Problematic ships: are we having a semantics issue here?

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Title: Problematic ships: are we having a semantics issue here?
Creator: eatingcroutons
Date(s): December 23, 2016
Medium: Tumblr post
Topic: problematic shipping; anti-shippers
External Links: (WebCite)
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Problematic ships: are we having a semantics issue here? is a 2016 Tumblr post by eatingcroutons. It is part of a continuing discussion within fandom about the appropriateness of fic about "problematic" ships, especially incestuous or abusive ships.

The text of the post is not particular to any fandom, but the post was tagged with '#reylo #kylux #gradence #snarry #winterbones".

As of November 8, 2017, it has 6,623 notes.


More and more I’m beginning to think that a lot of wank about problematic “ships” comes from the fact that we’re collapsing an entire spectrum of how people approach fandom pairings into a single word. (To keep the language simpler here I’ve only talked about “pairings”, but this also applies to poly ships.)

At one extreme, I’m personally reluctant to use the word “shipping” at all about pairings I read and write, because I don’t think “shipping” really describes how I approach fandom. I don’t have strong feelings about who characters should be paired with. When I read or write a pairing it’s because that pairing has a dynamic I’m interested in, not because I think it would be good for the characters.

At the other end of the spectrum, I know people for whom “shipping” really is believing that two characters should be together, because they have such a great relationship dynamic in canon. Who believe that being together would be better for both characters.

When people say that nobody should ever “ship” or create fanworks about a pairing because they have an unhealthy relationship in canon, those people seem to be assuming that literally everyone who creates fanworks about a pairing “ships” them in that second sense. That the only reason to create fanworks about a pairing is because you believe the characters have a great relationship dynamic in canon, and would be better off together.

But fandom is about so, so much more than that.

Sometimes we want to read or write about unhealthy relationships. Sometimes we want to explore what circumstances might make a relationship healthier, or unhealthier, than what’s depicted in canon.

We “ship” characters with unhealthy canon dynamics because we believe these are interesting and important stories to tell.

Not all relationships are healthy. It’s absurd to insist that we should only ever tell stories about completely healthy relationships.


eatingcroutons [1]:
I mean, this is an actual quote from an anti post I saw today: “If you ship an abusive ship, you condone that ship automatically. There’s no way around it.”

This person clearly understands the word “ship” to entail some sort of moral endorsement – they’ve said so outright!

But that isn’t the only kind of “shipping”, and that kind of “shipping” certainly isn’t the only reason people create or enjoy fanworks about a pairing.

vintage-melons [2]:
Sorry but- That last little paragraph is a bit interesting. (As in the original post.) In many shows, books, etc there are unhealthy relationship on top of unhealthy relationships. But usually, the victim breaks up and leaves the unhealthy relationship. A lot of ‘shippers’ talk about these dynamics but in a way that makes them appealing. A lot of shippers make cute little romances from ugly dynamic.

One story like this is called KILLING STALKING which is a terrible relationship, but it isn’t going anywhere lovely, it strictly follows the life of a messed up abusive relationship. Which is good in a way, because it doesn’t ignore the fact there isn’t always daisies and flowers in all relationships. BUT some fans don’t catch on that this isn’t a dramatic romance, and romanticize the abusive relationship. And this happens with every bit of fiction, somehow someone will want a couple together.

I think the word “shipping” is mainly for wanting a pair in a relationship, if you enjoy a couple’s dynamic on the otherhand, there might be a better word than “shipping” if it’s such an umbrella. I’ve never heard of shipping being used like that, so maybe fans should find a better word for “Liking a couple’s dynamic”

But there is a danger with any piece of fiction, your brain (especially before 25) is like a sponge, and if it takes a sort of appeal towards maybe gore or murder, you may be effected to want to take action. Everything you see can effect everything you decide to do.

An example of this happening is the show 13 Reasons Why, which has lured teens to want to play the blue whale game and/or take their own life.

But I understand, putting out that these terrible things is super important, and we can’t just ignore these crappy things, but romanticizing it through a “ship” does not work out well.

(Please excuse my opinion and if I state incorrect facts, if I am met with a point of view I agree with, I’m willing to change my stance.)

auberginesdonthavelimbs [3]:
I think this is very insightful and certainly true and also not the whole story. I think another important factor in shipping, for many people, is that it is fictional, and fictional universes can have different rules. There are certainly people (I’ll include myself) who ship, in the second sense, characters who have some dynamic that the shipper would not condone in real life. The reason it is acceptable in fiction is partly because this dynamic does not need to have the effect it would have in real life.

In real life, for example, it is never healthy or acceptable in any way for a child to have a romantic or sexual relationship with an adult. (That is, an adult who is several years older than them. A relationship between a 17-year-old and an 18-year-old is not the same thing.) Such a relationship has a power imbalance that is by definition abusive. But it doesn’t need to be in fiction. The characters can treat each other as equals and have a healthy, loving relationship because that’s what the writer wants them to do. They are not romanticizing abuse; they are writing a story set in a universe with different rules, where the relationship is not abusive.

Now, to be clear, that can be harmful. Just because you don’t condone abusive relationships, doesn’t mean you aren’t, unintentionally, supporting them. A child might see a depiction of a child-adult relationship that makes it seem normal and good, and thus be more easily led into an abusive relationship with an adult. The same may be said of other vulnerable groups. Depicting any kind of abusive or otherwise “problematic” relationship as healthy and normal can have the effect of making someone more vulnerable and/or less likely to seek help.

This means that such stories must be treated with caution. They should be clearly marked and presented such that people won’t stumble across them and read/watch/listen to them without understanding what they are. Stories like this should not, for example, be put on a tv channel children are likely to watch. Ideally, they would also come with a disclaimer of some kind to the effect of “Dramatisation: Do not attempt.”

fernandothefox [4]:
I used to be really into ROTG and my favorite character(s) was Jack an Bunny. Now i thought Jack with Pitch was a unhealthy relationship but i still read it bc they had a good dynamic that kept me interested.

I SHIPPED (see how i used it here) Jack and Bunny together bc i think they would be good for each other and would have a wonderful relationship that would probably last years.

You see i used Ship in different ways. For Pitch and Jack i do not ship them bc overall that relationship is just for me too read when I’m bored and that i don’t want them together in the long haul. But for Jack and Bunny i want that relationship it’s not there to just catch my attention it’s there bc I honestly believe that they would go together.

pornosophical [5]:
also you’re putting the cudgel before the horse to mangle a metaphor

ship policing is old as time, the rhetorical toolset has just been upgraded by performative social justice rhetoric

like you know how most Antis are 16-22? yeah, they grow out of it because it’s literally childish adolescent social dynamics at play here. identification and exclusion in fandom is the same as on the playground, just dressed up in fancier language

jedimasteramell [6]:
I suppose in the end, intent and context are important. There are differences between shipping two ‘canon’ characters, and shipping canon with an original, or two (or more) originals together.

Each relationship is going to mean something different to diffefent folks, as well as how its presented. I wont ship a pairing thats built on bad communication and emotional negligence between two canon characters, cause I have no control in the story about it (unless I make my own). Ships like that remind me of my parents and their nasty divorce. BUT I do have OC ships whose story and resolution is based on the same issues. I get to control it, I get to actively examine the issues and work towards a realistic resolution, and in that it helps me tackle the issues in a more manageable manner.

Tldr; becaise each ship is going to mean something different to each person who ships it, we can’t create a monolith out of 'problematic’ ideas, just make an effort in conciously examining context and intent.

chetungwan [7]:
@osunism, fuck off, man. I’m literally over here reading fic like These Violent Delights, and you have the nerve to say that I’m just getting off on antagonism?

My dude, I like reading about inherently fucked up people cause they’re /interesting/. They are not good. I do not condone them. But this is a way that people can think, and I want to know why.

You clearly have only been reading shitty reylo fic (which I, personally, do not have an interest in reading OR ship) and you have missed out on some well written shit that openly acknowledges the unhealthy elements it presents.

So, my dude, how about you take the time and read the post you just shit on

osunism [8]:
Anyways, just say you love reylo and go. Y'all out here performing all kinds of mental gymnastics to justify incest and abuse in fiction and media and calling it ‘interesting’ without any regard to like…victims of these kinds of relationships that might not wanna see all of that permeating the fandom at really disturbing levels please miss me with that.

Y'all need to ask yourself why you consider that shit interesting as if consuming good and healthy relationships isn’t interesting lol.

cispiciousblk [9]:
and tbh if ur using a ship to examine some fucked up trauma or issues then why do u need to expose anyone else to that? write ur own fic draw ur own fanart and keep it buried in a folder on ur pc till u can examine ur issues in a healthy way without pushing that into visible spaces

like its p clear ppl just like “taboo” and unhealthy shit and enjoy knowing that ppl are hurt and upset by it

shinelikethunder [10]:
Why expose anyone else to it?

(People who, mind you, have read the tags and clicked the fic in full knowledge of what they’re getting into, and retain their sovereign right to close the goddamn tab if it gets more disturbing than they expected.)


Because sometimes you don’t realize how fucked up the stuff you take for granted as “normal” is, not until you see it happening to someone else, someone you sympathize with. Because it’s infinitely better to have that “oh shit that’s fucked up” crisis over a fictional character, instead of only realizing it when confronted with the misery of a real human who needs help as much as you do.

Or only realizing it when you’re already past your breaking point.

Because exploring what the fallout of trauma can look like–even the messy, ugly, unhealthy, problematic, complicated, toxic, or unexpected ways people can react to it–especially those ways–is an exercise in empathy and understanding. Because exposing people to the fucked-up counterintuitive ways it can manifest might keep them from thoughtlessly dismissing anyone who isn’t a perfect fucking model victim.

Because, quite frankly, survivors whose approach to reclaiming their sexuality involves charging headfirst at the thing that hurt them? Deserve so many more options than the ten thousandth degrading rape fantasy dreamed up by straight dudes and aimed at straight dudes who get satisfaction from dreams of grinding women’s faces under their shoe. Some survivors get off on those. Others can’t, or want other options–and those alternate narratives don’t write themselves either.

Because sexual fantasies about being raped, tortured, or abused may squick you all the way to Kingdom Come, but study after study confirms they’re common as dirt and essentially harmless. And survivors aren’t the only ones who deserve to be able to exchange sexual fantasies without being subjected to yet another round of shaming for imagining something taboo.

Because the purpose of fiction isn’t just to be edifying, and people working through their shit have no duty to educate you. Because sometimes it’s about recognition, or empathy, or vicariously playing through a worst-case scenario, or playing what-if. Or isolating bits of an experience and doing grotesque mad-science experiments on them to see what they’d look like mixed with these elements, or under this kind of pressure, or in that environment–and yes, it’s natural to want to share the results of your research with other interested parties. And guess what, these are all types of fiction that most kids are fully equipped to process in elementary school, seeing as how most of them are at play in your average Disney movie. If little Suzy Q. Strawman can read what’s inside the box, she can also tell that the outside label says “mad-science experiments,” not “cookie recipes.” So no, no one is under any obligation to issue a nationwide recall and pull it from the shelves just because half the PTA have worked themselves into fainting fits over whether Suzy’s going to follow the directions, make the fucking model volcano, and either need her stomach pumped because she thought the vinegar and baking soda and papier mache were dessert, or die in a fire because she somehow created real lava in the family room.

Because humans are prone to an aching, insatiable need not to be alone with their pain. Even when they can only look at it obliquely through a thick layer of fictionalization. Even when they can only handle it at arm’s length through jokes, or through tropes that minimize the damage into something controllable. Their pain isn’t there to educate anyone else’s sorry ass. Expecting them to hide it for fear it will give off the wrong political messages, to pretend it’s not there until they can be a good little poster child, is infinitely more callous and trivializing than any wallow through problematic tropes and gallows humor could ever be.

Because a huge part of healing is support, and community, and having someone take your hand when you feel filthy and broken and unloveable and, instead of rejecting you, say “hey, you’re not alone.”

Because ordering people to drag their sick, fucked-up, disgusting issues back into their shame-cave and sort themselves out alone where they won’t contaminate the normal people is the exact fucking opposite of that. It is the abuser’s narrative in a nutshell. And the instant you order someone to do that, you have lost any shaky claim you might’ve had to be advocating for survivors or against abuse.

luvtheheaven [11]:
For me shipping two characters is somewhat akin to having a crush on one character?

It’s this feeling that might have reasons behind it, but you feel it first and then you go back and try to suss out why, maybe. And that’s part of what vidding or writing fanfiction of your favorite ships can be, is that sussing out of why. What about this dynamic resonated with me? What makes them different from other pairings in fiction? Which pairings are they similar to? Which songs so accurately describe what they are going through to a degree the songwriter would never have imagined?? Even though the story wasn’t told from their point of view at all, do we know enough details to properly extrapolate their point of view?


There’s loving two characters’ relationship in a specific way. They are siblings who love each other in a way reminiscent of how you love one of your siblings. They are a friendship that proves men and women can love each other without it being influenced by sexual attraction. You interpret two characters as having incompatible sexual orientations. The fact that other people ship these characters can feel violating of your own boundaries, depending on some factors. All incestuous ships can feel that way for a ton of people. You can vehemently not ship a pairing for a number of reasons. (Having a competing/contradictory monogamous ship in your head that you do support also can be part of the reasoning, usually not the only reason but maybe sometimes!)

I ship a few abusive pairings, pairings with varying degrees of abusiveness. In fiction, abusers are so often given fascinating, deep motivations and back stories and are also victims in their own right that it can be “fun” to sympathize with, to imagine them having a redemption arc, to imagine how they feel about their abusive actions - especially to imagine them truly regretting hurting someone. To actually ship them for me usually does mean they’re the pairing I most enjoy seeing on screen together (often despite myself, and yes usually on screen because most of my fandoms are tv fandoms), or that I would enjoy a fanfiction story that explores how they might possibly end up together and still both feel “in character”.

asl-anna [12]:
A good example of what shipping is to me is to explain the different pairings I have read in the HP fandom, using the terms ship and OTP.

In the HP fandom, my OTP pairing is Hinny (HarryXGinny). In this way, my definition of OTP is - a pairing that would make sense with cannon (though not necessarily a cannon pairing [Ex: Scorbus - ScorpiusXAlbus]). The couple is compatible and the characters work well together in this way.

Now, shipping is different. I ship Drarry (HarryXDraco). This means that I enjoy reading fanfics about them as a couple and I like fanart of them. This does not mean I think they would be compatible. In fact, I don’t think that at all. I think they would not be good for each other at all. Nonetheless, I like to see what authors can do with the characters and how they work together.

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