Why ‘shipping’ fictional characters is a slippery slope towards a moral evil.

Posted: January 20, 2017 by ryanlecocq in Off-topic

If you are into pretty much any popular fiction of any medium, you are probably familiar with the term “shippers”.  These are fans who want to see certain characters in their favorite franchise hooked up romantically and will often go to great lengths to push that desire on the community.  This has gone to almost ludicrous levels recently with fanbases like Harry Potter, Doctor Who and now the popular game Overwatch.  In a surreal reality, fans even threaten to boycott a series to realize a fantasy.  That sentence was so much fun to write.

Most people giving this topic any press coverage are focusing on “are these people pathetic?” vs “how much say should fans have in creative process?”.  That is largely ignoring the psychological implications of this phenomena.  When you remove all of the context and semantics, what people are doing is a negative and by my definition evil process of thought.  That may sound absurd, but consider this:  That character is the brainchild of a writer, who imagined them with a gender identity, sexual preference and their own ideas of what they are attracted to.  Although that character is not a person, with rights to autonomy and choice, they are a statement of an individual that was created by a person.  So if we assign that character temporary personhood (just for the sake of this thought exercise), what you are doing is forcing choice of partners on this person to fit your own desires to empathize with them.

Now, now hold on!  This is just harmless fantasy and these are fictional characters, not people!  So it should be safe, right?  I guess so, if you think that any sort of fiction is okay, even if it clashes with our societal ideas of morality.  Now I don’t want to create a straw man argument here and debate whether there should be rape simulator games or games that let you kill children.  The point is that if you believe it is different because it is fantasy, just be aware that you are fantasizing about forcing gender and sexual identity on people, as well as arranging partners for them.  It is absolutely true that these are fictional characters and nobody is harmed.  The emotional need that you are seeking to satisfy though, is the same as that felt by a parent who doesn’t approve of their child’s sexuality or choice in partners.

We want the people we care about to make choices that we approve of.  A lot of us care about Tracer and Mercy almost as much as we would a pet or a family member.  That may seem strange, but can any one of us not name a fictional character that we identified with more than anyone we knew?  It’s because good writers have a lot of empathy and are very good at writing characters anyone would want to care about.  At the end of the day though, those characters and their personalities belong to them.  We all buy in little parts when we shower those creators with our money, but the important things like love and sexuality should rightfully be theirs, because that character is a part of them.

Hopefully I have managed to poke a hole in your mental fabric that will take some thinking to fill.  My objective is not to make people feel guilty, as there is once again no harm done here.  They aren’t real people.  I would prefer that we, as a society, learn to open our minds and allow ourselves to empathize with characters less like ourselves.  Be okay with a character not doing what you would have them do.  A series of books that did that for me was the Godspeaker trilogy by Karen Miller.  The first novel is told from the perspective of the character who becomes the villain.  You don’t know this as the reader (unless you read it after the whole series is out I guess), so it makes the first book painful to read.  You see the horrible things that happen to her and she becomes more and more twisted and bitter.  By the end I was like “I hate this character, I hate this book!  Why did you recommend this to me?”  The person who did so just smiled wryly and handed me the second book, insisting that I try it out.  A few pages in, I realized that in a masterstroke of writing I will never equal, Miller had created a villain more real and hateful to me than any other ever could be.  I truly grew to hate her, just as the characters in the story, because I watched her change into someone I could no longer love.  That betrayal to my desires as a reader was so real to me, that it created empathy for those I hated, changing me forever as much as Stranger in a Strange Land or God Emperor of Dune.

Because fiction isn’t just imagination, it changes who we are and who we can empathize with.  For me it has been for the better.  My hope is that as fiction expands into new mediums, it can lead to the same growth of the soul that books have given me, not a new way to fantasize evil.

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