Tumblr buzz-tracker Fandometrics released its Year in Review stats today, showing off the top shows, movies and other media that the community’s been talking about all year. One of the highlights from the Year in Review is the Top 100 Ships — the top romantic pairings posted, liked and reposted by Tumblr denizens. But while a Top 100 list may appear to just show off what’s popular, examining it more closely reveals deeper undertones of the fandom debate that populates Tumblr. In addition to the heated conversations regarding some of the most popular fictional pairings, there’s a more macro-conversation of the validity of the Real People pairings that trickle in on the list. A simple list of popular ships is a reminder that when it comes to shipping, nothing is really that simple.
The rankings are based on how many posts were created under specific tags, how often those tags were searched for, and how many times those tagged posts were liked and reblogged. Based on those metrics, the number one ship of the year comes from Voltron: Legendary Defenders and its the ever-popular (and ever-contentious) Klance: Keith and Lance.
Voltron itself landed as the number-one animated series and number-two buzzed-about topic of the whole year. Netflix’s animated show is nearing its final season, and in the two years it’s been on, the fandom itself has garnered a reputation for being particularly vehement, especially regarding ships. Two of the most popular Voltron ships (Klance and the pairing of Shiro and Keith, dubbed as Sheith) waged an all-out shipping war, resulting in pedophilia accusations (the ages of the characters weren’t originally specified, and while majority of the cast appeared to be teens, Shiro appeared to be in his twenties) and death threats to those who shipped the “wrong” pairing. Fans coined the term “anti” for those who send aggressive threats over ships that could be perceived as problematic; there’s also the term “anti anti” that was generated in response to that, given to people who protect these potentially squicky ships. So flagrant is this discourse that some Tumblr users outside the fandom have dubbed Voltron fans “V slur fans.”
Coming in second on the shipping list is another pairing that sparks passionate discourse: Rey and Kylo Ren from the Star Wars sequels, dubbed as Reylo. Other Star Wars fans often throw this ship under fire, accusing it of glorifying an abusive relationship. That’s a charge that is regularly challenged by Reylo shippers.
Peppering the Top 100 list, composed of mostly fictional pairings, are the occasional “Real People Ships” — pairings between two real-life people, usually celebrities, who may or may not be actually dating. Riverdale cast members Cole Sprouse and Lili Reinhardt are a couple on the list that is also together in real life, for example; numbers three and four on Fandom’s Top 100 list — YouTubers Daniel Howell and Phil Lester, and BTS stars Park Jimin & Jeon Jungkook — are not.
Real-life shipping raises its own set of questions among the Tumblr fandom community: Is it fair to get involved in the romantic lives of real-life people if they’re not dating? Why was it okay to ship Ariana Grande and Pete Davidson (a public, if short-lived couple), but not Park Jimin and Jeon Jungkook (who have never been together)? Is it okay if you recognize that the versions of the celebrities you’re shipping are just that — a fictionalized version of them? What about overzealous fans who desperately want their real-life pairing to date for real?
You’ll find people on every side of the argument: those passionately against all kinds of real-life shipping, those who turn a blind eye to some but not all, and those who dedicate whole blogs to their would-be celebrity couples.
For many, seeing these particular ships reach the top of the list raises a few eyebrows; the fictional ships have garnered a particular reputation when it comes to Tumblr discourse, whether they’re lambasted as idealized, problematic relationships or as pairings so divisive, supporters aggressively send threats to those who don’t agree with them. The real-life ships are pairings that some might not even realize are being hotly discussed, but they are, and just as intensely.
Unlike Twitter, where memes from different sub-communities often slip back and forth between spaces, Tumblr makes it easier to decide what you see. Blacklist extensions, the ease of anonymously unfollowing, the lack of pressure to follow people you know and instead just curate your own dashboard experience with whatever you want — all of these lend themselves to a social media experience that is (mostly) self-controlled.
Which means that, if you don’t follow Reylo, Klance or BTS blogs, you might completely miss the conversation. If all you see on your dashboard about Reylo is how problematic it is, then you very well might believe that that is what everyone thinks. You may not realize that it’s apparently popular enough to snag the second spot on the Top 100 ships list.