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Why people can’t stop shipping Canadian ice dancers Tessa Virtue and Scott Moir

Ice dance is about selling romance. Olympic gold medalists Virtue and Moir are brilliant marketers.

Figure Skating - Winter Olympics Day 11 Jamie Squire/Getty Images
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.

In case you thought the millions of people who watch the Winter Olympics every four years were tuning in only for the sports, the fan response to this week’s ice dancing event proves that notion wrong.

The international cavalcade of skaters whose on-ice chemistry has fueled speculation about their real-life relationships is led by Tessa Virtue and Scott Moir, who have retained their off-the-ice title of “Canada’s sweethearts” ever since their gold medal performance in Vancouver in 2010.

The duo won Olympic gold for the second time on Monday night skating a sensual routine set to music from Moulin Rouge. But despite the fact that the pair is not romantically involved, many viewers watching at home were consumed with the burning question of whether they’re actually in love.

Virtue and Moir’s on-ice chemistry has fueled ongoing public discussion of the nature of their relationship, as well as rampant conspiracy theorizing. And they’re not the only targets of such speculation. The off-ice relationships of skaters have fueled media interest for years, and the public ownership of these debates often overshadows whatever the real-life couples at the center might have to say about it. “Why do I care so much that these two Canadian ice dancers aren’t dating?” the Cut recently asked.

Why is everyone so obsessed with ice skating romances? Is it just because we all imprinted on The Cutting Edge as kids and now can’t see two athletes strategically cuddling while performing death-defying acts that require total mutual trust and synchronicity without assuming they must be soul mates?

Part of the reason, as the Cut goes on to point out, is that we’re wired to read these elaborate on-ice performances as real, so we therefore want them to be real. But the construction of those performances, and our reaction to them, says a lot about all of us. And our reaction to skaters like “the Shib sibs,” who construct a totally different kind of performance out of their skating, may be even more revealing.

Many ice dancers build their public personas around romantic relationships

Figure Skating - Winter Olympics Day 11
US ice dancers Madison Chock and Evan Bates perform their free skate at the 2018 Winter Olympics.
Maddie Meyer/Getty Images

In fandom, rooting for two characters to become a successful couple is called shipping. When people ship a real-life duo, it’s almost always rooted in how those two people present themselves in public, intentionally or otherwise.

To understand why everyone is shipping Virtue and Moir, take a look at how they’ve branded themselves over the years as “Canada’s sweethearts,” with all the accompanying romantic signifiers: They’ve posed as a bride and groom in a bridal shoot, played the newlywed game, and starred in a 2014 documentary series showcasing their “unique and indefinable connection,” in which even their parents say their relationship “equates to a marriage.”

They haven’t always been this willing to lean into the public speculation. A 2014 Globe and Mail profile captured them in the process of learning to deal with the public’s willingness to blur the line between fantasy and reality. ”People all of a sudden now associate the Carmen character with my personality,” Virtue told the paper. “Which is laughable, but kind of hard to take, you know?”

These days, however, the skaters clearly have a solid grasp on the divide between their real, private lives and the publicly romantic personas they’ve cultivated, as evidenced by the way they expertly redirect questions about whether they have a romantic relationship back to their roles as performers and storytellers. A 2017 Globe and Mail profile picked up on this on-ice/off-ice disconnect, noting, “They look at each other with an expression of sexless intimacy, like business partners whose emotions are part of their product.”

If winning Olympic medals is a business, then in figure skating, where competition contains an artistic component, emotions might very well be, if not the product, then a major part of the business strategy. Slate recently speculated that adding actual sex into a figure skating partnership might quantifiably increase artistic evaluation in a component score; if true, it would be especially crucial for ice dancing, a sport that emphasizes performance.

Ice dancers clearly know this: No fewer than five ice dancing pairs who are also real-life couples competed at the Olympics this year, along with three pairs skating couples. One couple, Madison Chock and Evan Bates, announced that they were dating during the season and arguably leveraged the public interest in their relationship throughout the competition.

Of them all, Virtue and Moir might be the best at their business. Their on-ice routines have consistently woven narratives around romantic relationships, from the white-clad virtuous purity of their 2010 Olympics routine to the stormy all-black routine set to Carmen during the 2013-’14 season. They’ve skated to songs like “I Wanna Hold Your Hand” and “Good Kisser” and have worked on-ice kisses into their routines.

Fans started calling one move from their 2017-’18 program, in which Virtue briefly straddles Moir’s face, “the cunniliftus.” Though Moir and Virtue removed it from their final program, the Moulin Rouge routine was clearly sensual through and through — and it just as clearly paid off.

The things we project onto real-life people and their relationships usually say more about us than them

The act of shipping people in real life is part of a longstanding fandom practice known as RPF, short for real-person fiction (or fanfiction), which is basically just the practice of creating fiction about real people.

At first glance, RPF might seem invasive or creepy — but the practice of creating fiction about real people is a centuries-old practice that permeates our world, from historical Shakespeare plays to tabloid speculation about celebrities to that fictionalized drama you just watched about the Windsors or the Obamas. And just as we project a variety of sociocultural meanings onto the public personas of celebrities, we ascribe a similar kind of cultural meaning and value to the relationships they engage in.

As a society, we’ve constructed rigidly defined narratives about what “good” and “bad” relationships look like; which relationships are considered transgressive, or self-serving, or mutually beneficial; and which are considered wholesome and pure. So when we’re presented a picture of real couples (or real friends), we create narratives around them based on these tropes.

For example, the relationship of Barack and Michelle Obama (as fictionalized recently in the 2016 film Southside With You) means something different to us as a culture than the relationship of Bill and Hillary Clinton (fictionalized in 1998’s Primary Colors). We assign meanings not only to what these public figures represent as individuals, but also to what they represent as signifiers for America itself.

By the same token, Virtue and Moir represent Canada as well as themselves — and Canadian media has long been eager to package a wholesome romance into its skating coverage. The term “Canada’s Sweethearts,” for example, had previously been affixed to a number of other ice skating pairs: ice dancers Shae-Lynn Bourne and Victor Kraatz, pairs skaters Jamie Salé and David Pelletier (who were married from 2005 to 2010), and pairs skaters Cody Hay and Anabelle Langlois, just to name a few. Virtue and Moir, however, not only got the name to stick but turned the idea of their loving, symbiotic relationship into one of Canada’s best-known exports.

Emotional expression on the ice is a heady drug

That Virtue and Moir were able to market themselves and their “romance” so effectively is a comment on how unique the sport of ice dancing is within the culture. In effect, it’s one of the few remaining performance mediums in which artists are not only allowed but actively encouraged to create stories that are pure, unmuted romances, with nothing else getting in the way.

As a genre, romance is generally denigrated, and this shame has found echoes in figure skating’s long history of elevating the importance of the technical score over the artistic score. But the sport also doles out rigid gender policing and homophobia, and one of the ways it arguably regiments these elements off the ice is by rewarding performances of passionate, heteronormative romance on the ice.

The result of these interplaying factors is that romance and figure skating are closely intertwined in the cultural imagination — which may be why every four years we collectively drop everything to become temporarily obsessed with skaters.

Emotional displays are so rarely socially sanctioned on a broad scale that it becomes cathartic to watch powerful emotional expression unfold on the ice. When you double that expression by two skaters, you can gain intensity. And the performed romances of Olympic ice dancing seem even more legitimate to us because of the ceremony and seriousness that accompanies them.

Conversely, it can be jarring to comprehend skaters who skate within these prescribed roles as purveyors of romance who are unquestionably not romantic. Enter the “Shib sibs,” the brother-and-sister skating team of Alex and Maia Shibutani. The US ice dancers took bronze in Pyeongchang, to the bafflement of millions of onlookers who expressed ongoing confusion about why they were skate-dancing together.

If real-life sex can feasibly give you a higher ice dancing score, then it follows that skating as siblings might be the ultimate handicap — and the Shibutanis have dealt with that criticism for their entire careers. Speaking on Twitter after their win, Alex Shibutani spoke of how hard it was for them to be a team — not only as siblings but as Americans of Asian descent.

On the ice, the Shibutanis are telling a much different story than Canada’s sweethearts. And this, along with several other milestones — witness Adam Rippon’s success as the first openly gay male Olympic skater, or, absurdly, the fact that a grand total of two women skated in pants — is a sign that figure skating is slowly but inexorably loosening its Victorian stays.

But if skating is allowing in more kinds of skaters off the ice and more kinds of narratives on the ice, the general public still wants the romance. And that makes sense. After all, even if they perform their best, most skaters won’t get near the gold medal. But by allowing them to star in our collectively constructed romantic fantasy, we can at least make sure our faves go home with their happy ending.