The week of August 31, 2014

The teens on Tumblr are all right

By Aja Romano

A few weeks ago, I had one of those odd experiences where I seemed to be fundamentally out of sync with everyone around me. It came as I was reading an article from Washington Post writer Chris Richards titled “Beatlemaniacs, Beliebers, Directioners—why do they scream?

I expected the comments for this article to be full of people as flabbergasted as I was by its premise—that there’s something so alien and quintessentially bizarre as teen girls screaming at a concert that we need to study them like deep-sea plankton. Instead, I found approving readers congratulating Richards and the scientists who contributed to the report on their insights, and contributing plenty of their own.

“What girls don’t do is scream by themselves. always in a group!” one reader wrote. “Girls and women for that matter, are herd creatures…they don’t think or act by themselves.”

“Groupies who scream and work themselves up into a hysterical frenzy is an age old phenomena that probably has a biological root in displaying oneself for a handsome nest builder,” contributed cjones1111. “Silly chicks acting like birdbrains.”

“Having grown up with two sisters, I can tell you exactly why young girls scream,” offered the astute capmbillie, who went on to inform us that teen girls were “fantasizing about their ideal lovers,” which was “a whole lot safer than actually realizing their fantasies.”

The litany of men lining up to try to explain the strange species of fangirl is hardly surprising, but what baffled me is that no one seemed to be considering that the entire argument was gendered, othering, and rather obnoxious. At one point, Richards observes that male behavior at a sporting event is “‘very similar’ to the screaming that takes place at a One Direction concert.”

Teens are as self-aware as they are social media-savvy, as cannily knowledgeable of the way society portrays them as they are of how to speak back to that same society.

A Google search for “Why do sports fans scream” and “why do sports fans yell” produces eight results across the entire Internet, and all of them are asking specifically why sports fans yell at the television when watching a sporting event at home (something, it may be noted, that girls do as often as guys). Searching for “Why do men scream at games” produces a grand total of zero results, as does inserting “football” or “basketball” games. “Why do men scream at sporting events?” turns up a single result, and it’s a question being posed in baffled response to a Reddit thread asking, “Why do women have to scream like that?”

In other words, while there are academic studies on the subject of girls screaming at concerts there are less than 10 total results on the Internet for people wondering about why men scream in similar contexts.

It’s not hard to understand why. Heteronormative male culture is the default, and because it’s the default, no one questions why men do the totally normal things that they do, like get excited during exciting events.

Meanwhile, teenage girls continue to be one of the world’s prime targets for being held up as a social example of something alien, foreign, and overtly sexualized, a writhing primordial mass of orgiastic emotions waiting to be tapped by adult men who treat their identities as a bizarre spectacle. Witness last year’s enraging GQ article on One Direction fandom, which referred to the collective energy of a 1D concert as “a hormone bomb” and described the girls themselves as “a dark-pink oil slick that howls and moans and undulates.”

That’s why I found it extremely hard to laugh at British broadcaster David Attenborough’s recent parody of the hysteria surrounding fangirl culture. I knew the intent was to skewer the reaction of adults to fangirl culture, rather than the fangirls themselves. But my thoughts on the subject were echoed by YouTube filmmaker Emily Diana Ruth: “Portraying [fangirls] as crazed, rabid, disrespectful, and inhuman might be the easy joke to make, but comedy as an influencer should not be underestimated.”

Also recently, I found one of my own articles being used to support a ludicrous example of handwringing over teen culture. My article highlighted the trend of teens mocking adults on Twitter through the hilarious #followanadult meme. That article was cited in a recent New York Times op-ed that concluded that #followanadult was “a cautionary tale about the dangers of riling teens.”

Really? I just thought it was a sign that teens are as self-aware as they are social-media-savvy, as cannily knowledgeable of the way society portrays them as they are of how to speak back to that same society.

While there are academic studies on the subject of girls screaming at concerts there are less than 10 total results on the Internet for people wondering about why men scream in similar contexts.

The Times op-ed takes the fact that many teens (like many adults) have locked Twitter accounts and arrives at the conclusion that said teens are “operating in a secret teen world adults don’t have access to.” The whole piece exemplifies the alarmist overtones and feeling that modern teenage culture is something out of control, out of reach, and bizarrely alien to the rest of us that I’ve become all too used to from the mainstream media.

The truth is that teen culture is not homogenous—and neither is fangirl culture. Teenagers are complicated and complex, and they behave differently in different contexts. The average teenager who goes to a Five Seconds of Summer concert and screams her head off is actually capable of writing an essay on the political situation in the Gaza Strip the next day. She’s capable of liking Taylor Swift and disliking heels, of deploying a Twitter hashtag or helping out a charity drive, of loving Twilight and hating Fifty Shades of Grey. She contains multitudes.

Society, however, seems to expect that fangirls are one thing only: fantasy-addled teens with no “real” relationships, who are just waiting to come of age so they can put their fandom idols behind them. Rarely if ever does the default position change; rarely does the media acknowledge that Directioners, Beliebers, Twi-hards, Whovians, and Potter fans are all, for example, fandoms that extend across all ages and genders and ranges of experience and interest levels.

The ridiculous mythos surrounding teenagers, and teenage girls in particular, holds that their ways are unknown to us, that we must observe them from afar, that they are wildly unpredictable and closed off from the rest of us. In reality, if you want to see teens in action, all you have to do is go on Tumblr, Wattpad, Ask.FM, or any other of the many Internet communities that have been shaped predominantly by the voices of teens and young adults.

And if you really want to see teens—particularly teen fans—in action, take a look at the projects teens are involved in. Is it really fair to look at the teens who throw themselves yearly into charity drives and fundraising for projects like GISHWHES, Project for Awesome, the Harry Potter Alliance, or Nerdfighteria, and decide that the kids aren’t all right? Sure, teens are screaming at pop concerts, but they’re also engaging in activism online and off- to an unprecedented degree.

The existence of trends like #followanadult, along with the prevalence of social justice concerns on teen-driven Tumblr, indicate that if anything, teens are perhaps more complex and multifaceted, more self-aware, and more socially aware today than ever before. A 2012 study revealed teens drew increased confidence from social media. As masters of the Internet and virtually instant technology, teens may be the most informed subculture on the planet, and they’re more in-control over their own identities than ever.

Subsequently, the media’s impulse to hand-wring over Today’s Youth seems to be a reaction against that increasing assertion of independence. “Teens are bad because of the Internet,” stated the headline for a Village Voice article that cited a report claiming teens who used social media were more likely to have tried marijuana. A neutral study exploring how teen girls formed intuitive judgments made the Daily Mail with the headline “What Makes Teens Terrible.”

Sure, teens are screaming at pop concerts, but they’re also engaging in activism online and off- to an unprecedented degree.

Apart from clickbaiting or getting a few shares from inciting concerned parental responses, the motivation seems to be one of wariness. And no one makes the media cringe away in wariness like the teenage fangirl. “A rabid, knicker-wetting banshee,” deemed the GQ article. A BuzzFeed article declaring 1D fans “the most bizarre people on the planet” could offer no better rationale than normal fandom activities like Photoshopping the band members and writing fanfiction.

But those “bizarre” activities are the keys to the fangirl kingdom. Studies have shown that fangirl fluency actually helps improve literacy. Recently in a guest column for The Guardian, 17-year-old Hazal Kirci detailed how her 14-year-old sister Heral had her life changed through the experience of becoming an active reader of One Direction fanfiction on Wattpad:

“Unexpected things began to happen. Heral would come home, telling our mum all about her new English teacher and his stream of praise for her. This was shocking; she had always been the opposite of me, hating English. To see the transformation in her grades was amazing—and something I fully credit to Wattpad. If this app hadn’t provided her with the only type of story she could love and feel passionate about, my sister’s improvement in English may not have happened.”

In another guest column in The Guardian last year, mom Samantha Trenoweth dismissed the Directioner mythos. “My daughter learnt to negotiate public transport, read maps, inquire about hotel bookings and track flights like a pro,” she wrote. “She made friends with fangirls from all kinds of backgrounds from all over the world. And she picked up some very funny dance moves.

“Yes, the kids are exploited by an immense, cynical, capitalist juggernaut. But they’re smarter and more media savvy than I was at their age, and they give as good as they get.”

At what point does the inner life of teenagers, as expressed routinely and normally through the naturally hyperbolic language of Tumblr culture, become accessible enough to the rest of us for us to stop treating them as foreign bodies? The answer to this question affects our ability to tackle the problems teens face fairly and without hyperbole. On the subject of fangirls, it’s even more important to acknowledge that empowered female spaces are what give adolescent women the capacity to fight back against a society that constantly seeks to disempower them, and worse, to sexually objectify them.

Until that empowerment becomes the default, it’s probably safe to assume that there’s an entirely different reason fangirls scream: They do it because they know that when it comes to public perception of their identities, they’re fighting a losing battle.

Illustration by Max Fleishman