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via Instagram (@hannahrose___)

Where are all the fanboys?

Pop music has always been the domain of girls, gays, and theys. Why?

Imagine a concert: One Direction, or Kylie Minogue, or the Beatles. Picture the frenetic crowd, screaming and crying and heaving with excitement. Now ask yourself: what sort of people are in the crowd? What do they look like?

Chances are, you imagined a mass of excitable young women.

Women have been looked down upon when identifying as fans of basically anything, but this is especially true when it comes to popular music. Young, female fans of Elvis or The Beatles were stereotyped as crazed fangirls, just as Tumblr girls making 5SOS or One Direction fancams were in the early 2010s. Undoubtedly, a large reason why female fans are regarded with such scorn and unease is because of the sexual undercurrent underpinning fangirl culture: after all, women’s sexuality is policed much more stringently in our society than men’s.

In her book Fangirls, music journalist and author Hannah Ewens links fangirls back to the historical notion of hysteria. “Hysteria – from the Greek word for uterus, hystera, ever the anatomical ‘source’ of problems – carries a lot of historical baggage,” she writes. “This womb-linked ‘illness’ manifests itself in a number of symptoms: anxiety, shortness of breath, irritability, nervousness, insomnia, fainting, as well as being promiscuous or desiring sex – that is: feeling things, strongly.” 

Plus, when it comes to deciding what constitutes ‘good’ or ‘worthwhile’ culture, historically, the bar has been set – and then gatekept – predominantly by straight, white men. A 2021 investigation by the Annenberg Inclusion Initiative at USC found that 86.1 per cent of CEOs, chairs, and presidents of major and independent US music companies were male, and the same percentage were white. As Alexandra Pollard puts it in the Guardian, we inhabit “a culture in which older men are the bastions of good taste, the brave protectors of real music”.

Self-professed queer fanboy Ross, 24, tells me he went to a Charli XCX concert a few weeks ago with a straight friend of his. “He has a poster of Charli XCX in his room,” he says. “But if we were in the pub talking with a big group of men, he would never pipe up as much just because he doesn’t feel as comfortable.”

“It’s a sad thing but I do think pop, at the minute, in our culture is just more of a ‘girls and gay men’ thing,” Ross continues. “There’s such a lot of stigma. A lot of straight guys do enjoy pop, they really love pop, but laddish culture kind of prevents them from ‘speaking out’.”

“A lot of straight guys do enjoy pop, they really love pop, but laddish culture kind of prevents them from ‘speaking out’” – Ross

Professor Hilde Van den Bulck is a professor at Drexel University and a research scholar in media policy, digitization, and celebrity culture. “There are as many female as male fans,” she says. “But there is a sort of gendered notion, I guess, about what a man should be a fan of, and what a woman should be a fan of.” It’s certainly true that straight men have no qualms about getting ‘emotional’ at football – where they unabashedly shout, chant, cry, and even stick flares up their asses – even though they might sneer at pop music fangirls. “It’s insane for teen girls to sit outside a hotel to see someone they like or cry at a concert, but grown men go to sports matches and have season tickets and swear at each other, and we are ridiculed,” Ewens writes.

Dr Samantha Colling, senior lecturer in film and media at Manchester Metropolitan University and author of The Aesthetic Pleasures of Girl Teen Film, explains further. “Femininity is considered to be insubstantial [and] made up of frivolous things. So for a man to enjoy those trivial feminine things is laughable for that reason,” she says.

“This isn’t always the case, but with contemporary artists like Dua Lipa, the topics that they sing about –  like romance, love, sex, whatever it might be – are seen as ‘feminine’ topics, or they're from a female perspective,” she continues. “In culture, in general, if it's from a male perspective, it’s seen as human. If it’s from a female perspective, it’s seen as a female perspective.”

Essentially, it’s no wonder that there are so few visible straight fanboys when fangirls themselves are shamed and ridiculed for enjoying supposedly frivolous, ‘feminine’ forms of culture. Colling adds that these patriarchal values often make it difficult for straight men to express themselves freely. “There’s nothing intrinsic or innate in the music itself,” she continues. “And there’s nothing innate or intrinsic in the fans, in men and women or women and gay men, that makes them enjoy specific things. It’s just because they’re allowed to enjoy those specific things.”

“We can base it on an understanding of how gender roles work,” she says. “And if you think about what men are allowed to do, and what women and gay men are allowed to do or are allowed to enjoy, they are divided based on what is seen as masculine and what is seen as feminine.”

But things are shifting. As one TIME article puts it: “What’s become ever more apparent is that there’s no such thing as an objective taste hierarchy.” Going with this idea, then, it would make sense for everyone of all genders and sexualities to at least accept the type of music that is thought of as ‘trashy’, if pop culture is generally becoming increasingly unapologetic.

“There used to be this ‘real’ culture, and then you had ‘popular’ culture. That was kind of looked down on and it was very class-related. Now, pop culture has been embraced by everyone, it has become less ‘trash’,” Van den Bulck says. “Or maybe the notion of ’trash’ has become an established, respectable part of society.” 

Even though it looks as though things are changing, for now, straight fanboys remain a barely visible segment of fan culture. But maybe that isn’t such a bad thing. Dr Colling also adds that as society oppresses women and gay men, fandoms are often one of the only places they’re able to feel liberated. “Women and gay men are able to express themselves, to be open, to be loud, to be vocal and expressive, physically and vocally,” she says. “Imagine you’re at a concert or you're at a nightclub with that particular music. You’re in a bubble that allows you to move and act and sing and express in a way that you might not otherwise experience. You can take up space in the world in a way that isn't always offered to you.”