The Unknowable Teenage Girl: When Fandom and Politics Collide

I love teenage girls. I love them with the affection of an older sister and the nostalgia of a once-was. I love their spirit and fire and wit and imagination. I love their energy and loyalty and humour. I love how they are remaking the world, even as it tries so hard to contain them within its borders and limitations and rules.

As a writer of YA, I’ve often been asked – with genuine bewilderment – why teenage girls?, as if teenagehood represents some kind of a subspecies of humanity instead of an age range we have all lived through. But there is an assumption in our society – sometimes implicit, often brazen – that something created for teenage girls is intrinsically lesser. It must be easier; it must be frivolous; it must be, y’know, like all emotional and stuff? Oh em gee, babes, and the like. Hashtag, what is life.

This is patent nonsense, of course. Teenage girls contain multitudes, just like teenage boys do. Just like adult women do. Just like we all do. There are countless stories to tell about them and for them. Stories that are light and dark and hope and shade; love and tears and life and death.

Last month, the story of the General Election took an unexpected turn thanks to the wit and wiles of a 17 year old student called Abby. She didn’t like the relentless attempts of much of the media to portray Ed Miliband so negatively and decided to tackle this with the truest 21st century weapons that a teenage girl can have: a hashtag and a sense of righteousness.

My favourite thing about the Milifandom phenomenon is how unpredictable it was. Not a single one of the brains behind the Labour campaign would have even dreamed of presenting Ed Miliband as an object of affection, let alone to girls under 18 – who can’t even vote.

But the reason the Milifandom took off and succeeded as it did was because of exactly this. It was spontaneous and genuine, and there is something utterly irresistible about that. Amongst all the contrivances of any election campaign, here was something truly grass-roots. For all the attempts that were made to dig up some dirt on the irrepressible Abby, to undermine her intelligence and sneer at her enthusiasm, no conspiracy or puppetry has come to light. This is so baffling to many – particularly (but not exclusively) the Old White Man – that the only solution is to patronise and dismiss. Oh, those teenage girls with their incomprehensible language and stupid slang.

This article, printed in the Guardian of all places, typifies this response. It does not attempt to understand the origins of the Milifandom and the very valid reasons for its success, because why would it? It’s just teenage girls. Instead it turns the whole thing into a joke at the expense of the very people it should be celebrating, and in doing so reinforces the most fortified of cultural myths that batter teenage girls generation by generation: this does not matter, because it matters to you.

When Zayn Malik left One Direction, the news had barely broken before the mocking tweets and thinkpieces about broken-hearted girls and their silly obsessions began, as if grown men were not throwing their toys out of the pram on the very same day because Jeremy Clarkson had been (rightfully) sacked from Top Gear. This dissonance matters because it is explicitly telling girls that their grief (and yes, it is a kind of grief) and their feelings are somehow invalid. And worse,fodder for mockery.

For me, all of this comes down to the fact that adults – particularly adult men – just don’t understand teenage girls. It is this unknowability that makes them frightening and unpredictable, and dangerous. A 17 year old girl with a Twitter account can change the narrative of an entire election. And she did it against the full force of a media rolling its eyes at her impertinence and silliness.

And this is the saddest thing. Just imagine what all the other teenage girls could achieve if they were encouraged to believe that what they want and love and hope for matters.