“’Shipping” is a natural part of fandom, but not all ’ships are regarded equally.
[Warning: The following contains spoilers for Star Wars: The Last Jedi.]
’Shipping is the fantasy pairing of characters: Think fans putting Harry Potter in a romantic relationship with Draco Malfoy (nicknamed “Drarry”), or having Tony Stark wind up with Steve Rogers (“Stony”) in the Marvel Cinematic Universe.
One of the most popular Star Wars ’ships of late is Rey and Kylo Ren, or “Reylo.” It’s also one of the most controversial.
Fans first ’shipped Reylo following the release of Star Wars: The Force Awakens in December 2015. There was a group of committed fans who ’shipped the pairing from the get-go, but their enthusiasm was met with scorn from other people in the Star Wars fandom, who criticized Reylo as a glorification of an abusive relationship.
A user known as Ohtze, one of the most outspoken supporters of Reylo on Tumblr, told Polygon via email that when Reylo ’shippers first heard this complaint, they tried to explain their support for the pairing to their critics. After a while, however, some complaints turned into harassing messages, and the Reylo fandom started to ignore them altogether.
“It’s really important to specify that these criticisms weren’t being directed at the creators, or at the film itself,” Ohtze said. “They were being directed at us, as individual fans who were trying to enjoy a fictional pairing in a fictional universe that had little to do with real world concerns. These criticisms were almost entirely ad hominem attacks on our intelligence/moral character, mixed in with straight up death-threats. The response to our mere existence as an online community was so hysterical that most of us were caught flat-footed, including myself.
“We were a bunch of women creating fanart and fanfic. We just wanted to enjoy Reylo whether it became canon or not, and people told us no.”
In an effort to deal with critics, Reylo fans like Ohtze started penning longform essays to explain their points of view. With smaller Kylo Rey and Ren scenes to reference in 2015 and 2016, supporters found these defenses hard to back up. By the time promotions started appearing for Star Wars: The Last Jedi, the fandom had more ammo to use and point to. The more that information about Kylo Ren and Rey’s relationship was divulged, however, the more that anti-Reylo users called out the pairing as abusive. Harassment directed at Reylo ’shippers got worse, according to Ohtze.
“Now we just block and ignore,” Ohtze said. “Some folks still try to respond to this criticism directly, but I don’t. I mean, we tried to explain ourselves for two years and were brutally shot down.”
Reylo Art, another Reylo fan on Tumblr, recounted her own story. Reylo Art told Polygon via email that after she created her Reylo-centric blog in December 2015, she dealt with four instances of harassing emails. Reylo Art said that because, like Ohtze, she’s a curator of fan works and not a creator, she receives fewer messages. But she isn’t immune to the harsh words from members of the Star Wars community who hate Reylo.
“For a time, the hate was quite focused and intense, especially on Reylo content creators, to the point where some people actually left the fandom over the harassment,” Reylo Art said. “As a result of that, many banded together and created little writing and art communities within the larger Reylo fandom to support each other’s creative efforts in the face of all of the negativity.”
The Reylo communities on Tumblr, Twitter and Reddit are tight-knit and outspoken. The majority of fans hope for the romantic pairing to become canonical by the time Episode IX rolls around, but are just as happy to have their fantasies play out on Tumblr or the fan fiction hub Archive of Our Own (often referred to AO3). Until the release of The Last Jedi earlier this month, the fantasy was all they had.
The Last Jedi was ammo
When The Last Jedi came out, I noted there was undeniable on-screen chemistry between Kylo Ren and Rey, as did Vanity Fair and other outlets. Kylo Ren and Rey’s relationship became more intimate as they dealt with their Force bond. Between the events of the movie and actions that took place outside of the theater — just look at the reaction to director Rian Johnson favoriting a tweet about Reylo — the fandom found a rejuvenating energy.
Reylo Art told Polygon that because The Last Jedi gave Rey and the audience a chance to sympathize with Kylo Ren, it “created an emotional stake for both [Kylo Ren and Rey] through their mutual need to find a sense of belonging, to the point where each abandoned their own master to be together.”
At the same time, Reylo critics lashed out again.
“Kylo literally says ‘you’re nothing to everyone except to me’ which is an abuse tactic and gas lighting,” one wrote on Twitter. “Along with being her literal mortal enemy, their relationship would consist of a woman trying to fix a man who is trying to reshape her impressionable reality.”
Another popular Reylo ’shipper on Tumblr, Melrose, told Polygon over Tumblr’s instant messenger that they’ve received plenty of harassing messages following The Last Jedi. Melrose said it’s almost ironic that those who call the Reylo community out for supporting an abusive relationship, which Melrose said isn’t true, are abusing individual creators who participate in the ’shipping community.
“People have to remember that at the end of the day, it's just a fictional couple we're talking about here,” Melrose said. “You have to be able to separate fiction from reality.”
Reylo ’shippers and critics continue to argue about whether or not that’s true. While one group continues to argue that Rey and Kylo Ren’s dynamic is abusive and degrading, Reylo ’shippers see a different side of the relationship. Ohtze told Polygon that ’shippers “weren’t responding to this dynamic in a vacuum, but to what we were being shown throughout the films,” using those same scenes as evidence for the relationship they could fantasize about.
These dramatically different perspectives are common in ’shipping and fan fiction communities. Elizabeth Minkel, a fan culture journalist in England, explained why this is in the New Statesman:
My preferred explanation is the idea that the vast majority of what we watch is from the male perspective – authored, directed, and filmed by men, and mostly straight white men at that. Fan fiction gives women and other marginalised groups the chance to subvert that perspective, to fracture a story and recast it in her own way. … It often feels as if there isn’t much space for difference in the dominant cultural narratives; in fandom, by design, there’s space for all.
Subverting and recasting a storyline encapsulates what the Reylo community is doing. The view Reylo Art, Melrose and Ohtze have of Kylo Ren and Rey’s relationship isn’t inaccurate or wrong; it’s just different. They’re looking for cracks in a story to support and fulfill their personal fantasies.
With more and more people discovering their love for Reylo following The Last Jedi, the community is growing. Ohtze told Polygon this is what keeps the fan fiction going and original artwork circulating. They don’t believe the debates over Reylo will quiet down anytime soon, but as long as the ’shippers remain strong, so will the ’ship.
“Powerful things can happen when you’re a collective working towards a shared vision,” Ohtze said. “I think it’s really important to stress this communal nature of fandom, how we use each other as a springboard for art, fan fiction, etc. By sticking together, we’ve managed to survive and thrive. This happens in all fandoms to varying degrees, but it’s especially telling within Reylo, as we’re beset from all sides by hostile countercultures.”
That’s not to diminish important or valid criticism. Fandoms, like all cultures, should still be held accountable for the messages they promote, but Ohtze is hoping that they will get to a point where the debates aren’t filled with disgust or vulgar Tumblr messages.
“Folks just need to chill and enjoy fandom and fiction for what it is — an escape from real-world concerns and genuine community around a shared ideal,” Ohtze said. “Star Wars is huge. There’s enough space within this behemoth of pop culture for all of us to exist within our own little niche.”