omewhere, in the deep reaches of the dead web (RIP, Angelfire), there lies a graveyard of Buffy the Vampire Slayer fanfiction, written in a fury of hormones and despair by a bleary-eyed and broken-hearted 13-year-old. That I once loved something so completely it felt like ownership, that I used to make things simply to express that love, that all of that feeling could have been stirred up by a television show about a teenage girl fighting vampires fills me with a sense of wonder about my younger self, a girl I look back on with a tender brew of sadness and admiration.
There is a very particular kind of feminine power that accompanies the willingness to throw your whole heart at something that cannot love you back.
It’s impressive, that love, potent and singular, but since the people who populate fandoms are, for the most part, young women, the idea of fandom is ridiculed or plundered for profit without being respected or understood — as though pure adoration were something to be ashamed of. And yet fandoms thrive as vast ecosystems fueled and maintained mostly by the power of girls and women, where the only rule is that you love something more than the world tells you you should.
In the Buffy fandom, I found a community of like-minded people who encouraged me to create — they were, in fact, some of the first people to read my stories, the first to tell me I could be a good writer. And almost 20 years later, One Direction — a boy band! A concept so beloved by teenage girls that they couldn’t possibly be capable of making real art! — reminded me what it was to feel joy. The complete abandon with which I gave five teenage boys all the bits of my mashed-up 30-year-old heart allowed me to un-yoke myself from irony and sadness, to recapture a sense of wonder, and, miraculously, to leave an unfulfilling career and fall in love with my now-fiance.
Maybe our doe-eyed noodle prince, Harry Styles, said it best: “Who’s to say that young girls … have worse musical taste than a 30-year-old hipster guy? … Young girls like the Beatles. You gonna tell me they’re not serious? How can you say young girls don’t get it? They’re our future. Our future doctors, lawyers, mothers, presidents, they kind of keep the world going. Teenage-girl fans — they don’t lie. If they like you, they’re there. They don’t act ‘too cool.’ They like you, and they tell you. Which is sick.”
Here, five women talk about the fires they tended for the fandoms they loved, the communities they’ve built and the power of shared obsession.
Finding other people obsessed with One Direction was my first exposure to a proper fandom. I’d had other obsessions, but they’d often been pretty solitary. In high school, a friend and I recorded every NSYNC appearance and would watch them after school, and then in college I was really into Alias and The West Wing, but that was just me watching episodes over and over and thinking about them all the time. When I “found” 1D, it was through Tumblr, so in a way I found the fandom at the same time I found the band. And then, just a few weeks later, I met a group of women who also loved them, and being obsessed alongside them was just so fun.
I remember finding a clothes-sharing post on Tumblr — like a post that had documented all the times that Harry Styles and Louis Tomlinson had worn similar or identical pieces of clothing, and it was over several years, dozens and dozens of images. And I just loved how insane it was to have made this post, to have dug through the archives. I loved the commitment. And I loved that it was also hilarious. This beautiful, very fine line between genuine love and obsession and hilarious insanity.
My periods of obsession have always coincided with periods of depression. And with 1D, I needed something to bring me joy, and I found it in a group of four Brits and an Irish lad goofing off on stage. I very much remember when it was literally the only thing bringing me joy. But I have a lot that brings me joy now, including the relationships I made with people through that dumb band. I don’t need them in the same way I did at the beginning.
I recently read this Los Angeles Magazine story by Michelle McNamara, who was writing a book about an unknown serial killer in California that is now being published, and her description of being obsessed with unsolved murders and finding people online who felt the same way is, to me, exactly the same thing as being obsessed with whether Harry and Louis were in love. There is something very human about fandom and obsession and connecting with similarly obsessed people because we do it over and over in so many ways. I understand wanting to believe. I WANT TO BELIEVE. There’s nothing more true! It’s the human condition! And some of it is joyful and some of it is extremely dark, but it comes from a similar place of loneliness and wanting to connect and wanting to make sense of something.
American Idol, Glee, One Direction
I think I was 11 when I had my first experience in a fandom. I absolutely loved American Idol. (Being in that fandom for a year actually helped me learn graphic design and HTML.) Then I “joined” the Glee fandom in college when I saw Blaine singing “Teenage Dream” to Kurt. I made a Tumblr, starting reading fanfiction and made a few internet friends. Then I fell in love with One Direction in 2011, but I was a more casual fan.
All in all, I’ve always been in fandoms but never have been as active as someone in the thick of it. My Tumblr doesn’t look like a 1D blog. No one really knows I read fanfiction. I don’t like to participate in discourse because there’s always a lot of drama. I’m more of an observer. I’ve always been drawn to online communities just for an escape. It’s difficult to find people you share interests with in real life, but that is built in online. And being part of an online community gives you anonymity and the opportunity to leave at any time. You can’t just deactivate an IRL friendship like you would a blog or a Twitter account.
They are also a distraction. Fanfiction is an escape. Looking at pictures of Louis Tomlinson brought me joy. Watching Glee for an hour was sometimes the best part of my week during difficult college years.
When Blaine cheated on Kurt in season three of Glee, it made the communities extremely toxic. People were constantly at each others’ throats about why Blaine did what he did and why Kurt was wrong/right. It was no longer a fun, safe space for me. I’ve also faced that with the 1D fandom this past year. Now that all of the boys are solo, there is a constant need to compare their careers. I have my favorites, but at the end of the day, I love them all and want what’s best. I hate seeing people be cruel to the other boys to lift up their favorite one. There’s always in-fighting and defensiveness. And that’s not something I like to participate in. It can get toxic. People will send hateful anonymous messages because they think hiding behind the internet has no consequences. I find that people are very obsessive and let what happens in the online communities affect them outside of it.
Then again, when I moved to NYC in 2017, I only had a handful of friends, but the 1D Lady Slack [a Slack group for “older” women who love One Direction] connected me with a bunch of people that I am now friends with outside of the group chat. I have 1D to thank for that.
I wasn’t a “stan” of anyone before Beyoncé. I got my first CD when I was five years old, the Men in Black soundtrack. Track 11 is a record by Destiny’s Child called “Killing Time.” I first fell in love with her voice; her tone was so beautiful and evoked so much emotion. Within the next year, “Get on the Bus” and “No, No, No” were released. I remember watching the videos and putting a face to the vocals. My love grew a little more with each viewing, with the metallic and color-blocked clothing, sexy dresses, fly hairstyles. I never had a sister or older girl cousins, so in a strange way, Beyoncé felt like a sister. I saw something in the silly personality, the driven mindset, the self-confidence and the unapologetically black attitude, and I wanted to grow to be just like her. She made me feel like it was okay to be me and to not sacrifice myself for anyone.
The only time I can remember not being “involved” with the Beyoncé fandom was when I was a senior in high school. I was focused on college applications, a very rigorous track and field schedule, and just setting myself up for the future. Even still, I was making sure that I set time aside to interact with my fellow stans on BWboard.com. I had a few select stan friends that had my cell phone number and YIM and AIM names to alert me if anything big happened or if my favorite Beyoncé fanfic was updated so I knew to get to the message board as soon as I could.
I’ve traveled to different shows around the country during tours. I went to the Formation World Tour 15 times, On the Run (1) nine times, the Mrs. Carter Show Tour nine times…I’ll stop there before I embarrass myself. But in doing so, I’ve made friends that will last a lifetime. I’ve loved getting to know so many different people. It always feels like a family reunion when we get together.
But honestly, I hate stan culture now. It was way more fun when we were younger. Now it feels more about numbers and competition among other people in your own stan group and even other stan bases. The Navy and Beyhive are always shading each other about stupid things. It wasn’t always like this. It was about the love you had for your favorite artist. Now it’s become something else. Also, it sometimes kind of sucks having my face in the famous Beyhive image that every publication uses. I want to write on every article comment section, “I’m in the picture but I’m not crazy!”
My parents have never questioned my obsession. When I was 19, I went to Atlantic City to see four back-to-back concerts. When I made it through safely, I checked in with my parents and they said something along the lines of, “We didn’t quite understand your love for Beyoncé when you were a child, but we think we understand now and we appreciate the inspiration Beyoncé has been in your life since you were a kid.” That made me feel so secure. There were certain things she discreetly mentioned in her music that my parents never talked to me about, or if they did, they did so a little too late (sorry, Mom). Luckily, I had the tools to make decisions because I had the mind to think, Big sis B talked about this. This isn’t right, don’t listen to that. That guy is no good. He’s trying to run game. I forever am grateful to her for that. I feel she saved me from quite a few life-changing situations.
I’ve also had the chance to meet her a few times, and she is always so pleasant and fun. A few years ago, one of my good friends was dying of a terminal illness and at the 100th Mrs. Carter Show World Tour show in Louisville, she sang “Survivor” to my friend and just showed him so much love. That was his dying wish. To witness that happen and to see the strength it gave him to fight two more years until he died…I can’t put it into words.
Harry Potter, Glee, One Direction
I’ve always been fannish or around people who are fans of things, but I really fell into fandom as I know it through Harry Potter. It started with discovering the MuggleNet forums and discussing fan theories around pre-Order of the Phoenix. From there, I found people creating art, fanfic and music and knew that I wanted to be a part of it all. While I’m not super hyped on Harry Potter anymore, there have been little moments, like going to Barnes & Noble to purchase Cursed Child, that made me feel like I was a part of something special again.
I think what initially drew me to fan communities was just the ability to talk to someone about something and not have them look at me like I’d grown a second head. I have a big mouth, a lot of opinions and not enough people to unload them to, which is why I started writing meta [analytical essays that explore particularities of fandoms] for fandoms I’ve been in. It’s one thing to consume the media, but it’s another to really engage with the media. Interestingly enough, participating in fandom is what made me pursue a degree in media studies!
Falling out of love with a fandom is…difficult, but I think when your fannish behavior is performed online versus carried out in real life, the process is different. When I stopped caring about the Jonas Brothers around 16, it wasn’t hard because my fandom wasn’t on my sleeve. I just didn’t listen to their music anymore, stopped talking about them and didn’t watch anything with them in it. When I stopped watching Glee, however, the process was a little harder because my entire Tumblr was related to the show. It was a part of my online identity. Leaving fandom, especially in such a visible way, felt a lot like standing up and screaming on a table in a full cafeteria, then sitting down and pretending like nothing happened.
Harry Potter, The Social Network, Inception, One Direction
My first fandom was Harry Potter, which happened in middle school. I was probably 12 or 13 when I started getting involved with online forums. At that time, it was mostly theories about what was going to happen in the books that hadn’t been published, so the canon [the “real” universe, established by the creator and accepted as fact] was really important to me. That’s when I started reading fanfiction, and it was mostly, like, Harry and Ginny — very canonical, now kind of boring. As I got older, throughout high school, I started reading slash fic [fic that pairs same-sex characters], like Remus and Sirius. I was more interested in how the books could be continued and what parts of that world we weren’t seeing.
With Inception and The Social Network, I was only ever lurking. I’d read Tumblr and fic, but I wasn’t posting or participating at all. With Inception, the fic that was most popular was slash fic about Arthur and Eames, and that was so fascinating because there were only, like, five or six lines of dialogue in the film that they share, so there was so little canonical interaction, but it was so clear that they had this chemistry or that there was some backstory we weren’t seeing. And The Social Network was some of the first RPF [real person fic] I’d ever read. I still go back and read those once in a while, just because I think there was some really good writing happening there.
I revisited the Harry Potter fandom when I was in university, and this coincided with the point in time when I was coming out to myself, to my family and friends, and I got a lot more interested in queering the canon, in the creative things people were doing, pushing the envelope. I didn’t even care about the books, only about people’s interpretation of the world. The focus had moved from the thing itself to the community.
As I’ve gotten older, I’ve realized that J.K. Rowling’s world isn’t diverse at all, in any way, and every comment she’s made about that after the fact, about disability, religion, race, sexuality, has been a pretty big letdown. As a younger person, her world felt inclusive and welcoming, and now it doesn’t. You have to figure out how to hold these opposing thoughts: Even if the world itself, and the intentions with which it was created, were not as inclusive as I once thought or hoped, what I care about is how fans are creating that thing that they don’t see in reality. I don’t actually have to care that much about the thing itself; I can care more about what people are doing with it. This process has made me realize I can feel a lot of love for something and also critique it. Those things can live side-by-side, and that tension is actually interesting. But people in fandoms can be really black and white, like a thing is either perfect or horrible. I’m more interested in the in-between.
What do we do with that energy when it isn’t invested in something anymore? At certain times, I’ve just redirected that energy to other things that I’m obsessed with; with 1D, the moments I’ve been most invested have been when I didn’t have work or school or an internship or thesis to direct all my energy toward. Now, I’m trying to be a lot more conscious about the fact that this kind of space and community and discussion makes me really happy. I’ve tried to be more purposeful about my involvement because there is such a specific enthusiasm and joy there.
I also think the creativity in fandoms is like nothing else. It’s incredible that mostly women, young women, will work for hours and days and weeks to write stuff that they will give to the world for free, just for a comment or kudos. There is this spirit of working really hard on something because you love it and you know that other people love it. I really love that unbridled enthusiasm.
Illustrations by Juliana Vido.