Humans have a deep-set desire to watch people fall in love but a pathological upchuck reaction to watching couples. Thus, fictional love stories must traverse the middle ground for want of avoiding projectile fan-splurk and negative energy that could unbalance the universe, and this is where we find the ship tease.
For the uninitiated, “ship” is (supposedly) short for “relationship” and has become a verb of its own. To ship a pair of characters is to want to see them get together (the nature of this is not crucial; whether they are settling down to adorable domesticity or engaging in casual angry copulation is up to the individual).
In almost every piece of fiction you will find some semblance of a love story. There are whole genres for romance of course, be they comic or tragic, but it seeps into every genre and medium. Basically, we’re in love with love. I’m sure there are countless psychological papers laying out reasons for this. Maybe we want to instil hope in the world and receive warm fuzzies. Maybe we want to imagine that one half of the couple is us. Maybe we just like excuses to gush at our TV screens/books as we cry into our cats about how truly alone we are.
It’s a strange dance. The viewers are introduced to potential love interests and the writers make the chemistry between them clear, whether through cute awkward moments or arguments sizzling with seething sexual tension is down to the creator’s choice. So now as well as whatever other drama that’s going on you have the viewers on the edges of their seats desperate to know if those characters will ever really be able to consummate their affections and end up happily together. Will they? Won’t they? Watch this space to find out!
Anyone who watches Bones will know that one of the chief attractions of the show that had so many people hooked was not the crime-solving element but the romance. Or rather, the potential romance. The mysteries were gratingly half-baked for a crime show but nobody cared. The reason they kept watching was to follow Booth and Brennan and see if they ever realised and put into action their feelings for each other.
My own experience watching Firefly (I have joined the legions sobbing into the internet about the lack of more than one season) was a mix of hand-on-chin fascination with the gritty sci-fi world our friend Joss Whedon had created, and clawing at my hair shouting “Oh you two, just KISS!” at every scene featuring Mal and Inara.
There are multiple romantic subplots in the show: the bitter wordplay between the aforementioned, who are clearly deeply fond of each other but for reasons sure to be explored as the show continues (oh wait, I made myself sad) don’t want to get together and cause complications. There’s also, in contrast, Simon and Kaylee, who have a much more pink-cheeked and adorable relationship that is shot to pieces by something awkward Simon says at every possible good moment.
It’s infuriating but I love it. It creates a good show and hooks the viewer, emotions and all. And it’s not because shippers are masochists (well, that’s arguable… we like to break our hearts like ravers like to break glow sticks) but because endless teasing on the writer’s part is better than the alternative.
Because what happens when the two do get together? What’s left to hope and dream and cry for? Now we just have to watch them make out and be cutesy and get in the way of the plot with their sweetness. It gets a bit… well, boring. The reason “And They Lived Happily Ever After” is an ending we like is because it’s an ending, and we can relax knowing that somewhere in a peaceful land of resolved stories our ship is sailing on calm waters that we no longer have to worry about.
But if a couple actually does become, well, a couple, in the middle of a series, what then? Our question of “will they or won’t they” is answered, and a good portion of the emotional pull is gone.
And then, to supplement this, the writers feel the need to make complications for the couple at hand to try and raise the question again and re-hook the viewers. Suddenly… there’s a love triangle! Or… one of them is sent away to war! Or purgatory! Or they can’t be together for some enormously angst-inducing reason! Or maybe one of them dies. That’s usually effective.
It all gets a bit much, especially since it’s clear that (most times, anyway, and obviously removing the instance of death) the characters paired up will stay together. Because if their love is broken by the drama at hand, we feel cheated. Like, you set all that up for nothing? We spent so many episodes watching their interactions, cringing when they were interrupted at a meaningful moment and grinning at the times where they let their guard down and showed some affection, and it was dragged out to an epic conclusion where we cheered, leapt from our couches and hugged one another and keysmashed happily on our blogs… and it all came to naught?
The best course of action, I think, is usually to drag the teasing out to the very end, and as part of the story’s resolution the two can emerge from the wreckage as a happy couple. And They Lived Happily Ever After. And we know that they’ll be happy because the show is over and the writers won’t feel the need to hurt them anymore to get viewer’s attention. And they can wed and honeymoon and have beautiful babies and we won’t have to be subjected to any of it.
If shippers want to see into the nitty-gritties of a relationship, they read or write fanfiction. Generally, the viewing populace gets more entertainment from the love story than the actual relationship’s details.
Sure, some of us might enjoy watching a fictional couple in action, but what I’ve gathered as the general mindset is that it just gets in the way. I couldn’t get through the fourth Mortal Instruments book because I couldn’t stomach all the making out. And as a long-standing fan of that series I felt horrible! But that was just the tragedy of the circumstance; a perfectly decent series ruined for me by the main pairing uniting in the middle of it, and being subjected to awful drama to fill the space left by the “will they or won’t they?” narrative.
We love to watch people fall in love but don’t want to watch them actually acting lovey. It’s a bit of a paradox, isn’t it? Then again, nobody said investing your emotions in a work of fiction was going to be all smooth-sailing.