Before coming to CHILDWISE I spent four years studying girls and fandom as part of my PhD, immersing myself in fan communities across several different social networks. Specifically, my thesis looked at cultural perceptions and stereotypes of fangirls and analysed girls’ fan culture in the context of structural age / gender inequalities. Taking fans of tween favourite iCarly as my case study, I examined girl fans’ negotiation of the term ‘fangirl’, how they take up fangirl stereotypes in relation to themselves and others, and the ways in which fangirl identities are performed online.
The latest data from the CHILDWISE Playground Buzz report shows that a number of teenage girls are engaging in ‘traditional’ fan activities such as reading and writing fan fiction, attending fan conventions, and discussing the virtues of particular ‘ships’, that is, the romantic pairing of two fictional characters or celebrities. While only a minority of young people may count themselves as a member of a particular fandom or fan community in which these activities are often a focus, most young people are likely to identify as a fan of something, whether it be a TV show, a football team, or a musician.
Activities or membership aside, the way that young fans are talked about in the media differs greatly depending on the gender of the fan in question, as well as the perceived gender-skew of the fan object. Take these two examples. For the most part, boys’ fannish involvement in football culture is, if not expected, largely unremarkable, while girls’ fandom for boybands has historically attracted huge amounts of mostly negative attention, if not distinctly scathing criticism. From The Beatles to Twilight to One Direction, the reams of column inches focused on groups of girl fans, or ‘fangirls’, have largely consisted of moral panic, overwrought hand-wringing, inappropriate sexualisation, and a large dose of pathologisation, with nigh-on predictable references to girls as frenzied, crazy, hysterical, and obsessed.
Given the long standing nature of these widespread perceptions of fangirls which, incidentally, date back way before The Beatles to at least 1844 with the advent of Lisztomania, they seem (unfortunately) unlikely to change in the near future. In fact, they seem as potent and pervasive as ever, despite the so-called ‘fanification’ of mainstream media – the way the media industry increasingly appears to invite, cultivate, and indeed co-opt, fan-like engagement from its audiences. In other words, the industry encourages fannish devotion from its audiences, but singles out girls’ devotion and mocks them for their interests as well as their emotional responses to, and interactions with, their object of affection. If girl fans are well aware of the stereotype that demotes them and how the world sees them (hint: they are), then how do they respond to, or negotiate, their unfavourable characterisation?
In short, what I found in my research is that the term ‘fangirl’ was negotiated in a variety of different, unstable, and complex ways, and for many girls, being in fandom involves a continual balancing-act of being ‘enough’ fangirl, but not ‘too much’. For some girls in some spaces, it’s acceptable to identify oneself as a fangirl - it implies one’s belonging, value, and even status in the community. The readiness with which one self-labels, however, often shifts when in the presence of those considered too close to the negative stereotype (too young, loud, crazy, or ‘girly’). Other girls use the term in a lightly self-deprecating way to downplay their fandom and create distance from those considered more obsessive or unruly. This self-aware manoeuvre can protect against outside judgement as it indicates to others that they are conscious of their own behaviour, of how they may be perceived as ‘too much’ while suggesting that they are, in fact, in control. At the other end of the spectrum, some girls merely disassociate themselves from the term, while others tend to apply the term only to their fellow fans and usually in a negative sense. This strategy of name-calling, adopting the very language that the media unrelentingly applies to girl fans, often functions as a form of self-preservation, if not self-legitimisation as it creates distance from, and elevates oneself above, the ‘excessive’ fangirls.
What this illustrates, broadly speaking, is that being a girl and a fan is often a continual process of negotiation. It is not a simple case of fighting the stereotype, uncritical acceptance, or blissful unawareness. Girls are neither conformist nor resistant, positioned at one end of an active / passive spectrum, but rather they are none, both, and everything in between. Girls are negotiators of media and equally, they continually negotiate and renegotiate the term ‘fangirl’, their position as fans within media culture, and their fan performance according to (among the many factors) context, purpose, and known or imagined audience.
Research suggests fandom performs important functions in youth development and identity construction, that interests shared and friends made in fan spaces can be of great importance in the creation of a personal culture, and that fandom, when experienced as a supportive place, can facilitate self-disclosure and emotional self-expression. It may be a long wait until the value and importance of fan culture, for girls especially, is universally acknowledged and understood, but working to understand how girls negotiate their fraught position as fans and what both the fan object and the fan community means to them may help us get there a little quicker.