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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Mathias Énard is the most brazen French writer since Houellebecq

Énard's latest novel, Street of Thieves, has ideas and charisma to burn.

This book, though no kind of failure, may seem a little pinched and bashful to readers of Mathias Énard’s novel Zone, a 500-page, single-sentence rumination on European cruelty that was published last summer to giddy applause. A back-cover blurb by the writer Patrick McGuinness, who also teaches French at Oxford, claims that Street of Thieves is “what the great contemporary French novel should be”, but this is a description better deserved by its predecessor – and possibly its successor, Boussole (“compass”), a grand-scale effort published in French this month by Actes Sud, which promises the reader “staggering erudition” and “heartbreaking lucidity”. Street of Thieves never calls for adjectives of that order (“involving” would be closer to the mark) though it still confirms Énard as the most brazenly lapel-grabbing French writer since Michel Houellebecq. Even on a quiet day, he has ideas and charisma to burn.

In a doomy, plague-ridden future, Lakhdar recalls a late adolescence torn between his duties as a Moroccan-born Muslim and the temptations extended by the north, an alternate universe situated just across the Strait of Gibraltar. In one scale sit “prayers, the Quran and God, who was a little like a second father, minus the kicks in the rear”. In the other sit miniskirted female tourists and the pleasures portrayed in the French detective novels that Lakhdar consumes “by the dozen”: “sex . . . blondes, cars, whisky”. When he is thrown out by his family for having an affair with his cousin, it looks as if fate is tipping the balance. But it doesn’t work out that way. Poverty keeps him tethered to his homeland, and he takes a job working as a bookseller for Sheikh Nureddin, the local imam.

Meanwhile, Lakhdar’s best friend, Bassam, is playing out the same conflict in more volatile ways. Though no less lustful and weed-smoking, he is devoted to Nureddin, for whom, it soon emerges, the Propagation of Quranic Thought is an activity broadly defined, accommodating sticks and stones – and knives and bombs – as well as the pamphlets peddled by Lakhdar.

For much of the first half, the novel is an odd mixture of picaresque and parable. Lakhdar is sometimes an object or victim of fate, sometimes a plaything of his author’s purposes, and the gear changes required can be jerky. One moment, Lakhdar will tell the reader, “And that’s how I entered the service of Marcelo Cruz, funeral services,” in a fish-out-of-water, “isn’t life funny?” sort of way. The next moment, he coolly notes the thematic overlap of his work for Cruz with a previous position that involved digitising the records of an Algerian infantry regiment in the First World War. “The idea of sending real stiffs back to Morocco after having imported dead soldiers to it virtually was rather amusing, I thought.”

Énard’s parable-making instincts frequently take control of the plot, with results that verge on tiresome. When Lakhdar sets sail on a boat named after one of his heroes, the 14th-century traveller Ibn Batuta, the vessel equals Freedom. But lack of an exit visa confines him to the port of Algeciras, then a dispute with the Spanish government keeps the boat there, too. So the Ibn Batuta becomes a symbol for the way that life dashes our best hopes – or upends them. Dreams of freedom produce a nightmare reality. An ideal of escape leads to more stasis.

Yet it feels churlish to grumble about the novel’s design when it enables so much potent writing. Sending Lakhdar from Tangier to Barcelona is a contrivance that you wouldn’t want undone. As well as furnishing different possibilities in terms of scene-setting and atmosphere, it turns the novel into a comparative portrait of two societies through their common factor circa 2011: a period of civic unrest and popular anger that failed to produce a revolution. Morocco is the country that the Arab spring forgot, while in Barcelona the deepening despair is only punctuated, never alleviated, by the occasional protest.

In the Barcelona section, richer by far than those set in Tangier and Algeciras, Énard uses Lakhdar’s outsider perspective to lay bare the shallowness of the type of dissent you find in a democracy. He notes that a general strike is claimed as a victory both by the organisers, because “they reach such-and-such a percentage of strikers”, and by the government, which didn’t have to make any changes. To Lakhdar, Spain appears “a land beyond politics”, where the nationalist government “no longer gave a shit about anyone” and industrial action has become an end in itself.

The workings of orientalism – or whatever cross-cultural logic shapes European responses to North Africa – are exposed with clarity, even flair. A feeling for paradox crowds out the platitude, derived from ­Edward Said, whereby representatives of the developed west are only ever blundering and stupid. It’s true that Judit, a student of Arabic literature at Barcelona University, so narrowly associates Tangier with sexual licence and foreign visitors (Burroughs, Paul Bowles) that Lakhdar, as a Muslim from the suburbs, feels that “we were discussing a different city”. But Énard – who teaches Arabic literature in Barcelona – is careful not to present Lakhdar’s Tangier as the “true” version and Judit’s as a romantic Other-laden mirage. Despite her overemphases, Judit never comes across as a dabbler, and it is Lakhdar’s mistiness about Barcelona that receives the harsher humbling. (The “street of thieves” lies not in Tangier, but in the Raval district of Barcelona.)

So, it is a shame, given this balancing of myopic perspectives, that Énard also feels the need to grant the older, reminiscing Lakhdar, smug in his 20/20 hindsight, a prominent place in the telling. But then Street of Thieves gives the consistent impression of a writer who, not unlike Houellebecq, views formal choices as not just secondary, but irritating. The unpunctuated first-person rant, as used in Zone, is surely Énard’s ideal device. It turns crude technique into an engine. The more intricate demands of the novel – the niceties of plotting and narrative point-of-view – merely serve to slow him down. Lakhdar is most convincing when neither a picaro nor a symbolic type, neither totally himself nor entirely representative, but a balance better suited to Énard’s analytic needs: specific enough to be vivid, while clearly standing in for the migrant who, drawn by fantasies of easy passage to streets paved with gold and teeming with blondes, finds instead an obstacle course from one site of crisis to another. 

Street of Thieves is available now from Fitzcarraldo Editions (£12.99)

Leo Robson is the lead fiction reviewer for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 27 August 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Isis and the new barbarism