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Fandom’s new “ship dynamics” meme is all about our fave romantic tropes

The meme combines fandom shipping with art to produce viral magic.

Oppositional characters drive many of the most popular ship dynamics in this fun meme.
Magnolia Porter
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.

If you’ve spent any time on Twitter this week, you may have noticed an outpouring of fandom art as part of the viral “ship dynamics” meme — in which people, mostly fanartists, are sharing their love of their favorite kinds of relationships through stick figures.

For anyone unfamiliar with the concept of a “ship,” it’s a very popular term within fandom, a shortened form of the word “relationship” that’s used both as a noun to describe a romantic pairing you love (e.g. “Han/Leia is my favorite ship”), and a verb to describe the act of “shipping” that pairing, or rooting for them to get together and live happily ever after (e.g. “I ship Rory/Paris”).

The key to this meme is that it doesn’t actually involve a discussion of specific ships. The use of generic cartoon images emphasizes that the ship dynamics under discussions involve character tropes that can apply to many characters and appeal to many fans. For example, here’s a popular example of a general ship dynamic that lots of fans can evidently relate to:

One of the best things about this meme is how, well, dynamic it is. The conversation around it on Twitter has involved not only a wide array of cute art, but a veritably infinite supply of ship variants, as well as lots and lots of discussion about the practice of shipping itself, and why we like the things we like.

But before we break that down, let’s take a look at how the “ship dynamics” meme evolved over time — and then burst into virality overnight.

The “ship dynamics” meme percolated as an idea for a few years before it suddenly went viral

In many ways, this particular meme seemed to explode overnight from Twitter’s fandom Id — that is, it appeared to come out of nowhere and spread across fandom communities on the platform in just under two days, between April 16 and 17.

But its rise isn’t that simple. Discussions of ship dynamics have long been dominant on a different social media platform, Tumblr. In recent years, several prevalent ship dynamics have become embedded within fandom culture. The idea of “cinnamon roll ships” and “trash ships” as polarizing forces within fandoms became popular during intense fan debates surrounding two representative ships — Stormpilot and Kylux, respectively — from The Force Awakens in 2015. And throughout 2016, the idea grew that every ship represents a broader fundamental pairing dynamic.

Then, in 2017, an idea took hold that the ultimate ship dynamic, one that encompasses all other ship dynamics, is that of the sweaterboy and the absolute nightmare. This became known as simply, “The Dynamic,” and discussion of it dominated fandom shipping debates on Tumblr well into 2018. The popular (and tragically non-canonical) Gilmore Girls ship Rory/Paris succinctly encapsulates the idea of this pairing: Rory, the sweaterboy, is studious, smart, responsible, and a poster image for the wholesome girl next door. Paris is equally brilliant, but also a bundle of neuroses, paranoia, agitation, and wary suspicion — i.e. the absolute nightmare. Together they form an unlikely but compelling friendship that many fans have shipped.

The discussion of “the Dynamic” generated endless debate about why pairings did or didn’t fit beneath this giant umbrella term. By early 2019, discussions about ship dynamics had once again become more generalized, but memes about them were now shot through with a wry self-awareness about how various ship dynamics interact, overlap, and build off one another.

At the same time, art prompts on Tumblr in which fandom artists were encouraged to “draw your OTP” — that’s One True Pairing for fandom newbs — became popular, with dedicated blogs popping up for suggesting prompts and collecting the results. This phenomenon was pretty clearly an extension of the common Tumblr catchphrase “Imagine your OTP,” which doubles as a writing prompt and allows people to insert their pairing of choice into an endless number of romantic scenarios. The “draw your OTP” prompt frequently saw artists use stick figures for their examples to represent a nebulous, universalized pairing dynamic rather than a specific fictional couple.

So all of this fandom discourse around ships, combined with the common practice of using stick figures as generic shippable characters, essentially primed fans on Tumblr to develop an art meme around ship dynamics. The eventual “ship dynamics” meme had an instantly viral quality because it easily built upon a collective understanding of how ships work, and how people love fitting their favorite specific ships into larger romantic archetypes within fandom.

The meme gained momentum slowly over a few days before it exploded, with ideas taking root through individual Twitter conversations and pushing the topic of “ship dynamics” into its moment. For instance, there was this low-key viral tweet on April 7:

... followed a few days later by this slightly more popular art post — the first iteration of what would become the Twitter meme — on April 10:

Then a similar post by another fanartist on April 14, gained even more traction:

And finally, this post on April 15 became the one that pushed the meme into full-blown virality:

After that, it felt like the meme was abruptly everywhere.

The joy of this meme lies in discovering how many different ship dynamics there are to love

Among the many fun elements of the “ship dynamics” meme is its built-in wry facepalming about many of the ships that people like, as well as the fact that we love them as much as we do.

Many of the most popular ship dynamic posts present the poster’s favorite ships as a mix of obnoxious behavior, denial, obliviousness, and the ability to create chaos.

Several people have used well-known ships to illustrate their favorite ship dynamic:

But the same thing has happened with less well-known ships, too:

A popular repost of Kate Beaton’s famous “Nemesis” series from her popular webcomic Hark, A Vagrant! proved to be an excellent depiction of one of the most enduring kinds of ship dynamics — one that centers on a nebulous line between deep enmity and love:

In fact, what many of the most popular ship dynamics posts have in common is that they combine a lot of oppositional ship traits — the popular, outgoing optimist with the cold, aloof bastard; the shy reserved wallflower with the giddy bringer of chaos, etc.

And discussion around the meme has been oppositional in itself. Many people have pointed out the abusive nature of many of the ship dynamics being celebrated, and then either criticized or defended those ship preferences in turn. However, others have frequently noted that many of the ship examples qualify as wholesome memes, and align with the internet’s love of wholesomeness more generally.

Additionally, many people have observed that the open-ended nature of the meme means people can basically ship anything ...

... but also that there are enough common themes in the mix to make the entire exercise predictable.

The point of the ship dynamic meme is to know yourself as well as your character preferences

On a basic level, the many contradictions of the “ship dynamics” meme make sense, because the meme is asking such a universal question: What do you find most appealing about human relationships? There are as many different answers as there are people on the planet, yet just as with any other storytelling trope, there will be instantly familiar strains of it that appeal to large swaths of the population.

There’s also the confessional nature of this kind of meme. When you strip away the specifics, it feels a bit like the kind of blog meme or Instagram meme in which posters are encouraged to answer personal questions about themselves. “What’s your favorite kind of ship?” is a pit stop in the type of online questionnaires that require us to engage in performative introspection, but it’s also one that seems to really get people excited; after all, who among us in fandom hasn’t waxed rhapsodic about our favorite ship dynamics?

For my part, my realization about a decade ago that most of my favorite ships are essentially variants on the main pairing from Jane Austen’s Emma has had a profound effect on the way I see myself and my OTPs, and even the way I structure plots in my own fiction. A friend of mine realized last year that her own ultimate ship preferences involve the “social butterfly” and the social butterfly’s “favorite,” and she’s been pretty giddy about it ever since.

In other words, this meme isn’t just a meme, but a way of communicating and celebrating really personal things about ourselves through fandom, fanart, fanfiction, and the practice of shipping. It doesn’t get much more wholesome than that.

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