“Female Entertainment” Is Still Getting Written Off - What’s Up With The Gender Divide?
Why is there still so much shame and belittlement directed towards popular female media?
Female fandom has driven some of the biggest cultural moments of the 20th and 21st centuries. From Elvis, to Beatlemania, to the Spice Girls, to Twilight, to Fifty Shades of Grey and Harry Styles. All of these things have been huge cultural phenomena. But, outside of a few notable exceptions, arguably none have ever been widely accepted as legitimate, serious art.
On the other hand, culture targeted toward men gets put center stage. Video games are discussed as artforms. There’s a clamor for the Academy to recognise the cultural dominance of the MCU. And when women do try and carve out their own spaces in these male-leaning cultural forms, they’re often not made to feel welcome, and at worst can be pushed out. This all makes it hard to determine whether women’s media is shamed because of its content, or because it’s predominantly women who are consuming it.
All this leads to an even more fundamental question: At a time when gender stereotypes are supposed to be breaking down – why is there even still such a divide between “women’s” and “men’s” entertainment?
The gendered breakdown in men’s and women’s media can be seen clearly in the divide between what’s considered high culture, and what’s considered low culture. Or rather, what’s seen as important, and what’s seen as frivolous. Rom coms barely seem to register or move the needle while big budget action movies or gangster films are treated as “classics.” Reality TV is trash but sports entertainment is treated with reverence and considered a touchstone of American culture. Magazines aimed at women are relegated to embarrassing gossip rags while the man who reads GQ is considered chic, refined.
And the main thinkers and critics of most art forms have also been male. This has served largely to keep women (and people of color) out of the high-art spotlight; it’s documented that male critics are not only less likely to review female-driven films but also tend to be harsher critics. Historically, it’s clear this exclusivity was no accident: In the early days of film, before it was as respected, women thrived in key creative roles, but as the industry became more lucrative, females were noticeably pushed out of behind-the-camera leadership roles.
The shaming of women’s media has been inextricably tied to our image of female fans, and the idea of the fangirl. And long before we had Beliebers or Directioners, we had ‘Beatlemaniacs.’ The fanbase was originally described as “the least fortunate of their generation, the dull, the idle, the failures” by journalist Paul Johnson, who also called Beatlemania “a modern incarnation of female hysteria.” These visuals we have of screaming Beatles fans, or the ones who a little earlier fainted at the sight of Elvis Presley’s swinging hips, have created a lasting impression of female fandom as overly emotional, and more often than not, delusional.
On the other hand, depictions of male fandom are driven less by emotion and more by a granular, analytical appreciation of the artform. Specifically within the music community, fangirls are expected to not know enough about the technical aspects of music – like instruments or lyrics – so not only are the fans dismissed, but artists with primarily female fan bases are also delegitimized. In Derry Girls when James is accused of loving British boyband Take That, his immediate reply is to lean into this more male version of fandom.
Even when male characters are depicted as a superfan, they still maintain a feeling of superiority over other people. Comic Book Guy in The Simpsons may be a joke to his peers, but at the same time he’s a gatekeeper of that community, and on one level, an arbiter of taste. In stark contrast to female fans, he’s very measured in his fandom. His opinion is shown to matter to the people who care about it, and comes from an educated rather than an emotional place. Similarly in High Fidelity, the relationship between the men behind the counter and the music fans who come into the store is almost combative. Rather than them sharing in the joy of loving music, instead it becomes almost a competition as to who loves music the most. There’s also a real sense of elitism in this depiction of the serious male fan. As much as we hear them talk about what they love, we hear just as much, if not more, about what they hate. And again, this creates the impression of them as discerning and educated.
Fangirls are rarely represented with the same intellect or self-control. And instead of being a fan of an artform, more often than not they’re depicted as fans of an artist, or a celebrity — someone whose picture they can put on a wall, or whose logo they can wear on a t-shirt. Because fangirls are often seen through this unflattering lens, it also has a knock on what we think of the art they’re fangirling over.
But, as Harry Styles asked Cameron Crowe of Rolling Stone back in 2017, “Who’s to say that young girls who like pop music – short for popular, right? – have worse musical taste than a 30-year-old hipster guy?” What society has ignored is the raw power of female fandom. The fangirl is a force. Young women who were once brushed off as emotional teenyboppers with frivolous obsessions have leveraged their fandoms into social and political currency. And throughout the years as female and queer fandoms have seen more and more overlap, we’ve gotten to see their collective power in action.
Queer fandoms have also helped elevate artists who previously weren’t taken as seriously. Harry Styles has been a huge star since the early days of One Direction, but since going solo – and adopting a kind of flamboyant androgyny on stage – he’s enjoyed comparisons to people like Mick Jagger and David Bowie, and launched a film career in interesting, arthouse movies. And Styles is not the only celeb whose popularity and legitimacy, feels directly linked to their strong queer fanbase. Look at Beyonce or Lady Gaga…who are both considered cultural icons – no doubt thanks to their LGBTQ+ fans. Validation from the queer community almost lends stars an enigmatic quality that makes the art they put out seem more interesting. Female and queer fandoms are powerful – and deserve more of our attention.