The shared language of fandom
Earlier today I had a conversation about the different meanings of the word shipping with the lovely cyclogenesis, and she really helped me articulate some of my thoughts on the subject. I’ve been frustrated with parts of fandom giving the word a different meaning than the traditional one, but she (rightly!) pointed out that it is mostly isolated in a part of fandom I don’t really interact with anyway. But it was still nagging at me, and okay, I admit, it’s a tiiiiiny bit GET OFF MY LAWN, but I think what it really comes down to is the very basic desire to understand and be understood. That’s the short version, anyway. What follows is the long version.
In the vast majority of fannish spaces I’ve been a part of over the years, the word “shipping” does not imply anything about whether or not a couple is actually together, both for fictional and real-person fandoms. It could refer to a real relationship (either in canon or real life) but it could also refer to something completely outside the realm of possibility. There is (what seems to be) a very large part of 1D fandom that uses the word “shipping” to refer to relationships they believe to be real. Without assigning any value judgments to either of these positions, this is a potential problem because it is very hard to have any kind of meaningful exchange when one word has different meanings to different people.
All of this got me thinking about the broader issue of language and culture. Over the summer, I did a project for one of my courses which ended up being about learning language through fandom, both English, and the language of fandom itself. I was very lucky to have myricarurba as my linguistics expert, and we had some really fascinating conversations. One of the things we discussed, which ended up becoming a key part of my project, was the shared language of fandom. In fandom, I can post a picture of Dylan O’Brien with the caption, I CAN’T EVEN WITH HIS FACE, and I know that people will understand me.
Shared language doesn’t just mean knowing the same definitions of words; it also means some sense of shared understanding and a common place to start from. Even if people vehemently disagree with each other’s opinions, there is a framework to those discussions/debates/arguments that goes beyond the words themselves. People may disagree with you and they may even dislike you, but they know what your words mean. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve started typing a text to my sister using fandom speak, and then had to backspace and start over, not because I’m embarrassed, but because she won’t know what I’m saying. She doesn’t speak this language.
I came into fandom with a lot of shame, and part of letting go of that was feeling like I was in a place where I could speak and be understood. There’s a sense of safety that comes with that, and that feeling is a huge part of what got me past feeling ashamed. I can remember a time years and years ago when I was afraid to talk about rimming, which, you know, has obviously changed a lot since then, haha. But what helped me get past that fear was feeling like I was in a place where people understood me. Finding fandom was more than just finding a fun thing to do in my spare time. These were my people. This was my language.
Another major part of me letting go of my shame involved setting very clear distinctions between fantasy and reality. It’s fine to like things in fantasy that you wouldn’t like in real life, and it’s fine to like things in fantasy that aren’t okay in real life. The latter is actually still a point of contention in some parts of fandom, as anyone who has ever been to an anon meme can tell you. Having a very clear distinction between fantasy and reality, and knowing that for the most part, other people understand that as well, has been a huge part of me getting to a place where I’m comfortable with the things I like, both inside my own head, and as part of fannish conversations. That framework is there - I don’t have to build it from scratch every time I talk about kinks.
Maybe it doesn’t seem like a big deal because it’s just one word, but understanding the concept of shipping is pretty fundamental when it comes to fandom. I know we all laughed at the Teen Wolf cast stumbling through trying to understand what it means, and coming up with definitions that were way off, but I think that makes a strong point. It’s really hard to talk about fandom with someone who does not know what shipping means, and I think it’s safe to assume it’s really hard to talk about fandom with someone who has a very different definition than you do, unless you’re both aware of that fact up front.
For example, I came across this post this morning and was completely baffled. Setting aside any judgment about that person’s opinion, I don’t understand the words. I think that that this person talking about shipping something because it’s cute is what I would refer to as shipping, and this person saying serious/hardcore shipping is what I would refer to as tinhatting, but I’m not sure because I look at that and it’s not my language. I have to guess at what’s implied by those different terms. This is just a small example, but if I wanted to engage with that person, either positively or negatively, first I’d have to ask for definitions of all those terms, then either switch my own thoughts into those terms or provide definitions for my words. All of that has to happen before we can even start discussing the actual content, and that is just really fucking tedious.
It’s just one word, but it’s such an important concept in fandom that I think it’s enough to shake up that framework I mentioned, so you can no longer assume a common starting point. Suddenly feeling like there’s this huge part of fandom that speaks a different language is really disconcerting to me, especially when the differences refer to the fantasy/reality divide. If this is just a thing that is isolated to part of 1D fandom, then it isn’t going to be a huge deal for me in the long run because I only interact with a small part of that fandom.
But if this is an indication of the future language of fandom, that could change things a lot, because that means I won’t be able to assume the shared language I took for granted for so long. That doesn’t make things categorically better or worse, and it doesn’t mean fandom can’t still be just as awesome and amazing as ever, but it does mean that when engaging in conversations, I’m going to have to start asking myself questions I haven’t had to ask for a very long time: are these people speaking my language? And if I speak, will I be understood?
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