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Shipping for Salvation

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When it was revealed that Disney expected Kylo Ren, not Rey, to be the breakout star of The Force Awakens, everyone laughed. Of course everyone would fall in love with the villain who’s responsible for the death of a fan favorite, and not the protagonist of the movie. Obviously.

But one group was drawn to the series’ new villain — shippers. Although Finn/Poe is definitely the most popular pairing from The Force Awakens, Kylo Ren and Rey are the close second.

Pairing the female lead with a young male villain isn’t exactly new. Hermione and Draco were always popular during the height of Harry Potter fandom. But there are troubling implications when a female character is paired not just with an enemy character, but with one who is, for lack of a better phrase, truly on the dark side.

Sometimes, these stories are explorations of the female character “turning dark.” But more often than not, they’re stories where the Evil Male Character is redeemed by falling in love. Without careful balance, these stories can easily evolve into “female character’s love and patience and self-sacrifice brought out the good in the villain and redeemed him,” which hovers dangerously close to the message that if the male character then doesn’t get redeemed, it’s because the female character didn’t give him a chance or love him enough.

If that last one seems like a huge leap, people have literally made that argument in real life. When Elliot Rodger went on a shooting spree in Southern California in 2014, he claimed it was to punish women for rejecting him, and commenters then suggested that his actions were therefore those picky women’s fault for refusing to date a literal mass murderer.

Of course, people can ship whatever they like. In the end, it isn’t real. But when people gravitate toward certain relationships, and when those relationships have such concerning connotations, I think it’s important to look at why.

One reason, perhaps, is that mainstream fiction seriously romanticizes these relationships. I’ve talked extensively before about the relationship between Belle and Rumplestiltskin in Once Upon A Time, where her love is supposed to redeem him, and their story consists of her Believing in the Good in Him, and being manipulated, lied to and generally mistreated as a result. But she feels True Love for him, so she forgives him, allowing him to potentially find redemption that way.

Or in the popular novel, The Wrath and the Dawn, where the protagonist can stop a string of murders just by challenging the murderer, and where his actions get twisted until she is the one in the wrong for even asking more about those deaths, as though it’s violating his privacy to inquire about the murders he committed a couple of weeks ago. Again, she has to accept the villain as he is, and that patience and acceptance will lead not only to his salvation, but also to her true love Happily Ever After (rather than, you know, misery and abuse).

And this romanticization of the male villain who just needs someone to love him leads to situations like in Harry Potter, where people criticize Lily Potter for choosing James over Snape, and where we are meant to be believe that his love for her turned him to the good side (but left him willing to see her husband and child die and to bully children for fun).

The worst part of this trope, perhaps, is not just that a female character becomes responsible for a male character’s actions, but that she is subsumed by him as well. She becomes an accessory in his story, rather than a player in her own. If she refuses to give herself up to prop up his tale of redemption, she’s selfish, a bitch. She has to be willing to sacrifice herself completely in the name of love in order to give the villain reason to do good.

To be clear, this is a very different narrative from one where a female character falls to the dark side, or otherwise explores the ways that she might relate to an evil character. If she toys with the possibility of darkness, she has her own plotline and agency, rather than being a tool for the male character’s salvation. But if she’s committed to being good and the villain falls for her, she ends up in a trap where she’s awful if she rejects him, must put herself at great risk, ignore common sense, and is still seen as culpable for his deeds if everything goes wrong.

So if people want to explore darkside!Rey, more power to them. But stories where Rey saves Kylo Ren from the dark side by seeing his true, sensitive self are quite different. Rey is a fantastic protagonist with a well-developed story of her own, and it’s depressing that young fans can see that and subconsciously think, “she’d make a great prop in Kylo Ren’s redemption arc.”

And even if this is fiction, it has serious consequences in real life. It creates this expectation that girls should always forgive guys and try to see the good in them, at the cost of their own happiness and safety. It suggests that girls have to be self-sacrificing to avoid being selfish, no matter the risk. And it suggests that if everything goes wrong, it’s all their own fault for not being good enough.

Rhiannon

Rhiannon Thomas is the author of A WICKED THING and KINGDOM OF ASHES. She lives in York, England.

12 thoughts on “Shipping for Salvation

  1. When Darth Vader returned to the light side, it was because the Emperor attempted to kill his som Luke, so maybe something similar will happen this time.

    When women in the real world fall in love with villains, some claim that they hope to redeem them with their love. But in when someone check the good story of a woman loves a criminal to redeem him, it turns out that these women have tragic lives of their own and hopes that a criminal will understand them in a way that thet believe we non-criminal men won’t.

    I don’t know if the criminals do understand the women who loves them, I read about one who was in jail and disliked the attention from women who wrote him love-letters. But there have been instances when criminals have used women who fell in love with them to get out of jail.

  2. THANK YOU!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

    Seriously, I cannot thank you enough for posting this. If Kylo Ren turns out to be redeemed in the trilogy, then whatever, but I cannot and WILL NOT ever accept the Ren/Rey shipping. It’s so wrong on so many levels…especially since there’s a pretty strong possibility that they’re going to turn out to be related. To each his/her own when it comes to shipping, but I think the Rey/Ren fans seemed to be reading things into their scenes together that simply were not there. Plus, you know, there’s the whole “he tried to mind-rape her” thing. Ew.

  3. I hadn’t even heard of Kylo Ren/Rey shipping, and your analysis is spot-on. It would come dangerously close to supporting abusive relationships in general, something that teenage girls can unknowingly get sucked into. I wonder if it (plus the other examples of male villain/female heroine shipping you provide) reflects a broader acceptance of abusive relationships, or belief that abusive heterosexual relationships are always the woman’s fault. You’ve given me a lot to think about.

  4. Thank youuu. What I find especially frustrating is that there is already an ideal female candidate set up to prompt and guide Kylo through his inevitable redemption – his MOTHER. A woman you would expect to have emotional investment in her awful son, in a familial position that justifies her care and, to a point, some self-sacrifice. It also lines up well in the role-flip we’re seeing with Kylo and his parents against the Darth Vader arc – like Lars pointed out above, Darth Vader turned good for his son, and Kylo is very obviously being set up to potentially turn good for his mother. (Whether they’ll follow through is another matter, but if they expected him to be the breakout character then I suspect so. As soon as they drop in another evil person for badass lightsaber fights with, probs Hux, Kylo is as good as redeemed.)

    And while the ‘mama saves son’ trope has obvious sexist roots, we’ve seen dad have a go too. It’s just sad that fans immediately jump to ‘love interest saves boy’ instead of the family theme that is so central to SW.

  5. I was actually hoping for a Finn/Rey relationship and keeping my fingers crossed that Disney would have the courage to make a bi-racial couple happen in the Star Wars universe! Rey is a young character and, frankly, pairing her with anyone else in the film, including Poe, seems strange as they all seem too old for her other than Finn. And the arguments against a Rey/Ren relationship is spot on. It would just reinforce every bad fairytale young girls have been fed about saving the bad guy from himself.

    1. Rey and Finn have very obviously been set up as a potential romantic couple in the movie. It’s clear that he, at least, is crushing on her. And there are a lot of classic romantic narrative beats.

      I don’t ship anything in SW, but I thought that was clear in the cinema, and was gobsmacked to see that such a big part of the fandom does its best to ignore it or deny what’s canonically there. Gee, I wonder why that is… Couples like that are normally beloved by the fandom and everyone ships them… as long as they’re both white.

  6. This trope about the female lead making sacrifices to save the male villain with her love and dedication was beautifully discussed and subverted in Jessica Jones. I know you were hesitant to watch the show because of the dark themes, but it was done so well that I didn’t find it hard to watch. Watching it felt like having an honest and meaningful conversation.

    I myself would never ship Rey with Kylo Ren (or Rey with anyone at this point), but I kind of understand the appeal. After all, I must admit that back in the days I was guilty of shipping Buffy and Spike even though I knew it was wrong. This trope, if played straight in original media, is extremely harmful, but I’m divided when it comes to fan culture. On one hand, it’s frightening that this is what fans want, but on the other it doesn’t feel right to tell young fans what the right way to appreciate a female character is. Some see Rey and think, “Yay, she’s great! I want to see her have adventures!” and others see her and think, “She’s great! And Kylo is cool! I want them together!” I see the danger, but I don’t know if we have the right to say one reaction is more valid than the other. As long as fans recognize that it’s just a fantasy, that it might be fun to think about, but they should run away from such relationships in real life, things should be fine. We could perhaps have more trust in young fans’ judgment. And, besides, the popularity of the Evil Male Character among the fanbase is more of a symptom rather than the disease.

    1. I don’t think there’s a reason for you to feel guilty for shipping Buffy and Spike. That was a complex, well developed, canon relationship that took risks and did wonders for character development of both these characters. Buffy was not a passive prize, that storyline explored facets of her character that most shows don’t ever touch on with their protagonists. And Spike wasn’t redeemed due to Buffy’s love, he went and fought fo3 his soul himself, because he realized he had to do that to be a better person and not just a tamed monster.

      Plus, Spike may not have been “good” in season 6, but he hadn’t been a villain and was actively working with and socializing with the Scoobies long before he and Buffy started having anything resembling a relationship. Even if we think it was just because of the chip, he was not killing people at the time (unlike Darla when Angel slept with her), or actively working for the enemy (unlike Lilah when Wesley was sleeping with her), and Anya also had a huge mass murder history – and she had no remorse about it, but Xander almost married her, and Buffy thought their relationship was beautiful. Yet most people don’t seem to have a problem with that as they do with who Buffy is sleeping with. Maybe because women, especially “good” women, are seen as tainted by their sexual choices, while men usually aren’t.

      I can’t think of any non-problematic ships for Buffy I can think of, unless you go wildly off canon. Buffy/Angel was even more problematic and messed up than Buffy/Spike, Riley ended up being a douche and blaming Buffy for it, Xander was often a douche and a Nice Guy, Faith was a murderer and rapist herself and her relationship with Buffy just as messed up as any of Buffy’s vampire romances… And, for that matter, I’m not sure I can think of many healthy, functional and non-problematic ships on that show in general.

  7. I really enjoy your analyses, and I mostly agree whole heartedly. But I want to add few words about James and Snape in relation to this topic.

    From a feminist perspective, I would say that Lily marrying James is every bit as problematic as imagining her with Snape.

    James was a bully who tortured Snape for his own amusement. He was so favored and privileged that he didn’t hesitate to attack Snape in front of the entire school in a way that was potentially lethal – mere months after his best friend tried to murder Snape. James was a villain who was redeemed by love and a girl – after having stalked said girl for six years, disregarding her no, bullying people right and left and bulling her best friend and destroying his life. Why doesn’t anyone find that creepy? Personally, I find the thought of marrying someone who bullied a friend absolutely revolting – no decent person would do that (perhaps many years later, under very special circumstances, but otherwise, no, just no). I also always find it disturbing that people (not you) talk about the fact that James married Lily and had a child with her as a proof that he grow up – marvelous, so now it’s a sign of maturity to knock someone up directly out of school? There are definitely some really bizarre ideas going on here, both in canon and the fandom.

    Now, to Snape. As an adult, he is a nasty piece of work, there’s no denying that, but is Snape a villain? A decidedly dark villain?

    As a child Snape is bullied and poor, without a safe harbor. He hasn’t got any family he can turn to for support, the supposedly good people his age bullies him viciously, the teachers protect the bullies (even when they try to murder him), he hasn’t got any money to just move away and his house mates offers him comradery as long as he joins them (and these people most likely wouldn’t allow him to not take a side). So, what should he do? He frankly only has two choices: suicide, and joining his house mates and in the end Voldemort. Lonely and lost people sadly enough usually do anything to be allowed some sort of comradery, and we can see this in how he clings on to Lily, in spite of the fact that he she has no pity for him and seems completely unable to understand that Severus can’t be enemies with the people he shares a dorm with – especially not since they are downright dangerous and he has no reason whatsoever to trust the teachers. Being brave is one thing but it would be stupid for him to alienate them: he comes from an unsafe home life, he has been thought survival by his father’s fits.

    It is easy, when sitting safely and comfortably, to say that people are responsible for their own actions: but no one is an island. People can be driven to do things they wouldn’t have done under other circumstances. If James and co hadn’t bullied Snape, if they had been cordial with him, he could very well have seen a possibility of getting away from the snake pit. Note for example, that in the scene by the lake, James says that he bullies Snape because he exists (not because he’s a death eather in training or something) – that is an evil comment, but it is more than that, those are words with potential to squash all hope in a tortured soul (and this happens shortly after Dumbledore’s cruel way of handling the Willow ”incident”…) That Snape said that word to Lily doesn’t prove him to be a villain: no fifteen year old by could stand being thus humiliated in front of the entire school and remain completely in control of himself, no fifteen year old boy wants to be defended by a girl. And he used a slur which probably was usual in his dorm, something he heard all the time: point: we (as in humans) take up vocabulary from our soundings. Remember that de didn’t just say it a lunch; he blurted it out in an absolutely horrifying situation. (And why can James get away with giving Lily the archetype of abusive comments: “don’t make me hex you, Evans” in the same scene? Personally and from a feminist perspective, I find James constant disrespect for Lily worse than Severus lashing out while being tortured.)
    What James, Sirius, Dumbledore, his parents and his house mates did, hade deep impact on Snape. His childhood and adolescence were a hell, and he didn’t see a way out. When offered comradery, he took it, and then spent the rest of his life atoning in the name of a girl who couldn’t forgive him for being desperate, tortured and humiliated. That doesn’t make him the evil villain, that makes him a lost, lugubrious human without a shred of self-respect. He was brilliant, he could have had a fantastic life in original research, but he was truly broken. Yes, he became a bitter shell, but how could he not? If a person is treated like a beast long enough, he will become one.

    But no, I don’t think Lily should have married Snape. She wasn’t equipped to help him and it wasn’t her responsibility (here I agree with you). It was Dumbledore and his teachers who should have done so. If they had protected him – as he had every right to expect as a student of the school – and provided him with basic safety (the second step in Maslow’s hierarchy of needs) things might have turned out quite differently.

    (And when it comes to Hermione, a lot can be said about how anti-feminist her entire story arc is…)

    1. I feel I got a bit carried away and I want to emphasise that I by no means condone Snape for using such a foul slur. Using such words is always deplorable, no matter the circumstances. James behaviour was bad but it isn’t suitable to compare it as I hastily did – even if Lily herself says that James is as bad in the situation. The point I was trying to make was that it psychologically speaking is understandable, but not acceptable, that Snape lashed out.
      In short, what I was trying to convey was that 1) James and Lily relationships falls under the trope you described, 2) Snape was a wretched but also tragic bastard, who perhaps could have been saved if some adult had done his or her duty by him.

      1. That’s a really good point about Lily and James. We have to take the other characters’ word for it that he grew up and became a really nice person, but what we see ourselves isn’t good.

        As for Snape… I’m still not sure. You’re right that he was in a very difficult position, but I’m not sure that his backstory excuses things like bullying Neville. He’s definitely going to be one of the characters I’ll be thinking about a lot when I start my reread of the books before Cursed Child comes out.

        1. You’re right. It doesn’t excuse his behavior as a teacher. But when Lily rejected him, I think it’s fair to say that he was decidedly more of a victim than a villain. As for Snape as an adult, flipping through the books, I can’t help but think that he needed psychotherapy really badly and shouldn’t have been allowed to teach until he at least showed improvement.

          I would like to recommend you to take a look at this analysis of Harry Potter: https://pointstick.wordpress.com/index/

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