Somewhere along the line during Western society’s postwar transition into a media-based culture it somehow became an acceptable part of its coming of age rituals that pubescent girls of each generation would become obsessed en masse with the same vaguely androgynous, floppy-haired singing boy or boy band. And not “obsessed” in the meaning of the word as it’s casually thrown around in conversation (“I’m totally obsessed with this motion-based synthesizer app I downloaded”) but obsessed in a way that if these were fully formed adults we were discussing, their loved ones would be consulting mental health professionals and planning interventions.
The internet has affected this rite of passage in a couple of significant ways. The constant churn of online attention has upped the turnover rate for teen stars exponentially—the Beatles were still enjoying a lessened but still active Beatlemania when they broke up, while Justin Bieber’s late-2009 ascension to idoldom effectively had its death warrant written when One Direction was assembled the following year. And like it does with everything else that it touches, the internet has made fandom way more intense and weird than it was before.
An outside observer might look at the millions upon millions of teenage girls who are clinically obsessed with One Direction and see them as one unified group, but they would be completely wrong. Unlike, say, Beliebers (who do function more or less this way), 1D fandom is closer to a loose confederation of social tribes, some of which despise each other with the full intensity that teenage girls can despise each other (which as anyone who has ever seen teenage girls interact socially knows is considerable).
In terms of how complex and ideologically fraught One Direction fandom is, it ranks right up there with the current social situation in Syria, although, granted, without the munitions and stuff. On one level, like every boy band, there are different factions who have vowed allegiance to one particular member and consider differently-minded fans misguided at best and inferior human beings at worst—the Liam partisans versus the Zayn supremacists, etc. Then there is the massive schism between Directioners and Directionators, i.e. fans who latched onto the band during its initial ascent on the British version of X-Factor in 2010 (Directioners) versus the ones who only got into them after "What Makes You Beautiful” began storming American radio (Directionators). Basically the Directioners view Directionators as insufficiently dedicated, and hold them in the type of broad, vicious contempt you usually find in rival religious and ethnic groups.
Then there are the Larry Stylinson fans, who seem at war with reality itself.
The name “Larry Stylinson” doesn’t refer to an actual person but rather to the pairing of One Direction members Harry Styles and Louis Tomlinson. Larry Stylinson fans are kind of like every other insanely devoted One Direction fan except that they are absolutely convinced that Styles and Tomlinson are in a secret gay love relationship with each other.
The actual evidence backing Larry Stylinson fandom’s central organizing belief is iffy at best. True believers have posted what seems to be every interaction between Styles and Tomlinson that’s ever been recorded on Tumblr and in YouTube montages, and from all of the animated gifs it does seem like the two are uncommonly physically intimate with each other for a couple of allegedly straight guys. There is also the fact that with their twinky good looks and floppy hair even a straight guy can look at them and say, "Yeah, I could see them doing it."
The evidence against Larry Stylinson, on the other hand, is overwhelming. Boy bands going back to the Beatles and the Monkees have used affectionate physical gestures to broadcast a sense of goofy camaraderie as well as (on a more subliminal level) a hint of girl-friendly light homoeroticism that prior to the internet may have provoked some personal alone-time fantasies but never could have inspired a whole organized movement. There is also the fact that Tomlinson and Styles have firmly (although politely and non-judgmentally) denied that they are romantically involved. Also they have girlfriends.
None of this dissuades Stylinson believers in the least. The girlfriends, they contend, are beards provided by One Direction’s management to throw the media off the scent of the boys’ taboo romance. Similarly, the public denials are just the boys conforming to a “No Gay” clause in their contracts. Every other piece of evidence contrary to their worldview can similarly be explained away by the machinations of a management team and record label that dare not let Louis and Harry’s love speak its name.
While Larry Stylinson fans are very young and extremely savvy users of the latest social networks, they’re actually living out the intersection of two subjects that have supported highly active subcultures online since pre-web days: fan fiction and conspiracy theory.
Since the beginnings of modern fan fiction writers and their audiences have been fixated on pairing fictional characters in noncanon romantic and/or sexual relationships. (The proper terminology is “shipping” and “slash” fiction, respectively.) While most fan fiction is concerned with characters from fictional works, there’s a subset called Real Person Fiction that’s about, naturally, actual real people. So instead of Harry Potter and Ron Weasley hooking up, these people would write about Daniel Radcliffe and Rupert Grint getting it on. The Larry Stylinson pairing began as RPF, but somehow transmuted to reality, or at least the imagined reality that Larry Stylinson true believers inhabit.
But while Larry Stylinson was born in fanfic, Stylinson fandom more closely resembles the communities that congregate around conspiracy theories. And not conspiracy theories like the right’s nebulous Obama-is-a-secret-socialist-Muslim meme, which is just a lazy way of putting a vaguely politically defensible paintjob on ugly racist attitudes, but more like the Obama-is-building-secret-FEMA-camps-in-the-desert theorists who obsessively pore over tiny scraps of “evidence” that only those who are already in the know about Obama’s private army that’s going to round up all of the libertarian dissidents in the country can see for what they really are.
Larry Stylinson true believers operate in the exact same way, keeping their eyes and ears open for details that could fit the conceptual framework they have already built, with little regard for real-world context, and then obsessing over each little clue until—in their minds at least—it takes on the aspect of undeniable proof. On one of the central Tumblr accounts in the Stylinsonosphere, Reasons Why Larry Stylinson Is Real, a reblogged half-second video of Styles and Tomlinson exchanging a look during a performance at this year’s iTunes Festival in London has been slowed down, turned into an animated gif, and offered up as apparently undeniable truth to Larry Stylinson’s existence. And any criticism can be deflected by a simple tautology—”the theory is real, so therefore any evidence that backs it up must be true as well”—that should look familiar to anyone who’s studied 9/11 Truthers or HAARP alarmists, hence the fairly defensive stance the name Reasons Why Larry Stylinson Is Real suggests.
While it might be easy to cynically write off Larry Stylinson fandom as simply the inevitable result of combining fanatical adolescent boy band adoration and the internet’s powers of amplifying obsession, there’s a strange kind of hope and empowerment to it. In the minds of Stylinson true believers, Tomlinson and Styles are locked in a battle with the powers that be (the managers and multinationals trying to control them and extinguish their love), and only the fans who are clever enough and devoted enough to pick up the coded clues that they manage to slip out even know it. And in the eyes of their fans, with every loaded glance across the stage at each other, with every on-camera hair tousle and lyric about undying devotion to a romantic partner, they’re winning.
It’s a great story, although truth-wise it’s long shot. But as a Larry Stylinson true believer might argue, you can’t prove that it’s not really happening.