Perceptions of Female Pop Fans – Interview with Mark Duffett, Part 1

At the end of 2013, the Huddersfield university student Johanna Maria Mangel came to interview me for her study on perceptions of female pop fandom. She transcribed the interview as part of an appendix for her project. I asked her if I could reproduce an edited version. This is the first of two parts…

What is your opinion of teenage female fans and the way the press portrays them?

This is a complicated subject… There are loads of things going on here. If you look at the history of these representations, and go back historically from people like Frank Sinatra, Elvis and the Beatles, the controversy over sexuality was mixed up with the idea of commodity and consumerism: the fact that there was a new generation of people who were focusing their attention on music idols and who had power as a group of consumers, female consumers. It was always controversial to directly use male performance gestures that were related to sexuality. It was controversial because there was a taboo on female desire and showing female desire in public. Elvis, for example, didn’t immediately inaugurate the sexual revolution, because that didn’t happen in the society for at least another 10 years. When it did it was on still on male terms, anyway – and within that women were then re-objectified as ‘groupies.’ In the ‘50s, the reason why Elvis and some other people were controversial was that there was an expression of female desire in public, and that very quickly became routinized and mundane. You can see that in the film Bye Bye Birdie (Sidney, 1963), which explores the female fandom, and girls in their bedrooms; it’s all become kind of a cliché and stereotyped by the early ‘60s. 

Barbara Ehrenreich’s chapter in The Adoring Audience(1992) makes a point that this is a sort of collective expression of female desire in public, which it is. Another reference point there is Susan Fast’s book In the Houses of the Holy (2001), which is about Led Zeppelin. Fast directly says that one of the greatest things about Led Zeppelin is that Robert Plant is an erotic object for women.

Why do you think the society and the media were/are so uncomfortable with female sexual desire expressed in public?

A lot of the explanation originally would be Freudian. Freud saw female sexuality as an undiscovered continent and at the root of some of these ideas is really a notion of female subjectivity – the idea that because male desire dominates gender hierarchies, men seem to see women as a mystery. I think some psychoanalysts might explain this as ‘woman as a symptom of a man.’ In other words, within these frames of reference women can’t be fully understood: whereas there’s an appearance of clear and square masculinity, it’s harder to talk about femininity as sort of one particular thing. Gender theorists tend to talk about …it’s quite hard to pinpoint this… If I’m teaching on gender I can quickly teach on traditional masculinity. It’s about competitive behaviour, about oppression, about dominance and status, etc. Femininity has historically been described as the opposite of all those things, but we all kind of know that women are actually not firmly the opposite of all those things – that’s just a role that’s been given to them. This role is not who women really are. Judith Butler has talked about gender as a continual performance, where one person copies another person: a performance without an origin. Other people – some of the recent theorists – have talked about femininity like a suit of clothing that women can put on some times, and not use at other times. Unlike masculinity, femininity is not understood as fixed. It’s seen as kind of mysterious and hard to pin down. Male desire seems to be the dominant fixed and physical thing.
Evolutionary biologists like David Buss might explain it something like this: ‘Well, men are sowing their wild oats, they have a lot of desire, whereas if a woman has sex she gets pregnant, so therefore she can’t be going on, expressing her desire in public.’ What changed that of course was the pill. You then have the history of the changing independence of women. In that sense rock and roll is seen as a growing marker of female independence and that part of what makes it scary and controversial.
Also one of the tricks of the media to sort of flip this around is to say: ‘Elvis (or whoever) is exploiting these poor innocent women. He is dominating, he is aggressive; the women are manipulated by the man on stage.’ It is true that such male performers are totemic. In other words they are stars, what they do is appreciated by a large number of people, fans become fascinated by them and want to be closer to them, and they can compete for status in relation to them. That not only applies to “manipulated and vulnerable females” but to all fans – star performers do have an attraction, a strong attraction. And I think that in the history of rock and roll you can see that men who might not have otherwise been attractive in other ways suddenly becoming attractive to a group of people through their performances. Elvis was definitely marketed to women, even before he became famous – one of the first gigs he did was ‘ladies night.’
The supposed feminisation of mass culture is also crucial here: the idea that mass consumption is a feminised activity and therefore – as consumers – these women are seen as vulnerable and sort of lured in there.

Do you agree with this?

For me it’s not a matter of whether I agree within some kind of moral or theoretical grounds; it’s a matter of that being an idea in society and then everybody living in the shadow of it.

I did an article recently in Popular Music History on boy bands. It seemed to me that the representation of female fans and boy bands hadn’t changed very much in the last 20-30 years, and so I investigated why that was the case. The argument I made was that there were several things that held a relatively unchanging critique in place. One of them was the shared idea that youth is about vulnerability and innocence. Another is a shared notion of gender when it comes to female fans and male singers. Boy bands in particular preserve the idea that the guys on stage might be boyfriends. It is a genre convention and one that evokes is the parasocial relationship. So there are issues with age, gender and fandom as well. All those knit together to prompt a recurring popular argument that these people are pulled into a strange position where they believe they are in a relationship that is not there. However, this misrepresents much of what boyband fandom is about because it reads the fandom straight off the text.

Now I’m looking into the Beatles performance at the Shea Stadium, because I think that was a pivotal moment in the discussion about female fandom. What’s interesting is that some of the female fans that were there did not deny that they just went to seethe Beatles – to look at them. Once it became the dominant way to talk about female fandom, it was perhaps the only way that female fans could articulate what they were doing.

Do you think a part of representing teenage female fans the way the media does is to please the reader – all the sensationalism and everything?

Yes, absolutely. One of the functions of the media in general is to portray things in the acceptable ways to the mainstream audiences, many of whom either aren’t fans or already have a notion in their heads that people grow out of fandom. Often stories about celebrities who attract young audiences talk about fans collectively – they talk about hysteria, screams, waves – the comparison is usually like natural forces like volcanoes. I think the focus is mostly on the extreme forms of fandom because, before the Internet, enthusiastic music concerts and like were the main way in which the fandom was most visible in the public sphere. The press had certain strategies of representation to reflect that. For example, if we were at a Justin Bieber concert and dressed normally, we would probably be passed over if the photographer was there to take pictures of the fans, because he or she would want to record those who were visibly committed to the artist. There’s therefore a circular process where fans become sort of stereotyped as visibly committed members of the audience.

The Justin Bieber Twitter fans had a feud where a non-fan who gave positive feedback about his album and some fans welcomed her, whereas others gave her vicious comments. Why do you think the media chose to focus only on the second group?

The media is worried about the power of totemism and believes that totemism is going to lead to the rejections of all other ethics. That’s what’s at stake in their discussion, I think. Because the fans happen to be young and female there’s a sort of re-emphasis on tradition concerns as well there. But those were attacks against fandom itself, as much as anything. If there had been 40-year old men making the same comments the stories would still have run, I think.

Sports fans’ language doesn’t get as scrutinised as the language these Bieber fans used. Why?

Mainstream sports fandom is a much more normalised activity and people take competitiveness to be a part of it. Although I think actually in some ways the media have kind of superimposed that notion (of competitiveness) onto pop fandom as well. I don’t think the idea that fans are competitive factions is necessarily as strong as it’s been represented to be. You’ve supposedly got to be an Elvis OR a Beatles fan, you know, or a Justin Bieber fan OR a One Direction fan. You can be both and a lot of people are, but the media wants to propagate an idea of competition that comes from sports.
Do you agree with this idea that fans are represented the way they are by the (mostly male-dominated) media because it’s hard to either understand or remember the intensity that one experiences as a teenaged (female) fan?

I don’t know if I entirely agree. I think the question pursues a certain sort of stereotype about fans. Male fandom often contains intensity. It’s just expressed in a very different way: through collecting, etc. A lot of people can be involved in totemic processes, not just young girls. While I would agree that media institutions have often been run by older males, women are often given to these kind of stories to write. So it’s not entirely the case.

Is fandom about more than personal passion?

In a lot of sort of teenagers’ cultures, bands become talking points. They become a means of social interaction because they connect a sense of who you are with the conversation you can have. For a lot of people fandom becomes a way to bond with one other. Anja Löbert investigated how Take That fans made ‘friendship books’ and traded offstage photos. The ‘friendship books’ indicate that Take That fandom was an active culture, a connected culture. Take That fandom wasn’t just about fantasizing about romantic relationships; it was as much about bonding with other fans. It was just that all that sociability was not as visible at the time. Think about the offstage photos too. The fans were the people who kept archives of those pictures. At the time, acquiring a fan photograph was a way to get a socially prized picture of the band. Those photos were then traded within the fan community. So the fan photographs were themselves a means to extend sociability.

The Internet has made fandom more visible and has been positive for building fan communities. Is this greater visibility negative in any way?

I don’t think the presence of the Internet alone has hugely changed the approach towards fandom of mainstream media (things like the daily national press). They’ve still got the same concerns and they still try to talk about things in similar ways, by and large. I think the Internet has proved useful to academics that want to conveniently see what fan communities do. Given that fans can talk in public about their interests, there’s always the possibility that some of them can say things that are not appreciated by the rest of the public. So the battles are more public, if you like. You also see a lot of cultures like Elvis fan culture: it is a living culture but a lot of the members are older people, so if they are on the Internet they are putting out information rather than having debates. Also, because the teenagers of today are totally socialised into social media, that’s a different game. It is very convenient for us as researchers just look on the Internet when in fact there is a lot of activity that goes on outside it which is well worth looking at.

Do you think the dominant view of media fandom in the media will change any time soon, the way that it has already changed in academia?

I don’t know, because Henry Jenkins’ work has been out there for 25 years and I don’t think there’s been a sort of parallel, complete shift in the press. There is some change, but I think it’s partly because of the shifts in the media industries. Particularly in television fandom, there have been significant shifts around stuff like the collective production of intelligent content programming and box sets. There’s also a certain shift in that there is a kind of like nostalgia for bands of the past and their fans get to say their side of the story. So there is a certain amount of shifting, but I think that the stereotypes are still there to an extent.

Do you think these stereotypes are more harmful to the female fans themselves (who, according to some, don’t even really care about how they’re being represented) or to fandom in general?

I think a lot of people understand fandom as part of a rite of passage and in fact that’s probably more harmful to the idea of fandom, if anything. It perpetuates misunderstandings about what fandom is about and why it happens. I don’t think it’s necessarily harmful solely to female fans themselves. People understand fandom as a crush that you grow out of, but there are fans there that actually pursue fandom in very different ways to the stereotypes. I mean in all sorts of different ways, like the audience members for those boybands who are not young girls, but, say, small children, old ladies, or grown men. There are audience members that are not making the identifications that everybody predicts. There are mothers and daughters who are going to see some of these bands in order to talk about things like what is appropriate in a boyfriend. There’s a lot more complexity going on than the media presents. The media just tends to focus on extreme fans, and the most public moments of their activities. You could say that it associates women with kind of ‘trivial’ desires: the stereotype is that here’s a bunch of girls obsessing over somebody who’s not worth obsessing over because they’re not even creative. You know: ‘One Direction are not especially creative – they’re supposedly just groomed by some middle aged guy to exploit these women, and female fans are falling for it, they’re vulnerable.’ So in that sense the stereotype does locate femininity as hysterical and vulnerable, and sort of partial. It does do damage like that, but what we have to do is re-think what fandom is and try to explain it in ways that doesn’t rely on the stereotypes. We must get beyond them.

How big a role do media portrayals play in closeted fandom?

Huge, absolutely. On one level, if somebody is a closeted fan, they may be one because the object of their desire is socially unacceptable. One of the secretaries in our university is an Elvis fan and she never broadcasts it. The only reason I know is because she told me when she found out that I was doing research. Otherwise, I would never have known. She said, ’ ‘Oh, you know I’m and Elvis fan.’ She had no posters, no nothing. She probably thinks that within the grounds of the university it’s not appropriate but then at the same time in the ’90s, for middle-aged people, Elvis fandom became cool to talk about, so that’s kind of changed a bit. So she probably still make a calculation, you know, and thinks, ‘The people around me are not interested in this object, and therefore it would be a faux pas in terms of displaying my cultural capital to talk about this.’

You also get closet fandom around people who have unusual desires or sexualities or expressions of interest, but I think you probably also get a certain amount of closet fandom when people think that the rest of the audience is not who they’d want to associate with. I’ve gone to gigs and it’s been a case of ‘audience shock.’ I’ve thought, I sort of like that singer, but look at all these people in the audience. They are different to what I thought they’d be. In that sense I think, one of the biggest issues in relation to female boyband fandom, alongside the public representation of ‘normal’ fans, is when particularly older women or young girls like those performers. Those situations are respectively described as ‘desiring down’ and ‘desiring up.’

‘Desiring down’ is when older women like younger men. In the context of pop fandom, it might be okay for a girl of 15 to be mad about 1D, but what happens if it’s a woman of 50? She might feel a bit embarrassed; she’s not supposed to be doing that, and she might find that the other fans are not the same as her. ‘Desiring up’ is when very young kids, tweenagers and below, start liking Justin Bieber or whoever. Each of those forms of female desire (desiring up and down) are seen as even more aberrant than the 15 year old girls who have a crush on Harry Styles or whatever. There are multiple issues in terms of gender stereotyping and fandom there.

Why do you think it’s important to understand fandom, explore all the sides of it?

I think there’s two ways of answering that…

One is that, particularly after World War II, we’ve started to live in a culture where we define our identities around consumption and collecting, and this is not just a superficial thing. For many young people it’s a deeply important thing. It’s not just about acquiring commodities; it’s about style and defining your identity through the acquisition of commodities. What a lot of fans are therefore doing is not necessarily just acquiring commodities. They are investigating traces of a performance that they are engaged with, so that’s one thing, generally and socially.
Second, I suppose also fandom can tell also us something about the operation of power in cultural life: whether it’s the power to represent things in different ways, ideologically, or just the power of human chemistry, hijacked, routinized and played out within the context of stardom (celebrity following). Pop fans in particular raise these kinds of issues, because they’re seen as celebrity followers. In other kinds of fandom – stuff like science fiction fandom – you can say it’s based on the text, so the issue of something that has been called ‘star chasing’ – which I think is a horrible term – is much more prominent. Studying pop means that we can’t get away from it, so we must explore and think about it, which I think is useful.
There’s two ways to understand celebrity following. There’s the Fiskean direction (named after the media scholar John Fiske media and pursued by people like Henry Jenkins) which suggests that audiences incorporate media texts and turn mass culture into popular culture by redeeming and rescuing it. For example, consider 1D again. They make recordings and they endorse merchandise, but it’s actually what fans do with such stuff – their active practices – that is important. Exploring this is one theoretical trajectory.
Another trajectory in fandom research is almost the other way around: I think fandom is a very human process. It’s about being interested in another person. And that human process is sort of distorted, and hijacked and ‘routinized’ by the industry. Fandom is the set of social relations that emerges from all that as an end result – but that does not mean that the fans are merely the products of the industry, because they’re always human beings.

The study of totemic processes fits within either remit.

… Part Two is available here.