From across the seminar room he smiled, pleased I was watching as he made his point.
“The problem with Alanis Morrisette, aside from her ‘music’, is that she wails,” he sighed, as if the very thought of her weighed heavy on him. “She literally sounds like a banshee. A banshee with her leg caught in a trap.”
Grinning he turned to his friend, who nodded agreeably, earnestly, the two of them dressed in matching, floor-length black leather jackets, the kind beloved of wannabe film directors the world over.
The class was ‘Popular Culture’, the kind of module that gives Media Studies degrees a bad name – as if popular culture, the very soup we swim in, is somehow unworthy of deep consideration. The discussion, as so often was the case, centred on ideas of the popular; specifically whether something could still have artistic merit and be loved by the masses. Alanis was being used as an example of something crap that was inexplicably loved by millions –millions of young women, to be precise. Young women like me.
Something clicked into life within me that day, a tiny, invisible trigger that propelled words into my mouth. Words that changed the air in the room as I spoke them, words that changed me.
“What about Thom Yorke’s voice?” I said, sitting up, my heartbeat quickening in my ears. “It’s so sad to listen to sometimes it is actually painful. And Kurt Cobain’s voice can sound like a primal scream, but that hasn’t stopped Nirvana or Radiohead selling millions of records. Does that make them ‘bad’? And if it doesn’t, then how can you say that Alanis is ‘bad’ for doing the same thing?”
I don’t know whether it was because I had actually spoken or because of what I said but he looked back at me, befuddled, as if I had become unreadable to him. An older, more assured asshole might have ploughed on with the numbingly predictable, “Are you seriously comparing Alanis Morrisette to Radiohead and Nirvana?” Instead, this baby asshole recovered enough to shrug and mumble something like, “Fair enough” just before our lecturer called time.
Even though I knew the point I made was valid, the incident tugged at me, my voice looping in my head. I hated it for not sounding like I wished it did – smooth and aloof – instead of the girl I was, furious with hurt, the intonation peaking with emotion. I imagined him in the student bar later that evening, regaling those gathered with his take on our exchange. How he’d say, like a benign dictator extending blessings, “Ah, I didn’t want to tell her she was wrong. I felt bad for her, y’know?”
Fan: a person who has a strong interest in or admiration for a person or thing. An abbreviation of ‘fanatic’, someone who takes their devotion to extremes, like the hysteric or the obsessive, or less charitably, the unhinged.
Fans are not created equal, however. No one blinks at the sports bulletins included in every single news cast, but if these were to be replaced or, dare I say it, accompanied by headlines from the fashion world, the confusion would be immediate. Both are multi-million euro industries which saturate our media and draw devotees from across the globe.
But fashion is not sport. Sport is serious, fashion is frivolous. Haven’t you heard?
The problem isn’t sport. The problem is what sport and other cultural activities and products coded as ‘male’ – usually ‘white, powerful male’ to be exact – are taken to represent: ‘the norm’ against which all others will be judged and found wanting.
In 1914, Lana F. Rakow’s Giving Patriarchy its Due outlined ‘androcentric culture’, whereby two sets of cultural activities exist, one for men and one for women. But here’s the clincher: both are dictated by men. Cultural products designed for or favoured by women and girls are disadvantaged and that disadvantage sticks – even if something coded as ‘female’ succeeds beyond all expectation. In this context, Ginger Rogers’ quip about having to do everything that Fred Astaire did ‘except backwards and in high heels’ is as astute as it is maddening.
To be female and a fan is to see women’s popular culture routinely derided and/or to see your attempt to participate in male popular culture belittled or dismissed, even forbidden. From boybands to ‘chick-lit’, from soap operas to rom-coms, critics of all hues roll their eyes and wonder why it is women do this to ourselves, as if female popular culture is routinely worse than its male counterpart.
This is laughable, as anyone who has ever had to sit through a) Ronaldo’s on-pitch gurning after tripping over his shoelaces b) any number of asinine superhero films or c) anything written by Dan Brown will attest.
Without fail, categories coded ‘female’ and therefore ‘less than’, have within them astonishing talents, a vibrant array of experiences and perspectives and some dross too, just like categories coded ‘male’ . Helen Fielding is quite possibly the greatest comedic novelist of her generation, but her oeuvre falls under the misleading mantle of ‘chick lit’, as does the work of bestselling authors like Marian Keyes, Jojo Moyes and countless others.
Soap operas are the bread and butter of TV programming, commanding huge audiences, some of which – you’d better sit down for this – are believed to be men. The likes of Coronation Street and Eastenders regularly feature outstanding writing and acting but their ‘domestic’ settings and subjects seem to render this fact inconsequential.
When cultural products orientated towards women are truly bad, like Sex in the City 2: Girls Just Love Capitalism, all of womankind comes in for a drubbing. Men, on the other hand, can write, direct, produce, compete and perform – bilge-making with impunity – free from the expectation that the worth of their entire gender rests of the fruits of their individual creative or sporting output. As comedy duo Mitchell and Webb so beautifully put it, “Men: shave and get drunk, because you’re already brilliant.”
As women, we didn’t write the rules we are forced to play by, but we stake our ground within them. Fandom can be complete and utter joy. To love without apology – that is freedom. That is power. And that is why society is never entirely sure what to do with the female fan.
Feminist popular culture researchers have done fascinating work in this area, challenging lazy assumptions about women’s consumption of everyday culture as passive or unthinking. One of the most famous studies is Janice Radway’s Reading the Romance from 1984, which looked at female readers’ relationships to the often-derided genre of the romance novel. What Radway discovered remains fascinating and crucial; her subjects valued these stories and chose to read them as an act of agency, inspired by their identification with heroines whose struggles within patriarchy echoed their own.
The readers Radway surveyed didn’t regard the heroines of these stories as weak, but as agents trying to secure the greatest outcome for themselves through the only route traditionally available to women – aligning with the best possible mate. The heroine’s success gave Radway’s subjects hope that their own struggles would someday pay dividends. This outcome felt like a kind of high, leading readers to consume these types of books over and over again a la Mills and Boon. So, while romance novels may be viewed as disposable, their titles and covers sometimes dazzling in their tackiness, on closer inspection their popularity is much more complicated and nuanced than one might ever have suspected, especially if the only critical lens previously applied to them had been male.
If subversion of superficial readings is one potential aspect of female fandom, fandom as a safe release valve for the feelings and thoughts we are not allowed to express is surely another. Nowhere is this more obvious in the emotional-outpourings of young girls when it comes to whatever boy band is doing the rounds at a particular point in time.
It’s easy to be snide about the hysteria unleashed when, for example, Zayn left One Direction or Take That called it a day (Never Forget? As if I could). Nonetheless, studies of the original teeny-bopper meltdown, Beatlemania, emphasise that what these boy bands mean to their young female audience stretches way beyond music, to issues of control and emerging womanhood.
Back in 1963, before The Beatles became legitimate music icons (because bands with primarily female fans could never be that), before second wave feminism and counter-culture had taken hold, ‘proper’ feminine behaviour was strictly policed on both sides of the Atlantic. The kinds of wild public outpourings of lust and devotion aimed at The Beatles – including but not limited to riots, fainting and general mayhem – by ‘young ladies’ impacted far beyond the band, marking in part the beginning of women’s modern sexual awakening in the West.
This was fandom as revolution, kick-started by repressed female sexual desire, a natural part of themselves girls had been taught to deny in order to be ‘good’, thereby preserving the virtue that would secure their prize under capitalist-patriarchy: a husband, an appliance-laden house and babies galore – sure, what more could you want? When their emotions finally, inevitably erupted, authorities couldn’t contain or understand what they were seeing.
“It was all right until the mania degenerated into barbarism,” a Dublin police chief was reported to have puffed after the Beatles’ visit to good Catholic Ireland in 1963, which saw marauding teenage girls turn Middle Abbey Street and O’Connell Street into quasi-war zones.
Oh, the sweet anarchy of it. The unforgettable power.
Fandom evolves as you do. The teenage posters and ticket stubs may be long gone but the heart-stopping elation, the sense of belonging, the complete and total submersion – those are only ever a memory away.
Fandom as a grown-up, although different, is no less thrilling or meaningful. If anything, adulthood teaches how fundamental it is to be a fan of other women, to emphasise their achievements and struggles in a world that silences and erases so much more than it celebrates. That shouldn’t mean shutting off critical faculties or shying away from analysis of the complex, conflicting messages and representations bound up in popular culture, but it does mean booting that evil patriarchal voice in your head into touch, the one you were force fed, that blinds you to your own worth and that of your sisters.
In short, love hard, love loud, and fan-girl your bleeding heart out.
Mary McGill is a writer, journalist, contributor and rabble-rouser. She was recently awarded a Hardiman Scholarship for her research into gender performativity in the selfie phenomenon. She blogs here and tweets at @missmarymcgill
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