Why do we belittle the things that girls love? The habit is insidious and ever-present in mainstream coverage of books, films, television shows and music, a subtle aren’t they silly eye roll intended to shame the joy away. And nowhere is this societal tsk more overt than in the way we talk about ‘fangirls’ and boybands.
By contrast, I Used to be Normal – Jessica Leski’s affectionate and empathetic portrait of four dedicated fans – is a love story to boybands and the girls who love them. Elif is the first to make an impression, she is sixteen when filming begins and experiencing the after effects of internet fame after a YouTube clip of her maelstrom feelings for One Direction went viral.
1D mean everything to the New Jersey teen, they are an expression of her independence from her strict parents, her “boyfriends” and her first introduction to music which belongs solely to her. When she speaks directly to camera – flashing green banded braces as she smiles – she is endearingly honest, confiding that she was “blushing with emotions” when her cousin introduced her to ‘our boys’, embarrassed by and proud of her love in equal measure.
For twenty and thirty-somethings Sadia and Dara, the shame of fandom has become more of a burden. Throughout the film, their professional lives and adult relationships present conflicts (real and imagined) with their devotion to the loves of their lives. In early young adulthood, these women gave their hearts away to the very safest of custodians and though they have been chastened by the judgement of others they have yet to forsake their boys.
Now in her sixties, it is easier for Susan to speak frankly about how The Beatles shaped her life. She incorporated their music into her parenting journey and found solace with them in her darkest days. Yet she, like the others, recognises that the shift in her which the band provoked – the catharsis of screaming for and at them, the patchwork of faces she enveloped herself in – was irrevocable. Some fans let go and moved on, Susan never will.
Throughout I Used to Be Normal, Leski and editor Johanna Scott delicately layer the memories and confidences of the four central fans with music and footage of the boybands they have pledged their hearts to until a collage as rich and comforting as those Dara spent years assembling appears. The courage it has taken for the women to be vulnerable about something so dear to them and the sensitivity of Leski’s approach makes it impossible to sneer.
They know mockery is incoming, you can see them brace themselves – always first with self-deprecation or analysis before the sucker punch comes from outside – but rather than mock them, you will want to embrace them. 1D, The Backstreet Boys, Take That and The Beatles helped Elif, Sadia, Dara and Susan navigate their cultural and sexual identities and establish their senses of self. The boys were there for them through grief, depression and despair.
Sweet and funny and unexpectedly moving, I Used to be Normal doesn’t patronise the fans by pretending that the more bonkers excesses of their worship are anything but. What it does instead is let the women living through these unusual love stories be the ones to narrate them. These aren’t silly girls, they are complex and remarkable people who deserve nothing less than the remarkable film Jessica Leski has made. We absolutely loved it.
I Used to be Normal: A Boyband Fangirl Story is available to stream now