Episode 20: Fangirl - Our Secret Anchors


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Recently, I’ve found myself wondering what the inverse of a backhanded compliment would be. Backhanded compliments being a compliments framed in such a way that they are coupled with a larger insult or actually are just a cleverly disguised insults. Like, “you did a surprisingly good job today,” or “wow, you can actually look amazing when you try.”

On the other hand, I’m looking for the term for when you offer a critique or some other form of criticism that is actually a compliment. Which is something you would think we have a word for only to realize that not only do we not have a word for it, it’s also not something we ever seem to do at all. We never slant the negative with a positive undertone. We’re never secretly good to one another. Almost like, as a whole, we instinctively slant towards the negative out of a destructive but deeply compelling sense of self-loathing, one that wishes to destroy everything that is a person or human just because it can.

From my experience, that seems to be a great description of human nature, but I’d like to be wrong on this one. Sometimes, I’m able to convince myself I’m wrong. Just not that often.

Back to the point, though, that phrase would have been very helpful here. I could have used it to frame my entire cold open. I could have talked about other instances when I’ve used it or gone deeper into the phenomena as a whole, describing the ebb and flow of seemingly conflicted directions as they converged together.

But nope, instead, I get to lament for an opportunity I didn’t have with the knowledge that there will eventually be a term for this thing, probably. But it will come much too late for this episode. So I guess I’ll have to do the best I can.

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Hi. It’s M. Welcome to episode 20.

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Today, I want to talk about Fangirl by Rainbow Rowell, released in 2013. That latter remark is the sticking point. Because there is something about the book that I dislike on a fundamental level, and it isn’t a great thing to dislike. I’ll preemptive admit that. To put it simply, I resent the book for coming out two years too late for me. And no, that’s not exactly a mature reaction.

Yes, this book is so good that I resent it for not being in my hands sooner. And I know that is not a fair or logical reaction. I completely understand the perils and nature of the creative process and the need to let projects develop naturally. I mean, I am also the type of person who makes things, so I’m very familiar with that life. Right now, I’m mostly whining for the sake of whining. But in my defense, Fangirl explores a pretty important moment in the lives of many young people, including and especially me. (Music fades out)

But I’ll get to that in a little bit.

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For now, Fangirl is a contemporary young adult novel that tells the story of Cath as she starts her freshman year of college at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln with her identical but somehow more outgoing sister Wren. And all of that means, trouble with roommates, boys, dining halls, and partying. You know that life, either because you’ve experienced it or because certain aspects of collegiate life have seeped so deeply into the popular consciousness that we can accept these problems as real even without firsthand experience. To sum it up, it’s a time when you are cut loose to sow wild oats with minimal oversight from stuffy but largely indifferent academics talking at you about the thoughts of long dead white men. It’s a time to make and then mop up your own problems with lots and lots of instant noodles to sustain you. It’s a time for drinking and vomiting. It’s a time for sheer chaos, pretty much.

Whether or not this is actually based in reality, it’s a fairly good summation for Cath’s experience. Luckily for her, she still has one thing to hold onto. And no, it’s not her sister. Wren’s going down a different path, one with far more socializing than anything Cath wants to do. No, I’m talking about Simon Snow. And sure, he’s a fictional character akin to Harry Potter, but while he isn’t a physical person, the fan community—specifically the fan fiction community—is very real, and it’s got a lot of support for Cath.

This is an important aspect of Cath’s character. She loves Simon Snow, and she loves writing, especially working on her Simon Snow fan fiction, and she’s actually got thousands of fans behind it. To the point that it’s become her safety net and a rather large one. For the time being, it’s like her home. Or something more than that.

But forgetting the characters for a second, Fangirl is the story of leaving one place for another and realizing that a sizeable chunk of your identity came not from within you but as a consequence of where you were and who you interacted with. It brings the nature of your agency and independence in question, all at a time when you are still vulnerable. I.e. when you are trying to build up a new sense of self in order to, you know, live a full life as a full human being.

And the existential dread gets multiplied by—like—thirty when you are being moved from you childhood home to a place like college. And—though admittedly I didn’t have any experiences I could base this remark off of—even if you moved once or twice as a kid—this specific transition, this irreparable break from an entire period of your life, has to be the most jarring of them all. Because the nature of this break is completely different than anything that came before. In this one, it’s not just the place that changes, but the nature of your reality as well. Now, as you reassemble the shards of what had once been your life, you realize that you have the freedom to make this new era pretty much anything you want. For the first time, you are living without the strict guidelines and regiments of the adults in your life. Sure, you’re free to do what you want, but on the other hand, you have no clue what you’re doing. At all

Or—in other words—Fangirl is about the first oh [bleep] moment you have in your somewhat adult life.


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If you’re me, that means having something akin to a breakdown during what is not quite your third week in college. And by breakdown, I mean crying rather forcefully over the phone with my mother, subjecting her to the maternal dread of having a very distressed and upset child across the country. And yes, I snapped at the third week mark. Which might seem a little too soon, I’ll grant you. But let me explain. What pushed me over the edge wasn’t my academics or pressure to get an amazing internship or an inability to make friends. You see, I had this job in the school dining hall. The kind where you didn’t need to apply for it because they were desperate for physical people to occupy space. Which might be why so few people I worked with ever actually did their jobs, but that’s neither here nor there.

Working in the dining hall wasn’t necessarily a bad job, if you ignore my previous comment about my co-workers. And I mean, the full time staff were great, so there’s that. And sure, some people think it’s a lowly job, beneath any (quote) decent person. But that’s their problem.

Mine was that the lighting in the wash room or just in any of the back areas gave me migraines. Not directly. The space wasn’t designed that poorly, but the lighting was somewhat cheap and less than ideal. It just wouldn’t have been a problem under most circumstances But there were other triggers for me back there, specifically the machines . The loud machinery just pushed me over the edge of “This is just mildly inconvenient” to “I have a terrible migraine right now.” And that would happen at the end of every one of my three hour shifts.

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If I remember correctly, I had five of those at first. I’d start to taper off until I eventually quit the job outright, but for those first few weeks, I worked every single one, and suffered the consequences every single time.

On that Wednesday, my third Wednesday in college, it got to be too much. Largely because I had other plans that night. I had things I wanted to do and people I wanted to see, but with my being in so much pain, there was just no way that would be possible. And while these potential friends had been understanding when I cancelled, I wasn’t. I was frustrated and hurt and beyond upset. I had wanted to see them. I had hoped we could become friends, but hiding out in my room—even out of necessity—wasn’t going to help this pursuit. And considering the 100% migraine rate I was experiencing and the number of shifts I had taken, there wasn’t going to be a next time.

So I felt like I was going to be stuck in a miserable state for four years. A full four years. The way my college structured things, graduating early—like I had planned on doing for the sake of getting to law school sooner and into the job market all the quicker—wasn’t going to happen. So while I laid in bed literally and figuratively among the ruins of so many admittedly misguided dreams, I could do little more but break down and cry.

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Definitely not advocating for that approach. I mean, it didn’t yield anything. I don’t even think it made me feel better, but admittedly, I’m not sure. All of that happened quite a while ago. And with so much between then and now, I’ve probably pushed most of those few weeks out of my mind just out of convenience. Fair enough, I guess. I doubt there was anything of value there.

But I don’t doubt it was a turbulent time for me, and even though, I’m pretty sure every single person at my school had a moment or two like that—especially the people taking organic chemistry with their little model kits constantly within arm’s reach—but we never talked about it or acknowledged it in anyway. And as a result, our breakdowns happened in isolation behind closed dorm room doors when we knew the roommate wasn’t coming back for a couple hours yet. If you were particularly desperate, you’d cram towels in the cracks underneath the door just for a little bit of additional sound-proofing. Not that it made much difference objectively but to you it made a world of difference.

And here’s the thing. Fangirl is a well-executed documentation of this, of the struggles that come with your freshman year in college, particularly for a certain type of person. The type that isn’t going to find comfort out, center stage in the party with the loud noises and tightly pressed together bodies. That preexisting current can get some people, like Wren, out of a rut. Responsibly, I should be quick to add. You can definitely swing the other way.

But Cath is a very different person than her sister, someone who dreads that sort of thing. And this is the first out of two remarks I wanted to make about Fangirl and why I think it’s so important. Cath’s story illustrates a struggle most people want to keep hidden and does so from the perspective of a more vulnerable person. There are people in her life she could talk to, but she’s not sure what to say or how. I want to call it the introvert’s plight: having a need that is partially caused by your introverted nature whose resolution is further prevented or undermined by that same nature. Not to be mean to an entire segment of the population that I am a part of myself. I’m only saying that for a species and world largely dependent on socialization, having difficulties or a reluctance to talk to people is going to create some problems. And extroversion creates other problems. I’m just not as familiar with them. But in short, no one completely wins all the time.

For the more private and quiet of us, I’d say that media is all the more important. Because if we cannot discuss our difficulties face to face with other people, seeing them in a book and having a mental exchange with non-existent and—consequently—non-judgmental characters that we can pour our hearts to as we see them going through struggles similar to our own is going to be the next best thing

And yes, there is some sort of back and forth, albeit a limited one. True, if you ask Cath, what her favorite color is, obviously, she’s not going to answer. But she serves as a mirror for our own thoughts. She represents your situation from a point of view outside of yourself, allowing you to reimagine your problems and your thoughts on the matter from an outsider’s more objective and clear perspective. If talking aloud just to hear your thoughts can be helpful to the creative process, how is this form of reflection and reframing not productive? They are different things, yes, but they can yield similar results.

In this situation, when you’re life seems completely overwhelming and not something you have means of conquering, Cath can serve as some sort of anchor. Even if that’s only to remind you that this—as with everything—will someday pass.

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And this is going into what I think is the second most important aspect of Fangirl. Cath doesn’t have what could be seen as a normal support network. She’s rather isolated with the crutch that she was going to rely on now refusing to be a crutch. In her mind, everything’s coming apart, and she feels like she has nothing in the real world to hold onto. Physically, she’s adrift. Digitally, she’s fine. Her online world isn’t so barren. What Cath does have to get her through this is her fandom and her story, Carry On, Simon. And if you are inclined to be critical of the relationship people have with their fandoms, well, I can’t imagine why you would be listening to this show. It’s not the same thing, granted, but it’s definitely a similar idea. And I’d imagine it would be the idea you’d struggle the most with.

But look, I’m a firm believer that the relationships people have with their favorite media are just as real as the relationships people have amongst themselves. It’s different, I’ll grant you that, but it’s still one of the many aspects of our reality. Looking at Cath for a moment, this fandom has gotten her through some of the worst moments of her life, like when her mother left, and it kept a wedge from coming between her and her sister despite their wildly different personalities and the human tendency to turn on those closest to you in times of difficulty. Simon Snow seems to be the glue that held everything together. And that’s what I think fandom is all about.

Fandom is not a well understood thing. It’s fairly new, and we’re still trying to make sense of it, using a vocabulary that is woefully out of date. We’ve never seen anything quite like it. And as with all new things, it can be regarded with a great deal of suspicion and contempt.

To get the obvious out of the way, there are unhealthy relationships with fandoms. It’s not a guaranteed great thing. Bad things can happen if you are too deep into the thing you love.

But at the same time, nothing is universally good all the time. You could die from drinking too much clean water, for example. In this case, though, fandom gives us a sense of community that we might not get otherwise, which is Cath’s experience and the experience of many people in her generation and younger. Which is something I don’t think we’re all that comfortable talking about or thinking about. And to quickly get an explanation for that last remark out of the way, I think this gets into that same existential dread I talked about earlier. Namely, that we are not entirely autonomous units able to thrive in any environment. That illusion is a comforting one because it eliminates a great deal of certainty and worst case scenarios. But while we may like the image, it’s just not accurate. We are at the mercy of circumstances in one way or another.

With that said, let me get to the meat of my thought. Cath’s experience of fandom as a foundational community, I would argue, is becoming increasingly common not because young people are [insert whatever insult is most popular this week here]. But rather, it’s a result of modern living.

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I talked about this in the last episode when I briefly reviewed A Scottish Podcast, but I think modern life—for all the advantages it comes with—is one that is lived in motion. In that context, I talked about how switching jobs or industries is the new normal compared to days long gone where you would spend your entire working life at one company, moving up the ranks and digging roots deeper into the ground. I said that, in those days, your workplace was like your second family.

But even though that episode is only a week old, I’m wondering now if I wasn’t overly simplistic in that thinking. Because sure, you had your work family and your actual family, but you also had your community—the neighbors you saw every day, the people you likely grew up with and would grow old with, and the people you saw every week at your religious service of choice.

Sure, maybe these people aren’t family, and I shouldn’t criticize myself for not throwing that word around constantly. But my tendency to do that or misguided suspicion that I should is telling in its own way. Namely, that these words have started to lose some of their initial meaning now that the concept they were based on isn’t so commonplace. And without those concepts, we feel inclined to misuse other words to cover up the linguistic hole.

My larger point, however, stills stands. Modern life is one that happens in motion. We don’t root ourselves in the same way that we use to, but while our style of living has changed, we haven’t. Deep down, there’s still this desire to have some sense of home, the figurative place where we hang our hats at the end of the day, or just a place that we know we can always return to. It’s just not a physical place anymore. Because who knows when we’ll have to physically move again. Who knows when—once again—everything that is physical changes.

From the way the timeline of the past is laid out, Cath seems to get really into her fandom after her mother leaves. After the home she has always known is fundamentally changed but not necessarily changed in a physical way. It’s emptier, yes, but according to the larger picture, it’s still the same place. And yet, I imagine that with her mother’s departure, the community’s interactions with Cath and her family shifted, making way for this large elephant in the room, giving them a wide berth and making them feel all the more alone.

But that didn’t happen on the internet. It didn’t happen in her fandom. No matter what happened in the real world, the digital one remained accessible from anywhere. So you’d never be forced to leave it. And your belonging was still largely your choice. It’s the very thing we all want to believe in, for a price that doesn’t seem too steep. All you lose is the physical, and still, that’s temporary. Disengage with the internet if you need the real world or when you are ready for the real world. Just like you could fly away from your home or nest when you feel ready, returning when you need to.

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I don’t want to go into spoilers, which I may be risking by saying this. However, Fangirl illustrates this reality rather nicely. Cath is knee-deep in the world of fandom and fanfiction, but it’s not a detriment to her, entirely. Her problems with it are largely just an extension of her real life problems and her hesitation to completely engag with her new life. But this digital one is still able to keep her going and can until she’s ready to stand on her own two feet. It hasn’t completely swallowed her up.

I think this balance is largely possible because Cath does have ties to the real world, both in the budding relationships she’s forming in college and the relationships she has with her father and sister.

We really can’t sustain ourselves on digital connections alone. Believe me. I’ve tried. While they may get us through rough patches, they aren’t going to get us all the way to the destination. But news flash. No one relationship will. We need our lovers, friends, families, acquaintances, co-workers, and even enemies to some extent. And while we may lean on some more than others at various points, putting too much stress or pressure on a single connection is going to cause it to snap. But look at my earlier mistake about families…. However unwise it is, it’s something we’re trying to do.

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I completely understand the human tendency to want simplicity and to try and simplify our lives as much as possible. Why have three tools when you can reduce them to one? It’s not that I don’t like this logic. I just think there’s a time and place for it. And it isn’t with other people who have their own tendencies and limitations. I can force a spoon to behave more like a fork, but I can’t force a friend to offer me the emotional guidance of a mentor or parent. And we can’t do the same thing with our digital relationships. They may grow and evolve, sure. Our online friends may become real life friends, lovers, or pseudo-family, even. But it’s not something that can be forced.

Even in digital relationships, we have to accept our own powerlessness, letting them develop organically. That rule—one that we really don’t like—is true for both types of relationships. It’s part of human nature, I guess. And though we are constantly trying to negotiate and renegotiate the boundaries we inherited from past generations, there are aspects of us that we haven’t gotten around to addressing just yet, assuming we could ever change this aspect of ourselves.

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For me, Fangirl would have be a good companion in my dark time. Hence why I almost resent it for not being around during those first few weeks of college, but at the same time, it’s not like I didn’t get through it. How, I don’t exactly remember, though it did involve lessening my hours or just not showing up for work a few times until I inevitably quit with far less fanfare than I had been expecting. But I imagine, the people I did have in my life carried me through it, and by people, I mean those physically there and those far away. The hard part, I would think, is seeing the value of things in front of you, adapting schemas and language to incorporate the shifting state of modern life. Books will help, of course. They always do. Something that I’m sure Cath would agree with me on. And it’s always nice to have an affirming opinion backing you up, regardless of the details.

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