Where We Are: A Journey Through Teen Fandom

by Manisha Aggarwal-Schifellite

For a long time I lived a double life. Most of my preteen and teen years were spent trying to be as alternative as possible, which meant actively hating things that everyone else liked, especially when it came to music. I went to emo shows in basement venues during all-ages nights, but also put songs from hit music radio on my iPod Mini and prayed no one would find out. I combed Teen Vogue and YM for updates on stars I pretended not to recognize. I thought that admitting that I actually felt admiration, lust, or even happiness when I listened to the Jonas Brothers would give the universe one less reason to take me seriously.

This fear of not being taken seriously meant I refused to do anything that might label me as one of them: a teenage girl, most of whom didn’t seem to garner any respect from anyone. Teen girls who loved things were “fangirls,” a more extreme version of a normal fan. I thought of fangirls as a fawning mess of hormones; I was terrified that might be considered one of them if I expressed anything other than disgust at the idea of a boy band.

I worried about this issue all through my teen years, the prime time for enjoying the things I loved without a care in the world. In the past couple of years, I’ve gotten over this, but I had serious regrets about never being a real fan of something popular. I thought I might have lost the chance to experience what that felt like. But then I witnessed the magic of One Direction in concert (sort of — I saw the concert film, Where We Are), and I was sixteen again in the best way possible. The movie was released in support of the 2014 world tour for their album “Midnight Memories” and featured a concert that took place in Milan, Italy, at the Stadio Giuseppe Meazza (San Siro) stadium in June 2014.

My friend wanted to go and she wasn’t taking no for an answer. “I’m buying you a ticket,” she told me on GChat in August. “It’s going to be awesome.” And so I went. I had brushed up on my 1D knowledge, like which member of the band I liked the best (Zayn, now sadly departed from the group), and what that fun song on my gym playlist was called (“Diana”). I had also read about the 1D fandom, which is an extensive network of Tumblr and Twitter users and fan fiction writers whose interest in the band has led to celebrity status for the fans themselves. They’ve carved out considerable space for themselves online; as a result, they’ve gotten a lot of negative attention from mainstream media outlets. Google suggested I look for “one direction fans crazy” and revealed thousands of hits. In all of these instances, and in others, 1D fans are maligned, dismissed, and talked about as if they are some kind of senseless mass without any critical skills or interests.

This reaction is symptomatic of a specific kind of panic that occurs when a link is made between fandom and seemingly uncontrolled obsession. As media scholar Shayla Thiel-Stern writes in From the Dance Hall to Facebook: Teen Girls, Mass Media, and Moral Panic in the United States, 1905 to 2010, the fear and dismissal of “teen girl culture” is well established in Western media, where a teenage girl “has always been represented as a crisis.” This crisis is most often based on fears of (mostly white, middle-class) women engaging in “inappropriate” activities that may lead to sexual promiscuity or indulging in vices like alcohol or drugs. Thiel-Stern and others argue that these fears are ultimately about victimizing women and trying to control their sexuality. With 1D, these fears manifest in mainstream media’s panicked and dismissive reactions to online fan culture.

As I sat in the packed theatre with other young women (and some men), I also saw resistance to this attempt to control our bodies through shame and ridicule, both in the stadium onscreen and in our seats. I saw a physical intrusion of teen girl bodies into the largely male-dominated space of the sports stadium. Instead of separating myself from the pack, I joined in.

Sports stadiums like San Siro are designed with men in mind, and they rely on a steady stream of men’s income and patronage to make money. The stadium is also a space for men to do things that are normally frowned upon in patriarchal society; show off their passion for a team, a country, or sport through crazy outfits, face paint, cheering, and even crying. These displays of emotion, restricted in other arenas of life, are expected and even celebrated in the stadium. Men’s passion for sports is criticized when riots erupt, calling attention to fans who “take things too far.” In news coverage and academic analysis, rioters fall under the umbrella of hooligans. In “Towards a Sociological Understanding of Football Hooliganism as a World Phenomenon,” Eric Dunning writes that hooliganism encompasses a range of actions from fighting to property destruction to political arguments among fans or players. These riots are usually reported as products of unstable societies, like Egypt’s Port Said soccer riot in the aftermath of the Arab Spring, or the October riots at a Serbia-Albania football match that CNN attributed to “ethnic tensions” in the Balkan region. Alternatively, fan riots are depicted as exceptions to “good-natured” crowds, like a Vancouver fan riot after the 2011 Stanley Cup Final. In these cases, gender is rarely considered the driving force behind fan behaviour. One exception to this occurred in Turkey, when the country’s football governing body introduced the concept of “women and children only” matches in 2011, designed to combat unruly fan behaviour during league matches. 2014, UEFA considered a similar approach to tackling the problem of racism among some fans in its league. This logic would dictate that women are incapable of causing riots, which falls in line with broader societal ideals of women’s bodies as nonthreatening and controllable.

When women do act like football fans, our actions are questioned and critiqued in ways that specifically target our gender performance as abnormal and in need of help. When Turkey introduced the concept of women and children matches, Guardian columnist Ally Fogg wrote: “Let’s just hope they don’t start behaving at football matches the way they do at Take That concerts, or they might start driving us old diehards away. We may be tough, but that shit is scary.” The “shit” in question is a report of over 100 rowdy fans of the band Take That admitted to hospitals with alcohol-related injuries. In both Fogg’s column and the Telegraph article about the Take That incident, the women are disparaged for “acting like football fans” at the concerts. Their actions are also extended to represent all women, unlike reports of hooliganism that point to specific issues — racism, troublemakers, or political strife — as the explanation for extreme behaviour, which emphasizes the differences between regular men and their hooligan counterparts. Women don’t have this luxury when it comes to our public comportment. It’s something I had internalized for years without knowing it, and it took seeing Harry Styles and his zebra-print blouse strut their stuff onstage to give me the strength I needed to own my body and my space without fear of retribution.

In the theatre, I watched in awe as the cameras panned over the 80,000-strong crowd at San Siro, picking up the faces of girls who were using their bodies to express their desire to dance and sing along with their favourite songs. At San Siro, the 1D fans onscreen behaved like their sports fan counterparts (hopefully without racist jeers at the entertainers). They wore homemade and official 1D T-shirts, painted their faces, and waved banners from every balcony. And like football stars, the boys of 1D played up their signature moves — a weird jump, a crotch grab, some stage banter — to wild applause. In the theatre, we reacted to each scene with cheers or whispers, sharing in an experience that felt unique to each of us but also unifying. For the first time, I was part of a screaming mass of hormonal women, and I loved it.

But when I read more about the band and their fans, I encountered more than a few male critics who expressed fear at such a situation. Fogg uses the word “scary” to describe the Take That events, and, more specifically, the idea that the women had lost all self-control at the sight of a pop band. GQ’s Jonathan Heaf expressed similar fear in his description of a 1D concert in 2013, writing: “Inside the venue, a hormone bomb has gone off: 20,000 females all turning themselves inside out, some almost literally… I’m scared, bewildered, and ever so slightly deaf.” For Heaf, the 1D audience is a mass of unbridled and ultimately dangerous sexual energy (“A dark-pink oil slick that howls and moans and undulates”) that could erupt at any moment. He doesn’t seem equipped to deal with it, so he scorns it as something that couldn’t possibly be understood. In both cases, and in countless others, a regular concert becomes a spectacle of sexual chaos and bizarre behaviour. As Thiel-Stern writes, girls in public spaces (like stadiums) are consistently seen as victims “who must be policed and saved” from the evils of pleasure. My Where We Are viewing experience was transformative, but not in the way I expected. I didn’t start a 1D Tumblr or troll Twitter for band rumours, and I didn’t buy tickets for the 2015 On the Road Again tour (although I’m jealous of anyone who gets to go). I did stop policing myself and other girls, both onscreen and off. I relaxed, and I had fun. I didn’t care about being the coolest girl in the room, because the coolest girls in the room were the ones not thinking about male critics. They were just having fun.

It’s this entrenched history of ignoring, and then being too invested, and then writing off, the desires and thoughts of young women in a vicious cycle that continuously undermines them. But for all the stress and fear that seem to arise whenever we take interest in something, whether it’s politics, art, or another band made up of cute boys, it’s comforting to see that it hasn’t stopped many of them from creating and occupying physical and virtual spaces to talk and share those interests. In Where We Are, the girls in the stands don’t seem to care about acceptable female comportment. They wave banners, cry, and sweat off their painted faces to the camera. In the theatre, we didn’t care either, and spent two hours singing along to our favourite songs. The social reformer Jane Addams couldn’t help but notice a similar phenomenon when she wrote about the dangers of girls going to dance halls. “And yet,” she wrote in 1908, “through the huge hat with its wilderness of feathers, the girl announces to the world that she is here. She demands attention to the fact of her existence, she states that she is ready to live, to take her immemorial place in the world.”

Manisha Aggarwal-Schifellite writes and edits in Toronto.