Before Justin Bieber became Justin Bieber and The Beatles exploded onto the scene as a cultural and musical force, there were a group of girls rallying behind them, forcing you to pay attention. These women are the ones pushing pageviews on obscure YouTube artists up enough that record labels notice them, and they're the ones calling in to vote on talent shows that will crown the singer of that Top 40 song you can't get out of your head. They're the ones shaping what we consume in pop-culture without ever realizing it and they're the ones who tick culture forward with their refreshingly unabashed love for the mainstream. Often referred to as "fangirls" these women are making things happen in society, despite our attempts to write off their devotion to pop music as silly or pathological. We compartmentalize these women into "girls" because we see their love of pop-culture icons as "obsessive" and childish, while grown men a free-pass to get piss-drunk, cry, and fight over their favorite sports teams' wins and losses. Why do we find one expression of hyper-fanaticism acceptable and the other juvenile and unsettling?
In the upcoming documentary
I Used to Be Normal, Australian filmmakers Rita Walsh and Jessi Leski are attempting to change the way we see fangirls. The film will follow various fans of all ages, sexes and extremes to shed light on how they're directly influencing culture with their loyalty, and furthermore give them an opportunity to see themselves on screen for the first time. From women who collect Backstreet Boys posters to girls who break down over a member of 5 Seconds of Summer tweeting at them to men whose torch still burns for New Kids on the Block, this film will highlight how diverse and multi-faceted the community is. The film was a three-year labor of love that will attempt to shift public perception of fans and cast them in a more humanizing light. I got the pleasure to talk to Walsh and Leski about their new film, and how they need fangirls (and fanboys!) to help them complete their love letter to fans who are accused of loving too much via Kickstarter.
Rita Walsh and Jess Leski. Photo by Lester Francois.
What first inspired you to create a documentary around the fangirl phenomenon?
Jess: For me it was falling in love with One Direction myself. I had never liked a boyband before, so it was new and confusing and fascinating for me. I was at school during the Backstreet Boys/NSYNC era, and they didn't interest me at all. I was dismissive of the fans and didn't think much of the music. But then I discovered One Direction and it made me re-think everything. Shortly afterwards I discovered the fans and I think I fell even more in love with the fangirls. I had never seen fan art before, or read fan fiction, I was so impressed by how talented, creative, honest, intelligent and hilarious the fangirls were. I thought 'no one knows about this side of the fandom and it's a huge part of being a fan.'
Rita: I just wanted the chance to work with Jess. I'd seen her previous documentary The Ball, and knew she was a director whose work was empathetic and insightful. When she started talking to me about boy bands and some guy called Harry Styles, though, I remembered how much I loved dancing to "Backstreet's Back" at school performances and knew she was onto something.
Would you both consider yourselves fangirls?
Jess: Yes! 1DAF. Even though this is my first boy band love I definitely possess the fangirl gene. At university I was obsessed with Dawson's Creek and recreated the opening sequence with lookalikes for a film assignment.
Rita: I can't call myself a bone fide boy band fangirl, but I can call myself a fangirl of fangirls now. After three years of working on this film, we really want the chance to share their stories and explore what this experience really is. I would also add that when we talk about fangirl that it is certainly not gender specific. Fangirl can be a noun, or a verb too as we have learned!
How did you go about getting in touch with your subjects? Was there a wide variety of fangirls you wanted to cover?
Rita: A lot of research online and social media call-outs. We started with One Direction then wanted to go wider and see how the experience had changed or grown. We found the experts through recommendations and doing lots of reading.
Were there any moments you had with the fangirls you interviewed for the film that resonated more than others?
Jess: There have been so many. Because I've known some of these fans for three years now, we can be really open with each other. One moment that comes to mind was this year when I sat down with our Long Island One Direction fangirl, Elif. She had just turned 18 and was about to graduate high school. We were talking about what it means to grow up and rather than her be excited about being an adult she started crying. She worried that being an adult meant you had to hold in your emotions. That's a real motivator for me in wanting to make this film, to question why this happens. Why do we lose that freedom to scream or cry when we feel something deeply? Why are we so afraid of showing emotions as adults? Fangirls can remind us of those feelings and can help us reconnect with our teenage selves.
Rita: I've not been present at as many of the interviews as Jess, or I am waiting outside with the camera gear cases. The most touching moments I have had are when I see the footage playing back and can see the emotion on the girls' faces when they describe a song they love, or a moment at a concert, or a moment when they thought John Lennon was actually looking at them. If we get the chance to make this film, I think audiences are going to be surprised by how moving they find this film.
One Direction fans in I Used to Be Normal.
Why do you think fangirls get the rep of being obsessive and crazy.
Rita: Partly, it's that same old fear of women and girls expressing their emotions and desires. I think patriarchy finds that threatening and so it tries to repress it. A boy being obsessed with a football team is deemed OK, a girl with a boy band is written off as irrational, stupid and told she is going through a "phase."
But also when we spoke with neurologists they described the amazing changes that go on in the teenage brain -- your brain feels things so much more intensely and passionately! That's amazing and should be embraced. Adult society often forgets that.
Jess: There are always extremes in any group of people. The media chooses to focus on the most extreme fans, but that doesn't represent the wider fan experience. We want to make this film to explore respectfully what it means to be a fan.
How do you think your film will shift the perception of this?
Rita: If we get the backing to make this film, we hope people will make up their own minds when they watch it. I think getting multiple generations on screen will help people look more objectively at themselves and each other.
Jess: Perhaps just as importantly though, we also want fans to get the chance to see themselves on film. There have been documentaries made about fangirls but they often have a pretty skewed point of view and leave the fans feeling upset, alienated and ostracized. If we can finish this film, this can be one that they can watch and feel their experiences are validated.
In your opinion, which boy band/ person has the most dedicated fangirl base?
Rita: I would not dare answer that question. They all have different cultures I think to an extent. And the intensity sometimes changes at different parts of life.
How do you think these women are influencing culture?
Rita: The Beatles, The Backstreet Boys and One Direction are arguably the three most successful music acts in history. That's because of their fans and their dedication and passion. From a slightly cynical and simplistic point of view, that's a huge influence on culture as we know it. But I think if you look more closely at fangirls and what they become in their adult lives you'll see something more.
Jess: There is a great quote from one of the fan artists we interviewed, she said "Renaissance paintings in galleries are fan art of the bible." Isn't that brilliant? Artists are influenced by what is around them and what they love and admire. That's been true forever. Fan artists now have their own fans. I love that. The fans take something that is mainstream and make something new out of it. They are hugely influential.
We have spoken to teachers who have told us that often it's the girls who are deeply passionate about things, whether that's a band or a movie star, that often excel at school, because they are focused and dedicated and can translate that to their studies too. For us, interviewing fans across generations allows us to look at how being fan of a boy band contributed to these women's professional choices in life.
How do you try and approach your subjects without any bias?
Jess: When I speak to fans I don't really hide my bias. I am also a fan and that allows them to feel comfortable and not judged. With the experts I do remain unbiased.
Rita: I guess for us, we don't go in trying to get a certain thing out of the interview. That's the wonderful thing about documentary, a film might take a whole new direction because of what someone tells you, and if you aren't open to that, then the film won't have any emotional resonance.
What is the most intense fangirl moment you've heard about or experienced yourself?
Rita: I still think the video of One Direction fan Elif in our Kickstarter trailer is pretty amazing. She is just so full of feelings. But I also remember one night when a fan artist we spoke to had her work complimented and retweeted by Zayn Malik. She didn't need that validation to know she was doing well but it was beautiful to see her drawings being beamed around the internet.
Jess: Going to my first-ever One Direction concert was amazing. It was in the summertime at Jones Beach, Long Island. I was with my sister and as we entered the venue the screaming was so loud, and this was before the show had even started! There is this incredible energy at a 1D show. They say the level of screaming is equivalent to standing behind a jet engine taking off. The show started and the screaming was so intense. My sister and I looked at each other and smiled and then we just joined the screaming. It was cathartic and beautiful. Everyone was having fun, there were even dads in our row who were singing and dancing. I loved it.
How do you think social media has changed the game for avid fans?
Rita: I guess the community is easier and more immediate to access. Rather than creating a Geocities Email group for BSB or NKOTB, or posting letters to Paul, John, George and Ringo, you tweet at Harry Styles or tag Louis Tomlinson in an Instagram or Tumblr post. And every now and then, they tweet back!
Would you consider a lot of your subjects to be feminists?
Rita: Yes -- certainly. I think some are more aware of calling themselves feminist than others, but definitely yes.
Some of the women we've interviewed are questioning their obsession with a boy band, they know they are being manipulated by marketing and music, and that makes them question themselves a little. It's something we hope to be given the chance to explore when we put together the film.
What is next for both of you?
Rita: At the moment all we can focus on is trying to raise the funds we need to finish this film. Our Kickstarter finishes on the 19th November and we need a lot more support and pledges to reach our target. If we don't reach that target, all pledges are cancelled, we don't get the money and the film has to take a few steps backwards. That's terrifying! So if your readers want to see the film we'd love to hear from them and hope they will consider backing I Used to Be Normal. Help!
Jess: We have put three years of our lives into this film. It is totally a love project. We are making it because we believe it's important and a story that hasn't been told. We have taken the project as far as we can go and now we are putting all our energy into reaching out to people to help us finish this film. We love this film and we really hope we get a chance to finish it and take it to audiences.
If you want to see I Used To Be Normal get made, contribute to the KickStarter here.