Star Wars rumors are a natural life-blood of the internet, now more so than ever as fans gear up for the trailer of The Last Jedi. Every scrap of rumor is poured over with utmost passion and investigation, speculating as to what route our intrepid heroes and their opponents on the dark side will take as the action picks up following The Force Awakens. The stakes are high, and now, fans are attached to the new bunch of characters outside the iconic trio from the original movies. What’s next for Finn and Poe? What route will Kylo’s struggle between his chosen path and his familial past lead him down? What is Rey’s connection with Luke Skywalker, and will she fulfill her destiny with the Jedi? The questions will keep coming until premiere day, and fandoms will keep the fires burning with theories and desires.
The relationship between Kylo (Adam Driver) and Rey (Daisy Ridley) is one that has sparked the imaginations of many a fan. Their scenes together in The Force Awakens showed the foundations of a complex connection, one that The Last Jedi promises to dig into deeper. For those fans used to the rhythms and preferences of fandom, it was no surprise that the pairing quickly became a popular relationship in fanfiction and shipping circles, under the portmanteau Reylo. The pairing is the most popular heterosexual ship on fan-fiction site Archive of their Own (behind Finn and Poe Dameron, and, oddly enough, Kylo Ren and Admiral Hux), and now, fresh rumours have been sparked that the young Sith lord and Jedi of the future could become entangled in a relationship of a more romantic sort.
While the most widely accepted theories of their connection remain those of familial bonds (particularly the possibility of them being cousins), the romance angle is one that’s picked up a lot of traction in recent months. This is partly from the typical breed of fan speculation, but also from a fervent excitement for the pairing from the fandom. It’s not exactly a shock, although it is something that the series would do well to avoid exploring.
In terms of the cinematic universe, Star Wars’ history with romance is a little shaky. Han Solo and Princess Leia’s relationship is one of fan legend – a Beatrice and Benedick opposition of matching skills and witty animosity that reveals itself to be a deeply running passion worth taking on the galaxy for.
The origins of Anakin Skywalker and Padme Amidala’s love is not so beloved, thanks to cringe-worthy exchanges about sand and a glaring lack of chemistry between the leads. However, for all of the faults of the Anakin-Padme relationship, it’s one that commits to a dark reality of life – love isn’t a guaranteed savior against evil, and sometimes the person who hurts you the most is the one you’ve given your life to. As strained as the execution was, it’s a moment of real humanity and maturity in the prequels, and a reminder of the series’ strength in using an epic backdrop to explore the good versus evil struggle of its characters.
For those who wish to find the subtext, there is plenty in Kylo's scenes with Rey. The moment where he uses the Force to enter her mind could be re-interpreted as sexual, but its reality lies in a more insidious parallel – rape. It is a blatant misuse of his power and invasion of Rey’s autonomy that hardly signals a budding romance, but it’s also the kind of trope that genre fiction, particularly science-fiction and fantasy, has grappled with for a long time.
In the post-Twilight and 50 Shades of Grey age, where the most prominent example of romance in pop culture is one criticized by droves for its romanticizing of abuse tactics, the appeal of Kylo Ren as a lover for Rey is clearer than ever, but no less worrisome. Large swaths of romantic narratives, especially those aimed at young adult audiences, thrive on the "bad boy" motif that positions a misunderstood loner as the heroic ideal, with its inherent appeal lying in the attractiveness of such negative qualities. Aggression is sexy, invasion of autonomy a side-effect of a conflicted mind, and a tragic back-story something to be fixed with the right person to love you. It's hard to separate those patriarchal norms from the ways in which the Kylo-Rey relationship has become increasingly fetishised.
The proliferation of this narrative is one rooted in literature itself, but its contemporary omnipresence feels like a step backwards, especially since so much progress has been made in the interim period between the final Star Wars prequel and The Force Awakens, a film that is genius for the way it echoes the roots of its past in a way that reminds the audiences of future potential. One of the greatest advances made in that period was with the addition of Rey herself, and the possibility of having her character be hindered by a romance with Kylo would be incredibly unfair to her and her fans. A whole new generation of Star Wars fans will now grow up with this female lead, who is empowered, complex and rooted in old-school traditions of the hero’s journey while still carving new ground in the blockbuster genre, which remains dishearteningly short on leading women.
When you look at the individual components of Rey’s character, it’s a surprise to see how rarely women like her appear in major movies like this: She’s scrappy, independent but works well with others, struggling with a mysterious past and conflicted about her future, she refuses to give into bullies, and she does it all without a hint of a romantic subplot. Her journey is never sidelined to make way for a male character’s, nor is she set up as the ultimate prize to for a male victor. In an industry where female leads have to fight for a fair chance and are written off as box office poison by archaic executives, Rey’s success is a major milestone for audiences and creators alike, and she did it all without a boyfriend-in-waiting.
That’s not to say that there isn’t room for romance in the Star Wars universe. It would certainly fit with the space opera/b-movie pulp roots of the series, but if it is to be included, it shouldn’t be left as an aside or mandated addition to tick off boxes. So many blockbusters reduce the role of women to romantic prizes to be won once the man’s quest is complete, and it’s not just reductive: It’s bad storytelling. There’s real emotional depth and viewer satisfaction in exploring a burgeoning relationship to the backdrop of war.
It would be something of a major step forward for the biggest franchise in the world to use its glorious and expansive canvas for such a purpose, similar to what the original series did with Han and Leia, but updated for modern sensibilities in the same way Rey is a Luke for the 21st century. Audience expectations are greater now, with more awareness for social and cultural representation on-screen, so any romance included can’t be window dressing. The opportunity is there for something far more radical.
The Force Awakens director JJ Abrams has said there is a place for gay characters in the Star Wars universe, and Oscar Isaac admitted he played the character of Poe with a "subtle romance" towards John Boyega's Finn. Several recent blockbusters have tread the waters of LGBTQ inclusion, such as Beauty and the Beast's depiction of LeFou, but these incremental additions have been mere crumbs for an audience crying out for more. Star Wars has the clout, the fan-base, and the ideal pairing to explore this, so if the film-makers are considering a romance of some kind, it would do them well to seriously consider the power of the Stormpilots. It’s a symptom of some very disheartening racism and homophobia in Hollywood, and our culture at large when the pair with the most obvious chemistry in the series seems less unlikely to happen in canon than the white heterosexual pair defined by an abusive dynamic who may or may not be related.
A good old shipping war is the stuff of fandom’s foundations, but the battle, for lack of a better word, between the Kylo/Rey relationship and that of Finn and Poe is a pretty great metaphor for Star Wars as a continuing cultural force: The adherence to the old-school tropes and influences its foundations lie in, and the evolution towards a more progressive and relevant power.
Fandom has its purpose, and its own explorations of pairings like Kylo and Rey hold an important role in the use of transformative works in pop culture, but the route canon takes is one with true power and responsibilities. A “love will fix all” story of temptation versus redemption is certainly the kind of tropes Star Wars has worked well with, but when the canvas of a galaxy far far away is as limitless as this one, a romance with more ambition at its core is waiting to be explored.
EDIT: This article originally included a quote from a blogger, which has since been removed by their request.