The Power of Fangirls

Several months ago, I saw an interesting discussing about the Beatles on Twitter. Teenage girls, the tweets said, were responsible for the huge popularity of the Beatles, yet nobody thinks that the Beatles are therefore bad. They were the ones screaming at the concerts, but the Beatles themselves are no longer associated with teenage girl-dom. They’re just associated with being good.

I wish I could remember the source of the tweet, because it’s been playing on my mind recently. No matter how much people disparage teenage girls and their tastes, teenage girls are one of the most powerful taste-making groups in popular culture. They have the passion and the commitment to catapult anything that they love into superstardom. And that, I think, makes people very uncomfortable.

Most of the huge cultural successes of the past few years have been popularized by teenage girls. And most of them have therefore been disparaged (if also secretly consumed) by the masses. There was High School Musical and Glee. Singers like Lady Gaga (who else were her Little Monsters?) and Justin Bieber and bands like One Direction. And although people may scoff at the popularity of those last two, most people could probably name or even hum one or two of Justin Bieber and One Direction’s most popular songs. People probably know that Harry Styles was linked to Taylor Swift (even if they don’t know how they know) or could tell you that Justin Bieber got arrested for drunk driving and drag racing. The bulk of their fans are teenage girls (or, perhaps, their most passionate fans are teenage girls), but this is enough to throw them into extreme cultural relevancy and all the fame and riches anyone could imagine.

Teenage girls make things big. So then, why are they often so unwanted as a demographic? The most coveted demographic is still males 18-34. Yet what does this demographic like, almost exclusively, that is yet incredibly popular? What have they taken to and then popularized in general? Game of Thrones, I suppose, would be one example, but one look at female-dominated places like Tumblr or Archive of Our Own proves that young women are mega-fans too. Just because executives and popular consciousness thinks that it’s a “boys show,” doesn’t mean it actually is. The Marvel Universe is a similar example. People might automatically think that it’s a boys’ world, but girls were the ones screaming at Tom Hiddleston dressed as Loki at last year’s SDCC. They were the ones who stood in line for hours upon hours to be there, and made it a huge internet meme after it happened. They’re a driving force in moving something from “popular” to “cultural takeover,” even if that thing is mostly associated with older male viewers.

I think this misconception is partly to do with our cultural belief that teenage girls are shallow and ridiculous, and that anything they like is therefore also shallow and ridiculous. If they like something that caters almost 100% to them (like Twilight or boybands), it’s seen as a “silly teenage girl thing” and mocked by everyone else. If something that they like appeals to other demographics as well, then those other demographics are focused on, even if those demographics are smaller, less passionate or later to the scene than the teenage girls.

Take, for example, Twilight vs The Hunger Games.

When Twilight was the hottest property on the YA scene, no one would ever let you forget that it was written for and loved by teenage girls. It was all screaming fans of Edward Cullen and questioning whether it’s good or bad for girls and why they love something so ridiculous. It always came back to the fact that its fans were teenage girls, and the almost disparaging idea that, well, what should you expect? If teenage girls like it, it’s bound to be bad. You know how teenage girls are.

Yet now The Hunger Games is the hottest thing, its YA origins are almost forgotten. The books crop up in the sci-fi/fantasy section of the bookstore as often as they do in the YA section. They’re not advertised as a teen phenomenon. Even the way the media talks about them has changed: when The Hunger Games came out as a movie, all the talk was about “Peeta vs Gale,” because it was a series for teenager girls and that’s clearly what movies for teenage girls are really about. When Catching Fire came out, most of that talk disappeared. The talk wasn’t about increasing romantic rivalry, or which team people were on, or the introduction of hot new prospect Finnick. It was all about the return to the arena, the aftermath of the first Hunger Games, the rebellion — all the things that are actually the point of the series. The story itself didn’t change, but the way we talk about it did, the moment people realized it “wasn’t just for teenage girls,” that it was actually good.  Once that happened, the female teenaged fans almost disappeared from the equation.

And this wilful misconception leads to ridiculous situations like that seen on Cartoon Network last year, when Young Justice was cancelled, not because it didn’t have viewers, but because the bulk of those viewers were female. The justification, apparently, was that girls don’t buy toys. Girls are not desirable viewers, even though girls do buy the toys (the existence of My Little Pony as a franchise disproves Cartoon Network’s idea quite quickly), they do spend lots of money on merchandise and tshirts, they do talk about the things they love and share them with others, they do drive up something’s popularity. They are an incredibly valuable demographic. Why else would YA be the original genre of a huge chunk of the crazy-selling books these days, and why else would Hot Topic make bank selling merchandise based on these series? Why else would High School Musical have gone from a made-for-TV movie to a massive franchise with a third instalment that grossed over $242 million at the box office? Why else would Wicked now be on its 11th year on Broadway? Are you kidding me with the idea that teenage girls are undesirable as a demographic? They should be the most desirable demographic. If teenage girls are passionate about something, then they will make it big.

Yet we still see teenage girls as lesser, and so anything popularized by them is the wrong kind of big. Better to shove their passion under the rug and pretend that it never existed at all.

04 comments on “The Power of Fangirls

    • Rhiannon , Direct link to comment

      That’s not the one (this one was late last year, maybe?), but it’s a good one!

  • Michael Morales , Direct link to comment

    I agree with many of the points you pointed out but i feel that we take this word fangirl and its become the imprint and there are guys who so call “fangirl” i would know… I am one of them. Im not trying to discredit your post i just feel as though we shouldnt objectify fangirls to girls

    • Rhiannon , Direct link to comment

      I agree that guys definitely take part in fannish activity, but they’re usually just called “fans,” or “fanboys” perhaps if people want to be more dismissive. I also think “fangirl” has different connotations — it invokes images of screaming hysterical girls and things like tumblr and fanfiction, while I think “fanboys” and “fans” is seen as a bit more reasonable.

What do you think?

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