Growing Up Platoniromantic: The Problem with Shipping

This is my submission to the October Carnival of Aces.  This month’s subject is “Asexuality in Fandom”, and it is being hosted by Chrysocolla Town.

It is part of my series on Growing Up Platoniromantic.


platoniromantic – unable to distinguish “romantic” from “platonic” feelings and/or experiencing “friendship” and “romance” as the same thing

For this month’s Carnival of Aces, we were encouraged to write about fandom. So I’m going to write about a fandom phenomenon that has annoyed, grieved, and puzzled me for twenty years. “Shipping” (short for “relationshipping”) is when fans take two fictional characters and imagine them in a relationship with each other – almost always a romantic and/or sexual one.  As a platoniromantic teenager who lived as much as possible in fictional worlds, shipping was the bane of my existence.

For those who don’t remember, the term “shipping” originated in the X-Files fandom. The X-Files was a popular sci-fi T.V. show about two F.B.I. agents who investigated the Bureau’s unsolved cases. Apart from its spookiness and paranoia, the thing the show was best known for was the warm and fuzzy yet completely chaste friendship between its two main characters, Fox Mulder and Dana Scully. By the time I discovered the series in 1997, the fandom was firmly divided by how they viewed this relationship. One contingent, the “shippers”, insisted that the characters were in love and should get together romantically and have lots of sex. The other group, the “noromos”, insisted that they were, and should remain, “just” friends.

As an adolescent living before the language of asexuality – let alone the language of platoniromanticism – I did not fully understand what drew me to the series. But I did know that the characters’ friendship resonated deeply with me. One of the first episodes I ever saw was Season 5’s “Redux II”, in which Scully is hospitalised with late-stage cancer. In that one episode alone, he gazes lovingly at her, she gazes lovingly at him, they hold hands, he kisses her hand (once) and her cheek (twice), he throws a fit looking for her, she offers to take a murder rap for him, he considers compromising everything he believes in to save her life, he weeps by her bedside, she promises to pray for him. Oh, and her brother gives him a “You’re not good enough for my sister” speech. What I got from all that was that it was possible for people – even adults – to share an intense degree of intimacy, commitment, and affection in purely platonic relationships.

The shippers seemed to want to take all that away from me. Yes, they said, Mulder and Scully seemed very close – because they were in love! Yes, they were very affectionate – because they really wanted to have sex! Yes, their relationship was awesome – which was why they should take it to its logical conclusion! Everything I loved about the relationship got used as evidence that the relationship I loved didn’t actually exist!

This is a good example of how being platoniromantic made my understanding of relationships different from those around me. As I argue in “The History of Romance”, Mulder and Scully’s relationship could easily be described as a “romance”. For many non-ace, non-platoniromantic people, “romance” is assumed to entail sexuality; the romantic elements of the relationship were therefore seen as evidence of latent sexual attraction. But, as a platoniromantic person, I’ve never understood the line between romance and friendship. To me, the “romantic” elements were simply part of the friendship. Without specific evidence of sexuality in the relationship, I refused to see it as anything but platonic.

To be clear, my problem was with the phenomenon of shipping itself, not with the possibility of sexuality in a relationship. I didn’t hate the idea of Mulder and Scully falling in love with each other. If you’d asked me at the time how I felt about it, my answer would have been, *Shrug* “As long as it’s written well.” (In the end, they did, and it wasn’t. But that’s a rant for another day.) I can enjoy a good, well-written romantic love story as much as the next person. It’s just that I also get just as much enjoyment from a good, well-written platonic love story. What annoyed me about the shippers wasn’t that they accepted to the idea of the characters’ relationship being sexual. It was that they rejected the possibility of it not being sexual!

Looking back, of course, I realise they were just fans expressing their opinion. But, at the time, every act of shipping, every fan fic, every GIF, felt like a tiny act of erasure. It was an assertion, however subtle, that the way I experienced love, the way I chose to express affection, and the way I wanted to form relationships were not valid – were not even possible!

Over the years, my attitude towards shipping has become more accepting. I’ve grown used to it as an inevitable part of any fandom. I’ve entertained one or two ships of my own, although I’ve always considered friendship to be more important to the relationships than sex. I’ve also realised that some people need shipping because there just aren’t enough canonical representations of the kinds of relationships they want to see. Mulder and Scully spent five years forming an intense platonic bond with each other. Many people, myself included, would rather see the romance that develops out of such a bond than one between two strangers. Queer people have it even worse, with very few representations of queerness in the popular media, and most of those only from the last twenty years. For a long time, imagining ostensibly platonic relationships as homosexual was the only way they could see themselves represented at all!

So I’m okay with shipping. As long as it’s not done for the wrong reasons.

To explain, let me turn to another popular ship: Frodo and Sam from The Lord of the Rings. There’s a satirical fanfic called “The Mushroom”, in which the editor polls a fictional readership with the question, “Are Frodo and Sam gay?” The most popular response reads as follows: “I’ve never heard of two males who kissed, hugged, held each other’s hands, talked about how much they loved each other, slept next to each other, and were straight.” This answer is meant to echo the sentiments of many readers: that Frodo and Sam can’t possibly not be gay, because of the way they act.

See the problem?

It’s not that the imaginary reader thinks Frodo and Sam might be gay, or wants them to be gay. It’s that the kind of affectionate behaviour they display isn’t even considered possible for straight people. And this denial of the possibility creates a circular argument: Straight men don’t hug and kiss each other. Therefore, men who hug and kiss each other aren’t straight. Therefore, straight men don’t hug and kiss each other. Even used jokingly, this logic denies, ignores, and erases the experiences of those who, regardless of orientation, do hug, kiss, and sleep with their friends, do desire commitment, intimacy, and affection, without their acts or desires being sexual.

So, if you ship Mulder and Scully because you think they make a cute couple, I see your point. They make an adorable couple. And if you ship Frodo and Sam because there aren’t enough gay icons and you want them on your team, I don’t blame you. I’d want Frodo and Sam on my team too! But if you think of these ships as somehow natural, obvious, or inevitable, then you’re ignoring all the other possibilities and, in so doing, erasing the experiences of us who fall outside of erotonormativity.

I respect your right to ship. Please respect my right not to.

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19 thoughts on “Growing Up Platoniromantic: The Problem with Shipping

  1. Summer says:

    I feel this way about Clara Oswald and the Doctor in Doctor Who. There relationship is so incredibly important to both of them and it’s not romantic. And. People say it has to be. But it doesn’t. It’s not.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Blue Ice-Tea says:

      Yeah, one of the things I love about Doctor Who is that the Doctor is able to have close platonic relationships with his companions. For me, the best example of that was the relationship between Amy and 11, but Clara and 12 definitely had it, too.

      Like

  2. luvtheheaven says:

    This is a really fascinating and great blog post. I wonder how old you are, or I guess also when you got into fandom… As I’m 27 and got into fandom via vidding which is shipping, certainly, around 2006 when I was 16. I was a little too late to be likely to get on the Mulder/Scully train either way, to ship or to “noromo” them, and only within the past few years read up on that history, fandom meta explaining it all. I love the nuance there as while I don’t identify as platoniromantic but I feel very close to that identity, it resonates a lot with me, and I love so much of what you said here to analyze it. Especially the “The shippers seemed to want to take all that away from me” part, because I really feel like I get that. I have felt this tension most prominently with Johnlock, the ship with the show BBC Sherlock, which I’ve only been actively engaged in fandom for since I think 2016? And it’s just so frustrating to me that people want to take away the part of it that feels platonic to me, that these shippers think the relationship isn’t satisfying as it is, because it is so much a dream of what I’d want. I don’t need them to kiss or be “more than friends”… I want them to be allowed to be this type of closer than average for adult friends but still “just” friends! And… Well anyway thanks for this blog post and all this food for thought. And thanks for commenting on my second blog post for this Carnival of Aces this year. As I think it’s pretty related to this one. 😉

    Liked by 1 person

    • Blue Ice-Tea says:

      Well, the term “fandom” wasn’t so much in use back then, but I started watching The X-Files when I was fourteen, and soon began following several fan pages. (I’m actually told that The X-Files was the first T.V. show whose popularity was driven largely by on-line communities.) Without a computer of my own, that mainly meant spending my free periods in the school computer lab, reading reviews and staying away from fan fiction. Later, I discovered the Buffy community, and I spent a good chunk of my undergrad downloading, watching, and discarding fan vids in the days before YouTube. But I’ve never really participated in fandom except as an observer.

      I’ve seen Sherlock up to “The Abominable Bride”, and one thing that actually really bothers me is the way Sherlock and John’s friendship is constantly questioned and ridiculed by the characters in the series. I suppose that’s part of the legacy of The X-Files: shipping was such a big part of the X-Files fandom that every succeeding show has felt the need to address shipping directly. Some (Bones, Castle) have actively courted shippers. Others (Supernatural, Sherlock) make jokes about them.

      That may actually answer part of the question I asked you: Why do modern T.V. couples not have noromos? Modern shows are so concerned with addressing the shippers that they don’t really leave room for noromos. Mulder and Scully didn’t know they had shippers; they didn’t go around ship-teasing the fans all the time. But they weren’t uptight about their relationship, either. If someone mistook them for a couple, they weren’t fussed. When they wanted to hug, they hugged, when they wanted to kiss, they kissed, and they didn’t need to explain, apologise, or justify themselves to anyone! I wish Sherlock and John could be more like that, that they could drop the whole “Mrs Hudson, for the last time, I am not gay!” defensiveness, accept that they’re in a queerplatonic relationship, and move on!

      On the other hand, it sounds like you might be a Johnlock noromo. So maybe the concept still exists, even if the term doesn’t. 🙂

      Anyway, if you get a chance I’d encourage you to watch one or two X-Files episodes and decide for yourself. The show is pretty episodic, so you can jump in just about anywhere. Just make sure it’s somewhere in the first five seasons.

      Liked by 1 person

      • luvtheheaven says:

        Yeah I’ve been meaning to answer you. BBC Sherlock fandom actually has noromo type fans for Johnlock, occasionally because the fans are rooting harder for John or Sherlock to have another ship or possibly from homophobic motivations, but typically actually because of the higher percentage of an openly aroace and also just alloro asexual fanbase. The alloro aces tend to not really be noromo about it but the aro and aro spec aces, BECAUSE SHERLOCK IS CLEARLY ARO ACE CODED as much as any character ever has been, in all 4 seasons, well… It makes for an interesting example of the noromo phenomenon in fandoms, because it’s most important to us not for the relationship’s integrity itself but for the essence of who the characters are, it’s basically back to an argument over sexual orientation more than anything. If it is possible that Sherlock is in love (and lust??) with John, then Sherlock is being interpreted fundamentally differently than if you find him relatable aro ace representation. Do you know what I mean?? Lol. With Mulder and Scully I’m assuming their potential to be attracted to people of “the opposite” gender was established early on, and besides heteronormativity typically rules (although I consider the character Sherlock on BBC Sherlock to be an exception to that since the writers/other characters go out of their way to bring up his lack of typical (hetero) sexuality).

        You find that bothers you, then bringing it up, because they often bring it up in ridiculing ways or just not accepting the friendship and yet those moments I do enjoy in a weird way because they highlight how queerplatonic they are, because they give them opportunities to say yeah we’re in a romance and each time they don’t take that opportunity, etc. I don’t know, a part of me likes the explicit discussions too much that I’ll take what I can get. The most hurtful things are what John himself says to Sherlock – in The Abominable Bride he questions Sherlock about sexual urges at all implying it would make him human and being dehumanizing to aces, and in season 4 there is a scene where John literally says romantic entanglement would complete Sherlock as a human being. That is frustrating to hear but still kinda helps me feel Sherlock is aroace coded more than ever, being called out on not really clearly having either thing (sexual desire or romantic experience), so there’s a little consolation for me there. It’s all so complicated. You mention Bones and Castle actively courting shippers and addressing it directly. I saw both shows past season 7 and I’m wondering what precisely you mean that is different from a show like The X-Files… Like do you mean within canon, or just outside it in other ways? You say Mulder and Scully, if someone mistook them for a couple they weren’t fussed… So is this in canon they didn’t protest as loudly as Brennan/Booth, Castle/Beckett, John/Sherlock, even Dean/Castiel in those shows? I… I just don’t know the X-Files or Supernatural well enough to really comment on how they work despite reading tons of meta about each.

        I will say noromo is a thing outside of fandom, on aro communities, something Siggy has criticized without discussing the The X-Files aspect of the jargon in the slightest… http://godlessace.tumblr.com/post/139327076318/on-no-romo
        And I wonder where that comes into play with this whole discussion. What the original inventors of the phrase when it was being used toward a male/female friendship really were thinking.

        I certainly think there is a huge difference between when queerbaiting and “no romo” might also be “no homo”-ing in some fandoms, (like I begrudgingly accept the argument is for BBC Sherlock for a lot of folks, and) like it is for Supernatural, and it’s a different flavor typically for women if it comes up at all but from what I’ve heard about Rizzoli & Isles it’s a similar thing.

        There are shows that accept male/female (where both characters are straight) close friendships as “just friends” with no hint of nothing more, but most of what I can think of right now are not popular within fandom. Haley and Lucas on One Tree Hill could be a good example of it though within a fandom space where the shippers are rare. For what you were discussing, and for what you asked me in the comments on my blog post:
        https://luvtheheaven.wordpress.com/2017/11/01/viewing-shipping-sex-scenes-even-friendship-through-asexual-eyes-a-privilege-and-a-curse-since-2013/#comment-1080

        I think one of the best still basically current examples might be The Flash though. Super popular in fandom and while a few slash ships exist, the show doesn’t feel any need to address those and they’re not the heart of the show, this queerplatonic level bond doesn’t happen between same gender characters. So we’re back to heterosexual ships where a certain contigent is fighting for noromo even if they don’t use that language and another contingent is loving them as a romance. This happens for 3 different obvious The Flash pairings in fandom.

        1) Barry/Iris, the main romance but it happened more in season 1 – the twist is Barry and Iris grew up as foster siblings starting when they were 11 am so the argument might be they are siblings or are better as friends but it’s weird shipping them. There’s also a lot of meta on racist motivations possible for being so adamantly noromo toward them. The show ignored them almost entirely and let them be a happy romance pretty early into the show and they are still going strong as a couple now, with wedding stuff last and this season.

        2) Caitlin/Barry, where again more of an issue in season 1 or maybe 2 before Barry/Iris were so clearly Barry’s canon monogamous love interest for the entire foreseeable future, but I strongly didn’t ship them, didn’t like the idea of them as anything other than friends, and a huge number of folks were in a similar boat as me while tons of other fanvideos and fics in support of these two were being made/written…

        And finally there’s Caitlin/Cisco. These are also complicated by a non-white (Latino) character who could be a(n often subconscious) motivation for people being less inclined to just jump on shipping them… And also for how the show never once hints they could be romantic or sexual or hints either has those feelings for each other, but the The Flash fandom to me seems pretty split on if they are a good ship to really “ship” or not. They are really queerplatonic in the way I interpret them, and I love them a lot, and I’d be ok with whichever direction the show chose to go, romantic or not, but a part of me does really hope they remain platonic and “just” friends till the very end. (And I hope that’s not at all racist of me.) I think this one has a nut overly vocal noromo side as many forget that might ever happen on the show and the pro Romo shippers of them aren’t particularly common/vocal, most shippers are invested in a Barry ship more, so it’s a little too complicated to really compare. But this kind of thing does happen in varying ways in the fandoms I’m in, I suppose. And that’s the main point.

        Liked by 1 person

        • Blue Ice-Tea says:

          I wanted to thank you for the lengthy and detailed reply. As someone who doesn’t spend a lot of time in fandom and isn’t familiar with all the works you mention, I appreciate your insights.

          I also wanted to reply to your questions/comments:

          If it is possible that Sherlock is in love (and lust??) with John, then Sherlock is being interpreted fundamentally differently than if you find him relatable aro ace representation. Do you know what I mean??

          Yes, I get that in Sherlock’s case preserving him as a particular orientation is a bigger concern than preserving him and John in a certain kind of relationship. So there’s a sort of noromo discourse going on around them, but the stakes are different.

          With Mulder and Scully I’m assuming their potential to be attracted to people of “the opposite” gender was established early on…

          For sure. I mean, I would argue that they both display ace-spectrum characteristics, and Scully in particular can easily be read as asexual, but both present as superficially straight.

          …and yet those moments I do enjoy in a weird way because they highlight how queerplatonic they are…

          Yeah, when I started watching the show, I took the optimistic interpretation: Sherlock is ace and the joke is on the characters who don’t get that. But the longer these jokes go on, the more I suspect that it’s actually Sherlock who’s meant to be the target of derision, that his asexuality is the real “mystery” that the other characters are trying to “solve”. I especially resented John’s comments in “The Abominable Bride” on this score. Plus, I’ve talked to allo people who don’t see Sherlock as ace, meaning that his sexuality is still open to audience interpretation. At best, it feels like the showrunners are trying to play both teams at the same time, leaving Sherlock ambiguous enough that ace viewers can identify with him but allo viewers can laugh at him. And while it’s great for ace people to have someone to identify with, what we really need is someone who represents asexuality unashamedly to both ace and allo viewers.

          You mention Bones and Castle actively courting shippers and addressing it directly. I saw both shows past season 7 and I’m wondering what precisely you mean that is different from a show like The X-Files.

          I have to confess, what I said about Bones and Castle is mostly based on second-hand information. It’s a point I’ve seen other X-Files fans make. Personally, I’ve only seen a couple of episodes of each, and I got the impression the characters were being ship-teased, but maybe that’s just because I’m jaded now. When I started watching The X-Files, I was young and naïve enough to believe the producers would actually allow a close, platonic, opposite-sex couple to stay platonic. Now, I look at similar situations and think, “I see what you’re doing. You don’t really care about this friendship. You’re just teasing the audience so they’ll keep watching and your ratings will stay high.” So, yeah, basically the comparison was just me thinking out loud. Don’t take my word on any of it.

          You say Mulder and Scully, if someone mistook them for a couple they weren’t fussed… So is this in canon they didn’t protest as loudly…?

          Yes! It doesn’t happen often, but in one episode some bozo tells Mulder to scram and take his “little wife” with him, while in another the two look very coupley babysitting a pair of ten-year-old clones. And… the end! The scenes don’t become the occasion for romantic tension, embarrassed laughter, or hurried disavowals. They come, they go, and they’re done.

          I wonder where that comes into play with this whole discussion. What the original inventors of the phrase when it was being used toward a male/female friendship really were thinking.

          I’m guessing that “noromo” and “no romo” probably have completely unrelated histories. “Noromo” was coined back in the ’90s; “no romo” must be more recent than that, right? I know “noromo” was meant to designate people who favoured “no romance” between the characters (in contrast to shippers), but I don’t know anything about its origins apart from that.

          Anyway, thanks again!

          Liked by 1 person

  3. Sara K. says:

    This is a great post.

    I’d also like more focus on close relationships which are not romantic or sexual in fiction, even if they are relationships which blur the line between friendship and romance rather than strictly non-romantic.

    One of the things I don’t like about the Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon movie is that it takes the relationship of Li Mubai and Yu Shulian – a great example of a relationship which started as being romantic in nature but evolved into something that was based on comradeship rather than romance (a romantic relationship developing and becoming deeper by becoming something other than romantic! perish the thought!), and then the movie claims that they didn’t realize how ‘in love’ they are with each other until it’s too late (which goes against what happens in this novels).

    Liked by 1 person

    • Blue Ice-Tea says:

      Thanks! I’ve only seen the movie version of Crouching Tiger (once, when it came out) so I can’t really comment on the changes from the book. But, yes, it is kind of conspicuous how they take a close platonic relationship and emphasise the tragic love story element of it rather than celebrating it as a friendship. And if that’s not how the relationship was originally portrayed, then I can understand your frustration.

      Like

  4. Chrysocolla Town says:

    “It’s not that the imaginary reader thinks Frodo and Sam might be gay, or wants them to be gay. It’s that the kind of affectionate behaviour they display isn’t even considered possible for straight people. And this denial of the possibility creates a circular argument: Straight men don’t hug and kiss each other. Therefore, men who hug and kiss each other aren’t straight. Therefore, straight men don’t hug and kiss each other. Even used jokingly, this logic denies, ignores, and erases the experiences of those who, regardless of orientation, do hug, kiss, and sleep with their friends, do desire commitment, intimacy, and affection, without their acts or desires being sexual.”

    Oh, I loved that part (and the nudge to heteronormativity).

    I’ve always felt a little strange about the idea of shipping. I love ship fanwork and reading romance and smut fics, but I don’t have strong feeling about certain characters *needing* to be with each other. I like the possibility and the exploration of it (and certainly have some NOTPs), but i’ve always been a multishipper and a “whatever characters in whatever kind of relationship as long as it’s interesting” kind of gal.

    On the other hand, i also crave for representation of intimate platonic relationships and single older characters and historical figures, especially women. The only ones i remember reading about when i was a kid were witches, saints and nuns, and the only platonic relationships valued for them were mentorships which… were important, but not quite what i needed.

    It’s one of the main reasons that brought me to the series Elementary: the relationship between Joan and Sherlock, its evolution and resilience and the way they make each other better. Still haven’t watched the last season tho.


    In other news, i just posted the CoA round-up 😀

    Liked by 1 person

    • Blue Ice-Tea says:

      Thanks. Elementary is one of those shows I keep meaning to watch but haven’t gotten around to yet. I have seen a couple of episodes, though, and I was kind of taken with the Joan-Sherlock relationship. In fact, what really struck me about them was how similar their relationship was to the Mulder-Scully dynamic, particularly in the early seasons of The X-Files. It’s been a long time since I’ve seen a pairing quite like that.

      Like

  5. Danielle says:

    I totally agree; I’m fine with shipping and romance, but it’s when people close the possibility of two people caring deeply about each other in a platonic way because they do x,x, and x, which just has to mean that they’re in love – that profoundly annoys me. I would so love to see more stories that focus on awesome friendships where the two characters don’t end up in a traditional romantic relationship with one another other.

    Liked by 2 people

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