'Shipping' and the Enduring Appeal of Rooting for Love

The joys of championing the often-fictional romances of others

Genevieve719/Flickr/The Atlantic

It was an electric June night in Flushing. Star-crossed Mets phenom Dwight Gooden made his first start following a drug suspension handed down that April, and the Amazin’s beat the Pirates 5-1. But what made that evening in 1987 truly extraordinary was not the play of the defending World Champion Mets (sigh). Although I was a die-hard Mets fan, I was there on that night along with the largest Shea crowd of the year because, prior to the game, Marvel Comics grand wizard Stan Lee himself had officiated at the live, heavily publicized and elaborately orchestrated onfield wedding of Spiderman and Mary Jane Watson.

Why had this event captivated the public’s imagination, inciting a plethora of local and even national news coverage? It’s not like America had Spidey on the brain. Spiderman’s biggest audience at the time was probably kids watching Electric Company reruns, and it would be decades before Marvel’s box office behemoths littered the cinematic landscape with multicolored spandex and convoluted mythologies.

People paid attention to the wedding of this Queens-born hero for the same reason that, a few years earlier, Super Bowl-sized audiences tuned in to the fictional wedding of General Hospital’s Luke and Laura, and the wedding of Prince Charles and Di. People watched these spectacles in record numbers because they're shippers at heart.

As seen on countless fan-created Tumblr pages, to “ship” is to express your passionate approval of someone else’s relationship, or your desire to see two (usually fictional or famous) individuals in a relationship with each other. As in, “I totally ship Marcie and Peppermint Patty. They both need to get over their silly crushes on Charlie Brown and realize they're meant for each other!" The term was first used in a romantic context in mid-1990s Internet groups by fans of The X-Files who pined for the union of agents Mulder and Scully. These fans were known as “relationshippers” (as opposed to the “noromos” -aka No Romance faction). The term was then popularized by Pokémon fans who rooted for a romance between members of Team Rocket. These “Rocketshippers” spread their zeal for romance to other fandoms, and shipping soon became the national pastime of Internet fan groups across a wide spectrum of fictional universes.

Shipping may have achieved prominence in the burgeoning world of Internet fan fiction, but the phenomenon, if not the expression, goes back at least a hundred years, when Sybil Brinton, a wealthy Englishwoman in her forties, wrote the first known work of Jane Austen fan fiction, "Old Friends and New Fancies," in 1913. In this self-proclaimed "sequel," Brinton mimicked Jane Austen's voice as she imagined non-canonical pairings of well-loved characters from all six of Austen’s novels.

Fast forward to the 1970s, when fans of Star Trek shepherded in the modern era of fan fiction. In Star Trek fanzines, authors boldly went where no one had gone before, as they created numerous romantic encounters between denizens of the Star Trek universe, including numerous Kirk and Spock fantasies, a genre that became known as Kirk/Spock and then simply K/S, leading subsequent non-hetero couplings to be known amongst shipping aficionados simply as “slashes.”

Whatever the orientation, fans are passionate about their ships, and communities of like-minded shippers are often formed around a popular OTP—short for One True Pairing—which indicates a coupling felt to be inherently right and destined. If you saw Team Edward or Team Jacob shirts being worn at the height of the Twilight saga's popularity, you caught a glimpse of (corporate-sponsored) shipping in action.

Of course, people also love to ship real-life super couples, which for some reason always require portmanteaued sobriquets. But besides Bennifer, Tomkat, and Brangelina, there were plenty of fictional hybrids as well. Lost fans rooted for Jate, Skate, Jacket, or Suliet, and a large contingent of Harry Potter shippers have created perhaps the oddest (and most persistent) portmanteau of all: Drapple—Draco Malfoy and an apple he is seen eating in several of the Harry Potter films. J.K. Rowling, herself no stranger to realms of fantasy, had this to say in 2005, after her first exposure to this peculiar yet prolific subset of Harry Potter fandom: “I met the shippers, and it was a most extraordinary thing. I had no idea there was this huge underworld seething beneath me.”

What is it that possesses people to hurl their beloved characters or celebrities at each other and watch for sparks, like scientists at the Large Hadron Collider bashing subatomic particles together hoping to catch a glimpse of the elusive Higgs Boson? As Ralph Waldo Emerson noted in an 1841 essay, rooting for love has always been a part of human nature:

The strong bent of nature is seen in the proportion which this topic of personal relations usurps in the conversation of society. What do we wish to know of any worthy person so much, as how he has sped in the history of this sentiment?...And what fastens attention, in the intercourse of life, like any passage betraying affection between two parties? Perhaps we never saw them before, and never shall meet them again. But we see them exchange a glance, or betray a deep emotion, and we are no longer strangers. We understand them, and take the warmest interest in the development of the romance. All mankind love a lover.

Perhaps shipping also reflects the yearning for a small moment of control in a chaotic world. Children often react to their inherent powerlessness by retreating to the wide-open spaces of their imagination. They make their dolls kiss (or fight), and feel a sense of control that they lack in the real world. As fans, people may not be the author of the fictional worlds they love to inhabit, but when they ship, they can momentarily grab the wheel in the most exhilarating of ways—envisioning and championing relationships that demonstrate their own mastery of a created universe, and their true feelings about how love should exist in that world, if not indeed in their own.

Personally, I tend to ship couples who take center stage after the series-defining relationships between more predictable characters fizzle or fade into the background. I shipped Chandler and Monica. Willow and Tara. The short-lived Worf and Troi. But I also have an OTP. A fictional relationship that I champion above all others because I see in it the best expression of the kind of love that I root for in this world. It’s not two characters from my favorite TV show or novel.

It’s 20th century philosopher Martin Buber and his tree (let’s call them Truber). In his seminal work, I and Thou, Buber uses his arboreal encounter to describe the ultimate relationship. Buber’s tree is not the exploited self-loathing specimen from Shel Silverstein’s Giving Tree. No, as unlikely as it seems, Buber and this tree have a relationship based on true mutuality. It is one man experiencing the divine in the singular non-objectification of a fellow living being.

Apparently, I’m not the only one to ship Truber hard. Romantic comedy writer David Kohan studied the works of Martin Buber in college, and was similarly impressed by Buber’s take on relationships. This passage from I and Thou stood out in particular for Kohan:

It can, however, also come about, if I have both will and grace, that in considering the tree I become bound up in relation to it…There is nothing from which I would have to turn my eyes away in order to see, and no knowledge that I would have to forget…The tree is no impression, no play of my imagination, no value depending on my mood, but it is bodied over against me and has to do with me, as I with it -- only in a different way. Let no attempt be made to sap the strength from the meaning of the relation: the relationship is mutual.

In an interview with The Buffalo News, Kohan describes how Buber's text inspired him to create a sitcom based on his understanding of an ideal relationship: “Buber wrote, ‘You need the Will to go after it and the Grace to receive it.' I thought, wow. These are two complementary things. If we ever had a love story with two complementary people, those would be great names.”

As much as we fans pull for our favorite characters to get together, when we ship we are ultimately rooting for love itself, and for the triumph of these two rare elements, will and grace. Whether real or fictional, our ships represent our faith in our fellow humans to take the leap of imagination necessary to connect with another human being. To take off our masks; to succeed in the heroic act of accepting love, and to have the courage to risk offering it.

Twenty years after the wedding of Spidey and MJ, their entire marriage was erased from existence when Peter Parker made a deal with the powerful villain Mephisto to save his Aunt May. Soon after, Shea stadium was demolished as the Mets moved to their new (luckless) home across the parking lot. Nothing remains of my first ship (except the immortal Stan Lee, of course), and yet I still feel the pull of its wake in the persistent desire to root for love that is beautiful, transcendent, and courageous, whatever form it takes.