The past few days have seen what’s likely to be the biggest moment of levity in the entire 2015 general election (and if you think this thing has been dragging on, spare a thought for me and my fellow Americans, eighty-one weeks from our next general election and currently wading through hundreds of thinkpieces about the existential significance of Hillary Clinton’s order at a Mexican fast-food chain). This was the week of the #milifandom: flower crowns and earnest bewilderment, the meme-creating internet colliding with weary political journalists, passionate young people who lack the right to vote finding a voice and a platform. It was the week when the perpetually-awkward Labour leader found himself at the centre of something literally no one anticipated: people on the internet liked him – a lot. Like, a lot.
The general public learned about Ed Miliband’s burgeoning fandom in a BuzzFeed post on Tuesday. The article shed light on a new and relatively surprising surge of collective public interest in Miliband, who in recent days has managed to attract an army of teenage fans. The Milifandom appears to be made up of mostly underage girls with other popular fannish affiliations – Tom Hiddleston, Sherlock, and One Direction, to name a few. (Note that these are not the only sorts of subjects that attract fandoms and fangirls, as I’ve seen widely reported in the media; for example, there are more than 18,000 fandoms on Archive of Our Own, a popular fan fiction-hosting site, and yes, “Political RPF – UK 20th-21st c.,” stories about current or recent British political figures romantically paired nearly every way you can imagine, is one of them.)
The Milifandom is very new – no more than a week old for most – and by their own admission, it began as an ironic gesture for a lot of its members. But for others, they’ve developed a genuine interest in the leader and in Labour’s manifesto, which they celebrated fandom-style, with a flurry of tweets and hashtags and photoshopping flower crowns (a meme that’s stretched across all sorts of fandoms for the past few years) onto Miliband’s head. At the source of the Milifandom was Abby, a seventeen-year-old who at one point declined media inquiries because she was revising for her exams. But she told BuzzFeed:
We just want to change opinions so people don’t just see the media’s usual distorted portrayal of him – and actually see him for who he is. Ed is just a great guy and how many other politicians have a fandom? 0. We’re just waiting for him to acknowledge it bc it’s kinda sad when he only ever sees people write mean things about him.
Deep in my cynical, fandom-defending heart (even semi-ironic fandoms!) I was certain that this story would completely backfire – we were off to a rough start when BuzzFeed used phrases like “imagine the kind of all-consuming hormonal hysteria” to describe girls liking things, which I hear and bristle at on a regular basis. But the resulting meme-fest “CoolEdMiliband”, in which Miliband’s historically uncool face was photoshopped onto the bodies of pop culture and fannish icons (James Bond, Harry Styles, Benedict Cumberbatch) was fun – even the irony embedded in these images was gently positive, geek Miliband elevated to lovable geek Miliband. By the same token, the wholesale rejection of the “Cameronettes” movement, started by a 21-year-old male politics student who at one point pretended to be a 13-year-old girl (sounds like a charmer!) showed that you can’t fake this stuff – even before he’d revealed it to be “a joke”, literally no one wanted to join the Cameron fandom.
But the best reaction came from Miliband himself: Labour responded to what might-have-been mocking interest with grace and good faith, tweeting at Abby to welcome her to the party. On the radio, Miliband said, “I’m definitely blushing now…I certainly wouldn’t claim to be cool… I’ve never been called that.” It echoed back to the delightful story that circulated the other day, when he was taught, tried out, and abandoned the phrase YOLO in the space of a single interview question. In an election where some argue the only party leader with real “personality” is also the one constantly defending his party against charges of casual racism, this sheepish, blushing, gawky, tries-too-hard-but-we-love-him-anyway Ed Miliband was suddenly shining bright. (I was even feeling it from across the ocean. And I have been looking for a new and fresh fandom to get excited about…)
There’s something crucial at work here, though: Miliband – or, at least, the Labour Party more broadly – might be inspiring actual non-ironic passion in teens, but they won’t be able to vote for him. Abby told BuzzFeed: “I can’t have a say in what happens in my own country! And labour is why I love Ed, I’m a party member and I think they truly are the way forward. If it was up to them, I would allowed a voice.” That disconnect is interesting: we can see a palpable shift in his public perception in the past 48 hours (teen girls think this guy is cool! That makes him more cool by default? More likeable, at least) but it remains to be seen how much that will affect the voting public. We can see the new means and channels that young women (and for that matter, not-so-young women – and men! – as well) use to network with each other online, but for many of them, despite all the passion, we can’t fully see their impact.
Despite the positive-if-bemused reactions that seemed to characterise much of the media and general public’s response, classic teen-girl hate inevitably cropped up. BuzzFeed wasn’t the only news outlet to use the word “hysterical”. Some articles crept towards an extreme mocking tone. Comments sections veered, unsurprisingly, towards cess-pool territory on some sites. One reader wrote, “Are these the same teenage girls who suffer from anorexia and bulimia, routinely go hysterical over manufactured boy bands that do not include any musical instruments, and frequently self harm?” One teenager whose image was widely circulated tweeted, “So turns out people stop taking your political views seriously if your selfies with a jokey caption are in a buzzfeed article, thanks.” She continued, “It’s not just that its portrays us in a bad light, it’s damaging for Labour support; we know how the general public feels about teenage girls,” and wrote about how unhappy she was to be featured in the original article.
“Proof that teenage girls shouldn’t be allowed to vote…” another commenter wrote, and if these girls could vote, if they could actually show up for Miliband at the ballot box, flower crowns and all, I guarantee the discourse would shift dramatically and aggressively in this direction. And really though: is a fangirl getting emotionally invested in a politician all that different than political fanboys who geek out over endless poll numbers and stats?
Much has been made of Labour’s attempts to run an American presidential-style campaign, at the heart of which lies popular appeal, even the cult of personality. The Barack Obama fandom – still going strong across social media even as his presidency draws to a close – lacks a name as catchy as Milifandom. But his fans made up the base of his supporters through both campaigns. Women, people of colour, LGBT people, a broad and inclusive group that skewed far younger than the angry old gun-toting white guys who always turn up for the Republicans: these are the people that spread the digital love for Obama, in the way they spread digital love for everything else they’re into. Accusations of vapidity ran wild: they valued style over substance. As though enthusiasm and fluency with social media invalidate the seriousness of a young person’s politics.
Anyone who’s surprised by enthusiasm teenage girls have for political issues probably hasn’t spent much time around teenage girls – and certainly doesn’t spend much time in the social media spaces teen girls occupy. Politics on Tumblr can turn into a punch line at times, but there’s no other place online as progressive and engaged: it’s a social network full of women on a mission to educate themselves and others and to collectively fight against the injustices of the world. You can spread a political message with a lecture, or you can do it with a bit of fun and a few animated gifs – or, for maximum impact, you can employ both. The language of the social web doesn’t change the substance of its ideas, no matter how foreign these posts might look to you.
It might have all just been a light-hearted joke that led to a great set of memes. Or it might be a way for young people to engage with politics, on their own terms, in their own language. It certainly gave Ed Miliband a chance to become a little more “relatable” – and a little (lot) more charmingly embarrassed that people fancy him. If social media is a democratising force, then kudos to the leader that can embrace it on its own terms – and take on all our heart-eye emojis with genuine gratitude.