On Shipping: What's Disney's, What's Yours, and What's Mine

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Title: On Shipping: What’s Disney’s, What’s Yours, and What’s Mine
Creator: Charlotte Greater
Date(s): December 7, 2015
Medium: essay at "Women Write About Comics"
Fandom: all fandoms, but with a MCU focus
External Links: On Shipping: What’s Disney’s, What’s Yours, and What’s Mine, Archived version
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On Shipping: What’s Disney’s, What’s Yours, and What’s Mine is a 2015 essay by Charlotte Greater.

It was written, in part, as a response to Captain America and Bucky are Just Friends.

Some Topics Discussed

Some Excerpts

We never expect our ships to become canon. That’s the first thing you need to know.

Wait, no. Let me start that again. As a result of creating a new world where there wasn’t one before, we have created our own language for this. We had to. The rest of the world gave us nothing.

Ships are relationships that we champion. That we fight in the name of. Canon? The events as-written in the books that we read. The comics. The films. Or: it’s stories that are approved, sanctioned. Marvel Comics have a canon. The Marvel Cinematic Universe is its own canon. Saga has its own canon, too. It’s the storyworld. And it’s defined, largely, as being created by what has been sold to us. It’s intellectual property.

As I get older, I think there is a secret world that we don’t acknowledge, but that it’s the opposite of that. It’s about desire. It’s about what we care about, and why. One of the things that I think is the most striking about the stories that we are told — especially in big movies — is how often they flatten desire. They think — this character is one gender, this character is another gender. Now kiss. These stories don’t show queer desire, but they also don’t show how people can be unsure, how people can be conflicted, how people can have desires that they don’t understand or necessarily want. This means that they can’t really show any kind of desire. They don’t show us how people struggle to allow themselves what they want. They don’t show us how desire works. This is a problem for everyone. One of the major failings of Avengers: Age of Ultron is that characters are pushed into heterosexual relationships that are free of desire, or want, or chemistry. Natasha Romanoff and Bruce Banner’s almost-romance only happens because they’re both there and they’re — a woman and a man. It never seems fun, but more importantly — it never seems like something either of them wants. Natasha is pushed to be the aggressor in the relationship, but we never understand why. She pursues and pursues and pursues, even in the face of Bruce saying no. If this film was allowed to be more alive to how desire and sex actually work — we might have got more here. We might have seen more of an internal struggle — on the part of either of them. We might have seen something other than a story that starts out creepy and ends up with one of the characters vanishing. Because all it was, in the end, was a way to get the characters to where they needed to be at the end of the film. Action figures back in the right boxes. We got no sense of characters behaving organically. They didn’t have a choice.

Shipping puts relationships back at the centre of the story. Choices. Desires. It’s not a joyless part of the formula of a corporate narrative any longer. What’s key, then, is that people interact with these stories. They don’t stay in their shrinkwrap.

What are fanworks? This is not an exhaustive list, but: fanart, fanfiction, fanvideos, fanmixes, meta, edits, gifsets, songs, in-character social media accounts, fancomics. Think of any form of artistic expression that exists in the world and put the word “fan” before it.

It can be embarrassing to think about! Fanfiction and fanart, which are the most visible form of fanart, are often made up of little more than desire, evident even at a glance. Graham Norton likes to find explicit fanart and show it to actors on his tv show.

Fanworks are work. Fanworks are labour. Fanworks are real work. They take time, which is the only real unit we have to price anything. They take time to make, they take time to read/watch/listen to/look at. It takes people time to write long, loving responses — called criticism and literary analysis when focused upon creator-owned or corporate creative works — which talk about both the work of art itself and the world — the context — in which it lives.

Fanworks transform a story we have already been told and make it into something else.

I don’t doubt that straight people, like, actually exist. But there is no reason for me to read these two men as straight other than: they belong to Disney, and everything about my experience with Disney tells me that Disney wants me to read them as straight. That’s not in the storyworld. It’s not “in the canon.” Steve doesn’t have a Mickey Mouse face on his shield, and Bucky doesn’t speak with Donald Duck’s voice. It’s unsaid — it’s not even subtext, because it exists outside of the story. It’s context. It’s money. It’s constraints.

Money is really the only reason why these characters can’t be queer in canon. In this sense — these films are expensive, and they want as many people to pay to see them as possible — and also in the sense that it is money that creates canon in the first place. I’ve written a lot of Captain America fanfiction, and I’ve read more, and I feel comfortable in saying that all that separates these stories from canon is money, and the legitimacy that it lends.

Shipping — queer shipping, in particular — is about a lot of things. It’s about desire, and exploration, often (but not always) in ways that corporations won’t sanction. It’s about community, and having fun with your friends! It’s about pushing back, even if only a little bit. It’s an easy way in to media criticism, and critical reading. It’s about having a lot of feelings about the stories that you like, and expressing them in about the moments when it seems like the characters in the stories are also having feelings. It’s not a monolith (that’s Disney). There’s no one thing to get. It’s about seeing stories as stories, and not diktats. It’s not punishment! It’s not something I have to sit through and think “ah yes, this is the universe where everyone has been straight forever, I remember now.” Steve and Bucky don’t kiss in the movies? Cool. But in my stories, they do.

Some Comments at the Post

[Sam]: This is a fantastic write-up and needs more attention. That the basic truths of this article escape so many “fans” and “writers” is beyond me. Is character development and intimacy important? Yes. Can it be platonic? Yes. Does it have to be platonic? No. The fact that most complex relationships on film happen to be between well-developed white male characters means, hey: maybe give the spotlight to other groups, or stop clutching your pearls when the only people treated as actual humans connect with your audience, and they want to see meaningful relationships between them. I’m shipping your dramatic white Brookyln boys because their cycle of loss and recovery and loss is legitimately compelling, you asshats. GOOD JOB. Maybe don’t punish me for investing in this emotional roller-coaster ride.

[Baku]: Thank you first of all for pointing out that it is DISNEY, NOT MARVEL that is responsible for most, if not ALL of the decisions made by the MCU (and probably the comics, from now on, too), popular and unpopular. Not to say that Marvel doesn’t have their share of corporate hang-ups, but they are MUCH more open-minded and innovative than Disney when it comes to creating content which explores the lives and relationships of racial, religious and sexual minorities.

“Disney doesn’t exist inside the world of the story.” I love this comment; it emphasizes that within the “story” there are no real-world politics, no corporate policies, no money-making schemes. The universe of the “story” contains its own rules, its own restrictions or lack thereof.

I liked this article’s positive-yet-grounded tone, constantly repeating that “canon” does not make the fanworks any less meaningful, or their ships any less important to those who are invested in them. But it did hurt to read, over and over again, my experience of my last decade of media consumption: that I know from the start that my same-sex ships will never, ever become canon.

For a long time, I could make peace with this fact and enjoy the media anyway, be it long-running comic or TV series with charismatic protagonists and shoe-horned heterosexual love interests, or movies that just HAD to end with the hero kissing the girl before the end of the world. But of late it has become like a poison gas that settles over the entire experience of the story, for me. This crushing, burning feeling of being pushed out of the story that I’m trying to enjoy, knowing that my interpretation — which I share with many, many others — will never be taken seriously.

I would always, always get attached to ships, knowing full well that they will never, ever work out in the end. And it’s been years, now, and still the media-producing and consuming world at large has not changed. There is no room for queer ships in mainstream media, even though the world is clearly ready for it. At this point, I wonder how long I’ll have to wait for the world to catch up with my interpretation. If, maybe twenty years in the future, I’ll get to see a version of X-Men where Prof. X and Magneto finally end up together. Maybe, in a few decades, there’ll be an Avengers movie adaptation where two queer characters live out a meaningful romantic relationship on screen. Maybe, when I’m old and wrinkly, there will be a mainstream TV show where, by the end, a same-sex couple enjoys the same tension and limelight and eventual conclusion as a heterosexual one. And I wonder if maybe, by that time, I won’t be too burned out by constant disappointment to notice.

[Amelia]: This is a really fantastic piece that captures the heart of why shipping is important to those who do it!