Lay off teenage fangirls; all feelings are real. Photo: Getty
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Why do we mock teenage girls who love One Direction when Top Gear fans are just the same?

The online mockery of fans of Zayn Malik, who left One Direction the same day Jeremy Clarkson was fired, would never be levelled at grown-up sports or Top Gear fans.

The rumours and speculation had been flying for days, but last week it was made official: a beloved British group was losing a member. This group has been one of the UK’s biggest cultural exports, a fact eulogised by a fan who wrote that, “the best thing to ever come out of Britain, perhaps even the entire entertainment business, is gone...” Another fan wrote, “I want to cry... :´(” The departure was met by extreme emotion: raw feels were on display across the web, long stories from fan after fan about how these boys saved them from depression and gave their lives purpose - and more than a million people signed a petition to bring this man back.

But Jeremy Clarkson is still a bigoted asshole who drunkenly punched a subordinate in the face while tossing out ethnic slurs, and, thankfully, even a billion signatures won’t bring him back to host Top Gear. If the same description could have been written about Zayn Malik, the member of One Direction who announced his departure from the band the day Clarkson was fired, the synchronicity wasn’t lost on the meme-creating internet: they superimposed Malik between Richard Hammond and James May on the test track and popped Clarkson’s head onto Malik’s body in 1D’s “What Makes You Beautiful” video, with results that are sort of hilarious but mostly horrifying. (Malik is totally free to grab his crotch; Clarkson is not.)

Drop into any Top Gear thread online right now and in between bouts of vitriol for the BBC and the left’s stranglehold on the media and some obligatory off-topic immigrant-bashing, there’s a genuine outpouring of emotion for the Top Gear that was: these fans, mostly (grown) men, are offering up their vulnerabilities, talking about how the show was always there for them - a comfort, something to look forward to every week.

You might hate Top Gear’s presenters, but you can have compassion for the people who will miss the show. Drop into any 1D thread right now and you’ll notice that even though the language is different, maybe even incomprehensible to you, the sentiment is the same: these fans, mostly (underage) teenage girls, have flooded social media with that same outpouring of emotion, for Malik’s departure or for the end of the group as it’s always existed. It should be easy to have compassion for people who love something and lose it. You’ve probably experienced it yourself.

It should be easy - but then, how often are we easy on teenage girls? A high-profile departure, heartbroken fans, and an avalanche of media coverage. So guess which group has been met with a barrage of abuse from the adults of the internet - and then maybe take a stab at guessing why. I mean, a teenage girl probably is too stupid to understand the difference between someone leaving a band and someone dying, so it’s lucky there are kind commenters who write things like, “HE DID NOT DIE MORONS,” one of a few dozen similar sentiments I read in a Buzzfeed article. “What a bunch of pathetic losers. Grow up!” wrote one commenter at the Telegraph.

Many of these grown-ups felt compelled to tell these young people that 1D are “not the Beatles”; one of them eschewed the Beatles completely and wrote, “Frankly, ABBA disbanding was a bigger deal than one little millennial leaving a band no one really cares about. Toughen up, KIDS!” But one commenter did heed a call for compassion: “The most compassionate thing for these morons is a bullet through the head.” (This was met with, “Thank you, Mr Clarkson,” so I really felt like we’d come full circle at this point.)

And as expected, the Guardian was there with snarky false sympathy in full force:

Tumblr, presumably, is even worse. I say presumably because who has the emotional stamina right now to check it? This is a sad day, and it will only take one enthusiastically drawn piece of glittery fan art depicting Zayn as a naked Jesus on the cross, bleeding rainbows from his wrists, to collectively push us over the edge.

Good prompt! I’ll get drawing.

Why do One Direction fangirls bother people so much? Why do their emotions, and the way they perform that emotionality, seem to anger complete strangers? Why do adults parade their ignorance of a staggeringly successful pop act—and why do they feel the need to scold, mock, or offer the girls who love it “a bullet through the head”? Why are screaming girls, overcome with excitement for a group they love, considered a punch line, the pinnacle of immaturity, and something extraordinarily shameful, when the largely male, adult crowds at sporting events openly weep, bellow, paint their naked bodies in bright colours, clutch each other, and even commit physical violence due to emotion, both when their teams lose and when they win? There might be a lot of screaming and crying at a boy band concert, but when was the last time someone punched a fellow fan at one, or set fire to a car out of joy?

High emotionality (fan studies scholars call it “affect”) during the match is part of the pleasure of being a sports fan - I know, I’ve been there, too (my beloved American football team lost the Super Bowl four years in a row). But I’ve also gone to pieces over fictional characters and celebrities; so many girls do. I actually got teary just last night thinking about a character who was killed on TV six years ago. We are emotional creatures, and these emotions come out in groups, bolstered by the like-minded and equally enthusiastic. But there is a sports section in every newspaper in the world - and I have heard men hold forth at length about the importance of sports, on a psychological level. So what’s the difference here? Boy band or football team, you’re still a group of people screaming in some kind of stadium.

If you scoff at the parallels I’m drawing, you need to question why. Because the disparity here is directly related to gender, and being a girl is used as an insult more often than it’s celebrated. Look at the advert that caused a stir at this year’s Super Bowl, Always’ #LikeAGirl campaign, in which adults asked to “run like a girl” and “throw like a girl” did some floppy and flailing parody of those actions—and then young girls, not yet taught to doubt themselves and their bodies, ran and threw with graceful strength and confidence.

Screaming and fainting girls are often said to be overcome with “hysteria,” a concept with a long history that is explicitly gendered. Hayley Krischer’s recent piece in The Hairpin, “Hysteria and Teenage Girls,” does an extraordinary job breaking this down: she traces the historical roots of women freaking out over things—and men freaking out in response and trying to diagnose the causes. “In Ancient Egypt, hysterical disorders were said to be caused by ‘spontaneous uterus movement within the female body,’ she writes. From Hippocrates all the way up to Freud, highly emotional women were considered out-of-whack because they weren’t getting enough sex—their uteruses were “not satisfied” and spread toxic vapors around the body. In 1883, a French physician wrote, “all women are hysterical and…every woman carries with her the seeds of hysteria.” Or, in Krischer’s words, “Women don’t need a reason to be hysterical. We just are.”

A lot of it is about control, something Krischer and other feminist scholars have outlined. A screaming mass of girls feels uncontrollable—even when it’s a thousand times more controllable than a stampeding crowd at a sporting event—and to see that emotionality played out on social media, hundreds of thousands of retweets every time a member of 1D strings a sentence together, puts the full depth of feeling on display. These same comment threads were dotted with sympathetic recollections of Robbie Williams leaving Take That or other devastating pop culture moments from peoples’ childhoods. But it’s impossible to know what that would have looked like transposed onto the shape and pace of the modern social web. John Lennon certainly would have gotten hundreds of thousands of retweets every time he strung a sentence together.

It’s worth stating that there are some behaviours I’ve seen in the past week that should not be condoned. Crying over a band is completely fine (and natural); harming yourself because of them is not. The #Cut4Zayn hashtag has been used more than 174,000 times in the past week, some accompanied by pictures of bloody arms and messages threatening Zayn, things like, “Stay in 1D or I will cut myself.” Cutting is a deadly serious problem - if anyone should be met with compassion, it’s these girls, who should seek professional support. No boy, in a pop group or otherwise, warrants that.

It’ll take Jeremy Clarkson’s fans some time to adjust to life without Top Gear as we’ve known it; it’ll take One Direction’s fans some time to adjust to the band as a foursome, follow Malik to his next project (which he’s already announced), or both. Falling in love with a show or a band can be alarmingly easy; we shouldn’t be surprised that a break-up is hard.

I saw more than a few commenters insisting that when 1D fangirls grew up, they’d know what real problems were. This is a massively presumptuous statement, one that suggests these girls don’t have real problems right now, that they can’t be torn up over a boy band while simultaneously struggling with family troubles or mental or physical illness or poverty or bad relationships or any of the other million things young girls struggle with daily. All feelings are real; all problems are real too. You might not like what someone loves, or the way they show their love for it, but if it doesn’t harm you, then what’s the sense in condemning it?

 

Elizabeth Minkel is a staff writer for The Millions, and writes a regular column on fan culture for the New Statesman. She is on Twitter @ElizabethMinkel.

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Social media tome #Republic questions the wisdom of crowds

Cass R Sunstein explores how insulation pushes groups towards more extreme opinions.

Cass Sunstein, one of the leading public intellectuals in the United States and a former Obama administration official, has worried and written for more than 15 years about the effects of the internet and digital communications on democracy. This book, his third on the subject, tackles social media.

The heart of his argument lies in the cumulative, collective effect of what individuals do online. Networking, shopping, dating and activism are all transformed by the engine of opportunity that is the internet. But those new links and choices produce a malign side effect: “filter bubbles”, inside which like-minded people shut themselves off from opinions that might challenge their assumptions. Insulation pushes groups towards more extreme opinions.

Sunstein’s organising principle is the ­difference between consumer and political sovereignty. The former promotes individual choice despite its possible consequences; the latter takes into account the needs of society as a whole. His inspiration is Jane Jacobs, the historian of US cities who celebrated, in poetic language, the benign and enriching effect on democracy of random encounters between citizens on pavements and in parks. How do we now reverse or dilute the polarisation driven by Facebook and Twitter?

The solutions Sunstein proposes for this very difficult problem are oddly tentative: websites stocked with challenging ideas and deliberative debates, voluntary self-regulation and “serendipity buttons”. He rightly stresses transparency: we know far too little about the algorithms that sift news for our attention on the networks. Facebook has talked about trying to show news that is “engaging” and “interesting”, without ever engaging in detailed public discussion of what these words mean. The disclosure requirements for social networks “require consideration”, Sunstein writes, without saying whether Facebook might have to be required legally to explain precisely how it routes news to almost two billion users.

Sunstein’s most interesting arguments are myth-busters. He questions the “wisdom of crowds”, while refraining from pointing out directly that the single strongest argument against this idea is the inequality of opinions. Not all opinions are equally valuable. He warily suggests what only a very few American voices have so far dared to say: that the First Amendment to the constitution, which guarantees a free press, should not be treated – as the courts have recently tended to do – as an equally strong protection for the freedom of all speech.

Sunstein is nostalgic for the media system and regulation of the past. I spent years working for a daily “general-interest” newspaper (the Times) and regret the decline of those outlets as much as he does, yet there is no reversing the technological and economic changes that have undermined them. It might have been a mistake to deregulate television in the United States, and killing the “fairness doctrine” might have had unforeseen effects, but that does not deal with the dilemmas thrown up by WhatsApp or Weibo, the Chinese version of Twitter.

Users of these platforms face the problem of managing abundance. Writers such as Sunstein imply that people who lock themselves in filter bubbles are deplorably unable to break out of their informational isolation. But we all now live in bubbles that we design to make sense of the torrent of information flowing through our phones. Better-designed, heterogeneous bubbles include the unexpected and the challenging.

Yet the problem lies deeper than the quality of your bubble. Polarised societies can no longer agree on how to recognise the truth. Filter bubbles play a part, but so do a preference for emotion over reason, attacks on scientific fact from religion, decades of public emphasis on self-fulfilment, and a belief that political elites are stagnant and corrupt. Like many journalists, Sunstein treats the problem of a malfunctioning communications system as a supply-side matter: the information being generated and distributed ought to be better.

In the case of fake news, that is indisputable. But there is also a demand-side problem, one that hinges on the motives of those consuming information. If, inside their bubbles, people are not curious about alternative opinions, are indifferent to critical thinking and prefer stoking their dislike – of, say, Hillary Clinton – will they have even the slightest interest in venturing outside their comfort zone? Do we have a right to ignore the views of others, or an obligation to square up to them? Millions of Americans believe that one of the most important guarantees in their constitution is the right to be left alone – and that includes being left alone by the New York Times.

Sunstein does not venture far into this territory. He only hints that if we worry about what people know, we must also worry about what kinds of societies we build. Globalisation has reshaped communities, dismantling some and building others online, but the net effect has been to reduce deliberation and increase a tendency to press the “Like” button, or loathe opponents you can’t see or hear. The ability to debate civilly and well may depend on complex social chemistry and many ingredients – elite expertise, education, critical thinking, culture, law – but we need to be thinking about the best recipes. 

George Brock is the author of “Out of Print: Newspapers, Journalism and the Business of News in the Digital Age” (Kogan Page)

#Republic: Divided Democracy in the Age of Social Media
Cass R Sunstein
Princeton University Press, 328pp, £24.95​

George Brock is a former managing editor of The Times who is now head of journalism at City University in London.

This article first appeared in the 22 June 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The zombie PM

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