Camren Is Real: Teenage Girls’ Quiet Sexual Revolution

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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:

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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:

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Many of them responded by begging the other Lauren to follow them:

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Some were a little jealous:

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And a bunch—a buuuuunch—apparently thought that I genuinely believed the hashtag was for me:

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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:

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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.

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Image credit.

“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.

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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:

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Why? How?

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:

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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.”

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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.

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19 thoughts on “Camren Is Real: Teenage Girls’ Quiet Sexual Revolution

  1. Hi Lauren, I’m afraid to inform you that Harmonizers have found this article. But don’t fret, a lot of us find it extremely intriguing because it’s so interesting to read about someone’s perspective of us, as a fandom, who isn’t part of the fandom itself.
    I enjoyed this read quite a bit, best wishes to you.

    Reply
  2. I’mrmonizers are so embarrassing. I wish you had covered the insane and extremely offensive things they tweet Lauren/Camila trying to bully them into coming out and professing their non-existent romantic love, for their own entertainment. You have barely scratched the service of shipping. These fans forget that their favorite entertainers are real people and not SIMS that live their lives the way fans want.

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  3. loved your article. its cool to see an outsider’s observations, and i like that you don’t judge us too much. in my opinion, as a queer girl, its great to see so many straight teens be open to femslash shipping, it must be a sign of greater acceptance in society.

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  4. this article was pretty accurate of the fandom lol you are a great writer btw 🙂 we all wish camren was real (in a romantic way) and tbh no one knows any of the girls’ sexuality cuz they haven’t said anything on that topic but who cares lol they’re young they still have time to figure that out.

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  5. I’m one of the few of people in the fandom who has never shipped camren in any way. Initially I was turned off by your title. Dismissing your article as ridiculous trash written to make camren shippers happy. Now I’m actually glad that I read it. It’s great insight into the 5h fandom from an outsider’s view point. I think I should tell you “Camren” is also a very controversial topic. There are quite a few die hard haters for the ship and Lauren herself as expressed her dislike for it so if you ever want to write a piece like this again, you might want to choose a different title. lol. Otherwise great read!

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  6. It’s nice to see how people view our fandom and other fandoms from the an outside perspective. It’s extremely insightful and comical the way in which you seemed to take all of this. I liked it. I ship Camren, but i ship everyone. 99% of it is completely platonic, but every once in awhile i think certain members would really cute together. That’s just my opinion though. have a nice day Lauren

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  7. Hey, Lauren! I’ve been an Harmonizer since the last episodes of The X Factor, so, trust me, I saw all this “Camren thing” through my own eyes.
    I think it’s all a little funny because, by its’ start, everyone – EVERYONE – used to ship Camren. So, basically, I can say that if you didn’t knew what Camren was or if you didn’t ship it, you couldn’t be considered a true Harmonizer. But, at the same time, it’s important to remember that it was a fanbase thing, which means that “the outsiders”, by its’ majority, didn’t know what “a Camren” was.
    Anyways, everything started when someone saw that Lauren posted a selfie with Camila and tweeted her with “I ship Laurmila” and Lauren replied it with “it’s Camren yo”. Then, the mess was done. I can’t fucking lie, they were by far the closest to each other in the group. They’ve had their fucking cute moments!!! The X Factor’s interviews show a lot of that. There’s this one where Camila says “This is how I want to spend the rest of my life,” and Lauren goes, “with me!”, “No!”, “Admit it!”, “Okay, yeah!”. There’s more, like the one that Lauren says that the other girls “call her Mila,” and she “calls her Camz”. There’d also the fact that they were almost always cuddling, holding hands, sitting next to each other and sleeping at the same rooms. What I’m trying to say is that Camren has been something strong as fuck for a long, long time. They’ve been very, very close at some points.
    But then, people used to ship it too hard. The fans were writing a lot of fanfictions and manipulating pictures of them so it’d look like they were kissing, which made Lauren really angry, and she’d deny it all the time. The fans didn’t believe her because they felt like they had enough evidence to prove otherwise (videos like this: http://m.youtube.com/watch?v=zu87o9VDKp4).
    Anyways, the point is that, by the end of the day, a huge part of the fandom believes that Camren is (or was) real and the other part think that this is all bullshit and that Lauren is actually straight and that Camila “very much likes boys”, as a close friend of her said once.
    It ended up that both Camila and Lauren started “falling apart”, as the shippers would say. And people would blame each other all the fucking time (when they weren’t blaming Lauren herself for being a “closeminded asshole” in their words). And that’s when we started to miss their friendship.
    Also, it’s great to remember that there are a. lot. of gay people in this fandom. Here in my country (ironically I live in Brazil) there’s still a lot of bullying and homophoby against LGBT and that’s not something to be proud of. But then I went to their concert in Rio and I could see were girls kissing each other every fucking where and I haven’t seen anybody complaining about it, which made me feel actually quite happy, because it made us feel home and it kinda made me realize that maybe there’s still hope for this generation.
    I think it’s very cool to see someone who’s not a fan or any fangirl talking about the Harmonizers and Camren shippers in general because it lets us know what you guys see from the outside. I truly loved your articicle, it became my new favourite one. Have a good day, Lauren. You’re a very good writer, by the way.
    P.S.: I love your name!!
    P.S.2.: I’m a nineth grader.

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