A Century of Female Fandom

By  · Published on March 31st, 2017

Same stereotypes, different name.

If you look at the shining beacon of humanity that is Urban Dictionary, you will find fanboy defined as “a passionate fan of various elements of geek culture (e.g. sci-fi, comics, Star Wars, video games, anime, hobbits, Magic: the Gathering, etc.), but who lets his passion override social graces.”

What about fangirl? “A rabid breed of human female who is obsessed with either a fictional character or an actor.”

While the former isn’t exactly an endorsement, the latter is a whole different category of harsh – and might have well been ripped from a newspaper written a hundred years ago. Because despite what this 2009 Today article or this 2012 TIME article would suggest, calling women the “new” face of fandom is inaccurate. They’ve been there all along. The movie fangirl stereotype is almost as old as the movies – certainly older than their fanboy counterpart. As described by Diana Anselmo-Sequeira in her article “Screen-Struck: The Invention of the Movie Girl Fan,” “when the ‘movie fan’ construct entered the popular imagination in the 1910s, American journalists and press agents depicted it as a young female figure.”

In fact, the biggest change from the 1910s criticisms of female fandom and the 2010s criticisms of female fandom is that while, in the 1910s, these criticisms were geared towards movie fans (whom they assumed to be single adolescent women) nowadays we have added the variable of the male media fan who is, as I will explore more later, treated quite differently from his female counterpart (still generally assumed to be single and adolescent). The stereotype – whether it be by the name of “screen-struck girl” circa 1917 or “fangirl” circa now – has, beyond the name, changed very little. As a study by sociologist Neta Yodovich argues, the legitimacy claimed by fandom in the past decade or so has mostly benefited male fans: “fans – or more specifically, women fans – still experience stigma and suffer from common stereotypes that fandom scholars have described in the past.” So, let’s take a few minutes to go through some stereotypes that haven’t changed at all in the past century.

Stereotype #1: Female fandom is actually all about the (leading) men

One of the most ironic things about how female fans are collectively grouped and dismissed is that they are both too much and not enough – i.e. they are the pathological sort of fans, but their excessive energy is directed towards what we might call the “low world of the flesh” as opposed to what we might call “the higher realm of art/ideas” – they’re not Sherlock Holmes fans, they’re Cumberbitches. Even the Jane Austen fandom – one of the few female-coded territories of media fandom, along with boy bands and paranormal romance – is often portrayed, for example in the film Austenland (adapted from the book of the same name), as the I-love-Mr. Darcy fandom, instead of one built from admiration of Austen’s prose skills or a more rounded appreciation of the numerous characters she created.

Back in 1917, Edison Studios casting director Alan Crosland claimed that the screen-struck girl’s chief interest in getting into the movie business was to “become acquainted with some of our noble and handsome actors.” Or, as Yodovich summed up in that study I mentioned before, “[w]omen fans are seen as hormonal, sexual, and unleashed entities.” Of course, one interesting element is that female fans of the 1910s, as seen in reader-submitted letters that can be found among the several movie fan magazines that circulated quite widely at the time, often self-identified by dismissive terms – “an enthusiastic Bushmanite” (referring to actor Francis X. Bushman) or “Wilburitis of the Cranium” (referring to actor Crane Wilbur) – much the way many Cumberbatch fans happily claimed the title often used to dismiss them, as can be seen in this phenomenal segment from The Graham Norton Show:

Now, the issue is that the fact that they A) are attracted to men and B) find these particular men attractive has nothing to do with their ability to be “actual” fans of the things these men are featured in – or of other things, for that matter.

Stereotype #2: Female fans are fake fans

The truth of the matter is, even looking back at the 1910s, movie fans might have been teenage girls who swooned over handsome actors, but that’s not why they deemed themselves worthy of being called “true fans”. Much like a sports fan or most any other sort of fan, they establish their fan cred through their knowledge. For example, one Motion Picture Magazine reader wrote to the publication in 1916 about how several of her friends were movie fans of the highest caliber, as evidenced by their ability to “recite the names and love-affairs, the salaries and favorite sports of nine-tenths of the actresses and actors!” Other female fans writing in would similarly back up their claims of fandom by citing the number of movies they watched a week or the extent of their collection of movie magazines or other paraphernalia.

In this day and age, the stereotype of the fake fangirl – as laid out in this (in)famous CNN Geek Out! blog post from 2012 —has run rampant. Most every woman who is a devoted and vocal fan of something deemed outside the realm of what one might call “female-leaning” fandoms has had the experience of being “required” to prove her identity as a fan like she’s seeking to cross the Bridge of Death instead of wear a Star Wars t-shirt in peace (which, as it turns out, is far less entertaining outside of a Monty Python skit).

Stereotype #3: Female fans find no fulfillment in their actual life

Now this one relates more to movie portrayals of fans than anything else. Because while fannish tendencies are more often portrayed in male characters than female ones, when female fans are portrayed it tends not to look pretty. The adolescent part of the adolescent female movie fan stereotype from the 1910s has stuck around far more in cinematic depictions than the female part; from Cinema Paradiso to The Dreamers to Me and Earl and the Dying Girl, coming of age films featuring movie-loving protagonists are pretty common, and also pretty male dominated.

When you do see portrayals of adolescent female fandom in movies, they tend to be about music – or, more accurately, musicians (I Wanna Hold Your Hand, Bye Bye Birdy, Confessions of a Teenage Drama Queen, Letter From An Unknown Woman arguably fits as well). Otherwise, female fans are often portrayed as adults whose fannish-ness either directly obstructs their ability to live functional adult lives (Austenland) or attempts to fill the void created by the awfulness of their reality (The Purple Rose of Cairo). Regardless, it’s not a healthy relationship.

In comparison, while adult male fans can be shown as having their fandoms interfere with their social lives, it’s usually more of a case of dialing it back a little rather than the complete re-vamp often prescribed to female fans.

Stereotype #4: Female fans are relatively rare

Star Wars: Episode IV – A New Hope (1977)
Now here we have the only one that doesn’t date back to the 1910s. My personal hypothesis is that the “rise” of female fans noted in those two articles I mentioned at the start of this piece is far more a rise in visibility than an actual increase in numbers (not to say that there has not been some increase, just that it is only one variable involved). While some of the biggest movie fan magazines stuck around until the 1970s, they really seemed to take a major hit, much like the studio system, around the 1950s, and with them went female fan visibility. As female fan visibility went down, a lot of fandoms that are still perceived as stereotypically male were being established and growing.

With the rise of the internet, however, you got the development of online fan spaces, some of which – for example, the majority of fan fiction communities – still remain predominantly female. Even before the internet, the much smaller fan-writing and fan art communities present in fanzines were largely female, even in the case of fandoms perceived as being “fanboy” domains, like Star Wars. In 1982, Pat Nussman published an essay, “Where the Boys Are,” in the zine Alderaan, in which she writes:

One tends to take the situation for granted, as a given, a fact so obvious about media fandom that it’s hardly thought about or noticed until, as happens every so often, someone wakes up, looks around, and says, “Hey, where are the guys?” Good question. Where are the men? Male names are rare in LoC columns or fanzine order lists, male faces scarce at media conventions, and the number of men writing or drawing or editing in media fandom so minimal as to be practically nonexistent. If there are men in media fandom, they’re certainly very quiet. To turn about a feminist phrase then, why is half the human race so poorly represented in Star Wars and other media fandoms?

The irony here, of course, is that if you took the statement “why is half the human race so poorly represented in Star Wars and other media fandoms?” out of context and posed it to someone today a good number of people would assume she’s referring to the other half of the population.

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Ciara Wardlow is a human being who writes about movies and other things. Sometimes she tries to be funny on Twitter.