When I saw The Notebook for the first time, it felt as though no two people were more perfect for each other than Noah and Allie. And because Rachel McAdams and Ryan Gosling's on screen chemistry couldn't possibly have been acting in my 13-year-old mind, I felt strongly that the movie's two leads should date in real life. Imagine my excitement, then, when I found out that working together on set sparked an actual romance between the two. One that they immortalized forever when they won Best Kiss at the MTV Movie & TV Awards in 2005.
But I wasn't the only one rooting for Gosling and McAdams's real-life love story — much like how Riverdale fans today feel about Cole Sprouse and Lili Reinhart. And when they called it quits in 2007, I certainly wasn't the only one who felt the crushing blow of their split — kind of like how Sprousehart shippers are currently reacting to their reported breakup. But for me and the millions of others who've shipped real-life celebrities, there's actually some scientific reasoning behind why. And thanks to Dr. Jaye Derrick, assistant professor of psychology at the University of Houston, and Laurel Steinberg, PhD, fandom and relationship expert, we finally have some answers.
Despite an apparent lack of research on the subject, much of why we ship real people together comes down to something called "parasocial relationships." The term, coined in 1956, can be used to explain the one-sided bonds we tend to develop with celebrities, despite the fact that they're completely unaware of our existence. Still, we feel like we really do know them, and according to Dr. Derrick, these relationships form because we're constantly exposed to these people. "Parasocial relationships develop through repeated exposure to a particular celebrity (or fictional character — you could have a parasocial relationship with Kit Harington or Jon Snow). Through repeated 'interactions' with this celebrity/character, people come to feel like they know the person." And yes, it's completely normal. "People are not evolutionarily programmed to tell the difference between real and fake people," she added. "We know cognitively that these 'relationships' are not real, but psychologically they feel real."
And with it comes the emotional benefits of a real-life relationship. Think about it: You might see Timothée Chalamet — on your Twitter timeline, on your Tumblr dash, on your Instagram feed, on YouTube — more times in a single day than you see your actual friends. So over time, your emotional attachment to the Call Me By Your Name star grows.
Since these relationships (though, one-sided) feel so real, fans often feel compelled to involve themselves in their love lives, much like they would with their very own friends. How many times have you wanted to set a friend up with someone who could possibly be their match? It happens all the time. And according to Derrick, shipping celebs together works in a similar way. "In the same way that you might want your best friend to date or marry this person who seems perfect for him/her (or maybe because you know that your friend wants to date or marry that person), you might also want your favorite celebrity to date or marry this person who seems perfect for him/her (or that they seem attracted to)," she said.
Take Shawn Mendes and Camila Cabello, for example. The two pop stars have spent much of their careers insisting that they're just friends, though recent paparazzi photos might suggest otherwise. However, when they collaborated on a love song called "I Know What You Did Last Summer" back in 2015, there was no stopping the relationship rumors. Fans of both Cabello and Mendes investigated every tiny detail, from the way she looked into his eyes during their Late Late Show performance to how he emotionally sang the words "I can't seem to let you go" on The Ellen Show.
Now, with the release of their latest duet, "Señorita," fans are back at it again, wondering if he really couldn't let her go. Much like fans did in 2015, they've been watching the music video on repeat, dissecting Shawn and Camila's every move — from the way she holds onto him on the back of his motorcycle to how he gently strokes her chin. And that's just the beginning because after watching the music video, diehard fans will seek out additional proof, such as photos of the pair and fan spottings that might hint at more than just friendship.
“It was very exciting to see all those paparazzi photos,” said Emmy, a longtime Shawnmila shipper. “I scream every time I see Shawn and Camila together.” And if you’re wondering why diehard fans might have that sort of reaction, many will tell you that it’s because they’ve been pairing the pop stars together for so long that it’s gratifying to finally see something come of it. “Fans ship them so hard because they've been friends for years and shipping them was something [we] were doing from the very [beginning],” Dina, another fan of the rumored couple, told MTV News. Not to mention, Cabello and Mendes's chemistry and understanding of one another makes fans feel like they’re truly meant to be. “They've been by each other’s side for years and they obviously understand each other better than anybody,” Dina added. “[Their] body language shows that they love each other deeply and you can see that in the ‘Señorita’ [music video].”
But in the grand scheme of things, whether or not the celebs we ship are actually romantically involved is insignificant. And it’s also entirely possible that we might actually be shipping their carefully curated public personas, rather than who they truly are. But still, what matters is that these relationships feel real, and, more importantly, that they might actually reflect one's own personal desires. According to Derrick, studies have suggested that shipping "can be a method of projecting one's own sexual interest (e.g., if you are particularly attracted to Camila [Cabello], perhaps you want to see Shawn [Mendes] kiss her since you cannot)." And, of course, if and when such celebs do share what looks to be an intimate moment, it can bring on a whole range of emotions. "This can result in a huge emotional reaction that can vary from a jealous rage to over-the-moon joy," Steinberg says. "And emotional reactions stimulate a cascade of brain chemicals that can result in anything from extended periods of anxiety and depression to euphoria."
And speaking of euphoria, let's chat about Harry Styles and Louis Tomlinson — two bandmates whose close friendship earned its very own black hole-sized section of the internet where fans discussed, ad nauseam, the fan-developed theory that Louis and Harry were more than friends. The theory became so well-known that the One Direction stars even earned a ship name, "Larry Stylinson," and the conspiracy recently made a comeback in an animated fanfiction-inspired scene in HBO's Euphoria (one that Louis himself never approved of, might we add).
But the theory of “Larry Stylinson” existed long before it was ever broadcast on HBO. And over time, the fictional relationship was further developed and built upon by One Direction fans and fanfiction writers alike. This, according to Dr. Derrick, may work similarly to slash fiction — a type of fanfiction that typically places two characters in a same-sex relationship. Sure, Louis and Harry aren’t characters, per se, but this pocket of the Internet could’ve been created as a space for fans who had difficulty relating to heteronormative tropes in mainstream media. “Slash fiction can be seen as a type of resistance to mainstream culture, allowing marginalized audiences to create their own spaces,” Derrick explained.
In addition to resisting what’s considered mainstream, though, we’d be remiss not to mention that social media also has a bearing on who fans ship and why they ship them. "I do think a lot of this is influenced through social media or at least online sources," Derrick told MTV News. "Now that fans can interact with other people they know to be fans, they can build off and one-up each other. They can show how clever they are by finding little subtexts to link together." And even simpler than that, as Steinberg notes, is the sheer fact that speculating about whether or not two celebrities are dating is actually kind of fun, which is enough of a reason for many fans and social media users to participate. "We are all impressed upon by what we read, so it makes sense that shipping would be fan-influenced through social media," she said. "People also enjoy talking to their fandom-mates about their favorite celebrities' sex, love, and dating lives, in general, as a way to bond."
Clearly, it would be impossible to pin down one specific reason that fans ship certain celebrities, but overall, Dr. Derrick attributes it to a “mix of social connection/empathy, wanting to be clever, and projection, with a healthy dose of subversiveness thrown in." Regardless, fans would likely agree that shipping gives them a sense of purpose and, in many ways, helps them feel less alone. And although Derrick has pointed out that such intense shipping may cause celebrities to resist such pressure, Steinberg says that it can also have the opposite effect. "It certainly is possible for celebrities to yield to fans' pressure,” she said. “... the fandom is savvy and perceptive.” And given that several real-life celeb couples began with an on screen spark — from Angie and Brad to K.Stew and Rob to Lili and Cole — perhaps shipping them off screen makes total sense, and yes, is completely normal.