Fandom is both the best and worst thing to happen to pop culture. On the one hand, you have a thriving community that is both supportive and a safe space for fans, like Star Wars. It can be akin to a family that welcomes you with open arms no matter what aspect of the show you like. However, on the opposite side of the spectrum, fandom can be a sort of war zone, especially when it comes to shipping.
Shipping (derived from the word relationships) refers to an actor of wanting two characters paired together in a relationship. It can be a canonical couple, or it can be an imagined pairing where the characters have shown some sort of connection. “Ships” have been a staple in fiction for generations from Jane Austen to Louisa May Alcott (who had to fight her own admirers over Laurie and Jo March).
Ships have celebrated through fan fiction and fan art and been acknowledged by the title’s creators and actors. It can be a very positive feature of fandom culture that connects fans with the people behind the scenes.
However, there can be a rather dark facet to shipping culture. Some fans are quick to dismiss individual ships as problematic simply because they’re not viewed as entirely healthy. Usually, these ships consist of an antagonistic or broody character paired with a protagonist who symbolizes the good of all people. People who are against these ships, simply known as “antis,” are particularly vocal against fans, going as far as calling them supporters of abuse.
A particularly divisive ship as of late has been “Reylo,” or Rey paired with Kylo Ren from the new Star Wars trilogy. When The Force Awakens was released in 2015, some already felt a distinct connection between the protagonist and antagonist. However, the film’s interrogation scene with Rey and Kylo has prompted critics to compare it to rape and a vast difference in power. How could you support a couple where the male uses his power to make a woman suffer? This question has been asked in a number of fandoms, and the answer has always been the same: because that’s not the only interpretation.
Fiction has always been a means of escape for readers and watchers alike. It lets fans safely explore a relationship that would be considered toxic in real-life. They have the power to create the story they want, whether it be canon or non-canon, and enjoying the way they want to. Often, fans know that their ship is problematic and would never want to experience it in real life. But, shipping gives them the power to act out their own “what if” scenario.
In the case of “Reylo,” something is intriguing about the relationship between a hero and a villain. Kylo Ren is a classic Byronic hero, in that he’s ruthless, arrogant, and emotionally tortured. Similar to Mr. Darcy and Elizabeth Bennett, Rey and Kylo are the only ones who can match each other in strength and wit. They are so unique because they are both broken halves, looking for someone who understands them. This attraction is hinted at in The Force Awakens, but it’s not until The Last Jedi ( What the Nerdist’s Lindsey Romain eloquently dubs the horniest Star Wars movie) that sexual tension is even introduced. Director Rian Johnson really planted the seeds of attraction in The Last Jedi, using sexual imagery and not-so-subtle moments of touching.
Behind the space battles and the “pew pews” of blasters, there has been one reoccurring theme in Star Wars: love. Now, love doesn’t necessarily mean romance; it also pertains to friendship and family and how far one will go to save the ones they love. At its core, Star Wars has been about redemption and rescuing those who have fallen to the dark side. If Darth Vader and Asajj Ventress can find their way back to the light through love, certainly the same can happen for the already conflicted Kylo Ren.
There have always been differences when it comes to shipping, but “Reylo” has created a deep divide between fans. “Reylo” admirers have had to retract from Star Wars communities simply because they weren’t welcome. Some fans have even been the target of harassment and smear campaigns simply because of what they like. Some “antis” have even gone as far as crashing dedicated “Reylo” communities purely for harassment purposes. At that point, it’s not just differing opinions; it’s full-on bullying.
That being said, it doesn’t mean you have to agree with a particular relationship. Just remember that there is a person behind that ship—one that may be going through their own personal issues and using that specific medium as a coping mechanism. Instead of criticizing them for their differences, embrace your universal love for that franchise.