Irrational Actors: Chuck/Sarah Shippers
February 9th, 2010
There’s been a lot of talk on the Twitter today regarding the storm of angry comments about last night’s episode of Chuck, in particular what some fans are viewing as a betrayal of the relationship between Chuck and Sarah (the comments on Alan Sepinwall’s post are the most telling).
Now, I have two immediate impulses in response to these comments:
- Write a lengthy treatise on the inherent positivity found in “shipping” a particular couple, arguing that the practice turns ugly when it shifts from celebration of a couple’s promise to anger over that couple remaining apart.
- Slap these people upside the head.
Since I don’t quite have time for the former, and technology has not advanced far enough for me to dole out the latter electronically, I’ll settle for an amalgamation of the two: let’s look at the three reasons why these fans are being entirely irrational, both in terms of general shipping logic and in terms of the content of the actual storyline.
1. Chuck has Earned our Trust
I wrote a big piece a week and a half ago where I argued that Lost, after six seasons, does not “owe” us anything: the show is written for our enjoyment, and they have creative license to end it as they please. This does not mean that we need to be happy about what writers do with our favourite shows, but I believe that writers like Chris Fedak and Josh Schwartz have earned our trust, to the point where our concerns need to be presented as personal opinions rather than as ultimatums.
The shippers are often a fairly vocal minority, but so long as they are entirely aware that not everyone thinks the same way (see: the “out there,” but mostly well grounded, Penny/Sheldon shippers amongst Big Bang Theory fans) they have valid arguments. The problem comes when they believe that the writers, and other fans who may not see the couple in the same light, are now allowed to even think of the possibility that the couple in question shouldn’t be together. It transforms shippers from a vocal minority I’ll listen to (if not agree with) to a scourge of fandom that I have very little respect for, someone who refuses to be patient and trust in the writers and instead chooses a selfish, narrow image of what the show must be.
2. Have they never watched TV before?
There is something in television called conflict, wherein characters looking to achieve a particular goal face obstacles which make that goal more difficult to achieve. It’s not that important, except that it forms the centrepiece of every single narrative-based television series in the history of time. It’s also the bane of the ‘shipper’s existence, in that it stands in the way (whether in the form of professional boundaries, pre-existing relationships, etc.) of what they want most in the entire world.
I empathize with Chuck and Sarah shippers in that the show teased it in the second season finale, only to pull back from it at the start of the third season. I also agree with some fans that the show’s negotiation of the Chuck/Hannah and Sarah/Shaw relationships was a bit rushed, likely as a result of the original short 13-episode order. I even see the argument that, while these particular examples might be similar to those in the past, this could be considered the straw that broke the camel’s back, the conflict that made the ‘shippers stand up and say “enough is enough!”
However, what I don’t get is the sense of urgency surrounding this particular example. Kreuk and Routh are only guest stars, and while they’re long-term guest stars they will nonetheless be leaving the program should it head into a fourth season. In this internet age, we know ahead of time how many episodes these actors will be appearing in, so our interest shifts to how the show will write them out (whether Hannah is a secret agent, whether Shaw will prove more morally corrupt than he appears) rather than their current behaviour. They are nothing but temporary obstacles to Chuck and Sarah, just as capable of bringing them closer together in the end as they are capable of separating them in the beginning.
It’s one thing for this to convince fans that they might not be able to handle the constant obstacles, but that this would inspire fans to suggest boycotting the show (seriously) in an effort to force Chuck/Sarah to happen faster (as if it won’t happen at all now that two temporary cast members have entered the picture) demonstrates an irrational perspective I don’t entirely know how to respond to.
3. Caring Doesn’t Have to be Creepy
When someone ships a particular couple, they do so because the show has built a relationship that is worth shipping, and it is a sign that those individuals have created an intense emotional connection with the series in question. When someone feels strongly enough about a show to post about it on the internet, or start fan campaigns, it’s a sign that this emotional connection is strong, and in its purest form shipping is built on appreciation.
Shipping doesn’t have to be ugly, and is in fact meant to be quite the opposite: it is supposed to bring fans greater enjoyment of a show, an extra narrative that helps them engage with the universe outside of the episodes themselves. I understand why this line blurs with Chuck and Sarah, in that their relationship goes beyond underlying tension to near-consummation and a sense that two people who love each other are being separated by artificial conflicts, but I don’t understand how it is in any way a solution to turn negative against the show in an effort to “get one’s way” with a show that these people cared enough about to obsess over in the first place.
The Bottom Line
I believe fans have a right to be upset with a show’s direction, but I have serious issues with fans who believe that their chosen direction is the only valid one, and that anyone who thinks differently is in some way “wrong.” Shippers aren’t wrong to want Chuck and Sarah to get together, but they are wrong to somehow turn this into a campaign against a show that their own behaviour demonstrates they legitimately care about: that’s not how you treat a show that’s earned your respect, and it’s an irrational response to television in general.