In the late 1990s, my mother received a phone call from a daytime talk show that wanted to do a segment on teenage girl fans. The theme? Obsession. My 13-year-old sister, who had recently won a magazine competition as Leonardo DiCaprio’s number one fan, was crushed to learn that my mother had refused to let her participate. "I knew how they would make her look," my mother explains. "I told them she was not obsessed with him, she was a normal teenager and her interest was the same as those who follow sports personalities."
The fear that a young girl would be edited to look "crazy" at the height of the Titanic actor’s fame was warranted. A brief online search unearths news coverage from 1998 that labels a crowd gathered outside the London premiere of The Man In The Iron Mask in Leicester Square as "hormonally charged," while other videos show journalists discussing girls "throwing themselves" at the actor. This type of language is hardly uncommon in fandom history. Beatlemania conflated admiration with mental health conditions while the description of Elvis’s crowds as "hysterical" connected them to emotional illness (the word hysterical derives from "hystera," the Greek for womb).
This pattern of being penalized for being a girl with emotions is something I find uncomfortably familiar. At the height of the 2010s, my dedication to Justin Bieber (one of the bestselling artists in music history) was regularly joked about at school. My commitment to being a Belieber was seen as delusional at worst and uncool at best. Even the media called us out for our Bieber fever, with articles at the time stating that research into the made-up condition showed it to be "more infectious than measles." The symptoms, they said, included "poor life choices, uncontrollable crying, and screaming symptoms of illness."
Like many, I brushed off the label as funny but it was hard not to internalize the idea of being perceived as ridiculous on the world stage. While I was laughed at for knowing my fave's birthday and the words to all his songs, my guy friends could discuss every injury their favorite football player had ever had and be thought of as well-informed. As I ripped posters of Bieber out of magazines, it was common to see neighboring articles using words like mad, stalker, and scary. The sentiment was loud and clear: When girls know a lot about something they love, they’re crazy; when boys do, they’re passionate.
The sentiment was loud and clear: When girls know a lot about something they love, they're crazy; when boys do, they're passionate.
This positioning of the behavior of young women fans as abnormal is heavily explored in Fangirls: Scenes From Modern Music. Written by former Rolling Stone journalist Hannah Ewens, the book discusses how the young women fans who have shaped the music industry are regularly ridiculed. Discussing the mass fan backlash to the 2013 Channel 4 documentary Crazy About One Direction, Ewens explores how the film positioned One Direction's fan group as not only obsessive, but potentially dangerous to the band.
"From the very beginning of the film, emotions are pathologized. Any ounce of feeling that an audience sees from the moment it decides to watch something called Crazy About One Direction is framed as unhinged, even if a girl screaming about tickets or trying to meet her idol is understandable," Ewens explains. Ewens interviewed fans who didn’t make the final cut, who explained how they weren’t seen as "crazy enough" to be featured and said that producers pushed for stories about "extreme things" they had done for the boys.
The documentary's focus on more extreme fan behaviors (like sending Twitter death threats to the boys' love interests) angered Directioners, with many feeling the documentary had conflated the actions of a few individuals with the sentiment of the whole fandom. In a retrospective essay, the documentary’s creator, Daisy Asquith, wrote: "Unsurprisingly there was some pressure from Channel 4 to include the most angry and hysterical fans, the crazy fans. I resisted this stereotype from the start, but I am also obliged to accept the commercial demands that ultimately fund my programs."
Professor Sarah Banet-Weiser, co-author of Believability: Sexual Violence, Media, and the Politics of Doubt, believes this characterization of fangirls as potentially fanatical is unfairly connected to scrutiny of women in general. "As far as I know, most of the cases of fans stalking and being violent against celebrities are men," she tells Refinery29 (general findings show that stalkers are more often cis men than women). "The idea that women fans are unstable is a real issue as it connects to women being seen as irrational," she explains.
The idea of irrationality also positions young women’s interests as less than. Groups of women who enjoy boy bands are defined as hysterical because the art they’ve chosen to love is deemed unworthy of such a reaction. A 1964 New Statesman article about the Beatles, entitled "The Menace of Beatlism," refers to the young women who "scream themselves into hysteria" as "the dull, the idle, the failures." Sixty years later, the band has sold more than 600 million albums worldwide and is considered one of the greatest acts of all time. Plainly, art isn’t seen as viable until men-led audiences and media deem it so.
Plainly, art isn't seen as viable until men-led audiences and media deem it so.
Take James Corden joking about BTS visiting the UN and "15-year-old girls everywhere [finding] themselves wishing that they were Secretary-General António Guterres." This infantilization of the community rightly angered fans who have helped make the incredibly talented band the only Korean music act to have six different albums top the Billboard charts. Corden never apologized — but the media speaking mockingly of fangirls is nothing new. In a 2017 Rolling Stone article, Harry Styles was asked about seeking credibility beyond the teen girl demographic (the same demographic that has since made his Love On Tour show the 10th highest grossing tour of all time).
In a welcome show of solidarity, Styles defended the musical tastes of his audience, stating: "Who’s to say that young girls who like pop music — short for popular, right? — have worse musical taste than a 30-year-old hipster guy … Young girls like the Beatles. You gonna tell me they’re not serious? How can you say young girls don't get it? They're our future."
How can you say young girls don't get it? They're our future.
The idea that young women should feel embarrassed about the art they love is perhaps what links fandom to bedroom culture, with many fans enjoying the freedom to revel in their interests behind closed doors. From adorning walls with posters to curating dedicated Tumblr pages, physical private fan spaces and online areas are the few places where young women fans can be shame-free.
Beyond the safety of their bedroom walls, it's often a different story. Though not all aspects of fandom contain elements of sexual attraction, in spaces where desire is expressed, young women can be seen as challenging the hierarchies of the patriarchal system. This idea is explored in academic Tonya Anderson's 2012 doctoral thesis, entitled "Still Kissing Their Posters Goodnight: Lifelong Pop Music Fandom." Anderson writes that the unashamed screams and public admissions of attraction to the Beatles were "monumental for the feminist movement."
"This shift in behavior was seen as threatening to a society where the dominant philosophy was, and still is, very much rooted in patriarchal ideologies. Female music fandom has never lived down its initial reputation as being associated with behavior that is perceived as 'decidedly unladylike'," Anderson explains. The pushing of purity culture may have softened since the days of Elvis The Pelvis, but the framing of young women’s sexuality and their decision to exercise those interests publicly is still ridiculed under the guise of excessiveness.
For other areas of fandom, romantic attraction is less pivotal yet misogyny remains easy to come by. Taylor Swift fans are such ardent supporters of the pop star that their demand for tour tickets recently broke Ticketmaster, yet this power is often diminished. According to Banet-Weiser, this shutting down is likely to do with those on the outside feeling intimidated by large, women-led communities. "If there is a fandom that is made from mostly women, where men would have to earn their way in rather than just be entitled to membership, it is seen as quite threatening. So what do you do in the face of that? You say that that community is worthless and hysterical and you cast aspersions on it, as a way to delegitimize it, because you are not invited," she explains.
The treatment of women in fandom spaces holds a magnifying glass to the misogyny that women face in the wider world.
The treatment of women in fandom spaces holds a magnifying glass to the misogyny that women face in the wider world. This is perhaps what makes women-led fandoms so extraordinary, with fans standing together against hatred and vitriol in pursuit of a collective fulfillment.
"To share space with likeminded people, about particular affective attachments to a celebrity, means that not only are your feelings being validated in a culture that doesn't often validate young women but also that whatever hate or misogyny is being directed at you, you can then abstract that. It isn’t about you, it’s about men feeling threatened and them feeling like they're entitled to this space, so the community in fandom is incredibly powerful," Banet-Weiser explains.
The ridicule that young women fans face is fiercely unfair, but the sense of not being alone in your dedication to someone's art is part of what makes it all bearable. Knowing that there are many other young women who feel the same way you do alleviates that shame and allows you to legitimize your emotions. Any time I camped outside a stadium, I was never on my own. Any time I entered a ticket queue, there were tens of thousands of people waiting for the same page to load. Every instance was a needed reminder that collective enjoyment is at the heart of the human experience. Fandom proves that it is young women who understand that best.