Over the weekend, rumours have spread that Crazy About One Direction, a documentary on the eponymous boy band broadcast by the UK’s Channel 4, has led to suicides among distraught fans. One thing is certain. The group’s admirers are incensed about their portrayal in the show.
According to reviews, the program isn’t kind to the people who made the band a global phenomenon. It depicts “Directioners”, the band’s devoted fans, as hysterical fantasists whose obsessions are simply weird, and even pathological. Apparently, this is more than the new Beatlemania that grabbed your mum. The eternal propensity for teenagers to swoon is sharper, because heartthrobs can touch you through Twitter.
The suicide rumours build on other recent tragedies where young people appear to have taken their lives in response to social media experiences. This troubling development revives some of the anxieties that landed in Australia, along with Harry Styles and his fellow band members, in 2012. Famously, fans who had waited all night to welcome the band were suckered as the singers sneaked out the back entrance of Sydney airport. The fact that thousands of teenagers had taken the risk of staying out all night for no reason only confirmed, to adult eyes, how cynically boy bands manipulate their gullible audiences.
What these accounts ignored is that Australian Directioners had a great time hanging with their mates, and playing up to the stereotypes of incredulous journalists. Audiences use boy bands to create their own entertainment. The English group are just raw materials that teenagers fashion into cultures of emotion, identity and friendship. This is probably why Directioners are upset over the documentary: the world is poking fun at their work. Certainly, studies of teenagers who love heartthrobs often find sophisticated understandings of media industries, and the place that girls in particular have in them.
Parents might fret. But when addressing these fears, painting girls and boys as dopes is the worst thing you can do. Looking at the evidence on what teen heartthrobs mean to the people who love them, we find that many are wiser than we imagine.
This isn’t the first time that global teen media has spat in the face of the kids who make it tick. But young women comprehend this culture very well. And they can change it.
If you want to know what girls think about teen idols, all you have to do is ask. When you do, you find a knowing cynicism. “Fanatics” say things like this about boy bands:
…they’re just like five people they think you fancy…you have the sweet blond one who’s the main lead singer, you have the ugly tall one…it’s not hard to do.
You also discover people who know only too well that the adult world - including the objects of their affection - regard them with either patronising or scornful eyes. And this makes them angry.
Take the film Titanic as an example. It owed its success to the millions of girls and boys who fell in love with Leonardo DiCaprio. These were the devotees who saw the movie over and over again, buying all the peripheral merchandising that pocket money and Saturday jobs could afford. But where their love for Leo may have been unrequited, it was not unconditional. Girls noticed when the rising Hollywood star bristled at a heartthrob status that didn’t sit well with his acting ambitions. And frankly, they thought that he should have been more grateful.
Twitter channels this anger into a redoubtable force, at times to the platform’s chagrin. When Twitter changed its trending algorithm to knock Justin Bieber from his eternal summit, his fans responded with skilled hashtag manipulation that kept the Canadian crooner right there. Fair enough, Bieber egged them on. But this doesn’t change the fact that millions of girls forced a global media brand to recognise that they existed.
Outraged One Direction fans have employed exactly the same strategy. The hashtag #THISISNOTUS is an online call for girls and boys who want to demand more respect for who they are: people with thoughts, feelings, intelligence and taste. One Direction seem to know this, and they’re worried. They’ve quickly taken to the same medium to distance themselves from the offence Crazy About has caused.
Far from being a story about poor deluded adolescents, the One Direction incident confirms that girls are major players in global media industries. This gives them power which they are willing and able to deploy. Efforts to “protect” them from the risks of media must start by acknowledging that their passions are considered. They’re really quite rational, even if they look hysterical to others.
The main predicament for most One Direction fans is that they live in a world that either pretends they don’t exist, or else doesn’t take them seriously. So the next time you laugh at a teenager screaming at a boy band, remember this: she knows what you’re thinking, and you are the problem.