Fangirls: Nonfiction Book Review


 Fangirls by Hannah Ewens

I barely have words to share how much I love this book. I freak out every time I read a book about fandom because there is nothing better than to see fandom (especially that driven by teen girls) taken seriously and recounted academically, but this book manages to be even more. The book feels so warm and genuine. It's also such a complete picture of what fandom is. Hannah doesn't shy away from getting into some of the scarier or less flattering parts of the world, but she does it in a way that points out the why behind it and isn't done in a shaming way. At the end of the book, she talks about how so much of the documentation of her teen fandom is gone because internet platforms have migrated and gotten deleted and just lost to the vortex of the internet. Her intent with the book was twofold. She wanted to document what it means to be a fan to keep that important pop culture history, but she also wanted to center the story around fan stories in their own words. Each chapter uses references to pop culture and fandom scholars, but it is mostly structured around the many interviews she conducted with diehard fandom members from around the world. A major focus of the book is how the public perception of fandom is crafted from the male perspective not understanding the intricacies of fandom for women and queer people. Hannah wants to take the narrative back and give these fandoms a place to tell their own, complete stories. She achieves that and creates a complete picture with all the accurate, endearing details that will win over anyone who has ever tied their identity to an artist for any period of time. She also manages to perfectly capture what it means to be a fan today in heavily internet based fandoms as well as what it means to be an older fan today, a fan in the time before Twitter, and what its like to be an international fan outside of the West. Hannah considers the political implications and the intricacies that go into dismissing fandom as a giant group of little girls. In a way, anything about what girls touch and how the world perceives it will be inherently political, but Hannah does a great job of acknowledging that not everyone falls along the gender boundaries and other intricacies that go into the wider conversations of trying to break fandoms down into carefully considered groups. She also talks about the role that race and privilege plays in fandoms. Overall: 5+++

The chapters and outline of the book are constructed in such a fascinating way. Each chapter focuses on a specific fandom and uses events in their fandom and accounts from the fans to talk about a universal facet that you find in all fandom. It's so well thought out, and each chapter goes on a brilliant loop that starts and ends with a personal anecdote that keeps the book grounded. There is so much information and insight in these pages, that I grabbed a pen and a marker and annotated the book in a way I hadn't done for a book that wasn't for school. I was so fascinated by everything that was being said, and I felt both understood and academically engaged. Being a fandom scholar would be the coolest job on the planet, and I'm glad people are giving it the care and research the topic deserves. 

Back to the chapters themselves, she covers ten different fandoms. It starts with arguably one of the biggest, the One Direction fandom where she starts by taking on the classic portrayal of the rabid fangirl, screaming with tears running down their cheeks. She talks about how the world loves laughing at these girls and mostly focuses on a Channel 4 documentary that painted them in the least flattering light. While she talks about a lot of the same history that starts every fandom book, she also looks at the flaws in some fans disavowing the kind that stand in front of news cameras screaming and crying. What does it mean to police others fandom? Is it giving into the wider idea of dictating how girls are allowed to express their emotions? 

Then we go to stories outside of venues like Brixton Academy to read profiles of fans who have spent days camping outside of venues. This was the chapter where I knew I was hooked. She captured both the thrill and the misery of sleeping in the street for days for the promise of barricade. It's an experience so few people understand, but there's a magic in the time you spend waiting. She talks about the competition around how many gigs you go to, and the family you find waiting in line outside a gig. 

After that, she dives into emo bands and using music as a vessel to get through hard times. She talks about finding solace in their lyrics and the comfort of knowing that there are people struggling like you are and yet they're still doing amazing things with their life. This chapter uses that framing to talk about moral panics as a way to police what teen girls are allowed to love and the fear that conservative bodies have of girls breaking the status quo. 

Lady Gaga frames out the next chapter because of her unique relationship with fans, always stopping to give hugs or at least send a hot coco to the girls waiting outside the hotels. There was a shift, though, in these interactions in recent years, generally conceding with the flare up of Gaga's chronic pain. The chapter revolves around the idea of the body of the idol and every fan's desire to meet their favorite artist. Every reason is different but mostly because their favorite artist can affirm something for them or prove they matter. Some just want to thank them. Also, Hannah dips into the idea of fans feeling like they know their favorite artist and can sense changes in them, even through the internet. She shows the tax that being everything to so many people can have on the person leading the charge. It was quite the thoughtful chapter. 

Then came the chapter devoted to Fall Out Boy, and more broadly, fandom as a safe space to explore sexuality. She delves into fan fiction and the corners of fandoms that aren't even meant for artists. Hannah does a great job of capturing the differing opinions on this area of fandom, and she also talks about the empowerment in the safety of loving a far away, removed person. Mostly, she emphasizes that these stories and fantasies are more about the fan than they are remotely about the artist as a person. 

The second half of the chapter zones in on Halsey, which was cool. I haven't seen much written about her fandom, and I've found it to be such a lovely, supportive place. The discussion around Halsey was mostly used to center the LGBTQ+ inclusivity facet of fandom. She's unique in the music world (though less so now) in that she is always has been openly bi and proud of it. She's also always been about making fans feel safe and included. Her confidence and self-assurance made questioning teens gravitate to her, and her internet savy and membership in other fandoms gave her her original platform and a sense of approachability. Even though access has been scaled back and her fandom is less of a queer space than it once was with her growing popularity, that is still her base. It was a really beautiful chapter about acceptance and love and how for some people, seeing someone like Halsey is a big part of that. 

After that, Hannah jumps into the tricky waters that is encapsulating the Beyhive. Beyonce is the opposite of most of the artists in this book. She's barely on social media, she doesn't do interviews, and no one knows anything about her personal life anymore. She'll drop an album every few years and disappear. She doesn't fuel the fandom. The fandom swirls around her and defends her in her silence. They're almost stronger without her, but Beyonce gives black women a safe space to come together and unite. It's interesting as this fandom tends to be significantly older, more women than girls and organized in different Facebook groups. This chapter takes on the way that Beyonce's fans have gotten the brunt of the blame for cyberbullying fandoms and how that aggressive picture is tinged with racism, but it's also used as a jumping off point for a larger conversation around if the artist really has command over their fans and what they do in their name. 

Then there's the chapter on Harry Styles. Instead of covering similar territory of One Direction, Hannah widens her scope to really delve into Japanese fandom. She covers how their devotion works differently- more through collecting as much merch as possible- because of how JPop fandom is constructed. Artists who take off in Japan, the world's second largest music market understand how the Japanese like to participate in fandom, through official fan clubs that wouldn't work as well anywhere else in the world. Harry has captured that through One Direction, and he understands how amazing and unique they are as crowds. He played "Girl Crush" without a mic from the rafters of one of his last gigs in Japan. Harry loves Japan, and I thought it was so cool that Hannah highlighted that. She also talks to the girls around that gig about what its like being an international fan and how that makes even online interactions different. It was fascinating and beautifully done. It's a highly important part of the fan world that often gets ignored. 

Ariana Grande and the Manchester bombing is the subject of the next section. This chapter made me cry and I never cry, but reading the first hand accounts and that sinking feeling of how I've been in so many arena concert situations like that struck close to home. Also, it hurt to think about how so much trauma could become associated with something that offers joy and escape and peace. From this conversation, she ties it back into the gender divide in music and how people refuse to acknowledge blatant attacks against women. She talks to the man who tried to get the terrorist attack labeled gender terrorism. Most outlets refused to acknowledge how it wasn't just a statement against music and the west but against young girls and women celebrating together. It was extra poignant given that Ariana is such a symbol of owning your sexuality and your life as a woman. She talks about the empowerment of everyone coming back together and healing as one. It was such a powerful moment that considered many different points of view. 

The final two chapters centered on older fans and disconnected fandoms. She chronicles how Amy Winehouse's death, propelled by the horrible media coverage and then glossed over in tributes impacted her true fans. She captures a fandom who had an intimate connection to the artist but less so to each other. In the second chapter, she talks about fandom as an adult through the eyes of Courtney Love fans. This isn't the only instance of adult fandom in the book, but it's the most compelling portrait of it. It was cool to read about adults, despite getting busy with life and changing points of view, had held their music love close to their chest. It gave me hope that these connections won't be easily lost. 

All of these individual portraits come together to make an extremely powerful and empowering statement. I will hold this marked up book that I have all but destroyed close to my heart for a very long time. This is a history book I want to read and an academic world I want to engage with. Fandom is one of the most beautiful things I have encountered in my short lifetime, and it's so often misunderstood. This is a portrait that captures it all and could even make an outsider understand why these girls cry at the barricades.

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