a very long post about fetishizing teenage-girl fandom that, midway through, gets weirdly passionate. possibly toward the choir again. sorry.
Anwyn Crawford’s essay on female fandom is the most provocative/right-sounding discussion of this subject I’ve read:
Wordless, intensely emotional and undeniably sexual – this is the state in which teenage girls are understood to connect with music, and with those performing it. It is all in their bodies: they do not intellectualise; their opinions are instinctive rather than considered. Without rational judgement or the ability to articulate it, a teenage girl will always be a fan, never a critic.
I don’t have access to the full essay, but I’m assuming Crawford is presenting a caricature here, and goes on to explain what’s so bothersome about this attitude. (Update: Yes, of course she is.) It’s a way of thinking that gets trotted out a lot, though, and a lot of the time it wants to be a compliment, a tribute to raw passion. And I can remember something similar irking me from Caitlin Flanagan, once:
The salient fact of an adolescent girl’s existence is her need for a secret emotional life—one that she slips into during her sulks and silences, during her endless hours alone in her room, or even just when she’s gazing out the classroom window while all of Modern European History, or the niceties of the passé composé, sluice past her. This means that she is a creature designed for reading in a way no boy or man, or even grown woman, could ever be so exactly designed, because she is a creature whose most elemental psychological needs—to be undisturbed while she works out the big questions of her life, to be hidden from view while still in plain sight, to enter profoundly into the emotional lives of others—are met precisely by the act of reading.
This sounds romantic and is being used as praise, but I think that’s precisely what’s dangerous about it. And when it comes to teenage-girl fandom and music criticism, I’m incredibly, massively skeptical of the kind of claim Crawford’s satirizing up top, even when it’s put in romantic, complimentary terms.
It’s not just the essentialism of it, though that’s a problem — this kind of claim is made all the time about things that people who aren’t white men enjoy. It’s physical, it’s instinctive, it’s beyond rationality. (Alternately: it’s primitive, it’s in their blood.)
More importantly, it completely gives up the game, in multiple ways. By saying that it’s instinctive and beyond articulation, you wind up encouraging people not to bother trying to articulate it. And you wind up crediting someone else — in this case, boys and men — with having tastes and opinions that are rational, intellectual, and well-articulated. But here’s the thing: there is no evidence that this is remotely true. In the least. The idea is kind of laughable.
The difference, in this discussion, is that a lot of boys and men have been inducted into a framework — a way of talking and thinking, a set of codes and habits, possibly called “criticism” — that allows them to talk about their gut instincts in a way that feels rational and analytical. It’s a language that some people get lots of chances to pick up and others don’t. The language is different from the instincts it’s used to talk about. And when you start saying that teenage-girl instincts are just inherently different — more physical, beyond articulation — you are basically creating a rationalization that tells them to give up. Don’t bother trying to learn the framework other people use to talk about this stuff. Don’t bother trying to change that framework. Don’t bother trying to create a new or different framework. Don’t bother engaging at all.
The message remains that you might as well just sit silently in the corner and leave everything to guys — except now you can console yourself by feeling superior about it, because your feelings are so primal and passionate and above being expressed. And hey, I am not above feeling smug about things I feel shut out of — it’s a pretty reasonable response — but it doesn’t exactly accomplish much.
And I will totally confess to and own the possibility that I have a pretty masculine mentality about this stuff, because one solution that sticks out to me is just to participate anyway. Learn the existing language, or make your own language, or whatever, but please just do it. I know: the world does a ton of insidious stuff to people (women) to make them feel like they’re not allowed to participate in things, or erode their confidence about it, and some folks will go out of their way to perpetuate that. I know: there is a bunch of personal privilege and arrogance involved in my telling anyone to just do it. But still. I remember reading this, from Sady Doyle at Tiger Beatdown:
SADY: Yes! So I got a guitar, and I told all of the boys in school with Kurt Cobain haircuts that if they wanted to help me learn this “guitar,” we could be in a band together. … And then one of them, the cutest one, the one that I liked best, told me why I was not getting any positive responses. He sat me down, and he said: “The thing is, we don’t play girl music.” And now I am a blogger, and still cannot play guitar, although my brother can, because I gave it to him, THE END.
And can I tell you how much this depressed me? I play guitar. Not because anyone helped me learn, but because I sat in my room for hours when I was 14, listening to records and picking out parts. Nobody wanted to be in a band with me then. My mother threw away my first guitar. The first real band I was in was with three girls. This is the opposite of me picking on Sady — this is me being really depressed that teenage Sady was made to feel like she needed boys with Kurt Cobain haircuts to help her get involved, while I’d been made to feel like I could just involve myself. And obviously Sady’s fine, but — this is my mentality speaking — I kinda wish she’d just learned the fucking guitar!
Anyway. That Flanagan quote up top might be playing into something similar. It also has a huge epistemological problem.* So far as I can tell, in modern American society, adolescence is the big period during which boys and girls can be most foreign to one another, the great post-childhood separation we can spend the rest of our lives trying to recover from. (Sort of.) Flanagan sounds a little like she’s romanticizing her own experience of that period. But how does she (or how do I, or how do you) know how it compares to the alternatives? How confident is she in her knowledge of the “secret emotional lives” of boys — I mean, they’re a secret, aren’t they? (And aren’t boys taught to be weird and secret about emotions in a very particular way?)
There’s an assumption that certain boys know what they’re doing. They’re open books, full of agency, rational; they do what they do because they choose to do it. There are areas where that’s true. But I seriously beg everyone reading this not to start thinking of this as a major truth. Boys and men may be taught certain ways of talking or codes of behavior that make it look like we’re in control of things — that is a big part of what “masculinity” is, and masculinity is what we’re taught — but I really feel like any woman or girl who starts taking that bait, who starts agreeing that her instincts are primal and passionate and can’t be articulated, while those of the men around her are in any way more intellectual or competent … this is a recipe for people getting sidelined. (And then saying the bench is more comfortable than the game anyway.)
I intend all of this as basically cheerleading and not argument — and as an explanation for why I personally don’t ever want to wind up fetishizing the fandom of teenage girls as some kind of mysterious special category.**
[UPDATE: If you just found and read this from a link at Feministing, thanks! You might also want to look for Anwyn Crawford, whose essay — not fully available online — started this conversation. You are probably better off listening to her about this stuff than listening to me.]
* I mean, elsewhere in the piece she claims that having parents divorce is harder on girls than boys, which may be 100% true — only she’s not claiming it based on reviewing opinions or studies from child psychologists, she’s claiming it based on what seems like a gut instinct that girls are just sensitive like that.
** It’s possible I’ve made that mistake in the past; if so, I was wrong!