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Why fangirls aren't just screaming teens

Mona Westholt | Julia Hitz
June 16, 2023

Young female fans of K-pop bands are often brushed off as hysterical. But that's sexist, says a researcher, arguing excitement about a soccer game is no different.

Crowds of girls in a concert hall.
Fangirling is about also about femininity Image: David Rowland/AP Photo/picture alliance

"Hysterical" or "obsessed" are among the adjectives used to describe female fans. There is also the derogatory term "groupie."

Female fan culture is usually not taken seriously in society, which goes way back to the era of the Beatles, says Victoria Cann, a professor at the University of East Anglia in Norwich in eastern England who studies gender and identity in youth.

The widespread assumption is that girls would "like the Beatles because they used to fancy them, whereas boys, when they like the Beatles, it's about how they play the piano and play the guitar and they're good musicians," she told DW. Underlying this wasthe sexist belief that "young women have no sense of what's important in the world; they're just obsessed, and they're hysteric." It's a form of structural misogyny, which assumes that women are irrational compared to men.

Collecting K-pop cards is 'not cool'

Fangirls feel misjudged, especially in the K-pop scene. South Koreans call female K-pop fans "bbasooni," fangirls who blindly chase after male idols, according to the Korea Times. That may be why many fangirls keep it a secret that they like K-pop, the newspaper says.

Women lean against a barrier at an outdoor concert.
Fans at a The Rose concert at Sao Paulo's Lollapalooza festival in 2023Image: Leco Viana/ZUMAPRESS.com/picture alliance

Vivien Pistor has been a K-pop fangirl for years. From her native Germany, the 25-year-old travels abroad for concerts buys every album released by her favorite band, Stray Kids, and collects and trades photo cards for different K-Pop bands. The fact that she collects cards often raises eyebrows. Unlike the popular Pokemon cards, where collecting was respected, "it's not cool for girls to collect K-pop cards," she told DW.

Pop or soccer — fans have similar experiences

Whether fandom is acceptable depends largely on whether a fan group is mainly male or female, argues Victoria Cann.

Soccer fans are criticized but rarely ridiculed, for instance.

Yet pop fans are comparable to soccer fans: Both groups spend a lot of money on their favorite team or band. They shout and sing to cheer on their idols on the pitch or the stage. They are keen to have a souvenir, be it a soccer jersey or a band merch shirt. Soccer fans come up with impressive choreographies in the stadium, and fans at concerts will typically hold up lighters or mobile phones in unison during ballads.

Vivien Pistor, woman smiles into camera
K-Pop fan Vivien PistorImage: privat

Where the ridicule comes from

Fangirling is an expression of femininity; it is a way for girls to "explore their femininity and have fun with it," says Cann, adding that femininity is something that isn't particularly valued unless it's serving patriarchy in some kind of way, which "fangirling doesn't necessarily do." That's why this phenomenon is often ridiculed, she adds.

Marie Feller, another K-pop fan from Germany, avoided openly admitting her passion for the music genre as a teenager, as she used to hear her classmates make stupid, even racist, comments about the very K-pop singers she idolized. "It used to make me very uncomfortable. I didn't talk about it because I wanted to keep my friends." The 21-year-old still doesn't mention her fandom to just anybody.

K-pop fangirls are creative and political

"There's more to fangirl life than just listening to the music," argues Vivien Pistor, who translates Korean song lyrics, which allows her to get to know the language and Korean culture better.

Marie Feller makes bracelets and hands them out at concerts. They used to try to teach themselves the choreography to K-pop songs. "Of course, it's a bonus that the K-pop idols are good-looking," Marie says of her favorite band, NCT Dream. "But I don't know anyone who is a fan just because of that."

 Marie Feller, woman at a concert.
 Marie Feller is secretive about being a K-Pop fanImage: privat

The fangirl narrative is often limited to screaming and fainting, but the young women are in fact politically active, too.

After George Floyd's murder in the US, fans of the successful BTS K-pop band called for donations to the Black Lives Matter movement. When the hashtag "WhiteLivesMatter" trended on Twitter, K-pop fans deliberately spammed the hashtag so that right-wing slogans were less noticeable.

Victoria Cann's advice to young women derided as fangirls is: shrug it off. "If you find pleasure in something and it's not harming anyone — and fangirling's never harming anyone — then so what? So what if people don't like it? So what if they don't understand it?"

Fans, mainly women, standing a concert.
Fangirls find a community of like-minded womenImage: Ahmed Abd Alkawey/AA/picture alliance

There's so much potential in being a fangirl, Cann says. "Fandoms offer community, they offer pleasure just by listening to the music, help make sense of the world or feel less alone," she says. "Those things are really important."

This article was originally written in German.