Crushes seem like they are about giving in, the self being subsumed—crushed—by yearning. But the identity-building aspect of crushes can turn them into expressions of power and resistance. Writer Barbara Ehrenreich heard the shrieks of Beatles-obsessed tweens and teens in the mid-1960s as the first stirrings of the sexual revolution. “It was rebellious . . . to lay claim to sexual feelings. It was even more rebellious to lay claim to the active, desiring side of a sexual attraction: the Beatles were the objects; the girls were their pursuers,” she wrote in a 1992 essay on Beatlemania. In this light, “crush” becomes an active verb, something girls do; they crush standards, social ideals, their own former notions of themselves.
A similar impulse of re-creation lies behind the teen crushes enacted online today, though teens’ meme-sharing and digitized quips don’t have the physical intensity of Beatlemania’s girl-packs. The crush has long been one of the guiding conceits of social media, as attested by the lore surrounding the horny geek founders of Facebook; they created a platform for college students to look all they wanted at their classmate crushes without anyone else having to know. As social media evolves, the looking is less undercover and more of an online performance. “Crush,” “girl crush,” “obsession,” and other terms of longing pop up frequently in tweets, blog titles, and hashtags, along with “fangirl” and “fandom.” Crushes are cool. Canadian film student Meghan Harper, in a blog essay that went viral called “Why I F**ing Love Teenage Girls,” defends the celebrity crush, often dissed as annoying or frivolous. A crush on a boy-band star allows a teenage girl to “develop her sexuality in a safe environment she can control.” It’s love without being felt up by a boy when she’s not sure she wants to be, or being pressured to text him naked pictures of herself, which might later be used to humiliate her. Celebrity crushes are a form of what social scientists, since the rise of television, have called “parasocial interaction”: one-sided intimacy, at a distance, with someone famous. However compelling the fantasy, there’s no significant obligation or responsibility.
Fangirls are fiercely protective of the integrity of these fantasies as fantasies—desire without real-life interaction or consequences. A subculture of fangirls shuns mainstream pop stars such as Justin Bieber in favor of nerdy sensitive-guy alternative celebrities who sing goofy love songs (lyrics include lines such as “if you love me / then I’ll never play Halo again”) on YouTube. “These guys seem nonthreatening, like a best friend, but they still have that wow factor,” said Katie Speller, who runs Feminist Fiction, a Tumblr blog about feminism and fandom culture. When several underage fangirls blogged on Tumblr about being sexually exploited by YouTube performers they’d corresponded with or met in person, the online outrage built quickly and powerfully. One YouTube performer lost his record contract over allegations that he’d had sex with an underage fan; another posted a lamenting apology about his abusive relationship with an admirer. YouTube celebrity Michael Lombardo was convicted on child porn charges and jailed for manipulating underage girls into sending him sexually explicit photos and videos. Speller said that throughout these incidents, fangirls, along with outspoken female YouTube stars, “really looked out for each other. They reached out and shared their experiences and told each other they should not be forgotten and they should not be walked over.”
What was threatened, Speller said, was the fangirl ethos—the liberating feeling of “unironically putting yourself into loving something.” On Tumblr and Twitter, what you love and what you long for are of primary importance to teen users. Unlike Facebook, where detailed profile information is the norm, Tumblr and Twitter users often work on a first-name, pseudonym, or unnamed basis, with a vague bit of “about” information: “I like nature. I wish I was a bird.” It’s often impossible to tell where the user lives, how old she is, what she does when she’s not online. But you’ll find out plenty about what she wants, her blog or Twitter feed creating a digital ladder of desire. On social media, she is what she crushes on. She creates herself through the things that give her “the feels,” Internet slang for an intense emotional reaction to something you come across online. The feels can come from a new paparazzi photo of Kristen Stewart or a cool pair of muddied boots. They can come from a couple embracing on a bed, from the rain outside the window falling in the jerky, repetitive fashion of GIF animation.
Then there are the digital packs of girls who get the feels from killers. They curate high school yearbook photos of Dylan Klebold and Eric Harris, mug shots of Ted Bundy, and black-and-white GIFs of teen commandos firing machine guns. They call themselves “Columbiners” and “Holmies” (after Aurora, Colorado, movie shooter James Holmes). They express their yearning in Photoshopped captions in the style of inspirational bedroom posters: “I wish I could go back in time and have a serious relationship with dylan and when things got too hard i could sit in his lap while we cried into each other,” reads one Columbiner post. On Twitter, a chorus of #freejahar tweets gushes about how cute the alleged nineteen-year-old Boston Bomber, Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, is—too cute and too relatable as a young college student to do harm, some say.
Dark-side crushes are rarely about connecting to the object of yearning; in many cases, he’s dead. The impossibility of the bad-guy fantasy relationship makes it “psychically comfortable” for some teens, says Jill Weber, a clinical psychologist in the Washington, D.C., area. “They project on to that person whatever they want, or things they want to feel within themselves.” The creative range, irony, and oddball whimsy of teen expressions of killer crushes (one post gushes about how dreamy it would be to eat gourmet chocolates with Jeffrey Dahmer) indicate they are more about power, identity, and experimentation than a genuine desire to have a relationship. In a much discussed essay in The Awl, writer Rachel Monroe sees a Beatlemania-like fervor in these dark-side posts and tweets, a pushback against the manufactured conventions of teen sexuality. My impression is that the rebellion is really against a far more intractable reality: the girls’ own vulnerability, not only to the emotional challenge of love and sex but also to the existential challenge of living in a world of oppression and evil. If you can snuggle up to a killer, you can weaken his menace.
For most teen girls, the real challenge of a crush is about dealing with the force of her emotions for a boy she knows, not a killer or a pop idol. It’s hard for a girl—as it can be for an adult woman—to see beyond the present tense of a crush, to grasp the possibility of an opportunity for growth until she’s gotten over her feelings. Meanwhile, her life is characterized by intense vulnerability. Even if the boy hasn’t been unkind to her, the fact that he doesn’t love her back hurts, and she may feel a lesser person because of it. What is valued, all around her at school and in the culture at large, is relationship success, and she’s not achieving it.
Suzi Yoonessi, a thirty-five-year-old filmmaker in Los Angeles, has vivid memories of heartbreak as a girl growing up in Buffalo in the 1990s. “It was an experience that happened over and over again,” she said. “Everything is amplified when you’re young because you haven’t been numbed.” She confided her crushes and breakups in her “epic collection” of diaries, addressing the entries to “Lemon Lima,” her imaginary friend.
Yoonessi grew up listening to her Persian grandmother’s fairy tales about little girls and creatures who triumphed over difficult circumstances. For her first feature film, "Dear Lemon Lima," she wanted to create a fairy tale about lost love that captured the poignancy of the experience and gave girls a glimpse of a self-affirming future beyond. “You hear so much about girls as victims, but not of how they come back from that experience and how heartbreak can make them stronger and more empowered,” she said.
"Dear Lemon Lima" was produced with an unabashed sugarcoated aesthetic, with bright pastel colors and curlicue-script diary entries, each “i” dotted with a heart. Set in rural Alaska, the film tells the story of thirteen-year-old Vanessa Lemor as she recovers from her breakup with Philip. He is white, entitled, and arrogant. She is the daughter of a single white mother and an Eskimo father she hasn’t seen in years. Vanessa attends Philip’s school on a scholarship for Native Alaskans, even though she feels estranged from her heritage. She becomes so insecure and needy about Philip that her mother, frustrated, chastises her: “How can you love anyone when you don’t love yourself?” The turning point in the movie comes when Vanessa and Philip are pitted against each other as rival team captains in their school’s annual Snowstorm Survivor competition. Vanessa finally sees Philip for the social climber he is. She bonds closely with her teammates, a group of fellow outcasts. To everyone’s surprise, Vanessa’s underdog team wins.
The movie wasn’t distributed far beyond the film-festival circuit in the U.S., though I wish it had the traction of the"Twilight" series. Vanessa’s triumph is the perfect antidote to Bella Swan’s willingness to destroy herself over her love for a handsome vampire. I watched "Dear Lemon Lima" with Clara, as part of the not so subtle unrequited love awareness campaign I’ve been conducting ever since our princess-phase discussions. That probably sounds hypervigilant, but it’s actually been a lot of fun. Clara still thinks romance is icky and covers her eyes when movie characters kiss. She doesn’t want to watch the mythical happy ending of the unrequited love script, when the girl finally gets the guy or vice versa. It was much more satisfying for Clara to cheer Vanessa on to victory and proclaim that Philip was “a real idiot.” I can only hope that the film has some impact on her sense of possibility later on, when she no longer finds kissing a repulsive prospect. I do realize that movies don’t work medicinally. And I know that the recovery process of most real-life teen heartbreak won’t be as resoundingly triumphant as Vanessa’s experience. But the smaller, authentic victories over heartache can matter quite a lot.
Sally was a freshman at her large southern Arizona high school when her crush on Roger, a boy in one of her classes, began. As a Mormon, she wasn’t allowed to date until she was sixteen, then over a year away. Because of this rule, she took longer than her peers to get interested in boys. As her classmates started to have crushes in junior high, she remained studious and uninterested.
After Roger gave an “about me” presentation for a class they were in together, she decided to try to talk to him. “I was shy and didn’t have a lot of guy friends,” she said. “I decided I would have one for once. I had never had a conversation go so well. I was smooth and funny. It was kind of magical.”
For the next two years, she was preoccupied with finding opportunities to get closer to Roger. She went with her friends to his soccer games. She tried to text and Facebook him, but he was antisocial online and didn’t respond. She borrowed his Harry Potter books one by one. Each time she finished a book, she would return it to him and try to say something interesting about it, but she couldn’t manage to get much of a conversation going. She kept trying to recapture the magic of the first time they talked, but it didn’t happen. He never made the effort to talk to her first, so she soon realized he wasn’t interested. “For the longest time, I was really sad about it,” she said. “I was still very attached to him in this puppy-dog way. I was so upset.”
Sally’s mother consoled her when she needed to cry and vent. Her mother told me that she knew her daughter was in the spotlight at school. Sally had confided in so many friends that the word had spread about her crush. “He was into sports and didn’t get girls,” her mother said. “Everyone knew she was infatuated with him. It probably scared the shorts off of him.”
I admired Sally’s mother for her matter-of-fact approach to her daughter’s crush, and for her humor. She joked that there were times when she wanted to “go out and beat Roger with a pan” for his obliviousness. I recognized what was behind her kidding—the feeling that you would do anything to protect your kid from the pain of not being loved. All she could do, though, was focus on her daughter’s state of mind. “My goal was to walk her through it and keep her self-esteem high,” she said. “I told her it happens to everyone, and it’s not a reflection on her.”
Sally sought creative outlets for what she was feeling. She wrote poetry and song lyrics. She got a lot more involved in her school’s active theater program. “The experience exposed me to this whole new aspect of being human and feeling emotion, and I could put that into my acting,” she said. Midway through her junior year, she learned that Roger was dating someone else, and she resolved to move on. Then she was cast as the outspoken lesbian feminist Enid Hoopes in the musical "Legally Blonde," itself a fable about turning romantic rejection into empowerment. Enid is a classmate and eventual friend to Elle, the show’s lovelorn-girlie-blonde-turned-powerhouse-law-student protagonist. “Enid is a strong character who doesn’t need a man,” Sally said. “
People laughed at things she believed in and had a lot of emotions about. She gets hurt, but she’s able to move past it and laugh back at them. As I was playing that character, I was able to look at all the growth I did. I had been dependent on this one person for my happiness, and I wasn’t going to be that way anymore.”
As I thought about Sally’s story, the prospect of coping with Clara’s first crushes no longer seemed so trying. The pain of a crush like Sally’s is not something a mother looks forward to. But I could imagine looking forward to the changes that could occur after that pain subsides: a new resilience, a new repertoire of feeling—qualities my daughter can use, on the stage she cherishes or off.
Excerpted from "Unrequited: Women and Romantic Obsession" by Lisa A. Phillips. Published by Harper, an imprint of HarperCollins Publishers. Copyright © 2015 by Lisa A. Phillips. Reprinted with permission of the publisher. All rights reserved.