The term ‘fangirls’ is used pejoratively to describe girls’ involvement in music. The established narrative imposes a widely accepted belief that girls, despite their devotion to a particular band or enthusiasm in a specific music scene, is based entirely on a superficiality that boys and men are exempt from.
Like most women, I’ve been on the receiving end of this, and I was subject to the resentment that men have for fangirls of any kind. As such, this affected me going to shows, hanging out with musician pals, and my dreams of becoming a music writer.
My crime was being young, female and excited.
And boy does society hate me.
Fangirls are missing the point of the music
The general implication is that girls simply don’t get music. And their interest and involvement in a particular scene is based entirely on aesthetics. In other words, girls are fangirls because they’re only interested in a band due to an attraction to one or more of the band members.
Society then reinforces this message with stock footage of girls screaming and grabbing their own faces; crying as musicians play on stage. Coupled with mock moral outrage for young girls’ wellbeing, we’re also then conditioned to believe that men and boys simply appreciate music on a much higher level.
Ultimately, men can experience more from a gig, and take more away from songs and albums, than the screaming, waving, sobbing fangirls in the front row.
Fangirls terrify society – and that’s why we demonise them
If we’re being honest, female interest in anything is vehemently criticised and all too often dismissed, but there’s a specific animosity reserved for girls who like music.
Teenage fangirls in particular.
The sheer possibility that fangirls could actually appreciate and want to hear music isn’t considered at all – and this is not only insulting, it’s entirely incorrect and wildly sexist.
Historically, women and in particular, young girls, are the largest consumers of music in the world. Their interest and involvement in music scenes have helped shape the way music is written, promoted and sold. And its fangirls we have to thank for some of the most important music and musicians in pop culture history.
Yet we still demonise, vilify and belittle their existence.
I say thank you for the fangirls, for giving music to me
In recent years, the media has placed a hyper-focused lens on young female fans, perpetuating a moral panic surrounding the intensity of fangirls of Justin Bieber and One Direction’s music.
But what they fail to address is that, firstly, this devotion is what launched their careers and made them their millions. Secondly, this isn’t a new phenomenon. Star-centered female hysteria has been around for decades; launching and making the career of some of music’s most enduring icons.
In 1940, when Frank Sinatra joined Tommy Dorsey’s band, fangirls began swooning over ol’ blue eyes. He has since become one of the most enduring figures in musical history. Similarly, in the 1950s, when fangirls began screaming for Elivs Presley, he forged his place in the rock and roll hall of fame. Then, in the 1960s, Beatlemania brought about an entirely new concept of fandom and fangirl behaviour; cementing their deity status among every budding musician ever since.
In Fandom at the Crossroads: Celebration, Shame and Fan/Producer Relationships Katherine Larsen and Lynn Zubernis write about how The Beatles weren’t only headline news for their musical talents, but for the fangirls too. Their “swooning and crying constituted a rare open expression of emotion and sexual feelings which has been described as revolutionary.”
Fangirls made The Beatles a household name, but while the music was taken seriously, these young fans were mocked and looked down on as silly and unbecoming.
We’ve seen this play out again in more recent times with Justin Bieber, One Direction and Harry Styles. These fangirls will buy tickets to their shows, drape themselves in their merchandise, and create entire digital channels to celebrate – and offer free publicity for – their favourites. These young women are openly demonised and vilified in society, reinforcing the stigma around female fandom.
The message we’re sending these young women is that the worst thing in the world you can be is a passionate young woman.
Rather a fangirl than a gatekeeper
If we can label young girls as ‘fangirls’ then we can label those who are desperate to keep them from enjoying their music as ‘gatekeepers’ right?
Because ultimately, this is a scene played out across any fandom that women take part in. It’s a ridiculous notion that aims to uphold the idea that fangirls are nothing more than frivolous and unauthentic, while outlining how to be a proper fan.
It’s insidiously sexist, yet ultimately, what the demonisation of fangirls does is just that: it systemically belittles women and their opinions.
They’re not new tactics, they’re the same arguments that have kept women from voting, working and succeeding politically. It’s the rationale that is used to keep women away from what society views as typically male-dominated areas: STEM, gaming, comic books and the internet on a more general level.
The messaging is that girls, women and fangirls don’t count: we’re not worthy.
What’s so wrong with being a fangirl?
Considering fangirls within the music community, and their dismissal by men for being focused all too readily on the aesthetics – i.e. a girl might fancy the drummer – I’d argue that their problem with fangirls is society’s discomfort with female sexuality.
Hark back to Beatlemania and how the likes of The Beatles and Rolling Stones, Bob Dylan and The Beach Boys were creating music during times of huge cultural upheaval. The Civil Rights movement and the second-wave feminist movement were offering freedoms not seen before, and fangirls experienced this too.
The bands responsible for fangirl behaviour were actually creating communities of like-minded girls and their music was encouraging self-expression in a way that also included sexual exploration. The discomfort here is played out in constant public shaming of fangirls, not just by society, or the larger fandom communities (i.e. men and boys), but by the artists too.
This only highlights that socially, young women expressing desire or sexual feelings is unsettling to the patriarchy, and it needs to be controlled – hence the systemic belittling of fangirls throughout the ages. In turn, this encourages young girls to oppress their feelings, disabling them from creating their own healthy sexual identities.
Ultimately, the fuel that keeps fangirls oppressed is society’s mixed messaging and double standards, creating a culture of fear and exploitation through music.
After all, the music industry is fine when order is restored: when young women become sexual objects at 17 and conservatorship prisoners at 25. Boys are encouraged to have sexual feelings; to fantasise about the girl in the video, so long as the subject in question isn’t expressing their own desires on their own terms (anyone remember the moral panic around Miley Cyrus?).
Fangirls expose the sexist double standards in the music industry
The reality is, fangirls reveal that female sexuality exists beyond the male gaze, and this is problematic for the patriarchal constructs that uphold our society.
The patriarchy thrives when it has women in its grasp, and so innocence and virtue are promoted as cultural currency, while sexual feelings are demonised. But not for boys. Boys are encouraged to have and to explore their sexual feelings, with porn becoming a rite of passage for young men.
When girls aren’t offered this private outlet for sexual desires, it exposes itself in other ways, and this is why fangirls are demonised and treated socially with scorn. It’s less about a difference in how men and women understand music, and more about upholding chastity and virginity in girls. Because the ultimate reality is that a sexually liberated and confident woman is powerful.
To dismiss fangirls as irrelevant reinforces the message that women aren’t the most valuable consumers of music, but it also denies them of the right to a healthy sexual appetite. By dismissing the excitement, enthusiasm and devotion of fangirls upholds the systemic oppression of all women in modern society.
Ultimately, it’s powerful to be a fangirl. It’s powerful to have passion. Fangirls have the power to make or break a man’s career. They have the power to facilitate enormous and enduring cultural shifts that have real world implications.
Fangirls are a reminder that women can actually change the world – and we can do this by standing in the front row, screaming at the man in the band.