Books: Is ‘Fangirl’ Anti-Fangirl? BLOG ANNOUNCEMENT

Photo of the second edition of the manga of ‘Fangirl’ by Rainbow Rowell. Copyright goes to VIZ and Rainbow Rowell.

Hi! It’s Annie!

Firstly, I want to address the blog announcement piece of the title so here goes:

BLOG ANNOUNCEMENT: You probably noticed that I posted this a day late. That’s because we’re going to a twice a week schedule in order to organize a little and give us each one day a week just for us! From now on you’ll see Annie posts every Tuesday and Hallie posts every Friday. As you most likely noticed, this schedule starts today! And now for the post!

‘Fangirl’ by Rainbow Rowell has become a classic in YA fiction; it is also increasingly controversial with every year that passes. To begin with, Rainbow Rowell as an author has become pretty controversial anyways. If you aren’t familiar with this author, she’s most known for this book and also for her book ‘Eleanor and Park’. ‘Eleanor and Park’ has now been called out on multiple occasions by many readers for being a racist book. While at the time of its release it was praised for having an Asian male lead, people are now widely starting to discuss the fact that this does not negate the clear racism seen in this novel. Not only did Rowell not do much research about Asian culture, resulting in the first name of her main male character being a common surname, but she also had her main character say that she found Park cute “for an Asian guy” in the book and fetishizes him on multiple occasions. The main character also congratulates herself multiple times throughout the book for noticing the potential in Park that most people don’t notice because of his race. These aren’t the only racist statements made in the book and have caused many people to understandably stop reading any books by Rowell. In fact, I wish I had known this before I bought my copy of ‘Fangirl’, because I would not have bought it had I known. But since I did buy this I figure I should at least join the discourse about this specific book. Because this book became popular because its main character is a fangirl in a fandom who writes fan fiction; which is something that is relatable to a lot of us. Unfortunately, many fangirls have come out to say that this book actually isn’t very kind to fangirls or to many other groups for that matter. Though there are certain things that I liked seeing depicted, I also feel that a lot of these fangirls are absolutely correct in their criticisms. So I’m going to go through some of the arguments for and against this fairly controversial book by an extremely controversial author and give my personal opinions. These are only my personal opinions! MAJOR SPOILERS for ‘Fangirl’ coming up! Though I honestly wouldn’t recommend buying anything written by Rowell.

“Rowell thinks she’s more progressive than she is.”:

This is a common argument made about Rowell and about this book in particular. And considering that she wrote ‘Eleanor and Park’ to be more progressive and got rightly accused of being racist instead, I think this seems to ring pretty true for this author. The book depicts the main character, Cath, writing fan fiction about Simon Snow and Baz. They’re essentially this book’s equivalent of Harry Potter and Draco Malfoy. And while this isn’t problematic by itself, there’s a lot tacked onto this to make this problematic. For example, when Cath is nervous around Levi, specifically with him touching her, he has her read her fan fiction to him in order to calm her down. And while this wasn’t used in a sexual manner, it was still really problematic to have a straight couple read queer fan fiction in order to progress their relationship. I mean, I’m pretty done with media using bare minimum representation to further the personal journeys of people who aren’t in those minority groups. And this was exactly what was going on here. In a really odd scene, Cath asks if it’s weird to be reading her fan fiction in the same dorm as Levi’s gay roommate, which is such an insanely wrong thing to write in. It automatically makes your “representation” veer completely towards fetishization. On top of this, after she asks this Levi responds by saying that it’s ok because his roommate watches ‘Titanic’ in front of him all the time. WHAT? I can’t even begin to say how completely and obliviously stupid that comment was. Rowell seems to think that she’s being supportive of the LGBTQ+ community in this book and she is entirely wrong in that assumption.

“Rowell gets some representation right!”:

This is a comment that I would also agree with, but for different groups. As a twin, she writes a pretty important scene for twins in which she completely condemns the fetishization that faces particularly female twins. When Cath is at a bar with her sister Wren, a couple of drunk frat boys begin referring to the two of them as “the fantasy” that every guy has. Levi immediately steps in by telling the first guy that he wouldn’t be so interested in literal incest if comments like this were aimed at him and his sister. The scene ends with the frat guy getting punched in the face. It was a truly cathartic scene for me to read, especially after some of the situations my sister and I have been through while facing these comments. Rowell also writes some pretty realistic explanations of anxiety that I could personally relate to; such as Cath not worrying so much about the bigger things like going to college classes but instead getting really anxious about the smaller things like having to figure out the dining hall. My anxiety isn’t nearly to the point of Cath’s (I’ll get back to that), but some of the explanations were perfect. I also loved the portrayal of Cath’s Dad who also suffered from mental health problems and Cath’s want to take care of him, which is something that I also found relatable. She made his role in the story functional while still making her point clear. But the representation that she gets right in no way negates the representation that she gets horrendously wrong.

“Fangirls aren’t actually like this and it promotes stereotyping.”:

Also agreed! The way Cath is portrayed as a fangirl is both not enough and also not supported by the narrative. Cath only writes fan fiction and hangs up posters, she barely does anything else within the fandom and is seen as crazy for doing both of the things that she actually does. The stereotype about fans in general forever has been that fans are all anti-social hermits who are viewed as strange by everyone around them. While some of Cath’s anxiety is relatable; her inability to do anything for herself especially in social situations is not. I liked that Cath was able to develop relationships with multiple people throughout this book, but she didn’t ever stand up for herself much or truly find a way to deal with her anxiety. She just remained on edge with every person and in every single situation throughout the book. People with anxiety usually have specific triggers and specific things that make them anxious. The entire world and every single person and situation can’t all be a trigger. Not only that, but most people in the book view Cath as someone to be pitied and protected rather than actually helping her. Reagan is the worst example of this. She’s supposed to be funny, but she tells Cath throughout the book that she’s pitiable because of her anxiety and weird for writing fan fiction. In fact, Cath is told that she’s wrong by several people throughout the book for being the way she is. And that is not something that’s ever resolved at all. Fangirls are not weird. Escapism is a popular way to let yourself fantasize and enjoy life! Anxiety is not pitiable. Plenty of people have it and are functional human beings who learn how to accept and navigate it. This book was horrible for both of those points. And not all fans are socially inept, in fact fans wanting to be social is one of the reasons we have things like conventions. This book is awful when it comes to demonstrating both of these points.

“Well, most people only write fan fiction in High School. What’s wrong?”:

That’s completely wrong. Fan fiction is actually the most accessible form of literature that we currently have. It is widely accessible on the internet and doesn’t cost anything. Fan fiction is a completely viable way to interact with a work. If a work inspires you, it’s natural to want to create art inspired by it. People of all ages engage in this behavior. The book acting like, and frequently telling the audience, that most people leave behind this kind of fan engagement in High School is absolute crap. And what’s odd is that Rowell writes in the back of her book that she still reads fan fiction and thanks fans who continue to write it. But she never corrects any of her characters when they put Cath down in this way. Not only that, but fan fiction writers aren’t stupid. You aren’t going to find a college level writer submitting fan fiction as an assignment because they’re that “obsessed”. That was just plain offensive to fans everywhere. I don’t understand how Rowell can claim that she supports something and then write a book where so many pieces of it scream the opposite of those views she claims to have.

“At least it promotes healthy relationships.”:

Now this I would also agree with. Levi is such a good example of writing consent into a story and having a love interest who is patient with someone who has anxiety linked to intimacy issues. Levi continuously asks Cath to communicate with him about what makes her comfortable and what doesn’t. Reading this absolutely eliminates the arguments of authors who say that it doesn’t feel natural to write consent into their stories. Rowell has it every step of the way and makes it feel romantic. I also liked how she was able to use the typical misunderstanding in the book as a lesson to be more communicative with your partner. This relationship was sweet and extremely caring on both sides. And once again, because I can’t stress this enough, there is SO MUCH consent! I want to see more books portraying relationships like this.

“This book is so good/bad.”:

If this book proves anything to me, it’s that a book can have a whole lot of good and a whole lot of bad in it simultaneously. Because of this author specifically, I am still saying that I wouldn’t recommend you read this book. If you wanted to read some scenes from it, especially some of the romance scenes, I’m sure a ton of people have posted excerpts of it somewhere. But I wouldn’t recommend giving this author your money. While this book isn’t bad to the levels of ‘Eleanor and Park’, that’s probably only because this book has a lot more white people and a lot less representation of any minority groups. And it’s still really bad every time it mentions minority groups. There are times where it feels painful for me to admit that there’s something that this book does that’s good. But I can tell you that it isn’t a good enough read to consider reading it to begin with. I’m probably going to get rid of my copy. But I do think discussing representation in books like this is still important, whether bad or good.

Once again, I encourage you not to pick up anything by Rainbow Rowell. I hope that if this article does anything, it’ll prevent some other person like me from picking up one of her books without researching her first. But I will say that there are things I genuinely did like about this book. Just like there are things that I genuinely like about ‘Harry Potter’. Will I continue to support the author? Absolutely not. And there are still too many people who don’t know about the controversy surrounding Rainbow Rowell. This book is not good enough to get all of the popularity that it does, especially now that more authors are talking about things like anxiety and being writers or being a fangirl. Just look at some of my past book reviews! This book doesn’t have to be the only one anymore and it really shouldn’t be.

See you across the pond!

Sincerely, Annie

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