by Mikki Halpin
“The girls aren’t crazy — they’re just excited.” Early on in the One Direction documentary This Is Us, a neuroscientist details the dopamine rush a fan feels when she thinks about the band, and provides confirmation for what Harry Styles, Louis Tomlinson, Zayn Malik, Niall Horan, and Liam Payne have always insisted: Directioners are not crazy — and they’re not to be ignored. In interview after interview over the past three years, usually surrounded by thousands of screaming young women, the band has politely corrected reporters who characterize their followers as “insane” or “deranged.” “We prefer ‘passionate,’” they’ll demur. “Or ‘dedicated.’”
There’s more to this than semantics. Possibly you don’t realize how radical it is to see five guys treat young women with respect, and to demand that others do so as well, but it is. In a world where “fangirl” and “groupie” are routinely used to put down women who are enthusiastic about anything, One Direction stands in shocking contrast to their peers and to the culture as a whole.
Take, for example, Jonathan Heaf, a writer for British GQ, who did a cover story about One Direction for the September issue. He described Directioners as “a spectacle of the natural world — like the aurora borealis or the migration of wild bison“ and as “20,000 wide-open mouths, hundreds of pleading white eyes, 40,000 palms raised skywards, a dark-pink oil slick that howls and moans and undulates with every impish crotch-thrust from their idols’ plinths.”
That’s the kind of thing you’re dealing with as a young female who likes music. An adult male will sexualize you, write about your body as if he owns it, and then, as Heaf did, mock you on Twitter when you point out that he is being, frankly, a sexist pig of the highest order. “I’m still so terrified by GQ’s intense sexualization of young girls,” wrote one fan. “ADULT MEN were sexualizing and minimizing children to animalistic wet vaginas in heat. AN ADULT MAN WROTE THAT AND THEN IT WENT THROUGH MULTIPLE ADULT MEN’S HANDS THAT SAID YEAH! AMAZING!” Is it any wonder that young women respond to a group that says, as Louis Tomlinson does in the movie, “This is a partnership between us and the fans?” It’s a big fucking deal.
@victoriacoren Bloody teenagers. Now I’m REALLY scared of my own daughter.
— JonathanHeaf (@JonathanHeaf) July 30, 2013
— JonathanHeaf (@JonathanHeaf) August 13, 2013
This Is Us reinforces Louis’ point. Directioners get an incredible amount of screentime, almost as much as the band. Director Morgan Spurlock is on board with 1D’s take on their audience. “Let me just remind you how not so different they are from those guys who paint their faces for a Giants game every Sunday and talk about what jerks people are who root for the Jets,” Spurlock told Entertainment Weekly. “They’re both in tribes they’re passionate about.” But only one tribe gets called crazy. Or… bison. So many stories have been written about One Direction’s “crazy” fans. But has even one been written about their Muslim fans? The screening I attended was full of girls in headscarves, screaming for Zayn Malik.
One Direction has always been clear that they are a fan-driven operation. They answer fan questions at every concert, and during nearly every interview. The fans get a “massive thank you” whenever the band wins an award, as opposed to other acts who tend to thank God, their manager, their label, their producer, and everyone else, before gesturing to the cheap seats.
It’s paid off, obviously. One Direction’s deeply engaged audience — online nearly 24/7 — has been an integral part of the band’s path toward global superstardom. This Is Us is now pushing past the $32-million box office mark, having owned the #1 box office slot for the three days of Labor Day weekend. Performance documentaries traditionally perform well, but in global box office, This Is Us has already out-earned last summer’s Katy Perry documentary Part Of Me. It’s already in sixth place in the U.S. in the genre of all releases since 1984.
Miley Cyrus, whose documentary film holds the third spot on that list, and is about the same age as the boys, would do well to pay attention. She petulantly tweeted last week that she was leaving the VMAs early, disappointed because she knew she wasn’t going to win “Song of the Summer.” Her fans were no match for Directioners, who had voted 8,676,163 times, nearly double that of the “Smilers.”
Women need to make their own spaces as fans in a culture where most media ignores, sexualizes, trivializes, or attacks them — particularly women of color. Women control the budgets of fandom, buying 80% of sports clothing, and nearly 2/3rds of all books; women account for the majority of spending online; women are more likely to share and create online. The majority of fan fiction is written by women, putting ourselves and our stories into the worlds that we love. We change worlds, or try to, so that we can be heard. We scream and cry sometimes when we love things, like loving five guys who listen to us. But we’re not crazy — we’re just excited.