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Feminism, Footnotes and Female Spaces in Boybandlandia

On loving a boyband as a feminist experience.

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Boybands seem like a bad place to start when it comes to talking about feminism. They are, after all, the wellspring of back-handed feel-good songs. Take *N Sync’s hitIt’s Gonna Be Me.” Give it a listen, and you’ll realize the title isn’t so much a promise as a threat. No, no, as soon as you get over that pesky self-esteem and personal agency issue, we’re totes gonna get together. (The “or else” is implied.)

Rock critics, dudebros of all ages, most teenaged boys, goths and headbangers have nothing good to say about the pop music churned from the boyband machine. Let’s be real honest about this, right up front. Sometimes they’re right.

Have you heard The Wanted’s monotonous ode to date rape, “Glad You Came?” I have. It’s the same four notes droning, “Take another drink! Drink it if you can!” Forget melody; this song barely approaches the musical stylings of a creepy subtweet. At least when you reach the end of the road with Boyz II Men, you’re awash in gorgeous harmonies. And bonus, you don’t feel used.

What’s interesting, however, is that after the initial feeble protests about whether or not the music produced by boybands is good*, the topic immediately turns to the character and quality of band members. Specifically, how feminine, ugly, untalented, useless, and stupid they are.

Though it may seem like I’m exaggerating, I encourage you to do some research of your own. Real quick like, we’ll have some fun. Pull up a search engine, type in the name of a boyband, and—against all rules of Internet sensibility— read the first five comments on whatever article, video, blog post, or screed you find. I’ll wait here.

Hey, welcome back. See what I mean? I find it interesting that people have no problem finding ways to insult doze-rock purveyor Dave Matthews, funkadelic prince Bruno Mars, and kinda-whiny-metal megastars Metallica without once commenting on their appearance or apparent sexuality.

That kind of froth and vitriol is reserved for boybands (and occasionally teen idol solo acts, most of whom are farmed directly from the Disney Industrial Agricultural Complex, but man, have you heard Shawn Mendes on “Stitches? Pure, indie-flavored pop goodness.)

So we must ask ourselves, “Selves— why is it that we can talk smack about Ed Sheeran* without talking about his appearance, but the putative gayness of Ricky Martin was the story as far as these critics are concerned?” And I’m here to posit that, selves, the answer to that question is this:

Men* get pissed off when women (of all ages) assert their own sexual agency, and loving a boyband is, in many ways, about sexual agency. Yes, it’s about the music. But it’s also about straight girls getting hot over boys they find hot*. It’s about queer and trans girls who get the chance to get hot in a safe space; it’s about asexual girls finding a place where they can love and be content exactly as they are.

When YouTube user suxxtobeu69 has to shoot first in comments to make sure the world knows just how gay he thinks SHINee is, what’s the subtext? Let me break it down for you! The subtext is, girls think the guys in SHINee are hot while simultaneously not finding suxxtobeu69 hot.

This is unacceptable! How dare those girls have preferences that don’t include him? Time to cue the man-cannons! Let’s start firing off some white hot fury at those twinky little sexpots popping and locking to EDM-tinged R&B.

I believe with my whole heart that the massive amount of pushback surrounding boybands and teen idols grows out of that place: that place where western men were promised that they too would win any girl of their choosing, just by dint of being male.

These believers-in-friend-zones and Nice Guys (tm)— and let’s face it, often just regular guys who grew up in a sexist society, trusting in the things that society told them they deserved— are facing an uncomfortable truth: women have thoughts and feelings and desires of their own. And sometimes, scrub, you ain’t in ’em.

Rather than address a sad reality (we don’t always get what we want; the people we love don’t always love us back; sometimes, we might end up alone), these guys clamber up on that man-cannon and fire away. If they can blot out those “lol ur not niall horan” t-shirts and just make these bishes see how unworthy their star fantasy is, then they can swoop in and claim what rightfully belongs to them. And if breaking down the idols don’t work, they’ll go ahead and slut-shame the girls instead.

What’s sad about this is, sometimes this friction comes from the boybanders themselves. I will admit, these guys weren’t hired for their ability to dissect sociological gestalt on the fly. They tend to be young men who have sixty thousand girls a night literally screaming how great they are. So it’s disappointing— but thoroughly unsurprising— to find out that some of them have problems with girls evincing their own sexuality, as well.

Recently, One Direction’s Liam Payne told Attitude Magazine that it was weird to have people tagging him in explicit fan works* about him and his bandmates— fair enough. But then he goes on to say, “I don’t think it’s the right hobby for these girls [as young as ten] to be enjoying.”

At the same time most boys are discovering erections and their many, clever uses, society, pop culture and Liam Payne think girls shouldn’t be exploring what makes them feel good.

Well, that’s too damned bad. While boybands are manufactured products, cynically developed to rake in as much fan-cash as possible, the girls who enjoy boybands are having their first feminist experience. Liam Payne might want to cover his widdow virgin ears, but, I’ve got news for him. When fans buy pillowcases with his face imprinted on them, it’s not because the fabric echoes the tones the designer chose for the accent wall.

Girls wearing shirts that proclaim they choose a boybander over the guy who sits next to them in band, girls rubbing their faces and nethers on screenprinted sheets, and girls dressing in the bathroom so the guys on their posters don’t see them naked: that’s how many girls start navigating their own pleasure. Deciding they want to sing the song about the girl they love, realizing they’re allowed to feel— or not feel— desire on their own terms, that’s girls exploring their own sexuality.

Fandom brings them together with other girls having the same experiences, feeling the same feelings, at the same time. Finally, they’re allowed to admit that they’re human. You think Yazz* is so amazinglyadorableincrediblycute too? You have theories about what they’re doing on that tour bus, too? You have thoughts about sex too?

So that, my friends, is why I posit that loving a boyband is a feminist experience. The content itself may not be*, the performers may not be, and the corporate machine behind them most assuredly is not. But if women stopped consuming pop culture with problematic aspects, we’d have to sit in dark boxes* all the time and never speak to other humans.

What is feministwhat is spectacular is that in this glossily packaged world of boybands, young women are creating a safe space for themselves.

They’re not asking permission. They’re not apologizing. Their Kiss Me, Jonghyun! and She’s my Louis Tomlinson t-shirts give no quarter. This is for them, and they don’t care if you like it.

No wonder it drives men crazy. There’s no room for them here. And for the first time in their lives, they have no choice but to admit it.

*This is not a footnote. This is just how they write their name. I know, right?

* Like all things, sometimes it’s awesome. Sometimes it sucks. Most of the time, it’s fine, or better than average, or at least proficient. If you don’t believe me, listen to any boyband track, then listen to your friends “ironically” mumbleyell through Baby, One More Time on karaoke night. Compare, contrast.

* All right, Ed Sheeran is a bad example. Everybody has to talk about how orange (or ginger, depending on your side of the pond) Ed Sheeran is. But they usually move on to his songwriting soon thereafter.

* If, at this point, you’re sputtering “NOT ALL MEN!” then this essay is totally talking about you. However, since we’re all down here in the footnotes, let me take a moment to acknowledge other distinctions which are outside the bounds of this essay: not all men are straight, not all straight men are heteronormative, not all girls like boybands, not all boyband fans are girls, and not all essays about feminism have to be about every single aspect of feminism that exists in the universe. Which is good, because I’m a feminist, but I also like to sleep sometimes.

* And yes, sometimes the “hot” in question is smooth and unthreatening, a boy they can hold kittens with, and that’s all they care about. I could make a joke here about sexless Ken dolls, ho ho ho, but you know what? Screw that. What’s so hilarious about girls wanting to feel safe?

* Please don’t draw explicit fan art of me, either. It will only make me sad that I’m not as flexible as your pencil allows. Fanfic, however, I encourage. Please see me for a list of OTPs I think I you will enjoy.

* No, he’s not in a boyband. Neither is Shawn Mendes.

* Though I’m pleased to note that a lot of songs now are about enthusiastic consent, and what he can do for her (and not just because he wants something in return.)

*Or maybe a Tiny House on the shore of Somewhere Beautiful. Ahhhhhh…

Saundra Mitchell is a young adult author who’s wild for all things pop culturey, historicalesque and feministful. Her next book, 50 Unbelievable Women and their Fascinating (and true!) Stories, drops in February. You can visit her online at saundramitchell.com and @SaundraMitchell.

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