Navigating Your 'Ship Through the Stereotypes

by Medea

Imagine a riddle: How is writing fanfic like UPS? 

The Answer: In both cases, just about anything/anyone can be shipped. 

Sure, people do tend to have their preferences. There are die-hard Willow/Angel shippers, there are those who ardently support the Willow/Tara ship, and just about any and every other possible combination has generated at least one story. 

That's the great thing about love: it's so flexible! (And hey, get your minds out of the gutter. I wasn't talking positions...yet...). 

Seriously, love is like a weed. It springs up just about anywhere it wants regardless of any anal-retentive gardening efforts to keep it confined to one, single, specific patch. Women love women, men love men, women love men, women love five men at once dipped in chocolate and whipped cream -- you get the picture. So, the key to a good ship isn't necessarily which bodies you put together -- it's what you do with the bodies you've chosen. 

So, whaddya wanna do with 'em? 

Er...chocolate and whipped cream, anyone? 

Okay, seriously... 

See, fanfic writers have tremendous creative freedom. HA! Joss gets paid, but WE get to have the most fun. No broadcast deadlines, no network executives, no cranky advertisers, no (ahem, cough, cough) worries about primetime censorship...Hey, the world is your oyster! And indeed, many writers dive right in, devour that oyster, and produce some incredibly imaginative stuff that you WISH you could see onscreen, but sadly you know you never will. 

However, there is also a great deal of fic that falls prey to the dreaded (gasp!) stereotype, particularly the fiendish, negative gender stereotype. It is always a writer's prerogative to write a story as s/he sees fit, and some actually prefer sticking to their stereotypes the way other people eat nothing but McDonalds. And hey, free country. 

But writing your characters or developing a ship according to stereotypes can be like giving up some of your creative freedom as a writer. Fanfiction offers the biggest, hugest blank canvas imaginable -- so much vast, lovely space for your mental romp. If you'd rather make the choice -- and it IS a choice -- to use all of that space, you might beware the following gender stereotypes when writing your ship. They've limited people's imaginations about women and relationships for, oh, a couple thousand years now, and between you and me? They're getting just a tad stale. 


Let's start with "Woman": what the heck is she? 

Hmm, weeeeeellllll, we have The Mother, The Wife, The Virgin, The Whore, etc. etc. You get the idea. 

What these female archetypes have in common is their role in perpetuating patriarchal norms for female behavior. Patriarchy insists that women's sexuality be defined in relation to men, and be reserved exclusively for the gratification of men. A woman's body is not her own. Hence The Mother (woman is nothing but a womb, a vessel), The Wife (woman's sexuality reserved for one male), The Virgin (defined by her status as never having been penetrated by a penis), and The Whore (woman's sexuality as a collective resource for men). 

How does any of that jabberwocky relate to writing Willow? And what does it have to do with shipping Willow? 

Easy. A good ship starts with good characters. 

Willow is a pretty darn complex character. She started out in high school as the painfully shy yet smart girl who was a whiz at computers (and just about any other subject), got picked on by the popular crowd and was intensely loyal to her friends. Since then, she's evolved through band groupie, novice Wicca, Netgirl, substitute teacher, Leader, and Big Bad. She's been both innocent and evil, self-sacrificing and self-centered, timid and assertive, human and vampire (and ghost). She's been in a loving, committed relationship with a male werewolf and a female Wicca. 

Not your typical cardboard cut-out, eh? Yup, Willow is one rich, multi-layered, dynamic character. 

So why write a ship in which she has no other desire, no reason for existence other than pleasing her lover? PWP aside (where sex really is the only reason for the story), where is the creativity or the joy in writing Willow's character in such a way that she has no interests of her own, and would gladly abandon her friends, her practice of Wicca, and her studies just to traipse after some larger-than-life lover? (HEY, I said, get your mind out of the gutter -- no "size" jokes! The way some people write badfic, Spike and Angel would need wheelbarrows to support their monstrously huge cocks if they wanted to stroll around Sunnydale) Granted, it's possible that Willow *would* lose all of her current interests, but this is something that would have to be explained believably in the story, rather than skimmed over just for the sake of making her trail after Spike, Angel, Tara, Xander, Oz etc. like a puppy dog. 

Literature, mythology, and pop culture are FILLED with stereotypes of women who exist only to be the love-interests of someone else. There are tons of princesses in towers pining away for their prince. Willow's character is so full of potential -- why make her a faded copy of a stereotype? 

...'cos Willow would just zap herself out of any tower with a teleportation spell anyway... 

Some of the best examples of Willow-shipper fic out there, the truly powerful romances, are the stories that develop Willow as her own character and endow her with rich, multi-layered interests beyond romance. Carrie's 'Take Your Time' is probably the best-known: it's romantic as all get-out, has some of the most tender and sensual interplay between Willow and Spike AND between Willow and Angel, yet Carrie also gives Willow plenty of interesting travels and opportunities for personal growth. Likewise, Jonquil's 'The Company of Wolves' simmers with sexual tension, but devotes equal attention to portraying the battle of wills between Willow and Spike, and highlighting Willow's ability to use her brain in tight situations. Melissa's 'Pet' balances a bittersweet intimacy between Willow and Spike with an excellent portrayal of Willow as the determined, resourceful problem-solver. 

In each of these cases, what helps ward off the dreaded gender stereotypes is the fact that Willow is treated like...well...a character. Her own character, to be precise -- not just a romantic heroine. 


If we move on to Male-Female Relationships, we slam right into a huge wall o' gender stereotypes. Hey, sing/hum along if you know this tune: 

Man = Strong, Woman = Weak

Man = Active, Woman = Passive

Man = Adult, Woman = Child

Man = Mind, Woman = Body 

This list of opposites dates back to Aristotle, and despite how rank it smells after 2,000+ years, we just can't seem to shake it. Must be a virus or something. It just sucks the creativity and imagination right out of human relations and blinds people to how different and unique each individual is. 

These crusty old oppositions between male-female have produced a huge crop of gender stereotypes over the years. There's the Hero model, with Man-As-Protector and Woman-As-Victim. In this scenario, Willow is written as needy, clingy, dependent, weak, or too depressed to help herself, and must be rescued (by Angel, Spike, Oz, Xander, Giles, Riley, Wesley...oy!). 


Anyone else remember Willow as the crack problem-solver of the Scooby Gang, or was that just my imagination? 

True, we all have our needy or vulnerable moments. And writing your characters so that they can be vulnerable, allowing them some weaknesses, actually makes for stronger, more believable characters. It also makes for more complex and compelling ships. However, there is a tricky line between giving your character some weak moments to add greater depth, and reducing your character to weakness and weakness alone. That's the danger of stereotypes -- they shrink your lovely character down to one, limiting type of behavior and fade all the subtle nuances of personality. Sounds like a bad day at the Laundromat, doesn't it? 

There's also the Master-Slave model. Before I even get into this, let me clarify: I am NOT talking about Dom-Sub relationships properly defined. When entered into voluntarily and with an understanding of what one is getting into, this can be as richly rewarding a sexual experience as any other. Many people enjoy the ability to give up control and find that the degree of trust involved gives rise to intense intimacy. However, the key ingredients are free choice, awareness of the rules, and TRUST. 

With that said, there is a big difference between exploring the possibilities of Dom-Sub sexual relations, and rehashing the Master-Slave model. At its worst, the Master-Slave model reduces a woman (or a man) to an object, a piece of property belonging to the Master. To a reader, it can seem as though Willow's entire self is erased. The bright, clever, resourceful Willow of the t.v. series is transformed into a facsimile straight out of The Story of O. She gladly submits to any humiliation, polices her own actions to ensure that she doesn't "disobey" her Master, and accepts unquestioningly the strictest control that is exercised over her. 

Now, as I've said before, fanfic writers have a great deal of creative freedom; what they write is their choice, and censorship is certainly NOT the proper response to ideas or writings that one disagrees with. MORE information is the key -- not less. Contrary to their hypocrisy in banning all NC-17 stories, the folks over at had the right idea when they came up with the slogan: "Unleash your imagination". It's all about freedom. Yeah, baby, YEAH! 

However, consider another concept: empowerment. It's pretty clear that most fanfiction writers and readers are women, and that fanfiction is a relatively safe realm in which women can explore sexuality. You can get a pretty good run-down of the basic mechanics of just about any kind of sex from some of the more graphic stories out there. Fanfiction is also an arena where thoughtful writers subvert some of the negative stereotypes about male-male and female-female relations, or dig more profoundly into the nature of desire, love, friendship, and intimacy than one usually sees on prime-time. 

But fanfiction can also perpetuate some of the worst myths about relationships -- the ones that have made "domestic violence" such common, household words. Myths like: 

- People are abused because they ask for it or secretly desire it

- If someone stays in an abusive relationship, it can't be bad

- Obsessive (even violent) jealousy is a sign of love/devotion

- All you need is love, when you're in love nothing else matters, love conquers all, etc. etc. (so it's okay for a partner to demand that you stop seeing friends, family, co-workers) 

Each writer empowers him/herself by writing. It's personal, it's liberating, and for each writer it is something that is her or his very own. 

Writers can also craft their stories to empower others. 

Like anything else, it's a choice. 


Turning next to Female-Female Relationships, although it would be nice to find nothing but solidarity and sisterhood, alas it ain't quite the case. Negative stereotypes lurk here, too. 

If we start with friendship, it almost seems as though there is a twisted corollary to the 'When Harry Met Sally' rule: women and women can never be friends, because the man thing always gets in the way. 

This all leads back to what I said above about patriarchy: as a system of cultural domination, patriarchy insists that women's sexuality (and indeed, their entire existence) be defined in relation to men. Friendship and even love between two women threatens this whole power structure by removing men from the equation entirely, or by suggesting that male sexual needs (gasp!!!) have a lower priority in many women's lives than the emotional bonds that women can share with each other. 

No! Say it ain't so!!! Surely, I jest... 

The worst of the gender stereotypes that this leads to is the Catfight. Ah, yes, the ever popular hair-pulling, screeching, name-calling spat between two women guessed it, a man. We were treated to this in BtVS when Xander had Amy cast a love spell for him so he could win Cordelia back, only to have the spell backfire and cause all women in Sunnydale to fall for him and fight with each other for his affections (S2, 'Bewitched, Bothered, and Bewildered'). The show's writers demonstrated an ironically witty understanding of the fact that this is a male fantasy, and not how women actually act. 

One of the most common forms that the Catfight stereotype takes in fanfiction involves Buffy becoming insanely jealous at the discovery that Angel (or, on some occasions, Spike, Giles, or Xander) has fallen in love with Willow. And we're talking REALLY insanely jealous, to the point of plotting to kill Willow...and we all know how many times in the series Buffy and Willow have screeched "bitch!" at each other and tried to claw each other's eyes out over a man, right? Yeah...happens all the time...not. But the Jealous-Buffy-Out-To-Kill-Willow plot allows for a whole smorgasbord of gender stereotypes -- not just the Catfight, but the Hero Model as well, where Willow becomes the sweet, innocent damsel-in-distress who is rescued from the evil, jealous Slayer by her Knight in Shining Armor. 

Beyond the Catfight stereotype, there is another common stereotype designed to enforce the idea that all women are heterosexual and a woman's only true desire is a penis. I suppose you could call it the 'Chasing Amy' stereotype -- the lesbian who just needs to meet the right guy to realize that all she ever really wanted was a penis, and her lesbian relationships were just a silly phase. This is a common pitfall for writers who want to ship Willow with a male character and can't think of a convincing way to deal with the fact that the Willow/Tara relationship was one of the strongest, deepest, most supportive loving relationships we've been shown in the entire series. 

If there is any doubt about the true, deep beauty of the W/T 'ship, one need only read Buffonia's 'Only When I Breathe'. This story is a rich, poignant reminder that love is not about the external package, but rather about the person inside -- and in this, male body vs. female body makes absolutely no difference. 

A number of essays at NHA have already said it, so I won't belabor the point: to write a really, really good piece of fanfiction and make your 'ship convincing, don't ignore the onscreen relationships. Address them head-on, make that part of your story. 

I'll come back to my familiar old refrain and simply mention once again that what an author writes is her/his choice. And if an author really grooves on stereotypes, then hey, rock on. But do recognize that it is a choice, and not an Eternal Truth about how love really is, or about how men and women really are at the heart of their nature. 

And then choose how you want to write your characters, and make them your own. This is indeed a tough challenge, because for all that incredible freedom and choice, it is so, so tempting to fall back on the comfortable stereotypes. There is a reason that Sartre argued that we are "condemned" to be free. 

Free your mind, and your 'ship will follow. 



Julia Stanley, 'The Prostitute: Paradigmatic Woman" (1977) 

Rhode Island Coalition Against Domestic Violence: Dating Violence Myths and Facts 

Kate Bolin's essays over at the Unconventional Shippers' List,