What You Ship Doesn’t Make You a Bad Person. Or a Good One.
Last Friday, a post made the rounds on twitter that got a lot of Star Wars fans and other shippers talking. The post, titled Twilight of the Conspiracy Theory: A Glimpse into the Dark Side of Reylo is…bad. It’s based on an incorrect understanding of fandom and a very flimsy definition of “conspiracy theory.” The post posits that Reylo shippers are engaged in conspiracy type thinking because they…think their ship might go cannon? Instead of understanding that fans and shippers who think Reylo is endgame are just reading the the text of the film and engaging in other normal fandom behaviors like making memes, the author of this post compares shippers to QAnon, what they acknowledge as a domestic terrorist organization (like I said, the post is Very Bad). What’s interesting here isn’t the faulty logic and incendiary content of that post, it’s the fact that it exists at all and the larger issue it represents: ship wars becoming an issue of morality.
Reylo is a popular ship, and, while I don’t personally ship it, I totally understand why it appeals to people. Now, perhaps I would feel more inclined to explore the ship if I didn’t fear being called a Nazi-sympathizer for liking it. You may think that’s absurd, but as the Twilight of Reylo post shows, people get crazy talking about ships they don’t like. Especially when half the ship is a villain with fascist tendencies like Kylo Ren, fans will call shippers every name in the book, including branding them as morally repugnant people. This isn’t just a problem in Star Wars, it’s a problem across all fandoms and it represents a very limited and super damaging way of thinking about media.
Shipping is as old as storytelling itself. It’s natural to want two characters to be together. It’s normal to anticipate or hope for a certain outcome in a narrative. I’ve always been a shipper. Since before I even knew what fandom or shipping was I wanted Christine to dump that boring goody-two-shoes Raoul and run off with the Phantom of the Opera. I loved that story, and that and I still do, even though I’m more aware now that the dynamic in Phantom is pretty problematic. I can acknowledge that and still ship Erik/Christine. But the fact I ship this and like The Phantom as a character it doesn’t make me pro-stalking.
This brings us to the toxic mentality I see around fandom spaces more and more lately: the idea that if you ship something, that’s your ideal relationship or if you like a character that you approve of all of their actions and qualities. I know I’ll come off as an old woman yelling at kids to get off her lawn when I say this, but I see it far more among younger fans who haven’t yet been through the fandom ringer and who haven’t learned to distinguish between liking a story and wanting it to happen.
For one, stories would be very short and very boring if every character always did good things and made the right decisions. Fiction is about conflict, drama and mistakes and the reasons and consequences behind human behavior. People make the mistake of conflating enjoying art with agreeing with what it depicts and that’s just not how consuming media works. I like hurt/comfort fanfic, but that doesn’t mean I want to see my partner beaten up. I really enjoy Hannibal, but that doesn’t mean I approve of cannibalism.
We live in, let’s say. complicated times. There are real conversations happening now about real issues of race, discrimination, sexual harassment and representation. Most of these conversations are happening on social media, where cancel culture exists in the same space as fandom. Suffice it to say, many people on social media are more aware of issues than they were even five years ago (I think the kids call it “woke”), but these people are also doing normal, fun, fannish things like shipping on social media – and those two disparate conversations are getting mixed together in unfortunate ways.
The language of wokeness pervades social media, and when it gets mixed in with fandom, it often becomes a weapon rather than a tool to educate. Shipping, unfortunately, can be a blood sport in many fandoms and shippers will do exactly what the author of the Reylo post did, and “call out” shippers they don’t agree with, throwing in accusations of everything from racism to condoning abuse to actual, criminal behavior. The issue that arises when fan use the language of social justice to attack a ship is that it does nothing to dissuade shippers and everything to dilute and discourage actual discussion of important things.
The Reylo post references some real issues that fandom at large should discuss: racism and erasure of characters of color – something we do see far too often in Star Wars fandom and fandom at large. It brings up the problem of fans treating shipping like a conspiracy theory, something that does really happen, often with sad and disappointing results for fans (I highly recommend giving this Decoder Ring podcast on The Johnlock Conspiracy a listen if you want more on that topic). Unfortunately, the author is doing all of this in bad faith, just, it seems to make a point about a ship or character they don’t like.
Maybe it’s because of my history with Phantom, or that fact that I’ve spent much of my fannish time in the Supernatural fandom, where Wincest is popular so I have a high tolerance for “problematic” content, but I truly wish that fans would stop using morality to attack others over ships. I know what it’s like to be called homophobic and racist because I said something unfavorable about a ship (a ship I actually love!) and I’ve seen too many friends be called amoral or evil just because they like read about Sam and Dean Winchester banging. I never judge a friend by what they ship, because I’ve known good people who ship all sorts of things, and cruel people who ship only the morally perfect.
What we read, watch, write or ship doesn’t reflect our character. If that were true, Stephen King and George R. R. Martin should both be in prison, and every fan of Die Hard would be on a watchlist. We enjoy stories because they take us outside of ourselves, into adventures we could never have and into the minds of people we could never be. That’s art. And while it’s always important to be critical and thoughtful about how and why we enjoy something, that should never keep you from liking what you like. And it certainly doesn’t make you a bad person.
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