Interview with the Fangirl Therapist

Reading Time: 7 minutes
Fangirl Therapy Cover, Image: TarcherPerigee
Fangirl Therapy Cover, Image: TarcherPerigee

I am a Jedi fangirl, like my mother before me. It’s taken me many years to accept this as a part of my identity despite the obvious evidence dating back to my earliest years, and it’s something I can already see that I’m passing onto my son, so why was I so hesitant to accept the label? Probably because of the stigma that often accompanies it.

The word “fangirl” is often heard with that sneering, derisive tone that insinuates its bearer is silly and even childish. My mother’s generation heard those sneers from newscasters when the Beatles arrived in the USA to hordes of screaming teenagers, and today’s tweens hear it whenever footage of a One Direction concert is shown on television. It’s a reaction that’s almost exclusive aimed at young girls, and it’s one designed to make them feel inferior for loving something passionately. But that needn’t be the case.

In her first book, The Fangirl Life, therapist Kathleen Smith – the blogger behind the popular Fangirl Therapy site – speaks directly to those of us who call ourselves fangirls. She offers advice on turning our passions into positive forces within our own lives. Encourages us to figure out what draws us to obsess over certain characters or shows, and then to apply those factors to our own life stories. The book intends to help us to stop using our fandoms as purely a distraction (although, as she points out, this is also a valid thing to do) and start using them to help figure out what we want from our own season arc. By reframing our mistakes as “plot developments” and recognizing that the types of relationships we see on screen don’t always translate to real life, we can begin to put ourselves back in our narratives (sorry, I just couldn’t help it).

The Fangirl Life is a self-help book that really spoke to me as a person. Its analogies to television writing framed its advice in ways that aligned with my interests and passions and helped me to see ways to implement it in my own life. The book also took some time to advocate for others, acknowledging that self-help is not an entirely self-centered endeavor and that cheerleading for friends and helping them through their own trials is beneficial to all. After all, if ensemble shows have taught me anything it’s that our individual plotlines rarely run more than a few minutes before tangling with everyone else’s.

I recently spoke with the Fangirl Therapist herself and asked her about her practice, her obsession with BAMFy middle-aged ladies, and her own Fangirl Life.

Kathleen Fangirl Therapist, Image: Fangirl Therapy
Kathleen Fangirl Therapist, Image: Fangirl Therapy

GeekMom: Was there a specific event in your life that made you realize you were a bona fide “fangirl” rather than “just a ‘fan'”? What was that?

Kathleen: I have always been, let’s say, a “television enthusiast,” and I knew that set me apart from some of my friends at a very young age. Though I wasn’t familiar with the term “fangirl” at the time, there was a single moment when I realized I had the capacity to be utterly consumed by something. I was 12, and it was in the late ’90s when the original Star Wars trilogy was being rereleased in theaters. I went to see The Empire Strikes Back with my best friend, and when the end credits rolled, I remember us looking at each other and both thinking something akin to, “Welp, I guess this is what my life is about now.” I’ve never looked back since!

GM: What made you decide to create Fangirl Therapy.com?

K: I actually created the blog at the same time I began to outline the book several years ago. I saw that there was no popular site for fangirl questions and advice, and I felt like my experiences uniquely suited me to be that person. I wanted to create a space for fangirls to ask the difficult or even silly questions that they were too shy to ask their friends so that they could see they were not alone and that many people wondered about the very same things.

GM: What has been the biggest lesson you have learned from running the site so far?

K: I think what’s surprised me the most are the search terms that people sometimes type to find the site. So many people type something like “How do I stop fangirling?” and this makes me so sad! So I think I have more insight into the reality that fangirling is sometimes portrayed as a virus that needs to be cured. So we have to highlight the positives of fangirling. We have to teach fangirls that they can be passionate creatures and also take care of themselves and succeed in life. All at the same time!

GM: How has the process of writing The Fangirl Life differed from writing on the site?

K: On the site, I mainly answer questions from readers. This is generally simple advice that encourages people to be kind to themselves or to generate solutions that also celebrate their fangirl nature. Though I included a few of these questions in the book, the book is much more detailed in the sense that I use theories and techniques from the counseling profession. It takes ideas about personal transformation that could benefit anyone and delivers them in the language of the fangirl.

GM: Why do you think some fangirls become addicted to their fandoms/shipping/hair porn, while others are able to maintain more of a balance in their lives?

K: I don’t think that becoming consumed with a ship or a celebrity is actually what throws us out of balance because there are plenty of people who are heavily involved with an interest that are doing just fine. I do know for me personally, however, that the deeper I am, the more likely I’m using the obsession to distract myself from other anxieties or challenges in life. There’s nothing wrong with a little distraction, but why not see how I can use this inspiration to move forward? I think we can use our fangirl interests to engage with challenges more than we realize. They don’t have to be just an escape.

GM: What do you consider to be the biggest strengths fangirls can offer the world?

K: 1. Enthusiasm for story. Story is part of the human experience, and no one gets that better than the fangirl. Living a full life includes letting yourself get swept up in a good story.

2. Authenticity. I am being my true self when I let my friends see the ridiculous, silly side of me. I feel like so much of the time people are just trying to just blend in with the group, to not let our unabashed joy for something show. Our society shames people who get too excited, especially when they’re young and female. But I don’t want to live a life where I play down or dismiss what I really love.

GM: You say in the book that your heart would “read like a geological strata map of lady loves”, who would be included on that map?

K: Oh my goodness. SO MANY WOMEN.I think when I was a kid it was all about the comedy greats, like Julia Louis-Dreyfus and Shelley Long. These days I’m more focused on fictional women who exemplify the kind of courage and badassery I want in my life. Diane Lockhart from The Good Wife and Phryne Fisher from Miss Fisher’s Murder Mysteries rank very high.

Me as a Small Fangirl in the '90s, Image: Sophie Brown
Me as a Small Fangirl in the ’90s, Image: Sophie Brown

GM: Why do you think these women have affected you more than others?

K: Though I have a whole catalog of women, I think my poor brain can really only study one at a time. I take notes, and then I try to make bold moves. Sometimes I fail spectacularly, and other times I add something to my skill set. Once I’ve absorbed all that I can, I usually move on to the next. In a way, it’s kind of like an independent study course for fangirls. A very fun one.

GM: If they came to you for therapy, what advice would you give to some of your current favorite fictional characters?

K: Therapy is such a different animal than a book or a blog because therapists actually give very little advice. It’s more about creating the space for someone to feel heard and start examining what’s working and what isn’t. Most of the fictional women on shows I watch right now, like Elizabeth Jennings on The Americans, Abby Griffin on The 100, or all the Game of Thrones ladies, have seen an unfathomable amount of trauma. I think we afford fictional people a level of resilience that would be nearly impossible in real life. So I guess I have no idea how I’d work with them because holy crap they’ve seen a lot. It just doesn’t translate to real life.

GM: In your opinion, what are the key differences between fangirls, and fanwomen?

K: I use these terms loosely in the book, so I don’t want people to think there’s anything wrong with being a fangirl. I use the word “fanwoman” as a concept for a fangirl who is actively working on her story. Someone who doesn’t take the easy path and is willing to admit when she’s wrong. A fanwoman refuses to be defined by all the narratives that society tries to throw on her, and she actively seeks to carve out her own.

GM: How do you think having children alters fangirls and women?

K: I don’t have kids yet but I’ve thought a lot about how of my everyday language comes from media that I love. My dad and I have always spoken a sort of half-English/half-Seinfeld dialect, so I wonder sometimes what favorites I would share with a child. I can’t imagine raising a tiny human who doesn’t have a basic understanding of the plot of Lost. LOL, is that weird? I do have fangirl friends with kids and they have commented how much they see their tendency to throw themselves 100% into an obsession is a trait they see in their children as well. It’s in our DNA for sure.

GM: If someone could only take one thing away from your book, what would you hope that thing is?

K: That the last two seasons of Gilmore Girls never happened. Kidding! I would want them to understand that a fangirl is the author of her own life. We are active participants in the stories we love on TV and in books, movies, comics, music, etc., and that talent and enthusiasm can translate into our own stories. Every day is an opportunity to ask yourself, “What is today a story about?” Is it a story about you feeling discouraged or mentally beating yourself up? Or is it a story about being kind to yourself and to others?

GM: Is there anything else you would like to share with our readers?

K: Yes! I love social media like any fangirl, and I am always rambling on Twitter. So feel free to follow me and say hi! Also, I still take questions on FangirlTherapy.com, if you’d like to submit. Thanks!

The Fangirl Life is available from today.