This week, British GQ ran afoul of a bunch of young women on the Internet when it posted excerpts from an upcoming interview with the members of the boy band One Direction. (The entire interview is not online.) For the uninitiated in the matter of One Direction — hey, old people exist — they are the current Backstreet Boys, New Kids on the Block, or Beatles in terms of pop culture phenomenon. The deployment of hair gel differs slightly from the their predecessors, and someone more versed in the principles of melody and harmony can tell you more about the quality of their work than I can. But the thing that places them in the legacy of these prior bands is that One Direction are viewed as a “girl thing,” which fact GQ decided to underline by asking them endless questions about “groupies” and their “number,” sex-wise.
On the question of whether that was or wasn’t editorial genius, I am agnostic. Nothing seems to interest a certain portion of the straight male population more than how much tail other straight men are getting. It seems to be a perennial “male” subject. Lad mags are not my deal, the end. I wish they weren’t anyone else’s.
But from that vantage: as with most cases of rank objectification of women, the admiration so quickly turns into creepy disregard for women as human beings — not to mention for the men whose sexual habits are being so questioned, assuming they’re not into it, and at least Harry Styles, the most famous member of the band, wasn’t per this bit of the interview posted on Tumblr:
Basically what Styles is saying here is: back off, creep, and yet the GQ interviewer sails on as though he were interviewing some treasonous Pentagon official. Way to pursue the truth, man.
When young women fired back on Twitter, the pose of serious journalism faded even further. As so often happens when men of the GQ variety wade into identity politics, they suddenly got defensive and hostile when, as it turned out, women on the whole did not like their piece. They promptly put up a compendium of what they called “the most terrifying responses to our One Direction covers.” (The covers contained quotes about groupies and sex from the interviews, of course.) Then, in a deeply unoriginal gesture towards a gendered trope, they added, “Hell hath no fury like a Directioner scorned.”
The notion that female fandom is irrational and scary holds basically throughout the history of pop music. It showed up in hand-wringing about Beatles and Rolling Stone fandom — a quick perusal of old articles found an LA reporter ogling Rolling Stones fans in “breathtakingly revealing hotpants” in the 1970s, even as a fair proportion of Rolling Stones fans were actually men. It shows up every time, frankly, that women really, really, really respond to something. There are lots of screwed-up gender themes wrapped up in that: the whore side of the Madonna-whore complex, the notion that aggressive female sexuality is predatory, which dates back to the Biblical figures of Salomé and Jezebel, and just the general conviction a certain type of guy has that “all women are crazy.”
That last is probably the big motivating factor here, along with a fair amount of disdain for the “lower end” of pop culture that is, after all, selling their magazine. But as Aja Romano at the Daily Dot, who alerted us to this story, put it, “Sending profanity-laced messages that assert strength and power against the writers who treated them like oozing sexual garbage is an absolutely valid response.”
If anything, in fact, it does nothing but highlight how out-of-touch some of these magazines are becoming when they express surprise that the large and energetic fandom of One Direction — a fandom whose stronghold is really Tumblr, a platform that also has a healthy reputation for identity politics talk about feminism, racism, and the rest of it — is, well, large and energetic. There’s a lot of sturm und drang about the “meanness” of the Internet, a topic mostly of interest to older journalists. They’re a population that until the Internet came up simply didn’t get attacked except by other journalists, letters sections being for jokes and cranks. That a world beyond them exists is a problem they’re increasingly having to confront. And there’s a way to do it better than more hackneyed, shitty, sexist tropes, guys. Pro tip, as they say on Tumblr.