Caragh Medlicott explores a culture of internalised misogyny, sexism and alienation through the lens of the teenage fangirl.
The first time I saw Taylor Swift in concert I was fifteen. I can still remember agonising over every aching minute in school, counting down the hours until I could get home and mould my hair into lacquered ringlets, don a summer dress and pull on my cowboy boots (yes, really, cowboy boots). They say that imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, and nowhere is this more true than in teenage fandom. I think we can all agree that puberty is, for the most part, entirely horrid. But physical changes aren’t the only thing to affront us during teenage years; from selecting GCSE ‘options’ to finding your place in the cliquey halls of secondary school, there are times when the whole ordeal feels like nothing more than a treacherous slope into the permanence of adulthood.
It’s this feeling – the sense of being like nearly dried clay, with just a few years to stamp out ‘who you really are’ – that leads to a kind of aimless scrambling. The result is, generally, over-identification with a particular style or idea. When I was in school, emo culture was all the rage; most kids fitted neatly into the categories of ‘mainstream’ or ‘alternative’. The markers for the latter were numerous – chequered Van’s backpacks, Tim Burton-branded merchandise, armbands from Claire’s Accessories – these were the trademarks of the outsider crew. Having fitted myself (with some effort) into the indie bracket, my love for Taylor Swift was regarded with considerable suspicion. Amongst these friends, I would instead lean into American pop-punk bands that have since faded into irrelevance and who – in hindsight – were always far worse than Taylor Swift, anyway.
Does culture alienate teenage girls? Perhaps a more fitting question would be to ask what part fanbases play in shaping critical and cultural perception. It’s a debate that has blipped on and off the cultural radar – such is its complexity – yet the idea scanned into view once again thanks to comments made by Phoebe Bridgers in an interview with The Forty-Five. Discussing her collaboration with the band The 1975, Bridgers commented: ‘Hating The 1975, I feel like, is sexist […] teenage girls invented that band being famous.’ The idea struck a chord with me, partly because it echoed a view I had held (albeit in vague, unexpressed terms) for a while, but also because of its brazenness. Obviously, not liking The 1975 doesn’t make you sexist, obviously. On the other hand, vehemently hating them, and referencing their tirade of screaming fangirls as part of your reasoning, probably does.
It seems to me that this idea amplifies a more accepted general truth: the cultural sphere has a problem with sexism (just as it has a problem with inclusivity more broadly). Female creators and fans are regarded with more scepticism than their male counterparts. I, like many women, have often been subject to interrogation about my tastes and preferences. In both university parties and seminars alike, men would demand I substantiate claims that I liked such-and-such band by asking my top three favourite albums (equally, saying I liked Taylor Swift would elicit a sigh or an eye roll that clearly translated into one word: “typical”).
In our teenage years, we are both malleable and suggestible. Few people reach fourteen with a perfectly refined taste that lasts into adulthood. It’s a period of discovery, experimentation and growth; put another way, you’re more likely to enjoy things that are – artistically speaking – a bit crap. This goes for both girls and boys (seriously, I knew guys who religiously listened to Black Veil Brides well into sixth form).
The difference seems to be that girls are much more likely to receive considerable mocking for their preferences. We’ve built an unconscious cultural framework that positions screaming teenage girls as detestable and worthy of shaming. While girl fanbases bear the brunt of accusations that they are ‘basic’ or ‘vapid’, the cultural movement which shames them is merely an extension of the misogynistic undercurrent that pervades our whole society. The fact that a teenage girl liking a commercial boy band can inspire such embittered hatred tells you everything you need to know about the values of the people perpetuating that snobbery.
In truth, teen boys are given more license to be versatile and expansive in their tastes. Whether it’s awful faux-indie bands, a game of Football Manager or any other stereotypically male-gendered form of entertainment, liking something deemed a bit rubbish is forgivable, possibly even funny. It’s hard to think of a better example of the comparative distaste for teen girls’ preferences than the Twilight era. Stephenie Meyer’s three-part vampire saga had plenty of reasons to draw criticism (not least because of its bizarre, Mormon, anti-abortion doctrine) yet the cult of hating Twilight (both the books and the films) seemed to correlate more directly with the passion it inspired in its teen fans. Conversely, take a franchise like Transformers. The first film grossed over $709 million and – despite being generally panned critically – its run-of-the-mill action sequences and blatant objectification were seen as ‘a bit of fun’. It certainly didn’t inspire an entire internet era of memes, jokes and general contempt in the same way that Twilight did (for comparison, the first Twilight film actually drew a smaller audience, grossing $392.5 million).
With its cast of attractive and doting male characters, in addition to some serious vampire ‘bad boy’ vibes, bland wish-fulfilment was a criticism often levelled at Stephenie Meyer with Twilight – yet it seems we’re so desensitized to the wish-fulfilment adventures of heterosexual men (James Bond, Indiana Jones) we simply don’t recognise them as such. It’s here that we enter the realm of gender-coded genres (try saying that after a few vodkas). In action films, silliness and unbelievability don’t have to render them unworthwhile, in fact, those things can even make them more enjoyable (and I like John Wick as much as the next person). Still, I dare you to find that same tolerance afforded to a rom-com or chick-flick. In comedy corner, it took the enormous success of Bridesmaids for female-led and created comedies to make even minor progress in Hollywood (and that still required marketing that lumped it in with The – far inferior – Hangover).
Internalised misogyny is a huge and confronting issue for the majority of women and one that is especially prevalent during teenage years. Overt femininity is a no-no. In school, I – like many others – aspired to Manic Pixie Dream Girl levels of shallow uniqueness. I wanted to be branded with the affirming ‘not like other girls’ stamp. It didn’t occur to me at the time that the natural extension of this was to imply that ‘the other girls’ were somehow bad or less-than. In younger years, rejecting all things pink and girly seems the most obvious way of getting a handle on substance and value. Being taken seriously is no mean feat when one wrong band t-shirt can have you instantly written off as a frivolous, tasteless fangirl.
Teenage girls are, and always have been, a force to be reckoned with. I don’t mean in the angsty-Lindsay-Lohan-in-Freaky-Friday way, but in the Malala Yousafzai way, the Greta Thunberg way, damnit, the Billie Eilish way. Speaking of, Billie Eilish – and Lorde before her – show some progress in the serious consideration of teenage girls as both artists and fans (though undoubtedly they’ve faced their own challenges). For female artists creating their own music with anything resembling pop inspiration there’s a thin line to walk if they’re to be taken seriously; Haim’s new album is named ‘Women in Music Pt. III’; in an interview with The Independent, the trio explained the name is a way of nipping stupid questions in the bud. They’ll no longer be acknowledging patronising remarks or fighting for airtime from DJs on ‘rock-leaning’ radio stations.
Of course, on the other side of the coin, you have the ‘boy bands’ toiling to erase their reputation for teen girl devotees. 5 Seconds of Summer are – apparently – very famous (I missed the memo). In one Rolling Stone interview, the band’s drummer, Ashton Irwin, says: ‘We don’t want to just be, like, for girls […] I’m already seeing a few male fans start to pop up, and that’s cool’. The implication being that you really need male fans to be taken seriously, and if you think that’s defensible in gender equality terms, please first list all the bands lamenting their predominantly male audiences.
The snobbery aimed at young girls is, in one way, simply an extension of sexism more generally. Yet it would be naïve to deny that the fervency and attitude of younger fanbases doesn’t play a role in this particular type of sexism. As fans, young girls tend to be passionate, outspoken, and generally unabashed in their love for the things society tells them are rubbish; they foster community and connect with others, they shout about their joy and revel in it too – such traits aren’t preferred by a system that likes girls to be two things: small and quiet. I think this is why, in many ways, there is such a culture of toxicity and resentment in this area – it’s a form of punishment for girls who refuse to be shamed into silence.
Coming back to the Bridgers comment, surely the point shouldn’t be to give The 1975 more credit than they’re due (because, let’s be real, they’re not owed all that much credit in the first place). Instead, it’s to recognise and be considerate of the way we respond to the things adored by young girls; to interrogate the way, and extent to which, we socially degenerate things that are, ultimately, harmless. As fate would have it, Taylor Swift has just announced the surprise release of her eighth studio album, and – while my cowboy boots will be staying firmly in the wardrobe – I certainly won’t be ashamed to blast the record aloud in care-free, teenage-kicks-style reverence.
Caragh Medlicott is a columnist and associate editor of Wales Arts Review.