Friday, 16 August 2013

Twihards and Directioners

So… it’s been a good week for derisively labelling young women as mentally ill.

In the worlds of (predominantly) female fandoms, there have been two big stories this week. The first, an interview with Stephenie Meyer in Variety in which the author was quoted as saying she is ‘over’ Twilight.* This was greeted by a wave of responses by self-described ‘Twihards’, which, in turn, was met with mockery and criticism. The second story followed Channel 4’s broadcasting of a ‘documentary’ entitled Crazy About One Direction.

Before I start (what is probably going to turn into a rant), I want to make it clear that I don’t think Twihards and Directioners are the same thing, or that these respective fandoms have much in common. The object of attention for these fandoms – a multi-media franchise for one, a pop band on the other – are completely different. The methods and media through which Twihards and Directioners express their devotion are also substantively different, though there is occasional overlap on social media. However, I am linking these stories because of the connection Twihards and Directioners share in terms of demographics: on the whole, they are young women, or at least imagined to be so by their detractors.

The Twilight Story

Stephenie Meyer’s throwaway comment in the Variety interview might make complete sense to other writers, many of whom have expressed their sympathy for the backlash she has faced. Meyer wrote a series of books which became a phenomenon, attracting both a legion of devoted (and vocal) fans and an army of cynical, snide critics. Let us remember, Twilight was Meyer’s debut novel; it must be kind of weird to have your first published works publicly ripped to pieces by Stephen King. Or to see reports that fans of your work have mobbed a waxwork model of an actor who portrayed one of your characters on screen. Perhaps we can excuse Meyer for wanting to take a (permanent) break from this.

I don’t really want to discuss the rights and wrongs of Meyer’s comment, or the question of whether she was accurately quoted. What I’m interested in is the reaction of the fans – specifically the Twihards. After the article was published, it received a number of comments from self-described Twihards decrying Meyer’s ‘rejection’ and ‘humiliation’ of her fans. I say ‘a number of comments’, in fact that same comment was posted a number of times by different people. Here is the comment in its entirety:
Stephenie, do you think that maybe you thought of us, the fans and admirers, who for all these years not only followed your Saga but also followed you, your life and your other work and showed true love for your writing that not only made us fall in love but also changed the lives of each and everyone of us? By saying that “it’s not a happy place to be” you despised and you humiliated us all. This is OUR place, and you are responsible for it. In IT we are happy, and it is just unforgivable for you to try to take it away from us. It might not be for you, but for us it is FOREVER Sincerely, Twihards #TwilightIsAHappyPlace
Reading these comments, which are interspersed with more personalized commentary from Twilight fans and a number of critics questioning both Meyer’s talent and the Twihards’ response, is a somewhat bizarre experience. The comment is repeated, occasionally with an additional ‘hey’ or ‘hi’ at the beginning, sometimes with the first part of ‘Stephenie’ missing. It appears in Portuguese at least once, and some posts have slightly odd formatting. My first reaction, I must admit, was to describe these comments as Annie Wilkes’s sentiments written in Jack Torrance’s style.

I was not the only person to engage in a bit of snark about these commenters. Other posters spoke of the Twihards’ need to develop some ‘manners’ or to act like ‘normal fans’. They criticized the Twihards for copying and pasting a group response, rather than expressing something personal. And, some used this as an excuse to trot out the usual ‘Twihards are frightening/mentally ill’ rhetoric. As one commenter succinctly says at the end of their post: ‘Yikes!’

However, if you pay a little more attention to what the Twihards are saying here – and, particularly, to their explanation for the copy-and-pasted comments, another story emerges. Apparently, the comment originated on a fan forum and was written out in English to help Brazilian fans who weren’t confident to post in English. Immediately, then, we should distance these fans from the figure of Annie Wilkes. They are also not a ‘mob’: they are part of a community, who communicate and offer assistance to each other where necessary. They also organize group expressions of fan loyalty. Am I the only one who thinks that Annie Wilkes would have been a lot happier if she’d joined a board like that, maybe written a bit of fan fiction, got a Twitter account? I’m sure most people agree, there is something empowering and healthy about being part of a community – online or IRL – and the Twihards’ response to Stephenie Meyer highlights the communal aspect of fandom perfectly.

As an academic, I also have to say that I believe the Twihards were absolutely right in their sentiments. Particularly when they say ‘this is OUR place’. I’ve written elsewhere about (failed) attempts by authors to limit fan appropriation of work, and the ways in which these strategies reveal the last, dying grasp of the Author (with a capital A). In her defence, I should say that Meyer herself did not attempt to wrest any control of her work from the Twihards – that was the work of commentators who claimed that it was Stephenie Meyer’s right to decide when Twilight was ‘over’, and she (alone) could say when fans should ‘move on’.

Theorists from Roland Barthes to Henry Jenkins would beg to differ with that. Twilight is as much the property (and, speaking theoretically here, creation) of the readers and fans as it is of Meyer. Put this way, the anger of the Twihards is justifiable, given that they interpreted Meyer’s words as a rejection of their continued investment in the series.

Whether or not you agree with the ‘death of the author’ premise I’m hinting at here, there is a more pressing question. Why does any of this make the Twihards ‘insane’? Why is a Twilight fan who refuses to accept the end of canonical production ‘mad’, but a Star Wars fan who disavows The Phantom Menace (or a Watchmen fan who won’t watch Zack Snyder’s film adaptation) is a purist?

The answer should be sadly obvious. It relates to the gender and (perceived) age of the Twihards. Star Wars ‘purists’ tend to be males or females aged around forty and above (I’m using Barney Stinson’s Ewok Line for want of a more academic resource here). I’m not going to rant about this again, as I’ve already talked about the relationship between criticisms of the Twilight series and the perceived gender and age identities of its fans on a blog post for the Gothic Imagination.

The important takeaway from this story, though, is actually just one word. The Twihards spoke out, as a group, in defence of their fandom, and the response was: ‘Yikes!’


The One Direction Story

The next female fandom to come under attack – in a more authoritative way this time – were the Directioners. On Thursday 15th August, Channel 4 broadcast the ‘documentary’ (and, as this is a rant, I’m going to keep the scare quotes around that term) ‘Crazy About One Direction’. That’s right. Crazy. They used the word ‘crazy’.

Here’s the trailer (apologies for quality):

This documentary is a tired attempt to draw teenage female fans as mentally ill. The programme makers have barely even attempted to hide their intentions. The trailer opens with a young woman stating that her fandom ‘could kill you’, and the soundtrack (despite the other songs by the band that could have been chosen) is One Direction’s cover of Blondie’s ‘One Way or Another’, with its repeated refrain of ‘I’m gonna get ya’. Note as well the voiceover’s subtle distinguishing of the ‘general public’ who voted One Direction to stardom on X-Factor and the ‘army of fans’ who are responsible for the band’s continued success. Because… erm… the band’s fans aren’t part of the ‘general public’ any more than the Twihards are ‘normal fans’.

Sadly, the ridicule to which the Directioners were (and are) held up is also new. Nor is the suggestion that this fandom might be dangerous or harmful in some way. Nor is the suggestion that belonging to this fandom might be symptomatic of mental illness. A quick glance at a history of female fandoms in the twentieth century will show a long list of groups who have been held up to similar criticism, mockery and censure. In fact, this entire history can be summed up in one word: Beatlemania. Mania. As in madness.

The idea that women (especially young women) are trivial and frivolous by nature is pretty engrained in European culture. Thus, cultural productions aimed specifically at women have always granted less cultural worth. And those primarily consumed by younger women (teenagers, once the concept of the teenager was invented) even more so.

Among the arguments regularly made for the lower cultural capital of young women’s cultural productions is that this specific audience is less discerning, more susceptible to manipulation and more like to give in to a group mentality. The latter has even been pathologized – as hysteria – the highly contagious, terrifying female ailment that is usually diagnosed in cases of Beatlemania and related conditions.

The other two arguments are more problematic to explore. In order to decide that teen girls are less discerning in their cultural tastes, you need to have already made a decision about the cultural validity of the products they are consuming. In other words, if you think Directioners (or the Twihards or the women who inspired Jane Austen’s Catherine Morland) are less discerning, you must have already decided that One Direction (or Twilight or eighteenth-century Gothic novels) are trash. So you have to have listened to all of One Direction’s music, read all four Twilight novels (and watched the film adaptations), and pored over The Mysteries of Udolpho, The Monk and all the other less well-known fictions that Austen parodied. In my experience, most critics of teen girls’ fandoms have done none of these things.

So, how about the argument that young women are more susceptible to manipulation? This is something that comes up a lot in criticisms of Twihards and Directioners. These fandoms are being manipulated in their devotion by cynical media companies and advertising campaigns – they are being told what to like, what cultural productions to buy.

Yes. Of course they are. All fans are.

A teenage girl queuing up for a midnight showing of Breaking Dawn: Part 2 is no different to a grown man queuing up for a midnight showing of (yet another) remastered version of The Empire Strikes Back. I know a case of an older gentleman (let’s call him ‘my dad’ for argument’s sake) who has devoted his entire adult life to collecting EVERYTHING Bob Dylan has ever recorded. Pre-internet, he used to trawl record fairs and magazines tracking down rare bootleg recordings. It took him ages. But when the record company released an ‘official’ box-set of those exact same recordings – he went out and bought that as well. Does that mean that I get to claim that middle-aged men are ‘more susceptible to manipulation’? No. It means that fans will always be persuaded to part with their money to express their devotion and loyalty.

And I’m not even going to address the issue of One Direction being a manufactured band put together by a record company to make money. So were The Sex Pistols, who have been used to flog everything from fashion to butter (and at least Niall Horan can play the guitar).

Reading the fan responses to the Channel 4 documentary last night was both heartbreaking and eye-opening. So many Directioners tweeted and, later, commented on online articles, about their distress and embarrassment following the broadcast. It should be noted that there were also (as yet unsubstantiated) rumours of suicide attempts.

But, in addition to this, many Directioners were eloquent about what they saw as the injustice of the programme. They spoke of a perceived ‘dehumanization’ (which, in my opinion, is a very apt summary of the programme’s intentions). They also wrote of poor journalistic techniques and a strategy of sensationalizing. Some spoke of the programme as an attack on an already vulnerable group of young people – many Directioners mentioned loneliness, depression and self-harming tendencies which they had come to terms with through their identification within a fandom community. A number of fans wrote about regret over their previous treatment of ‘Larry Shippers’ (a subgroup within the fandom who came under particularly cynical scrutiny in the show.

While Channel 4 seemed to be at pains to point out the power that the Directioners apparently wield, the responses to the show highlighted this group’s powerlessness and its vulnerability. These are not people who have a platform from which to argue their own case – the ‘responses’ I speak of were Twitter conversations that I (hate to admit it) eavesdropped on. This is a group that are ridiculed online and IRL frequently, who are already decried as being ‘mad’, ‘unnatural’ and ‘frightening’ and yet are in many cases, by Western legal standards at least, children.

When I mentioned the Twihards above, I spoke of the community aspect of fandom. This was something highlighted in the Channel 4 documentary as one of the more unsettling aspects of the Directioners’ fandom – i.e. community = potentially dangerous mob. I think it’s worth thinking for a moment about just how dangerous the Directioners really are, and how that might compare with other fandoms.

Here’s a scenario: if I post something on Twitter criticizing One Direction, there’s a small chance I might get trolled. If I post something seriously insulting about them, I might get some systematic trolling. I might have to block some people.

Here’s another scenario: I, as a woman, state that I believe ewoks are fully responsible for saving the Rebel Alliance and defeating the Empire (and that the wookie simply brought the equipment). Not only does a view like that provoke trolling, it encourages misogynistic slurs, questions about my intelligence, and (this really did happen, IRL not online) a threat that I might ‘learn that opinions like that can be dangerous’.

That is one flippant example. There are literally hundreds of other examples of how male fandoms are genuinely unsafe spaces for women. Never mind objectification and dehumanization in canon, there’s sexual harassment at conventions, threats of sexual assault and rape, silencing of female writers and artists, the list goes on. Traditionally male fandoms can actually be physically, emotionally and psychologically harmful to women. I think this deserves a ‘Yikes!’ more than a copy-and-pasted declaration of love.

And yet, it is the Twihards and Directioners (and others like them) that are labelled as ‘mad’ or ‘dangerous’. Consistently. Just as the Take That fans who mourned their split in 1996 were labelled as ‘hysterical’ and ‘pathetic’. Just as the girls in my class at school who broke down in tears when they heard about the death of River Phoenix (showing my age) were laughed at by our teachers and told to ‘stop disrupting the class’ – a class, I might add, that was completely disrupted (at the instigation of the teacher) after Graham Taylor took Gary Lineker off in the match against Sweden in Euro 92. Regardless of whether football fans commit more acts of vandalism and violence than grieving River Phoenix fans, or whether sci fi conventions face more accusations of sexual harassment than Justin Bieber concerts, it is female fandoms that are labelled as ‘dangerous’, ‘disruptive’, ‘unhealthy’ and ‘insane’.

The Channel 4 documentary is the most recent attempt to label young female fans as mentally ill, but it belongs to a long, rant-inspiring tradition. It also highlights the continued strategies used to denigrate the cultural preferences of a social group with limited cultural capital and platform. In the words of One Direction’s Liam Payne, these strategies are ‘full of bullshit’, and should have been left behind a long time ago.

* Meyer has since expanded and clarified this point in a statement on her own website.

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