Tag Archives: fangirls

Women’s Fandoms: Unruly Desires, Perverse Pleasures

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In fandom, the beloved text or set of texts can be read in many ways: interpretations may conform to the creator’s preferred reading or they may veer off into wilder, more unruly and unexpected territories. The latter is more often the case because fandom necessarily involves a personal reading, a way of tapping into what it is that we want from the text rather than simply what the text wants from us. In women’s fandoms in particular, I notice that a lot of women, myself included, want to carve out a space in the text that caters to our own desires, our own particular pleasures and imaginaries. This might involve imagining all sorts of character pairings that don’t exist within the ‘official’ text; it might involve writing/reading/creating new versions of the text that incorporate a wider range of pleasures (slash and smut being obvious examples); it might involve passionately sharing or discussing a particular interpretation on Twitter or Tumblr.

But when women fans create and explore readings that go against the grain of the text and spill outside its official bounds into unruly zones of desire, they are often derided. This derision is more often than not framed through a derision of femininity and female desire. The gendered language used to deride these fans and fandoms usually include words and phrases like: delusional, crazy, hormonal, irrational, embarrassing, unrealistic, ‘too much,’ ‘too intense,’ and so on. In this culture, ‘legitimate’ readings of texts are defined as cool, distanced, measured, sensible, ‘realistic’ and therefore masculine. Readings that assert unruly female pleasure pervert and disrupt these carefully guarded and policed aesthetic boundaries of ‘good’ taste, spilling over into unauthorised pleasures. Bad taste comes to be defined through a derision of the feminine and its multiple excesses which are seen as significantly inferior to masculine ways of reading and engaging in fan culture. Women are thought to fantasise too intensely, their erotic imaginaries are condemned as too unruly and in need of a ‘reality check.’ Furthermore, these expressions of pleasure are seen as evidence that women fans are stupid, vapid, and unthinking (here I am reminded of the disgusting phrase “TwiTards” used to deprecate girl fans of the Twilight franchise). So women fans are considered both too much and not enough — too desiring but not smart enough, as if pleasure overrides any capacity for critical engagement (spoilers: it doesn’t). This logic springs from a sexist hierarchy of taste in which masculine ways of reading and expressing desire  are considered ‘normal’ and ideal, while women’s reading strategies and desires are seen as deviant, decadent, indulgent, illogical, inferior, and just plain wrong. Women are called ‘crazy’ or ‘embarrassing’ for simply expressing their desire and I believe that this condemnation has little to do with the content of their fantasy scenario, and more to do with the fact that they are unashamedly, and often quite explicitly and loudly, demanding a space to declare their desires.

Vociferous fangirling emphasises and centres on women’s pleasure, and our culture never takes this seriously and frequently regards it with utter contempt. Male fans and fandoms are ‘passionate’; women fans and women’s fandoms are ‘crazy’ and embarrassing unless they adhere to the narrow, approved reading of the text. Spilling outside these boundaries into shipping ‘perverse,’ unauthorised, or queer pairings (or groupings) of characters/actors, reading the text against the grain and therefore pushing it into new and perhaps unruly territories, fashioning a space for the articulation of a range of pleasures and desires (erotic or otherwise) that we are typically not allowed to articulate in our day to day lives within patriarchal culture – these are some of the strategies that women fans within fandom. The gendered policing of the bounds of ‘good’ taste and ‘legitimate’ or ‘proper’ fandom demonstrates that these strategies for articulating women’s desires continue to be met with derision and deprecation, and that this has everything to do with cultural anxieties about women’s desire and pleasure.

‘TAVI’S WORLD’ AT THE MELBOURNE WRITER’S FESTIVAL 2013: THE VIRTUES OF BEING A FANGIRL

We sat in the second row, eagerly awaiting Tavi Gevinson’s arrival on stage. Sitting in the row in front of us was a girl wearing a homemade tiara made of tinsel, fake flowers and costume jewels (pictured in the second image below). There were also a lot of headbands adorned with faux animal ears, and everyone looked pretty spectacular dressed up in their coolest outfits. There was a lot of glitter. I spotted some One Direction paraphernalia being sported like badges of honour (rock on). There were a lot of girls whispering ‘OMG I CAN’T BELIEVE TAVI IS HERE!!!’ I knew, from reading about the Sydney event Tavi spoke at, that she would be talking about the fangirling experience. What I didn’t really think about was the fact that Tavi herself now has fangirls of her own. They were super excited, and so was I. There were girls sitting next to us who had come all the way from Adelaide just to see her. Serious fangirls. We were a huge crowd of fangirls there to hear about the virtues of fangirling from Tavi Gevinson, who the New York Times proclaimed to be ‘the oracle of girl world.’ And yes I just wrote the word ‘fangirl’ too many times in one paragraph.

We all know the story of Tavi’s rise to success at the ripe old age of eleven when she started her blog Fashion Rookie, which then led to the super-successful and brilliantly conceived online magazine for teen girls, Rookie. Lady Gaga called her the future of journalism. And she’s only seventeen. Gulp. When she came out to give her speech, she had an air of ‘like, whatever, anyone could do this, this is totally normal.’ She was graceful and down-to-earth and witty and personable. The feeling in the room was one of utter respect for this teen girl, and also a sense of excited hopefulness, a sense that it is possible to create something and have others respond to it. I was really moved by this. When you think about how teen girls are ordinarily treated in our culture – eye-rolling embarrassment at their vociferous and passionate fangirling; concern about and pathologization of the ‘problems’ of contemporary youth; condemnation about ‘kids these days’ as apathetic, lazy, out of control – this moment of hushed reverence in the auditorium as seventeen-year-old Tavi commenced her speech was pretty special. Here was a teen girl who had something to say and we all recognised that her words were of value, that she was innovative and wise and inspiring and exciting.

She commented during her speech that without the aid of the internet, her work would most likely have never been disseminated or seen by the public eye. The voice of this teen girl found a public platform for her creativity on the internet. Usually when girls are included in public discussion, they are talked about rather than given a space from which to articulate themselves – just think about all the debates and discussions regarding teen delinquency, the ‘mean girl’ phenomenon, the hyper-sexualisation of tweens and teens, and so on, which are almost always offered from the authoritative and removed position of doctors, experts and teachers making diagnoses about the ‘problem with girls’. But with Tavi, she was speaking for herself, about herself, and I think this is part of what is so refreshing about her. And she wasn’t talking about herself or teens as a problem to be solved. Rather, she was talking about it through the lens of creative self-exploration, articulation, enjoyment, and love. And her position was one that asserted the value of girlhood as a worthy position from which to speak and create.

In her discussion of creativity, Tavi talked about how fangirling – loving a particular thing or text with fervour – can be therapeutic. Indeed, she called fangirling a ‘happying’ process, a concept I loved. She showed us dozens of her own diary entries dedicated entirely to Beyonce and Taylor Swift lyrics. But, she pointed out, fangirling is not just about the object of your love; more importantly, it is a reflection of you and who you are and want to be in the world. Loving things, what Tavi called the ‘religion’ of fangirling, is about seeking out those things which drive you, that fill you with wonder and zest for life, that earnestly creates magic in your world (NOT in a hipstery ‘oh nothing, I’m ironically just wearing this tie-dyed ripped Hanson T-shirt from the 90s because I’m so effing cutting edge’). More importantly, Tavi stressed that fangirling shouldn’t be about worship and she encouraged girls to consider themselves as having a place next to their heroes, a place where their voices and ideas and creativity was just as worthy and important.

Fangirling as a reflection on you also begs the question of identity – who is this fangirl and what is she all about? Tavi suggested that rather than define your identity as the way we imagine others see us, which brings on the attendant freak-out over whether we are worthy, or cool enough, or pleasing enough, or looking a certain acceptable way, we should instead consider our identity as the world through our eyes. It’s not about how others see you; in fact, your identity is made up of how you see the world through your eyes. In fact, Tavi advised that if there are people who judge you for your choice in object for fangirling, who consider you uncool as a result, they are not focused on the right things and are not good friends. One awesome piece of advice she gave was about reading negative or critical things about herself on the internet: she says to herself ‘would Beyonce sit here and keep reading this? No. She would close the computer and go continue being awesome.’ The world through your eyes, and the love you feel towards and through those things that you see, define you. And I think everyone felt inspired by all of these affirmations and can-do attitude.

In her defence of fangirling as a legitimate creative process through which your love can be channeled, as a ‘happying’ practice, Tavi shattered the notion that girls and their fan cultures are stupid, worthless, vapid, and silly. She created a space for it that few popular culture discourses – usually created from a removed adult perspective – ever allow for girls. The religion of fangirling that Tavi lives and creates space for within the public discourse opens up the potential for so many different kinds of ‘doing girlhood’ to emerge that run contrary to previously steadfast definitions and boundaries that dictated acceptable feminine adolescent identity, and this is really exciting progress. What is it that you love, and how do you see it through your own eyes? The answer to that question, whether super-unique or more collective and recycled, is worthy of being shared, heard, and responded to.