Fandom is a complicated and complex phenomenon. And even for me, having been involved in a band fandom (bandom?) since I was eight — a crucial part of my identity that has extended from the days when my family didn't even have a computer to becoming such close friends with people I met on an Internet message board that I've attended their weddings, traveled cross-country and gone on international vacations with them — I have admittedly only scratched the surface when it comes to the deep, inner-workings of fan bases, partly because I don't have the time to give to that kind of intense devotion, and partly out of fear that if I fall down the rabbit hole of Tumblr I'll never again see daylight. But what I do know is that when Liam Payne talked about Larry Stylinson (the romantic pairing of Harry Styles and Louis Tomlinson; a topic so prominent in the fandom but so taboo in real life), things got ugly. And since he not only discussed Larry, but also a certain subset of fans, in a negative light, the fan backlash was alive and real. But here's the thing: I can see both sides.
According to Daily Dot writer Aja Romano (who writes about the complexities of fandom far more eloquently than I), the "fourth wall" is an invisible barricade that provides a "safe place" for fans to discuss every aspect of their fandom free of judgement. Which means that whenever the media — or the subjects themselves — openly discuss some specific aspect of the fan base, that safety net is gone and that fan base is "exposed." So, in speaking about Larry, Liam Payne teared through that wall like Miley Cyrus on the wrecking ball.
"When the laws changed in the U.S., there were loads of rainbow flags flying at our shows, but I think that was mainly because people think of the Louis and Harry thing, which is absolutely nuts and drives me insane," Payne told gay U.K. magazine Attitude in his first cover story sans One Direction.
It was this comment that received the most backlash from fans, as many not only found Payne's statement to be offensive but also inaccurate:
Was it wrong of Panye to assume that many of the pride flags were in support of Larry? Honestly, I don't think so, because many actually are Larry-centric. But was it wrong of him to make a blanket statement that basically implied that all of the rainbow flags at 1D shows are for the sole purpose of shipping Larry and not supporting LGBTQ pride? Yes, and I can very much see how that would be offensive to fans.
That being said, the Larry sub-fandom is way bigger than any one person, and it's easy to see how its insistence on something untrue would anger the guys in the band.
"It's when you know the ins and outs of what's going on with people it's just annoying when it's so stupid. It becomes like a conspiracy or like a cult, the people who watch them and think that every move is like a gesture toward them being together and I know it's just not true and it makes me mad," Payne continued, adding that "it's so funny to be on the inside of it because you know what's what and then you hear all these crazy theories." He then equated the whole thing to being the guy who lands on the moon only to come home to people who tell you the whole thing never happened. (Of course, there are conspiracy theories about that, too.)
"But the funny thing is, there are some people who think that Louis getting Briana [Jungwirth] pregnant is fake. That it's not real; it's a coverup," he continued. "And that's the sort of sh*t that gets to me."
I cannot even imagine the level of frustration that someone in this position would feel (particularly Tomlinson, who has repeatedly — and blatantly — denied the existence of Larry), going up against fans who feel that they know you better than you know yourself. The Larry sub-fandom — and pretty much the entire concept of fandom in general, to be honest — is more overwhelming and overpowering than any one person (or two people, as the case may be). And when an entire sea of people is watching your every single move in order to further prove their theory, I can see how that could be downright frightening.
I think when you're in that deep, sometimes, fans forget that the people they are worshipping are actual real-life, living-and-breathing human beings. I get it: I still get a rush of "omg they're actually real" after seeing artists that I love and write about in concert for the first time (Ed Sheeran, 5 Seconds of Summer). And for writers of fan fiction or the people behind fan manipulations and fan edits, it's possible that, to them, the band members become much more like fictional characters than real people after a while. But not only are they real — they're also seeing your work first-hand. That "fourth wall" is crumbling, and it's crumbling fast.
"I get a lot of drawings sent to us on the Internet. I get tagged in drawings of Louis and Harry being together," Payne added. "I remember this one time I was sitting next to my dad and I see this picture of me on top of Niall, which was quite intimidating. It's just really weird to have people drawing these sexually explicit pictures of us in strange situations."
That fourth wall no longer exists when you're tagging or tweeting at the subjects of your pieces, and frankly, never really existed when you're doing any of these things in the public sphere (which, in this case, is the Internet). So it shouldn't be surprising that Payne (and the rest of the band) are actually fully aware of everything that goes on within their fandom and can have their own opinions on it. And yes, I can totally see how graphic and explicit photos would be, frankly, terrifying.
"I don't think it's the right hobby for these girls to be enjoying," Payne concluded. "I find it very strange that someone so young can think up these stories or even imagine these things are going on. For me, that is the sad and sorry side of what we have done."
Now, I am far from a Larry stan or a "Dark Larry" (a term for pure Larry conspiracy theorists that my friend and source of all things One Direction insisted I include in this piece), but after reading what is basically the Daily Dot's magnum opus on fan fiction, the shipping of Larry (or any two same-sex band members) suddenly makes a hell of a lot more sense when put in context.
"60 percent of fanfic-based fandom identifies as queer," Romano writes. "Personal desire and sexual exploration, subversiveness, longing for visibility and representation, and the sense of recognition and new layers of empathy that come from seeing a beloved, familiar character suddenly deal with issues of sexual and/or gender identity — all these things factor into the popularity of slash [fan fiction that pairs up a gay couple] and help to make it a unique and fascinating genre."
If fanfic helps people work through their sexuality and helps them find a place of acceptance, not only is that great, it's also freeing. But at the same time, in the case of One Direction and other bands made up of real-life people, the guys aren't fictional characters: they're real. And seeing these sexually explicit and graphic images of themselves, and hearing the die-hard insistence from fans, can be an overwhelming and truly scary experience.
Still, I wonder if there can be a middle ground between fans and artists, where the subjects can understand the meaning and context behind the ships, and fans can understand (and respect) that maybe their subjects wouldn't want to be tagged in such things as super graphic fan edits. It would be a world where judgment — and any semblance of the fourth wall — no longer exists.