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Review: Rainbow Rowell’s ‘Fangirl’, and Everything it Gets Wrong About Fandom

“To really be a nerd, she’d decided, you had to prefer fictional worlds to the real one.”

– Rainbow Rowell, Fangirl.

When author Rainbow Rowell’s young adult novel Fangirl first hit the stands in 2013, it became an instant Internet phenomenon among fandom communities. It was possibly the first-ever mainstream novel that delved deep into fandom culture – choosing to centre its narrative around an actual fangirl (as the title suggests), someone who is not only intimately emotionally invested in a certain literary work, but writes queer fanfiction about it too – and as a result, countless fellow real-world fangirls across the world were endlessly mesmerised by it, feeling represented in a way they had never been before.

Now, almost a decade since its release, conversations around fandom culture have become more prominent than they were ever before – with fandom culture gaining more mainstream visibility and even legitimacy, with creators of media often engaging directly with fans and fanworks, with fan studies becoming more and more prominent within academia. In the early 2010s, fandoms were for ‘nerds’, for ‘weirdos’, but, with the proliferation of the Internet and the increasing corporatisation of media (especially that of Marvel, Harry Potter, K-pop etc), fandom slowly became cool, a source of cultural capital, even. Fangirls are now no longer on the margins, are not starved of larger representation – though whether this is a good or bad thing, is a different conversation entirely.

Either way, with the shifting nature of perceptions around fandom, fan perceptions around Rainbow Rowell’s Fangirl, have witnessed an interesting shift too. While earlier, the book found almost unanimous acceptance – with hordes of young teenage girls gravitating towards the young teenage protagonist of the novel as a means of projecting their own identities onto her, as a means of finding an outlet for the dual sense of liminality and otherness they feel not just because of their gender (or very often, their non-heteronormative sexuality), but also their position within a subculture that has always been largely looked down upon – in recent times, it has completely faded into irrelevance.

And perhaps, there’s a reason for that.

Fangirl revolves around 18-year-old Cath Avery, who is an avid fan of a fictional book series called Simon Snow (modelled on the Harry Potter franchise), and writes fanfiction about the homoerotic romantic tension between the book series’ eponymous hero and his so-called ‘rival’ Baz Pitch. Cath struggles with social anxiety and alienation as she moves away from home to start college, feels deeply inept in her creative writing classes while wrestling with her online fame as a fanfiction writer, and constantly carries the burden of feeling inferior to her much more charming and outgoing twin sister, Wren. While the novel is essentially a coming-of-age story about Cath learning to stand on her own two feet, experiencing her own romantic failures and successes, and finding self-confidence, fandom – and especially, Cath’s personal engagement within fandom spaces – still plays an essential role in tying together the various threads of her life.

And yet, this is where the depiction of fandom and how it intersects with Cath’s life, and even her sexuality, is so completely outdated – built on flimsy stereotypes at best, offensive caricatures at worst.

To many young teenage girls across the world, engaging this deeply with fandom communities or fandom spaces is often a gateway into exploring both identity and sexuality. When you yourself feel isolated from the patriarchal societal expectations imposed upon you, and are grappling with the modes of ‘acceptable’ sexual expression you are thrust into, fandom can be a tantalising and necessary escape. It can not only give you the tools to write stories about two boys kissing (like Cath does, with her stories about Simon and Baz), but also give you the power to navigate these tools in whichever way you choose, charting your own sexual terrains, shaping your own destiny.

But in Fangirl, Rainbow Rowell blatantly misrepresents this very freedom of expression that fandom and fanfiction offers. Cath’s obsession with Simon Snow is not only written as a character flaw, but is something that actively holds her back from forming ‘real relationships’. The clear implication is that Cath’s extensive engagement with fandom culture from a very young age has contributed to her social anxiety and her resulting insecurities, and it is only when she is able to free herself from her dependence on fandom as a source of joy and sexual expression that she is able to truly find both romantic success and a sense of renewed identity. Here, her position as a fangirl is seen from that distinct 2000 – 2010 lens of ‘otherness’ – except that this otherness doesn’t lead to her sexual liberation like it often does for many real-life fangirls; rather, it restricts her and makes her ‘less’ of a person. This sort of depiction is an affront to the countless real-life fangirls for whom their identity as a fan never subsumes their identity as a living, breathing person with an actual social and sexual life. There are fangirls who are well into their adulthood, who are married, in loving relationships ­ in fact, fandom is something that enriches their real-world sexual and physical experiences, and does not subtract from it. One does not have to shed one’s fangirl identity to ‘come of age’.

Another significant factor that contributes to young girls often finding refuge in fandom spaces is the sense of community that is inherent to it. Fandoms bring together like-minded people from across the globe in a single virtual setting, providing a platform for mutual connection, for sharing experiences of being sexually marginalised, for finding solace in fictional characters or fictional narratives that might parallel one’s real-world alienation from traditional heteropatriarchal norms. In fact, the very inception of fandoms as we know today began long before the rise of the Internet, with women coming together and creating and publishing ‘fanzines’ that were full of explicitly queer and sexually evocative transformative works – something that was revolutionary for that time. Women, including LBTQ women, often did not see themselves represented in mainstream media in meaningful, nuanced ways, and to them, these fanzines became an outlet for shaping their own narratives, for building fan universes where women can be heroes, where Kirk and Spock from Star Trek can be in a romantic and sexual relationship with each other. This community of fanzine creators and fanzine readers was foundational, because this is how fangirls felt seen, this is how fandom thrived – and even today, the community-driven aspect of fandom has held true in how fan interactions play out on various social media platforms.

But Fangirl completely ignores community, choosing instead to centre its focus on Cath, and how brilliant she is as a fanfiction writer. Cath herself is fashioned as a bona fide celebrity whose fanfiction has a loyal readership (that can even be loosely termed ‘fandom’). It’s almost as if her persona as a fanfiction author supersedes everything else, defying the ‘equal ground’ fan communities offer to fans of every ilk. It’s an awfully conceited understanding of both fandom, and how fandom makes space for diverse sexualities.

In hindsight, it is understandable why Fangirl became the phenomenon it was back in 2013 Without any other mainstream examples of fictional fangirls, actual, real-life fangirls had nothing else to lean on, no other media representation to relate to. But perhaps, with the recent explosion in fandom’s visibility, we will get more books that do greater justice to women who are dedicated ‘fans’ of a certain piece of media. Perhaps, the time is ripe for a story where one’s ‘fangirl’ identity – and everything it stands for – is their greatest asset, not something to be ashamed of and discarded to move on to become ‘a better adult’.

Cover Image: Novel Cover Image

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Article written by:

Rohini Banerjee is a pop culture enthusiast with experience working in the NGO sector, as well as writing for multiple feminist publications. Currently, she is pursuing a Masters in Media and Communication from Macquarie University and is dabbling as a part-time subtitler and copywriter.

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