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Social justice, shipping, and ideology: when fandom becomes a crusade, things get ugly

Fans merely rooting for their favorite characters to get together has somehow evolved into ideological warfare.

Sherlock showrunners and writers Stephen Moffatt and Mark Gatiss attend the Nerd HQ Sherlock panel in San Diego, July 2016.
Aja Romano

On June 13, one day into the aftermath of the Pulse nightclub shooting in Orlando, the following exchange took place between Sherlock co-creator Mark Gatiss and a Johnlock shipper — that is, a fan of the BBC’s Sherlock Holmes drama who supports the hypothetical queer romantic relationship, or "ship," between Sherlock and John Watson.

The shipper’s melodramatic comment may have been facetious, but Gatiss’s "RIP" response caused a serious fandom meltdown among Johnlock supporters. Over the next few days, hundreds of them responded in dismay, with many accusing Gatiss — an openly gay man — of being insensitive to queer fans on the day of a major tragedy within the LGBTQ community.

But virtually no one, at least not publicly, countered that perhaps it was even more insensitive of the initial Sherlock shipper to tweet at a gay man, on this day of all days, to tell him that a fictional queer ship was a matter of life and death.

Gatiss’s tweet was a direct repudiation of a phenomenon that has come to dominate the Sherlock fandom: "TJLC," short for "the Johnlock Conspiracy." The Johnlock Conspiracy is the widespread belief that Gatiss and his Sherlock co-creator, showrunner Steven Moffat, have planned since at least 2009 to write Johnlock into the show’s canon — that is, to evolve John and Sherlock's relationship on the show from friendship and professional partnership into queer romantic partnership.

Over the past two years, this belief has grown so pervasive within Sherlock fandom that many middle-of-the-road shippers who support Johnlock but don’t believe in TJLC say they have been driven out of the community by the zealotry of those who do. Gatiss and Moffat may well be among the last Sherlock fans standing who don’t actually believe the ship will eventually become canon.

Furor over the tweet continued to roil more or less unabated, on both sides of the "debate," for weeks — when it escalated from an uproar to a veritable implosion in tandem with Moffat and Gatiss’s late-July appearance at San Diego Comic-Con. In a frustrated joint interview, the two showrunners declared emphatically that TJLC is not, and never has been, a real thing.

"[Gatiss] isn’t saying other people can’t write that version of John and Sherlock getting together," Moffat said. "We’re not. We’re not engaging in a clever conspiracy to write something under the radar; we’re just writing the show we’re writing."

What Moffat said was pretty straightforward — Johnlock isn’t going to become canon on Sherlock, and there is no reason to suspect otherwise. Yet many fans who believe in TJLC still feel that Moffat and Gatiss are merely lying in order to protect the conspiracy they have stated does not exist.

The Sherlock fandom is not alone in experiencing this kind of phenomenon — an intense all-or-nothing divide, most often focused on a particular ship, that functions as a kind of ideology. In essence, shipping in the world of fandom has increasingly taken on all the characteristics of a religious dogma — one for which shippers are increasingly willing to crusade.

Fandom shipping isn’t what it used to be

Fans have historically dubbed the creative teams behind a show or media franchise "the powers that be," as a reminder that the creators are ultimately in control of the story. Fandom etiquette on interacting with the powers that be used to be extremely clear: They were to be left alone and untouched.

In 2000, I ran a tiny mailing list for fans of a certain celebrity. One morning, I awoke to find the entire mailing list deleted overnight by one of the moderators who helped me manage the list. The moderator had discovered that the celebrity had secretly been monitoring our mailing list the whole time, and had been deeply alarmed by a shipping joke that one of the mailing list members had made about him and a friend. Not knowing what to do, the mod, who feared the celebrity had seen too much of our fandom, nuked the whole community.

This was an extreme move, but it represented what at the time was the prevailing attitude of fans toward creators: Don’t let them see you. In essence, the first rule of fandom was, "Don’t talk about fandom."

In recent years, social media and the mainstreaming of fandom has totally obliterated this attitude. That fan-shy celebrity who was startled 16 years ago by the banter of 300 women on a mailing list now has 5 million followers on Twitter. Fans who would have been terrified to let anyone see their fanwork decades ago now proudly send copies to creators. And many creators go out of their way to interact with fans on a regular basis.

But some fans feel that creators no longer hold all power in the fan-creator dynamic; hence, fan-creator interactions can get tense, and are often interlaced with conflict and harassment, sometimes from both sides. Within the past few months, multiple critics have described these conflicts as the result of a rise in fan entitlement across all walks of fandom life.

But where, say, regressive, male-dominated movements in fandom are fundamentally about gatekeeping geek culture, shipping-oriented movements are fundamentally motivated by investment in a specific set of characters (or, in the case of real-life ships, the "characters" of real people). Gatekeeping is about keeping real people out of the communities that surround stories we love; shipping-oriented movements are about getting more characters more attention within those stories.

Shipping has become an ideology — and like all ideologies, it breeds both crusaders and conspiracists

Shipping is as old as fandom itself. But traditionally, fans never expected their particular pairing to "become canon" — that is, to officially happen on a show or in a storyline. In modern fandoms, however, fans of movies and TV shows often root for their ships to become canon the way sports fans root for their teams. If the football fans’ goal is to see their team win the Super Bowl, the shipper’s goal is to see their ship "win" by entering the narrative as an official storyline.

These shippers collectively form group narratives about their favorite ship. More and more, these group narratives are evolving into unshakable belief systems that usually take one of three increasingly common forms:

1) The belief that the ship in question is unquestionably going to become canon

Historically in fandom, liking a ship meant just that: You liked a ship. Anything more than that would get you a lot of side-eyeing. In the Harry Potter fandom, the advent of Ron and Hermione becoming a couple in the sixth book led to a very famous (and still ongoing) meltdown among Harry/Hermione shippers.

At the time — fandom in 2005 — their unwavering faith that Harry/Hermione would eventually become canon was widely seen by fandom at large as extreme, because shipping was typically viewed as something that existed outside of canon and generally had no particular relationship to the course of canon at all.

Today, expecting your ship to become canon is more or less the norm. But there are lots of complications with this line of thinking. Even if a ship does become canon, it might not become canon in a way that fans like — Buffy/Spike, anyone? And of course it might not be guaranteed to remain canon. Breakups happen, actors leave shows, and, as The 100 fans were brutally reminded earlier this spring, characters die.

Serial narratives are fueled by drama, and they often create that drama by shaking up character relationships. Happily ever after is a rarity for couples in fictional stories, at least while they’re still in process. But fans pushing for their ships to become canon are typically looking ahead to what they call "endgame" — they believe that when all is said and done, after all the drama, their ship will, essentially, be the one that comes out victorious. Generally, they consider any alternative to be unpardonable.

Clinging to this kind of all-or-nothing view of a character pairing is, in general, a recipe for massive disappointment.

2) The belief that the ship should become canon because it involves an underrepresented identity

Fans of ships involving queer characters, characters of color, disabled characters, and other drastically underserved identities often lobby creators to acknowledge and embrace the validity of their ships. They frequently cite the sad but widely observed fact that characters who fall within these underserved identities rarely get to have meaningful canonical relationships written about them.

The problem with explicitly linking shipping to this kind of political platforming and social justice activism is that these arguments are often self-serving — that is, they’re more about having a specific ship become canon than about achieving social progress.

#GiveCaptainAmericaABoyfriend is a recent fandom trend directed at Marvel creators, but even though many Avengers fans have used it to advocate for general queer representation in the Marvel universe, the vast majority have used it to advocate for a specific ship — Stucky, or Steve/Bucky: Captain America shipped with his lifelong best friend.

Conflating ships that involve underrepresented identities with the desire for inclusion gets especially dicey when it leads fans to prioritize support for their ship over other intersectional concerns. For example, in Teen Wolf fandom, fans of the "Sterek" ship (Derek/Stiles) have frequently accused the show of "queerbaiting," or exploiting their specific queer male pairing without any intention of following through on it — even though the show’s creator, Jeff Davis, is a gay man who has already inserted several queer relationships in the show’s storylines, and even though Sterek, as it currently exists within canon, is a physically abusive relationship.

The prioritization of a ship at the expense of other intersectionality concerns is also present on The 100, which earlier this year featured a queer canonical relationship between main character Clarke and the warrior queen Lexa, a.k.a. Clexa. Clexa fans have been so focused on advocating for Clexa — even after the ship effectively ended with Lexa’s untimely death — that they’ve come under fire for ignoring the many elements of the show that some fans feel are racist and problematic.

In these and many similar cases, one might wonder if a given show’s overall progressiveness matters less to ideologically driven shippers than the ship itself.

3) The belief that the ship is already canon but the creators are unable or unwilling to confirm or admit it

This belief argues that the people in charge of the narrative are deliberately concealing the "truth" about a relationship. Because it involves an official cover-up, this particular ideological thread is particularly well-suited to ships involving real people (real person fiction, or RPF) and ships involving fictional queer characters. It almost always escalates into outright fandom conspiracies, especially if the ship involves a (perceived) real-life relationship between two same-sex celebrities.

Perhaps the most notable example of this kind of deep fandom conspiracy is the great Larry Stylinson conspiracy in the One Direction fandom, followed by TLJC in the Sherlock fandom and swaths of conspiratorial RPF shippers in numerous other fandoms, from Supernatural to Twilight to The X-Files.

The obvious problem here is that, like all good conspiracy theories, those built on the insistence that a pairing is real but secret are designed to explain away every contradictory bit of "evidence" that a pairing isn’t real. And like all conspiracies, this level of shipping can lead to hardcore, alienating belief systems.

Ships often involve a combination of these three basic branches of belief. For instance, Harry Potter’s Harry/Hermione shippers believed their ship represented a philosophical approach to love and Harry Potter as a whole. And Sherlock’s Johnlock conspiracists consistently point to the progressive nature of their ship as a reason for its inevitability. As one fan put it, "What a minority of LGBTQIA viewers label as ‘queer baiting’ is but a tool that serves the slow narrative of how Sherlock Holmes and John Watson finally end up in a relationship."

Of course, combining these three ideological strains serves to make the overall shipper ideology that much stronger — and that makes interactions within and between different ideologies that much more fraught.

When shipping is treated as an ideology, it creates deep tensions between fans and creators

These days, because so many fans treat shipping as a serious matter of urgency, they tend to approach the fan-creator divide feeling utterly justified in their belief that a ship will be or should be canon. Yet creators and writers generally have no idea what kind of belief system has amassed around a ship until members of that ship approach them to try to discuss it.

When a single fan or a group of fans tweet at creators asking whether a ship will become canon, creators generally aren’t aware of the tremendous amount of background attached to said ship — the thought, speculation, love, emotional investment, and collective justification that has gone into a fandom’s perception of a pairing.

Creators and other cast and crew members who interact with fans tend to get asked basic questions like, "Will this ship be endgame?" But most can't answer, and often don't even know, because of the many factors involved in producing a storyline.

In other words, the creators are seeing only the tip of the iceberg that is a fandom's investment in a ship, and fans are seeing only the tip of the iceberg that is the behind-the-scenes production of the canonical storyline.

Add in the fact that both fans and creators usually believe they can see the whole iceberg, and the result is inherent miscommunication. Fans might come away feeling like creators are being evasive or brushing off their need to have their ship to be canon; creators might come away feeling like fans are placing too much emphasis on a single aspect of the plot at the expense of everything else they’re trying to do within a storyline.

This disconnect can lead to feelings of resentment on both sides. It can also lead to creators accusing fans of wanting to control their narratives.

The rise in ideological fan beliefs is less about control and more about equal partnerships

The modern state of fandom involves an uneasy imbalance between fans and creators. The two groups both encourage each other creatively but lack a mutual partnership and mutual understanding of how fans’ collective creation might contribute to a storyline.

Though it would have been taboo in the past, fans who engage with creators in 2016 tend to assume they’re on equal footing with those creators, thanks to their role as active consumers of the narrative: Here is what we want your TV show to do for us, the paying customers who watch it.

But creators tend to engage with fans via a top-down approach. They are still viewing themselves as the powers that be, the ones in control, even if the fans aren’t. This is how we wind up with the kind of supreme disconnect between fans and writers like the one that has existed between Supernatural and its fan base for most of the show's interminable run on air: A substantial number of the show’s fans are collaboratively creating a vision of a completely different show than the one being produced in the writers’ room.

It's possible that shipping as ideology has arisen in part because of these imbalanced power dynamics with creators. After all, if you’re worried the creators won't listen to you, or won’t consider what you have to say as equivalent to their own opinion, what better way to justify what you have to say than to package it not as once-shameful fan desire, but as ideology?

It’s easy to stand back from fandom and point to shipping behavior as a hallmark of fan entitlement. But it would be far more accurate to say that shipper ideology is ultimately about fans trying to find a way to gain equity with creators, to work with them in a tacit collaboration.

There’s no easy answer to this dilemma, but awareness is a start

For creators who are winging their interactions with fans, knowing when a ship has become a collective fandom ideology, and why, might help give you a bit of autonomy from your fandom. At the very least, it might help you remain neutral in your presentation of various ships and plot points and avoid unexpected pitfalls.

Meanwhile, for fans feeling fatigue over an embattled struggle to make a ship canon, and the crushing disappointment of setbacks or failure, it might help to remember that ships don’t have to be canon in order to be transformative and meaningful on both a personal and cultural level. Look at Star Trek’s Kirk/Spock: that ship never became canon, but it remains one of the most compelling ships ever created, and within canon it gave us one of pop culture’s most enduring symbols of love — their hands touching through the glass.

Henry Jenkins famously said that queer fanfiction "is what happens when you take away the glass." And, sure, it’s increasingly possible that savvy creators might go ahead and take away the glass for us. But that doesn’t negate the power of fans being able to do it on their own, without anyone’s help.

Shipping is exciting, fun, and often a progressive and empowering experience. And if a ship ultimately becomes canon, so much the better. But when shipping becomes an ideology, tantamount to a religion, it makes a story’s creators pretty much tantamount to gods. In essence, even though that level of shipping may grow out of a wish to maintain parity with creators, it’s ultimately de-empowering to fans, making them dependent on creators for validation.

But fans are validated through their love for the source material; they’ve never needed more than that. Turning that source material into a game to be won only turns all involved players into winners and losers.

And when that happens, sooner or later, we all lose.

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