Fandom Shipping of the 21st Century Explained: The Reason for OTPs
Pop culture has influenced and consumed much of our growing society, providing outlets of expression and discussion by captivating the minds of audiences and readers alike for generations. Open to endless interpretations and possibilities, works of art, literature and music have enabled the likes of many to find a voice that resonates with them. With this rise in pop culture comes a very real change in the shaping of society as a whole, as many people begin to affiliate themselves and their core values with a diverse set of ideas and beliefs expressed through various art forms. Fandom shipping, the act of pairing one or more characters from a series of fiction together, is certainly not immune to this new development as it has, in recent years, become quite the worldwide phenomenon.
Originally gaining popularity in the mid 1970’s in response to the growing fanbase of Star Trek, fandom shipping has since amassed the likes of fans from countless other creative properties as fans of series everywhere begin to personally identify with and, even, root for different pop culture couples. With huge mass followings, some fan “ships” have even become canon over time with the support of a dedicated, loyal fan base at their side (with some considering this to be a “sailed ship”), while others have come to include characters from entirely separate lines of work, most notably characterized by the internet pairing of Jack Frost from Rise of the Guardians and Queen Elsa of Arendelle from Frozen. Some “ships,” also known as one true pairings or OTPs for short, can even include the likes of non-romantic friends, LGBT romances, bromances, love-hate relationships, failed relationships, and love triangles. With such a wide array of options, the possibilities are practically endless, however most pairings tend to derive inspiration from the original source material with the predominant majority of couples already having had a romantic relationship at some point or other during the course of publication and/or release.
This habitual “shipping” of different characters as one true pairings has become so widespread thanks, in part, due to the internet, that it has affected the way in which people have come to identify themselves. For some, it has even become a way of life as people buy topical merchandise, write fanfictions and essays on the subject, create fanart, and host forums for people to discuss and theorize about new themes and ideas central to the work in question. I for one, have become quite taken with this new world of “shipping,” categorizing different relationships I have favored in pop culture over the years into a set list of my absolute favorite couples whether fully realized as canon or not. However, this idea of “shipping” characters together is not one that is new to me, as I had grown up watching characters like Bob and Wendy from Bob the Builder work together and become close friends, and even though the two were never an official couple in reality, I simply recall feeling that they should, in fact, be together. Nevertheless, this pairing of mine was never one I took completely to heart, so much as it just seemed like common sense at the time, thus rendering the relationship not a true “ship”. It was not until five or so years later when I discovered the Discovery Kids show, Strange Days at Blake Holsey High, that I truly began to “ship” characters together. It was with the two main characters, Josie Trent and Vaughn Pearson, that I became truly invested in the relationship, as I kept hoping their chemistry would develop into something more than just platonic on and off friends. It was this hope, both rational and irrational, that led me to truly believe in the possibility of “shipping” the two protagonists as my OTP.
After that, it was ship after ship, with some becoming fully realized and others only briefly before the ship became what is informally known as a “sunken ship”, which is just another way of saying a failed relationship. With each relationship, however, I grew as a person, as the characters themselves grew too. Even through heartbreak and disappointment, these characters persevered, and it serves as a constant reminder to me that it is these shortcomings that make us who we are, but they do not define us. That losing someone is not the end of the world, and that finding someone special to share that world with is only just the beginning.
So, why do we, in this modern day and age, feel the need to ship, and what is the seeming appeal in all of this? What is so fulfilling about watching another person find their special someone whether romantic or not? To this, I say, there is no one true answer, but I feel that the connection we share with certain characters is one of goodwill, and because we care about them so much, we want what will make them happy, and I feel that relationships, whether romantic or platonic, can be great sources of emotional comfort and support for just about anyone. Furthermore, OTPs give the audience something to believe in, because you feel as if you were there. You watched them grow as a couple. You were there for all of the big moments. By seeing through the eyes of the character(s) in question, the readers and/or viewers are able to gain the same perspective as the protagonist(s), and experience those same experiences and emotions, albeit slightly removed, with the same intrinsic values at heart.
We understand them, because we are them, we want to be like them, and we want to find something like what they have. Because there is just something so innately pure about the bond shared between two characters that share a unique connection whether their love is of a romantic kind or not. Because for there to be love, there has to be hope; hope that when you put your heart out on the line, the other person will do the same for you too, and I think that is beautiful.
I have long since wondered what all of my personal “ships” have in common. What is this X-factor, this common thread, as it were, that makes these relationships, more than any, so special to me? What sets them apart from everyone else? It has taken me a long time to figure this out, but I truly believe it all lies in the connection. The connection made between the characters must be one of codependence as expressed through their mutual need for each other to survive. They must be intertwined. And as this grouping of mine continues to grow over time, I will have come to experience even more by learning, reading, watching, and interpreting their stories. Just as all protagonists should inspire a personal relation between the reader and the writing, these characters and their various relationships with each other have given me a sense of belonging and hope as I continue to relate to their struggles and hardships, their foibles and strengths. It is through the characters themselves that I gain a sense of belonging, but it is through their relationships with each other that I gain a sense of hope, and from this hope I find strength, and that strength is found through friendship and connection. Two values which continue to inspire me every day.
Athena Millett is a teen writer from the San Francisco Bay Area with a passion for creating and a streak for rebellion. She is the co-founder of the Oxford Comma, as well as the acting Editor-in-Chief, and an aspiring novelist. A free-spirited adventurer at heart, she has traveled extensively and continues to share her love of storytelling through her unabashed spunk and creativity.