The word ‘fangirl’ has a lot of baggage. Most people think fangirls are insane, extreme or just downright cringey, despite that not necessarily being the case. So why is it that they have such a bad reputation?
By Claudia Roe | @Claudiaeve01
Since the dawn of time, teenage girls have found a way to cling to their idols with unrivalled passion. Nothing can get between a 13 year old girl and her Edward Cullen shrine, and that’s the way it’s always been. From ‘Elvis the Pelvis’ and The Beatles to One Direction and now K-Pop, there’s always been fangirls. There’s an undeniable phenomenon that young women are unashamed to love something wholeheartedly and without fear.
Holly is an 18 year old fangirl – she’s spent many of her teen years being a fan of YouTube duo Dan Howell and Phil Lester. Best known for their comedy, gaming and LGBT content, they have accumulated a large following of fangirls over the span of their career. For Holly, it was their entertainment personas that first drew her in. “Their personalities were ones I could relate to. My friends hadn’t experienced what I had,”she remembers.
She became a fan when her mental health plummeted after dealing with loss and grief at a young age. When her friends in real life didn’t understand what was going on, weekly videos from Dan and Phil brought her comfort and a community where she belonged, feeling that “they were supportive even though they weren’t really there.”
She was also an avid consumer of the world of fan creation. She explains that “it’s interesting to be part of this community where you’re all feeling the same and you get to project that into artistic ways.” Fanfiction in particular was something she used to escape.
“I think it gave me that sense of comfort because I daydream so much about everything- like really cliche horrible daydreams – but that was the kind of stuff I was daydreaming about in physical form…the fact that fanfiction has elements of something I already love in it appeals to me so much.” She does however go on to acknowledge the quality of fanfiction – “I think you could be critical of the writing now, and sure having now done A-Level English I would read it and be like ‘ugh’, but at the time I didn’t have an issue with it.”
Like most fangirls, Holly was ashamed of her interest in Dan and Phil. As an adult, she understands why it was so important to her and why she was so fixated on them, but when she was younger she often felt pressure and criticism. She recalls a time when she was thirteen, and was set the task to show a presentation of what made her happy to show to her class. Most of the boys, she says, did football and were unashamedly passionate. But when she spoke about Dan and Phil with the same excitement, she was faced with embarrassment. “People shouldn’t have been so horribly judgemental towards me. Because if that’s something that’s making me feel better and improving my mood and how I feel then it should be celebrated.”
Holly isn’t alone in turning to fandom as a source of escapism- the huge crossover between teenagers who are devoted fans and teenagers who struggle with mental health issues suggests there’s a definite link. There’s no denying that any obsession that draws you away from reality can result in damage. Dr Lisa Sanderson, Lecturer of Psychology at Nottingham Trent University, agrees that “idolization of celebrities is a normal part of development” – however she underlines that “individuals who use escapism to avoid dealing with their problems experience increased levels of anxiety and emotional distress,” and that “obsession may become so all-consuming that they neglect real life relationships and become isolated from friends, and they may develop unrealistic body image (due to the perfect celebrity body) which could be a trigger for eating disorders.” She also notes other issues that girls may experience as a result of unhealthy obsession can include unrealistic relationship expectations, low self esteem, materialism and seeing certain negative behaviours as acceptable such as drink driving or violence, as celebs are often reported doing these.
But fangirls see their community in a very positive light. I also conducted a survey with a group of girls who identified as fangirls, and they echoed similar sentiments to Holly, especially when asked about the qualities they think fangirls have – “dedication, loyalty, niceness and friendliness, open, accepting, protective”. They see it as a very supportive, good thing- one girl explained that “if you struggle to socialise where you live and don’t have any interest in things in your area, the online community surrounding fangirls is an escape from that and an opportunity to meet people with the same interests.” She also mentioned feeling criticised from those not involved: “if people found out about my fan account in school I’d get so embarrassed, a lot of people don’t understand the online culture of it all and think it’s like stalking.”
Another fangirl commented that she didn’t think it was any different to being a football fan, and she isn’t wrong. Just as a fangirl might buy t-shirts and merch of her favourite band, a boy might wear team jerseys. Dr Sanderson mentions that “it may be that teenage boys are just as obsessed with their idols, but they tend to idolize sports stars which appears to be accepted as more ‘normal’ by society.”
But why do we treat them so differently? You could argue that sports stars promote athleticism and increased fitness. But fandom can also be a healthy hobby with its own merits – in fact it can be a pathway to creative success. Log onto Hugo award-winning site ‘Archive Of Our Own’ and you’ll find nearly 6 million works of fanfiction. Or perhaps Wattpad, which has a user base of 80 million. Writing fanfiction online has led to incredibly successful careers for many well-known female authors. Meg Cabot, author of The Princess Diaries originally wrote about Star Wars, Cassandra Clare of The Mortal Instruments was first known for being a prominent author in the Harry Potter fandom, and it’s well known that Fifty Shades of Grey starred Edward Cullen and Bella Swan when it appeared online in 2009. In fact, the 50 Shades success propelled E.L. James into being named the highest paid author in the world by Forbes in 2013- all from a young woman’s enthusiasm about a book.
Pablo Picasso once said “Good artists copy, great artists steal”, yet fanfiction, fanart, vidding, cosplay and all of the other creative outlets for fangirls are usually dismissed as ‘not proper art’ or plagiarism. This point is usually one brought up by disapproving adults, who often don’t understand the amount of work these girls put into their creations. Remix culture is actually a very normal and healthy concept – it’s just received differently when it’s young women doing it. Lawrence Lessig, Professor of Law at Harvard Law School and former director of ethics at Harvard University states in his book ‘Remix’ – “Music comes to have a very specific and local meaning for people… What goes hand in hand with the moment of reception is a dimension of personal translation.” He goes on to say “This reception involves interpretation or translation. That act is creative. Active. Engaged.” and that “In African and other oral cultures, this is how culture has traditionally functioned… This was never thought of as copying or stealing or intellectual property theft.”
This really reinforces how natural fangirl behaviour is. What is the difference between an African story being passed down, and Harry Potter being rewritten as slashfic? Sexism. Organisation for Transformative Works founder Dr. Francesca Coppa says visual fanart shows a “distinctly female way of seeing” which could be a factor behind the disapproval of it- given that most of the mainstream media we consume is still marketed to the male gaze.
It’s clear misogyny is a huge factor into the judgement of fangirls. It’s very common to hear them being referred to as hysterical, which links back into the sexist etymology of the word itself. The word hysteria, meaning womb, was used as a way to describe women being mentally unwell. People calling fangirls hysterical is no different to the oppression and silencing of women that led to the creation of the word. It suggests women are incapable of rationality.
Possibly the reason fangirls get so much criticism is because this whole culture is purely for them. Young women are given so many societal expectations and being a fangirl is a way to escape from that- they’re creating this stuff for themselves only. There’s no pretense of trying to produce meaningful, elegant novels – it’s pure self indulgent fun. This is something Holly agreed with as she said “I was really creative but I had no spark- it gave me a reason to do it.” Fanart was “just a really fun and exciting” hobby she could enjoy.
Take the concept of the ‘Mary Sue’. ‘Mary Sue’ is the name given to describe obvious self insert characters in fiction, who are too perfect, too desirable etc, and clearly the author fantasising about being in that universe. It is a universal fact that Mary Sues are hated – the name itself was created from parodying fangirls. While characters like this are usually very obvious and badly written, that’s not the reason they’re hated, because if it was then they wouldn’t be so common. They’re hated because it’s a representation of women’s desires. All fiction, in a way, is self indulgent- yet it’s judged differently when it comes to women.
Interestingly, most of the creators that are aware of fangirls have positive things to say. Harry Styles, former member of One Direction recently showed support for his teenage fans – “They’re our future – our future doctors, lawyers, mothers, presidents, they kind of keep the world going. Teenage-girl fans – they don’t lie. If they like you, they’re there. They don’t act ‘too cool’. They like you, and they tell you. Which is sick.”
The fact celebrities approve themselves suggests that it’s the outsiders and those who don’t understand fangirls who are the most critical. One of the reasons for this could possibly be because fangirls have their own separate language. Tumblr has had a huge impact on the development of online fangirl culture but most notably on their language. The way fangirls have their own dialect puts people off from even trying to figure out what they mean, and in turn that lack of understanding can quickly turn to resentment and judgement.
So really, why are we still judging fangirls so harshly? Why exactly should they ‘tone it down’? Belonging to a positive community where girls can unashamedly enjoy their interests and strengthen creative skills should be seen as a good thing, and as normal as teen boys’ interests. Because girls throughout time always have been passionate fans, and they always will be- it’s time for society to catch up.