I know many of you will dismiss this topic right at the outset, but hear me out. Sadly, this has always been the way with female consumers i.e. fans and popular culture, even if they are the dominant cultural and economic force behind it. Much like the women on the other side, female fans have been continually mocked, rejected and worried over by the harbingers of ‘what should be’ pop culture. To you, fangirls are a species to be dismissed, fangirling, or even being a fan in general, something to be laughed at. It’s the handful of critics whose tastes matter in determining yours. The millions of people disagreeing with them and willing to spend time and money contrarily be damned.
I have stayed away from the current pop culture obsession called Cumberbitching, something that came to be following Benedict Cumberbatch’s role as the titular detective in the TV show, Sherlock.
I completely acknowledge, respect and understand Mr. Cumberbatch’s achievements through the show and thereafter. In fact, unlike many of his fans, I have been following his work since his films in 2006-07 Atonement and Starter for Ten, in both of which he played quite delightful antagonists. Atonement, especially, served as an inoculation for Cumberbitching, because I truly, deeply hate the person he played in it, and it is one of the creepiest characters I’ve ever seen. But, staying away doesn’t mean I am dismissive of the phenomenon itself. On the contrary, I believe the intellect and enthusiasm of Cumberbitches, a collective that substantially comprises of more mature women from the age of late 20s and upwards, to have validated the monetary and psychical contribution of the female of our species in propagating popular entertainment. This was not always possible for younger female fans, but let me start from the start.
Before Elvis Presley became the global icon and the ‘King of Rock and Roll’, he was a simple Southern boy who ruffled quite a few feathers. With a voice that blurred racial boundaries in a heavily segregated popular music system, Elvis was also seen as a serious threat towards young women, in a way that had so far been unprecedented in his native land. The first celebrity in the modern sense is generally considered to be the Romantic poet Byron, who may have been notorious for his good looks, wealth, talent, devil-may-care attitude and womanising, but also had many, many women swooning over him, without having so much as a picture to themselves. Elvis, on the other hand, had his music and stage presence that was considered risqué enough to have parents worry about their marriageable daughters. Boyfriends and fiancés reported in local newspapers that they felt threatened by and inadequate to Elvis, while girls, many of whom were already engaged or married by ages 15 and 16, formed fan clubs, fanzines and communities among themselves for their common love for this new force of nature. Our modern day online forums are paltry compared to the lengths these young women had to go through.
Cut to the next decade, and you have a film in 1964 about a band of four young men from Liverpool, England for whom, surprisingly, this opening scene didn’t need much acting:
And suddenly, fangirling – the impassioned, frenzied, apparently unreasoned devotion by mainly young women en masse, became desirable for anybody achieving a celebrity status. At the same time, those who observed this pop culture phenomenon derided it for being shallow, where they assumed that either these young women valued the physical attractiveness of these musicians over their creative talent, or that these celebrities didn’t have much talent in the first place, and used their physical appeal as their main resource. At the same time, if there was fanboying, i.e. young men gushing over musicians who often extended their musical ethos to misogyny, it was something to be respected, and carefully considered as truly representative of the artistic potential of the culture as a whole. A certain popular music magazine which, in the latest assessment, comprises of an approximate readership of 43% women and 57% men, still adheres to male, rockist standards, and is frequently derisive and misogynistic towards female musicians and fans.
Even if the females were fans of female artists. There was a Madonna mania in the mid 1980s that was akin to Beatlemania, or Madonna’s contemporary Duran Duran mania, and though Madonna has continually sold albums to both men and women, it is the female fans who still face the ire of male critics and fans. The assumption remained: women, especially young girls, are unable to appreciate or recognise true talent, and the appreciation they profess is either sexual desire or idealistic projection. A teenage boy buys an album to develop and imbibe taste, while a teenage girl buys an album to satisfy her urges for an imaginary, idealized boyfriend, or to project herself onto her own idealized female role model.
Anonymity, resourcefulness and affordability has lent the internet age to be the most amenable platform for fangirling, fanboying and everything in between and beyond. A sixty-year-old truck driver can discuss his love for Justin Bieber’s music in blissful secrecy, with no one questioning his situation. A teenage girl, on the other hand, can confidently write her own critique on Led Zeppelin or Metallica, while simultaneously listing Kesha and Nicki Minaj among her favourite artists. Blogging, gifs, memes, fan fiction and fan art are only some of the ways in which we can profess our likes and dislikes more freely than it has been ever possible. Whether it is celebrating or dismissing someone for their music, or their enhanced body parts, the rules of the past sixty years or so do not apply anymore.
I became a fan of the actor James McAvoy circa 2006. This was prior to what we understand social media to be now, and my fanhood, for lack of creative talents of my own, consisted what it has always consisted of – trying to follow Mr. McAvoy’s work as much as I can. However, when I encountered his fans, McAvoyeurs, on forums and message boards, I was struck by their wit, intelligence and all in all, hilariousness. The actor himself is much the same in his public appearances, and perhaps, he helped bring out this aspect among his many female fans. This was no modest, old-school scrapbooking: it was a large community of women who wanted to express exactly what they admire in the work and personality of Mr. McAvoy. A few years later, with greater development and emphasis on technology, we have Cumberbitching, a phenomenon which no one would dare to mess with or criticise.
I stay away from Cumberbitching because I quite prefer being fickle in my fangirling, but I have witnessed a similar current phenomenon called Hiddlestoning – fans of another British actor, Tom Hiddleston.
I deeply admire Mr. Hiddleston’s talents, earnest passion for doing good and being good, and extreme generosity and understanding towards his fans, but I have to admit, I find Hiddlestoning more fun than Hiddleston. Both are tonally different, with Hiddlestoning being just, absolutely hilarious. A brief overview of comments on any video of Mr. Hiddleston is enough to keep a professional comic with a sentimental bent employed for months. More importantly, it is so hard to find any positive place on the internet, especially when it comes to musicians, pop music being such a thoroughly wretched business. Places brimming with Hiddlestoning, on the other hand, are effective endorphin supplements once you succumb to it. It is a truly inspiring, engaging, funny, infectious, intelligent, creative and most of all, a caring and compassionate community, that perhaps wouldn’t have been possible to this extent without the internet.
The thing is, you may have laughed at and dismissed fangirls, but they got the better of you. They are still making many things possible that wouldn’t have been possible without them in the 1950s and 60s, and they no longer need somebody’s approval or permission to blatantly admit their appreciation for whoever they like, for whatever reason. It still isn’t a picture-perfect scenario, with the publishing phenomenon of our times, Fifty Shades of Grey, being universally criticised and having originated from fan fiction. But, the very fact that it did, means that whoever is the equivalent of Elvis in the 2010s can be appreciated with much more freedom. It is already true, with many of the biggest stars in pop culture being female, with a predominantly female fan base. Critics be damned.
What are you a fan of?