Exploring Love Through Fan Culture [OWLS September Blog Tour: Lover]

If you’ve ever shipped characters in your favorite anime, book, video game, or other narrative work, then you’ve participated in what reception studies terms decoding and sense-making. When we take in a creative work, we have the opportunity to form our own version of its happenings. These fan-made versions give us a chance to explore meaning in our own lives. For this month’s blog tour, I’ll be taking a look at fan interpretation related to romance.

Welcome to September’s OWLS Blog Tour

Every month, I join the voices of the Otaku Warriors for Liberty and Self-respect (OWLS) blogging project. The OWLS bloggers and vloggers use anime and other pop culture works to discuss a central theme promoting diversity, respect, self-acceptance, and equality. I feel proud to work with the OWLS team, so keep an eye out for future posts exploring important social issues. If you’re interested in these topics, be sure to check out the other OWLS posts coming out with this blog tour, or consider becoming an OWLS blogger or vlogger yourself!


This month, the OWLS are talking about our favorite couples in pop culture as we explore the theme lover. For this blog post, I am going with the term “lover” to describe someone who is in love (and likely in a relationship with) someone else (or multiple someones). For some, this term is used exclusively to refer to people in love who are involved in a physically intimate relationship. I’ve never found physical intimacy to be the defining factor in love, so I will be using this term more broadly.

No One Definition

Over the course of this month’s tour, the OWLS have explored what “lover” means to them through pop culture. We’ve discussed successful and toxic relationships alike and examined romance in a host of media. As the OWLS posts demonstrate, the meaning of “lover” varies from person to person. It’s a fairly broad spectrum with about as many similarities as differences.

Lovers could be people who recognize each other’s struggles and support one another in working through those struggles.

They could be people who want to share their lives and build something together.

Maybe they’re people who take care of each other or would do almost anything for each other.

Or possibly people who have only recently discovered their feelings and are still working out how they’d like to define what it means to them.

One of the things that I love most about the media that make up pop culture is that within each creative work exists the potential for the audience to create their own interpretation of the work’s content.

Decoding and Fan Culture

In high school, I regularly shipped characters that weren’t canon in my favorite narrative works. For me, some of these ships were more engaging than the existing relationships built into the story. I was participating in what reception studies calls decoding and sense-making. This describes the process of the audience making sense of and applying meaning to what they find in a text (a text being a nearly catch-all term for things like movies, games, comic books, and other media).

There are a few different types of decoding that the audience can participate in while enjoying texts. The viewer might come away with the dominant reading, which is the most common interpretation of that work (that’s not to say that it is the correct interpretation, but it is the one that the majority of audience members take away). Or they might purposefully (or accidentally) come away with a different message from the text, giving them a negotiated meaning. In some cases, the viewer might find that they purposefully want to push against the messages from the text and come out with an oppositional meaning instead. The term “opposition” may feel like a negative term, but in the context of decoding, it just refers to a reading of a text that comes despite what the viewer knows about the dominant reading of the work.

The message that an individual pulls from a text is influenced by their own experiences, values, and needs. Fan culture is full of people drawing meaning from the creative works that they enjoy and repurposing it in their own way. Just take a look at the OWLS blogs for this month. Each holds an example of fans making meaning of relationships found in pop culture.

Meaning-making and Ships

To me, shipping can be an example of  each of these forms of meaning- making in a text, though it most likely tends to fall under negotiated and oppositional decoding. The viewer has the opportunity to read the relationships that are present in the narrative and re-imagine them. There are many popular examples from pop culture:

Fans of Cardcaptor Sakura who ship Tomoyo and Sakura could be said to be participating in negotiated meaning or oppositional decoding. They see the relationship forming between Sakura and Syaoran, but would find more satisfaction in a developed relationship between Tomoyo and Sakura instead.


Legend of Korra fans who ship Korra and Bolin are working within negotiated meaning, taking the duo’s friendship and pulling a different kind of emotional significance from it.

korra bolin date

I feel like some ships are born out of purposeful breadcrumbs that a writer creates in the series that the audience can follow as a relationship develops. I would argue that these types of ships could be examples of negotiated readings that turn into dominant readings when the relationship is established. Fans of Steven Universe who ship Connie and Steven, for example, would then be participating in negotiated readings that later become the dominant reading as Steven and Connie’s relationship evolves.

steven connie

Sometimes, those breadcrumbs are not confirmed for some time, leading the audience on a fun journey filled with negotiated readings. Overwatch offers an example of this for fans shipping Ana and Reinhardt based on their flirtatious in-game interactions.

Subtext can function in this way as well. Some writers are restricted by limitations placed on them by networks and can’t always fully represent relationships in a show. They place hints about the characters’ relationships throughout, and the audience works together to come up with a dominant reading (which seems like a negotiated reading) that reflects the relationship. A great example of this is the relationship between Princess Bubblegum and Marceline from Adventure Time (although this relationship does get some screen time at the very end of the series). The interactions between these two throughout the show hint at romantic feelings between them, but nothing is expressed in concrete terms until the end due to restrictions from the network.

macie bubs


I’ll wrap this blog up by sharing a handful of my favorite ships from when I was in high school. I didn’t have access to enough LGBTQ+ content in the narratives I enjoyed, so I regularly read my own from subtle cues (though at the time, I didn’t have much of a grasp on anything beyond heterosexuality, homosexuality, and bisexuality).

Barsa and Madame are still the most adorable of these negotiated couples. 

Thanks for joining me for this month’s blog tour exploring love in pop culture. Please be sure to check out some of the other blogs from this month’s blog tour! Yesterday, Fred explored a variety of pop culture examples of lover. Tomorrow, be sure to catch a post from Naja at Blerdy Otome!

Do you have a favorite example of existing or negotiated lovers from pop culture? Share in the comments! You can also connect on Twitter @Popliterary, or send a message on the “contact” page. And as always, if you have a literary device or grammar rule you want to know more about, or a game, comic, show, or movie that you want to see make an appearance on the blog, leave a shout-out in the comments!

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