I went to a One Direction concert last week, and it was one of the most inspiring things I’ve done in a long time.
I know—it’s probably strange to hear a 27-year-old woman describe a boy band concert as “inspiring,” but my experience was less about what was happening onstage and more about what was happening in the crowd. Yes, those boys from Britain were quite charming and talented, and they put on a heck of a show. But for me as a woman interested in fandom and how we engage with the things we love, the best thing about that concert was watching the preteen and teenage girls around me scream, cry, dance, and hug their fellow fangirls through every song.
Teenage girls can’t catch a break. They’re hardwired to care about things with a single-minded intensity that leads many to label them “crazy” or “silly” for feeling things as strongly as they do. And then when they take in what the world is saying about their impassioned reactions to things, they start to clamp down on their enthusiasm, and the world then labels them “vapid” or “shallow” because of how little they seem to care. It’s a vicious cycle designed to do nothing but make these girls feel bad about themselves.
So it brought me immense joy to see thousands of girls and women unashamedly expressing the fullest extent of their enthusiasm last Thursday night at Ralph Wilson Stadium in Buffalo, New York, from the moment One Direction came onstage until long after the last encore had finished. I’ve seen that stadium filled with Buffalo Bills fans on Sunday afternoons for years, and this was no different—thousands of people joining together to cheer and share their excitement over something they love. People just want to make it something different because sports fandom is generally the realm of adult men, while boy band fandom is the realm of young women. And it doesn’t take a genius to figure out which group of not-so-different fans gets more respect from the world at large.
It was nice—for one night at least—to watch young women express whatever emotions they were feeling in the moment without having to explain them, apologize for them, or feel self-conscious for feeling as strongly as they do about things. And it was because they knew they weren’t alone. They were surrounded by other young women who were feeling those same feelings just as strongly as they were. They had hands to hold while they jumped up and down, people to dance with, and friends (new and old) to hug as they shared their overwhelming joy.
That’s what fandom is all about. At its core, being a fan of something is about joy. Being a fan of something should make you happy. And fandom should be about sharing that happiness and excitement with others. All too often, fandom becomes a place of negativity, stress, and anger. But those teenage girls I saw last week had it right: Fandom should be a safe place to express enthusiasm and other positive emotions about things you enjoy. You’re not always going to love everything that happens in your particular fandom, and that’s normal. But being a part of a fandom should make you happy more often than it makes you upset. When the balance shifts the other way, maybe that’s the time to find a new fandom to focus on.
Enthusiasm should be protected, especially in young fangirls. Because I’m always amazed by the things young fangirls can do when they put their minds and hearts into something. When celebrities talk about charity efforts or start important initiatives, young fangirls are often on the ground floor—spreading the word, donating their babysitting money, or creating art or fan fiction for donations. That’s why encouraging young fangirls to hold on to their ability to care is so important. As they grow, they might not always love One Direction or Once Upon a Time or John Green novels the way they do now. But the ability to care they developed during their times in those fandoms can be channeled into amazing avenues—from incredible novels written by women who wrote fan fiction in their youth to charitable organizations started by women who learned to work together as members of fandoms. Teenage girls have a spark inside of them that can change the world, and it’s so important to me to keep that spark alive in a world that tries to get them to turn down that flame.
If you’re a teenage girl reading this, please don’t ever stop caring about the things you love with the intensity you feel right now. It’s beautiful, and it’s inspiring. And it’s something that those of us who haven’t been teenage girls in a long time should be doing all we can to protect and rekindle in our own fangirl hearts.