Without fault, whenever someone writes something along the lines of “ship and let ship”, someone else will pop in with “but this ship is so problematic!” Even most people against ship-shaming will add the caveat “anything non-exploitative.” The idea is that while generally, yes, shipping doesn’t matter, by favouring problematic ships people are excusing abusive behaviour, which then gets translated into real life. The same way people were worried that Twilight was teaching teenage girls that their perfect boyfriend would emotionally manipulate them, people are also worried fanworks will have this effect.
There is one preliminary question to be asked here. Is it even right to have these sorts of demands on fanfiction authors, as opposed to professional ones? They are not being paid, after all, and write merely for pleasure. Can we dictate what they do in their free time in any way?
Opinions will obviously differ on this, but for me, personally, while the demands on things like research and other time-consuming activities should be less on fanfic writers, this problem remains relevant for us too. We still make our work publicly available, and so it has some influence; we should be conscious of what that influence is. I am willing to forgive misrepresentation that results from a lack of research, as long as it seems well-intentioned, but hardly knowingly glorifying abuse in any form.
Yet…therein lies the catch. Knowingly glorifying.
Do we actually know that the people who write fanfiction – or produce other kind of fanworks, or even enjoy consuming it – about certain pairing are glorifying the abusive aspects, even if we see them there?
Very often, people never bother to find out because they don’t actually care about the problematic bits at all. They simply use the label “problematic” as a stick with which to beat ships they don’t like. Frequently, they end up desperately reaching in their attempt to justify hatred for a pairing. No two people who spend much time together are always perfectly nice to each other, so if the characters are well-written, it’s really easy to find something to get hold of. For an example of this, see people in A Song of Ice and Fire (ASoIaF) fandom arguing that because Sansa insisted on calling Jon her half-brother when she was twelve, she hates him and they cannot be together years later after they both have done a lot of growing up.
Sometimes it’s hard to say whether the problems people are pointing out are genuine or just an attempt to discredit something they don’t like. Differing values are very often at play. I sometimes find people decrying a ship as disgusting because there’s a ten years age difference between the characters. For me, it’s like listening to an alien speaking (please note that I am not talking about cases when one of the characters is a child), and in fact, it’s hard to not take offence at this approach. But still, for some people it probably is a genuine concern. It’s completely understandable they would avoid such ships then.
But is it understandable they would try to spread their ship hate? Big age difference is kind of a small issue (especially the older the characters in question are), so perhaps not there, but surely there are things we can all agree on: abusive dynamics, underage characters etc. Right? In those cases, some hate is justified?
Well…even there, it hangs on that knowingly. Age of consent is different in different countries, and that affects sensibilities of the readership. The abusive dynamics might be written unwittingly. So even in such cases, I sincerely recommend asking careful questions along the lines of ‘do you realize the problematic nature of this?’ instead of outright screaming abuse.
But now let’s look at that other qualifier: glorifying.
Depiction is not the same as endorsement, after all, and writing a problematic ship does not necessarily mean being convinced those two characters are a match made in heaven. In fact, matches made in hell seem almost as common in fanfiction. Many people specifically enjoy certain ships because of their problematic or creepy aspects. They are played up in the stories, and people read them and write them with the full knowledge that That Is Not Right. That is one way of writing such a ship without endorsing it.
Going for an example into the ASoIaF fandom once again, at one point, I read a lot of Littlefinger/Sansa. I don’t recall a single story glorifying their relationship. That’s not to say such stories don’t exist, of course, but most of what I read was basically explicit stories dealing with the very unhealthy dynamics of their relationship and her sexual grooming. If anyone came away from those stories thinking it was all right, they must have been a deeply disturbed person and it’s certainly no fault of the authors of the fics. The same would go for many Kylo Ren/Hux stories in Star Wars. Not every ship is about romantic walks in the park.
The other popular way to deal with problematic aspects of a ship is removing them via redemption stories. That immediately brings the question: can every villain be redeemed?
Now the ‘correct’ answer, of course, is “yes.” As long as we are talking about self-aware creatures capable of making their own choices, I think it’s very dangerous to begin to think that anyone is beyond redemption, even though the situation might of course arise in the story that will make it practically impossible. When you have one shot to stop the villain from killing your best friend, you won’t call to them to change their wicked ways instead.
But, the thing is…what does “redemption” mean? Obviously the origin of this meaning the word is religious and essentially means that the person will be worthy of some kind of heaven or paradise, or, alternatively, at least not deserving of hell. As such, it is a little difficult to translate into a secular context, but mostly seems to mean that the character will stop doing evil and causing other people pain in very serious ways and/or without a reason. They will care about about the well-being of others at least a little.
There is a lot of difference between this and being suitable for a romantic relationship, or for a variety of other social roles.
A prime example of this is Severus Snape. I personally tend to believe that his role as a spy redeemed him in the sense mentioned above, in spite of his completely irrational behavior around Harry. He still had no business being around children, and had absolutely no claim on Lily Evans Potter. I read a lot of fanfiction with him, but unless they work extensively with his trauma and terrible behavior, they’re simply putting him in Leather Pants, let’s face it – incidentally (another way to eliminate problematic aspects of a ship, but not one I recommend, since it means they’re glossed over, not dealt with).
It can be a little hard to determine whether a character’s redemption could lead as far as their suitability as a romantic partner, of course. Probably the most popular case of a redemption ship today would be the Rey/Kylo Ren ship, or I should say Rey/Ben Solo. I will leave aside the discussion about whether racism influences that people prefer to ship Rey with Kylo than with Finn, but as for the problematic nature of that ship…we really don’t know enough. It’s possible. We just don’t know how deep Kylo’s dysfunctionality goes, so both interpretations could be valid. I can see a story being done realistically where he shakes off the years of Snoke’s whispers and draws from what his mother taught him to return to functioning.
Yet I do feel the need to point out that even in such case, it’s not a given that as long as the story contains redemption, it’s without its problems. In fact, love for a good woman as a source of redemption for a bad man is an old and tired literary trope, and many issues go with it. Chiefly, it’s that she has to deal with him in his non-redeemed state for a long while before he finally turns around, patiently bear his behavior etc. Obviously, that’s hardly a good idea to encourage. It also often puts women on pedestal, not allowed to be anything but perfect so that they can serve as a proper inspiration. And the third problem is how often women fall into the former bad boy’s arms as soon as he expresses remorse, before they have any actual proof it’s genuine or before he tried to make amends.
But none of these are necessary parts of a redemption story, and in the case of Kylo Ren who realizes the error of his ways after his father’s death and does his best to help the Resistance…well, a story about Rey falling in love with him doesn’t necessarily have to be problematic in this regard. In fact, the best redemption stories are the ones where the romantic interest isn’t the impetus for the change of heart at all, the possibility of a relationship is just a result of the redemption.
But then there are cases when the problematic behavior is extremely deeply entrenched, and even though the bad guy might be less villainous, a convincing redemption would be harder to pull off.
Take Daenerys and Jorah, again from ASoIaF. All of their interactions are deeply problematic, on a level that affects their relationship more than general evilness would, and he would have to change his whole personality and mode of behavior to make the relationship healthy. I suppose that after a lot of trauma that forced him to reevaluate his whole life, that could happen, but it would be extremely hard to write that convincingly. I know it sounds crazy when I say his redemption would be harder than Kylo Ren’s, who was basically ready to torture Rey for information, but the thing is, Kylo’s actions, while horrific, were never personally about her and so are easier to get rid of in their relationship (though please bear in mind that she is absolutely not obliged to forgive him, let alone accept his suit) than Jorah’s approach to Dany.
And there is also her explicit rejection.
In some ways, I think anything but one character’s explicit rejection can be worked around. There is hardly a way to write that – an adult person in control of their faculties and situation rejecting a partner of their own volition – without making it seem like their choice is being disregarded. Any story ignoring it would always have tend to be problematic to my mind, and would have to work with it.
Of course, nothing is ever easy. There is a veritable sea of grey areas even here. Like…take Tyrion and Sansa. Could it ever be written in such a way that their relationship would not be problematic? She rejected him outright, but there were many specific aspects to that situation that wouldn’t have to be valid in different circumstances. Years later, after the war, when she is an adult and he apologizes for the way he treated her on the wedding night…could it be done? My answer in that case is….mayyybe.
It’s precisely cases like this when I think you need to be the most careful when shouting ‘problematic.’ My best advice is to examine the story in detail, ask, and suggest. And certainly don’t go out of your way to comment on stories you never even read to tell the authors that what they write is problematic. In fact, never do that. Just no.
Read a nice fluffy bit of happiness instead, have a cup of tea, and remember that whatever the pairing, all iterations of it all never going to be reprehensible.