This post contains minor spoilers for A Midsummer Night’s Dream, His Girl Friday (1940), Lost, and The Good Wife.
If you’re involved in any fandom, I’m sure you’re familiar with the concept of shipping. For those of you who aren’t, essentially the word ship is short for relationship, the verb to ship refers to “actively supporting a certain relationship,” and a shipper is “one who actively supports a relationship.” It almost feels silly talking so formally about shipping. Shipping wars frequent so many fandoms that lots of people just stay away from the whole thing. But if you come at it with an open mind, the world of shipping can be quite intriguing.
As a fan of Lost during the six years it was airing, I vividly recall the shipping wars. First, it was Jate vs. Skate. (Shippers like to invent nicknames for their ships, so, for example, Jate = Jack + Kate.) Then the triangle became a quandrangle, complicated by Jacket and Suliet. There were diehards actively promoting their ship, calling rival shippers names, and writing discursive essays on why their ship was going to prevail. And then there were those who focused their attention on the mythology of the program, thinking that the shippers were a bunch of loonies because the romance of the show was beneath the mythology.
At their core, shipping wars must begin with a love triangle. If it is clear that so and so and such and such will get together, there can be no argument based on the canon. (With some slash shippers, I guess there can be argument, but it’s easier to ignore these fringe groups.) But when there are two people vying for a character’s attention, that’s when the grand debates start.
Though the phenomenon of shipping is relatively new – and has been facilitated through Internet fan communities – love triangles in themselves are no stranger to narrative works. At the very least, love triangles are found in the works of Shakespeare. In A Midsummer Night’s Dream in particular, the love triangle (later turned quadrangle) is one of the play’s main focuses. In fact, if you’re familiar with both works and make the following substitutions, you’ll see that the quadrangle of Lost essentially parallels that of A Midsummer Night’s Dream: Kate = Hermia, Jack = Lysander, Sawyer = Demetrius, and Juliet = Helena.
Thus, having multiple characters in love with different people at different times – one of the hallmarks of a story ripe for shipping wars – is not something new. Shakespeare knew that creating multiple romantic storylines would keep audiences entertained and emotionally attached to the story, and this idea is as true now as it was then.
Sometimes, even, a love triangle can elevate a story. Consider the film His Girl Friday (1940), which is based on the 1928 play The Front Page. His Girl Friday is considered the best of the film adaptations of the play, and it is remembered as a rapid dialogue romantic comedy. Editor Walter Burns and reporter Hildy Johnson are ex-husband and wife, and Hildy is going off to get remarried to Bruce Baldwin. Despite her dislike of Walter, she is nevertheless still somewhat drawn to him, creating a love triangle. In the original story of The Front Page, however, there is no such love triangle; in fact, Hildy is a man. In this case, changing Hildy to a woman and adding a love triangle made His Girl Friday more entertaining and elevated it to the level of a classic.
Like the minds behind His Girl Friday, current writers know that if they create these love triangles and quadrangles, they will bring in a whole new audience to their work. For example, despite its title, even The Good Wife, considered network TV’s best show, has a love triangle involving the titular good wife, her husband, and her boss, demonstrating that even a highbrow legal drama is not above including fodder for shipping wars.
From my experiences with the Lost fandom, I know that there are people who have major problems with love triangles simply because they spawn these intense shipping wars. In and of themselves, however, love triangles add intrigue, humanity, and, at times, comedy to a story. There is a reason why practically every narrative work involves romance of some kind. Just because some shippers take the idea to the extreme, it doesn’t negate the entire narrative device.
What are your thoughts on including love triangles in works? Do you find shipping wars in fandom entertaining or ridiculous?