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When Fandom Shipping Gets Toxic, Some Devotees Choose To Leave

A former Directioner says things got "kind of icky" in their community.

by Morgan Sullivan

Ellie became a Swiftie in 2006 when she heard "Tim McGraw." Little did she know it would lead her into a world of sparkly dresses, friendship bracelets, and constant references to her "rep era" whenever she felt a bit angsty.

Since that first listen, she has collected every album Taylor Swift has released, from her self-titled debut to Midnights, in each vinyl variant. Before attending a concert, Ellie would carefully curl her hair in Swift’s likeness and draw a “13” on her hand as a tribute to the Grammy winner’s lucky number. Attending 27 shows — double that lucky number — solidified her status as a dedicated fan.

But that was all before Ellie left the fandom.

“I can’t even imagine how much money I’d spent on being a stan,” Ellie, now 26, tells Elite Daily. “In total? Thousands, probably.” But after nearly two decades as a Swiftie, she stepped away last year after feeling frustrated by the discourse around Swift’s romantic relationships. Ellie’s once-beloved community had become toxic — and she’s not alone in feeling that way.


While being part of fandoms can be fun and meaningful, they can also become problematic when fans begin speculating about an artist's personal life. Sabrina Carton, co-president of Fandom Forward and host of the Fandom Made Me podcast, tells Elite Daily that celeb romances can feel “fun and saucy for many people,” especially if you just love to fantasize.

But there’s a dark side, too — and in some cases, it’s enough to prompt even the biggest superfans to take a step back.

Shipping Real People Based On Speculation Can Have Consequences

During the heyday of microblogging on Tumblr, better known as the entire year of 2014, Swift’s first big pop project, 1989, was released, which signified her transition from a country singer to a bona fide mainstream sensation. It also transformed how her fans interacted with her material, especially considering their heavy online presence.

"They were mainly trying to figure out what inspired each song," Ellie recalls. "Some even made detailed timelines and masterposts." This was also when she noticed fans really got into shipping, imagining romantic relationships between Swift and the people they believe she was singing about in her songs.

Shipping is a term used within fandoms to express support for a real or fictional relationship (e.g., your friend who says she "ships" herself with Pedro Pascal). This phenomenon traces back to Star Trek and The X-Files, but it gained significant traction within the Harry Potter and Friends fandoms.

However, things become more complicated when real people, rather than fictional characters, are involved. Shipping real people, often called "real-person shipping" or "real-person fiction (RPF)," can spark controversy and create complex ethical debates.

They would post things like, ‘These love songs are about a woman. Here's the evidence.’

In Ellie’s case, she initially saw the romantic speculation as nothing harmful. Swift routinely encourages her fans to uncover Easter eggs in her music, and this felt like nothing more. "They would post things like, 'These love songs are about a woman. Here's the evidence,'" Ellie recalls.

She became engrossed in the speculation. "As a bisexual teen myself back then, naturally, it was very intriguing," Ellie says. “I felt deeply connected to a [version of] Taylor who might be in the closet.” Posts like these led Ellie to discover people who supported "Swiftgron" (a romantic pairing of Taylor Swift and Dianna Agron). Eventually, she found herself invested in “Kaylorism,” a subgroup dedicated to shipping Taylor Swift with her former best friend Karlie Kloss.

Ellie categorizes all of these experiences under the term “Gaylorism,” the belief held by some Swifties that the singer uses her music to hint at her sexuality. This concept has become so mainstream that it’s even been discussed in a New York Times opinion piece, though it should be noted that Swift herself has never aligned with these theories or stated her sexuality publicly. She’s even gone to lengths to discredit them, writing in the prologue for 1989 (Taylor’s Version), “If I only hung out with my female friends, people couldn't sensationalize or sexualize that, right? I would learn later on that people could and people would.”

Gaylor discourse has been purely speculative, a flourishing internet theory that Ellie says took a dark turn when reports of Swift dating Travis Kelce broke in September 2023. "My issue was mostly with the response to her dating Travis,” Ellie says. “There was such a strong instance of biphobia within the fandom."

She says that fans started attacking Kelce and his family when the rumors of their relationship swirled — some even called him a “beard” (a fake partner used to hide someone’s sexual orientation). Ellie was mostly upset that, according to those fans, Taylor wouldn’t be allowed to date both men and women — any relationship she had with a man would be inherently invalid.

The seemingly biphobic backlash Ellie saw against Swift's relationship with Kelce sheds light on the shortcomings of fan culture and shipping. Still, Carton mentions that there are upsides: “Shipping is a fun, low-risk way for fans to experiment with sexuality and understand what you like or dislike romantically,” Carton says, adding, “Shipping has been particularly important for queer fans, who historically have not seen their love stories represented in the media they consume.”

Carton adds that superfans aren't merely consumers; they're creators who want to extend the magic of a fictional universe or an artist's canon through their world-building. She points to Taylor Swift in this instance: “The Eras Tour has become a safe space for women and girls to trade bracelets and relate to one another through Swift's lyricism,” Carton says. “On the other hand, some Swifties have created theories about her love life and sexuality that are incredibly intrusive and inappropriate.”

Ellie's feeling of her identity being erased within the fandom prompted her to reassess the significance of Swift labeling her sexuality. She acknowledged that the excessive focus on Swift’s personal life took attention away from the music and experiences of other openly queer artists. “Still, it was hard to leave the fandom,” Ellie admits.

It Can Affect The Artists’ Lives, Too

Cooper Neill/Getty Images Entertainment/Getty Images

Annilese, 21, tells Elite Daily that the ship between Louis Tomlinson and Harry Styles — #LarryStylinson — is why she left the One Direction fandom. “They went as far as discrediting Louis and [then-girlfriend] Eleanor’s relationship, and that just felt kind of icky,” she tells Elite Daily. They would constantly “berate her in the comments” on social media, even years after the ship’s height had passed.

That ship didn’t just hurt the artists’ partners; it also strained Tomlinson’s friendship with Styles. “It created this atmosphere between the two of us where everyone was looking into everything we did,” Tomlinson told The Sun in 2017.

Carton urges caution when shipping real-life people, such as the infamous “Larry” duo. “For many fans, it seems harmless and fun, but you have to remember that these are real people who may feel that their boundaries are being violated,” Carton says.

Sometimes Fans Go Too Far For Their Faves

Lianna, 23, tells Elite Daily that she’s found it challenging to interact with Ariana Grande’s fandom (also called the Arianators) without affecting her own relationship with the artist. When fans speculated about Grande’s changing looks and personal life after her divorce, Lianna strongly felt like she needed to protect her fave. This pressure pushed her to consider taking a break from listening to Grande’s music, even though she became a superfan in the Dangerous Woman era.

Lianna also mentions the discourse around Grande and Ethan Slater, a rumored ongoing relationship between the pop star and her Wicked co-star. Their romance (which neither has confirmed) has attracted considerable public scrutiny since last summer due to both of their recent divorces, reports that they were seeing each other during filming, and comments from Slater’s ex-wife about feeling like her family was “collateral damage” of Grande’s actions.

How the fans backed her felt inexcusable.

Lianna was disappointed by how ultra-stans supported Grande's romantic decisions rather than acknowledging the nuances of the situation. "I know she likely faced a lot of difficulties in her life, but her actions in that relationship [with Slater] and how the fans backed her felt inexcusable," she says. She believes empathy is important when discussing Grande’s relationship with Slater and points to the lack thereof in the fandom, which ultimately drove her away.

To create a sustainable fan experience, Carton says, keep in mind that the discourse should help expand your understanding of yourself and the world around you: “Ideally, fandom should make you more empathetic, not less." Luckily, according to Carton, most fandoms are large enough that those with a healthy sense of self can stay involved and steer clear of toxic behavior.

For Ellie and her relationship with Swift's music, eventually, she thinks she might “engage with the fandom in a healthier way.” But for now, she enjoys listening to the singer’s vinyls in her bedroom without feeling compelled to participate in speculative discussions online.

“It just feels way, way less toxic,” she says.