Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.
Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.
Left to right: DescriptionHarry Styles of One Direction (Photo: Scott Barbour/Getty Images); Lady Gaga (Photo: Theo Wargo/Getty Images); Beyoncé (Photo: Larry Busacca/Getty Images)

Toxic fanboy culture could learn a thing or two from Hannah Ewens’ Fangirls

Left to right: DescriptionHarry Styles of One Direction (Photo: Scott Barbour/Getty Images); Lady Gaga (Photo: Theo Wargo/Getty Images); Beyoncé (Photo: Larry Busacca/Getty Images)
Graphic: Rebecca Fassola

The Maenads were the original fans. The followers of Dionysus in Greek mythology, they were the “raving ones”—a frenzied mob of women who tore men and animals to pieces while in the grips of their ecstatic manias. In one version of the death of Orpheus, the Maenads rip him to pieces after the singer, grieving his dead wife, refuses to perform for them. Even in antiquity, fans were not to be messed with.

Throughout history, female fandom has been defined and haunted by this image of hysteria. Our popular image of female fandom is one of an unruly, violently emotional mob: the nonstop shrieking of Beatlemania, fans climbing hotel walls and chasing after the objects of their affection, girls bursting into tears en masse just being near a pop star. In a 2015 GQ profile on One Direction, Jonathan Heaf described the group’s fans in luridly Lovecraftian terms: “a dark-pink oil slick that howls and moans and undulates.”

Author Hannah Ewens challenges such stereotypes in her new book, Fangirls: Scenes From Modern Music Culture. An entertaining, in-depth examination of fan subcultures, Fangirls explores the appeal of fan culture by letting the Maenads speak for themselves. Kicking off with a quote from music journalist and editor Jessica Hopper about what would happen if you “replace the word ‘fan girl’ with ‘expert,’” Fangirls makes a strong case for that expertise. “Fandom is a portmanteau of fan and kingdom,” Ewens writes. In a poptimist landscape, where pop music is more critically respected and commercially available than ever before, few people know the lay of the land better than the people who live there.

“I wanted to write something that I’ve always wanted to read: something about fan music, fan culture, from the ground,” Ewens told The A.V. Club over the phone, reflecting on her decision to foreground the experiences of fans in her book. “I wanted to make sure I wasn’t shaping the narrative as someone who’s like five, 10 years grown out of being a part of those kinds of cultures.”

Beatles fans in Toronto.
Beatles fans in Toronto.
Photo: Fox Photos (Getty Images)

Ewens starts Fangirls with a fascinating (and brief) history of fandom, touching on instances of fandom throughout history—like the women who fainted when they met Lord Byron, the 19th-century concertgoers who went berserk during Franz Liszt’s performances, or the Sinatra stans who pinned his photos to their dresses. While most of Fangirls is centered around fans of contemporary artists like Lady Gaga and My Chemical Romance, the author includes first-person testimonies at the end of chapters from older Elvis and Beatles fans (as well as brief interviews with musicians Laura Jean Grace and Melissa Auf der Maur about their own experiences), which provide a sense of historical continuity: This has happened before; this will happen again. Losing your shit as an act of devotion is eternal.

One of those old-school fans, looking back on Beatlemania, expresses a sentiment that comes up throughout the book. Reflecting on how it was a shame she couldn’t hear The Beatles over all the screams, she nevertheless says the real draw was the energy in the stadiums, the intense outpourings of emotion, being able to unapologetically feel those feelings in public and voice them without consequence. All the people who look back on the screaming girls drowning out The Beatles at Shea Stadium and shake their heads have got it wrong: The screaming was the point.

“It’s insane for teen girls to sit outside a hotel to see someone they like or cry at a concert, but grown men go to sports matches and have season tickets and swear at each other, and we are ridiculed,” Ewens writes. Fandom doesn’t suddenly become more rational when it’s centered around the home team or a comic book hero, and yet soccer fans rioting or Star Wars nerds waiting hours ahead of time to see a movie don’t spark the kind of moral panic that female pop fans do.

Each chapter in Fangirls focuses on a different fandom: the One Direction fangirls, who have rigorous systems in place to monitor their lines outside shows; My Chemical Romance fans, writing slash fiction about the band members; Lady Gaga fanatics, flying across the globe in the hopes of catching her outside her hotel; Beyoncé’s devoted hive, using NSA-level sleuthing skills to identify the “real” Becky With The Good Hair. Most sobering of all is a chapter on the Manchester bombing of an Ariana Grande concert in 2017. Ewens doesn’t elide the more unpleasant aspects of fandom—the territorial possessiveness of “their” artists, the doxxing of critics and “haters,” the self-destructive spending habits—but she does point out how important a role community plays in fandom, and how often fans of “female”-associated acts band together and support each other. This mutual aid aspect comes very much to the fore in the Grande chapter, with survivors of the Manchester show finding each other and bonding over both their shared traumatic experience and their love of Grande’s music.

One Direction fans in Melbourne, 2012.
One Direction fans in Melbourne, 2012.
Photo: Scott Barbour (Getty Images)

“You all have this one mission: to get to the front,” Ewens says. “Getting that prestige of being up there, taking those crying selfies at the front and then posting it online to show how you’re the biggest fan—‘Look at how amazing my experience was.’ There’s this competitiveness to be on the barrier, but they’re all reaching out to each other.”

Reading Fangirls, it’s striking to think how different the female fandom Ewens writes about feels compared to male-dominated fandoms, which often privilege an almost Highlander-esque struggle for supremacy, with sharply honed trivia skills and collectibles taking the place of katanas and claymores. In mythology and in pop culture, female fans are squads, mobs, stan armies, hives—collectivist endeavors. The popular conception of male fans is the loner, the record snob, the quizmaster eager to prove that you are not worthy to enter the ranks of the faithful.

Which is not to say that struggles for social dominance aren’t present in pop music fandom. “There are these hierarchies that exist within fandom,” Ewens says. “It’s about how much money you have, because it means you get more access and you can be free to go to more shows. Some girls will have priority tickets for meet-and-greets, some girls will always be at the front—the girls who can afford to wait all day and get to the very front before everyone who’s coming off of school and work. Some of them even become micro-celebrities in the scene—influencers on social media with 40,000 people following them. All these girls camping outside in line are kind of like a microcosm of society at large.”

An essential difference between pop music fandom and the “nerdier” fandoms is the former’s monocultural bent. Even though modern nerd culture has now become mainstream—with AAA video game releases, superhero cinema, and even D&D becoming blockbuster fare—there is still a defensive streak within that fandom that views themselves as perpetual outsiders, always on the fringes of culture even after they’ve become the culture. For these fandoms, policing the borders and delineating the true fan from the Johnny-come-lately is second nature. If you’re afraid of being stuffed in a locker, you don’t want to share your precious elbow room with a poseur.

The pop fan, though, takes their cultural ubiquity as a given—they may want to keep Harry Styles all to themselves, but they know that pop stars are for everybody. “Pop music is not a solitary experience,” Ewens writes. “There’s the feeling of presence, that we’re all listening together, and somewhere in this destructive world with all our differences, these reference points exist.”

While male fandom often centers around properties or fictional beings, the female-driven fandoms in Fangirls are centered around flesh and blood. “Traces of corporality are what make real intimacy,” Ewens writes. The fan is rewarded for their service with hugs, with a kind word at a meet-and-greet, with a cast-off handkerchief or other holy relic thrown offstage.

“To be a serious fan is to be in a relationship with distance,” Ewens writes. “Each act of fandom is an attempt to bridge some gap, to obliterate or quietly dissolve the space with wanting, caring, knowing.” In one moving passage, Ewens details how the late Amy Winehouse once held a long conversation with two fans who randomly buzzed her on her home’s intercom. For the more toxic fandoms out there—Gamergate, comic book fans railing against “wokeness,” Snyder Cut truthers—the tragedy is they’ll never be able to bridge that gap. You could never go to Wayne Manor and buzz up Batman for the same kind of intimate connection that Amy Winehouse’s fans experienced. An idol can acknowledge you (even if it’s just for a fleeting moment), can share with you a piece of their attention and humanity. But an intellectual property? An IP will never love you back.