Curator’s Note: This piece was submitted directly as a response to a post I wrote on my personal blog, and it offers a wonderfully compelling history of modern, gendered fandom.
When Lori Morimoto patiently writes — and she has so many provocations to write — on the subject of a century of cliches about female fans of male performers, she often refers to 1920s media mocking the women who watched every blink of Rudolph Valentino. Now, I care too much about popular theatre in Europe and America, especially in the 19th century, and the way it merged into early cinema, and so I see those stories about Valentino devotees as a transition, when the exuberant behaviour of fans became contemptible, not because those fans were fans, but because they were female, mostly young at that, and therefore deemed risible in themselves. For more than a century before that, fandom and its familiar practices had been male. And there hadn’t been a lot of mocking going on.
From around 1800, the fans — of divas like Jenny Lind, the early ballerinas such as Marie Taglioni, the great actresses Rachel and Sarah Bernhardt — were young men, adolescent and post-adolescent; and they behaved with passionate excess. The stories are almost all true — suicides, duels fought, champagne drunk from slippers, teams of chaps pulling the diva’s carriage in lieu of horses, adoring letters written, crowds behaving outrageously outside the stage door. (And pretty well the whole fan-photo industry was the joint creation in the 1860s of Bernhardt — the first person to act to a camera lens, the first celebrity to project sex through it — with the photographer Nadar.) Young men had always behaved badly (fighting, fornication, overspending), but this was new — it came in with the Romantic era’s stress on the immediate expression of emotion at just that moment when greater decorum was demanded in men’s behaviour towards women of their own class; youth must burst out somewhere, and — with the help of more theatres, cheap prints, then cheap copies of celebrity photographs etc — this was an available release. It was laughed at by the fans’ elders on the grounds they hadn’t behaved like that when young; and then, reluctantly, accepted as just a phase they/we are all going through/went through. But quite a proportion of each generation of young — urban, not-poor — men went through fandom for much of the 19th century. Of course there was a clear statement of power in there — divas (Jenny Lind aside) were also available for financially advantageous sexual liaisons, although only at the grandest level; but some lower order “fans” might be able to afford (with gifts if not always fees or maintenance money) the sexual services of chorus dancers or singers or minor actresses. Being a fan of a major female performer didn’t threaten masculine power, but was a means of expressing it. The whole thing dissipated in the early 20th century, particularly after the coming of cinema.
There had always been male actors with a female following — called matinee idols from the late 19th century, after afternoon matinees were introduced (when theatre respectabilised under female management — let us praise Marie Effie Wilton, who managed the Prince of Wales Theatre from 1865, and invented numbered seats for prebooking) as the most socially acceptable performances for women to attend — they could even occasionally do so with other women, most usually from their family, not needing male accompaniment. But there’s no record of female fans publicly adoring say, Charles Kean, although Queen Victoria did go to see his Corsican Brothers several times, slavered in her diaries, and ordered a command performance at Windsor; because the kind of young woman whose family could afford to see a play had limited independent freedom of operation in the world. And also little personal spending power. She wasn’t out in the world before marriage, and was constrained, and often isolated, after marriage. The bouts of Liszt-mania were at closed society musical events — daughters had to persuade mothers, and generally fathers, to take them; only upmarket mature women with very grand access paid Nijinsky’s dresser for silk petals that had fallen off his costume during The Spectre of the Rose ballet. (In publiciity, Nijinsky did Valentino first, and with much better moves.)
But in the US from the 1890s, then across Europe from the 1900s and, crucially, and on a large scale, during the 1920s, many young women began earning their own living, therefore having new freedoms of movement, and unrestricted paying access to the popular medium of film, whose business owners regarded them as a valuable revenue source, and selected performers to appeal to them. The women took over — and modified — many forms of young male fan behaviours — what their fathers, grandfathers, greatgrandfathers had done, minus the suicides and duels. And everybody forgot the antecedents, and reacted as if fandom was a female innovation — and therefore, in itself, emotional, excessive and wrong. Also, the old sexual power balance wasn’t transposed to this new world — the new male divas were not sexually available to the highest female bidder, and female fans did not expect lesser male performers to augment their meagre incomes by selling sex. The women did have a new power — to make or break a male cinematic career — but that wasn’t quite the same power as the male fans had had a century before.
“Champagne from a Slipper: When Fandom Was Acceptably Male,” ©Veronica Horwell, original post