Why is romantic love such a controversial thing in fandom? It’s something I ask myself a lot, as a person who writes about shipping and who desires the kind of love that stories tell me might exist. I’ve spent most of my life in fandom spaces—participating in conversations or observing and examining them—and have witnessed firsthand how objectionable fictional romance can be, especially in fandoms that appeal to and target men. Why is this the case, and why is romance a thing we use to punish women looking for escapism in genre stories?
It’s hard to say, but it remains an endemic and undeniable strain. Shipping, which is fandom code for wanting two characters to be together, is often snickered at or seen as some frivolous element of appreciation. It can lead to shaming that feels personal and accusatory, as if your interest in a fictional relationship is a roadmap to your own intentions and experience. This attitude towards shippers is especially present in the Star Wars fandom, where the relationship between Rey and Kylo Ren is steeped in a seemingly never-ending controversy. There are fervent supporters of the romance between these characters, a plentiful contingent of opposers, and those who don’t really care one way or another but still seem fit to criticize.
Why has the “Reylo” ship created such a stir? Let’s dig into this subset of the Star Wars fandom: where it started, why it’s accumulated so much negativity, and why the Reylos don’t deserve the bad reputation they’ve acquired, especially in the wake of The Rise of Skywalker.
The origins of Reylo
The release of The Last Jedi was a rough time for a lot Star Wars fans. The film—the eighth in the Skywalker saga and the second in the Disney-era sequel trilogy—made a lot of bold storytelling choices, which divided the fandom into camps. Those who loved the meditations on the Force, Luke Skywalker’s troubled hero’s journey, the complicated characterization of Poe Dameron, Finn and Rose’s failed mission, and the strange developing bond between Rey and Kylo felt at odds with anyone who saw otherwise. Many disliked Luke’s arc, or the apparent sidelining of Poe and Finn, or the democratization of the Force. The disagreements spiraled into something bordering collective mania. It’s a debate that still rages today, and that seeped into the conversations we’re currently having about The Rise of Skywalker.
I loved the movie, but found the discourse numbing. Positive Twitter conversations were instantly marred by detractors, and every passionate argument was upended by accusatory nitpicks. I felt discouraged from participating in any of it, and I felt bitter towards the Star Wars community in general. Until I found the Reylos.
After stumbling on podcasts like What The Force?, Skytalkers, and Scavenger’s Hoard—all female-hosted programs—I realized there were plenty of encouraging conversations about The Last Jedi happening in fandom. I also realized most of them were Reylo-oriented. Suddenly, I was exposed to the exact conversations I always wanted to have about Star Wars: deep dives into mythology, redemption arcs, symbolism and dualism, religion, poetry. And all of that was encompassed in Reylo. All of these larger stories, focused through these characters joined by fate and purpose, who represented opposing ideologies of the Force.
There was so much to dig into. Rey and Kylo have a classic enemies-to-lovers storyline, a romantic trope seen in fairytales like Beauty and the Beast, classic literature like Pride and Prejudice, mythological stories like that of Hades and Persephone, even modern genre television like Buffy the Vampire Slayer. It’s typically used in women-oriented storytelling, as it affords duality and compassion to both parties; a distribution of power that makes the women as complicated, compromised, and interesting as their male counterparts. Rey’s interest in Kylo adds a layered intrigue to a character otherwise patently “good” and “pure,” words commonly associated with women, forcing them into palatable, antiquated gender roles.
Their relationship feeds a part of the fanbase who craves that kind of female protagonist. One who represents their own burgeoning lust, complicated compassion for the men they chose to care about, and temptation towards things we’re told to fear. Through the Reylo relationship, Rey took on another angle, one that finally made Star Wars feel like a story for me.
I also learned right away what it meant to be a Reylo in the Star Wars fandom. The relationship between the light-sided Rey and dark-sided Kylo was riddled in turmoil. In The Force Awakens, a scene where he straps her down and interrogates her is considered by many to be abusive. The language Kylo uses to seduce Rey to his side in The Last Jedi is also seen as manipulative and problematic. He tells her that no one knows her like he does. In their opinion, he’s attempting to groom her to his standards, to turn her into what he wants against her own will. Those against the relationship will tell you that it’s a dangerous and negative message to send to young girls.
And here’s where I’ll say something potentially controversial amongst my fellow Reylos: I don’t think these people are “wrong.” Because everyone’s experience and perspective is their own thing to interrogate, and it’s not up to me to tell people how to feel about something–even if I disagree entirely. What I do take issue with, however, is the need to interrogate someone else’s preferences or fantasies. There is an infantilizing element to the backlash, as if those opposed think that Reylos haven’t reconciled with the themes presented to them, and are merely choosing to ignore them because they think Adam Driver is hot.
The way I see it, relationships like Reylo—power fantasies oriented on the feminine psyche, with an antagonistic male—fulfill two things I love in storytelling. They are pure escapism; the happy ending those of us drawn to the incurable are never afforded. And they are instructive, as they exemplify the patriarchal schism between men and women: that we are not equal, but that women love men anyway because of the compassion that comes naturally to balance that division. It shows how we can mend those gaps through patience and understanding. It’s archetypical and fantastical, sure, but that’s what Star Wars is: a fairy tale that wrestles with society and humanity in broad strokes.
That said, there are other reasons for dissent. Some fans ship Rey and Finn, and see their romance as a better avenue for a healthy relationship. Some have experienced personal trauma and can’t abide a romance that mimics and negates their pain. Others just don’t see the Reylo thing at all. Absolutely all of that is valid. Shipping should never be a competition or an authoritative moral stance on any side. Rey/Finn shippers are just as valid as Reylos because it speaks to what someone personally craves and desires. The shaming shouldn’t exist on any side—but because it does, the passionate defense comes in.
Reylos don’t deserve hate
That knee-jerk self defense has drawn a lot of ire to the Reylo community in the aftermath of The Rise of Skywalker, the final film in the Star Wars sequel trilogy. On paper, the Reylos were given a lot of what they desire: Kylo Ren is redeemed and turns back into Ben Solo. Rey and Ben fight side by side and even share a kiss. But then Ben dies and Rey ends the movie alone, something that irked the shippers. They saw the ending as a grim conclusion for Ben and a way of punishing Rey for expressing her desires. To many, the ending feels hopeless and feeds into this stereotypical notion that for a woman to be strong, she must be single—as if romantic love weakens us.
There are other ways to read the ending, and many fans found power in it. That’s the beauty of film: that it’s entirely subjective. But in their profession of disappointment, the Reylos once again became a punching bag for the fandom at large. A recent BuzzFeed article compared the way Reylos reacted to The Rise of Skywalker to the way the Fandom Menace—a trolling, abusive, anti-Disney hate group—reacted to The Last Jedi. (Never mind that their “source” for this reaction was a tweet from a prominent member of the Fandom Menace, and that many of the complaints in question were either fabricated or from non-Reylo accounts.)
It’s impossible to parse all of this out or to really say who’s “right” or “wrong” or what “right” and “wrong” even mean in fandom spaces. From my vantage point, the Reylo community is one of the more forgiving and accepting out there. It’s comprised of not only women, but plenty of men and non-binary Star Wars fans, from different races and orientations and experiences. And that’s true of any shipping community. In a fandom as large as Star Wars, there should be room for all of us to express joy or grief or surprise or disinterest in our cultivated spaces. It’s how we all choose to cross-pollinate that could use some work.
But Reylos aren’t deserving of the intense condemnation that comes from larger voices in the fandom. The ridicule feels specific and exclusionary, and rooted in gatekeeping sexism. Comparing them to the Fandom Menace is ridiculous. That group created blogs dedicated to roasting journalists, creators, and fans. Meanwhile, the Reylo community (along with Ben Solo fans) poured much of their frustration and sadness over The Rise of Skywalker into an act of good, by raising money for Adam Driver’s charity, Arts in the Armed Forces. How much money? As of this writing, over $76,000, more than double the charity’s fundraising goal for an entire fiscal year.
I also know that the Reylos helped me find my way back to loving Star Wars, gave me endless professional and creative inspiration for the last two years, and deepened my interest and love of storytelling and mythology. I know I’m not alone, and I know that the Reylo shipping community has made Star Wars finally feel like a fandom they were allowed to love. That’s something I hope fans with different access points to the world of Star Wars might think about before they wag a finger or call Reylos fake fans or mock their interests and experience. Star Wars can and should be for everyone, and how we find our way into the galaxy far, far away is a unique, personal, and beautiful thing. Love is what it’s all about at the end of the day. Even romantic love.
Featured Image: Lucasfilm