Normani. Lauren. Camila. Ally. Dinah.
These are the names of the girls who make up the pop group Fifth Harmony, formed on The X Factor in 2012. They’re something like an American version of the Spice Girls, except instead of having one token person of color on the roster, they’re genuinely diverse—none of the five girls is what the Census calls “non-Hispanic white.” They sing fun, bubbly songs about friendship and boys, and while they’re not super famous yet, they have a devoted fanbase.
Until a few days ago, I, like most adults and surely all writers of columns dedicated to PJ Harvey, had not heard of Fifth Harmony. And then, briefly, it became the focus of all my attention—and a window into the quietly revolutionary world of modern teenage sexuality.
Here’s how it happened. On May 1, I saw the hashtag #askLauren trending on Twitter. My name is Lauren, so I dashed off a quick joke about it and went on with my day, thinking nothing more of it. A couple hours later, my Twitter account started exploding with notifications. Lauren Jauregui, the Fifth Harmony member who had started the hashtag for her fans to ask her questions about her life, had retweeted me and replied, “lmfaoo.” And her 681,239 followers? Were freaking the fuck out.
Here’s the tweet and the reply:
That’s it. I spent a total of ten seconds thinking it up and writing it, and then 24 hours being crushed by an avalanche of RTs, favs, and replies from hundreds of fanatical teenage girls.
Many of them responded with laughter to match the other Lauren’s:
Many of them responded by begging the other Lauren to follow them:
Some were a little jealous:
And a bunch—a buuuuunch—apparently thought that I genuinely believed the hashtag was for me:
And I couldn’t even give them shit about it because they were children half my age! These are the tribulations of modern life!
Then these started:
But joke’s on everyone except me, because my grandma is from Brazil and I speak Portuguese. Or, well, I speak some Portuguese. Or, I mean, at least I can write it well enough that people basically understand what I’m trying to say. And that, friends, is the story of how I came to translate a piece of Fifth Harmony gossip into Portuguese for a fifteen-year-old Brazilian fan, and then I had to try to explain what the phrase “the N-word” meant as if I were back in one of those circumlocution lessons in high-school Spanish class, and I think we all learned a lesson that day about tolerance and extreme awkwardness.
ANYWAY, the weirdest part of all this was not the bizarre influx of communication with a bunch of people I’d never have interacted with otherwise, nor was it my oddly defensive emotional reaction to being made fun of by ninth-graders. It wasn’t even the realization that I’m now at the age where pop stars are a decade younger than me but they look like mature, put-together, adult women, while I still look like a friend did my makeup during recess because she felt sorry for me about my whole face situation.
The weirdest part was clicking around these hundreds of teenage Twitters and seeing a totally alien version of fandom based on a performance of sexuality I’ve never before encountered.
Let me clarify that I’m not trying to say I was a well-adjusted teenager with healthy relationships and a balanced level of appreciation for my favorite bands and movies. I had more online friends than IRL friends throughout high school, and a large number of them came from Lord of the Rings message boards. In lieu of a boyfriend, I had pictures of Dominic Monaghan (who played the hobbit Merry, as I assume you remember) plastered on the front of my calculus binder. I never really got involved with reading or writing slash, but I had a lot of…um…thoughts. So I definitely understand the whole obsessive-fan thing.
Here’s what I don’t understand: All the girls in Fifth Harmony are apparently straight, and their songs are completely standard-issue pop with no hint of subversion, sexual or otherwise. Statistically speaking, the majority of Harmonizers (that’s what 5H fans call themselves) are also straight. But the Harmonizers all ship the hell out of all the girls in the band.
“Shipping,” if you’re even older than I am or don’t spend enough time online, is the act of wanting two people, real or fictional, to be in a relationSHIP together—specifically in the context of a fandom, rather than just rooting for the hero and heroine of a romantic comedy to end up together or whatever. Though the term was coined relatively recently, shipping has been around for as long as modern fandom, and since its inception, it has probably been homoerotic more often than not. (Some of the earliest fanfiction was written about Kirk and Spock boldly going where neither man had gone before.)
But historically, shipping involves a very particular form of homoeroticism: gay slash has been mostly dude-on-dude because it’s written primarily by straight women who find men sexually attractive and thus fantasize about men having sex. (Though that’s not a universal rule, of course, and there have certainly always been some fics by queer fans.)
Harmonizers, meanwhile, are mostly straight girls, but the pairings they ship are female. This is not a niche interest in some pro-LGBT corner of the 5H fandom. Thousands of Twitter accounts from girls in countries all over the world repeat the same pattern, shipping two band members with a cute portmanteau joining their names—most often, Camren, for Camila + Lauren, but also Normally for Normani + Ally, Caminah for Camila + Dinah, and so forth.
I’m sure there was some Spice Girls shipping back in the ’90s that I simply wasn’t privy to, but I’m also quite certain that that was not part of the mainstream fandom among young girls. We wanted to invite the Spice Girls to our birthday parties, or we wanted to be the one whose public personality most closely matched our own. (This is probably why I was never big into the Spice Girls: there was no, like, “depressed one.”) If we wanted to kiss one of them, we probably didn’t admit it out loud. Even in the liberal Berkeley suburb where I grew up, any hint of queerness, including badly timed displays of platonic affection, would get you made fun of back then.
But now, not even a full twenty years later, straight fans consider “Camren smut” a normal part of the fandom, and surely-they-can’t-be-straight-but-there-are-so-many-of-them fans tweet things like this:
Part of the answer has to be that queerness has gained a lot of mainstream traction in a very short amount of time. For the first time in pop-culture history, we have gay characters in several sitcoms, widespread anti-bullying campaigns, and openly LGB and T celebrities. That’s not to say that homophobia is even close to being over, but in terms of representation, the situation is barely comparable to what it was when the Spice Girls broke through. Young fans worldwide now see possible ways of living modeled for them that they just didn’t have before.
But if media representation and wider acceptance of queerness have opened up more imaginative possibilities for teenage girls, those girls have also carved their own completely new paths into the imagination forest. They’re using the Internet to become role models for each other in ways Glee and Ellen DeGeneres can’t.
Because here’s the thing about the Harmonizers’ ships: Sometimes they’re romantic, and sometimes they’re platonic, and there’s a whole spectrum in between. When you make one of those cutesy portmanteaus out of two of their names, you could be doing so for the purposes of lewd fanfic, or you could just be saying they’d be cute as besties.
When I asked a Fifth Harmony fan named Jessica (who is “14 but I look 16” years old), what the deal was with straight girls shipping other straight girls, she said she’d “never really thought about it” and “I think we just feel like shipping.” Then, for the benefit of my old, clueless ass, she added, “Also it’s not like shipping as in dating but as in like that’s a cute friendship.” I hadn’t realized it was possible to use the same term for both things, but Jessica took it for granted.
And she’s not the only one. Consider tweets like this:
The Fifth Harmony fan wiki has a dedicated “Pairings” category listing all the possible relationship permutations and their official titles, along with trivia about that relationship. Some of the trivia is romantic or at least verges on romantic (“They always kiss each others cheeks,” “They say they love each other in interviews”), but some is platonic to the point of meaninglessness (“Their birthdays are both in June,” “They both have a younger sister”). Friendship and romantic/sexual relationships are all just part of one big love pile, which you can separate out whenever and however you want.
The Spice Girls fan wiki, in case you’re wondering, does not have a section for pairings. The One Direction fan wiki doesn’t even have a section for pairings, and you know their fans are doing more shipping than Aristotle Onassis.
Like Jessica, the other Harmonizers I asked about this didn’t understand my confusion.
When I asked (in my questionable Portuguese) a 15-year-old Brazilian girl named Geovana if anyone in Fifth Harmony had dated girls or expressed a desire to date girls, she responded, and I quote, “NOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOO.” Sometimes they did things that made it seem like they were dating, she explained, but (translated from Portuguese), “I do many of the same things with my female friends, and I’m NOT together with them.” She does, however, ship several pairings, including “Trolly,” which is band member Ally Brooke Hernandez and her real-life boyfriend Troy. Trolly does not appear in the 5H wiki’s Pairings category.
Despite everyone’s acknowledgment that the girls in Fifth Harmony are straight, “Camren is real” remains a huge inside semi-joke throughout the fandom, which would make no sense if it were referring to the obviously real platonic friendship between Camila and Lauren. Another Brazilian fan, Maria Luiza, 19, told me, “Romantically I used to ship Camren but I can see they are only friends.” She also said that “there are a lot of gays in this fandom and a lot of them wanted Camren to be together but they are only friends.”
So the rapid mainstreaming of various forms of queerness has clearly had some effect on teenage girls—but teenage girls are also having some effect on it. They’re inventing ways to represent every number on the Kinsey scale all at once, and they don’t even realize that’s unusual. Screw screaming at Beatles concerts—Harmonizers are blithely chipping away at heteronormativity just by having fun with a completely polished, media-ready, unsubversive pop group.
Although, of course, I shudder to think what Harmonizers would say if they read this, because see above about my old, clueless ass. I’m probably missing 90% of what’s going on and fucking it all up, or maybe I’m getting it mostly right but it’s laughable that I find it in any way surprising. I’m going to have ninth-graders making fun of me all over again.
But of this much I am sure: No fandom was so omnisexual when I was younger, not even Lord of the Rings.
A Lebanese Harmonizer named Dina, “19 [almost 20],” retweeted an observation I made to this effect on Twitter, so I asked her what she thought of the mysterious platonic/romantic shipping phenomenon. Here’s how she replied:
“To be honest I’ve shipped Lauren and Camila for so long and I’d be lying if I said that not once did I think of it in a non-platonic way but mainly it was just their friendship that I was shipping… I personally started shipping Lauren and Camila’s friendship because at the time when I first saw the girls I was facing a hard time in my life and I found a distraction in two girls that shared what I no longer had but wanted. I think that’s why people ship others, it’s cause they’re missing that sort of relationship/friendship from their lives and they’re there noticing a certain closeness that they crave and thus starts the shipping… In the end I think that everyone’s just trying to enjoy themselves, get away from their own life and so they focus on the celebrities because that way they can sort of come up with their own entertainment and enter a whole different world from the ones they live in.”
We all understand those feelings, no matter how old we are or which pieces of pop culture meant the world to us. So, really, in the end, maybe the Fifth Harmony fandom is just as poignant and banal and timelessly human as everything else.
As for the fruits of my misspent youth as a LOTR fan: Dom Monaghan, my hobbit heartthrob, may have a receding hairline now, but a few hours ago as of this writing, he was on Twitter asking Billy Boyd, who played Pippin, whether he was wearing pajamas. I saw it alongside the steady stream of notifications I’m still getting from that #askLauren tweet. May the Harmonizers’ futures be so bright and so beautiful.