October 16, 2019 03:06:04
When the Hungarian virtuoso pianist Franz Liszt began receiving public displays of adoration from predominantly female fans during his concerts in the 1840s, the writer Heinrich Heine described the “Lisztomania” that followed him as the “spiritualistic sickness of our time”.
More than a century later, female fans of The Beatles were referred to by many as “the screamers”, with an article in The Nation magazine decrying “indulgent parents [and] profiteering businessmen” for encouraging such unrestrained pop idolatry.
And when the British boy band One Direction reached the zenith of its popularity, GQ magazine characterised fans as “rabid, knicker-wetting banshees”.
Historically, there has been a particular kind of mocking disdain reserved for female fandom, or “fangirls” — a disdain rarely applied to screaming male fans at a football match.
It’s a distinction that both fascinated and frustrated writer and performer Yve Blake.
“When Zayn Malik left One Direction and left the fandom bereft, I noticed how the grief of the fandom was described in all these negative terms [by the mainstream press], but simultaneously sports coverage was describing the loyalty and the passion of fans who were grieving [their own] recent loss,” she told The Stage Show.
Blake also came to see that negativity as a response to their expression of romantic or sexual desire.
“When young women are enthusiastic about something … that has something to do with their blossoming puberty, it’s interesting how the world can look at that and go, ‘Ew. That’s a bit seedy. That’s a bit wrong’,” Blake said.
“For me, that says a lot about the behaviour that we socially sanction for young women versus young men.”
Her research, which included interviewing hundreds of teenage fans, has inspired the irreverent new Australian musical comedy, Fangirls, which Blake — the show’s writer and star — calls “the best pop concert I’d never been to”.
‘I’d slit someone’s throat to be with him’
In Fangirls, we follow the 14-year-old Edna, played by Blake.
She’s prone to mood swings, rejects the affection of her mother and is finding herself in conflict with friends at school.
But she finds solace in the boy band True Connection and their online fan community. She also dreams of a day when she and her favourite member of the band, Harry, will meet and fall in love.
The starting point for Fangirls was a conversation with a 13-year-old girl who told Blake she had met the man she was going to marry.
“She told me his name was Harry Styles, who, of course, was in One Direction — the biggest boy band on Earth at the time. So, I laughed at her and she said, ‘No. I’m so serious. I love him so much, I would slit someone’s throat to be with him,’ and from that moment on I became consumed with curiosity about fangirls.”
Blake initially began researching the subject out of “morbid curiosity”, but soon became inspired by the fans’ passion and creativity.
“Five years ago, I would have gone: ‘There’s something suss there. Why are these girls being sold pencil cases with fake boyfriends on them?’ But it turns out there’s more than meets the eye,” she said.
“It’s not always that they’re victims to a capitalist machine.”
She cites fan-led initiatives like Rainbow Direction, a support network for queer One Direction fans who felt unsafe at concerts, as having inspired her change of heart. She was also fascinated by the diversity of fan-written fiction about the bandmembers published online.
“Harry Styles can be anything for anyone. I’ve read fan fiction where he’s in love with Barack Obama and I’ve read fan fiction where he sprouts wings, so … boy bands can be fantasy boyfriends, but they can be so much more.”
Her character Edna also writes fan fiction — stories that often end violently.
“That was inspired by the deep dive into fan fiction that I did when I started researching the project,” Blake said.
“I was so surprised to read all of these really smart stories by young women that were often really violent and really confronting. But I decided that the show needed to honour the kind of stuff that I read and needed to prove that if you’re a young woman, you’re not just going to write stories about kittens and holding hands.”
The life and death stakes of Edna’s fan fiction also hints at how many young women place the value of romance above self-actualisation.
“A lot of mainstream stories [for young women] reinforce the idea that romantic love is the highest goal and the most important thing,” she said.
“You can point to plenty of [One Direction’s] lyrics [and ask], ‘Who’s really in control here? Is it these young men? Who is it and what are their intentions?'”
But Blake argues that the agency of fangirls shouldn’t be dismissed so easily.
“If that’s how you feel about the product, is that then clouding how you feel about the people who enjoy it? And is there actually more to see when we think about young women screaming their lungs out with joy while listening to a pop song?”
Living vicariously through Fangirls
Until recently, the director of Fangirls, Paige Rattray was also dismissive of young pop music fans.
“I was judging young women … and wanting them to see what they were being sold and to rip away the idea that [women] had to be a particular thing to be desired,” Rattray said.
“But I hadn’t thought about what they were [gaining] from it.
“For young kids who have a hard time at school or at home, sometimes they can listen to this music and feel like they have a friend, and I hadn’t thought about it like that.”
By taking her desire to be with Harry from True Connection to extremes, Edna proves herself to be fiercely intelligent and resourceful. And although many of her actions are played for laughs, Rattray says the show’s message is that “young women can achieve anything if they put their mind to it”.
“That’s not something that you’re often told as a young woman. In fact, you’re told the opposite — you’re told that all of your feelings and your passions make you weak or hysterical.
“In one fell swoop, Yve [Blake] in Fangirls completely eliminates all of that and celebrates all of those things that we’re told that we should hide.”
One way Fangirls aims to win over its audience is to whip them into a frenzy in the show’s concert scenes involving its fictional boy band True Connection — and to do so, they’ve cast the genuine pop star Aydan as Harry.
Aydan was a finalist on The Voice in 2018 and in 2019 was shortlisted to represent Australia at Eurovision. Rattray credits his looks, talent and charisma with being a key part of the show’s success.
“He laps it up. He absolutely knows how to work a crowd and he’s fabulous — and he can dance!”
“He’ll just look at someone in those front two rows and they melt. I’ve seen 80-year-old women melt in front of my eyes.
“That’s the most beautiful thing about this show — it doesn’t matter how old you are, it turns you into a teenager and it lets you scream and celebrate screaming. I just think that is such a gift to any audience.
“I never went to those concerts when I was young because I grew up in the bush in Tassie, but I’m getting to live my teenage years vicariously through Fangirls.”
Fangirls had an acclaimed run at Queensland Theatre as part of the Brisbane Festival and is now on at Belvoir in Sydney.
Blake says they are having “exciting conversations” about it being staged elsewhere, but the next step in her journey will be developing Fangirls for the screen with UK company Clerkenwell Films.
“That will probably be my next big focus, as soon as I finish up playing a 14-year-old on stage eight times a week.”
Fangirls runs at Sydney’s Belvoir St Theatre until November 10.