50 Shades of Rey

In the world of Force Awakens fan fiction, the notion of hero and villain getting together is popular, controversial, and might suggest the future of Star Wars.

Lucasfilm / Damian Dovarganes / AP / Catwalker / Shutterstock / Paul Spella / The Atlantic

Until very recently, the 27-year-old New Yorker who goes by the online alias Ricca was not a Star Wars fan. She’d seen the prequels at some point long ago; she didn’t sit down and watch the original trilogy until last year, when, she said, “it was no longer appropriate not to have seen them as part of the culture we exist in.” But seeing The Force Awakens in December profoundly changed her relationship to the franchise created by George Lucas nearly four decades earlier.

“I started writing fan fiction pretty much as soon as I left the theater,” she said, explaining the origins of Interstellar Transmissions, a 55-chapter saga that’s the length of an average Harry Potter novel and now stands as the most popular Star Wars-inspired story on the fan-fiction site Archive of Our Own. Her opus began as a short piece of erotica in which Rey, the heroic character played in the movie by Daisy Ridley, and Kylo Ren, the villain played by Adam Driver, use a psychic bond accidentally forged in combat to conduct a form of telepathic phone sex from across the galaxy. But then Ricca started adding new chapters, at the rate of one a day, expanding the scope of the story in directions both sexual and not, spinning a narrative about what might come after The Force Awakens ends.

Among the many readers was a 25-year-old named Rosie. The very first user to leave a comment on the story (“I was snorting up fan fiction like cocaine from my phone,” she remembers), she soon joined Ricca as an editor and co-author. Rosie’s history with Star Wars was very different from Ricca’s: She remembers scribbling down her own tales about Qui-Gon Jinn, the Jedi played by Liam Neeson in The Phantom Menace, at age 9. But both women walked out of The Force Awakens fascinated by the same two characters. “Kylo and Rey stuck in my mind like popcorn kernels in my teeth,” Rosie said. “I couldn’t get rid of them.”

This appears to have been a relatively common reaction to the Disney film that revived the Star Wars franchise with one of the highest box-office grosses of all time. Four of the 10 most-viewed Star Wars stories on Archive of Our Own (a plurality), and many of the top Force Awakens-inspired works on other sites like FanFiction.net and Wattpad, are also about Rey and Kylo—or as the Internet has come to know them, “Reylo.” The pairing has come to be the Star Wars fan-fiction world’s heterosexual “ship”—slang for “hypothetical relationship”—of choice by a wide margin.

Which might, for some people, seem surprising. Because: Aren’t Finn and Rey, not Kylo and Rey, the obvious will-they-won’t-they couple of the movie? Isn’t the scene where Kylo uses the Force to invade Rey’s mind reminiscent of rape? Doesn’t he become totally irredeemable once he kills his father, one of the most beloved characters of the Star Wars universe? Aren’t they maybe siblings or cousins? These questions are very much on the minds of many Reylo shippers. In the descriptive tags for Forms, another popular Reylo story on Archive of Our Own, the author Trebia wrote “Not incest until proven guilty in a court of law,” and, “Riding the bus to hell either way.”

Fan fiction is an inevitable part of the response to any feat of storytelling today—and perhaps always has been (some people argue that many of Shakespeare’s works, based off myth and history, qualify as fan fiction). So The Force Awakens was bound to trigger a diverse body of amateur riffs on the characters created by J.J. Abrams, Lawrence Kasdan, and Michael Arndt. Shortly after its release, many mainstream media outlets noted an outpouring of interest in the idea of John Boyega’s stormtrooper Finn dating Oscar Isaac’s fighter pilot Poe (conforming with the outsized popularity of man-on-man stories across many fandoms, there are more works about this possibility on Archive of Our Own than about any other pairing from The Force Awakens). Another prominent ship features Kylo and General Hux, Domhnall Gleeson’s young-Hitler-type character. Further down the popularity list are stories about Finn and Rey. Some people have crafted elaborate tales about the dalliances of Jessika Pava, a Resistance pilot who’s onscreen for only a few seconds. And there are, of course, many stories that don’t involve romance at all.

But the mix of passion and controversy surrounding Reylo stands out for what it can reveal about the dynamics around fandom and Star Wars in 2016. Depending on who you ask, envisioning Rey and Kylo together is a textbook response to a movie like this, a problematic fantasy based on regressive tropes around gender and race, or a glorious embrace of two complicated characters whose duality embodies everything great about Star Wars and might hint at the story of the next two sequels. Maybe it’s all of the above: an old phenomenon rendered in a new way, like The Force Awakens itself.

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There have been very few fandoms as large or as influential as the one Star Wars first gave rise to in 1977, and the common narrative around that fact gives a lot of credit to George Lucas’s savvy creative control. Lucas, rather than 20th Century Fox, famously retained the merchandising rights to the original movie and proceeded over the following decades to feed the Star Wars cult with action figures, video games, comic books, novels, and other ephemera that expanded the story’s universe.

But there’s another narrative to be told about grassroots, independent Star Wars fandom. After the first film arrived, viewers began sharing their own stories about the Rebellion and the Empire in “zines” distributed through the mail or at fan events. Today, this kind of engagement remains more commonly associated with Star Trek, whose fervent fan base helped rescue the TV show from cancellation in the ’60s, produced zines that were read and endorsed by the creator Gene Roddenberry, and gave rise to possibly the most important imaginary gay couple of all time: Kirk and Spock. Though the two franchises are often now seen as rivals, much early Star Wars fan fiction was initially published in publications devoted to Star Trek.

In those days, as now, fan-fiction was a hobby largely undertaken by women; though solid data is sparse, most of it shows cisgender men in the minority by a wide margin. There’s no single agreed upon answer to the question of why this is, but one common explanation cites the desire to create narratives outside the male perspective that has historically ruled the entertainment world. Interviewed by Fangirl Chat in 2014, Maggie Nowakowska, a prominent member of the early Star Wars zine scene, recalled that this was an explicit goal of hers: “We wanted to make sure we got some female Jedi in there because we were afraid the boys would get on it first and the next thing you’d know women were never Jedi.”

Not all fan fiction centers on romance, but a good portion of it does. In many fandoms (The Force Awakens included), “slash” stories about men getting with men tend to be very popular: perhaps for some of the same reasons lesbian porn is popular among straight men, or because pop culture generally tends to create more (and more fleshed-out) male characters than female ones, or because media has historically lacked for queer love stories. Even when the subject of a story is a heterosexual relationship between leading characters, foregrounding romance can be a transgressive move depending on the source material. At one point in the ’80s, Lucasfilm broke with a policy of mostly ignoring fan fiction by sending publishers warning letters because of a story that featured love scenes between Han and Leia.

But why ship at all? Again, there’s no single, universally accepted explanation. Writing at The New Statesman in response to the media scrutiny suddenly being paid to fan fiction after The Force Awakens, Elizabeth Minkel had a good synopsis: “There are a huge variety of ways to be a fan, and to identify as one: You can collect facts, for example, or experiences, or material objects, or a whole host of other things. But for a lot of fans—and this corner of fandom tends to be pretty heavily female-dominated—being really into a book or film or television show is about collecting emotional capital.”

The Star Wars prequels, released in the late ’90s and early 2000s, inspired their share of stories about Obi Wan, Anakin, Padme, and others. But the years since then have seen increased visibility for fan fiction due to new platforms like Tumblr, the fervent cult of Harry Potter, and the success of 50 Shades of Grey, which itself began as a work of Twilight-inspired erotica. The Force Awakens was entering an environment primed to reinterpret its universe like no Star Wars story before it. Wattpad, a site established in 2006, reported that between the release of the first Episode VII trailer and January 2016, the amount of time its users spent reading Star Wars-related stories rose 380 percent. For Archive of Our Own, which began in 2008, The Force Awakens has caused the amount of Star Wars fiction to double. (FanFiction.net, an older site, still has more works inspired by pre-Disney Star Wars, though The Force Awakens is gaining there, too).

Star Wars-inspired fan art (Little Chmura)

This proliferation results partly from the reactivation of Star Wars’s vast, intergenerational fan base. But it’s also a sign that the movie is minting new Star Wars lovers, many of whom are female, young, and well-versed in online fan cultures. Last year, women who have long adored Star Wars criticized J.J. Abrams for describing the franchise as a “boy’s thing” (he then clarified the comment as referring to perception, not reality). The inescapable fact is that the original movies didn’t pass the Bechdel test and were marketed in gendered ways. The Force Awakens, with its empowered leading lady, broke with this tradition—though the recent flap over Rey being omitted from some toy lines shows that some habits die hard.

The fan-culture journalist Heidi MacDonald remembers trying, years ago, to convince comics companies that they should take female readers more seriously. “One thing I always said was ‘Look at the strongest fandoms. You can have your Boba Fett; New Kids on the Block fans are way stronger than your fans,’” she recalled. “We’re finally seeing that kind of fervid fandom that women, girls, have always expressed, brought over to the pop-culture nerd world.”

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When I asked the two Interstellar Transmissions authors whether the Reylo ship’s popularity seems unusual, they disagreed with each other slightly. “Very, very, very little about the Internet or fan fiction surprises me at this point,” said Rosie, the longtime Star Wars fan. “Adam Driver is a good-looking person, and so is Daisy Ridley, and they are two people who are in a movie together, so I generally assume there’s going to be something.”

“Yeah, but everyone in Star Wars is good looking,” Ricca, the story’s creator, replied. “There’s a curve as to which ships are the most popular and which are the least. That Reylo is bigger than Finn and Rey is surprising to me.”

It’s true: Stories by fans about The Force Awakens’s two lead heroes falling in love are far outnumbered by ones about the movie’s heroine and its village-slaughtering villain doing so. One common explanation for this says that Rey and Kylo are simply the most fascinating people on screen. J.J. Abrams has talked about his philosophy of movies being “mystery boxes,” and certainly both of these characters, with Rey’s unexplained backstory and Kylo’s hazy motivations, fit that description.

There’s also a level of moral unsettledness that make them stand out. Kylo is visibly tempted to turn back to good; Rey has more pressing concerns than the fate of the galaxy. Ricca explained it to me in terms of Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs. Rey’s focused on the bottom, on survival, while Kylo highmindedly obsesses over being the best Dark Sider he can be. “Having the two meet as equals is bizarre, and hints a lot of things,” Ricca said. “Some of those things are explored in Interstellar Transmissions, and a lot of them aren’t, because there’s so much potential.”

A work of Reylo fan art (Necronauta)

For others, though, the appeal of Reylo may lie precisely in the way the couple fits existing tropes. After seeing The Force Awakens, Heidi MacDonald wrote an article analyzing the fan-fiction potential of various characters in the film. While she didn’t anticipate Reylo per se, of Kylo Ren she wrote, “We have our Snape,” referring to the Harry Potter antihero who’s been enthusiastically shipped with both Harry and Hermione.

“The segment of fandom for whom fanfic is a real, active part of their fandom, they love vulnerability,” MacDonald said. “Everybody loves Snape. He was kind of the villain you love to hate, and his backstory revealed that he did it all for unrequited love. I sensed in Kylo quite a bit of the same thing, even though he’s a horrible villain who killed Han Solo.”

“It’s 50 Shades of Grey,” she added. “50 shades of Kylo.”

Vulnerability may indeed be what’s turned Kylo into the cultural phenomenon that’s given rise to SNL skits and the parody Twitter account Emo Kylo Ren. It can’t hurt that Adam Driver, already a Millennial icon thanks to the HBO show Girls, plays Kylo. If you want to give him a heterosexual relationship with a prominent human being from The Force Awakens who’s not his mother, Rey’s the only contender.

But the Tumblr user Verity, a 29-year-old who’s leading an effort to get fan writers and artists and audio storytellers to collaborate on Reylo works, said her Force Awakens allegiances have more to do with Rey. “I found her really relatable as someone who takes care of herself and has a lot of agency,” she said. “The moment she had the lightsaber in her hand for the first time, I cried in the theater. I didn’t grow up playing with lightsabers, because I was Princess Leia! Princess Leia doesn’t have a lightsaber.”

There are moments of near-intimacy between Rey and Kylo in the movie, moments where they’re physically touching or mentally sparring. The most intense example is in the scene where he attempts to read her mind but she’s able to overpower him with the Force. In The Force Awakens novelization, there’s more detail that could suggest an affinity between the two characters, including one scene in which Snoke accuses Kylo of having “compassion” for Rey.

“The way that Rey and Kylo are written is extremely fraught with tension,” said Trebia, 24, the author of Forms. “It’s easy to translate into romantic or sexual tension. It just takes a writer like me taking it one step further and saying, ‘What if they did this?’”

She also points out that the interplay between the two characters gets to the heart of why this franchise appeals in the first place.

“Dark sider and light sider conflict is one of the most fascinating points of Star Wars,” she said. “Rey and Kylo represent the fight to find the balance.”

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But what for some people is a tantalizing encounter between good and evil is, for others, disturbing. A number of critics have noted how Kylo Ren fits archetypes about young angry men who shoot up schools. Others have interpreted the scene where he enters Rey’s mind as akin to rape. The “Reylo” tag on Tumblr is filled with discussion of whether rooting for the two to get together is just playing into old tropes glamorizing violence and emotional cruelty by men. And in the FAQ for the Star Wars Big Bang, another open call for collaborative fan-fiction, there are guidelines for what kind of Reylo stories will and will not be allowed: “If there is abuse between two people in a romantic relationship, it needs to be shown as a negative thing inside that relationship, not a display of strength/passion/etc.”

“These people don’t seem to understand what an abusive relationship is,” Verity said of the Reylo critics, summing up a typical defense. “When one character’s the hero and one character is a villain, that’s a hero/villain relationship. And I understand that some of the physical violence and mind control can read in a gendered violence way. That’s a fair reading. If you have a problem with that and it makes you uncomfortable in terms of shipping stuff, I mean, that’s fine. Don’t engage.”

The power dynamics are just one of the reasons some people consider Reylo to be a “problematic ship.” Common theories about Rey’s parentage say that she might turn out to be a Skywalker—either the daughter of Leia and Han, which would make her Kylo’s brother, or the daughter of Luke, which would make her his cousin. Reylo shippers alternately scoff at objections based on this idea as premature or cheekily embrace it, sometimes pointing out that incestuous romantic tension is in the very DNA of Star Wars: Remember how Leia kissed Luke before anyone knew they were siblings?

The other point of controversy around Reylo is racial. The Force Awakens may hint at a potential connection between Rey and Kylo, but it’s not subtle about suggesting one between Rey and Finn. Finn asks Rey if she has a boyfriend; he tries to hold her hand; he basically treats BB-8 as a nightclub wingman when trying to impress her. Han Solo even offers Finn some dating advice: “A woman always figures out the truth—always.” Rey, meanwhile, is appreciative of Finn but inscrutable in her feelings, though at the end of the film, she kisses him on the forehead and says “Thank you, my friend.”

Yet there are only a third as many Finn/Rey stories on Archive of Our Own as there are Reylo ones. “A lot of people find it kind of upsetting that out of everyone that Rey gets paired with, they always pick Kylo,” said Rey-Flywalker, 21, the Tumblr user who runs the Star Wars Big Bang. “When there’s clearly chemistry between Finn and Rey in the movie, they feel like people are only picking Kylo so they don’t have to pick a black guy.”

The objection refers to historically racist tropes: When fan-fiction writers opt to pair Rey with Kylo, critics say, they end up picking a counterintuitive all-white pairing over a more intuitive-seeming interracial one. And they avoid having to break the old taboo about black men having sex with white women—a taboo that is not as much in history’s rearview as it should be.

The counterarguments are myriad: Rey explicitly indicates she wants Finn for a friend; Rey and Finn getting together might be boring because it would indulge the cliché of the eligible male and female leads necessarily falling in love; Finn might be, according to the most popular Force Awakens ship, hot for Poe; shipping Reylo doesn’t mean you can’t also ship Finn/Rey. On some level, though, it’s impossible to know what reasons drive anyone to ship anything. I asked Rey-Flywalker whether she thought unwitting racism is fueling Reylo. “It’s probably true for some people but not everyone,” she said. “I mean, if you’re white and you grow up in Canada or America, you are kind of inherently racist. You can choose to unlearn it, but it’s built right in.”

That these kinds of discussions are happening among Star Wars fans might itself represent a breakthrough. The series hadn’t previously been held up as a paragon of socially conscious casting or storytelling, a fact that The Force Awakens helps correct by elevating women and people of color to the kind of roles that would have previously gone to white men. But fandom discussions today unfold in many of the same spaces online that social-justice discussions do. The two can’t help but cross over.

Trebia, the writer of Forms, said that while she sympathizes with some of the critiques of Reylo and rejects others, she endorses a “ship and let ship” mentality. She and other Reylo diehards jokingly brag about being “the trash ship”—the least respectable of all the Star Wars fan-fictional relationships.

“I am fully involved in the garbage compactor that is this pairing, and I love it,” she said. “No matter what way it goes, I will stick with it.”

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Is there any chance that the next few Star Wars movies might go Reylo shippers’ way? Many fans are adamant that shipping is a reward in itself and don’t care if salaried filmmakers and writers make their fan-fictional dreams come true. Many Reylo shippers, in particular, have no expectations that forthcoming Star Wars episodes will pair Rey and Kylo. Still, over the years, there have been a number of times where unofficial storylines have influenced the official canon of various franchises, and of course, viewers’ yearnings could turn out to be the result of intentional foreshadowing by the original creators.

In the time since The Force Awakens was released, people involved with the franchise have occasionally winked at fan theories about the future of the series. Asked about all the attention paid to Finn and Poe’s tarmac glance, the actor Oscar Isaac said he played his character’s relationship with Finn as a “subtle romance.” In February, J.J. Abrams said there was no reason to rule out the possibility of a gay relationship in Star Wars, which is either a pro-forma statement of tolerance or a hint that some Tumblr drawings of the “Stormpilot” pairing are posted up on storyboards at Pinewood Studios.

And while the mere fact of Rey being the “good guy” and Kylo being the “bad guy” might seem like a big hurdle to future romantic involvement, there are pages of painstaking theorizing online about micro-moments in the movie that could be omens of an affair. Some viewers plausibly argue that the flirtation between Finn and Rey may be a red herring. (Others say that the impulse to define one of the most revolutionarily self-sufficient female protagonists in blockbuster history with a romance is one that the filmmakers should resist.)

Integral to many Reylo stories is the theme of temptation—both of Rey being tempted toward the dark and Kylo being tempted toward the light. If Kylo has a redemption arc, it would not be the franchise’s first. Like his grandfather Anakin Skywalker, Kylo was seduced to evil at a young age—is it so impossible to imagine that, like Darth Vader at the end of Return of the Jedi, he may turn back to good? Is it so impossible to imagine that, like Darth Vader, he’d do so for love?