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The TV drama Outlander. A fantasy relationship. William Shatner. And the online fan war that unites them all.

Caitriona Balfe and Sam Heughan star as Claire and Jamie in Outlander.
Aja Romano writes about pop culture, media, and ethics. Before joining Vox in 2016, they were a staff reporter at the Daily Dot. A 2019 fellow of the National Critics Institute, they’re considered an authority on fandom, the internet, and the culture wars.

Earlier this month, William Shatner, a self-professed fan of the Starz drama Outlander, entangled himself in a complicated conflict over shipping in the fandom that has been building throughout the show’s two seasons. Shipping is the common fandom practice of rooting for two characters or real-life people to get together. In this case, the ship in question involves two actors from the show.

After days of heated debate with fans, the turmoil culminated in a unique move: An assistant of Shatner’s, Paul Camuso, introduced a fandom website, Outlander Anti-Bullying, which offers "good practices for being online in fandom."

Camuso’s intention is to urge fans of the steamy time-traveling Highlander romance to form a "watchtower" group. The aim of this group, according to Camuso, would be to allow fans to "report targeted harassment" and provide new Outlander fans with a block list of names of established fans who engage in what Camuso describes as bullying behavior.

Many people disagree with Camuso’s stated definition of fandom "cyber-bullying," partly because Camuso is a man entering a female-dominated space and telling grown women how they should or shouldn’t be fans. But he’s also specifically singling out shipping, because he apparently feels that shippers interacting with other shippers and the creators often verges into harassment — and fans aren’t comfortable letting him decide what "harassment" is.

This debate is the latest skirmish in an ongoing conflict surrounding bullying within the Outlander fandom, one with deep roots that touches on many layered issues: the fan-creator divide, the complexities of shipping real people connected to the show, the interaction of fans on social media, and the nature of online abuse. Above all, it involves a basic tension between fans and creators that is much larger than a single fandom.

Outlander fans’ main ship isn't actually about the show’s characters

All of the Outlander fans I spoke with described the show’s fans as mostly middle-age women who are relatively new to fandom, having fallen for Starz’s adaptation of Diana Gabaldon’s romantic fantasy novel series. Because the series is centered on the romance of its two main characters, Jamie and Claire, it's vital that the actors who portray them have chemistry. But Sam Heughan and Caitriona Balfe apparently have so much chemistry that they’ve spawned a major subset of RPF (Real Person Fiction) shippers — people who ship real-life actors and public figures.

Ordinarily the designation of a ship as "RPF" — Real Person Fiction — implies that a cushiony layer of fantasy exists between you and the real-life figures you’re hoping to see become a couple; that is, you know it's all just pretend. But increasingly, as in the case of some One Direction fans’ vast gay bandmate conspiracy, fans have shown a predilection for insisting that their ship involving real people is actually happening in reality. Historically, fandom has dubbed these particular shippers "tinhatters" — and subsequently ridiculed them for their inability to accept that their ship isn't real.

At the forefront of the Outlander conflict are the fandom’s tinhatters, a group that some fans have dubbed "super-shippers." Just like every other RPF ship in fandom, most of the shipping seems completely innocent and merely hyperbolic:

Multiple shippers I spoke with asserted they don’t really believe there is some secret relationship. But from a distance, it seems there's plenty of actual hardcore belief:

The actors, who are each dating other people, recently negated rumors they are together and said they are "exhausted" by fans questioning them about their real-life relationship. But, as is the case with every other RPF ship, denials haven’t stopped the shippers from doing their thing.

However, going beyond the obvious fact that Sam Heughan and Caitriona Balfe are not a real-life couple, there's another problem: Outlander fandom has raised a horde of fans who are vehemently opposed to the existence of any RPF in their midst.

Enter the "Truthers," the influence of social media, and the rise of an ideological war

Many Outlander fans are deeply affronted by the existence of the Sam/Cait shippers, and particularly the behavior of those who harass the actors by insisting that Heughan and Balfe must be secretly dating. Some of these fans unironically call themselves "Truthers" because they believe in promoting the literal truth that Heughan and Balfe are not a couple. To these fans, calling out the tinhatters has essentially become a crusade.

"You think Shipping doesn’t hurt anyone?" one Truther wrote on Tumblr. "Not the family, friends, SOs, fans who respect boundaries and believe the stars when they say they aren’t a couple? . . . Every SINGLE time you portray a photo or a video as an insight to a relationship, you are crossing the boundary."

The idea that the mere practice of shipping crosses a line is not typical; traditionally, fans have clung to an actual imaginary line between fandom and creators. This divide, known in fandom as the fourth wall, was once part of a strict code of public silence that fans implemented in order to keep their fandom activities hidden and unknown from creators, both so they wouldn’t embarrass the creators and so the creators couldn’t attack or mock them. Historically, fans saw it as a very bad idea for creators and fans to "break the fourth wall" and start interacting with each other to any degree — let alone to start talking about shipping or fanfic.

But social media platforms like Twitter, which allow fans to interact directly with creators, have totally obliterated fandom’s fourth wall. Newer fans have none of the inherent shame that used to accompany female-dominated fandoms like Outlander’s, shame that led fans and non-fans alike to treat fandom as a secret to be hidden from the rest of the world. Modern fans who generally see shipping as a totally normal hobby have no qualms about publicly voicing their support for their ship — even if the members of the ship, as is the case with Outlander, happen to be dating other people.

These kinds of interactions between shippers and the subjects of their ship occasionally get really awkward. But in Outlander fandom, they’ve spawned an outright ideological war. Fans from both "sides" of the debate between the Sam/Cait shippers and those who oppose them have repeatedly accused one another of harassing, doxing and threatening to dox fans from the other side, while sometimes actually threatening to dox one another. Each side accuses the other of being the more abusive one; meanwhile, the back-and-forth between them is vicious. To an extreme degree, the two factions seem to have utterly lost the ability to simply leave one another alone.

Put bluntly, despite the enthusiasm that many Outlander fans have for the show, its fandom has become an incredibly toxic environment.

Members of Outlander’s cast and crew have gotten sucked into the drama — and so has William Shatner

As fans speaking for one faction or the other have appealed to Outlander’s cast and crew on Twitter, Balfe, Heughan, and a few others have attempted to moderate the drama. Recently, after Camuso became close with some Outlander cast members, he tweeted a statement confirming that Heughan and Balfe were not a couple, which he ultimately deleted after inciting backlash from shippers who questioned him or claimed he was lying.

Then, Shatner waded into the fray, claiming that his friends, Camuso and Heughan, were being bullied by Sam/Cait shippers:

Shatner began retweeting and sharing screencaps from shippers he felt were harassing members of the cast and crew. He also advised fans to block and report harassment, stating that his goal was to "empower" fans and provide tools to help them deal with bullying in fandom. But plenty of fans rushed to point out that Shatner had tacitly sicced his 2 million Twitter followers on specific members of the Outlander fandom.

Shatner, who is close friends with Heughan, claimed that Heughan in particular was aware of "bullying" tweets directed at him, and that Heughan was also aware of Shatner’s Twitter call to arms. Subsequently, many fans blamed Heughan for not standing up for them against what they saw as Shatner’s harassment. Shatner threatened many of those shippers, though he also noted that "bullies on both sides should be reported." He then called for peace — but several days later, he and the fandom were all still going strong.

A fan who says she phoned Starz to complain about the treatment of shippers at the hands of Shatner and Camuso stated on June 15 in a now-private tweet that the network was listening to fans and preparing "a formal statement." But many Outlander fans continued to believe the entire situation was a mess of the shippers’ own making.

A fandom-focused anti-bullying website might not be such a bad idea — minus the watchdog policing, that is

On June 9, Shatner stated his "team" is "working on a bigger bullying project." When asked whether Camuso’s anti-bullying website is the project Shatner was referring to, Camuso told me it isn’t, and that his site had been instead created in response to "a specific request to help with bullying in the Outlander fandom."

"The ideas in that site are common sense put together by me," Camuso said, adding that the project Shatner had in mind is something larger "that’s been in the works for months."

But however well-intentioned Camuso’s efforts may be, many fans have bristled at the idea of a fandom watchdog community. Many have pointed out that allowing a group of third-party fans to judge what might be construed as harassment is fodder for trouble. "Whatever his motive is," wrote one fan on Tumblr in response to Camuso’s initiative, "even with the best of intentions, this blog represents censorship with a big fancy bow wrapped around it."

It encourages people to report bad behavior in the form of a 140-character message that might be perceived as "bullying" by someone else, whether they are directly tagged or not. It bypasses the policies published by Twitter in lieu of Outlander-specific guidance that has been vetted by the proprietor of this blog. It encourages people to police and report each other. And ultimately it has the effect of quashing a little First Amendment edict that includes the ability to have free speech.

There is some historical cause for concern. In other parts of fandom, watchdog groups that purport to police bullying have turned out to be purveyors of bullying themselves: Witness "Stop the Goodreads Bullies," an anonymous watchdog group formed from authors indignant over negative reviews they’d received from fans on the book reviews website as well as on Amazon. The group was so famous for perpetuating bullying itself that it sparked a debate over whether one-star reviews could really constitute "bullying," and spawned a wave of counter sites and protest from authors and critics.

But while the aforementioned idea of a blacklist is already wildly unpopular, the rest of Camuso’s website seems to fill a great need. Shatner’s edict to fans to "just learn the tools to deal with bullies and your fandom will be at peace" seems like pretty vital advice.

Even without the assistance of a "watchtower" group, Outlander fans seem particularly primed to benefit from learning how to effectively filter one's fandom participation with the goal of avoiding drama: How to mute and block fans with dissenting opinions and report fans who engage in harassment; how to make use of locked Twitter accounts and how to blacklist incendiary keywords and tags on Tumblr; and above all, how to master the discipline needed to simply never, ever respond to or engage the haters.

Outlander was just renewed for another two seasons at Starz, but to a large extent, all of this turmoil seems to have overshadowed fans’ celebration of the news. Meanwhile, emphasis on the actors’ fictional real-life ship seems to have completely overtaken some fans’ love for their fictional counterparts, Jamie and Claire.

Ultimately, it seems that restoring peace to the fandom and giving the Sam/Cait shippers and their detractors some common ground might be worth an anti-bullying website or two — especially if such websites and anti-bullying efforts could be spearheaded by actual members of fandom rather than by men largely perceived as outsiders. Because with two more seasons to go, it seems as though Outlander fandom has time to get a lot worse before it gets better.

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