Tumblr, like every other social network, is rife with fandom. But Tumblr, more so than say Facebook, lends itself particularly well to geekery due to its scrolling column format. It is heavily reliant on still images and short video, less so than text, because of it’s easy and speedy navigation. Multiple posts can be traversed with the flick of a finger so images have a tendency to be as striking as possible. The average ‘tumbler’ has a tendency to keep it concise and to the point. JPEGs and GIFs grant fans the opportunity to post fan art, their favourite scenes. A fandom feature of the past few years has been the ‘shipping’ of certain characters. ‘Ship’ is an abbreviation of ‘relationship’, the noun turned into a verb, and is what a fan does when they advocate romantic intimacy between two characters.
Given proven track records, writers of cult television serials seek to appeal to as wide a fan-base as possible. Pre-1990, most television shows only featured a token female character, usually the spouse or paramour of our main character. More recent shows have striven to maintain a healthy gender balance. Strong female characters draw in younger female fans while also providing eye-candy for the male gaze. While giant fandoms had existed before, Star Trek et al, I believe it was Joss Whedon’s Buffy the Vampire Slayer that began a successful and higher quality trend. Maintaining a core set of male and female personalities and a rotating cadre of ‘big bads’, each of the series’ characters was treated to a love-life, the average number of partners per character being at least two. Obvious matches were dealt with, as were sexual tensions. The genius of the series’ romantic plots lay in timing. Attractions between characters simmered long term beneath the surface until passions exploded at entirely the right or, often more effectively, the wrong time. The introduction of a gay relationship, albeit a digestible lesbian pairing based more on sweetness than sex, added further strings to the bow and brought diversity and variety to the shows already complicated love stories. Though not often the shows most popular character, Buffy Summers herself acted as the lynch pin around which all others revolved. In a testament to fantastic writing, not one of her many relationships ever became tiresome. No easy feat when considering the botched romantic tensions of Mulder and Scully or (for fuck’s sake) Ross and Rachel. Buffy was involved with a string of men whose problems, supernatural or not, injected doses of real life issues into storylines. Obsession, inferiority complexes, addiction and basic incompatibility were all drawbacks in her love life. It felt real because, well, it was made to be. These were the very same humdrum and mundane thorns in our collective sides, the handicaps each of us bear in our quest for love and acceptance. With no character’s capacity for love unexplored, BtVS delivered for everyone.
And in a sense, it spoiled us.
Shows of the same era, though often of similar quality, were lacking in the romantic department. Roswell lacked variety, Stargate and Star Trek both lacked basic sex, X-files lacked focus, Farscape and Sliders lacked seriousness. It was not until the resurgence of ‘great TV’ that ensemble sci-fi/fantasy was once again revitalised.
HBO has scored a runaway hit with its adaptation of George R.R. Martin’s series of novels A Song of Ice and Fire. Filmed as Game of Thrones, the television series has proven to be a perfect marriage of material and medium. HBO has long had a policy of auteur material, quality writing and adult content. Previous productions of note include David Milch’s Shakespearean western Deadwood, Alan Ball’sphilosophical family-drama Six Feet Under and Tom Fontana’s prison parable OZ. The network is known for taking risks and their investment in GoT has paid off. Currently one of the biggest shows on television, it has cross the board appeal, a melding of historical fiction, political drama and fantasy. It benefits from HBO’s no-holds-barred policy with brutal violence, scenes of sadistic torture and a virtual parade of nudity and sex, so much so that the death of major characters and gratuitous sex scenes have become the show calling card. With the tenet of big-screen thinking for the small-screen, other networks have adopted HBO’s liberal attitude. NBC, AMC and even MTV have all produced sci-fi/fantasy shows heavy in sexual and violent content. Coupled with the impossibility of imposing age restrictions and certification, the material inevitably falls into the hands of young adults, even teenagers. And it is there, gods bless them, that it thrives.
With unrestrained passion, young audiences fuel their favourite shows with free publicity, fan art, even treating each new episode as a social event with communal viewings in the flesh or via internet. With the pervasion of online social media, fandoms from different continents communicate and share their passions with weblogs in all their guises. And this is where it gets interesting. Or weird. Or both. With the aforementioned practice of ‘shipping’, fans cut and paste in order to support or influence writers into consolidating romantic relationships between their favourite characters. In most cases, it only just falls short of fan-fiction. In some cases, entire tomes have been written.
With GoT's rampant sex comes romance, and fandom's imagination is unleashed. Central to George R.R. Martin's writing are character relationships, complex unions and tenuous friendships. GoT has numerous pairings that fall tantalisingly short of fulfilment, rousing the tragic-romantic feelings within us all. The impracticality of some relationships are irrelevant. The Hound, Sandor Clegane, a scarred and murderous moral vacuum and Sansa Stark, a virginal damsel in constant frustrating distress, were one of many ‘ships’ proposed. This was despite the age difference, Sansa all of 14 years, The Hound a man of 30. The Kingslayer, Jaime Lannister, and Brienne of Tarth are another popular duo, a pairing slow in gestation and of an intricate psychology. The orphans Gendry Waters and Arya Stark would seem the most likely ‘ship’ to come to fruition, though circumstances conspire against them, and then there are the same-sex relationships that fans support and advocate. (Indeed, fandom is redolent with ‘slash fiction’. A quick search online for ‘Kirk/Spock’ will yield hundreds of scenes of an intimate nature.) In GoT, the chaste and frosty Stannis Baratheon and the staunchly loyal Davos Seaworth share something strong, unbreakable and unspoken but even they are not immune to the romantic ideas of shippers. The Red Priest, Thoros of Myr, and Beric Dondarrion, though having little screen time, prompted a strong response mostly due to their unabashed fondness for one another, or perhaps because one revived the other from death with a prayer and a kiss.
Other shows are also not insulated from the ‘gay-ship’. The more recent hit for NBC, Hannibal, an update and return to quality for one of cinema’s most notable villains, has spawned a massive ship in the form of Hannibal Lecter and his pursuer Will Graham. A slow, boiling relationship that precedes their ultimate enmity, Lecter and Graham’s screen time is pure televisual magic; patient, subtle and intimate. A study in traditional reversal, Lecter is an impenetrable shell of control and carefully restrained menace. Graham is a mess of emotions, given to expression and unfettered thought. The mirroring of the two characters is a constant in the show, as is the truth that in spite of their differences, they are each as crazy as the other. It is, obviously, an age-old opposite-but-equal adversity. But peruse the internet and every contact between characters is interpreted as an affectionate caress. Every understanding look becomes a smouldering expression of longing. ‘Hannigram’ is the shorthand for this couple who are the focus of several ‘ships and fan-fictions; entire blogs are devoted to the exploration of the tiniest of interactions. The fact that this is a nightmarish scenario of manipulation and exploitation does not dampen the ‘ships flame. The power balance, purely in favour of the villain, grants Lecter the role of ‘butch’ or ‘top’, with fan-fantasies picturing him bearing Graham to safety or acting in a more penetrative capacity.
The gay-ship is a two edged sword. Sociologically speaking, it shows, amongst the next generation, an attitude of acceptance and a degree of normalisation when it comes to same-sex partnerships. Though occasionally a perceived humorous jab at masculinity, these are still the musings and fantasies of loyal fans who love their characters. The sexualisation of male relationships is also a common practice in most fandoms where young females are concerned. In order to be desirable, idols are bestowed with an active and pervasive sexuality. But in order to neutralise any threat they might pose to the virginal or insecure, they are queered into a closeted persona. The same practice is common, and encouraged, in boy-bands and du jour in both K and J Pop. It’s considered cute and endearing.
The problem with the gay-ship, and shipping in general, is it’s reductive policy when it comes to analysing any relationship. If we were to take as an example the ‘ship of The Hound and Sansa Stark, we are ignoring so much character and psychology in favour of a traditional romance. Sandor Clegane is a complex character, contradictory and ambiguous, a corruption and critique of the traditional White Knight role. Sansa is a stereotypical damsel taken to an atrocious degree, orphaned and abused. In a less realist telling, the obvious result is a union but that would forego all paternal notions and empathy. There is absolutely no attraction there; they each serve as the other’s reality check, an effect that would be nullified by a forced romance. In the case of Will Graham and Hannibal Lecter, the proposal wreaks such havoc with a philosophical and psychological balancing act that the idea is unconscionable. In addition to the Echo/Narcissus relationship that is occurring on screen, Hannibal is completely incapable of ‘liking’ or being attracted to anyone. His relationships with women, as surrogate sisters, and his curiosity regarding Will Graham is the closest he will ever come and still not close enough.
Sometimes the simplest answer is just another problem.
The MTV series, Teen Wolf, is a re-imagining of the original 80s movie starring Michael J Fox, though it bears more in common with Twilight than its source material. It is also a show that mires itself in easy answers. Indeed, ‘shipping any couple on the show seems redundant. Before watching a single episode of the show, I had taken for granted that the majority of the major characters were gay. Marketing consisted of hairless, toned torsos glistening in the shower after gym, boys with the same model haircut pushing each other up against lockers, and perfectly chiselled cheekbones and jawlines growling at each other, nose to nose. Unfortunately, it is not as politically subversive. There is one gay character whose sexuality is noted, yet the program steers clear of illustrating any form of homophobia. Rather than depicting homosexuals as targets for bullying or outcasts, the character is an ‘out’ jock, respectable, popular and well-liked. A push away from reality it may be (in a series that features werewolves) but the idyllic, bigotry-free high school is refreshing. The hierarchy of ‘jocks’ and ‘nerds’ remains, is essential to the storyline, but, here, gayness is normal. In fact, more than normal, downright fashionable. The show features an abundance of open-minded pretty-boys parading through the locker room, running topless in the moonlight, and wrestling on rooftops. It seems as though the definition of eye-candy has been re-written. The show was developed by the openly gay creator of Criminal Minds, Jeff Davis. The choice of another high-profile gay man, Russell Mulcahy, the creator of Highlander, to act as executive producer and direct key episodes added flourish but it is at the core, in the hands of the writers, that the real work is done. The female characters, though attractive, have yet to be subjected to any gratuitous boob or bum shots. Instead, they are well-written, smart individuals rallying against stereotypes of dumb cheerleader and girlfriend-in-distress. The show has it’s ‘one-true partnership’ in the form of ‘Sterek’; hyperactive, wily human Stiles and hunky, brooding werewolf Derek. The characters often find themselves thrown together, in states of undress, in confined spaces, and with Derek, the butch of the pair, roughing up his companion a little. Rather than a subtle implication, the relationship is conceived in full-flow, undeniably showy and explicit. The makers, seeming to cater to gay and female pet-likes from inception, know their audience full well and have delivered a package that will only alienate the homophobic, a minority among the sci-fi fantasy population. Still, Teen Wolf gives the ‘shippers nowhere to go because it is all already there, on the screen. Any attempt at subversion would be a step toward mere normality and even that is already covered by the central relationship of Scott and Alison. The writers do all the heavy-lifting for the fans, leaving them to capture stills, make GIFs and enjoy. It may be a show so completely in sync with its fandom that it is a guilty pleasure, but without the guilt of wishful thinking.
If Teen Wolf marks a turning point in the fandom/show relationship, one wonders what the next step might be. Shows that anticipate their audience’s needs are walking a fine line. Joss Whedon made a career out of unpredictability, giving his audience, not what they wanted, but what they needed. Sadly, a look at his post-Buffy track record shows how frustratingly poor he has been treated by studios, despite an ardent fan base. There is no clear answer how long TV shows can be maintained, regardless of quality or fandom. But fandom is eternal. And the ‘ship keeps sailing, in fair waters or foul.
List of images:
1. Cast of Buffy, the Vampire Slayer, season 5
2. Sansa Stark and Sandor Clegane, Game of Thrones, season 2
3. Hannibal fan art, by Yanagoya
4. Stiles and Derek, Teen Wolf, season 1