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

Captain America swimsuit edition, uncredited Marvel Artist, 1992

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.

Who do I mean by we? Fans. Often female, often queer, but not always.

And by shipping, we’re — intruding on this property. Punching through the walls between us and them. We see two people in this far-off land who look at each other the right way — or who talk to each other the right way, or who have never even met but we think would get along in a fun way if they did. We see them and we think — I want them to talk. I want them to kiss. I want them to do things to each other.

So when I say we never expect our ships to become canon, what I mean is this: we never expect our favourite relationships — the potentially romantic relationships we see between characters in the stories the world tells us — to be sanctioned by anyone but us.

Kevid Wada's Captain America, 2015
Kevin Wada, while often employed by Marvel, produced this as a fanwork

Brett White’s essay about shipping at CBR troubles me for a few reasons. He talks almost exclusively about shipping in terms of non-canonical, queer ships. Steve/Bucky, for the most part. He lists a few relationships that he enjoys, but that’s not really shipping, because they’re all real. Han/Leia. Coach/Tami. Peggy/Stan.

Of course, they’re also all straight.

Peggy and Stan of Mad Men, in particular, are two characters who had a relationship that was drawn-out, unclear, until right at the end of the last season. When White talks about enjoying their relationship, he must mean — at least in part — that he enjoyed the tension. The anticipation. And then, when the show ends, they get together. The trap closes. Their time running around in the forest is over.

This is where the knot is, I think. This is the crucial moment — the place where I, a shipper, and Brett White diverge. When we know two characters get together at the end of a show, we can go back and watch all of their early moments and read into them. We can enjoy the subtext. We can enjoy the pain and the false starts because we know what’s going to come, where they end up. If we have a hefty suspicion that they might get together, then we can have the same enjoyment as the show is on, or as the comic is coming out, or whatever. Mulder and Scully. Scott and Darla.

But the subtext doesn’t stop being there if the couple doesn’t get together at the end. If the loop doesn’t close.

As a teenager, I was terrified that there was a secret world that I didn’t know about. Just beneath the surface. That everyone was secretly a drug-taking nihilist who didn’t care about anything. This is what happens when you let teenagers watch American Beauty, I guess. “When you grow up, your heart dies.”

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.

Of course, characters never really have a choice. It’s the job of storytellers to make us understand that they do by creating a world in which it is acknowledged that there are choices. That people can behave in ways that make sense to them. The Marvel films — and most of the other big-money properties that become canons, that are much-beloved — don’t allow for this world to be realised.

They don’t show us what people want. They tell us what we should want. They love selling us sex, but they don’t like to talk about it. It’s another part of the formula. It’s sterile.

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.

Shipping puts relationships back at the centre of the story.

What’s key, then, is that people interact with these stories. They don’t stay in their shrinkwrap. I told a coworker once that I was having trouble sleeping and she told me to close my eyes and imagine that I was in my favourite book. We change stories from the moment we take them in. We use them. We repeat them to ourselves. We quote them. We rewrite them.

The strange thing about White’s essay is that he talks about shipping as an abstract concept. There’s nothing to grasp on to. What do shippers do? In White’s essay it seems that he thinks we sit together, wishing really hard. Watch the trailer for Civil War and say, boy, I hope these two guys can get over their problems and just kiss already.

But that’s not what we do. We know they’re not going to kiss.

Not if we leave it up to Disney, anyway.

Captain American swimsuit, Marvel Comics, 1992, Phillips
Marvel has made certain allowances for the sexual gaze, at times — carefully defined, heavily managed.

In As You Like It, when he is tired of the pretend relationship he has been using to prepare for his real one, Orlando says, “I can live no longer by thinking.” This prompts Rosalind to stop her game of make-believe and organise their wedding. All of her boy-clothes are put away; all of the queer play ends. It’s a comedy, because it ends with marriage, but I see the marriage as the tragedy at the story’s close — the sign that everything playful and explorative and queer has to end.

But. “I can no longer live by thinking.” Me too, Orlando. I come back to this line, over and over again.

I’m not satisfied by lying in bed at night and imagining what I would do if I was allowed to join the X-Men. So what do we do? We create fanworks. That’s what White’s essay is missing — fanworks, the lifeblood of shipping.

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.

Steve and Bucky don’t kiss at the end of Captain America: The Winter Soldier. The loop doesn’t close. There’s no release from the tension for the audience that sees it. You are welcome to read their relationship however you want. You are welcome to read them as friends (hey, maybe you prefer Steve/Sam or Bucky/Natasha!) and you are welcome to read them as straight, although neither of them ever actually says that and I think in general as a culture we should move towards not assuming that anyone is straight unless they have explicitly said so, and that “anyone” includes fictional superheroes.

Captain America: The Winter Soldier feels like a radical proposition in the world of superhero movies because it climaxes when one character — Steve Rogers, Captain America — refuses to fight back. Bucky is punching him in the face, and Steve has already saved everyone else but himself, and he looks at Bucky and he thinks: I love this man too much to kill him. It’s this act of love that saves them both.

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.

In interviews with the directors Joe and Anthony Russo about Captain America: Civil War, reporters have already started to joke about a love triangle between Steve/Bucky and Steve/Sam as a proposition. At this point, it’d be silly to pretend that everyone involved in these films who ever googles them isn’t aware of the fanworks. The fanworks aren’t made for them. But they know that they’re there.

But the jokes are jokes, and we know to read them as such. This is not The X-Files, and the characters we’re talking about are all men, and Disney make big money by selling narratives to various international markets which they believe would baulk at a superhero film with a queer love story.

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.

If Marvel didn’t exist, and Captain America did, and we had all of these stories — well. He’d be Achilles, I guess. The stories that people like would stick.

This summer, Marvel put out a comic called Planet Hulk. It was a tie-in to their big summer event series, Secret Wars. It was written by Sam Humphries, drawn by Marc Laming, and coloured by Jordan Boyd.

The premise behind Secret Wars was that the Marvel Universe had ended, and the bits of it that people liked — that people remembered — had been cobbled together to create one new world. It was a patchwork, with a million alternate versions of Wolverine, while long-lost queer favourites like Shatterstar were forgotten, somewhere in the dead universe.

Planet Hulk was weird. It was a story about Gladiator Steve Rogers and his trusty pal Devil Dinosaur travelling across a world filled with Hulks (of course) in order to kill the Red (Hulk) King. This, in turn, would bring his warbound mate — Bucky, long since stolen from him — back.

Planet Hulk, Steve Rogers & Bucky Barnes, Marvel Comics Secret Wars event 2015, Words: Sam Humphries, Art: Marc Laming, Colors: Jordan Boyd

Steve screams for Bucky. Dreams of him and then curses his sleeping brain when he wakes up and he is still not here. He walks towards his own death. He loves him. They are warbound.

I read the word warbound, and I thought. Wait, what? I thought, are Marvel actually going to do it? If they were ever going to do it, it seemed like the place. A miniseries with no implications about the wider universe. This is just a fragment of Steve — an alternate version, easily forgotten.

The series would show flashbacks to Steve and Bucky together, in a world that seemed like a combination of the universe of the Marvel movies, and of the main Marvel comics universe. The memories were hazy, loving. Steve now was grizzled, beaten up. Driven to a frenzy, driven to being almost a different person — by love.

Planet Hulk, Steve Rogers & Bucky Barnes, Marvel Comics Secret Wars event 2015, Words: Sam Humphries, Art: Marc Laming, Colors: Jordan Boyd

Of course, they did not kiss. Of course, the ship never became canon. Of course, what I had taken for naked desire and grief and loss and longing had been meant as something else — simpler. Take away the desire. Take away the longing.

But you can’t. We see people in comics, and in films, and everywhere. We all wrestle with feelings and we can recognise them in stories when we see them. We don’t need for them to be sanctioned. It doesn’t matter what the writer intended, or what the artists intended. More importantly, it doesn’t matter how Disney wants me to interact with the stories that they bankroll.

Disney doesn’t exist inside the world of the story. And we never expect our ships to become canon. But that only matters if you care about canon. We’re taught to care about it because comics and films and all the rest of it cost money to access. By buying them we’re buying in. They buy our loyalty — our willingness to see what they want us to see — but they get our money for it. It’s a trick. The Marvel vs DC rivalry is a commercial thing that they make fans care about in order to sell comics, but it also closes off the rest of the world. DC and Marvel are what matter. Whose vision of the world do you believe in?

One of the most radical things I tell myself about the media I consume is: fuck canon. Every story is as real as every other story.

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.

Charlotte Geater

Charlotte Geater

PhD student, fanfic writer, sometime-poet. You can find me on twitter @tambourine.

12 thoughts on “On Shipping: What’s Disney’s, What’s Yours, and What’s Mine

  1. Excellent article on fandom! Confused outsiders should totally read this.

    In my mind, the most beautiful thing about fanworks and fandoms is how inclusive they are, they are basically where anything can happen. We take some of the fundamentals of canon and expand them into an infinite number of tiny AUs (imagine every fanwork existing as a sort of AU). So I always feel that canon is best when it leaves things a bit more open, allowing fans to interpret more freely and create more possibilities in fanworks. With romances, if they’re doing one for canon they should at least make it interesting. Nothing bothers me more than unnecessary canon romances.

    I enjoy slash fiction immensely but of course I never expect my preferred ships to become canon. Not just because they’re mostly queer and not really feasible in the current social environment. No, the main thing is that I prefer that they remain in fandom because I trust fandom to treat them well, with the pure hearts of fans and not the money-stank fingers of industry insiders. And I would rather have all the parallel co-existing multi-ships than have just one picked to become canon.

    What sometimes make me cringe is how parts of fandom can get carried away with what they love… It scares me a little when people present creators and cast with fanworks. Fandom members can sometimes forget that regular people don’t see things the way we do at all. I guess I’m of the opinion that fanworks stay within fandom and should only be rec’d to people who show active curiosity towards fandom. It’s motifying when some fans get too vocal about what they believe should be canon and demand changes from the creators. Fans should offer opinions and critiques but really I think the creators reserve the right to make all decisions in their works.

  2. 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.

    1. I’m cis and straight, and only 28, and EYE feel completely irate…at this point (damn, couldn’t finish the rhyme!)

  3. 3 points:

    1.) I wish that Blip.tv hadn’t been taken down. There was a great video that was ostensibly a review of that last crappy Silent Hill movie, but went into a more retrospective tone with the franchise as a whole, and brought up a lot of the same points you did with canon, not to mention continuity. Not so much with shipping and queerness and more so with horrifying abstract symbolism, but still.

    2.) I feel your pain on money restricting canon, as well as the fact that so much money is made with exports now, that the sensibilities of international markets have to be pandered to, regardless of how little sense it makes. As someone who loves everything I’ve ever seen regarding Bubbline in both the Adventure Time show and comic, the international market thing pisses me off beyond belief.

    3.) Any advice on pushing queerness in the Big Two? Anything still being collected I could pick up, or a prominent character I’ve overlooked? Angela, Harley Quinn, Catwoman and Midnighter are all I’ve got in terms of leads, and Sera, Apollo and Alysia Yeoh are all I can think of on the side.

    1. And yes I recall Batwoman; she’s not active at the moment, and the whole Andreyko run infuriates me beyond belief.

      1. yeah desiree has a pretty comprehensive view on what they’re currently putting out. i’m hopeful for unbeatable squirrel girl — erica henderson mentioned on her tumblr a while ago that one of the characters is trans, although this hasn’t appeared in the comics yet — but in general i think DC is a better bet than marvel at the moment.

        marvel ARE putting out an avengers series with billy and teddy in, and another one with america chavez in, and they’re all queer. i think america is in the ultimates, but i’m not sure about billy & teddy. i’m not reading either series and can’t vouch for whether they’re actually getting to do anything. worth keeping an eye on, though. america chavez did seem to have a new girlfriend in the first issue of ultimates…

        wrt DC, though, i’d recommend bombshells if you’re not currently picking it up. it’s a weekly digital comic and honestly it is the highlight of my week, every week. multiple queer characters. it has rotating leads, but they’re leads. i think they’re also putting it out in monthly comics that compile the weeklies, if you don’t want to read digital?

    2. There’s Constantine as well, not to mention Secret Six which has quite a few leading queer characters on the team such as Porcelain, Jeanette, and Catman. Out of the Big Two, DC has more in terms of queer representation, but Marvel also has the recent inclusion of Bobby Drake in X-Men now and you’ve already mentioned Angela that’s pretty much it for Marvel comics.
      For Big Two TV you have Jeri on Jessica Jones and that’s pretty much it for Marvel. In DC you have Sara Lance, Nyssa Al Ghul, Piped Piper, and Captain Sighn on Arrow and Flash if I recall correctly. Sara Lance, however, is the only big character out of those four that plays a really active role in the series, though Nyssa is a recurring character (and a woc). On Gotham you have Barbara Kean, Renee Montoya, and Tigeress.
      The only chance, so far, that we have in the movies is Constantine in Justice League Dark. As far as we currently know, James Gunn has no designs on including the two lesbian characters in future GotG installments. And Kevin Feige has stated that there might be a queer character in a Marvel movie sometime in 2025.
      The important thing is that we keep the conversation going about overall inclusion. Pushing for queer characters from the comics to be including and introduced in the movies and TV shows and not killed off (as they were in Agents of SHIELD).

  4. 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.

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