Fangirls in the Crosshairs

In 1986, film scholar Miriam Hansen began her essay “Pleasure, Ambivalence, Identification: Valentino and Female Spectatorship” (Cinema Journal 25.4) with a short history lesson:

In the context of discussions on cinematic spectatorship, the case of Rudolph Valentino demands attention, on historical as well as theoretical grounds. For the first time in film history, women spectators were perceived as a socially and economically significant group; female spectatorship was recognized as a mass phenomenon; and the films were explicitly addressed to a female spectator, regardless of the actual composition of the audience. As Hollywood manufactured the Valentino legend, promoting the fusion of real life and screen persona that makes a star, Valentino’s female admirers in effect became part of that legend. Never before was the discourse on fan behavior so strongly marked by the terms of sexual difference, and never again was spectatorship so explicitly linked to the discourse on female desire. This conjunction was to inform Valentinian mythology for decades to come – as the following cover prose from biographies illustrates:

“Lean, hot-eyed and Latin, Valentino was every woman’s dream… ”

“On screen and off, his smoldering glance ignited fierce sexual fires in millions of hearts… ”

“They breathed the words ‘The Sheik’ like a prayer on their lips. They tried to tear his clothes off when he left the theater… ”

“The studio telephones could not handle the thousands of calls from women. They begged for any job that would permit even a momentary glimpse of Valentino. Gladly they offered to work without pay.” (p. 6)

If this was the last time spectatorship was “so explicitly linked to the discourse on female desire,” it’s only because this discourse has become the default language of female fan characterization. Terms like “rabid” (recalling all those women apparently trying to tear the clothes from Valentino in a piranha-like feeding frenzy) and “hysterical” (begging for any job) are today so entwined with mass media characterizations of female fandom as to be indistinguishable from them, punctuated by a veritable banquet of frighteningly embodied behaviors – crying, screaming, throbbing, wailing. Female fans are rapacious and frenzied, a mindless throng kept in check only by the constant policing of the critically distanced journalist, blogger, or pop culture commentator.

So it was that, on the occasion of the engagement announcement of Sherlock star Benedict Cumberbatch (whose own persona has suffered in some circles for its association with his female fans), we were treated to an onslaught of commentary on fangirls’ presumed reactions to the news:

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Fangirl tweets were quickly parlayed into “articles” on such outlets as,, International Business Times, Huffington Post (UK), and Buzzfeed. And, with the exception of Buzzfeed, which has generally posted on Cumberbatch-related news with a comparatively fannish voice, these pieces were patently unable to grasp the tongue-in-cheek tone of many of the tweets that comprised the bulk of ‘reporting’ on the news. Which is not to say that all the tweets (or Tumblr posts) were tongue-in-cheek. As might be expected when status-quo changing news occurs in the context of fandom – characterized by nothing so much as love of a thing – there were those fans who were truly dismayed, just as there were those fans who were truly happy for the couple, and those who were indifferent, annoyed, or bittersweet. An entire range of responses to the news were there for the picking; yet, what got picked, predictably, were those responses thought to reveal the extent to which, as Huffington Post so succinctly put it, “These People REALLY Aren’t Happy With The Sherlock Actor’s Wedding Plans.”

If I’m being honest, my first reaction to all of this, other than to roll my eyes so hard they threaten to pop right out of my head, is to wonder if these media outlets actually pay people to ‘write’ this stuff – because, if they do, I have certainly missed my calling.

But when I put my fan scholar hat on, I have one other response: anger. I’m angry that the lazy stereotypes of nearly a century ago continue to be cheap tabloid currency today; that this is a battle fangirls never can win, because pleasure, love, and closeness – taking things personally – are suspect from the start, eschewed by the more critically distant, ridiculed by anyone who doesn’t want to court association with them.

Which leads me to what it is that truly angers me (and yes, it’s anger – not dismay, not frustration, not any of those things that would distance me from what is a truly visceral reaction): that, in characterizing fangirls in this way, fangirls ourselves have been robbed of any language through which to express feelings about anything. Writing of cultural studies in 1986, Tania Modleski observed that female scholars, “denied access to pleasure, while simultaneously being scapegoated for seeming to represent it,” have no recourse within a critical framework but to accept an “adversarial position” towards popular culture (“The Terror of Pleasure: the Contemporary Horror Film and Postmodern Theory” pp. 162-4). In the same way, when fangirls’ emotions are the thing that consistently brings negative attention to us from the outside, we are thrust into a position in which we are effectively prohibited from expressing all but the most measured reactions to such news, for fear of inadvertently acquiescing to a discursive framework constructed around disciplining us.

I’ve seen a range of reactions to Cumberbatch’s announcement within my small sliver of his fandom, many of which were congratulatory and happy for the couple. I’ve also seen – and been told of – people who have felt silenced and themselves disciplined by what might be seen – and felt – as a kind of relentless positivity, intent on presenting a unified face to the world. Having done my time in online (tumblr) fandom, this is something I’m absolutely sympathetic to; but where our first inclination might be to go after fellow fans for enforcing a kind of ‘good’ fandom, I think we might be better served by taking a step back and looking at where the desire for such a unified face originates. We’re fangirls within a popular culture context that routinely and predictably scapegoats us for the crime of feeling; in that sense, it seems no wonder that the first reaction of many is to try to present a positive, unified face to the people who would ridicule us. This is where the impetus to police fangirl reactions to this kind of celebrity news comes from, in the main (there will always be those who patrol the margins in search of the least infraction of self-determined rules), and this is what makes me angry – not that we have these feelings, not that they’re divergent and often at odds – that’s what feeling is, and there’s no unifying it. What makes me angry is that fangirls are used as click-bait and turned on ourselves, all because what we love and what we do fails an arbitrary, masculinist litmus test for critical or ironic distance. And that, even after nearly a century, it’s a practice that shows few signs of abating.

11 thoughts on “Fangirls in the Crosshairs”

  1. The media will always cherry-pick the most sensationalised representations it can find, thus perpetuating the stereotypes it has helped to create. Nothing new about that. It’s like those darn Graham Norton interviews – how can we make the audience laugh? Let’s poke fun at the celebrity by reading out some of the worst fanfic we can find! And that perpetuates the idea that all fanfic is terrible. But things are improving, slowly but surely. I feel more comfortable now about admitting I’m a fan, and that I write fanfic and make fanart. Ten years ago I would’ve been scared off the ridicule. Now I’m proud. And I think you’re right – ‘fangirls’ need to feel proud that they are different – from the mainstream, and from each other. Fandom is not homogeneous! As I constantly say… :p 😉

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Agreed. And there’s actually an addendum to this post that should be written – the one that talks about how Metro didn’t even go there, and how Radio Times actually posted a “Cumbercorrection” (cringeworthy term notwithstanding) that brought in OTHER fan voices to give a more rounded picture, in direct response to feedback from fans. And – although I’m not really at liberty to talk about it in detail – I was contacted on Tumblr by someone on the production side of things I hadn’t expected to hear from at all, and we proceeded to have a really fantastic conversation about social media and fandom. That’s why I’m so reluctant to write these clear divisions of fans and producers into stone – I think we’re in an incredibly transitional moment, when content producers and fans alike are learning to navigate a new environment and old paradigms – of one-way distribution, of marketing demographics, and of fandom as somehow isolated and invisible to prying eyes – are falling away. It’s mainly when people fall back on the old frameworks that I get frustrated, but there’s a LOT of good stuff happening, too, and with it entirely new kinds of fan/producer interactions. Not that we should take everything at face value, but there’s so much room for innovation and change right now, should we choose to take advantage of it. 🙂

      Liked by 4 people

    1. I hadn’t really thought about it much in terms of commodification, but you’ve given me a lot of fuel for thought – thank you!


  2. It feels really good to read this. Honestly, I have felt like I-personally-have been under attack all week. It does not feel good.

    I know there are different varieties of fan, and that we admire people for different reasons and with different feelings involved. Is it because it’s easier for them that they lump us all into one big ball of assumptions, or is it because they don’t know any better or both? Because it _feels_ like they know better and are attacking despite the knowledge.

    And who does it serve? Is marketing news truly so much easier when it’s negative? Doesn’t it seem that one would look at the immense popularity of Mr. Cumberbatch and draw a conclusion– that MAYBE part of his popularity is due to the fact that he is not negative… not being all the stereotypes we’ve seen in “celebrity” in recent years. I remember reading an article a few years ago that said that the days of “heroes” were over due to the fact that we know too much about our “heroes”… they were talking about people like Clark Gable and John Wayne as well as famous sports idols.

    In the last couple of years I needed something as a distraction, something to engage my mind after I retired and found myself growing increasingly more depressed. Fanfiction, fandom and films did that for me. Watching films and truly appreciating the performances, particularly in versatile actors–and *most* particularly in actors who I found I could personally respect.

    Yes, Mr. Cumberbatch is incredibly good looking. But, I’ve never had any mental “plan” to marry him… for one thing, being married with three kids *might* be a small problem… and seeing him look at children, who could deny that he would be an excellent father. So, if I admire the man, why would I desire his unhappiness?

    Yet I repeatedly saw articles that lumped all women who admire him into one group… a reporter who Tweeted asking for questions when she was going to do a Red Carpet interview received many questions–as well as many good wishes to pass on on his engagement. What did she ask him? How did he feel breaking his fans hearts (something close to that, I’m too tired to find it and verify the exact words) and then went on to read the few negative tweets she did get stating the writers were “heartbroken”.

    Or do they write these articles for other people? The recent article in the New York Times Magazine… yes, the photos of him were lovely–aren’t they always– and to some extent they probably do express a bit about how his life feels right now, but…surely there was a more mature, responsible and accurate way to write about how it feels to HIM to be inside that “meme”… instead of it turning into a “lets make fun of the crazy, out-of-control, fangirls” article. I like to hope that if he knew it would be that, he wouldn’t have talked to that woman.

    Other than leaving comments on fanfic, I only really have become close to one other fan. –and I’ve never figured out how people can talk to each other on Tumblr… so I guess I really needed to get this out. I hope it’s ok. I really appreciate you writing this… I can’t be the only person who has felt violated by the mean-spirited, mocking portrayal of Mr. Cumberbatch’s fans from the engagement date through on as he’s been interviewed for “The Imitation Game.”

    Maybe we’re the new group it’s ok to make fun of… since the world has finally realized it’s not ok to marginalize homosexuals– they seem to be stuck on fat jokes and “crazy fans”.


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