Note: I realized in the course of writing this post that there are a lot of related vocabulary words that are probably unfamiliar to people who don’t hang out on Tumblr all the time. For your elucidation, I have bolded such phrases and included a glossary at the bottom.
You’re all probably aware of what a fangirl I am. It will probably also not surprise you to learn that I occasionally participate in the fannish activity known as “shipping,” which is where you squeal enthusiastically about the possibility/likelihood/perfection/existence of a romantic relationship between two characters. You don’t have to admit it here, but I would bet good money that you have done a little bit of shipping yourself. It’s okay. You’re in good company.
That said, I have noticed a certain tendency in fannish circles to take shipping too far. Some people seem incapable of viewing a close relationship between two characters as strictly platonic, choosing instead to read romantic subtext into their interactions, sometimes rejecting canonically defined sexualities to do so, and of course creating fan art/fiction to that effect. At this point, I think it is important to state that there is nothing inherently wrong with deciding to ship a non-canon pairing, and I’m not saying that anybody should be criticized for doing so. What you ship is your business, and none of mine. Instead, I want to talk about this tendency to romanticize–literally–close relationships, because I think it’s indicative of a larger cultural pattern that values romantic love over love in all other forms, which is really problematic for a variety of reasons.
There. Did I phrase that diplomatically enough? Gosh, I hope so. Now let’s sink some ships.
When I talk about romanticizing canonically platonic relationships, there are a few examples that come immediately to mind: John & Sherlock on Sherlock, Dean & Castiel on Supernatural, and even–yes, sadly–Dean and Sam on Supernatural, which is extra really??? because they’re brothers. These are relationships that have deep, plainly rendered love as their basis. The characters make no qualms about their willingness to die for one another, and even when you see the characters fight, there’s never any doubt that a reconciliation is on the horizon. Either participant would gladly (and, in the case of Supernatural, often do) die to save the other.
Dying to save a loved one, hmmm? Standard Western mythos tells us that one only chooses to die for somebody if they are in True Love–star crossed, you know. Romeo and Juliet (and we all know how I feel about them), etc. There’s this weird, prevailing idea that the only kinds of relationships that produce that level of love and devotion are either the love of a parent for a child, or the love one feels for their One True Love. It’s this notion that seems to be kicking in and creating all of these non-canon OTPs; when we see a close, loving relationship, we automatically assume it is romantic and therefore sexual, and fandom proceeds accordingly.
This is a huge mistake. It is a huge mistake because, as it so happens, romantic love is absolutely not the only kind of love that engenders intense feelings of loyalty and devotion. Platonic love is also incredibly valuable. Siblings and friends are an equally important part of the human experience, and in some cases are actually more valuable than a lover. “Bros before hos/chicks before dicks” are phrases that exist for a reason, however immature they might be. While it is perfectly acceptable to read a relationship as being romantic, the instinct to do so every time two people appear to be close invalidates the many other, equally important types of love that exist between people. Turning everything that hints toward love into something sexual–even between siblings–ignores the vast diversity of human love. Sometimes, it’s just a BroTP, and that’s all there is to it.
It’s also worth noting that the majority of the close-friendships-that-get-read-as-romantic-despite-all-canonical-evidence-to-the-contrary are between men. This is at least partially because female characters are so rare that pairing them up with another woman just doesn’t happen because there is no other woman to pair them with. It is also because, when there is a female character, usually she comes with at least one if not two or three potential male partners who get played off each other for the drama, because god forbid a female character should not have romantic prospects. But I think another factor might be that, typically, demonstrations of love between men are discouraged, so when two male characters do demonstrate concern for each other, that love appears even more fervent than it might if a woman were expressing it. After all, emotions are the female domain in our culture (not so much ancient Greek culture, of course; lol Achilles), so any man indulging in his must either be effeminate (and therefore gay, because that’s another silly correlation people like to make) or experiencing feelings so intense that It Must Be Luuuuuurve. But that’s just my armchair philosophy, so go ahead and think what you like of that theory.
Basically, the tl;dr version: before you assume a relationship is romantic in your personal headcanon, consider the possibility that two people can love each other most ardently without wanting to fuck. No, really! It’s true!
“Not everybody falls in love with everybody else!” -JK Rowling, in response to a Dumbledore/McGonagall shipper.
P.S. On a related tangent, it is also pretty problematic to assume that a romantic relationship is automatically a sexual one. Non-sexual romantic relationships are totally a thing that exists, and there are non-sexual romantic couples who even cohabit and raise children and whatnot. Let’s not ignore them, k?
AND NOW, A GLOSSARY!
Fandom: the intellectual space occupied by fans of a particular work. Most fandoms exist primarily digitally, on sites like Tumblr, Archive of Our Own, or FanFiction.net, but they can also extend into the real-world with things like conventions, cosplay, meet-ups, etc. Some fandoms have voices distinct from the source material (Hannibal is a prime example).
Shipping: expressing enthusiastic support for a romantic relationship between two characters. Derived from the word “relationship.” Verb form: to ship, noun: ship. Examples: “I ship it.” or “All aboard the [couple nickname] ship.”
Canon: the timeline/world of the source material.
Headcanon: your personal opinions or ideas about what is happening behind the scenes of the source material, which does not alter the original plot, characterizations or world-building.
Canonball: when something happens in the source material that renders your version of the story inconsistent with the canon. For example, one character in your ship dies, or a new element of world-building is introduced that doesn’t coincide with your headcanon. Canonballs have been known to “sink ships” (See: shipping).
OTP: One True Pairing; your favorite relationship. Ironically, it is quite common to have hundreds of OTPs, often within the same fandom or for the same character (think Team Edward vs. Team Jacob in the Twilight series, only it’s perfectly acceptable to be on both teams. Sort of. Sometimes). Other schools of thought hold that there can only be one OTP per character/fandom, and these discussions can turn nasty.
BroTP: A platonic friendship that is on the level of an OTP.