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 mtv.com, time.com, 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.

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