The success of Harry Styles’s breakthrough performance in Christopher Nolan’s Dunkirk is no surprise, according to Dr. Francesca Coppa. A professor of English and Film Studies at Muhlenberg College and the editor of The Fanfiction Reader, an anthology put out by University of Michigan Press, Coppa studies the ways in which fandom fuels culture. She spoke with Billboard about how fandom allows young women to grow and socialize, how teens and girls are the ones really dictating what we see in culture and why this is only the beginning of Styles’ ascent to super stardom.
How did you become interested in the phenomenon of fandom?
I was in it as a kid and so in many ways this is kind of my grown-up apology to my teenage self. As a girl you don’t necessarily have the confidence in your taste. I feel like as a grown up woman, I wanted to go back to all the twelve-year-old girls whose taste was very good. I think the track record was good.
And in fact, one of the things that’s interesting to me is that the Internet and social networking has made visible a lot of the activity that was going on. Now we have social media. I think for girls, media was always social. Barbara Ehrenreich wrote about Beatlemania and girls hanging out in their bedrooms together and forming networks and clubs and using pop culture and music and films to organize their own social lives. If you were a little girl and you liked John somebody else would have to like Paul and somebody else would have to like George or Ringo. It was a kind of organizational strategy. That was the kind of thing you did in your bedroom if you were a kid in the ‘60s, but now with the Internet there’s starting to be a sophisticated language for the kinds of things that girls know how to do really well. One of the things that I’m invested in is as it becomes about the Internet, there’s a way in which girls get written out.
In what ways are girls removed from the equation?
When these things tend to mainstream it becomes a geek thing, which becomes a boy thing. And, no it’s not. Social media is not a boy thing. Fandom is not a boy thing, geek culture is not a boy thing. You have all these geeks making good now. You have the guy who’s doing Doctor Who and Steven Moffat’s doing Sherlock. J.J. Abrams getting to grow up and do Star Wars. You have all these boys who were fans who are now going to make millions and millions of dollars. Again, you see a thing that was innovated with girls becoming a thing that becomes very profitable for men and women are kind of pushed out of it.
Do you see this happening specifically in music, at all?
Girls are hit makers but I don’t think you can sell them anything. I think they are really good at finding the interesting story in a band, in an act, not just in terms of the quality of the music but seeing the whole package or recognizing that there’s a kind of interesting narrative to engage. I think girls make that narrative interesting and then organize, in music, a lot of the infrastructure that tells everybody else how to like and understand this music.
I think girls saw something in the Beatles that the Beatles then picked up on. So by the time the Beatles are making A Hard Day’s Night and Help, they’re essentially writing the fanfic that the fans were writing about them. Girls taught the Beatles how to understand themselves, in a way, and how to sell themselves in a way that they then did with their merchandising and with their movies. You can see those films as a kind of fanfic.
It’s not that different from what girls today are doing with, say, One Direction. Where they’re looking at Harry Styles and they’re writing stories. Harry Styles is going to be a major movie star. They picked him out, not me. I’m too old for Harry Styles. The twelve-year-olds today looked at the landscape and went, that one there. And now he’s in Dunkirk. He’s big but he’s going to be bigger. It’s obvious he’s going to be bigger and Justin Timberlake is somebody who was picked out of *NSYNC. Fans call them puppies in a box, you look at *NSYNC and they’re five cute little puppies and you got to take one home.
David Bowie, if you go back and look at his career, when he came out, it was the feminine boys and girls who liked Bowie. He was not necessarily Mr. Indie Respectable. He became so. Alice Cooper. Girls picked up on that kind of glam. Girls were early on to Michael Jackson. I think if you look at the track record, there was a way in which girls picked them first and on some level told the stories that they then became famous for.
How do girls benefit from their fandom? Does it help them grow in any way?
What it really is is a way for girls to organize their interactions with other girls. Whether it’s official, and something like fanfic, or whether it’s unofficial like, hey, I just bought a magazine, look at this interview with Harry Styles, I want you to see it. That conversation is typically happening between and among girls. It becomes a kind of shared creativity. This is where it’s also good for the pop act, because the purpose of it isn’t necessarily to promote the record but girls’ networks are powerful. Girls will invite other girls to like the thing I like. Here’s a copy of the album I like, oh my god, I’m in love with so and so, or I have Harry Styles on my locker so you should, this is our cool thing to do.
It seems to be about boys but I think it’s really not about boys at all. The average Beatlemaniac is not going to be expecting to be in any kind of relationship with a Beatle but it’s a great way of organizing your time with your friends. Something that looks like you’re boy crazy is actually really about developing relationships with your friends and, secondarily, you’re also spreading the network. If you argue from the pop star’s point of view, you’d be wise to encourage them. Let the girls sell your album to each other. So from a business point of view it’s smart and you should respect them as tastemakers and mavens. But I don’t think it’s actually for you. I think it’s for us.
Do you think the Dunkirk casting is an example of entertainment executives taking cues from young women?
It’s smart on their point of view. But I might say the opposite, too. That the girls picked somebody with star quality. He’s successful in that movie for a reason. It’s a two-way street. Girls are often very good at picking that person. There’s a way in which they become mainstreamed and serious. I think with Harry Styles people may not forget he kind of started out in a boy band. But people have certainly forgotten about John Lennon. They’ve forgotten about Bowie. That there are various kinds of artists that gain a certain kind of critical respect and then they forget.
Like Mark Wahlberg.
Now he’s all serious but there’s a way in which girls kind of picked him. It helped that he looked great in the underwear. But I think we could do worse than asking girls which of the puppies in this box is the one we should take home. There really is a sense and a network there and a taste.