Investigating the Harry Styles Puke Shrine With Kaitlyn Tiffany
On the brink of adulthood, Kaitlyn Tiffany tells us, people cling to the things that make them feel young again. For the Brooklyn-based writer, that thing was One Direction. When Tiffany was a lonely college student, One Direction was still a gaggle of mop-headed boys in braces and bow ties who performed saccharine songs for hysterical fans. A lot has changed in the intervening years: the band broke up, and Tiffany landed herself a position as a staff writer focused on culture and technology at The Atlantic. Nevertheless, she revisits this period in Everything I Need I Get From You: How Fangirls Created The Internet As We Know It, an exploration of late-aughts fan culture on social media. Fangirls didn’t just use these platforms, Tiffany argues, they fundamentally altered them. The writer supports this claim with an alluring mixture of personal anecdotes, conspiracy theory investigations, and interviews with preeminent fangirls of all stripes. To learn more about the book, we sat down with Tiffany for a chat about incels, puke shrines, and the power of online fandom.
SOPHIE LEE: I’m very excited to talk to you about this book. How did it come about?
KAITLYN TIFFANY: I really need to work on the origin story, because I don’t really remember. [Laughs] My first job in media was at The Verge, a tech website. I was like, “I don’t even know what Android is. What can I contribute?” My niche gradually became Tumblr and fandom stuff. It was early 2019 when I started thinking about [writing the book]. This was after the huge spike in coverage of male-dominated internet subcultures. In 2017, it felt like every other piece of journalism about the alt-right online. 2018 was peak incel coverage. [Laughs] I felt like there was a default to covering these subcultures that were dominated by angry young boys, and less thinking about subcultures that were driven by women. If they were discussed at all, it was in this “rah-rah girl power” way, like, “Isn’t it so fun that girls are having a good time online?” Which, yes, for sure. But pathologizing fangirls or labeling them as angels are both equal dismissals.
LEE: How did you narrow down your focus for this?
TIFFANY: Focusing on One Direction ended up being really helpful. I was able to say, “Okay, I don’t have to talk about every single thing.” K-pop fandom is like a totally different force than the early Rihanna Navy or something. And that’s not even accounting for movie fandom, or TV fandom, or web comic fandom, or all those other things that would’ve had to be included in a book about fandom in general. I think would’ve turned into, I don’t know, a series of Wikipedia pages basically.
LEE: There’s something very interesting about this book and the writing that you do outside of it—where you’re translating something digital into print. Reading about babygate (a conspiracy theory alleging that Louis Tomlinson’s child is a PR stunt) in print is a strange experience. It feels like something that was never really supposed to live outside the recesses of the internet.
TIFFANY: As far as things that aren’t supposed to live outside the internet, there’s the literal challenge of describing a meme in a way that’s useful and funny, and not dry and alienating for anybody who hasn’t seen it. Then there’s the fact that a lot of this stuff was not created to be repackaged for a mainstream audience. That was also an ethical consideration for me. As a journalist, I feel I’m within my rights to quote things posted on the internet, but at the same time, I wanted to be careful. I wanted to show enough of what was going on without betraying that confidence. The women I quoted are the ones who claimed positions of leadership within this conspiracy community. They rise to the level of being, not public figures per se, but characters who are influencing others. I didn’t want to quote, like, posts on random defunct blogs where people wrote something pretty gross when they were 16 that they didn’t expect anyone to ever see again.
TIFFANY: I’m also a bit nervous speaking about the Larry Stylinson stuff because they have had such a hostile reaction to the book. I’m sure they’re going to pull apart anything I say about them. But it is difficult to pull things out of deep corners of the internet and fit them into a narrative that is accessible for somebody who doesn’t spend a ton of time online. What images will really sum up the things I’m talking about? I talked about bad1Dimagines, which were described in the book as image macros with flash fanfiction written over them. I thought that was pretty easy for a reader to visualize and very representative of One Direction fandom’s absurdity, willingness to be dark and weird, and to laugh at themselves. Sometimes it was hard to leave things on the cutting room floor because, as a fan writing a book about fandom, there’s also this impulse to be like, “Let me show you my fandom bona fides.”
LEE: What was it like getting in contact with people who played a role in these pop culture moments, like the girl who made a shrine to Harry Styles’ puke, or the Harry Fairy, who anonymously scattered images of a pregnant Harry Styles? Were they surprised to be hearing about this years later?
TIFFANY: Those interviews were so much fun, because they were really surprised. The Harry Fairy was a little more reluctant to talk, but she was super funny. I just messaged the puke shrine girl on Instagram. But I felt like everybody was sort of excited to discuss this in a way they hadn’t before. A lot of them hadn’t ever reflected on what fandom meant to them, or why they did these silly things. It was interesting to hear them riddle it out in real time. Those questions are hard to answer, and that was the hardest part of writing the book for me. I find it really difficult to articulate why this band was important to me, and whether it is still important to me.
LEE: The question, “Why do people do this?” is what’s so interesting about fan studies. I don’t know if it’s totally answerable. Did you feel like you had a better understanding of “why” after writing this?
TIFFANY: I think I do, especially after engaging with [Theodor] Adorno’s work, and his theory that pop culture is a way of self-medicating in order to cope with ultimately being a worker with no freedom or power. It’s prescribed and numbing. I can obviously see some truth in that, but I think my experience with fandom was that these communities are extremely creative. Fandom is not necessarily making people more productive members of a capitalist society. Personally, I think whatever you gotta do to not want to poke your eyeballs out at work is what you’ve gotta do. But people use these cultural artifacts for their own purposes, and mutate them to fit whatever need they have in their lives. I found One Direction fandom at a time when I was pretty lonely and feeling disconnected from my family and friends and my hometown. It was important to me to find an immediate, like, EpiPen source of joy, because I was very depressed and I hated college. It was also a way of staying connected with a version of myself that I could still remember, who felt happy and connected to other people. By the time I was done with the book, that was a lot clearer to me than it had been originally.
LEE: It feels like this is what celebrities are for, right? To provide a launchpad for analysis and and to be examined. At the end of the day, though, this is a real person.
TIFFANY: Whenever I’m talking to an acquaintance, they’re like, “Do you think Harry Styles will read the book?” And like, I don’t think any of them read at all! [both laugh] That’s rude, but realistically, they are not reading FSG’s experimental non-fiction in print. I don’t know how they would feel about it if they did read it. They would probably find that it’s not really about them. I really didn’t think about them that much when I was writing it. I was really more concerned with painting a portrait that was diverse. I wanted to make sure people could form their own opinions of what fandom is and how it can be useful and how it can be over zealous. I feel a lot of affection towards the band still—particularly towards Niall. I’m more of a Niall girl than a Harry girl.
LEE: That is evident. [Both laugh] You can always tell who the favorite is.
TIFFANY: I know. When I was done, I was like, “Is Liam’s name in this book?” It’s obvious that Niall’s the most important. I’m playing the long game there. I know Harry has become the most famous so far, but I think the long term money is on Niall. I can see him putting out a truly classic singer/songwriter album in like 10 years.
LEE: You tease them in a way I think only real fans can—so specifically, and so bitingly. It’s one of the great things about fandom, you come together to make fun of these people that you love so much, in really creative ways. But I do wonder if you’re worried about the response to this. It’s a very honest portrayal of them and of fandom.
TIFFANY: I don’t know if I’m worried exactly, but as a reader of writing about fandom, I definitely sensitive to sweeping statements that I feel are unfair. That’s because fangirls have been written about in such a disparaging, obnoxious way for a really long time. I expect people to read the book and see places where I make a generalization that doesn’t ring true to their experience. I think fans are willing, though, to read critical takes on fandom and on the celebrities that they like.
LEE: You became a One Direction fan at 19, during your first year of college. Were you ever part of any fandoms before 1D? Or have you joined a new fandom since?
TIFFANY: I’m also a devoted Taylor Swift fan. That started when I was very young, but persists to this day. There definitely hasn’t been anything like [One Direction] for me since.
LEE: I was just reminiscing about the absolute chaos of being a Taylor Swift and a One Direction fan online at the time where she and Harry were dating. It was like, if you’re a fan of both, you’d better just go underground until it blows over. [Laughs] So intense. In the book, you really capture that funny feeling of like, “I love One Direction, but is their music good?”
TIFFANY: It’s significantly better than their solo stuff. A bunch of cute boys doing ’70s rock pastiches is its own funny thing. It’s not as cool, in my opinion, to have five men of dubious personal creativity trying to make super serious solo music. But of I root for them all. Except for Liam, because he’s a crypto bro now and I can’t stand for that.