The lights go on, and the room erupts with screams. Between bursts of confetti, the crowd flashes in a flurry of cellphone screens and cheap light-up toys. Some girls wave signs, while others shriek song lyrics, craning their necks to get a better look at the stage. Some are almost still, their phones poised for the right shot to upload the next day, while their neighbors sway back and forth, clutching at each other desperately. The noise amplifies, and a few girls even burst into tears as the members of One Direction, propelled by streams of colored smoke, burst onto the stage.
Cute boys who sing have wreaked havoc in the hearts of young women since the 1960s, when Beatlemania had fans fainting in concert halls, storming the streets, and even mailing themselves to the boys’ homes in wooden crates. Most people, however, view the hype over boy bands as a silly phase, something for young girls to do when they don’t know any better than to go ahead and buy that cardboard cutout of Harry Styles. Not unlike the past century’s dismal regard for female “hysteria,” to love a boy band as passionately as some fans do is ridiculed as a feminine form of madness, an over-the-top display of emotion that, at best, makes the rest of society uncomfortable.
It is easy to ridicule fanatics who write novels worth of fanfiction, invent mad conspiracy theories, and sob their hearts out at the loss of One Direction’s Zayn Malik to (purportedly) a solo career. However, to interpret the popularity of boy bands as nothing more than a senseless craze stems from a place of misunderstanding and, above all, misogyny. The girls in the front row are screaming for much more than a glance from their favorite boy, and anthropology can show us what.
When the South African ethnographer Max Gluckman developed the theory of ritual disorder, he was studying patriarchal values in Zulu society, which forbade women to so much as approach anything that was considered the business of men. However, Gluckman soon noticed that, on special occasions, it was typical for women to step outside their sphere to drink, have sex, and even look after the livestock. During these times, the men hid themselves away until everything returned to normal, which it always did. And while the Zulu did not celebrate this subversion of power dynamics, they did accept the custom as part of how society functioned despite the discomfort it caused.
Intrigued, Gluckman looked deeper, and he eventually decided that Zulu society permitted its women to break these norms only because, in this case, the disorder actually emphasized the nature of order. By shattering their social confines for a day, women highlighted their usual relegation to certain tasks, behaviors, and attitudes. And when everything went back to normal, Zulu society was left reminded, by the memory of its disturbance, of how things should be. These culturally sanctioned moments of disruption constituted ritual disorder—ultimately, a tool to reinforce the status quo.
Of course, ritual disorder is not limited to the Zulu; in fact, it can be witnessed in concert halls all over the world. When girls scream and cry for One Direction, they are responding to societal constraints that relentlessly teach young women to be quiet and demure, especially when it comes to their interests and hobbies. Discouraged from asserting their ideas with the same authority as their male classmates and colleagues, women cannot expect their thoughts and feelings to be treated with the same respect or gravity. After all, they are not supposed to express themselves, let alone in a way that disrupts others. And it is hardly news that women are encouraged to keep their sexuality under wraps while, at the same time, accepting relentless sexualization of their bodies regardless of their age, orientation, or behavior.
But when girls go wild at concerts, they are expressing their tastes and opinions—and loudly, disruptively, in a way that unapologetically demands society’s attention. They are not quiet or demure; when it comes to One Direction, they shriek and cry and cram the streets. They flood social media, tweeting their thoughts and feelings for the world to hear; they create outspoken communities online and off, analyzing the nuances of Harry’s tattoos or Zayn’s relationships; and above all, they clamor endlessly to be noticed, to have their voices recognized, and to take up space.
What’s more, Directioners completely subvert norms regarding female sexuality. When a woman throws her bra at the stage, her message is clear; the same goes for leaving raving comments on Instagram updates or ogling over leaked candids. And on Twitter, fans vacillate between probing the details of One Direction’s actual romances to begging for a chance at love (among other things), sexualizing these young men to the same extent that all young women are sexualized in their daily lives. Some fans go so far as to remove the boys’ ability to sexualize women altogether by theorizing that they are actually involved in homosexual relationships with each other; beyond this, many young women write fanfiction about the band’s escapades, using their sexuality to warp a narrative handed to them by the media.
And all of these things Directioners do with such fervor, provoking so many vines, memes, and hashtags that people can’t look the other way. However, what draws society’s eye is not the fans’ passion, dedication, or creativity (which are all remarkable, when you think about it), but rather the absurdity of their enthusiasm. Scoffing, people wonder what kind of silly girl would spend so much time obsessing over something so trivial, never considering how young women are so painfully constrained by society and, therefore, what kind of release might appeal to them. Confused by fans’ unabashed displays of enthusiasm and sexuality, society writes them off as frivolous, insane, hysterical. And so, to love a boy band becomes a form of ritual disorder, a tool that ultimately reinforces that young women are thoughtless and excitable, with shallow thoughts and desires.
But what is the right response to this? After all, we can’t dismantle the patriarchy by tacking up posters of One Direction, and it’s not exactly as if the band were composed of feminist heroes. Rather, their lyrics are often belittling or simply inane, and for the most part the boys keep their politics under wraps—with the exception, of course, of Harry Styles’ immensely courageous foray into the #HeForShe campaign. No; it is obvious that very different work must be done to affect the deep, structural webs of misogyny that lead us to decide, almost unfailingly, that the things girls enjoy are stupid and worthless. And yet, there’s nothing wrong with treating a few of the symptoms. So the next time someone trashes One Direction, give them a piece of this article, and see if they don’t start singing a different tune.
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