When done appropriately, shipping can be one of the best parts of being a fan. Shipping provides a way to take ownership of your fandom, interact with other fans, and express yourself in new and enthusiastic ways. It can — and should — be a positive experience. Sadly, shipping often falls short of this ideal. Many times, toxic shipping steps in, ruining what should be a fun and lighthearted way to interact with your fandom.

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Between ship wars, creator attacks, and truly dark ships, what was once nice has become thoroughly unpleasant. As fans, it is up to us to ensure that the (vocally) unpleasant minority doesn’t ruin shipping — and fandom — for the rest of us. It’s on us to take ownership, to take responsibility. It’s time to end toxic shipping and remember a time when things could be positive.

What is Shipping?

You may be currently wondering “what the hell is she talking about?” Well, shipping is a fundamental aspect of fandom, but I’ve often found that non-fans have no clue what I’m talking about. It comes back to the word “relationship.” Fans would become invested in a particular romantic pairing. That would then be referred to as their “ship.”

toxic shipping
Image from Tumblr user wandering-winter-spirit.

Despite the fact that it’s simply a shortened form of the word “relationship,” ship soon got fun connotations. Nautical associations (like envisioning ship wars as being between two battleships — or my favorite, “I will go down with this ship”) became common. Language is fun that way. It also changed when “ship” became a verb. You could now “ship” a pairing — not in the mail, of course.

To ship something is to actively advocate or campaign for that ship to happen. If a ship was canon, all the better. But, more often than not, non-canon ships would have a large backing. These people would be dedicated shippers, constantly creating transformative works for their ships, or communicating with other fans of the ship, or even engaging with the creators.

Shipping Done Well

That’s what shipping is supposed to be. When done well, shipping is a way to engage with your fandom in a deeper way. It should be positive. It’s a way to demonstrate your love and support for a property, and for the characters in particular.

toxic shipping
Image from Tumblr user manggaetteokkie.

Consider fanfiction and fanart. Much of transformative work exists simply because fans wanted to envision their ships. Whether this is envisioning a way for their non-canon ship to become real, or envisioning a canon ship in different circumstances, creative work allows fans to participate, take ownership of, and share their particular vision of the fandom.

Ships also enhance inter-fandom communication. Blogs abound for various ships, and platforms like Tumblr let fans interact with like-minded fans. I personally follow many blogs dedicated to ships that I love. Communication with creators also takes place, such as at cons or other events. Fans who are dedicated to their ships will bring them up and open a dialogue with the people in charge in hopes of seeing their ship come true.

Toxic Shipping is The Reality

Sadly, that’s an idealized version of shipping. Which is not to say that shipping can’t be that way. Most fans do approach shipping as something that should be positive. But a vocal minority tends to ruin things. That’s where toxic shipping comes in.

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Toxic shippers can’t see the positives of shipping anymore. Things have become dark, for whatever reason, and now they feel no choice but to take it out on other fans or on the creators. There are many ways a ship can become toxic, and all of these ways are visible with a quick look. If that’s all people see on first glance, it gives the rest of us a bad name.

Ship Wars

Ship wars are inevitable. When people are passionate about their ships, if there are opposing ships, there is going to be conflict. In my time as a shipper, I’ve been a part of many such conflicts — I’m high key team Kataang, and Zutara has no place in my household. Shippers have strong opinions, and part of shipping is actively advocating for your chosen pair. That doesn’t mean things have to be toxic.

When ship wars become toxic is when people take things too far. A healthy rivalry is fine. Attacking people with differing opinions is not fine. What starts off as a fun competition can quickly devolve into name-calling, personal attacks, and a lot of negativity.

toxic shipping
Courtesy of rufftoon on DeviantArt.

How do we detox ship wars? It helps to remember that there are literally no stakes here. If you “win” the ship war, it changes nothing. We are not in charge, so destroying our opponents doesn’t mean we suddenly have creative control and can eliminate their ship. We can’t remove them from the fandom.

So what is the point of being toxic? You are accomplishing nothing except making the fandom look bad. There is no point to getting so worked up over this. Unless you are speaking to someone who ships something bad (more on that later), let it go. Remember that the person you are dealing with feels just as strongly as you do. You are both fans and should focus on that.

Creator Assault

When fans move past interacting with other fans, things start to get murky. There are two general areas where shipping and creator involvement moves into toxic shipping: actor shipping and attacking creators.

Actor shipping is the less toxic of the two. But, it’s still problematic. Shipping fictional characters is one thing. It’s an integral part of fandom, and the interaction adds to your enjoyment of a property. Creators often enjoy when fans ship the characters, as it shows how invested fans are.

toxic shipping
Courtesy of Yvette Nicole Brown.

But when you start to ship actors, it crosses a line. Fictional characters are, well, fictional. They don’t have feelings. Your actions can’t upset them. The same is not true for actors. Actors are real people with real lives. What’s worse is when fans ship actors who are already in relationships with other people. Not only are you making things weirdly personal, but you’re disregarding their real lives. Looking at you, Cockles fans.

Attacking creators is much more toxic. A creator has no obligation to cater to your whims. Instead of being grateful that these people have given you something to love so much, toxic fans are angry that the creator doesn’t follow the fans’ demands. So your ship isn’t canon. Guess what? Most aren’t. That gives you no right to lash out at someone who gave you these characters in the first place.

Queerbaiting

I will make one small note. To be clear: it is still never okay to attack a creator. These people deserve respect like any other human being. But it is definitely okay to hold them accountable. There’s one case where creators deserve to be called out: queerbaiting. Queerbaiting occurs when a property constantly codes characters as queer without making it canon. They want to appeal to audiences who would enjoy a queer character but don’t want to commit and turn off conservative fanbases.

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The most famous example is Destiel. The relationship between Dean Winchester and Castiel is heavily queer-coded. Destiel is a massive ship because it is rooted in strong overtones in SUPERNATURAL. But, after many seasons, there is still no canon relationship because it is unlikely that the show will make two of its main characters gay.

There’s still no reason to attack SUPERNATURAL’s showrunners. But we should call them out for queerbaiting and make it clear that they are accountable.

Bad Shipping

Earlier, I mentioned bad shipping. I’m not here to kinkshame anyone or make anyone feel like they cannot have opinions. But let’s be clear: some things should not be shipped. Some lines should not be crossed. Toxic shipping comes into play when people ship things that make the rest of us look bad.

Abusive ships abound in fandoms. Oftentimes, shippers see a relationship that is coded as romantic but ignore the dark truth behind it. Take Reylo. It’s a massively popular ship, but there’s a definite dark truth behind it. Kylo Ren literally kidnaps and tortures Rey. How is that a good start for a relationship? Or, a relationship that starts good turns south, and these fans refuse to acknowledge the truth of the ship. Hi, Skyeward. Admit the truth.

toxic shipping
Image from Tumblr user wtf-utfandom.

Incestual ships are also disturbingly prevalent. Sometimes, shippers argue try to find a grey area. Thorki shippers, for example, argue that Thor and Loki are not actually related, so it’s not incest. Except, the two were definitely raised as brothers and didn’t know the truth. Other times, fans actively engage in incestual shipping. Wincest has no grey area — the creators even called out shippers in the show. So why is it still popular?

There are countless other ships that reveal a dark underbelly of fandom. Age difference — especially underage, power dynamics, dubcon, all are prevalent in transformative works. While I still think we should be respectful of others, there are some cases where we need to call people out.

Let’s Detox

Listen, shipping should be fun. I’m a hardcore shipper, and I want to be able to engage in my fandom without feeling unwelcome. We shouldn’t get rid of shipping altogether. We just need to find a way to detox it.

A History of Slashfiction

If you see fellow fans engaging in problematic behavior and toxic shipping, call them out. Be respectful, but take responsibility. It’s on us to prove that not all shippers are toxic. If we work together, we can root out the problems of toxic shipping, quiet the vocal minority, and reclaim shipping as the positive interaction it is meant to be.

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