Why we need to stop trivializing fangirls and celebrate the creativity of fandoms
Fangirling has a long history of being ridiculed. Some of the earliest, most vivid scenes of fangirling were provided by Beatlemania, as girls were documented chasing the band down the street, excitedly screaming and fanning their faces with their hands.
At the time, writer Paul Johnson said of these fangirls, “Those who flock round the Beatles, who scream themselves into hysteria, whose vacant faces flicker over the TV screen, are the least fortunate of their generation, the dull, the idle, the failures.
Things aren’t so different today.
Beliebers and Directioners have been just as dedicated to pop stars as their Beatlemaniac grandmothers.
And while history now concedes that The Beatles are one of the greatest bands of all time (the fangirls were right, after all), there’s still a common discourse in which men trivialize the interests and tastes of young women.
A British GQ article from 2013 referred to One Direction’s teenage girl fans as “rabid” and “hysterical,” — even calling them “banshees.” In a Rolling Stone interview from April of this year, Cameron Crowe asked Harry Styles if he “worried about proving credibility to an older crowd” since most of his fanbase is composed of teen girls. (Thankfully, Styles had a fantastic response defending the passion and knowledge of young women while citing Beatlemania.)
When I was a teenage girl myself, I never really questioned these sexist attitudes directed towards us. Even as a younger adult, I tended to see fandom as being somewhere on the continuum between silly and cultish.
So I never really publicly embraced my own favorite fandoms.
I grew up during the peak of the Harry Potter craze. The first few books became popular when I was 10; the last book came out when I was 17. Granted, the time period probably isn’t comparable to the years of Beatlemania, but it was a good time to be a young bookworm.
My obsession with the books waxed and waned, but it reached its height when I was about 14 years old. I would re-read the books and re-watch the films that had been released over and over.
Not coincidentally, that was also a difficult time for me: I was dealing with the onset of mental illness that wouldn’t be diagnosed until years later. JK Rowling’s series was a distraction from my suffering and my confusion.
It was a privilege to constantly come back to familiar characters who I thought of as friends. The books helped to smooth some of the rougher edges of my life. Stories we know and love are the literary equivalents of hot chocolate and a roaring fire.
I never told people how profoundly I took shelter in the Harry Potter franchise. Even then, I knew that high-brow lit critics didn’t approve of J.K. Rowling’s writing style.
I knew that spending so much time in a fantasy world was generally frowned upon, and that if young people liked it, it probably wasn’t “good.” (Bloomsbury even released a set of “adult covers” for the books so that adult commuters wouldn’t feel ashamed when reading them).
While I was conditioned to believe that fandom was something to hide so I could avoid being mocked, Harry Potter still seeped its way into my creative work. In art class, I created images inspired by the books – owls, deer, phoenixes. I thought more about visual symbolism (like the Grim in the tea leaves, or the patterns of the stars and planets that the centaurs interpret in the sky), and I integrated more imagery into my work. I experimented with calligraphy, parchment, and sealing wax. The Harry Potter franchise became source material from which my own creativity blossomed.
The first longform story I ever wrote was Harry Potter fanfiction.
It was poorly written, no question. But still, writing 22,000 words for one long-term project at the age of 14 is a good start for someone who wants to become a writer.
You learn a lot about writing through your favorite book’s plot; you pick up solid skills like characterization and dialogue. I am a professional writer now, and I don’t think any of that time I spent writing fanfiction as a teen was time wasted.
In 2013, I saw Tavi Genvison give a talk at the Sydney Opera House. The Rookie editor was 17 years old at the time, and I still remember her powerful takedown of journalists who criticize fangirls. Actually, she argued, being a fan can be a creative act. She explained that she had been living with depression. During the worst of it, she struggled to come up with original ideas – she was completely blocked. So she turned to fangirling. At the time, she even found that re-writing lyrics to Beyoncé songs in her journal acted as a bigger release than writing her own stuff.
Being a fangirl as a teen worked for me, too — it was emotionally sustaining and creatively stimulating.
Consuming pop culture can relax you. It can make you feel happy or less alone. It may even help inspire your own art.
Fangirls: keep re-writing those lyrics in your journal, keep designing fan art, keep writing fanfiction, keep being excited.