Imagine the most offensive phrase a 30-something journalist could use to describe a tween girl. Whatever you’re thinking couldn’t possibly be worse than “knicker wetting banshee” because a term worse than “knicker wetting banshee” doesn’t exist. But this is what British GQ thinks of One Direction fans—who, we should remember, are a bunch of little girls.
While much has been written about the vicious Twitter war instigated by British GQ’s cover story on the reigning kings of tween pop, the coverage mostly treats their young fans as, at best, insipid fools and, at worst, dangerous, high-pitched estrogen zombies. No one asks whether all this screaming has a purpose. No one asks if the ritual of pop idolatry may actually be important for these young girls. And they should because it actually is. I know this because I was once a 13-year-old girl. And I was an intense fan. And even a pack of smug GQ editors couldn’t have ripped that Leonardo DiCaprio calendar out of my cold, dead hands.
It was December 1997, and I was hooked the minute I saw Jack and Rose screw in the back of that old-timey car. I saw Titanic the day it was released, and I ended up returning six more times. Yes, I was one of those girls. It got so bad that I could eventually recite all of the dialogue with the correct accents and vocal intonations. And my Billy Zane impersonation was on point. I even had a VHS tape on deck at all times so that I could hit record the second “My Heart Will Go On” came on MTV or Leo himself appeared on Entertainment Tonight. Which all suggests two things: (a) that I’m old and (b) that I was kind of obsessed.
During this same period of time, I was also studying for the PSATs, acing all my classes, and dreaming about getting the hell out of Dexter, MI. In other words, I wasn’t a hysterical uterus with bangs. I was a nerdy girl with a silly crush. And like many other girls who had recently grown lady parts and begun menstruating, I was simultaneously fascinated with and terrified by the concept of sex. Having grown up with three sisters before the golden age of Internet porn, I wasn’t even certain what a scrotum looked like. I just knew I didn’t want one near me. So obsessing about a pretty boy I would never meet was perfect. It was safe, and I was completely in control.
And control was key. GQ may mock the supposed effeminacy of One Direction, but they fail to see that androgyny is central to a teen idol’s appeal—because it’s non-threatening. What else do Elvis, Mick Jagger, Leonardo Dicaprio, and Justin Bieber have in common? They all looked like chicks when they were young. Teen idols are sexual without being scary. So they’re perfect for the stage in heterosexual female development when girls have sexual urges but aren’t yet ready to actually have sex. And, as a girl, it’s fantastic because you get to be the predator for a change without fear of judgement. But GQ can’t handle this. As the Daily Dot and Jezebel both point out, the grown men over at GQ can only conceive of young girls as sexual objects. They’re terrified of the idea of teenage girls expressing intense desires that are beyond their control, so they have to belittle them and turn them back into objects of derision. Bravo, grown men.
Now, I’ve only ever heard one song by this band, and it was played by a Celtic marching band in a Saint Patrick’s Day parade. So I’m not exactly the target demographic. The only reason I knew the song was by One Direction was because the girl I was babysitting told me so. And she seemed ridiculously happy as she did. Just like she seemed ridiculously happy every time a new tweet appeared on her phone featuring Harry Styles with a straw up his nose.
So can’t we just allow her that? We champion the culture of teenage boys every day—giving them all the comic book heroes, sports stars, and porn any human could conceivably consume. Can’t we give teenage girls one thing without demonizing them?
Because even though we should be critical of One Direction fans’ tendency toward slut-shaming, homophobia, and, now, emoji-filled death threats, I think we can safely assume that most of these kids are not 112-lbs cyber stalkers. They’re little girls who’ve committed the heinous crime of crushing on some pretty 20-year-old boys—a crime which, let’s admit, many of us have been guilty of at some point in our lives. It’s how we learned to grow up. Perhaps GQ should give that a try.