Author’s Note: I contributed to this film’s Kickstarter.
A few years ago, during the sparkle of the Twilight books and the erotic stylings of the 50 Shades of Grey series, a male colleague of mine wondered out loud how women and girls could enjoy such stupid and pointless books.
I didn’t say anything at the time (which I do regret a little). But I found his comments to be rather closed-minded. Don’t get me wrong, I am in no way saying that either series should have won the Man Booker prize. But why is it that cultural experiences popular with women are thought to be so much less important than those enjoyed by men? Is there really that much difference between 50,000 women/girls screaming at a boyband concert; and 50,000 men/boys screaming at 22 guys in shorts chasing a ball?
That widely held dismissive attitude towards female activities is part of the reason why I Used To Be Normal: A Boyband Fangirl Story caught my attention on Kickstarter. Led by director Jessica Leski and producer Rita Walsh, here was a film that was determined to explore the passion for boybands from a place of love and appreciation.
While (according to their Kickstarter) Leski and Walsh originally planned to explore this phenomena through the eyes and words of music theorists, songwriters, educators, adolescent psychologists and neurologists; the final onscreen product is one that is far more human in its approach. As such we investigate the world of boybands through the eyes of a foursome: Elfi, a die-hard One-Direction lover; Sadia, a Backstreet Boys devotee; Dara, a Take That obsessive; and Susan, an old-school Beatles fan.
I Used To Be Normal is, at its heart, a celebration. Not just of girls and women, but also of passion and dedication. Through the words and actions of the four main women interviewed in the project, we get to see the intricacies of fangirl culture, their relationship to music and how it has developed and changed over the past six decades.
In fact, that decision by the filmmakers to take a more historical approach ends up being the most successful aspect of the movie. It would have been easy to focus exclusively on modern boybands and their fans. But by throwing us back to the mid-20th Century with Susan, and illustrating the heights of Beatlemania intertwined with the advance of feminism; we get to see how boyband music has become almost inseparable from the daily fight for equality that women have experienced over the past half century.
However, the focus on the 1960s and the 1990s onwards means there is a little bit of a gap in the film’s musical history. To be fair, the popularity of punk and metal during the 70s & 80s probably meant that there wasn’t a lot of choice in terms of boybands, but it would have been nice to meet someone who appreciated New Kids on the Block!
But that really is a minor quibble as the foursome that we do follow are some of the most engaging representations of fangirls today. More importantly though, Leski and Walsh show us how the individual’s love for a specific boyband has helped them struggle through emotional and social obstacles that they might otherwise have had to face alone. Dara, the 33-year-old brand strategist from Australia finds help in the self-discovery of her sexuality; while Sadia, a 25 year old writer from America, uses her love for the Backstreet Boys to help overcome the culture clash of family and society. They may all have very different life paths, but it’s a beautiful example of how boyband music can be used as a force for good.
Of the four stories it’s teenager Elfi that really tugs at the heartstrings. When we’re first introduced to her at the age of 15/16, she’s easily the most typical portrayal of a screaming fangirl. Over the next two years we witness how that love for One Direction eventually blossoms into deeply ingrained knowledge of multiple types of music. But unlike the other three participants, who to various degrees have mostly overcome societies’ dismissal of their tastes; Elfi is still held down by tradition and patriarchal forces. In essence she ends up being a physical representation of how much further women still have to go for their hopes and desires to be taken seriously.
But don’t take that as a sign that the film is secretly a tearjerker. Instead I Used To Be Normal is a heartwarming and elegant depiction of a world that has given hope and joy to millions of girls and women around the globe. In an era where anonymous internet dwellers are willing to tear apart any type of female enjoyment; this film stands as tribute that even the most musically persecuted can survive when we share the things we love.