British pop star Zayn Malik left the band One Direction.
I confess to being one of the fans heartbroken by this announcement. The allure of One Direction is certainly multifaceted, but suffice it to say, a large part of their charm is the friendship the five boys seem to share. Thus, fans everywhere mourned when their favorite fivesome became a foursome—so much so that Spotify saw a 769 percent increase in fans listening to One Direction’s discography following the announcement, according to Time Magazine.
There are a lot of things about the One Direction phenomenon that interest me as a feminist, but primarily it’s the overwhelming, consolidated support they enjoy from teenage girls around the world. This support recalls another boy band phenomenon—England’s most famous pop group of all time, the Beatles—but attempts to compare the two bands are usually met with immediate derision. I know because it’s happened to me.
In fact, the tendency to dismiss things that teenage girls love is another experience that fans of One Direction have in common with Beatles fans of the 1960s. When the Beatles landed in America in 1964, journalists and music fans insisted that the band was nothing but a fad. A critic for The Nation at the time wrote, “Beatlemania as a phenomenon is manna for dull minds.” Throughout history, when the audience of a pop culture phenomenon consists mainly of teenage girls—be it a musician, a band, or a television show—that phenomenon is often devalued by our society.
What frustrates me about this tendency is that in my experience, our society nearly always treats traditionally male interests as more legitimate than traditionally female ones. For instance, now that the Beatles have entered into the classic rock pantheon, it’s accepted for a person of any gender to enjoy, purchase, and wear merchandise pertaining to the band, while a girl in a One Direction T-shirt is perceived as making a statement on her intelligence, maturity, and taste.
Where young One Direction fans are widely seen as ridiculous for screaming, crying, and fainting at concerts, the same judgment is never made for fervent male sports fans. I’ve seen guy friends yell at the TV screen and throw things when the Red Sox, or my hometown Phillies, lose a game. In Europe, there have been multiple cases of stabbings over football loyalties. Yet the healthy, noncompetitive, and nonviolent expression of passion by teenage girls is what’s considered outrageous. The media eats up stories about crazy fangirls attempting to get close to their idols and reads girls’ desperate tweets on the radio, but I never hear the same amount of attention given to crazy sports fans. There is a misogynistic double standard at work here.
As a feminist, I feel protective of young One Direction fans who are experiencing their first pop-culture heartbreak. At least when the Beatles broke up, they had reached a status of relative legitimacy in our culture, so the rest of the world shared in the fangirls’ mourning. Our society’s perception of gender means everything is assigned hierarchical binaries: male over female, football players over cheerleaders, the Beatles over One Direction. That hierarchy requires delegitimizing “female” interests to reaffirm the sexism embedded so deeply within our society.
We choose many of our hobbies and interests because they bring us pleasure, not because they hold any serious political weight. Being a sports fan doesn’t actually have any more legitimacy than being a One Direction fan, except for the legitimacy given to it by society. The sports equivalent of Zayn’s departure might be Lebron James leaving the Cleveland Cavaliers basketball team, which was met with outrage and burning jerseys. Lebron’s departure had meaning because Cleveland fans assigned it meaning, just as Zayn’s departure has meaning because One Direction fans assigned him meaning. The problem lies in public perception.
Since becoming a fan of One Direction, I’ve tried to own it proudly in defiance of the stigma surrounding it. But my instinct, after the news, was still to preface my feelings: “This is stupid, but I’m really upset about Zayn leaving the band.” I want to live in a society where my feelings about Zayn are treated just as legitimately as a Cavs’ fan’s feelings about Lebron. For once, I want public perception to be on the side of the teenage girl.