By Jake Flanagin

One Direction posing for the British GQ

The British edition of GQ unveiled its quintet of September covers recently, featuring the faces of the five-part British boy band One Direction. The tween Twitterverse promptly exploded.

“He’s up all night to get lucky,” reads the headline accompanying band mate Harry Styles’ expertly coiffed mug. Aside from the decision to employ a Daft Punk lyric to lead the story, self-styled “Directioners,” as the band’s fans are called, were decidedly unappreciative of author and GQ features director Jonathan Heaf’s suggestive characterization of the beloved cover boy.

Tweets directed at the magazine ranged in ferocity, from indignant “fuck yous” and caps-locked defenses of Styles’ virtue to threats of castration and terrorism. Animosity toward GQ staffers even spilled over the Atlantic. Devin Gordon, articles editor at the magazine’s U.S. edition, Tweeted about receiving profane voicemails from incensed Directioners.

Haleigh Youtie sitting next to Justin Bieber at a Miami Heat game

But this strain of fan fury is hardly unprecedented. GQ is only the most recent target in a string of abusive Twitter campaigns launched and maintained almost entirely by young, tech-savvy female fans. When Florida teen Haleigh Youtie was photographed sitting next to Justin Bieber at a Miami Heat game in June, fans mobilized to bombard the 17-year-old “mystery brunette” with obscenities and death threats through social media. Known as “Beliebers,” these fans (mostly teenaged girls) presumed a budding romance between the two; it later came to light that Youtie had only been seated next to the pop star by accident.

Although delivered through 21st-century technologies, the hysteria expressed by Directioners and Beliebers alike harkens back to a time before Twitter. In 1961, the Beatles touched down on U.S. soil for the first time at John F. Kennedy International Airport. They were met by masses of frenzied, screaming young women. Some wept at the mere sight of John, Paul, George and Ringo disembarking on the distant tarmac; some fainted. These antics would come to inspire the term “Beatlemania.” Today, crowds of girls driven to frenzy by the physical proximity of celebrity hardly impress. It happens all the time at concert venues and movie premieres around the world. But in 1961, the image scandalized a nation.

There are obvious parallels to be drawn between Beatlemaniacs and Directioners. Both were birthed from so-called British Invasions. Both involve the worship of handsome, well-dressed young men individually costumed in marketable personae: the funny one, the sexy one, the brooding one, etc. This formula predates Columbia Records and was perpetuated through the ‘90s by American corollaries ’N Sync and the Backstreet Boys. But the most profound analogy to be extracted from the Beatlemaniac-Directioner phenomenon is, by far, fan girl empowerment.

The Beatles on The Ed Sullivan Show, February 9, 1964 (Credit: Image from Flickr user B Rosen; used with Creative Commons license)

The Beatles provided a “socially and emotionally secure environment for the expression of female assertiveness, aggression, sexuality, and solidarity,” writes music historian Jonathan Gould in his 2007 book, Can’t Buy Me Love. Musicians like Sinatra, Elvis and even 19th-century Hungarian pianist Franz Liszt inspired their own manias — but none were comparable to the scale of that produced by the Fab Four, and none signaled such a dramatic change in what was considered socially acceptable public behavior for young women.

Certainly the vulgarity expressed by GQ’s Directioner critics is appalling, and should by no means be glorified or encouraged, but never before have humans been able to so easily, so mindlessly publish an opinion for the world to read — and 16-year-olds of any gender or era rarely handle such matters with grace.

In 1964, a Newsweek critic panned the Beatles hit “She Loves You” as “a preposterous farrago of Valentine-card romantic sentiments.” Did scores of Beatlemaniacs call for Osborn Elliott to be castrated? Dunno; no comparable platform of instantaneous self-expression existed. In the time it took to write out a profanity-laced letter and stuff it an envelope addressed to Newsweek headquarters, the momentary passion incited by offended fan sentiments could die. Rash teenagers have always existed, and the rash teenagers of 1964 may have lacked the utilities to express rash opinions in far-reaching, public ways — but that doesn’t mean they were devoid of them.

Beatlemaniacs did not invent fan girl psychology (see “Lisztomania”). They were merely the first to express it on a grand scale. Half a century ago, a 16-year-old girl screaming herself hoarse at the sight of four fastidiously dressed Englishmen was cause for concern. Today, that behavior — while not necessarily celebrated — is filed under “girls will be girls.” Perhaps in another 50 years, we’ll view the Twitter transgressions of Directioners in the same light.

Jake Flanagin is a writer living in Washington, D.C., where he does story research for The Atlantic magazine and writes about pop culture and social issues. He holds a B.A. in comparative literature from New York University and thinks the bagel situation in D.C. is deplorable. In his free time, he likes to watch reruns of Growing Pains and remains steadfastly ambivalent on the issue of Kirk Cameron.

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