Rosé, fanfiction, and Harry Styles
Or, how women have "bad taste"
Update: Now you can also watch the Reels/TikTok version of this op-ed!
Between the ages of 12-15, I was very deep into the Harry Potter fandom. I spent most of my after-school hours on FictionAlley, a sprawling and well-organized repository for all things HP. It wasn’t just that Harry, Ron, Hermione, and others in the Potterverse felt like my real compatriots through the awkward phase that is adolescence. Freed from the confines of canon, I felt safe to scrutinize, critique, and even reject the reactions of my favorite trio within these fan-made works (primarily fanart and fanfiction for me). And in that act, I found an outlet to explore subjects that were too difficult or taboo for me, a teenage girl, to voice: sexuality and desire, mental illness and suicide ideation, body image issues, the list goes on. In many ways, this time of my life was a foundational and fundamental part of shaping my identity.
This all sounds like a good thing: a welcoming and generally inclusive safe space for people to better understand themselves. (It wasn’t just teens, either—my first fanfic editor told me she was 36!) But for years, this was something I felt so deeply ashamed of, I have only ever told one friend about it. In fact, it wasn’t until maybe 6 months ago I mentioned this aspect of my life—and very briefly at that—to my husband of 7 years.
The fear I felt in making this giant “confession” didn’t have anything to do with being a fan, or Harry Potter, for that matter. Being a fan of something—even a rabid one—is nothing new in our society. We’ve normalized that major sporting events are often followed by street violence. We shrug when individuals lose millions of dollars betting on video games. And what’s a day without a Reddit thread analyzing every last detail of each skirmish in Game of Thrones? In particular, the last one is couched in a type of knowledge-obsessed fan culture we accept and celebrate, something referred to as “curatorial fandom.”
The side of fandom I found myself in, on the other hand, falls into “transformational fandom,” which centers around creating derivative works from the source material. If you haven’t guessed already, compared to curatorial fans, this group of fans skews non-male, more queer, and has been the subject of much public ire, backlash, and derision. As blogger Devin Faraci wrote most condescendingly just last year, “‘Fanfic is lazy,’ [George R.R. Martin, author of A Song of Fire and Ice aka Game of Thrones] said at a recent convention, and I agree. Take inspiration from what he’s writing and create something of your own. Don’t just take what he’s done and rearrange it like furniture in your fantasies.”
But here’s the thing—transformative/transformational fandom is all around us. We just don’t call it that when it’s created by men. Have you moseyed through the overhyped darkness that is Sleep No More? That’s immersive Macbeth fanfiction. Did you enjoy The Dark Knight trilogy? (Me too—Christian Bale will always be my Batman.) Well, those are Christopher Nolan’s Batman fanvideos. Every remake, re-imagination, and “inspired by” story is essentially some form of transformative fanwork—even Shakespeare. But when these are created by men, we give them the credence of art that’s been “adapted” for current times instead of disparaging them as foolish whims of the female brain.
This is not particularly new fandom discourse, so I don’t want to belabor the point. Rather, what I’ve found most fascinating is that the more I observe literary fandom, the more parallels I see in the fandom I spend most of my time on nowadays: food and beverage. If you hadn’t considered F&B a fandom before, perhaps this will give you a new lens to scrutinize fan behavior on platforms like the Bon Appetit Test Kitchen Reddit or Yelp. We already know the world of F&B is sexist, and the World’s 50 Best pretty much works like this:
So when it comes to media narratives, the idea of an inherent male ‘north star’ of taste is not exactly hidden. Remember how the Chef’s Table: Pastry series featured literally one woman, despite it being a kitchen sector that skews female? Or that Amanda Cohen debuted a broccoli “hot dog” years before Will Horowitz’s smoked watermelon “ham,” to far less viral fanfare? One particularly good example of this phenomenon, IMO, is the soaring rise—and subsequent backlash—to rosé. As the (very talented) Jaya Saxena wrote in TASTE:
“When men enjoy something, they elevate it. But when women enjoy something, they ruin it.
When [a food or beverage women like] blows up, we judge women for falling for the marketing or trying to jump on the bandwagon, and we assume that because they like something other women like, they don’t have minds of their own.
[But] when men get into women’s trends, they legitimize them…Male rosé drinkers have transformed it from a wine ‘seen by serious wine drinkers as cloying, mass-produced swill, an object of revulsion and gendered disdain,’ as GQ wrote, into something men are happy to be seen drinking.”
It’s not just that men rescued rosé from befalling the same “terrible” fate as, say, buttery Chardonnay, but that men had the mental faculty of thinking independently if they liked this particular pink wine, and they decided they did! Even if women can provide a revenue stream under capitalism, they can never offer the social cache of being male-approved.
But this is not just about undermining women’s ideas, interests, or feelings as inferior or in bad taste; it’s about gaslighting women into believing that their natural response to the world around them is fundamentally questionable until verified by the opinions of men. If you, as a woman, can never, ever, trust yourself, your own choices, your desires, and your point of view, then you occupy a space where you are always in need of external validation. And where does one go looking for that?
In male-dominated media, of course, where stories like one lone boy’s blood fixing a worldwide epidemic are so commonplace, it elicits barely a passing mention.
In male interests.
In the male gaze.
(Not to mention: If women as a fan group can destroy complete franchises, then your duty as a fan—who happens to be a woman—is to distance your fandom (and yourself) as far as you can from other women. This “not like the other girls” mentality has been a powerful motivator for many women, from those who led the anti-women’s-suffrage movement to ones now blocking abortion access.)
We amplify these messages because, deep down, we are very, very afraid of women and what they can do. Because if women break out of this cycle of self-flagellation, they may very well upend the world we know. Publicly announcing that the things women like are Good implies women’s perspectives are Valid, and by extension, women are entitled to have Ideas that may drive change and forward momentum in our society. Because, after all, isn’t that the entire point of transformative fandom—to reshape reality?
This leads me to the last piece of the title: Harry Styles (and the cult of celebrity in general). Formerly of One Direction and soon to be headlining at Coachella, this is a man who apparently “vomited on the side of a freeway in California, and within two hours, fans had turned the site of the vomit into a sacred shrine.” (From Yves Blake’s excellent TEDx, For the love of fangirls.) She continues, “That takes some executive skills in logistics and communication.”
And that’s the thing, isn’t it? The fears of women rising up and overcoming are extremely credible because women are powerful. Girls are powerful. And dedicated, focused, and perhaps most frighteningly—collaborative. I don’t mean this abstractly whatsoever. If you’ve made it this far, I hope you have time for another example of just how awe-inspiring young women can be when working together, this time outside the U.S. (Admittedly, I wanted to use this celebrity in the title as his section is much longer than Styles’, but I knew most people wouldn’t know who he is.)
Some quick context: Xiao Zhan is a huge celebrity in China. Arguably its biggest right now. And in 2020, he was embroiled in a major scandal that (perhaps fittingly/ironically) came about due to his fans writing fanfiction about him. (I really don’t have time to get into the politics of slash fiction, but here’s an article to get you started if you’re interested, which coincidentally features Harry Styles.) Anyhow, the point is that everyone thought XZ’s career was over. Done for. He disappeared from the public eye for several months before finally announcing a return to the big stage at a live show in December 2020.
When news of his performance spread, his fans publicly said they would show up en masse and give him a “red ocean” because his fan color is red. (Don’t ask me why.) Naturally, authorities made quick work of banning any electric fan lights, banners, etc., at the venue. Please remember this isn’t the bored security guard at a warehouse party; this is a newsworthy event under heavy scrutiny from the authoritarian Chinese Communist Party, which is actively involved in all things celebrity. There are very real consequences to disobedience. And yet, when XZ took the stage, here’s what it looked like:
If that’s not a flex, what is it? Thousands of XZ’s fans—primarily young women—infiltrated this massive stadium with red glow sticks and banners, willingly taking a personal risk to do this. I can’t find it anymore, but there’s a fascinating firsthand post on Tumblr from a woman who was at the event, in the crowds, recounting how she barely listened to XZ sing because she was so distracted pulling out hidden batteries in her bra to share with other fans, or discreetly plugging in extension cords to light up the banners while being chased around the venue by security. These fans didn’t even know each other, but their shared bond was so strong, they managed to circumvent some very unnerving obstacles to celebrate someone that brings them joy.
I want to focus on the last word there: joy. To hold space for women to find and relish in something just for themselves is antithetical to societal norms as we know it. It’s extremely telling that our reaction to even the idea of women savoring their bodies, free and absent from male attention, is to ban female sex toy ads from running in the NYC subway for years. For how will a woman learn to sacrifice herself for her man (or her child) the way popular stories constantly teach us once she has a taste of how it feels to enjoy herself—sexually, emotionally, and freely?
If said woman with these godforsaken interests then finds other women who enjoy the same things, the toll of their collective destruction would simply be too much for society to bear. Can you imagine! It would probably be way, way, worse than this entire Wikipedia page worth of sports riots or, you know, the storming of our Capitol last January by a crowd that was overwhelmingly male.
The internalized misogyny we have towards anything vaguely categorized as what girls and women enjoy cannot be undone by wishful thinking. It requires us (and to be clear, I’m writing this to me, too) to take women’s hobbies and professions seriously, from knitting to caretaking to the WNBA. It asks us to encourage and uplift women exploring their creativity, be it through transformative fanwork or opening a restaurant. And at the heart of it all, it means we celebrate unadulterated female joy. So I’ll end with another quote from Yves Blake’s TEDx, where she talks about the sound of a fangirl scream that we’ve so rigidly written off as histrionics:
“I realized that a fangirl’s shriek is like a superpower…because it’s this fearless and honest expression of pure celebration and joy, and it’s a sound they have not forgotten how to make. I actually reckon that fangirls have a second superpower, because they know how to do something that most of my adult friends have no idea how to do. Fangirls know how to love something without apology or fear.”
Special thanks to Edric Huang for his edits on this piece.
Weekly Meme Roundup
Personal Things From This Week
Listening to: Dark Paradise by Lana Del Rey
Watching: Wind from Luoyang (almost done!); also dragged a friend to see Embrace Again in theaters because I’m really that hardcore of a Zhu Yi Long fan (there were some cute/funny/touching moments, but mostly it went way too long and was 98% CCP propaganda)
Eating: Leftovers from a truly standout meal from Eszett
Drinking: My wine club shipment from Good Luck Wine Shop, which is just stunning every month
Nice thing I did for myself this week: Watched a lot of my favorite ASMR artist and slept great.