Grace Duffy: Anatomy of a Fangirl

I’ve been a fan of many things in my life. I remember fangirling over things since before I even knew what fandom was, when I firmly believed in my enchanted little heart that I was the only person in the world who could ever feel so deeply over things like the Spice Girls or Kirsten Dunst movies – or that gut-wrenching bit in Pocahontas where she and John Smith wave goodbye to one another, while music crescendos in the background.

To me, fandom was an internal thing – an extension of the vivid realities I cultivated all throughout my head, and the notion that anyone else might agree or share such passionate pursuits seemed alien for the longest time.

I loved things with a fierce innocence that is impossible to maintain in adult life, when experience and education and outlook tends to have a much bigger impact on what we like and why we’re drawn to it. Curiously, though I remember loving things unquestioningly as a youth, it’s striking to look back and realise how much of what I loved was so influenced by circumstance. Maybe I couldn’t talk about things like politics or context or gender issues, but I still saw elements of my life in the things I most adored, and this may have had a greater (subliminal) impact on my passions than I’ve ever given it credit for.

Without realising, I often found myself gravitating towards media in which I saw versions of myself. I liked plenty of escapist fare – not least Lord of the Rings, which was the dominant fandom of my teen years – but looking back on what I gravitated towards as a youth, I see a lot of stuff that I vividly related to.

The first boxset I had was a VHS combo of Little Women and Sense and Sensibility. I devoured both films endlessly, recognising and adoring so much of what I saw in the March and Dashwood sisters and their plights. Both families were impoverished by circumstance (though their houses were still both comfy and enormous, a far cry from the cramped estates we lived in), both sets of sisters had big dreams to escape into, and all of them relied on each other for support.

Jo March’s relationship with her mother warmed my heart in a way that made little sense at the time, but which I now recognise as symbolic of my own relationship with my parents. Marmee actively and equally supported the disparate dreams of all her daughters, from Meg’s yearning for a loving marriage to Jo’s desperate need to see the world and pursue her writing dreams to Amy’s often flabbergasting desire for wealth and luxury. Perhaps this is because she recognised the different ways that our home lives informs and influence our ambitions as we grow up, and she understood that the March girls each long to recreate it in their own way. It was a snapshot of a supportive family dynamic that didn’t always ring true for the world around me, but which I did see in my home.

I remember noticing from quite an early age that a lot of people I knew didn’t get along with their families. They hated their siblings, they resented their parents, and family gatherings were sources of endless pressure and strife. I was baffled by this for the longest time. The only people in my life who have never put pressure on me to be or act a certain way or attempted to discourage my dreams are my family.

By contrast, I met many people in school and college (and I continue to meet them now) who think what I like and want to do is unrealistic. Many feel women my age should be focusing on the dreaded marriage and family conundrum, while others believe there’s a time limit for becoming who you want to be. I never heard any of that at home. If anything, my parents pushed us to better ourselves – to be happy above all things, but also to think of a life beyond what we saw around us and push ourselves to live whatever our version of success was.

I yearned to be Jo March. I wanted a chance to prove myself on the world stage and believed in nothing other than my voice and worth for the longest time. When my teenage years came round and hitherto unchallenged friendships suddenly began to fall apart, I learned what happens when the real world comes crashing into your own private theatre. There are tests and demands that you never would have seen coming, and things you thought you could count on for always suddenly begin to fall apart. Maybe it’s no coincidence, then, that I began to wish myself away to imaginary lands where impossible things were everyday occurrences.

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Lord of the Rings came in and took over my life, showing me an idyllic vision of a world where hardship and suffering and misery could be defeated – but, more importantly, that those hardships were worthwhile. Staying strong, fighting and never giving in eventually yielded rewards, and if you kept your faith and energy and never let them get to you then you could make something of yourself. I always wanted to be an Elf – superficially, because they were tall and beautiful, but also for their sensitivity and insight. Everything they had was so carefully constructed, elegant and beautiful, and they fought to protect and defend that. They lived forever in a paradise of their own making, and they stopped the hardships of the world from interfering with that.

Of course, as an adult, I can see all kinds of problems with the Elven world as depicted in Tolkien. The insulation is isolation, the interpretation of beauty is reductive, and there’s a lot of rather troubling racial undertones. But taken as a youth, everything was peaceful and hopeful and lingering, and that was all I wanted.

I had a hard time navigating the changes in personal relationships at that age. I’d built a steadfast network of friends around me but when they began to peter out, tottering away one by one with barely a backward glance, it was like my world coming down around my feet. My desperate need to project myself into an unchanging, secure, comfortable world at that age makes perfect psychological sense in this context – and I think it’s telling that my first completed full-length fanfic was a Lord of the Rings one, about a badass female Elf. I wrote it mainly because the only problem my youthful self had with Tolkien’s world was how sexist it was. So I made up my own character, someone headstrong and political who called out the chauvinism she saw around her, and she led a storming army of Elves and her two best friends in Lothlórien’s defence.

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Other things I loved at that age turn out to be so much more than just fun distractions. Teen comedies, so often dismissed as frivolous and pointless by the masses, with hindsight take on meaningful proto-feminist messages. Maybe another reason I had such issues with my wayward friends was because their actions never quite mirrored my interpretation of friendship as bolstered by these movies. Bring It On, for instance, set standards no one was quite able to match.

Maybe it’s my fault – that everything is not like it is in the movies is a recurring disappointment in my life, and yet all I wanted was people to believe in me and us and what we could do as much as I did in them. Bring It On‘s Torrance is a fearlessly driven leader who pushes her squad to do better, tests their boundaries, and personally pursues and trains the new girl that everyone else rejected because she recognises her as a valuable addition to the squad. Torrance is horrified to learn that her predecessor plagiarised their cheers and works to make it right. She insists their biggest competition makes it to the national cheerleading finals so they have a fair fight on their hands (though that squad ultimately doesn’t need her help to get there). She dumps her boyfriend when it becomes apparent he doesn’t support her ambitions, confidently pursues another guy she’s interested in, and even offers an olive branch to two girls who attempted to have her removed from the captaincy. She’s smart, ambitious, determined, and capable but she never once steps on other girls to get to where she wants. Rather, she works with Missy – the new recruit – to improve their team, enhance their strengths, and make amends for what they’ve done wrong.

Watching and re-watching and obsessing over this movie when all my real-life friendships seemed to be going to hell gifted me aspirations and comfort that got me through many a tough time. I could never understand why everyone suddenly started turning on each other when we turned 14, when to me it was abundantly obvious that we could do more if we watched out for each other rather than stabbing one another in the back.

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It seems harsh, or pessimistic, or even sad. Yet it’s a trend I notice as I get older – the things I love now tend to be gut-punches in a graver, more insidious way. There are a thousand things I return to just because they’re simple and undemanding and make me smile, but the ones that get me thinking tend to remind me of things I’d rather forget.

I remember watching Frances Ha earlier this year, and loving it, yet never wanting to see it again because the protagonist’s painful experiences with both her career and her best friend bore so much recognisable and uncomfortable truth through the skin.

If fandom is traditionally a means of reconciling the imagined world with the real one, then the experience of fangirling as one gets older loses its rose-tinted hue. The younger version of myself was content to dream for the future and hope for the best and work harder than ever to make it happen. But then, suddenly, the future was thrust upon me and it didn’t look the way it was supposed to and it got really hard to look away.

Just when you’re more in need of escapism than ever, you’re almost too grown up to suspend your disbelief.

Conversely, fandom is perhaps at its most necessary and important when you know none of it is real – but then, maybe that’s why we fight so hard to improve it, casting it in the unwitting role of avatar for a real world that won’t always cooperate. To be a fan of something is to be active and engaged, to seek out a personal truth – something that becomes clearer than ever when I look back over my personal experience of it. And it’s both strange and curious to see how much something that seems natural, unconscious, even arbitrary, reveals itself to be so much more than that.

Grace Duffy is a pop culture devotée and sometime film critic currently catching up on her classic sci-fi. You can read more on her blog, Tumblr, or catch her frequent TV liveblogs on Twitter.

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