In every area of pop culture, fans are the very backbone of success. They are the reason artists — musicians, writers, actors etc. — are able to build highly successful careers. Yet, when young and often female fans show their love and support, they can be labeled as crazy or obsessive “fangirls.”
Where does this shame come from? The Urban Dictionary defines “fangirl” as “a rabid breed of human female who is obsessed with either a fictional character or an actor,” “a female fan, obsessed with something (or someone) to a frightening or sickening degree. Often considered ditzy, annoying and shallow” and “a female who has overstepped the line between healthy fandom and indecent obsession.”
I am a self-proclaimed fangirl. Whether it’s Taylor Swift, a favorite book series or a new TV show, I will gush about the things I love to anyone willing to listen. However, anytime someone tries to turn the tables and label me a fangirl, I feel the need to put up my defenses, to retort with a sharp, “What? No! I’m not like that.”
These definitions are nothing if not derogatory and condescending. Where society could celebrate the passion of young girls, they instead stomp on it, calling them “ditzy” and “rabid.” They refuse to validate the very things that young girls identify with and love.
In 2014, when Taylor Swift dropped her hit album 1989, she carved a place for herself on the world music stage as a full-blown pop star. Those who had never given her music a second thought found themselves absentmindedly humming songs like “Shake It Off” and “Blank Space.” Yet many new fans were resistant and even embarrassed to admit that they were enjoying Swift’s new music.
“Saturday Night Live” even went as far as to make a skit concerning this panic. Titled, “Swiftamine,” the skit — released shortly after 1989 — proposes a “medication” known as Swiftamine as a cure for adults who are ashamed to find themselves enjoying Swift’s new album. In the skit, a father recalls with embarrassment his trip to a Taylor Swift concert with his two daughters, during which he found himself dancing and singing along. To him, merely enjoying the same music as teenage girls was the epitome of shame.
Why is it that liking Swift’s music would be a source of embarrassment? Even now, after the release of nine highly successful albums, many listeners, particularly male listeners, shy away from calling themselves fans. Many continue to criticize her work, particularly the fact that she writes songs about boyfriends and heartbreak. In an article for the College Times, Orla O’Callaghan wrote that going out with men is, “ALL [Swift] seems to do. That and slating them in her songs.” O’Callaghan even went as far to say that she “would imagine that Jake, John, Taylor, Harry, Patrick and whoever else she’s dated, were all more than a little teed off when they realized their ex was making money off them.” Her highly personal and expressive work is not celebrated for its artistry, but instead belittled because she chooses to write about her past relationships. Male musicians like Ed Sheeran and Justin Timberlake have written songs about their exes, yet face none of this backlash. This fuels the double standard surrounding fangirls.
This stream of criticism isn’t an isolated scenario. Swift’s music, along with the music of other popular musicians such as Harry Styles, targets a young, female audience, and society’s verdict on this group of women is clear: Fangirls are nothing but obsessive, hysterical teenage girls, and the things they love are not to be taken seriously.
It is true that a fangirl’s intense love and adoration — whether for a person, band or series — is often intertwined with the inexplicable need to learn everything they possibly can about that thing, and this dedication can appear strange and obsessive. Many fans of famous actors and singers pride themselves on following their idol’s lives in extreme detail. In 2014, a couple of avid Harry Styles fans erected a shrine in Los Angeles, commemorating the spot where Styles pulled over and threw up after a night out. Weird? Yes. But also impressive. The girls were organized and efficient, erecting the shrine in just a few short hours and with extreme accuracy. Still, society refuses to see the countless positive attributes of fangirls.
Fangirls are powerful. They dissect every piece of news, every interview and every sliver of information until their set of knowledge extends far beyond that of the average citizen, and this allows them to have an incredible influence. When popular boy band One Direction released their hit album Four, fans everywhere campaigned for the song “No Control” to be released as a single. They believed that it best represented the album, and wanted it to be heard on the radio. The campaign garnered so much attention that the song was broadcast on Radio 1 in England.
To celebrate Harry Styles’ 27th birthday, fans set up a fundraiser on Twitter for Choose Love, a charity which provides humanitarian aid to refugees around the world. They raised over $8,000, and vowed to continue to raise money on Styles’ birthday every year. In 2020, after popular K-pop band BTS donated over $1 million to Black Lives Matter, their fans rallied and matched this donation in just over 24 hours — an impressive feat, to say the least.
Not only do fangirls have immense power, but the sense of community in fandom is one of a kind. Social media allows for fans around the world to connect and forge deep friendships. Many claim to have met their best friends through fandom, all because they love the same music, books, TV shows and movies. The sexist narrative that fangirls are nothing but shallow, hysterical teenagers is long outdated. Fangirls are powerful young women who immerse themselves in something that brings them joy, that makes them feel less alone. They love deeply and proudly, and no one should ever feel ashamed about that. Harry Styles said it best in an interview with Rolling Stone: “How can you say young girls don’t get it? They’re our future. Our future doctors, lawyers, mothers, presidents, they kind of keep the world going. Teenage-girl fans – they don’t lie.”
Rebecca Smith is an Opinion Columnist and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.