If you’re anything like me, you might be a fan of things that are quirky, weird, and funny, with a healthy dose of fantasy. That’s a big part of what interests me about television like Netflix’s Stranger Things and Amazon’s Good Omens. (And the book too, for the latter.) Despite some problematic elements, and the ongoing issues with the author, it’s also why I loved Harry Potter.
And if you’re like me, you might also take an interest in what fans and fan communities are saying about those shows (or books). Which means you have likely encountered “shipping,” the pairing of two characters who are not typically in a romantic and/or sexual relationship within the story’s canon. (In some cases, there’s no actual ship, only speculation about a character’s “real” sexual orientation and/or gender identity.)
Now, I’m not against shipping. But I do have some problems with how it’s done, which I won’t detail here. I’ve done my share of writing fan fiction, so I can hardly judge. The question it raises for me is, what responsibility to fans have to the original work? That is, are fans obligated to acknowledge “that’s not what really happened” when creating fan art?
Neil Gaiman responded to this with regard to Good Omens, which he co-wrote with Terry Pratchett and then adapted for Amazon (Pratchett died in 2015):
“Make fun fan fiction. Enjoy yourself. Make things up. Share them. That’s the point ... Canonically, which is to say using the text in the book, you don’t get any description of Crowley’s sex life. The only thing the book says is ‘angels are sexless unless they specifically make an effort. You can infer, and (more to the point) you can imagine, and lots of people have chosen, not unreasonably, to ship him with Aziraphale, but you are still Making Stuff Up. It could be Making Stuff Up that happens between paragraphs, or Making Stuff Up that isn’t mentioned at all, but it’s still Making Stuff Up.”
In other words, have fun with it, but if it’s not in the original, then it’s what your own head is filling in rather than what was on page or intended.
I think those words are particularly important when it comes to what’s on page or screen and the ways our brains interpret that information. People have seen various shows as engaging in “queer baiting” with hints at a romantic and/or sexual relationship between two same-gender characters. With Stranger Things, some fans have been angry that one of the main characters “won’t admit” to being gay, despite the fact that it’s entirely possible the character isn’t (or is another letter in LGBTQ+).
Some shows do this intentionally, of course, but some are not doing any such thing. What makes it stand out to us is the lack of other canonically queer characters and the way media tends to show friendships (or lack thereof) between same-gender characters in highly stereotyped ways.
So, what to do with all that? Continue shipping and having fun, with the understanding that yes, we’re all just Making Stuff Up.