When pop culture depicts The Teenage Fangirl, her passion is rarely validated. The footage of girls and young women screaming as The Beatles or One Direction pass by are not so different from the ways we see adult men yell and scream when at a sporting event, but they are treated in very different ways—which is to say one is validated, while the other is often mocked, ridiculed, and challenged. This is the cultural hypocrisy at the heart of Riverdale writer Britta Lundin’s new young adult novel, Ship It, the latest in a string of YA books (see also: Rainbow Rowell’s Fangirl and Zan Romanoff’s Grace and the Fever) that center the kind of fandom that has long served as a community for girls and women looking for a voice in the stories they love.
Ship It is the story of 16-year-old Claire, a fanfiction writer from a small Midwestern town who is pulled into the world of her favorite TV show, Demon Heart, and Forest, the young man who stars in Demon Heart. Claire “ships” Smoke and Heart, the two male lead characters of Demon Heart, together and Forest does not understand the world of shipping or the fan culture that goes along with it. Thus, when Claire stands up at a Comic-Con panel to ask a question on the subject, he dismisses it, her, and all “SmokeHeart” fans in the kind of rude, culturally tone deaf manner that will probably be familiar to anyone who has ever dared to “ship” two fictional characters of the same sex together in a culture that almost always reinforces heteornormativity.
Enter the show’s publicists, who invite Claire along on the rest of Demon Heart‘s con tour in an effort to repair Forest’s relationship with fandom and jumpstart the show’s ratings in the process. Though the narrative conceit is a bit hard to swallow, it’s worth the suspension of disbelief. Over the course of the novel, Claire and Forest are slowly forced to learn more about the other’s perspective, resulting in a nuanced examination of the fan-creator relationship that only someone like Lundin, who understands both the world of fandom and the world of media-making, could have written.
As mainstream stories tend to be overwhelmingly told from the perspective of straight, white cisgender men, it would be understandable if Ship It gave its POV power exclusively to Claire, a teenage girl who, over the course of the book, begins to question how or even if she wants to identify her sexuality. Though the media landscape is beginning to change, we still see far more Forests represented in mainstream storytelling than we do Claires. However, Ship It‘s decisions to include both Claire and Forest’s perspectives complicates this story in some fascinating and ambitious ways.
Bold, articulate, and passionate, Claire is easy to root for, but not without her flaws. At times, she is singleminded in her fannishness and, in her effort to keep the ridicule of mainstream misogyny at bay, forgets to listen to other marginalized voices. Ship It is more than aware of these shortcomings, giving Claire a journey of self-discovery over the course of the book, most notably in her burgeoning relationship with Tess, a queer, black fangirl who is as open about her pansexual homoromantic identity as Claire is about her Demon Heart fan identity.
As a 23-year-old (i.e. not teen) narrator, Forest’s character is a bit of a rule-breaker within the YA world. He’s also a pretty unlikeable character when Ship It begins, calling our other POV character “crazy” within the opening act. But Claire, bless her, has empathy for Forest and so does the book, making space for Forest’s own journey of self-discovery, which has a lot to do with not only understanding his cultural privilege, but also chipping away at some of the walls of toxic maxculinity (and the homophobia that goes along with it) inside which he has constructed his identity.
I would have liked to see Ship It go even further with Forest’s character, but also understand why it didn’t. Frankly, it already feels like a fantasy to see a privileged white man entrenched in Hollywood’s system of racist, sexist power do any kind of work on himself. This is why the world of fanfiction can be so subversive and cathartic. If slash fanfiction is a way for predominantly girls and women to give male characters the tools and support they need to go about doing their own emotional labor and push past the narrowest confines of masculinity to something freer, then Ship It does the same. Ship It allows Forest the time and space to expand his own understanding of fandom and, with it, his own definition of self.
This is a long way of describing just how empathetic this book is, even to its most unlikeable characters. Demon Heart showrunner Jamie acts as an antagonist in Claire’s mission to make “SmokeHeart,” the slash ship from Demon Heart that Claire writes fanfiction about, happen. However, at one point in the narrative, Ship It even gives Jamie the floor, letting him explain the many constraints of storytelling within the television industry. Jamie is a dick, unwilling to even engage Claire in honest conversation until she forces him to, but that doesn’t mean he doesn’t make some relevant points.
Lundin has brought the empathy inherent in the world of fanfiction to the world of this YA novel. It’s Ship It‘s most inspiring element. This book is an examination of what happens when fandom and Hollywood collide. In Lundin’s imagining, it doesn’t have to be a clash; it can and should be a conversation.
I hope the Claires of the world read this book because they deserve it, but I hope the Forests of the world read this book, too. If you’ve ever been curious about the worlds of fandom, fanfiction, shipping, or con-going, then Ship It is a great, fictional introduction to those worlds from an author who is in a unique position to understand both fan culture and Hollywood.
Culture has long been obsessed with policing what girls and women care about. Fandom has long been an escape from that lecture, a community that exists outside of a commercial sector largely unconcerned with and inaccessible to those with any identity past straight, white, cisgender man of means. That exclusivity is slowly changing, as people like Britta Lundin break into the industry in greater and more diverse numbers. Books like Ship It are part of the story of that change.