I know two words that will make almost anybody roll their eyes.
By now, you have probably witnessed the revival of the boy band, on any number of social media outlets — three to six, barely pubescent, skinny-jean-clad boys posed with crossed arms or holding guitars. They’re modeling on the covers of teen magazines and tabloids, being interviewed on morning talk shows, and on the occasions that are quieted by the bands’ management teams, shading their eyes from the flashes of paparazzi cameras.
Boy bands are no new phenomenon. In the 1960s, there was John, Paul, George, and Ringo. Flash-forward to the 1990s—the boy band is revived by *NSYNC, Backstreet Boys, New Kids on the Block, and Take That, to name a few. And today, teenage girls have the likes of One Direction and 5 Seconds of Summer.
Over the course of this short history, we have seen an increase in blind hatred for not only the members of the bands, but the fans who are, more often than not, teenage girls. This prejudice is everywhere—it’s infiltrated the news and social media outlets, and it seems to be ingrained in every brain over the age of 20.
From an outside perspective, I understand why people dislike the obsessive nature of the fan base. Think about it: teenage girls willing to stay up all night for a new album, or camp out for hours in front of a hotel in a foreign city, all for a group of boys. Huge stadiums and arenas—literally, a whole football field’s worth of teenage girls—filled with hysterical fans willing to pay hundreds of their parents’ dollars to see their favorite band. Screaming. A whole lot of screaming.
It sounds crazy.
But we have to ask ourselves: Why are we so quick to silence their benign show of enthusiasm? Their behavior might be abnormal or excessive, but it’s otherwise harmless. Plus, their rabid devotion doesn’t go to a further extent than that of most fans of sports teams, and the sports fans’ behavior is completely condoned. In society, sports fans are accepted, while teenage girls are crucified.
As a teenage girl, I can confidently tell you that in the eyes of society, teenage girls can do no right. Magazines, television, and advertisements tell teenage girls what they’re supposed to like, and what they’re not supposed to like. If she conforms to these expectations, she’s an idiot who’s just hopping on the bandwagon and a crazy fangirl. If she’s interested in something else—say video games or science fiction—she’s immediately dubbed a “fake geek girl.”
Teenage girls are the easiest to criticize and the least stable, which is why we as a society should stop abusing them at every turn. Take it from me: teenage girls are at a time in their lives when they are constantly thinking about what other people think of them. Does he think I’m stupid? Fat? Stuck-up? Weird? What do they think about me? How can I change to seem better?
Boy bands provide an outlet for teenage girls who are seeking reassurance and acceptance. “I know you’ve never loved / The crinkles by your eyes / When you smile / You’ve never loved / Your stomach or your thighs / The dimples in your back at the bottom of your spine / but I’ll love them endlessly,” sings Liam Payne in “Little Things.” The underlying message of most of their songs is that you don’t have to change to be accepted—you will be loved and accepted, just the way you are.
In July 2013, the members of One Direction were the cover stars of GQ magazine. While the photoshoot was nice, Jonathan Heaf’s accompanying article was under fire for portraying the band as womanizers and the fan base as a cult of hormonal, sex-crazed teenagers. Heaf wrote, “By now we all know the immense transformative power of a boy band to turn a butter-wouldn’t-melt teenage girl into a rabid, knicker-wetting banshee who will tear off her own ears in hysterical fervor when presented with the objects of fascinations.”
It got worse. Heaf described the concert as “a dark pink oil slick that howls and moans and undulates with every impish crotch-thrust from their idols’ plinths. Thousands of female fans caught on the cusp of their own sexual awakening.”
As expected, the fans were infuriated, and for good reason. Heaf’s usage of sexualized language to describe teenage girls, especially coming from a 34-year-old man, wasn’t just wrong—it was creepy. Tumblr user cherrybina posted, “I want girls to be furious at the rampant misogyny and absolute contempt for teenage girls in this article… the phrase ‘teenage girl’ was an insult long before 1D came along.”
Heaf’s generalization that all fans of the band are sexually attracted to the boys is assumptive, harmful, and blatantly inaccurate. As impossible as it might sound to Heaf, there are fans of all sexual orientations who love boy bands—as well as male fans. It’s unfair to assume that everyone who knows the words to “What Makes You Beautiful” is interested in sleeping with Harry Styles.
So what about the girls who actually are, as Heaf writes, “caught on the cusp of their own sexual awakening”?
Well, what’s so wrong with that? Girls’ harmless crushes on boy bands provide a safe means of exploring their sexualities and romantic preferences. They find out what they like, what they want in a future relationship, and how it feels to date a boy, all from a safe distance. We have to consider the alternative here: Teenage girls discover their sexual awakenings from real-life teenage boys, who will demand real-life sexual favors and might not practice safe sex. Makes the boys on the radio sound like saints, doesn’t it?
As Professor Rachel Karniol writes in Adolescent Females’ Idolization of Male Media Stars as a Transition Into Sexuality, “Media stars are preferable as love objects because they are inaccessible, can serve as practice love objects on which to test new exciting feelings, to discuss and legitimize these feelings in one’s peer group, to play-act the role of caring for someone else, and fantasize about being loved back.” It might be synthesized love, but at least it’s safe.
And finally, has anyone noticed that the sexual awakening of teenage girls is the only sexual awakening being criticized? When boys talk about pornography, it’s totally normal—in fact, it’s an implicit coming-of-age ritual. When girls suggest that they’re attracted to Harry Styles, they’re suddenly deemed sex-crazy hormonal creatures with illegitimate interests. It’s a pervasive double standard that perpetuates the societal epidemic of rape culture. Is this really what we want to teach teenage girls?
It’s my hope that society reconsiders its opinion on boy bands and their fans—for its own sake, but more importantly, for the sake of the teenage girls. It’s also my hope that teenage girls ignore the h8rs and continue to be unabashedly enthusiastic about what they love. Even if Especially if it involves some fangirling.