You begin with a love that surpasses all else, unhinging you from your squalid, preteenaged self. That streetlight like a stained-glass window; that profound, worship-deserving creature living in the mundane, tricking everyone else into underestimating its holiness—everyone but you. You listen to a song and you are disassembled, you are understood. You stare at photos of a stranger’s tattoos for hours, you conjure up heart-hungry fan fiction and make your own Wattpad account, you assort the lyrics and the videos and the everything on a Tumblr page. You compose a shrine from your own flushed loneliness, yes, but also from something more important—from your need to be seen, to be articulated, to be a visible, complex, worthy anything. It isn’t desperate, it’s glorious. But devotion in the hands and hearts of girls, of course, is always called hysteria.
Fandom isn’t just for girls, but historically—look at punk rock, look at the Beatles’ fame, where all that came from—teenage girls have sprinted ahead as its queens, its facilitators. A certain thought has pestered me for a while now, thinking about my own fan-herstory: maybe, like so many other corners of culture deemed girl-zones, fandom itself is an undervalued domain for art itself. The fangirl as artist; the subject of her fandom as muse. The fandom as an underground bastion of art, its own inclusive version of the Beats’ New York or North Beach, the Paris of the 1920s. I’ve been thinking about the legacies we admit to those sequestered realms of culture we consider “serious” (i.e. male, white) and those we sneer at, usually the domains of marginalized communities. The love of my pre-adolescent life, Harry Styles, is the reason I chose to research this idea. Harry Styles being this inimitable icon beloved for his—really, nonchalance—toward gender and sexuality, his languid defiance of their binaries, his progressive activism and hair and floral, enchanting suits, his voice, his intimate, versatile, perhaps not always profound but deeply loved, always well-made music. All of that has merged into a person embodying so much for so many.
Art that has been traditionally relegated to women is never considered art at all. Art that lives in the tiptoeing, needlepoint margins of history, art seething between the walls of domesticity and suppression, art that remakes the form of art itself, often can be found in the handiwork of womxn; how the yellow wallpaper might be able to crush itself if we could find the blades underneath its polite pastels. Art that unspools from womxn who aren’t supposed to make art, who aren’t supposed to be capable, is belittled and quarantined off from the art world and its history, ultimately caged in that same space as “chick lit”—things we call hobbies or feminine crafts, never anything more, never even aspiring to be. We tell them what they are before they even know.
When you search “Harry Styles” on Society6, a website enabling artists to print their designs on hundreds of different items and effectively let anyone monetize their art, you come across work like this, with the artists credited:
By clwxo on Society6
By vulcains on Society6
By Santana on Society6
And on Etsy, Styles’ lyrics embroidered on T-shirts and sweaters, a sort of perhaps unconscious atavism to that history of “women’s work” :
By Summerbee Store on Etsy
Or the Etsy shop Honey Baby Crafts, dedicated to One Direction-inspired jewelry.
These are homemade artifacts of devotion, latched onto phones and mugs and jewelry and bedspreads. They are constant records of our cultural history as it moves and evolves.
To borrow from Alana Massey’s excellent essay about contemporary Sylvia Plath devotees, from her book All the Lives I Want:
“Public derision is directed at girls wearing T-shirts of boy bands or one half of a best-friend-necklace pairing because we assume that such unsubtle devotion is the result of juvenile obliviousness, rather than bold and certain admiration.”
The gutsiness of teenage girls—the way anything we love carries shame, and yet still we love on anyways—peers through each watercolor of Harry Styles, every Rainbow Rowell or Adam Silvera book transmuted into an iPhone case or a comic, some beautiful Mitski stickers, every piece of, yes, art, incited by something we hold close to our chests and squeeze tight, all of the creations pried from our heads because of a band or a book or a song or a character. The gutsiness of queer girls, of girls of color, of girls with disabilities, of trans girls, of nonbinary teenagers. Of course, bigotry occupies most of our cultural spaces, and fandom is no exception—but the remarkable nature of its terrain is in its capacity to listen, to engage in discourse, to grow so much nuanced art from any seed thrown.
Those handicrafts occupy a status in cultural history similar to that of women’s diaries (as opposed to men’s journals, of course). The “feminine” mediums of embroidery, needlework, sewing, clothing, and decoration were deemed ornamental rather than artistic. Paraphrasing Lucy Lippard’s essay “Household Images in Art,” the Brooklyn Museum writes, “previously women artists had avoided ‘female techniques’ like sewing, weaving, knitting, ceramics, even the use of pastel colors (pink!) and delicate lines—all natural elements of artmaking,” for fear of being labeled feminine artists.
Women artists’ desire to push away the traditionally “female” in their work is understandable; distancing themselves from anything womanly so as not to invoke those reactions of infantilization perhaps ensures their own survival not as women artists but as artists. The disavowal of the “girly” still thrashes in my own self-understanding, my tendency to disown my own adoration for melodrama, for wanting too much, for being too emotional, for wanting anything like tenderness or honesty or compassion. These aren’t, obviously, feminine traits, but that’s what they’ve been deemed, what they’ve been understood as for so very long that to unlearn their unimportance is a mountain I must not only climb but tear apart with my hands and teeth.
To reclaim art wholly, though, that “girly” matter, in its every hue, must be considered art-worthy too. Girl-love must be considered art-worthy; girl-pain must be considered art-worthy. Girliness is a reaffirmation of a gender binary that doesn’t exist, but it is worth recognizing that for so very long in our culture, our lives were defined by it. What we call “girly” usually means emotional, effusive, gentle, vulnerable. It’s what we derail in boys in favor of shut-offedness and emotional immaturity and suppression. What we call girliness is what we societally consider weak. Too much. Too much feeling. What we call girliness is often what we are afraid to own up to in ourselves, and shouldn’t be.
The adoration that fan art owns up to, unapologetically, isn’t girly; it’s fucking magic. Almost every T-shirt and bracelet is inscribed with words of love, resistance, and queerness, even. Messages like “All the love,” a signature Harry Styles tweet-signoff, or “Treat people with kindness,” or my personal favorite, “We’re all a little gay.” Shirts emblazoned with close-ups of Styles’ guitar, with its stickers reading “End gun violence” and “Black Lives Matter.” If this is girliness, girliness is a progressive, insistent superpower. The love cultivated in the Styles fandom in particular overflows with acceptance, with a fluidity of loving and living, and a fierce collective voice against bigotry. At a Harry Styles concert, you enter an otherworld, the world you wish and fight for, a whole bouquet of identities and passions swaying clumsily together, queer and crushing binaries, the music like a warm home for a few hours.
Supporting the financial ecosystems girls create—that young, passionate people of marginalized identities create—supports not merely the future these young artists want to conceive, but the present too. To make this art a viable form of income is a radically feminist act: girls, and nonbinary fans in particular, reverse the archetype of a lovesick, drooling fangirl and actually profit off of that lovesickness.
These young, often LGBTQ+ artists pry a protectiveness out of me because I know what it is to be both coddled and underestimated. What it is to cultivate something glittering and profound, something flawed but feels like togetherness, a belonging you can’t shake. To unearth the truest true in, yes, a boy band or a YA book. These artists never cover up their devotion; they just go ahead and fucking paint. They go ahead and fucking create what every old white male art critic would scoff at; they make it without apologizing; they design floral, floaty dreamscapes of Harry Styles in a flower crown and a pink suit; they draw him over-tattooed and sullen; they drape the pride flag over him and embroider his lyrics on T-shirts with their own tiny doodles underneath. They convene love and creativity in startling, affectionate tapestries of love, of not acceptance but simple declaration: we are here, we’re queer, we’re artists and creatives as talented and true as the rest of you. We’re girls, and we don’t even think of apologizing for it.
By Sofia Sears
Illustration by Sean McCabe for RollingStone.com
Photographs used in illustration by Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images, Warner Bros/Everett Collection, Scott Gries/Getty Images, Merie W. Wallace/20th Century Fox/Paramount/Kobal/REX Shutterstock, Kevin Winter/Getty Images, Jeff Daly/FilmMagic