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.