TV (Relation)shippers: Just Do It!

Two more shows key to the development of shipper culture were Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Xena: Warrior Princess, an early example of a show that played to — and with — its shipper following. Xena's emotional heart was the friendship between Lucy Lawless' titular heroine and her young sidekick, Gabrielle (Renee O'Connor). The show would occasionally hint that they were lovers, which activated the Xena/Gabrielle slashers, which spurred the producers to push it even more. ''Once the fans picked up on it, it was like gas to the fire,'' says Xena creator Robert Tapert, who during the sixth and final season recruited to the writing staff a fan named Melissa Good, whose well-regarded slash fiction dramatized what the show would only imply. Xena and Gabrielle's kiss in the series finale, says Tapert, was a farewell reward for the show's ardent shippers.

Today, shipping isn't just a rebel call or DIY wish fulfillment but one more way for fans to be fans in an era in which geek is mainstream and romantic fantasies, dark and otherwise, are all the rage. Shippers don't just ship unlikely couples — they'll ship anything with a romantic pulse. Evoking Twilight's Team Edward-vs.-Team Jacob clash, Scodari says: ''These days it is not a question of 'to ship or not to ship.' Now it's a question of competing desires. Which couple will win?'' The object of their affections may be fictional, and yes, their pop culture crushing can be scary. But for many, the benefit — and perhaps true motivation — is community with other fans. Elmedina D., 15, a fan of The Vampire Diaries, is attracted to two competing ships — Damon and Elena, and Stefan and Elena — and makes music videos dedicated to both couples. ''When I hear a song, it just reminds me of a certain couple, just screams 'This is perfect for them!' and you want to make a video,'' she says. Jodi Zeramby, 40, has written fan fiction imagining a romance between Alicia (Julianna Margulies) and bisexual Kalinda (Archie Panjabi) from The Good Wife. Authorial intent is a hotly debated topic among shippers, and Zeramby is convinced she's onto something: ''When you look at how close they got on the show, what they're willing to do for each other, I think it's there.''

Kara Estes, 29, is a slightly more typical TV shipper. She's a longtime Nathan Fillion fan and loyal Castle viewer, which automatically makes her a shipper, as the ABC drama is all about slowly bringing mystery novelist Castle (Fillion) and police detective Beckett (Stana Katic) together. ''I'd say 90 percent of fan fiction is about the relationship,'' says Estes, who spends about four hours a week blogging, tweeting, and chatting online about Castle. She doesn't write fan fiction, but she reads it, and her affection for the Castle fan community inspired her to create the Castle Fanfic Awards. ''Everyone has a hobby,'' she says. ''My dad rebuilds old cars; I have Castle.''

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