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.
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.
Shipping puts relationships back at the centre of the story.
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.
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.
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.
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.