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The Problem of Reylo: A Meta

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What is this meta for?

I found myself falling down the Reylo rabbit hole after seeing Star Wars: The Last Jedi. I’d known the pairing appealed to me before, but I’d resisted it. Suddenly I couldn’t help myself anymore. I fell hard.

Still, I found myself thinking about Reylo a lot—why it’s loved and hated in such equal measure by different groups of people. So I wrote this meta, as an exercise to help me understand the pairing (and its problems!) better. In doing this, I hope to end up a better writer and reader of fanfic.

I wrote this meta for myself first and for other people second. I don’t want to tell anyone else what to read, think, or do.

What does this meta cover?

I will be discussing all the theatrical Star Wars films, including The Last Jedi. I’ll be focused on the original series and the new trilogy, because while I appreciate many aspects of the prequels, I both don’t like them as much and don’t think they’re the most relevant to my arguments here. I won’t be discussing the Extended Universe (sorry, I mean “Legends”—old habits die hard) or the television shows, and I’ll only be briefly touching on recent novels and novelizations.

I will be discussing Rey and Kylo Ren’s canonical interactions; fans’ interest in their canonical relationship, and their expectations for that canonical relationship. I will also be discussing fanfic about Rey and Kylo Ren, especially romantic fanfic. I’m going to try and avoid using the term “shipping,” because when one person says they ship Reylo, they may mean something very different from another person who also says they ship Reylo. Instead, I’ll try to focus on specific impulses, desires, and behaviors I see in fandom.

I’m not going to try to comprehensively cover issues of race and Reylo, but I also don’t want to ignore or dismiss them. Race is a construct and within Star Wars canon there’s nothing to suggest that the colors of human skin matter to anyone (some people evidently discriminate against other alien species, but we never see that much of that either). But outside the fictional universe, race permeates everything we do, and it’s silly to read Kylo Ren and Rey both without acknowledging their whiteness. It certainly impacts their popularity within fandom in a wide variety of ways. I really recommend people listen to Fansplaining episodes 22A and 22B, “Race and Fandom,” for specific discussions of race in Star Wars fandom, and also episode 29, “Shipping and Activism.” Rukmini Pande is a scholar I’d especially recommend to anyone who wants to think deeply about this topic, and she’s featured in these episodes as well as having written a lot on the subject.

With all that out of the way, on to the arguments…

Star Wars as space fantasy—or space myth

Since its inception, Star Wars has always been more fantasy than science fiction. Its adage is that “the old ways are the good ways,” which to me is a frequent marker of fantasy. The Old Republic, despite its problems, was better than the Empire. Luke seeks to revive the Jedi, a long-lost sect. Even the action takes place “a long, long time ago in a galaxy far, far away.”

Star Wars has also always been less interested in psychological realism than archetypes and tropes. George Lucas famously based the plot on The Hero With a Thousand Faces by Joseph Campbell. The characters aren’t exactly cardboard—the actors are too dynamic for that—but nevertheless, the bad guy looks like a monster robot and dresses in black; the good guy is a handsome young man in white; there is no real-world reason for anyone to be evil other than that they’re bad people; stormtroopers are faceless cannon fodder; the Rebellion has wildly simplistic goals and policy points, mostly amounting to “destroy the OBVIOUSLY EVIL thing.”

As a result, the violence in the original Star Wars trilogy is largely symbolic. We see this most clearly in the way that Princess Leia bounces back from the destruction of Alderaan. Her hereditary kingdom, her parents, her childhood—destroyed in an instant. But we never really see her grieve. That’s not a criticism of Carrie Fisher, who carries off the role with panache. It’s just the type of story Star Wars is, a story that’s more about mythic tropes than psychological realism.

If we think about the plot of the new movies in the same mindset as we watched the original trilogy, then, Kylo Ren can’t be considered a mass murderer in any real world sense. He’s simply an embodiment of Badness, which means he can be saved by the embodiment of Goodness, which is probably Rey (because when has there ever been a Star Wars movie that didn’t feature a battle between Good and Evil?). (More on this later.) In this context, Reylo seems not just reasonable but almost required. We aren’t really talking about any action either of them has taken, any person either of them has killed. We’re talking about sweeping themes of redemption, forgiveness, and Light and Darkness in balance.

Once I realized that this was my instinctive reading of the story, I felt a lot better about the fact that Kylo Ren’s crimes didn’t make me want to throw him into the sea. In the context of the Star Wars I watched as a child, the crimes are nothing but symbols.

(Of course, I’m about to complicate this reading more than a bit.)

Romance and archetype

I read a lot of romance novels, and I think they have a lot to tell us about Reylo and especially Reylo fanfic, too. In Reading the Romance, Janice Radway suggests that women read romance in part to explore human behavior and think about how they approach relationships through stories. (Many people, I think, read and write fanfiction—romantic or not—for this reason as well.) I really like Radway’s book; it’s a classic of cultural studies, but it also really chimed with my experience of romance reading.

Many romance novels—though far from all!—feature heightened drama similar to Star Wars’. Historical romances, especially older ones, are particularly prone to this. The hero is a heartless rake cutting a swath through the demimonde and spending all his family’s money irresponsibly. The heroine is an impetuous virgin who doesn’t know enough to fear him. He kisses her against her will and threatens to ruin her! But through her love she teaches him a better way! Wedding bells ring, and they ride off into the sunset.

This type of story can only really teach you about human behavior if you’re willing to understand that the relationship between the story and real life isn’t exact. Your actual boyfriend probably isn’t running his family’s ducal estate to the ground through his love of fine horseflesh and loose women, but you might still see parallels when he drops hundreds of dollars on lootboxes and crap for his car.

Another, perhaps more familiar and certainly more symbolic example: in Beauty and the Beast, the story is so heightened that the bad boy turns into a literal animal and can only be returned to his real, princely form through his love’s infinite patience. In other words: if your husband seems uncouth, don’t worry, you’ve got a lifetime to train him to not chew with his mouth open. And stories like this are central in American media culture (I would say Western culture, but that's even more problematic, so let's just roll with it). No one should feel ashamed about liking them, but everyone should realize that we've been trained to like them from childhood.

Rey and Kylo Ren, as they are written in the actual canonical movies, fit with tons of the tropes of these romance novels. Kylo is the “black sheep” of a prominent family; his angst has led him to fall in with a bad crowd, but if he could only see the world in a different light he’d be happier; he’s done things that some would consider unforgivable; but the women in his life still believe he can be redeemed. Rey is an ingénue; she’s far socially inferior to Kylo; she takes the world by storm because of her special gifts and charm; she may be unconventional but she is a good person. The two deal with a forced marriage-of-the-minds through their bond. (Note, I’m hardly the first to point this out. There’s a great Reddit meta about The Last Jedi as compared to Pride and Prejudice [no, really]. And there’s tons of fanfic playing on these tropes. The Reylo AU with the most kudos on the Archive of our Own, for example, is an arranged-marriage, vaguely-historical romance novel.)

The long and the short of it is that no one should be surprised that Reylo is a monster of a ship: it works on just about every symbolic and tropey level. But there are some big problems with those tropes, and with it, as we all know. (And if you don’, you’re lucky, long before I got into Reylo I still felt like I couldn’t escape the antis.)

The humanizing turn in fic and canon

In fanworks, people have always tried to inject more psychological realism into Star Wars. A common tactic has been to focalize stories on minor characters—for example, the classic COPS parody fan film, TROOPS. Or people have fleshed out the main characters’ perspectives and inner thoughts. The Legends novels did a fair amount of work in this direction too, and some of the novels that did are the most beloved. When presented with a highly mannered, symbolic canon, the first instinct a fan has is to get into its guts and root around for people.

Even the movies started to pick up on this. In the prequels, by exploring Anakin Skywalker and Palpatine and some intensely boring political shit, Star Wars began to flesh out its universe a little more. It suggested that maybe the battles weren’t fought only about the Dark and the Light, but also about, I don’t know, intergalactic trade negotiations. That’s awfully real world-ish, if not psychologically complex.

The change didn’t fully come to fruition until The Force Awakens, when we finally get a stormtrooper character. We don’t see a lot of Finn’s life as a trooper in the films (there’s more of it in the novels), but the fact that stormtroopers aren’t nameless and faceless anymore means that we can’t purely read Star Wars’ violence symbolically anymore. Rogue One and The Last Jedi double down on this strategy, while also dishing out more galactic politics (fortunately less boring galactic politics this time, with 100% more glamorous space casino content). I think this is part of why so many people who read and write fanfic love the newest entries into Star Wars canon.

It’s not that these stories are the pinnacle of realism, mind you, or that there aren’t any symbols in them. Kylo Ren’s whole fall into Darkness is just a heightened version of the following real world story: a young man feels neglected by his parents and rejected by his favorite uncle so falls in with the alt-right, upon which point his parents’ marriage falls apart.

Still, the fact that we’re even a little more grounded leaves us with a big problem, because many of the characters in the original Star Wars trilogy don’t work in this light. The Rebellion killed a ton of humans—we see our heroes wasting TIE fighters left and right—but no one seems to have any psychological repercussions? And for that matter, how could Darth Vader ever be considered “redeemed”? Perhaps Luke could forgive his father for the wrongs done to him, but there’s no way standing by as the entire planet of Alderaan was destroyed can be fixed by a deathbed apology.

The Force Awakens and The Last Jedi really suffer from this tension. We are asked to empathize with Kylo Ren in a way we didn’t initially empathize with Darth Vader, because we know Kylo’s backstory and already care about his parents. This seems like it’s a natural outgrowth of the “humanizing turn,” and it’s obviously part of why Reylo fic is so attractive to some: it seems like Kylo must have good in him. (Like it or not, there have been many romantic heroes who are even whinier than Kylo—everyone loves a reformed jerk.)

But because The Force Awakens puts a face to the “little people,” and because Rogue One treats battle more seriously than it was ever treated in Star Wars before, we’re forced to admit that no matter how much Luke may have provoked Kylo into leaving his family, Kylo still chose to go support a military regime that’s killed billions using exploited child soldiers, and now kills with impunity whenever he feels remotely irritated. If the movies had only introduced psychological complexity on Kylo’s part, we could maybe shrug and ignore the people he killed (because the whole thing is just symbolic, just a big metaphor for a screwed-up guy who harasses people online, and so none of the murders are really real). But we know Finn now, and we know Rey, and once we get to The Last Jedi we know Rose. We know the kind of people that the original trilogy killed without compunction.

Revolutionary writing versus comfortable tropes

Fundamentally, the symbolic stories we have learned to enjoy throughout our lives aren’t revolutionary stories. They can’t be. They form the lens through which we see the world, and for society to function, constant revolution isn’t possible. That’s not to say that we don’t enjoy messing with those symbols, playing around with them, making them squirm… we do. But the stuff that hits us in our id? Yeah, that’s usually not the most radical shit.

The classic sort of tropey heterosexual romance novel essentially says: Women, men have all the power, but you can learn to live with them; they’re able to change, and you don’t have to settle for someone who won’t. What it doesn’t say is: fuck the institution of marriage, it’s a bad deal for women; you might end up with an irredeemable abusive jerk and it’s a waste of time trying to change that dude; let’s break society and make something new.

The original Star Wars trilogy says: There’s Good and Evil in the world, Darkness and Light. Evil is sometimes redeemable, even when it seems the worst. Love conquers hate, and love justifies violence sometimes. It doesn’t say: maybe everyone is victimized by cycles of war. It doesn’t say: you don’t have to be a powerful Jedi or have a great destiny to be important.

The new Star Wars trilogy takes many of these messages on. Where George Lucas was a “revivalist” director, perfecting and reframing traditional generic stories, Rian Johnson especially is a “revisionist” director, fucking with the tropes with glee. Despite Rey’s hopes, Kylo chooses to embrace amorality—her love (or at least her unwilling presence in his brain via Force bond) couldn’t save him, not yet or maybe not ever. We see how the little people, like Rose, have been continually exploited by galactic war, and how they have their own dreams. We see Finn, formerly a stormtrooper, learning to be an individual with a sense of self-worth. We see that Rey doesn’t need a high lineage to be important and doesn’t need a Jedi master to do good.

This type of story is a new thing for Star Wars, and it’s...okay, “revolutionary” might be overstating it, but it’s certainly not reactionary. But I don’t think that most people pick up fanfic based on a desire for revolutionary stories. Fanfic, in my experience, is often about fixing a story up to your taste, when your taste doesn’t exactly match what was presented to you. And as The Force Awakens, Rogue One, and The Last Jedi subvert tropes, it’s unsurprising that many people would seek to restore those tropes to Star Wars through fanfic.

It’s not lost on me that The Last Jedi is pretty much all about the question of whether we should burn everything down or not, and the answer it ultimately offers is “no, some things are salvageable.”

Trends I see in Reylo fanfic

I am not interested in arguing about whether anyone “should” or “should not” read Reylo fic. To me, this is a boring debate. What is interesting is looking at common ways Reylo fics, in my experience, fail—because no ship is necessarily a Bad Idea. Even the crackiest ships can, at least, be amusing. (And don’t get me wrong: I’m a trashpile who loves even stories that I think ultimately fail. I’m not trying to call any individual out here.)

So: Reylo fic.

Many stories I’ve read were written immediately post-The Force Awakens. These fics tend to predict what would go on to happen in The Last Jedi to a significant extent, and to focus on the way the Force bond between Rey and Kylo allows their minds enough intimacy for Rey to overcome Kylo’s Dark tendencies. As is usual for fanfic, a lot of stories are romances with a fair bit of sex thrown in—a genre that I thoroughly endorse—and they naturally take the differences of outlook and opinion between Rey and Kylo as their central conflict.

Obviously this is a classic romance trope, and one that takes absolutely innumerable forms (for example, what if a Mennonite fell in love with the singer Pitbull? I am not joking). But most of these tropes involve the two protagonists finding a middle ground between their points of view. And while Rey at first planned to become a Jedi, she’s not really that far to the Light side; in fact, her ambivalence about the Light is really highlighted in The Last Jedi. By comparison, Kylo has done some off the charts Dark things, and has been party to much more (like the destruction of the Hosnian system). If they meet in the middle, Rey is going to be a lot more morally grey than I think most people would like.

So what to do? Well, the most common strategy is to make Kylo appear not really so bad. Writers commonly suggest that the actions of the First Order are morally equivalent to the actions of the Resistance. It’s certainly true that members of the First Order might believe this, but frequently Rey begins to believe it too—and the reader is supposed to go along with her. In fact, there seems to be a strain running through discussion of Rey and Kylo Ren that assumes that in order for the First Order to be truly evil, they must be racist (or sexist, or…). It’s as though only actual Nazis can be evil, or as though genocide can only be committed in the cause of ethnic cleansing. Every other kind of violence (according to this view) is simply the way of the world; the Resistance probably commits all these sorts of violence too.

I don’t think this is a defensible attitude, but I will point out that those who hold with it likely see The Last Jedi’s Canto Bight sequences as supporting evidence. If arms dealers are profiting off of both the Resistance and the First Order, then surely both are equally bad (or good), right? When both sides are destroying planetoids, how can you discriminate between them? There’s a seed of an idea here, a seed of something true, but when that idea is used purely in service to a Kylo Ren and Rey romance it often gets perverted into sheer moral relativism.

There are plenty of stories that don’t dismiss or equivocate about Kylo’s crimes, but even these rarely have complex or nuanced ideas about justice and forgiveness. I find this particularly frustrating, because so much time was spent and so many words written about the subject of what to do after war crimes, and what to do with the people who did them after World War II. It’s also frustrating because it’s not necessarily inherent to fanfiction. 99% of everything is crap, of course, but Star Wars is one of the biggest fandoms in the world...and in Harry Potter, Star Trek and other fandoms, authors manage to talk about justice, forgiveness, and war with nuance.

I think the explanation for this is simple. For all the Slytherins-are-evil, Gryffindors-are-good rhetoric in Harry Potter, it still tries to posit grey areas and suggest that things might not be so simple. Star Trek is almost entirely about those grey areas, where Starfleet could (for example) stop a planet from being destroyed but only by breaking the Prime Directive. And in both cases, we see the results of war: the Longbottoms out of their minds, the Bajorans laboring under occupiers.

Until very recently, though, war in Star Wars was an abstract concept, and although characters like Finn and Rose serve as introductions to the real human cost to war, you’ve still got the Rebels blowing up TIE fighters left and right. Even the destruction of the Hosnian system is given basically no treatment; we don’t feel an immortal “disturbance in the Force”; nobody gives us a reason to really care about the system, and by The Last Jedi everyone seems to have forgotten about it. It’s hardly surprising, if not satisfying, that when writing a pairing that relies so heavily on archetypes, writers would seek to simplify the complex concerns that surround Kylo Ren.

But even assuming an author has committed to treating war and war crimes in a more realistic way than Star Wars does, not everyone agrees on how to morally deal with these issues. There are many possible answers, any of which could be the one a reader agrees with. Yet many stories are still tied to the romance standard, that we ought to sympathize with the heroine (Rey) and think that her moral choices are the best ones. Thus, even a story that proposes different ideas about what to do with Kylo Ren between (say) Leia and Rey usually ends up taking sides, and the side is usually “forgive Kylo and let bygones be bygones,” because otherwise you can’t have a happy ending. Or not a perfectly happy one. I would personally find it more satisfying to read a story with a variety of perspectives acknowledged and recognized as conflicting but possibly just, but I also would like to have a billion dollars so that’s just me.

Still, the point is: with Reylo, you have a choice between three paths. You can either go all in on themes of justice, forgiveness, and redemption, acknowledging that this possibly means there can’t be a happy ending for Rey and Kylo and thus you can’t really be writing a romance novel; you can equivocate or dismiss Kylo’s bad choices, in which case you are writing a story that I personally find both uninteresting and bad; or you can write some kind of alternate universe, where all of these conflicts go away.

Why do they go away? Because you don’t have to have any murders. If you can convince us that Kylo Ren’s character is defined by something other than being a literal mass murderer, then you can write him as a rock star, or a business tycoon, or the cool scary dude at your high school. AUs rely on the idea of reading Reylo as symbolic. They translate the symbols of Rey and Kylo Ren (and Han, and Leia, and the First Order, and all the rest) into a world that’s not as heightened, and thus where it’s OK for Kylo and Rey to make the beast with two backs. (In my experience, many AUs don’t provide enough one-to-one connections with canon to still feel like the characters we saw in Star Wars, but that’s not true in every case, and other readers’ mileage definitely varies.)

The future of Reylo

Regardless of what perspectives stories take on Reylo, the fact remains that at the end of The Force Awakens there was still a reasonable possibility that in Movie 2 Kylo Ren might repent of his ways and join the Resistance. At the end of The Last Jedi, he’s been given a chance to do so and rejected it.

Reylo fans read The Force Awakens right in many ways. In The Last Jedi, Rey and Kylo have very little time with their Force bond before they band together and kill Snoke—it’s clear that their relationship is powerful, whether it’s romantic or not. But the scene that Reylo fans loved most in The Last Jedi, the scene that made my soul leave my body in fannish pleasure, where Kylo asked Rey to join him and rule over the First Order, is actually a perfect example of how Kylo (who is wrong) buys into all the heightened, mythic, symbolic aspects of Star Wars.

Kylo’s idea is that Rey will join him and together, finding a way between his symbolic Dark and her symbolic Light, they will rule the galaxy. That makes sense, if you’re thinking in those mythic terms, and the idea that they are yin and yang has already been suggested to moviegoers: posters for the new Star Wars films show Rey’s blue lightsaber and Ren’s red one, symbols of Light and Dark in the Star Wars universe since 1977. But Rey isn’t necessarily a force for Light, any more than she is a force for Dark. She’s not a Jedi, as we’ve seen from her interactions with Luke. When Rey asks Kylo to join with her, she doesn’t think she’s the embodiment of the Light who’s going to get Darker; she knows she’s always been something greyer and murkier, and that’s part of why she doesn’t want to rule the galaxy or burn it all down. When Kylo rejects her offer, he shows that he doesn’t really understand her or himself, and he still believes himself to be the protagonist of this symbolic Dark-vs.-Light story.

But now he’s gone past what ought to have been the end of that story. He’s so angry in the final scenes of The Last Jedi because he thought he had completed his triumphant last scene, killing the evil and winning the girl. But he didn’t, because this isn’t that kind of story: for the first time, Star Wars has acknowledged that battles between Good and Evil only lead to endless cycles of war.

In the aftermath of The Last Jedi, what can happen between Kylo Ren and Rey? In my opinion, the door is completely closed to any simple reconciliation between Kylo and the Resistance. He is now the Big Bad, the Renperor. So I’m interested in stories that treat him as such.

I’m interested in stories where Kylo is sentenced to punishment. I’m interested in stories where he and Rey fall in love, but he is sentenced to death, and she reluctantly accedes to the fact that he deserves it. I’m interested in stories where they fall in love but can’t be together because he needs to work on himself for a long time, and we’re left with a “maybe someday” ending. I’m interested in stories where they can’t be together because, together, they are too tempting a target for the wrong kind of mythmaking, and they want to make sure no one romanticizes their story in the future. I’m interested in generational stories where they end up together and have to deal with the fact that people take the wrong messages from their example. I’m interested in stories where Kylo dies, but not as a martyr; or where Rey dies, and Kylo is left to face what life is like afterwards.

Am I going to get any of these fics? Probably not unless I write them, because people love happy endings. Am I going to read other types of fics, and enjoy them? You bet your ass, because I’m not proud. I’m Reylo trash, and I know it. But I also hope that people rise to the occasion of this weird, complex pairing and join me in telling stories that are more complicated than just re-instating the same tropes that The Last Jedi has done so much to subvert.

Appendix: Shit I Don’t Even Have Time For, Honestly.

  • The argument that Reylo is wrong because Kylo abused Rey is boring. I wish more stories leaned into the way that their Force bond is nonconsensual and dealt with issues of the violence they inflict on each other more carefully, but that does not make Reylo bad out of the gate.
  • The argument that Reylo is wrong because of an age gap is so stupid I can feel my neurons dying.
  • The argument that Reylo is wrong because it is incest has been Jossed, and also, if I hear the words “metaphorical incest” my eyes will roll out of my head.
  • The argument that Reylo is wrong because Kylo is a little shit is...I mean, he is, it’s not inaccurate! But lots of us have little shits that we still love, or are attracted to, and writing a story about that is fine. You might not want to read it but it is a totally normal thing. If you, unlike me, want nothing to do with little shits, I wish you well in reading stories that aren’t about Kylo Ren. Actually, I request JediStormPilot recs please, that is a good ship which is 0% Kylo Ren and which I have not read enough of.
  • Come on, people, just because you don’t want to read a story about X doesn’t mean that it’s inherently wrong forever and ever for anyone to write a story about X, stop being dinguses!