appear tend to die quickly, as did the 26 queer women on TV in the 2015-16 season according to the count by LGBT Fans Deserve Better.
In fandom spaces, however, we have a different story. There is a decades-long tradition of audiences responding to their favorite media by writing stories set in those worlds or centering around those characters, placing them in romantic situations that would never happen in the source’s official canon. There are hundreds of thousands of these fanfictions, and the most popular couples, pairings, or—in the most fandom-friendly lingo—“ships” are, more often than not, same-gender.
What drives audiences to increasingly favor these love stories that do not, officially, exist?
The lack of diversity in all sorts of media has been countered with a relentless push for more inclusive movies, television, and literature. This has resulted in an audience that is increasingly critical of even their favorite franchises, an audience which holds standards and expectations that large-scale productions routinely fail to meet.
The history of this push and pull for diversity representation is far longer than can be covered here, and the list of popular queer ships is even longer than that. I can only take a shallow sampling—a far too shallow, far too male-centric, sampling—to illustrate.
One of the most infamous non-attempts at queer representation in a major franchise was J.K. Rowling’s Word of God announcement that Albus Dumbledore was gay. It prompted a lot of negative responses, many of which were predictably homophobic, logic-bending “proofs” that she was somehow wrong about her own character. Much of the criticism however, came from LGBTQ fans of the series who were unhappy with the way it had been handled.
The problem was one of visibility. Queer fans don’t need to know that queer relationships are happening somewhere off in the fictional world; we take that as a given. What we are invested in are the relationships whose stories are told and the characters who are navigating them. Whether the people involved are good or bad (and remember, Dumbledore and Grindelwald were both bad people), fans have the right to feel cheated when the portrayal of the relationship is never suggested to be anything more than a teenage friendship.
So it’s little surprise that the most popular queer ships in the fandom are non-canon ones. We see pairings like Dean/Seamus or Remus/Sirius: pure, loving relationships which are, most importantly, extrapolations of non-romantic relationships we actually witnessed on page and screen.
When The Force Awakens came out in 2015,, followed by Rogue One a year later, the significance of the main casts was immediately obvious. Both are stories revolving around women and people of color, while the only new white male characters are the antagonists—a very welcome change to a franchise with a history of all-white leads and heaps of negative racial coding.
The Force Awakens also contains among its protagonists two male characters whose interactions inspired countless online articles calling on Disney to make Finn and Poe Dameron a couple. The film is peppered with scenes that, had they happened between a man and a woman, would have been wholly accepted as foreshadowing of romance: one rescues the other, they support each other through an intense near-death experience, one names the other, one gives the other his jacket, one believes the other to be dead, and both waste no time in rushing into each other’s arms when finally reunited. Rogue One then gives us Baze Malbus and Chirrut Îmwe, who bicker like an old married couple before one dies in the other’s arms.
Here we see another frustration common to a queer person watching a franchise they love. It is the chagrin of seeing the creators come this close, yet never achieving the reflection of the kind of love that makes our own, real worlds worth fighting for.
Yet another Disney property with an even more play-it-safe approach to character diversity is the Marvel Cinematic Universe, itself a prime example of the way queer representation goes down as the visibility of the media goes up.
The MCU’s first gay character was introduced in season 3 of Agents of Shield, but it wasn’t until Netflix’s Jessica Jones that we actually got to see characters navigating same-sex relationships. The movies are a totally different story—so devoted to fulfilling cookie-cutter heteronormative subplots that they find ways to push together characters with no history in the source material or no onscreen chemistry or development.
The latter was especially ridiculous to audiences watching the tactless post-funeral kiss in Captain America: Civil War. Before that movie came out, a director described it as a “love story” between Steve and his brainwashed childhood friend Bucky—a brotherly, “no homo” kind of love story. Audiences are expected to watch narratives centered on the relationship between two people, grow invested in the emotions and history and interactions between them that are strong enough to drive the story, and yet assume that they are platonic because the characters are of the same gender. Meanwhile, if a man and a woman smile at each other in one scene of a film, audiences aren’t even shocked to see them kiss in the sequel.