Last February, Claudia Gray, author of Lost Stars and the imminent (and hotly anticipated) Bloodline, dropped a bomb into the Star Wars shipping community when she declared her affection for Reylo—in other words, the notion of a romance between Rey and Kylo Ren. While Reylo is a divisive prospect for a number of reasons, in particular the characters’ potential family ties and the overtones of sexual assault in Kylo’s mental torture of Rey in The Force Awakens, the reactions of many of her fans on social media was, well, staggering to me.
While likely a small number in the grand scheme of things, numerous people were appalled, declaring they no longer planned to purchase Bloodline, and even attacking Gray’s character. She spent the next day or so tweeting at length on the subject, responding generally and to several specific individuals, and to my mind, made a lot of great points both on Reylo and on shipping in general.
To be clear, I can’t get my head around Reylo myself. Nor am I particularly into Kylux1 or Stormpilot2 (though Poe is one hundred percent not straight). But I have latched onto certain Star Wars couples over the years, both actual (Tycho and Winter) and prospective (Jacen and Danni Quee), and one thing I do know from experience is that you can’t always explain what appeals to you and why. Like Grey said, it’s complex stuff full of emotional baggage from real life—that’s why people can feel so strongly about it. But you certainly can’t draw a straight line from somebody’s ship to their real character or values; what’s therapeutic for one person can be triggering for someone else. Two people with similar backgrounds can have completely opposite reactions to, well, any story beat or overtone, romantic or otherwise. What I love the most about Star Wars is how one thing can attract such a huge amount of fans for so many varied reasons, and a ship is a microcosm of that—saying “Reylo fans condone abuse” is like saying Han Solo fans condone drug running.
Take what’s certainly the biggest non-TFA ship at the moment, Kanan/Hera in Star Wars Rebels. Kanera, or #SpaceMarried, or whatever you might call it, is a great litmus test for the spectrum of reactions a ship can spur, because the show provides us with all the trappings of a relationship but stops just shy of any explicit confirmation—personally, I like to think they’ve been married all along and it’s just not a big deal. Others think it’s a “will they or won’t they” situation and are hoping they leap into each other’s arms any day now, and still others prefer they remain safely platonic. Every one of these is completely valid, as is the all-important “I don’t give a shit”, but fans bouncing their points of view off of each other—amicably, at least—can make for great fun, and really deepen our connections with the characters (and dare I say it, our emotional intelligence), which seems like something the people who yelled at Claudia Gray may have lost sight of.
What do the rest of you think of all this? Do you have any particular ship of your own that you’re a little bit embarrassed by? Or that appeals to you for reasons you can’t quite explain?
David: I’m going to start with a negative point of view, because I’m just a party pooper. I am not a fan of “shipping”, at all. I guess you could faithfully portray me as an anti-shipper, actually. And it’s not because I don’t understand being passionate about fictional characters or because I’m not a romantic person. No, I understand both of those. It’s the baggage that the term shipping carries with it. We are not simply talking about favoring a fictional relationship or about wanting two characters to end up together or about getting excited for romance and melodrama: no, we are talking about shipping, about something different, more involved and irrational. Whenever I read “I ship it” or “Name1/Name2” or any of those “Brangelina”-style portmanteaus, I start feeling uncomfortable, if not straight disturbed, and find myself looking for the “block” or “mute” button.
I’m not even talking here about the really obsessive fans that take their shipping to dangerous extremes, threatening other fans, demeaning fans of different couples, starting one of those awful ship wars, and being generally obnoxious and unlikable: I believe that crazy people will always find a way to express their craziness, be it shipping, be it college shootings. No, I’m opposed to the concept of shipping itself, just like I’m opposed to canon disputes or to soccer fan brawls or to edition wars. Because yes, like these, shipping is more often than not another representation of the ugliest side of fandom, even if it’s not as overtly nefarious as harassment or cosplaying as a Kevin J. Anderson character (you know who you are). In my eyes, and of course this is just a personal opinion, it’s yet another antisocial behavior fueled by a fantasy world, yet another in the long list of disorders that have always plagued nerds. And of course, it’s not surprising that shipping is such a big phenomenon in fandom. Defining yourself as part of a fandom carries with it a certain component of obsessiveness, and shipping is a fertile field for irrational behaviors to bloom. If only fans were just a bit more chill about things…
Beyond this obsessiveness, shipping itself can be really problematic. By its own nature, it causes an oversimplifying of what social relationships are, reducing every single narrative context to a “will they, won’t they” series of binary options, of black-or-white pairings. As with many other romance-related media phenomena, shipping often creates false expectations of what a sentimental relationship is, automatically giving friendships an inferior status to romantic feelings. More painfully, it basically takes what was once the only way that homosexual people had to feel represented in media by using any excuse given by any subtext to reinterpret relationships as potential gay romances, and twists it into mere self-entitlement fodder, feeding a harmful “made for each other” fallacy.
So, uh, not a fan.
Jay: I’m not a shipper, but I’m not anti-shipper either. Mostly I think it’s harmless, except in the case of shipper wars that cause terrible ugliness in the fandom and particularly when they result in unresolved love triangles and the disintegration of meaningful character arcs — but I’m not here to rip open the old scars of the Jaina Solo Ship Wars. Suffice it to say, that’s a significant detriment to both the community and the narrative.
However, most of the time I don’t think it’s a problem. If it’s how people engage with the characters, who am I to judge? I often find that a lot of criticisms leveled at shipping or fanfic can feel judgmental, or exclusionary: the notion that there are only certain legitimate expressions of fandom. To the extent that there may or may not be a gendered component to shipping fandom, that leaves us with bigger problems. So I’d just caution that some objection to shipping or fanfic is somewhat dubious and illegitimate. Others are more nuanced (such as David’s point) or simple opinion (such as “it’s not for me”). I’m neutral.
I’ll admit that there are some ships that tickle my fancy, more for hilarity than anything else. I often talk about Vader and the Emperor, mostly as a joke reference to a very carelessly worded webstrip from 2005. Treating it as a serious ship — or even as a joke — can expose the dark side of shipping though, because the relationship between Vader and the Emperor is very much an abusive one and people have to be aware of that (since it’s a problem that can and does come up with some ships, serious or not). I don’t know that shipping is always an endorsement of such, but there are lines that have to be placed somewhere — people sometimes say that certain ships are gross because of abusive or manipulative contexts and people need to be aware of that. Sometimes people are into abusive and manipulative ships and that’s a whole ‘nother kettle of fish I think, but regardless of that I don’t think it’s a strike against shipping generally.
Another occasion I might be induced to have a ship is for no reason what so ever, such as when I joke about Kallus and Tua from Rebels. There’s no reason for it, no basis for it, but… why not? Though, as we think of Rebels and the relationships in them, the relationship between Hera and Kanan comes to mind. And that’s where, I think, it gets interesting for me. That’s a serious ship, and I’m not really a shipper of theirs but I like the idea of them being married and for a very crucial reason.
See, if one of the problems behind shipping is that it trivializes relationships then the portrayal of a mature, loving, stable adult relationship is important. Fiction tends to push a certain view of romance, and it’s seen even outside of Disney animated features too. Star Wars has its share of those kind of relationships. So I really like the idea that Hera and Kanan are just adults, who are in a long term relationship, and they just live and work together as partners. It’s something we rarely see celebrated in Star Wars, but it should be. Now, I understand the argument that they shouldn’t have a relationship too — I also feel that opposite-gender friendships could use some better reinforcement in Star Wars too, especially on screen.
The bottom line is that relationships are complicated and happen for many reasons. But honestly, so does shipping. I don’t think it’s helpful to stereotype or pigeonhole shipping. I think we can all agree on the dark side of shipping, and perhaps even agree on what kinds of shipping are problematic (but perhaps not! folks have differing views) but even if shipping is not for me, I decline to condemn shippers and shipping. It has its place in fandom, and I’m cool with that. Folks don’t understand my interest in space politics either, after all.
Rocky: I have one of those “I survived the Jaina Solo Ship Wars” shirts. And yes, I did indeed. I remember being in the fandom at that time, and if you scout around long enough on the internet, you’ll find where I ultimately ended up. And no, I’m not going to resurrect that argument here either. Nonetheless, for a lot of us who were reading and writing Star Wars fic at one time, that was a big introduction to shipping in fandom and just how high the stakes could get. We most certainly took it too far, and there were definitely otherwise-talented fic authors whose work I didn’t really read because I knew where they fell in the great ship wars. It was a mess.
As Tumblr puts it, the only thing I really ship nowadays in Star Wars fandom? #jedistormpilot. Some combination of Rey and Finn and Poe together. I can’t decide on an OTP3, my days of doing that in fandom almost feel over. Therefore, I’ve latched on to an OT3. Even though I don’t see myself writing fanfic any longer, and I don’t really read much in the Star Wars universe, sometimes I’ll stumble upon a fictional couple or trio who just seem to work so well together that I couldn’t imagine not shipping them.
Speaking of so well together that I couldn’t imagine not shipping, Kanan and Hera are so often called “space married.” They are; they just work so well as a couple, and their relationship isn’t the focus. They just fit together so well, and I think we’ve all seen that relationship in life. It’s rather adorable.
There is a dark side to shipping, yes. Fandoms are very opinionated about what they do and don’t like, and there have been times in many fandoms when one of your first questions upon meeting a fellow fan is what they ship. It’s weird that it’s so divided along those lines, and I’d rather make fandom friends regardless of fictional relationships. But such is fandom life, and we learn to take the good with the bad.
Sarah: So I can’t really specifically speak to this from a Star Wars perspective, since I’ve only recently become properly involved with the online fandom. I wasn’t around for the ship wars of the Legends EU. However, as someone who’s been in LiveJournal and Tumblr fandoms since the tender age of thirteen, I definitely think I know a thing or two about shipping.
Personally? I’m a huge proponent of shipping. It’s a way of engaging with the text and transforming it to make it your own. It’s fun and (for me) an incredibly social part of fandom; I’ve bonded with plenty of friends over trashy smut or because we’ve inflicted our tragic shipping headcanons on each other. Obviously I can only speak anecdotally, but in my experience the fandom spaces where shipping tends to be most popular (LJ, Tumblr), are the fandom spaces heavily dominated by women and other gender and sexual minorities. In other words, people who don’t generally see reflections of themselves in popular media (or if they do, it’s with a heavy dose of straight male gaze). Shipping is a way to tailor the story and explore it beyond what we see in canon.
Sometimes I really like the chemistry two characters have and I want to explore it more (for example, Finn/Rey and Finn/Poe, or Qui-Gon/Shmi, if we want to throw it back to the prequels). Sometimes I ship two characters because I think the actors have a lot of chemistry but I know that canon can’t or won’t go there (for example I like reading about Kylo and Hux having angry makeouts and barely controlled hatesex as part of their larger attempts to establish dominance over the other. Obviously Disney/LFL is not going to put that in a movie). Sometimes I ship two characters because I have a desperate crush on one half of the pairing and I want to self-insert (for example, the Poe/Rey side of JediStormPilot). Sometimes I want to fix perceived failings in the canon (for example, an alternate universe where Padmé survives Revenge of the Sith and she and Obi-Wan take emotional comfort from each other over their shared loss of Anakin is my FAVORITE THING ON THIS PLANET). Sometimes I just want to read about domestic family adventures on the Ghost. It’s all about taking the building blocks that canon gives me and building something new. It’s a whole world full of “what ifs”.
Obviously, as the others have pointed out, ships and ship wars can be incredibly divisive in fandom and cause a lot of emotional pain and stress. God knows that when I was a fledgling fanbrat in the Avatar: The Last Airbender fandom, I engaged in my fair share of shipping wank. But that’s hardly unique to shipping. That kind of zealous personality will create an “us vs. them” mentality out of anything; one only has to look at the prequel vs. original vs. sequel trilogy or Legends vs. New Canon fights in the Star Wars fandom to see proof of that. And yeah, sometimes people romanticize abusive relationships or fetishize non-straight pairings and those are definitely concerns that should be called out and discussed. And yeah at times it can be frustrating when fandom assigns romantic subtext to every interaction and you just want to read some regular platonic fic. But do those downsides mean that the entire concept of shipping is terrible and stupid? I don’t think so. No matter what you do in fandom, there’s going to be bad apples and bumps in the road. The important thing is to keep a sense of perspective and remember that fandom is supposed to be fun, at the end of the day.