As Cool As A Fruitstand

…and maybe as strange. A movie blog.

On Shipping, or: a rambling post in which the depth of my Vampire Diaries obsession reveals itself.

Posted by Hedwig on February 12, 2012

Note: useful definitions for this post can be found at the bottom. Also, this post contains general SPOILERs for THE VAMPIRE DIARIES, TRUE BLOOD, and BUFFY – nothing too detailed, but you’ve been warned.

I don’t get shipping.

Ok, not quite true. On an intellectual level, I can understand the motivations, and I even think shipping is, on a certain level, a good thing. I may even have the occasional ‘shippy thought. But when I see a rant come by on tumblr about how Stefan is better for Elena than Damon* because he’s less controlling, all I can think of is – “wait? You think the relationships in the show can be mapped to reality in ANY meaningful way? They’re both mass murderers!”

Let me be clear: the show’s most (only?) enduring story line is that Elena is torn between these two vampire brothers. The love triangle is a familiar trope to construct a series around: just sticking to vampire fandoms, there’s Sookie/Bill/Erik, Bella/Edward/Jacob, and even – stretching it a little – Buffy/Angel/Spike (different since Spike and Angel were never concurrently love interests). In all cases, the question about who the female protagonist should be with is clearly best answered with “neither”** – but then where would the drama be? To me, though, the triangles are hardly the most interesting aspects of these shows – they’re a useful framework, but there needs to be flesh on those bones (to mix a metaphor.)

Useful as the love triangle is, the way it’s set up in most of these cases is grist for the shipper mill. See, there’s usually a “good” option (Stefan, Bill, Angel, and to a certain extent Edward)… and they’re usually kinda boring. The “good” alternative has already gone through a journey of redemption, and their character ark has nowhere to go but down. On the other hand, the “bad” guy (Damon, Erik, Spike) starts out as a lot of campy fun (in all cases, the actors are clearly having more fun in their roles than they’re counterparts), and the love for the female protagonists inspires them to try to be better people. So the good guy goes bad, and the bad guy goes good – else there would be no tension in the heroine’s choice. Some shippers think the bad boy’s efforts should be rewarded, while others are less quick to forgive, and think the good guy deserves loyalty.

Take TVD (which, btw, I love for its amazingly bananas awesomeness, so please don’t think this post is an attack). Stefan was dull as dishwater in the beginning: noble, drinking only animal blood, broody in an abstract way. Damon, however, had a way with a snarky quip, wiggled his eyebrows at any occasion, shamelessly flirted with his brother’s girl, and had a clear Byronesque self-destructive streak going on. Sure, Stefan’s (marginally) the better boyfriend, and Damon was evil (not just in a killing-people but also in an abusing-cute-blonde-girls way), but Damon was by far the more interesting character.

Enter addiction. Turns out Damon is a problem drinker (of both alcohol and human blood), prone to binging and not thinking through the consequences. But he seems to be able to moderate himself when he wants to – any excuse is good for a relapse, but he’s not an addict. Stefan, however, needs to be abstinent because a single drop of human blood can trigger a full relapse to – ahem – “ripperdom”, in which he’s basically an out-of-control murder machine. This is teased in the first season, and finally happens in the finale of the second season, leading Stefan’s body count to equal (or even surpass?) Damon’s in the time-scope of the series.

Understand now why I don’t understand arguments which involve whether Damon is too controlling or not?

Starting to notice a pattern here?

This plot development is sort of similar to Angel losing his soul and turning back into Angelus – the character becomes “evil”, but it’s due to something outside of his control, and potentially reversible. A nice mirroring of this can be found in Erik turning into amnesiacpuppy!Erik in the most recent season of TRUE BLOOD. These “magic” transformations allow the writers to eat their cake and have it, too, in the latter case doubly so: they both suggest that Erik in his stripped down, essential state is affectionate and sweet, while a reversion to the old, sexy-scary Erik is just a spell away.

TVD has the extra complication that it’s a show in which a lot happens, very very fast. There can be three double-or-triple-crossing (and, in one case, to use Carrie Raisler’s expression, three “surprise stabbings”) in one episode. Just from a story-telling perspective, the characters can’t stay angry very long over radical betrayals (or, you know, murders) because after two episodes, nobody would be speaking to anybody any more, let alone make out with them. But drawing the relationships into the real world, by talking about how a relationship would or would not work, and discussing standard markers of romantic desirability, only makes the narrative shortcuts more glaring. Elena simply can’t end up with either for very long, because the drama keeps the show chugging along, just like every big bad will be followed by a next, even bigger bad***.

I don’t watch TVD to see who Elena ends up with. I watch it for the over-the-top way Ian Somerhalder plays Damon, for the breakneak pace, the crazy developments, and the subtle social commentary it sometimes indulges in –  and executes much better than the TRUE BLOOD with its oft-leaden metaphors. I loved the subplot idea last season to have Caroline’s formerly closeted father try to “cure” her of her bloodlust, for instance. I watch it because I can almost never predict wha(t’s going to happen next, and because everyone is simply gorgeous (and, as of the most recent episode, engages in very hot sex scenes). I watch because not only are there two doppelgangers, but there might soon be three, etc. etc. (seriously: if you’re not already watching this show, you should be).  But the Stefan/Damon question simply isn’t all that interesting to me.

Still, I think shipping does have positive elements. After all, shippers are truly invested in shows/films/books, engaging with the text instead of passively absorbing it. Not to mention the amusing fan art it often results in (just search for “Hilson” on tumblr, if you dare).  And yes, the above shows that I’m probably the last person to accuse anyone of obsessing over the minute details of a television show. But it does reduce the shows to nothing but the romantic development, and since the relationships modeled in these shows are far from healthy (or even functional),  they might not be the best romances to idealize or – god forbid – emulate.

But ok . I’ll cop to squee-ing when Spike and Buffy finally brought the house down. And though I’d bristle if BF ever behaved like Mr. Rochester, the reason I re-read his initial conversation with Jane Eyre half a dozen times has little to do with its literary value. I guess there’s a shipper in all of us – and as long as you keep some perspective, that’s ok.

*The Vampire Diaries, hereafter referred to as TVD, the T included for obvious reasons.

** Spoiler for a book here, THE MARRIAGE PLOT, but I loved that this was exactly its conclusion
*** Though admittedly, TVD is a amazingly good at subverting narrative expectations. It’s currently in the process of turning the big bad into a puppy and suggesting that maybe he and his also-evil siblings should not be killed. Or possibly I just don’t want to lose Elijah and his glorious hair once again. But that’s a topic for another time.


**** You may notice I haven’t really talked about Twilight yet. That’s mostly because I don’t understand how readers didn’t see just how clearly Stephenie Meyers is on Team Edward. This triangle is skewed: Jacob is less a full-fledged element than he is one of the stereotypical impediments to happiness that every romance needs to have to postpone the inevitable. I guess werewolves just don’t stand a chance. Another difference is that Edward stays noble and boring throughout, while Jacob is never a real threat either – which paradoxically means I mind both their controlling, borderline-abusive behavior toward Bella a lot more. Edward keeps whining about how he’s a monster, but the only evidence we see is how poorly he treats the girl he supposedly loves. Again, though, that is a post for another time.

A SMALL LEXICON OF SHIPPING:

“Shipping” is the verb derived from the word “ship”, which in turn is a shortened form of “relationship” – this means the grammatically correct way to write the formed words would be ’ship and ‘shipping, but this is hardly ever done. A ship is a pairing between two (usually) fictional characters that the “shipper” would like to be/end up together. Like celebrity couples, ships are sometimes referred to by a portmanteau, eg. “Stelena” and “Delena” for TVD. This can (and does) lead to ridiculousness – research for this post led me to a “Bangel vs. Spuffy” page. Some ships are “cannon”, i.e. occur in the text itself, others are not. Examples of the latter are “slash” pairings, which usually involve two (seemingly) heterosexual people of the same gender – the word, which originated in fanfiction, comes from the / between the names of the characters, e.g. Kirk/Spock (one of the earliest known slash couples). Incidentally, there is a significant amount of slash involving the two men of all triangles cited above – yes, even the incestuous option. “OTP” stands for “One True Pairing”, which is the favorite ship of a certain shipper. I hope you feel enlightened by this paragraph, and are not inclined to judge me too harshly for my knowledge of these terms.

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