(image by Erica Parrot)
I’m not a teenager any more. This is less a disclaimer than the kind of thing I have, at low ebbs of life, been tempted to force myself to write out a thousand times, detention style. The older I get the more paranoid I am about how little my focus is changing. I don’t want to get a real job or buy insurance. I don’t know what babies are for or which grapes make nice wine. I worry about all of it, as though the worrying about it might bring it closer to me, let me unlock the secret of adulthood. I want to have a meaningful adult life but most of the time I’d rather go to the movies. I talk to my psychologist about ‘identity foreclosure’ and she nods enthusiastically and gives me a book by an Auschwitz survivor that makes me feel like a total dickhead.
I like things too much. But not the right things.
Until a few weeks ago I didn’t know much about Tavi Gevinson. If I had, maybe I could have saved the 70 bucks on therapy. Tavi is a teenager. She edits Rookie, an online magazine for other teenage girls. And she’s famous. But I didn’t know anything about her until she said something insightful in the new documentary about Kathleen Hannah, which prompted me to google her, which prompted me to go to her MWF keynote address and write about it for the Brow. Still, I didn’t know what to expect from her talk. I took my place in a long line of girls and women waiting outside Melbourne’s Atheneum Theatre. I was impressed by the crowd and happy to be at a girl-event but I was still mildly anticipating annoyance, ready to take the high ground beside the shallow river of fashion, the innocuousness of internet culture, the cult of youth which rains by-lines on babies, or the cult of success that might make a baby want one.
But Tavi talked the uncertainty right out of me. She laid bare some important truths I’d been ignoring, a whole latent value system obscured by the labours of trying to make an adult life. Instead of talking about how to use the net to promote your brand, or about how cool certain combinations of clogs and frocks are, or what a spin-out it is to be famous, Tavi used her talk to investigate the category of the fangirl, both as the thing that she is, and as ‘fangirling’, the activity which makes her. Her talk moved through Powerpoint, anecdote and of course much fangirling over books, films, songs and TV shows, and became a manifesto that I would follow to the trenches.
If you are unsure about your terms, here’s a statement of the obvious: a fangirl is a girl who is also a fan of something, or someone. This is not a mild statement. Being a fan is not the same as pressing a ‘like’ button. A fangirl’s like is holy. In all occurrences fangirling is deeply linked with fantasy and dreams, but it also leads to fangirl behaviours: activities like home crafted memorabilia, collages that would impress serial killers, blogging, raving, poeming, love songing and rapturous thrashing of the body and vocal chords.
These are not activities we typically accord with much importance. Teen crushes, particularly teen-girl crushes are seen as shallow, naïve and sometimes even dangerous. The hoards of screaming girls waiting for The Beatles to get off the plane or mobbing the cast of Twilight outside some LA shopping centre are not afforded the epithet of a ‘movement’. There is, I think, a general feeling that this is just some primal girl-stupidity with no intrinsic value. The objects of fandom are often considered less than art. The fans are often seen as duped, brainwashed by clever marketing professionals, incapable of finding something useful to do.
To this, Tavi says no. Her talk is a manifesto because Tavi is an uber-fangirl who has brought this largely derided category into a glamorous spotlight. She is not a fraction of the mindless mass but a thoughtful and creative individual among many who proves how intellectually and emotionally engaging, but also productive fangirling can be. Fangirling allows you to connect with other people, she enthuses. It enlarges your world. “When I started becoming a fangirl, she says, I began seeing through other people’s eyes in a very thrilling way,” which is something any parent would love to hear their offspring say, because it means they not only have finely tuned empathy, but a creative outlook and the tools to work with others.
Fanning then, is a generative act. It produces new paradigms for traversing the world. For back up, Tavi interprets JD Salinger’s Frannie and Zooey as a tract that deifies the fan. Fanning isn’t just a way to occupy the mind while waiting for life to begin – it’s a way to enter life. The objects of the fan’s obsession help her reframe her world, connect with people and fight depression. In Tavi’s theorising of fandom, she even constructs a rudimentary fangirl ethics featuring ways to deal with various situations, such as when an artist you fan on betrays your love, or how to share the intensity of fanning by allowing other to “like things as you like unto yourself.”
At 17, Tavi is coming of age in a time when being a fan is the easiest and the hardest thing to do. She thinks a lot about authenticity and the value of the object. She considers the temptation to hide behind one’s taste. Sometimes she looks out over the world and sees “a sea of Facebook likes.” Sometimes it’s depressing. She takes to her bed to watch movies for hours. She feels better. She goes forth to fan again.
My sweetheart and I often argue about what it would be like to be a teenager in the internet age. As a fangirl myself, and one who lived way out in the country for much of my girlhood, all I can think is how great it must be to have access to all the cool stuff in the world, no matter how isolated you are. I could really have used This American Life, Chris Kraus or Royal Trux a decade earlier than I found them. But my sweetheart says that it’s precisely the difficulty of access that matters. It was the journey from the Blue Mountains to Sydney to go to Phantom Records that eeked out a fragile identity from the peers that would never understand. And once that special thing is found, it is loved all the more because of the search for it.
You can tell Tavi has thought this through to the edge of the abyss. She cops flak from older fashion writers for her ‘internet sensation’ status. She catches glimpses of blog-based take downs, snapping closed her computer, reciting an all purpose mantra that she’s borrowed from Kathleen Hannah – “what would Beyonce do?” She worries that, because of the internet, all her references are traceable. She worries about entitlement. In Rookie she interviews older artists (like Ghost World creator Daniel Clownes) who wax nostalgic for the days when you consumed the things you liked slowly, found things by chance, savoured every morsel. Taste was cultivated and nurtured, not downloaded in one day.
For better or worse, Tavi has the internet and it has her. Her aesthetic sense and her movement of thought are unequivocally sculpted by it. You can tell by the way she moves back and forth between texts, how she connects them to herself and spits them back up to the world. She says she feels happiest “when she is just a pair of eyes” but there is always more than that. And anyway, whether you are on a train to the city, or in your girl-room, connected to millions of other girl rooms with fibre optic rainbows, fandom reveals things about yourself that you just can’t Google.
This is perhaps what resonated most for me. When I think about my most rewarding experiences, they have often involved fanning out, alone or in company. I’ve sent fan mail to people who have made things that change my life, been fundamentally altered by rock concerts and theatre, queued up to stand tongue-tied in front of strangers. I’ve pulled apart and put back together everything I like and often found I like it all the more. This here, for instance—what I am doing right now—is immensely rewarding. I fangirled my way to Tavi via Kathleen Hannah and found connection with a room full of screaming girls. Now it’s generating not only a column, but an enlivened sense of myself in the world that neither therapy nor a tract on surviving Auschwitz could provide. But somehow, as we get older, this kind of activity is less valued. It’s not seen as productive – not like making money is productive, or building careers and families. Not that the revelation of this column is some stay-true-to-yourself or follow-your-dreams cliché, because apart from everything else, dreams often don’t lead anywhere. That’s part of their charm. You may well be better off inhabiting your dreams, like a girl-bedroom, full of creativity and hope but with no space for the dictates of the real world.
During the question time that follows her keynote talk, adults ask Tavi questions about how she manages her time. Between high school and Rookie and being famous, how does she stay productive? Adults love to talk about being productive. It’s a weird logic in this context because when adults talk about productivity they typically mean fighting the urge to waste time (say, watching TV or singing down the phone to your best friend) in order to use it to pursue valued outcomes. Tavi dodges the questions, but the answer is all over her face when she raves about mapping out her walk to school with scenes from movies and lines from songs, or when she shows the diagram of all the light and colour references in Fleetwood Mac songs. She’s spending her life in a way that adults tend to avoid. She’s cultivating obsessions and they fuel her. Far from being too young for such work she is precisely the right age, because teenagers are allowed to be obsessed with things. It fills the time between childhood and adulthood, when we, like Bella Swan entering some vampiric maternity must “put down childish things.”
But what do we lose when we underrate the intrinsic value in things like obsession, fangirling? A meaningful life is generally thought of in terms of connections forged through activity. This is something adults, in their isolation and ambition, tend to struggle with.
We take things very seriously. But not always the right things.
It’s one of the missions of feminism to reclaim the value of women’s work. Tavi has an instinctual handle on this when she lays the full force of her intellect on fangirling and reaches millions of others in the process. In The Whole Woman Germaine Greer makes the bittersweet argument that if you could harness the energy of women’s tears, it would power the whole feminist movement, perhaps the whole world. This is in itself a sad and powerful thought. It has stuck with me for years and occurs to me now in relation to Tavi’s fandom. She looks at One Direction and sees how the fangirls are really the most interesting thing there. Their screams and wailing have more weight and passion than any of the pre-fab band’s lyrics. Tavi wonders what motivates them, what lies between them, what they are thinking. What do they get from fanning out like that? What she is saying is that girls and women are interesting. They know things. Their activity is vastly more complex than what they can do for society. For me, the next question relates to Germaine’s – what can we power with fangirl energy?
While I don’t have an answer to this question (other than the enthusiastic notion that we could power ABSOLUTELY ANYTHING), I do have a related proposition. It is that in order to know what fangirling is capable of, we have to take Tavi’s lead and attribute it the importance it deserves. Because trivialising the praxis of fangirling (and it is praxis; theory in action) is to play into the oppressive mechanism where by women’s thinking is less valued than men’s thinking. Telling girls and women that the things they are thinking about and the things they are doing are trivial and silly has long been a tool of patriarchy. It’s an entrenched way to keep them from challenging an oppressive order. Feeling like the content of your mind is irrelevant stops you from speaking it. It’s horrifying to consider all the ideas that remain undeveloped, all the objections that remain unconsidered because of this trick.
It’s a good thing then, that Tavi is a success. It’s late capitalism and though we can ignore girls, we cannot ignore success. Rookie as a ‘product’ is a testament to the existence of widespread interest in the things that girls are thinking about. Not in terms of the things they will buy, because Rookie fashion edits tend not to have stockists listed and the site doesn’t carry advertorials that prey on young people’s insecurities about their bodies etc., but is rather a space for thoughtful yet unabashed fanning, and forging connections. It’s a living example of fangirling as something that generates thought and community. And, to use Tavi’s term, it’s happying. It fills the theatre with screams and applause. It makes me feel optimistic.
I’m not a teenager any more. But I am still a fangirl. This means I get to like things too much, and in the holy act of liking find the thing’s importance as well as my own. In the book signing line after Tavi’s talk, I’m reminded of perhaps the best part of being a fangirl – there is always the possibility that around the next corner there will be something new, something to enliven the world and send thrill through the eyes once again.
Briohny Doyle writes mostly about movies and the end of the world. Last year she watched a film every day and wrote about it on girlandgun.com.