Who’s Afraid of the Fangirl?

The tale of the Boy Band Fangirl

By María Lucía Carrillo González

When someone tells you that they are a One Direction or a BTS fan—or even better, when they use terms such as “Directioner” or “ARMY” to identify themselves and the fandom they belong to—you know you are talking to a Fangirl. More specifically, the Boy Band Fangirl. More often than not, there is a level of stigma and ridicule attached to this character. Many journalists and authors have argued that the Fangirl is perceived (and represented in the media) in a singular, specific, hegemonical way: the screaming, crying, fanatical fangirl.  

This characterization of the Fangirl is problematic because, at the end of the day, it’s not about the Fangirl’s behavior at all. Yes, fangirls might scream and cry. But they also might not. This definition of the Fangirl as “frivolous, vapid and hormone-driven” is ultimately used as a way to treat fans condescendingly, thus reinforcing internalized misogyny and sexist systems. This applies to any predominately female fandom.

So, what do we know about this audience group? From the get-go, we can see that Fangirl is a gendered term referring to young women. The Fangirl is a consumer group with such a strong identity that the ways in which it is diverse are often completely erased.

BTS is a K-Pop band that revolutionized the industry, brought South Korean pop music to thousands of new fans, and became the biggest boy band in the world. Their fandom is known as the ARMY.

Age Demographics and Gender Demographics. Grover, Chaviva, et al. “Results.” BTS ARMY CENSUS, 2020, https://www.btsarmycensus.com/results.

In 2020, members of the BTS fandom conducted a census to study ARMY’s demographic. 402,881 people responded in over a hundred countries. Given that the information for this census was collected through surveys on social media, there are obvious limitations to the study’s accuracy. It is, nonetheless, a good resource to consider big-picture findings. For example, it shows that boy band fandoms are not exclusively young and female. 49% of respondents claimed to be adults of 18 or older, and over 10% respondents do not identify as female. Fandom is more diverse than we’ve been led to believe.

Still, for the sake of argument, let’s say that boy band fandom is predominately young and female. These should just be demographics, statistical facts—except we know they are not. The way Fangirls (and Fanboys) are represented has real impacts in how they experience fandom. A repeated theme in journalists’ and authors’ account of the fangirl experience is that being a fangirl is shame-inducing. It is not uncommon for fangirls to describe being embarrassed to admit their love for a boy band. Many resist becoming a fan in the first place because it is a hobby “exclusively reserved for teen girls.” There is also behavioral code switching, where fans only admit their passions in certain environments—because how could Fangirls ever have real, meaningful conversations about their favorite boy band with family and friends?

“By brushing these girls aside and laughing at how stupid whatever they like is, we tell these young women that their interests are less important than what men like. Their feelings somehow become discredited and are not ‘real’ by virtue of who is having them.”

-Sandra Song, Pitchfork
Butterfly [@ButterflyEllaJ]. X/Twitter, 26 July 2020, https://twitter.com/ButterflyEllaJ/status/1287512530118758402

In 2020, Deadline published an article about BTS’s upcoming releases. According to X (formerly Twitter) users, the article began with two short sentences which were deleted shortly after the article’s publication. Although the article was quickly edited, possibly because of social media backlash, this is just one example of how BTS fans are condescended to on the basis on being “little girls.” This is without addressing the racial implications that lace every conversation K-pop fandoms in the media. Even when discussing one of the biggest musical acts in the world, the fangirl is assumed to be a silly white girl in the American suburbs.

“The crux of teen-girl illegitimacy is the assumption that they are incapable of the critical thinking their older, male counterparts display when it comes to their favourite bands.”

Brodie Lancaster, Pitchfork

Yes, there are things to say about how boy bands are marketed and commercialized. But then again, no content consumption is completely autonomous. Everything we consume and enjoy is mediated, but there is a different standard to which Fangirls are judged. This is due to an internalized distrust of young women’s critical thinking skills. We tend to assume young women simply do not have the criteria to know good entertainment. Then, the “girls only like them because they are good-looking” argument gets added to the mix. Young women’s judgment is so distrusted that we assume they enjoy music for only superficial reasons. And so what if fangirls do find these boy band boys attractive? Women should be allowed to experience attraction—women should be allowed to look. These arguments reflect the intense policing of female enjoyment that we have normalized for years.

Consider another very gendered hobby: sports. Colombia, where I’m from, is a country where soccer is highly valued. The same is true in most of Latin America and Europe. When the national team plays, it’s an event that paralyzes the whole country. Men and women do, in fact, scream and cry. But no one finds it humiliating. A high school kid could go to school and say they are a Barcelona or Real Madrid fan without being mocked. Boys don’t have to fight for the validity of their interests in the way young women do.

This is not to pit these to passions against each other. After all, there’s nothing quite as exciting as seeing the Colombian national team advance in the world cup. The issue here is that fangirls simply don’t have nearly as much widespread acceptance as masculine-associated hobbies clearly do.

I want you to think about your guilty pleasure—something you love but are hesitant to admit that you love. Now I want you to think: is it actually “guilty” or is it policed by different social forces that dictate what is acceptable for you to enjoy? Moreover, think about the way we collectively react to the passion and excitement young women show toward what they enjoy. Something as simple as loving music, people, performances, and art—inherently a positive, collective emotion—can be turned into a source of shame and ridicule. Ultimately, this reveals whose enjoyment we have come to accept and whose enjoyment we have come to police and punish.

For more on fandom, guilty pleasures, and the female experience of participating in pop culture, read these NYU Press titles:

Avidly Reads Guilty Pleasures

By Arielle Zibrak

What is it about ribald romance novels, luxurious interior design, and frothy wedding dresses that often make women feel their desires come with a shadow of shame? In Avidly Reads Guilty Pleasures, Arielle Zibrak considers the specifically pleasurable forms of feminine guilt and desire stimulated by supposedly “lowbrow” aesthetic tendencies.

Gamer Trouble
Feminist Confrontations in Digital Culture

By Amanda Phillips

By centering the insights of queer and women of color feminisms in readings of online harassment campaigns, industry animation practices, and popular video games like Portal and Mass Effect, Phillips adds essential analytical tools to our conversations about video games.

Fake Geek Girls
Fandom, Gender, and the Convergence Culture Industry

By Suzanne Scott

Suzanne Scott points to the ways in which the “men’s rights” movement and antifeminist pushback against “social justice warriors” connects to mainstream fandom. Recently, female casting in geek-nostalgia reboots has been vilified, and historically feminized forms of fan engagement—like cosplay and fan fiction—continue to be treated as less worthy than male-dominant expressions of fandom like collection, possession, and cataloguing.

Gaming Sexism
Gender and Identity in the Era of Casual Video Games

By Amanda C. Cote

Today, even as women make up nearly half of all gamers, sexist assumptions about the what and how of women’s gaming are more actively enforced. In Gaming Sexism, Amanda C. Cote explores the video game industry and its players to explain this contradiction, how it affects female gamers, and what it means in terms of power and gender equality.

Fandom, Second Edition
Identities and Communities in a Mediated World

Edited by Jonathan Gray, Cornel Sandvoss and C. Lee Harrington

A completely updated edition of a seminal work on fans and communities. Recognizing that fandom is not unusual, but rather a universal subculture, the contributions in this book demonstrate that understanding fans–whether of toys, TV shows, celebrities, comics, music, film, or politicians–is vital to an understanding of media audiences, use, engagement, and participatory culture in a digital age.

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