Shipping Out
A Daria Essay by Martin J. Pollard
(with apologies to Kara Wild)

Fan fiction ("fanfic") has been around for as long as I can remember, perhaps even as long as the Internet has existed. Whenever some movie or television show becomes popular, its fans get the urge to write their own stories based on the characters -- Star Trek and Star Wars are two of the most popular examples. (If you think about it, comic books -- excuse me, "illustrated magazines" -- and novels based on movies and TV series are nothing more than fanfic gone professional... "profic.") Daria has proven to be no exception, providing plenty of fodder for fanfic as far back as its first season in 1997.

One of the most intriguing and controversial aspects of Daria has been what's called the "Daria/Trent thing," i.e. Daria's ongoing crush on her friend Jane's older brother Trent, the narcoleptic and semi-oblivious musician-wannabe. It's this maybe-relationship that has given rise to a particular segment of Daria fanfic: the shipper story. Shipper is short for "relationshipper" (or "worshipper," take your pick), and refers to someone who believes that a romantic relationship exists, or is possible, or should exist, between two (or more) characters. Daria isn't alone in this; X-Files fans have Mulder and Scully, Xena fans have Xena and Gabrielle (something that even the TV series plays around with), Trek fans have Kirk and Spock (no, I'm not joking) and others -- understandable, given its 30-year history of TV series and movies -- and the list goes on and on.

But, we're here to focus on Daria, and the "Daria/Trent (D/T) thing." D/T shipper stories have been around almost since Daria fanfic was first written. The fuel for this fire was the episode "Road Worrier," where Daria, Jane, Trent, and fellow Mystik Spiral bandmate Jesse went on a road trip to the Alternapalooza festival. It was in this episode that Daria's hinted-at crush on Trent was dragged kicking and screaming into the sunlight for all the world to see; later episodes continued the running gag, most notably "That Was Then, This is Dumb," "Monster," "Ill," "Through A Lens Darkly," "It Happened One Nut," the infamous "Pierce Me," and the destined-to-be-infamous "Lane Miserables" (more on this later). Shippers have taken these episodes and used them as the basis for plotlines in their fanfic stories, which range from the tame (Daria and Trent finally admit their feelings for each other and they live Happily Ever After) to the outrageous (can you say "wild sexual romps"?).

And this is where I have a problem... namely, that fanfic authors have taken the slimmest of threads and have woven a complete fabric from it. When you examine these episodes a lot more closely, you'll find that there actually is less there than meets the eye. Daria's crush on Trent is a given; it's been shown quite a few times, and is not unexpected for someone in their teens (a turbulent period where you're starting to explore the boundaries of your world while dealing with your emerging sexuality; we've all been there). But what of Trent? To date, we've not seen any real, solid evidence that he harbors any kind of romantic feelings for Daria. In fact, he's acted more like a good friend than a potential mate. He's been kind to his kid sister's best friend, has spoken to her as an equal, and has asked her for advice. But it's a stretch to say that this means he's secretly pining for Daria. All it really says is that he's a good friend, yet shippers have taken his kindness as an indication that he really gets the "screaming thigh sweats" for Daria, and only needs a little urging to get him to finally admit it and do something about it. Same with Daria; all she needs, according to the shippers, is for Jane to do her Yenta act and set up a situation where her friend and her brother can finally Do The Right Thing. More often than not, this is a total contrivance, and is where the story takes a sharp left turn away from realism. It's not hard to bring them together when the author makes them act out of character.

Another peeve of mine with regards to shipper fanfic is their insistence on making Jane and Jesse a couple. I can see the reasoning behind it: Daria and Trent are a couple (or are soon to be one), thus Jane and Jesse need to be one as well -- more often than not as a means of helping Jane play Yenta -- all based on a single scene from "Road Worrier" (Jane and Jesse leaning on each other and sleeping on the drive home). But when you stop to actually consider who and what Jesse is, you soon realize that this development is the biggest stretch of all in shipper fanfic. From all we've seen of Jesse, the most that can be said is that he has a body most women would swoon over... and that's it. His most profound saying is "cool," and his obliviousness makes Trent look like a master of observation. We know Jane well enough by now to know that she'd never have the patience for that; indeed, that's exactly what we saw in "That Was Then, This is Dumb" (when she tries futilely to hold a conversation with him, only to have him respond to every statement she makes with "cool"). Even as recently as "Speedtrapped," Jesse has been presented as basically a nice guy but a total space cadet, someone who never thinks beyond the moment (or much at all, for that matter). But, for the sake of the story, shippers will usually invent a completely new personality for Jesse, to the point where the only resemblance to the Jesse of the series is the name. It rings completely false to me, and is guaranteed to bring any shipper story I read to a blind, screeching halt.

Of course, like anything in life, there are exceptions to the rule. I may have given the impression that I think all shipper fanfic is the Great Evil, but that's not the case. There are a few authors that manage to rise above the morass, and are able to tell a shipper story with a measure of intelligence and reason. The best example I can think of is Michelle Klein-Hass' "Lawndale, CT Continuum," which presents a Daria/Trent relationship in a realistic fashion, going from a tentative beginning ("The Ono Effect") to blossoming romance ("Trent's Adventures in LA-La Land") to marriage ("Muerta La$ Vegas") and beyond... in other words, just like Real Life. Throughout Michelle's stories, Daria and Trent are kept totally within character, with their relationship ringing true to the characters as we know them while postulating a realistic future for them. (Even the Jane/Jesse thing is handled well: Jane's attraction to him is purely physical, but they soon break up when Jane realizes that that's all there is and that she wants more in a relationship.) Michelle's stories transcend the shipper genre while simultaneously being a part of it, and that's a rare thing in any literary genre. Another example is Invisigoth Gypsy, and while her stories tend to lean toward the mushy side, they also tend to avoid most of the D/T clichés that seem to permeate shipper fanfic these days. (Now, if she'd just give up on the Jane/Jesse thing...)

I would, of course, be remiss if I didn't mention Kara Wild's "'Shipped Out," which is probably the first "anti-shipper" story in Daria fanfic history. Her story takes the conventional Daria/Trent story and turns it completely on its ear, skewering just about every shipper convention ever invented (yes, even the Jane/Jesse thing). Needless to say, it's become my favorite shipper story. ;-)

So what's the future of shipper fanfic? As of this writing, it's been over three weeks since the episode "Lane Miserables" aired, and the reaction to it was about what I expected: it generated a firestorm of debate over the D/T issue. I won't bother going into an in-depth analysis of the episode -- too many others have done, and are still doing, a much better job of it -- but I will say that, from my viewpoint, "Lane Miserables" really didn't change much of anything, as the status quo was restored by the end of the episode. Yes, Trent did admit that he would have liked to have taken Daria out... but he also admitted that she was too young for him, and thus a romantic situation appears to be impossible (at least for now); the scales are once again balanced. Later episodes -- "Speedtrapped" and "The Lawndale File" in particular -- appear to be setting the D/T thing on a "comfortable as friends" track, though Daria still seems to be a little nervous around Trent. That's understandable; a crush doesn't just go away overnight, and Daria's reaction at the end of "Lane Miserables" ("Damn!") indicates that it's liable to be around for a while longer. (Which is fine; there are more interesting story possibilities in an unrequited crush than there are in an ongoing relationship. Plus, a relationship would quite possibly alter the dynamic of the series, not necessarily for the better. Moonlighting, Remington Steele, and The Nanny learned -- too late -- how fatal this can be.)

Of course, in the end, none of this really matters, as shipper fanfic has always been a "what if?" genre. No matter what the show does, it's certainly not going to stop shippers from putting out (no pun intended) stories that have the Misery Chick and Mister Narcolepsy blissfully riding off into the sunset in Trent's car. Or the Tank. Whatever. :-)

August 8, 1999