In defense of fangirls: Why being part of the BTS fandom is helping me through the pandemic
Samantha Lui has found comfort and companionship among millions of fellow devoted K-pop fans
It's time for me to come clean: I'm a fangirl.
Unlike regular fans, who have a strong interest in or admiration for a particular person or thing, "fangirls," according to the dictionary, are girls who are overly enthusiastic and behave in an obsessive or overly excited way.
I admit, I haven't always been proud of the fangirl label.
Maybe it's because I'm 29 years old, with a job and bills to pay.
Or perhaps it's because of how I was teased when I screamed over British boy band One Direction, or crushed on actors Ryan Gosling and Dev Patel.
But it was only when the COVID-19 pandemic started that I realized that being a fangirl was more than a childish obsession.
Living alone in my apartment, I couldn't see my family, friends or loved ones. It was stressful and lonely. So I turned to something I loved for comfort.
That something was the South Korean boy band BTS — the best-selling artists in South Korean history.
Keeping fangirl identity 'a secret'
I first discovered BTS in February 2020.
I watched a live performance of their song Black Swan on YouTube, and I was immediately mesmerized by their dance moves, singing and stage presence. The choreography, set design and production left me thinking, "Wow, this is art!"
I spent the next two days going down a YouTube rabbit hole. I watched video after video, getting to know BTS through interviews and performances.
By the end of the week, I had memorized all of the group members' stage names: RM, Suga, Jin, J-Hope, Jimin, V and Jungkook. I knew that RM did most of the talking in English, that Jin was born the same year as I was, and that BTS is short for "bulletproof boy scouts" in Korean. The name signifies the group's desire to get rid of unhealthy stereotypes and unrealistic expectations of young people.
I had become part of BTS' ARMY, the official name for the group's fandom. It stands for "Adorable Representative M.C. for Youth."
I subscribed to their YouTube channel (along with 40 million other people), followed them on Twitter and Instagram and joined Weverse, the app they use to interact with their fans.
I started buying the band's official merchandise — t-shirts, plushies, pens and stickers — as well as magazine covers featuring the group.
Despite following them intensely on social media, I never left a comment. I kept my newfound love of them quiet. I felt silly to be so invested.
But hiding my fandom bothered me. If a group was giving me this much joy during a period of isolation, why shouldn't I embrace it?
Being part of fandom can be 'healthy'
According to Dr. Lynn Zubernis, I'm feeling embarrassed because society has long perceived fangirls as "frivolous and selfish."
Zubernis, a clinical psychologist and professor at West Chester University in Pennsylvania, started studying fandoms and the psychology of being a fan after she became fixated on the television series Supernatural.
Her experiences led her to co-write a book called Fangasm: Supernatural Fangirls.
Zubernis points out that fangirls are treated differently to fanboys or fans. She describes growing up in Philadelphia and seeing family members spend entire Sundays at Eagles games, wearing Eagles jerseys, and wanting Eagles paraphernalia for Christmas.
"That is accepted as a pretty normal thing," she said. "But when I fell in love and was just as passionate about a little genre television show on the CW, it was really not perceived in the same way.
Zubernis says that it is not nearly as acceptable for a grown woman to be a fan because it's a lot more threatening.
"There's anxiety around women saying, 'No, this is what I'm passionate about. I'm going to do what I want to do. This is what makes me happy and I'm going to do that.'"
Zubernis says the best way to embrace the fangirl label is by battling against "internalized shame" and to recognize that "there are really healthy things that come out of fandom and being part of a fan community."
Finding community through fandom
As I look back on my past, I think about the role fandoms have played in my life and the friends I've made along the way.
While I was in university, I became close friends with a classmate named Alexa Huffman through our shared love of the One Direction.
One of the highlights of our friendship included winning tickets to see the group live in concert.
But while our love of the group has waned through the years, the memory of that event has helped us stay in touch.
"The experience of being fangirls has kept us close because it gives us something to talk about, no matter where we are," Huffman told me recently.
Loving BTS has also helped me connect with fellow fangirls during the pandemic, like Minnie Luangkham.
We met last fall at a socially-distanced BTS fan event she helped organize at a Toronto cafe.
We bonded over the fact that their songs helped us get through tough times. We quickly became friends and added each other on social media.
"We love BTS so much and they teach people so many things — like to love yourself, and just be open and be true to who you are. And I feel like it's almost like a safe place," Luangkham said.
We've made plans to hang out after the pandemic. It's a friendship that would have never happened without BTS.
I realize that more than BTS itself, it's the community of fans — or BTS' ARMY — that is helping me right now. We're getting through this pandemic together.
And if that makes me a fangirl, then so be it.
Samantha Lui is an associate producer with CBC Toronto's Metro Morning. She's also produced interviews for Cross Country Checkup, As It Happens and CBC News Network. Before joining the CBC, she interned at Hong Kong's English daily newspaper, South China Morning Post. A fangirl at heart, she spends her free time watching BTS videos on YouTube and Asian dramas. She is also holding out hope for a One Direction reunion tour one day.
This documentary was edited by Alison Cook.