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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Cake or Death: why The Great British Bake Off is the best thing on television

Those who are complaining that the show has “caved in to political correctness” have missed the point.

The Cake is a Lie. That’s what viewers of the Great British Bake Off, now in its fifth season, are complaining about in the run-up to this week’s final. Out of thousands of amateur bakers who applied, three have made it through the gruelling rounds of Mary Berry’s disapproving pucker and faced down blue-eyed Cake Fascist Paul Hollywood’s demands without a single underbaked layer or soggy bottom in sight - and two of them aren’t white. The subsequent crypto-racist whining from PC-gone-madattrons in the press - one paper suggested that perhaps poor Flora, who was sent home last week, should have baked a "chocolate mosque" - runs against the whole spirit of Bake Off.

The charge is that the competition is not merit-based, and the entire basis for this complaint seems to be that two out of the finalists are of Asian origin - which makes total sense, because everyone knows that white people are better than everyone else at everything, including baking, so obviously it’s political correctness gone mad. The fact that last week Nadiya Hussain, a homemaker from Luton who happens to wear a hijab, baked an entire fucking peacock out of chocolate biscuits had nothing to do with it.

For those of you who mysteriously have better things to do with your time than watch 12 British people prat about in a tent, let me tell you why all of this matters. The best way to explain what's so great about The Great British Bake Off is to compare it to how they do these things across the pond. In America, they have a show called Cupcake Wars, which I gamely tuned into last year whilst living abroad and missing my fix of Sue Perkins getting overexcited about Tart Week. 

Big mistake. Cupcake Wars is nothing at all like Bake Off. Cupcake Wars is a post-Fordian nightmare of overproduction and backstabbing filmed under pounding lights to a sugary version of the Jaws soundtrack. Contestants mutter and scheme over giant vats of violent orange frosting about how they're going to destroy the competition, and they all need the prize money because without it their small cupcake businesses might fold and their children will probably be fed to Donald Trump. Every week a different celebrity guest picks one winner to produce a thousand cupcakes - a thousand cupcakes! - for some fancy party or other, and it’s all just excessive and cutthroat and cruel. Cupcake Wars is Cake Or Death.

Bake Off is quite different. Bake Off is not about the money, or even really about the winning. Bake Off is a magical world of bunting and scones and dapper lesbian comedians making ridiculous puns about buns and gentle, worried people getting in a flap about pastry. There are very few hysterics. Legend has it that if anybody has a real breakdown in the middle of a signature bake, presenters Mel Giedroyc and Sue Perkins stand next to them repeating brand names and swear-words so the cameramen can’t use the footage, and don’t you dare disabuse me of that fact, because I want it to be true. The prize money, in a desperately British way, is almost never mentioned, nobody tries to sabotage anyone else’s puff pastry, and at the end whoever has to leave gives a brave little interview about how it’s a shame but they tried their best and they were just happy to be there and they’re definitely going to do some more baking almost as soon as they get home. 

Bake Off is the theatre of the humdrum, where fussy, nervous people get to be heroes, making macarons as the seas rise and the planet boils and the leaders of the world don't care that they've left the oven on. I’m always a little bit frightened by people who can bake, because I can’t even make a muffin out of a packet, although one danger of watching too much Bake Off is that you become convinced you ought to give it another try, and I apologise to my housemates for making them eat my savoury vegan chilli-chocolate cookies (don’t ask). They say that if you can bake a cake, you can make a bomb, and by that logic I should definitely be kept away from the explosives when the zombie revolution comes- but the Bake Off contestants are probably the sort of people who will be Britain’s last line of defence, quietly constructing landmines and apologising that the stitching on the flag of insurrection isn’t quite perfect. People with this specific and terrifying personality type are that are precisely the reason Britain once had an empire, as well as the reason we’re now rather embarrassed about it. 

For now, though, Bake Off is a gentle human drama about all the best bits of Britishness- and diversity is part of that. In fact, this isn’t even the first time that two out of three finalists have not been white - that was two years ago. But something seems to have changed in British society at large, such that the same scenario is now more enraging to the kind of people who get their jollies from spoiling everything lovely and gentle in this world with casual bigotry - they know who they are, and may their Victoria sponges never rise and all their flatbreads turn out disappointingly chewy.

Britain is getting harder and meaner, and even Bake Off is not immune. In the first season, it was more than enough to bake a half decent brioche. This season an affable fireman got sent home because the grass on his miniature edible Victorian tennis court was not the right shade of green, and I’m not even joking. In one of the challenges the bakers had to produce an arcane french dessert that looked like the turds of a robot angel, and most of them actually managed it. The music is getting more dramatic, the close-up shots of flaky chocolate pastry and oozing pie-lids more reminiscent of 1970s pornography. It’s all a bit much.

The human drama, though, is as perfectly baked as ever. Lovely Flora, the baby of the bunch who missed out on a spot in the final because her chocolate carousel centrepiece was slightly wonky, was actually one of my favourites because she's so deliciously millennial, with her pussy-bow collars and obsessive, Type-A attention to detail. Paul the Prison Officer was a delight, mainly because he looked so much like Paul Hollywood- cue six weeks of two enormous men called Paul having bro-offs over bread, nodding and trading gruff, dudely handshakes over the specific crunchiness of biscotti. One week, Prison Officer Paul produced a giant dough sculpture of a lion's head and Judge Paul gave him a special prize and then they probably went off into a gingerbread sweat lodge together and it was the manliest moment ever in Bake Off history.

This is what Bake Off is about, and that’s why the people who are complaining that something other than merit might have been involved in selecting the finalists have missed the point entirely. The point of Bake Off is not to determine the best amateur baker in the land. That's just the excuse for Bake Off. Even the gentlest TV show needs a vague narrative structure, and otherwise there'd be no tension when someone's blancmange collapses in a heap of eggy foam and broken dreams. But in the end, when all's said and done, it's just cake. If your ornamental biscuit windmill has a soggy bottom, well, nobody died, and you can probably still eat the pieces on your way home to have a cup of tea and a little cry. 

That's the point of Bake Off. None of it really matters, and yet it consistently made me smile during a long, weary summer of geopolitical doomwrangling when absolutely everything else on television was unremitting misery. I hope Nadiya wins, because she’s an adorable dork and I love her and she gets so worried about everything and I want nothing remotely distressing to happen to her, ever; I expect Tamal Ray, the gay doctor whose meat pie had me drooling, is the best baker overall, but I can’t be objective there, because I keep getting distracted by his lovely smile. Ian Cumming, the last white person in the tent (apart from both of the presenters and both of the judges) is a little bit dull, which is a problem, because of all the delicious treats produced on the show, Ian's are the ones I would probably eat the most. I want his tarragon cheesecake in my face immediately. I would just rather have a conversation with Nadiya while I'm doing it.

But at the end of the day, it doesn’t matter. It doesn’t matter! And that’s the utter, unremitting joy of Bake Off. It’s possibly the last show on earth where in the end, it doesn’t matter who wins, as long as everyone gave it their best shot and had a laugh over a disastrous scrambled-egg chocolate tart or two, because ultimately, it’s just cake. And that’s marvellous. Now let’s all have a nice fat slice of perspective and calm down.


Now listen to a discussion of the Bake Off on the NS pop culture podcast:

Laurie Penny is a contributing editor to the New Statesman. She is the author of five books, most recently Unspeakable Things.