Last week, Henry Jenkins posted a compelling rant about the lack of “committed relationships,” especially functional marriages, depicted in contemporary television. Jenkins speculated that this could be partly because many writers “are twenty-somethings still recovering from their first major breakup,” and partly because there is a perception in the industry and among some critics that sexual tension ought to remain unresolved for as long as possible in order to sustain viewers’ interest. However, he claims that viewers only lose interest when, as he argues is the case for the current season of a show I don’t watch, and therefore won’t spoil for anyone who might care, the coupling comes at the expense of previously possible depths of “emotional maturity, any kind of psychological depth, and any kind of personal growth.” That is, this correlation between resolving sexual tension between significant characters and the waning of affective resonance of the show itself is unreasonably strong, and therefore, the question Jenkins asks is why, although they have the resources in terms of talented actors and narrative possibilities, many writers are unable to develop good storylines for committed couples.
As a proud shipper, who has devoted countless hours and weeks to pondering the complexity of Mulder/Scully, Daria/Sandi, and Spuffy (note the varying degrees of accordance with canon), I was excited to encounter Jenkins’s caveat that, in contrast to the shortcomings of television writers, “fandom is all about the relationships between characters, and fans are capable of pulling out insights into those relationships from the most subtle touch, the most nuanced reaction shots, and stitch them together through their stories and videos into stories which show how relationships can grow and unfold over time.” I share this understanding of the intellectual work of shipping, based on every fandom I’ve had the fortune to encounter. I wondered why, then, it mattered if indeed there was a lack of a certain kind of relationship on television today. After all, I know plenty of shippers in various fandoms who write epic marriage fic, which never lacks for emotional maturity, psychological depth, or personal growth. These serve as the cornerstone of many fanworks, even those produced by twenty-somethings (*cough*), and it seems to me that fans are not simply fantasizing about marriage and making it happen to characters who are portrayed in canon as being inadequate to the task. But even on that point, what I see is that there are complex, adult marriages nearly everywhere in contemporary television (or at least, everywhere enough when we consider how few non-marriage relationships, which face social hurdles beyond UST, are portrayed) — but rather, as in real life, these are often represented in the background of a broad social tapestry. Fans can focus on these relationships, and derive real satisfaction from drawing out the subtleties already present in the sourcetext that some of us may not have noticed initially, having been distracted by the soapier love plots played up by the promos. But the marriages are there — I’m wary of listing endgame couples, for fear of spoiling my favorite shows for the uninitiated, but they are there.
All this being said, I do understand Jenkins’s frustration. Perhaps my own perspective is skewed because of the extent to which my interest in shows is that of the shipper. I always have time to look for characters’ compatibilities with one another, and, the greater the depth with which these are explored in canon and fanon, the happier I am. I’m the kind of person for whom the relationships of Six Feet Under, for example, are almost never too melodramatic. That’s a show in which canon does a great deal of the work often performed by fanon, for various reasons related to its writers’ explicit interest in psychology, family, and love relationships, but I wouldn’t want to privilege it over other shows, which prefer to leave a trail of shippable traces, rather than to have their characters articulate every nuance.
But I do think that there’s an important truth in Jenkins’s concern, and it’s one I’ve seen reflected in another arena of recent debate, one judged by the New Yorker‘s Facebook page to be “just for fans.” I note this because I would normally rather talk about television than literature in this space, but I do think that there are some potentially interesting connections to be drawn out between Jenkins’s argument and Jonathan Franzen’s argument, articulated in “Farther Away: ‘Robinson Crusoe,’ David Foster Wallace, and the island of solitude,” which recently published exclusively on Facebook. On recent responses to Wallace’s fiction, Franzen says:
“The people who knew David least well are most likely to speak of him in saintly terms. What makes this especially strange is the near-perfect absence, in his fiction, of ordinary love. Close loving relationships, which for most of us are a foundational source of meaning, have no standing in the Wallace fictional universe. What we get, instead, are characters keeping their heartless compulsions secret from those who love them; characters scheming to appear loving or to prove to themselves that what feels like love is really just disguised self-interest.”
There is a difference, I think, between the specific kind of committed relationships Jenkins was longing to see, and this more general idea of “ordinary love,” but I think that they are intimately connected. Jenkins specifically suggests that his expectations for a complex committed relationship are high, because his show has already demonstrated a rare attention to the dynamics of other kinds of relationships, including friendships, partnerships, mentorships, and family relationships. It’s interesting, then, to compare these two arguments — one being a psychological argument about how a literary writer revealed much about his worldview by systematically thwarting emotional connections of various kinds among his characters, and the second, being about how a broad range of writers in a specific medium, namely television, persistently drop the ball when it comes to transitioning characters from an exciting and unresolved sexual tension into a committed long term relationship. But, perhaps because of my sympathy to the Wallace argument, I can’t help but respond in terms similar to Franzen’s, when he notes:
“how recognized and comforted, how loved, [Wallace's] most devoted readers feel when reading [his fiction]. To the extent that each of us is stranded on his or her own existential island…we gratefully seized on each new dispatch from that farthest-away island which was David.”
I see much of value in this part of his argument, and I think that, despite the author’s own unseemly relationship to fans of contemporary literature, he is on a page here, to which I’m happy to turn. Once again, there’s what’s represented within storyworlds, in terms of the percentage of “ordinary love” relationships versus dysfunctional attachments, and this ratio surely reveals something about a body of work. But on the other hand, in both literature and film, there are readers, passionate readers, and fans, and it’s our job to maximize the possibilities offered to us by the always-finite sourcetext. Sometimes it’s finite due to writerly shortcomings, and other times, it’s finite due to some more specific cultural confusion, as may well be the case in the context of marriage and marriage-like relationships in U.S. culture today.
But in any case, I just wanted to say that fans have told a wider variety of love stories than any other kind of writers. This being the case, I remain excited for the day when every polymorphously perverse and panfannish shipper has the canon moresomes and emotionally mature marriages of their dreams. But until that day arrives, I feel pretty well served by fanworks.