Tumblr just posted its 2018 year in review, highlighting the site’s most popular topics. This overview usually follows pop culture trends (for instance, the year’s top tags included Marvel, Overwatch, and the K-pop boyband BTS), but there’s one list that still feels very specific to Tumblr: The most popular fandom ships.
Tumblr is a hub for shipping culture, and this year its top two fictional couples were also its most controversial. The number one spot went to Klance (Keith/Lance) from Netflix‘s Voltron: Legendary Defender, followed by Reylo (Rey/Kylo Ren) from Star Wars. Both ships are famous for toxic infighting, a phenomenon that was once known as fandom wank, but is now ironically referred to as The Discourse.
To be clear, it’s not the ships themselves causing the problem. It’s the way fans react to them, following an age-old tradition of ship wars—an argument over which ship is the most canonically plausible or, in recent years, the most morally superior. In Reylo’s case, some Star Wars fans argue that Rey and Kylo Ren are an intrinsically “bad” or abusive pairing due to their conflicted relationship in the movies. Meanwhile, Klance is embroiled in a more traditional ship war with its rival Voltron pairing Sheith (Keith/Shiro), which clocked in at #5 on this year’s list.
Tumblr’s year-end review builds on its weekly Fandometrics page, which tracks the number of posts, likes, reblogs, and searches for popular tags. That means Klance and Reylo are the most-discussed pairings on Tumblr, which isn’t necessarily the same as most-beloved. The rest of the list follows similar trends to previous years, showing a lot of love for Marvel characters, anime hits like My Hero Academia, and shippy TV shows like Riverdale. However, it’s worth noting that in a metric governed by user activity, the top two ships are partly “popular” because people can’t stop arguing about them.
What Klance and Reylo tell us about fandom in 2018
While the source material is a kid-friendly animated show, Voltron’s Tumblr fandom is notoriously messy. A vocal minority of fans are entrenched in the Sheith vs Klance shipping rivalry, which is heavily entangled in the wider push for queer representation in pop culture. Most Voltron shippers want to see queer characters represented onscreen, but the two factions are rooting for different couples to become canon. To complicate matters, Voltron confirmed in August that Shiro is gay, while Keith and Lance remain in the default mode of “presumably straight.”
Until recently, the hope of canon confirmation was restricted to straight pairings like Mulder and Scully in The X-Files. But if a kids’ show like Voltron can have one queer character, then why not more? This question led to an arms race between Sheith and Klance shippers trying to prove that their pairing is more canonically viable. And since there’s no solid answer there, things got ugly. Voltron fandom is riddled with shipping-related harassment, with some Klance shippers even accusing Sheith shippers of pedophilia due to Keith and Shiro’s (perfectly legal) age difference. These conflicts have even impacted the show’s creators, thanks to numerous fan petitions and an incident last year where someone tried to blackmail the Voltron studio by leaking confidential artwork if the show didn’t make Klance canon.
In Voltron fandom, the infighting gets so intense that some fans use personalized tags to make sure their posts don’t appear in public searches. The same goes for Reylo, which inspired a similar combination of “Will it be canon?” debates and judgmental moral commentary, albeit in different ways.
Reylo is the definition of a problematic fave: a ship with dark themes and controversial roots in canon, provoking open disapproval from other fans. There’s actually a wide variety of Reylo content out there, including truthers who genuinely think Rey and Kylo Ren will get together in Star Wars IX, people who use Reylo to explore dark and morally ambiguous fantasies, and fans who write heavily fictionalized romcoms starring softer versions of the characters. The disapproval stems from fans who see Reylo as anti-feminist or abusive because in the movies, Kylo Ren is, well… evil.
It doesn’t help that Reylo is part of a wider trend in Star Wars fandom and elsewhere, where white characters get more attention than characters of color. While Finn and Poe’s relationship made headlines after the last two Star Wars movies, the fandom output suggests something different. Reylo and Kylux (Kylo Ren/General Hux) are by far the most prolific ships, with Kylux reaching #35 on Tumblr’s 2018 chart. Finn, Poe and Rose Tico don’t appear on the list at all, suggesting that fans are more interested in shipping Kylo Ren with his two-dimensional Space Nazi rival than they are in exploring nonwhite characters. These shipping rivalries are political, tying into wider conversations about diversity in pop culture.
To anyone familiar with shipping fandom, Tumblr’s Top 5 Ships graphic tells us two things: People love real-person fanfic about cute guys (like BTS and YouTube stars), and Tumblr is irrevocably mired in ship wars. Admittedly there’s a ton of fantastic art and writing dedicated to Klance and Reylo, and plenty of people love these ships without sending any hatemail. But to outsiders, both pairings are known for their toxicity, supporting the widely-held belief that Tumblr fandom is fuelled by controversy.