Is the rise of the fangirl a recent phenomenon? Do you have to be a girl to appreciate it?
Recently I had a nostalgic conversation with some friends about music we loved in our teenage years. One of them commented, regretfully, ‘Music was such a huge part of my life; I was so passionate about it. I don’t get that excited about anything these days, I just don’t feel that same overwhelming rush of excitement or enthusiasm as I did back then for my favourite bands.’
I could relate, and I felt kind of sad about this. It’s such a wonderful thing to be excited about art, music, books, or whatever you’re into – excited to the point where music (or whatever) is a central part of your identity and a portal to engaging with the world and finding meaning.
In 2013, men’s magazine GQ became the centre of controversy for publishing an article that represented the teenage fans of boy band One Direction as ‘rabid, knicker-wetting banshees’ at the mercy of their hormones. The author of the piece – Jonathan Heaf – describes himself in the article as ‘a 34-year-old man in a Burberry biker jacket with a notepad and pen’ who recounts his experience of feeling out of place at a 1D concert.
Heaf positions himself as an anthropologist and he presents the phenomenon of hysterical female fandom paradoxically as a bewildering and alienating force but also as a familiar and boring cultural story harking back to early Rolling Stones shows (and here he recalls Keith Richards describing ‘rivers running down the aisles’).
The article depicts the young, female fans as a crazed group of frothing devotees who know nothing about rock ‘n’ roll history or the value of ‘real’ music.
‘These women don’t care about the Rolling Stones,’ Heaf laments, ‘they don’t care about the meta-modernist cycle of cultural repetition. They don’t care about history. All these female fans care about is their immediate vociferous reverence: the beatification of St Harry, St Zayn, St Niall, St Louis and St Liam.’
Loving 1D’s music and expressing this love with bodily enthusiasm is, in Heaf’s eyes, incompatible with more acceptable or credible modes of evaluating musicians. Predictably, online commentators called out Heaf’s article as sexist and inappropriate (picture that ‘34-year-old man in a Burberry biker jacket’ describing a group of teenage girls as ‘a dark-pink oil slick that howls and moans and undulates’), and the GQ/1D controversy sparked a public discussion around girls and fandom.
This controversy is just one example of how teenage girls and the cultural material (by this I mean books, movies, music, television and other kinds of creative and popular media) that they celebrate are routinely denigrated and dismissed as inferior, shallow or laughable. But the case is interesting because it emerged at a time when the ‘fangirl’ had recently become noticeable as a specific style of fandom and as an identity.
The hysterical female fan is not a new cultural figure. As Heaf identifies, she was a central element of the Rock and Roll movement – can you imagine Beatlemania without the screaming fans? No. And well before The Beatles, the fervent admiration of pianist Franz Liszt in the mid-19th century was pathologised as ‘Lisztomania’.
I remember the all-consuming desire with which my friends and I worshipped bands like the Spice Girls and, later on, the Pixies, Hole and Nirvana. But the term ‘fangirl’ is relatively new – it was only added to the Oxford English Dictionary (OED) in 2004 – and it’s taking on some culturally and historically specific meanings in the contemporary cultural landscape. The OED briefly describes ‘fangirl’ as denoting obsessive fandom but doesn’t go much further.
Enter Urban Dictionary.
I know I should make a joke here about the obvious fallibility of using such a platform as a reliable resource, but actually, as sites where knowledge is up for debate in real time, user-generated reference materials like Urban Dictionary (and Wikipedia) are useful for gauging shifting meanings and cultural tensions.
And, boy, does it reveal some interesting tensions around what its users think about fangirls.
Urban Dictionary is more revealing than the OED, although it is exhausting in its proliferation of user-submitted definitions: at the time of writing the entry for fangirl yields no fewer than 127 definitions. The leading definitions depict ‘A rabid breed of human female who is obesessed [sic] with either a fictional character or an actor’, and a ‘female who has overstepped the line between healthy fandom and indecent obsession’.
It’s such a wonderful thing to be excited about art, music, books, or whatever you’re into.
Many entries distinguish two types of fangirl: one type is ‘normal’ and ‘healthy’, and the other is a ‘scarily obsessed’, ‘crazy’ or even ‘dangerous’ type of fan who gives ‘a bad name [to] true, normal fans’. The third most popular definition gives a sense of the word’s dual function as both an identity style that girls choose to perform, but also as an insulting label that invokes unhealthy feminine fandom that’s hysterical and obsessive.
What emerges here is a picture of the fangirl as out-of-control, consumed by emotion, and as someone who obsesses over trivial, low-quality stuff. The mode that fangirls employ to appreciate cultural texts is somehow wrong – too emotional – and their tastes are not discerning. The message is that fangirls are beyond the boundaries of normal or healthy audienceship.
Fangirling, here, is a rogue style of engaging with media and culture.
But perhaps the fangirl has been unfairly judged. As blogger Cassie Whit points out, ‘Being young is awesome. Being a girl is awesome. Being passionate about something is awesome. What’s the problem?’
Well, not everyone thinks that fangirling is a problem.
While the view of fangirls as ignorant, obsessive, and undiscerning cultural consumers is pervasive, for others fangirls are an important group of consumers driving media industries – particularly online. For some media pundits, girls are the new power group and they have played a huge role in the success of film franchises like Twilight and The Hunger Games.
A particularly interesting individual speaking up for fangirls is Tavi Gevinson.
Gevinson is a young journalist and media entrepreneur from the United States who founded the online feminist community and magazine for girls Rookie Mag at the age of 15. Before this, on the back of her amateur style blog The Style Rookie, Gevinson rose to fame in the fashion world, where her place was hotly contested (this was before celebrity style bloggers became de rigueur in fashion media).
Today, at the age of 19, she is a burgeoning media empire in her own right. She describes herself as a ‘professional fangirl’ and has a different take on the figure.
In her role as editor for Rookie Mag, Gevinson assembles writing and art that she loves as content for the magazine. But more than this, fangirling for Gevinson is part of her ‘personal religion’ and her identity.
She explains how she thinks of herself as ‘a set of eyes’ and suggests that as a teenage girl she is often encouraged to define herself according to how the world sees her (‘my face and my body’ she says), but she suggests that a more accurate representation of her true self is how she sees the world: her tastes and how she expresses them.
Gevinson imagines fangirling as a creative form of self-expression.
‘Fangirling is not purely about the subject of your fandom,’ she says, ‘it’s actually almost entirely a reflection of you.’
Gevinson is not the only one to see fandom in terms of creative expression and identity work.
Fan studies scholar Abigail De Kosnik points out that the object of fandom provides ‘raw material’ that the fan customises to suit their needs and desires, and which facilitates participation in a community of other fans. De Kosnik says, ‘The goal of most fan labour is to modify a commodity which is made to suit everybody, so that it suits the fan labourer, and other fans who share the laborer’s particular tastes, much better.’
I’m suggesting here that fangirling is a mode of creative engagement with literary, artistic, popular and other forms of media, through which people create communities by ‘modifying’ texts and using them to express their identities. ‘Modifying’ can denote anything from circulating screenshots of movies as an expression of sentiment to discussing and interpreting fan objects face-to-face, or vlogging about films. Even taking selfies that feature works of art or creating a #bookstagram account on Instagram are ways of using cultural texts as ‘raw data’ and filtering them through a lens of personal experience or self-identity. The important thing here is that people are using cultural and creative work to say something about themselves to others.
This isn’t the passive consumption of the couch potato or the chilly critique of a detached onlooker; it is active and participatory. Fangirling is a switched-on and engaged way of interacting with cultural media – not the blind hysteria that GQ imagines, but rather a form of self-representation and creative expression that, Gevinson explains, involves ‘a certain kind of creativity, originality, and release’.
For Gevinson, the fangirl is a cultural ‘scribe’ that views the world as ‘a source of wonder and object of desire’, which gains significance and meaning in her recognition and celebration of it.
Perhaps #bookstagram is a case in point here.
The Instagram accounts that I respond to the most aren’t simply pretty pictures of books; they present a curated collection of works that the bookstagrammer thinks is valuable. Because I get to know them, I trust particular accounts to post books that I might like to read. So on one level this space functions as a tool for sharing information and recommendations.
But the #bookstagram community also adds value to my reading experiences.
Last summer I saw an Instagram post featuring a book that I love: Favel Parrett’s Past the Shallows. The bookstagrammer that posted it described her experience of reading Past the Shallows amidst the coastal scenery where she was staying, likening it to the book’s setting. This scenery was captured evocatively in the photograph, which pictured stormy skies and a moody, desolate coast. This made the world in the book come alive for me. Learning about the personal reading experiences of others adds layers of meaning to the way that I connect to books. Being able to share these experiences adds value to reading.
Fangirling is a switched-on and engaged way of interacting with cultural media.
Similarly, the fangirl unashamedly connects to art through a personal frame of reference: the work means something because it means something to her. And she’s not going to apologise to you about putting herself at the centre of this process.
Gevinson herself is a fangirl of the highest order – if you’ve ever read her writing, you’ll be familiar with that stinging sense of wonder at how she could possibly have read/watched/seen/listened to ALL OF THE THINGS and, what’s more, have an interesting critique to offer. When I read about how she responded to a particular Stevie Nicks song or a book by Chris Kraus, it made me want to go and listen to that song and read that book. (If you haven’t seen that clip of Stevie backstage singing an early version of ‘Wild Heart’ you HAVE NOT LIVED and Kraus’s I Love Dick is so wonderful it makes me ACHE.) Her excitement and enthusiasm for thinking about and identifying with creative work is contagious.
But fangirling isn’t just for young girls.
Gevinson opens it up by suggesting that one of her favourite fangirls is naturalist Sir David Attenborough, who built a career on ‘fangirling’ about wildlife and nature. Attenborough’s breathless commentary and obsessive, intricate knowledge of his subjects works to draw the viewer in: it’s infectious. Before Attenborough, I never knew I could care so much about the mating habits of the hedgehog. (Although Gevinson does make a distinction between the documentaries that Attenborough produces and how 1D fans practice their fandom, saying, ‘there is a difference between doing decades of research and, like, tweeting at Harry Styles’, what’s important is that she positions both of these activities on a spectrum of fangirl practice.)
So fangirling can encompass a range of practices, performances and identities. Within this diversity, though, there is also space for antisocial behaviours.
Enthusiasm sometimes bubbles over into heated debate and hyperbolic language can turn to violent threats. Beliebers (Justin Bieber fans) have, more than once, made headlines for sending Twitter threats en masse to girls they deem close to the young pop star. Commentators often dismiss these behaviours as ‘crazy’, but I think it’s more complicated than that. While we’re more aware than ever of the dangers of online trolling, abuse, and bullying, the standard public response to fangirls is one of brief amusement followed by swift dismissal, and this overall view of their communities as insignificant means that these harmful behaviours are not always viewed as serious problems.
Abusive online behaviours like this are broader than fangirling. It is a horrible reality that almost all digital spaces struggle with abusive practices, and fangirl networks are no exception. But, like many online spaces, this is part of the community, not the centre of it.
For the most part, the communities that fangirls create online and in real life are hubs of identity work and community-bonding that centre on enthusiastic engagement with creative works.
At the heart of fangirling is the ability to view the world, as Gevinson says, ‘as a source of wonder and an object of desire’, to hold cultural texts dear as part of who you are and how you see the world. And to bring this out into the open by creating spaces in which we are able to truly own a deep excitement for literary, filmic, televisual or other passions – and connect with others in the process.
I enjoy robust and constructive critique, and I’m not really into cool detachment or nitpicky criticism. As I sat with my friends reminiscing about music, it dawned on me that when I think about it, we are really still fangirls. We’re just fangirling about different things these days. All of us are in the business of writing and writing about literary works – we met while studying postgraduate degrees in literature and creative writing. Whenever we see each other, conversation centres on what we’re reading and why we love it. We are thoughtful, critical readers but we also have so many FEELS about books, and we get so much out of expressing that together.
From this group of readers, I get more and better book recommendations than I do from a traditional book review. And this translates into me buying more books.
In an arts sector in the process of finding ways to survive and thrive amid radical changes to funding, perhaps we could use a bit of that infectious enthusiasm that fangirls deploy so effectively.
Fangirling as a mode of cultural appreciation should be embraced. It can open doors that connect art to personal identity, unite communities and spread excitement. And, you know what? Loving things unashamedly is also really fun.