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First person

Being a fan girl: Misogyny and community combined

By September 19, 2020No Comments

Exploring the world of fan girls, guest contributor Hannah Quearney explores the misogyny that often comes with it and the strong sense of community it provides for neurodivergent teenagers, which then carries on into their adult lives…


My relationship with music is as strange as the virtue by which I require it. Talking about the healing power of the medium often delves into “where words fail, music speaks” territory, and while that isn’t totally incorrect I would rather escape the grasp of Pinterest idioms while I’m at it. Most of the time it’s simple and trivial; entertainment, distraction, a bit of decadence.

I don’t think that bumbling around wine-drunk on hardwood floors in the dim light of the early morning while a turntable skips is any less self-indulgent than making Spotify playlists for every emotion I am capable of feeling. Yet there comes a point in the early hours of the morning wherein I’m asking for deliverance from this one thing that has been entangled with my identity and personality; what is the music nerd – fangirl dichotomy? Why does the latter attract scrutiny and the former is absolutely fine? Why does my own internalised misogyny take precedence over identity?

A blatant distrust has been placed onto this subsect of an artist’s fandom since the days of Beatlemania but have only escalated since the dawn of social media. Regardless of a formalised identity and strength in numbers – BTS’ Army, Arianators, the BeyHive, the last of the remaining Directioners – they’re consistently scrutinised, not for seemingly exhibiting extreme behaviour towards other fandoms, but largely because these are groups of predominantly young women who really like something and are happy to show this. 

The same people who attribute a faux-concern towards these groups often forget that they’re the people responsible for keeping artists afloat; in merchandise and ticket sales and launching streaming campaigns to keep them at the top of charts. While this transactional artist-fandom relationship is definitely not without fault, it’s done in the name of recognition and to celebrate the identity and resilience of community. It’s easy to scaremonger. But the significance of community, especially to neurodivergent teenagers, should bear more influence than the empty threat of groupthink. 

My own listening habits are rooted in a warm compulsivity. I never understood the malignance directed towards repetition; how people pride themselves on never consuming the same media twice, perpetually keeping up on the zeitgeist. Perhaps not embracing the novelty of the new  but appreciating the joy in observing how an album unfolds, picking up new details upon the second, third, tenth listen. The ability to listen to a familiar melody and get the same kick that you did when you heard it first. 

Not only do artists make their secrets ours through four words and waxing literal poetics –  beautiful in the redemption of their autonomy, their humility, the gambling with their happiness, their crippled nerves, their fuckless nights, their gripes with the Reagan administration and their lonesome blues – these secrets are available on demand.  Their stories can be relayed whenever we please. It feels like an old love. 

Easing both my need for relatability and routine, once I acknowledged my Autism Spectrum Disorder diagnosis about ten years too late, the concept of special interests struck me. The term “fan girls” itself seemed so clinical and judging, created by voyeurs unknowing and the thrill that these interests give us. It seemed that certain interests were innately autistic and others were not, as someone who never liked the Lord of The Rings, maths, trains, or maps it seemed like the validity of my identity was up for debate from a council of people who largely didn’t share my experiences.

The extent of the representation that I was exposed to in the early 2010s were unflattering and typically alienating; savant-like Rainmen or boys who really enjoyed video games but couldn’t talk to girls. These representations were definitely not something I could connect with but it formed the idea that fandom was a recognised part of the male autistic experience. 

While this was explored through expired laugh tracks and jokes about live action role play, such as renaissance fairs and their ilk, or World of Warcraft, it provided hope for a tangible community that was sparked by the popularisation of nerd culture in the 2010s. However, a similar community identity didn’t seem as promising for female neurodivergents. It’s not known if this is a result of misogyny and gatekeeping within geek circles, or the fact that our existence is treated as a mystery not only medically, but societally.

I feel like I spend a disproportionate amount of time talking about the early days of Tumblr and 2010s internet culture. This may be the rose-tinted product of quarantine regression but there was something so untouched about it. Within these online ecosystems, teens adopted their own vernacular and lexicon to talk about the media that mattered most to them and, from my own observations, the Venn diagram between femme-identifying neurodivergent people and involvement in online fandom circles is a circle. Nothing on these platforms were hierarchical; we were all just strangers on the internet. 

In a decade where nerds were our supposed cultural overlords, the ability to publish and contribute freely served as an impetus for creativity through fan fiction, fan art and fan theories. These prefixes hammer the sentiment home insufferably but this is where communities became defined by their ability to love a shared special interest. 

By gleaning small details of my favourite musicians’ lives and interests through interviews, autobiographies, documentaries and songs they covered, a richer texture of the people I creatively cared most about emerged and this gave me furthermore topics to research or bands to listen to. I didn’t feel obliged to talk about these things however, why would I? Why would I allow something so precious to me be interrogated or mocked by those who didn’t share my passion? The “self-awareness” I’ve garnered since conception has largely been a defence mechanism I developed after years of interacting with neurotypicals. I knew my tastes weren’t the same as my classmates when I dressed as Amy Winehouse for Halloween when I was ten so from that point onwards I kept quiet, honing my knowledge and protecting these monoliths that I viewed as an extension of myself. 

On the internet, no one can see my stims. I was never perceived as different or alien within these communities and I think this is what drives neurodivergents to online communities; there is a shared, calm knowing that we’re all aligned. What seemed like a second rise of riot grrrl was forming once I was online, most likely forming from the ripple effects of soft grunge’s brooding influence, and this proved very significant. 

Not only could I info-dump my knowledge of Courtney Love onto those who want it, but here saw the development of my music taste and budding political beliefs. I feel like this era was congruent with the birth of Tavi Gevinson’s Rookie Mag, where the kindest and most honest essays I’ve read on the female experience were written by those blossoming into it. 

Music critic Jessica Hopper tweeted in 2015 to  “Replace the word ‘fangirl’ with ‘expert’ and see what happens”  and this is something that springs to mind with this discussion. I feel like this is given a context with the neurodivergent ability to research and learn about the things that fascinate us.  As someone who treats every smoking area encounter with a middle-parted man who clearly doesn’t care if I know who Slowdive are as a pissing contest and also a threat, I feel like music nerds and fangirls are cut from the same cloth. Casual misogyny should be inapt here. 

I never experienced the “dark side” of fandoms that I see in Twitter threads or video essays but this obviously doesn’t mean that those events don’t occur. Discussion of this era is drenched in a vitriolic internet “cringe-culture” that just never seems to die; a serpent that perpetually eats itself in the name of children being themselves online. Yet these experiences taught me that my teen girl soul mattered and that my voice deserved to be listened to, even when I thought I was invisible.

Photo by Anthony DELANOIX on Unsplash