When Zayn announced he would not be returning to One Direction, I had a stronger reaction than I expected. But I was far from alone. In fact, since the minute the news broke I've felt more supported than I've ever been. I got so many texts and notifications that my phone actually froze at one point. I immediately put all my favorite internet friends into one group DM on Twitter to express our collective shock and misery, and it hasn't slowed down in the 24 hours since. A girl I started following because of her beautiful 1D fan art tweeted at me, "love youuuuu *already, we're in solidarity anguish zone so i love u on principle*," and in general my Twitter has been an ongoing conversation about love, loss, self-care, and the power of fandom.
I needed the support because last night was also frustrating. The internet was filled with media outlets making news out of fans' reactions, showing the world how a collection of underage girls they picked off of social media are "insane" and embarrassing. Even people in my own life were telling me that what my friends and I have been doing since yesterday is "overreacting" because he's just a boy in a band and I don't even know him.
But being upset about Zayn leaving One Direction doesn't feel like an overreaction. Something that I've loved and dedicated time and energy to has come to an end, and I'm mourning that. And it's not just the band that has changed: The relationships that I've created around this fandom will now shift slightly as we all try to figure out what will happen next.
Certainly, I can see how, from the outside, it may seem odd that a 24-year-old woman with a good job and friends would be so into a band whose very name has become shorthand for a certain type of teenage girl. But the femininity of One Direction fandom has in fact empowered me — and the ways many people, but particularly men, dismiss it only speaks to the ways in which women are constantly forced to try to conform to norms that were not established by them.
Fandom has become not just an action but a noun: an umbrella term for groups of people — especially young women — who feel an emotional connection to the same thing. At its best, fandom is a way for people to express this love with a community in a world that finds their love "silly." "Silliness," of course, is inherently coded as feminine. The movies girls love are dismissed as "chick flicks" even though they're blockbuster successes. The best-selling books we love don't become cultural touchstones until men get ahold of them. Shows that many girls watch are pushed into the "guilty pleasure" category even though they are hugely successful. We're specifically telling girls, "You should feel bad for liking Pretty Little Liars. Don't let anyone find out." But enough people watched it for it to be on for five seasons and counting.
And why should loving something be embarrassing? Certainly, there are extremes, but why don't we tell boys to curb their enthusiasm in the same way we do girls? It's acceptable for young men to refer to their sports teams as if they were themselves the coaches. Professional sports and boy bands are both venues through which we create and maintain community. It's just that one of them is more visibly female.
When I was a little girl I loved Hanson with all my heart. I covered my walls in Taylor Hanson posters and wrote "Mrs. Mackenzie Hanson" all over scrap paper in class. I daydreamed about chance meetings followed by our wedding. I felt that if Taylor just knew me, he would love me. Eventually I grew out of my dedication and my posters came down. But my love didn't fizzle because of my age or waning interest in their music. My love fizzled because I loved alone. None of my friends felt the same way about them. I had no one to gush with. My crushes shifted over to boys I saw in my daily life. It was the last boy band I truly loved, until two years ago.
My One Direction fandom origin story begins at a showing of This Is Us, One Direction's "motion picture event" that came out in August 2013. Before then, I knew very little about the band. I'd seen Harry's face in all its Mick Jagger-esque glory. I knew they were British (a recurring theme in many of my celebrity crushes — hi Robert Pattinson!), and I knew that they had an energy that made girls cry. And I wanted to feel that energy again. As the lights went down my heart started to flutter, and I understood. In that moment something switched on. I was hooked.
But now I wanted people to share in my excitement. Instead of loving in secret, I sought out people who felt the same way. I got sick of feeling guilty for finding joy in what I found fun. It was time to stop apologizing for talking about "things that don't matter," because they do matter, and I needed to find people who I could enjoy this with. I decided to let go of the fear of looking foolish and let my dedication show. Within weeks I had created a safe space for myself. I filled my Twitter account with update accounts and my Tumblr with fan accounts. The more I tweeted about One Direction, the more other women reached out to me about them. I realized there were thousands of women just like me — some younger and some older too — who loved these boys and wanted to talk about it. This wasn't just a teenager thing.
Many of these conversations moved from Twitter to text messages, some to emails, some to coffee dates. I started a group chat at work to talk with the other women at my company who loved One Direction. We discussed everything: what the boys wore, how they sounded at shows. We sent each other Vines. We linked to obscure Instagram photos. We got together to watch movies about them. I have chats, still active after months, that exist solely to update each other about what shirt Harry Styles wore.
I've met some of my best friends through our shared love of One Direction. In a new city, away from family and most of my friends from high school and college, I've found a group of incredibly smart, successful, and amazing women who just happened to love One Direction. And while it was 1D that brought us together, other things kept us together. We talked about 1D updates and real life. We asked each other for dating advice, how to solve a problem at work, and what we should send our mothers for their birthdays. And holy crap did you see this photo of Harry holding the cute puppy?!
The lines between "real" life and internet life have blurred in the last few years in a beautiful way. As girls are making their obsessions known, they are connecting with each other. I've come across many teen girls who say that their Twitter friends are their only true friends because no one in their school wants to talk about their fandom. So instead of feeling lonely in their rooms, they're making Skype dates to discuss what Liam's tweet really means. They're flooding Tumblr with amazing fan art, sometimes profiting from it. They're staying up late to edit video to make Vines and GIFs. They're watching One Direction shows in six-second clips because the band isn't coming close to their hometown.
These girls are creating a world for themselves where they feel safe and supported and encouraged to express themselves, and it's incredible. Why are so many people so eager to mock women for "acting like girls" by expressing passion in fandom, when we as a society allow men to fanboy over sports and superheroes well into adulthood? Why are we pushing girls away from a fandom that is teaching them new talents, how to navigate relationships with each other and the media world around them by telling them their feelings are not valid?
It's unfair that my feelings are seen as over-the-top when I've literally watched someone break a television remote over a football pass. I should be allowed to mourn a fandom loss the way I want to if my male (and sometimes female) friends are screaming over Marvel castings. So please: Let me love One Direction. If you need me I'll be over here mourning Zayn with my friends.