You’ve probably heard of Newsies by now. VHS copies of Disney’s movie musical were everywhere in the ‘90s, and the cult momentum it gained across two decades eventually led to it finding new life on Broadway in 2011. When the film debuted in 1992, however, it was a colossal dud, playing for only two weeks before being pulled after a spate of negative reviews and low returns.
That it initially failed isn’t all that surprising. Truly, one wonders who Disney thought the audience was for a musical that’s 98% teen boys singing about newspaper headlines, unions, and workers’ rights in 1899 New York. A thoughtful new essay in The Baffler, however, shines a light on one surprising corner of the film’s fandom, as well as how those fans went on to inspire and forge connections with each other.
“I wrote fanfiction about The Breakfast Club and Dead Poets Society and Swing Kids while I was in high school, but mostly, I wrote about Newsies,” author Sarah Marshall writes, “and I did it on fanfiction.net, where I found a community of hundreds of other writers, almost all of them teenage girls who were just as obsessed as I was.”
Marshall goes on to describe the volumes upon volumes of Newsies fan fic (much of it centering around not just Christian Bale’s Jack, but the film’s massive ensemble) produced by she and her friends, as well as how it served as a means of exploring sexuality, cultivating an artistic sensibility, and building friendships.
When I look back at stories like this, I feel as if I didn’t know this side of myself unless I was up late, dreaming, writing, telling the truth of what I imagined and desired to a few dozen girls I trusted not to judge me. This was a corner of the internet snug as a table made into a blanket fort: we reviewed the new chapters of each other’s ongoing sagas with unstinting faithfulness, lovingly critiqued each other’s drafts, and credited each other for the innovations and ideas we traded. (The Snitch/Skittery pairing was invented by a girl from Arizona who wrote under the pen name Lute and was our fandom’s Stephen King, in terms of sheer output and popularity; to write a Snitch/Skittery story without crediting her somewhere was simply Not Done.) We wrote fictionalized versions of each other, as adoring tributes, into our own stories. And when we weren’t writing, we were instant messaging each other for hours, collaborating on stories via email, and sometimes scraping together the courage to talk to each other on the phone (“It’s your real voice!”), incurring long-distance bills we sometimes couldn’t explain to our parents, because they knew to fear the internet as a place where grown men could prey on their daughters, but hadn’t yet thought to worry that it might be a place where their daughters would come together to share their fantasies.
That this immersion in fantasy circled entirely around a group of singing, dancing boys might seem odd, but Marshall intriguingly frames it in terms of the perceptions of gender she developed as a child.
There was something, at least to me, that felt particularly liberating about a world of boys, and the idea of not just watching that world but being within it: a world you could walk fearfully and joyfully within, freed from a life in which your body was a dangerous object that could, at any moment, cause someone to suddenly wish to dominate or destroy you. This was what the culture I grew up in told me that girlhood was, and I know that Newsies felt freeing to me not because of the when and where of it, but because it was a loving ode to fearless boyhood, and there was no freedom I wanted more.
The essay’s a great exploration of a lesser-known corner of pop-culture fandom and a reminder that art always drifts, transforms, and evolves once it’s been unleashed onto the world. You can read the whole thing over at The Baffler.