I recently attended YALC, the Young Adult Literature Convention, in London. It’s a new (and highly successful) feature of Comic Con and I was honoured when I was asked to be involved.
Following my appearance on a panel discussing sex in young adult literature, I was ushered off stage to sign books.
For almost two hours, the queue of people waiting to meet me continued unabated, all clutching their copies of my novel, Only Ever Yours.
Some of them were men, many were women in their 20 and 30s, but most of the queue consisted of teenage girls.
They gushed over the book, they asked for selfies, their hands shaking as they tried to take them, a few of them began to cry as they told me how important this book was to them. It was a humbling if slightly unnerving experience.
I’m just an author, I’m not a celebrity and yet these young girls expressed such enthusiasm for my work that it caused them to be moved to tears.
When I came home, I mentioned to a few people about what had happened, expressing my gratitude for this level of enthusiasm, and their reaction surprised me.
My story was generally met with a snigger, an eye-roll, a sneering “teenage girls, amirite?”
This dismissal of teenage girls and their interests as something out of control, over-emotional, and somehow beneath our contempt is not new.
In ancient Egypt, hysterical disorders were attributed to “spontaneous uterus movement”, Hippocrates blamed a ‘restless’ uterus in fifth century BC.
By the mid to late 1600s, physicians began to equate nervousness in women to psychological disorders, with a doctor called Thomas Sydenham saying that these “emotional outbursts” were the result of “irregular motions of the animal spirits”.
By Victorian times, ‘female hysteria’ had become quite a common medical diagnosis, with Freud’s infamous theories surrounding hysteria and sexual frustration following soon after.
Women didn’t just become hysterical, they were inherently so, and their passions needed to be controlled.
Thus, when Beatlemania began to take hold in the 1960s, the band was originally treated as a joke, since any band that was unleashing such wanton sexual desires in women could hardly be taken seriously.
While the band has entered into the musical canon as one of the greatest ever acts, with thousands of think pieces expounding on their brilliance, little attention is given to the fact that their early success was very much dependent on their teenage girl fan base.
Indeed, they could not have survived without it.
When Robbie Williams left Take That in 1995, newspapers were full of snarky think pieces about the fact that helplines had been set up to comfort distraught fans who claimed to be suicidal.
Showing how little has changed, when Zayn Malik decided to leave One Direction in April, the devastated reaction of his fans was met with mocking scorn, with Rolling Stone magazine collecting a variety of fan reactions, the more extreme the better.
Yet when Jeremy Clarkson was fired from Top Gear for punching a colleague in the face and making incredibly racist remarks it was treated as a matter of national consequence, with one fan saying that “the best thing to ever come out of Britain, perhaps even the entire entertainment business, is gone…” and over a million fans signing a petition demanding his reinstatement.
There was no derision or jeering at this reaction, no laughing comments about ‘silly’ fans.
This was considered to be serious business, and it doesn’t feel too far-fetched to say it is because the main fanbase of Top Gear tends to be male.
It’s the same way that sport (if played by men, anyway) is given prominence in the pages of national newspapers and is treated as ‘important’, while fashion — something that is seen as a more traditionally female interest — is relegated to the ‘women’s section’, if featured at all, despite also being a huge industry with massive financial earnings and power.
It is all part of a greater issue where anything that is seen as inherently female is seen as ‘less than’ in some way, where movies and books that are concerned with male protagonists are feted as genius explorations of issues of masculinity, and those created by women for women are ‘chick lit’ and ‘chick flicks’, covered in shiny pink packaging, and derided as unworthy of any critical attention.
VIDA, an organisation that looks at data concerning gender representation in literary publications, found that in 2014, only 29% of books reviewed in The New Republic and The Nation were by women, falling to 27% at The Times Literary Supplement.
A recent article in Canada’s Macleans asked “Do Women have ‘literary cooties’?” as they looked at a study of the 21st century results of five of the most important prizes for literature and found that a dismal 7% of winners were written by women about women.
The study seemed to conclude that to be taken seriously as a female author, you needed to write about men.
While I have serious issues with the Fifty Shades trilogy due to the romanticising of an emotional abusive relationship (not to mention the truly terrible writing) it’s interesting to compare the abuse that these books, intended to be read and enjoyed by women, receive in comparison to the books produced by authors like Dan Brown. (Also, truly terrible writing.)
A recent study carried out by FONA in the US called “Purchasing Power Of Teens” discovered that teenagers not only influence what their parents buy but they also have a sizeable amount of money of their own to spend — €82bn, in fact.
Teenage girls have money – and the success of the Twilight books, John Green’s The Fault In Our Stars, and bands such as One Direction and Five Seconds of Summer shows that they are eager to spend it.
So why is such a lucrative market treated with disdain?
Why are we so determined to control teenage girls, to make them less emotional?
Taylor Swift, an icon for many fangirls, has herself been an object of ridicule for her candid lyrics and has said that “You’re going to have people who are going to say, ‘Oh you know, she just writes songs about her ex-boyfriends’.
“And I think frankly that’s a very sexist angle to take. No one says that about Ed Sheeran. No one says that about Bruno Mars. They’re all writing songs about their exes, their current girlfriends, their love life, and no one raises the red flag there.”
By laughing at the all-consuming passion that teenage girls demonstrate for their idols, from Taylor Swift to Justin Bieber; by mockingly calling them fangirls, we are teaching our young women that their desires and interests are less valid, that they are something that they should be ashamed of.
By trying to tell them to stop screaming about One Direction, we are complicit in attempting to silence them.
In a world that is constantly telling women that their voices are less worthy of being heard, is this really something we should be doing to our daughters, our younger sisters, our friends?