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Reflections of a Recidivist Fangirl

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So, yeah. I confess. I am a fangirl. Okay, so I’m not actually a girl. Anyone old enough to have a 21-year-old daughter long ago lost the right to “girlhood;” but fanwoman lacks a certain grace. So, fangirl it is.

I hereby plead guilty to having had a decades-long series of fictional character crushes since early childhood. My sad history of serial crushes has been undeterred by marrying the (very indulgent) love of my life (and still being married to him 26 years later), having had two (talented and brilliant) children and three careers.

But at least I’m consistent. My television, film, and (dare I say) literary crushes have all been loners. Emotionally distant, always brilliant but (at least in my fangirl-ish mind) harboring wounded souls. They are world-weary outsiders looking in (sometimes yearningly, sometimes not) — and all in need of some combination of love and redemption.

I made my entry into fangirl-dom when I was a mere child of nine years old. By then, already beguiled by the Beatles, their long hair and exotic British accents, my pre-pubescent eye caught a glimpse of the blonde mop-topped sidekick to Robert Vaughn’s Napoleon Solo on NBC’s The Man From U.N.C.L.E., Illya Kuryakin, the mysterious, masterfully intelligent, brooding and accented Russian spy.

The suave, and ever self-assured Napoleon Solo, ladies man and establishment type, did nothing for me. Even at that young age, I knew that overly self-assured, conventionally handsome heroes were definitely NOT my type. Illya, with his collection of American jazz albums, turtleneck sweaters, intense eyes and slightly rebellious take on things — complete with his own moral code — became my personal archetype for the ideal (fictional) man. My Illya-love (including his rather English accent) would frame my fangirlishness for the next 40 years. Of course when the show first aired, there were no such conveniences as AVIs, DVDs, or even VCRs (nope, not even BETA). No opportunity to watch and re-watch every stare, every subtle bit of body language. My parents’ worst punishment would be to deny me my hour of U.N.C.L.E.

A couple years later, Star Trek premiered (also on NBC). James T. Kirk (William Shatner) was the Napoleon Solo of the USS Enterprise. Sophisticated and arrogant, he was the designated Trek heartthrob . Yeah well, not to me. While all of the female guest stars (human and alien alike) fell for the over-the-top Kirk, I was crushing on the distant and outwardly cold science officer Mr. Spock.

Spock spoke softly and carried a big brain. He was the quintessential outsider: half human and half Vulcan, he was never at home anywhere, poor baby. Trained by his Vulcan upbringing to suppress his emotions, we could see him in torment as he held himself distant from Nurse Chapel, who, as everyone knows, had her own crush on Spock. Spock’s interactions with females were reserved for Vulcan mating rituals; a job-related dalliance with a beautiful Romulan commander. (Ah, the regret in his eyes when he betrayed her still makes me sigh.) And then there were the spores. That episode, “This Side of Paradise,” rendered the emotionless Spock scarily euphoric and romancing a female scientist (Jill Ireland). Ironically, Ms. Ireland also played Illya’s love interest in two episodes of The Man From U.N.C.L.E. (season one).

As I hit my teens, my television habit slightly diminished, replaced by politics, playing my guitar, writing poetry and discovering real-life boys. But it was also during my teens that I discovered the great Victorian romance novels of the Brontes (Emily and Charlotte) and Jane Austen. I completely fell in love (as did Jane Eyre) with the dark and brooding Edward Rochester, rejecting the cruder and more vicious Heathcliff (the anti-hero of Wuthering Heights). To win my undying devotion, my guy had to bury his feelings of rejection and bitterness, not lash out cruelly. Sorry, Heathcliff.

I then hit the mother lode of melancholic antiheros when I discovered the great Russian writers in novel and film. My favorite of that period was the dissipated but ultimately heroic Pierre Bezukhov in Tolstoy’s War and Peace. Henry Fonda’s portrayal of Pierre (good as Fonda always was) paled in comparison to the young Anthony Hopkins’ in the BBC/Masterpiece Theatre production. It was love at first sight. Yuri Zhivago — no matter how stunningly gorgeous Omar Sharif was in the role — held no candle to Bezukhov’s ultimate nobility and redemption.

But War and Peace was an important historical novel — great and epic battles; Zhivago was about the Russian revolution. Wars, you say? There were wars and battles? Generals and bayonettes and killing in those novels? Really? History? Bah! To a teenage girl, those were trifling interferences to the real stories of those hefty volumes and hours-long film events. Those Russians really knew how to write romance!

The years passed by, as they say, and fantasy crushes fell victim to career and sex (not necessarily in that order) sending my fictional romances deep into the background. But the preferences engendered by those fangirl crushes endured, helping to inform my preferences for finding the “real” Mr. Right: blue eyes (must be intense blue eyes); English accent optional (but highly preferred); intelligent; slightly mysterious, and given to brooding, writing poetry and music-making. Strong but vulnerable; wicked sense of humor; but compassionate and self-effacing. A bit of a rebel. Check. Check. Check. And double check. My mother had warned that I was being too picky (“fickle” was her word). “The man you’re looking for only exists in the movies,” she admonished almost daily. Little did she know. Okay, so maybe she was right about the English accent being a bit unrealistic.

For all my love of (the idea of) romance, I had never been much of a soap opera fan. Until I lost my job, and was out of work for six weeks. Bored and depressed (and living in an apartment that I could not really afford) and between (real-life) boyfriends, I tuned into General Hospital on rainy fall afternoon in 1979 while typing job application letters. And then I saw HIM. All bed-head curly hair, lanky and tall, melancholy and tormented: Luke Spencer. As in Luke and Laura. Need I say more?

I had sincerely believed that my fictional crushing days had been long-since outgrown, only to witness my fangirlishness return with a vengeance. Sigh. My new-found love for Luke expanded to include other soap-opera characters on General Hospital, One Life to Live and All My Children. I was now hopelessly addicted, and my obsession seemed to grow by the day, only to finally be broken after marriage, motherhood and a new job (and no VCR) forced me to give up the soaps cold turkey.

Yes, as time marched, Mr. Right did eventually materialize (sans English accent). Pregnant with our daughter, I convinced my husband that we absolutely “must have” a VCR to playback the ultrasound tapes so kindly provided by our OB. With the acquisition of the ridiculously expensive VHS player, a whole new world now lay open to me. Not only could we experience the joy of observing our 20-week-old fetus of a child swimming round in my amniotic fluid, but now I had the ability to record actual television shows. And hit that little “rewind” button over and over to re-watch the salient moments again and again (and again). Life was bliss. But I was between shows. Oh, we watched Barney Miller and Night Court and whatever else was popular in the mid-'80s. But it was a casual relationship with television at best in those days.

Now, I’ve always had a thing for secret agents of the fictional variety. Like Pym in John Lecarre’s A Perfect Spy, they tend to be a pretty dark and tormented bunch of fellows. So here it was 1985, and into my living room television walks the tall and lanky Bruce Boxleitner, who hands a package to suburban housewife, drawing her into mystery, intrigue and eventual romance. And thus did Lee Stetson, the “Scarecrow” in Scarecrow and Mrs. King become my next TV crush.

His bravado and cocky self-confidence could not completely conceal the torment that lay behind those green eyes. I knew better. As did Amanda (Mrs. King) and millions of other women. The VCR had made it now possible to obsess over the intense sexual tension that crackled between the two main characters. Inspecting and dissecting it, hitting “replay” over and over to catch every nuance and furtive, longing gaze. Their careful and slow dance drew out enticingly over four seasons. During season three and early season four, the reticent Scarecrow drew ever closer to the practical and outgoing Mrs. King. Pieces of Scarecrow’s painful past came to light, stripping away his well-preserved macho façade, and exposing a heart-breaking vulnerability. Unfortunately, the sexual tension vanished into a silly storyline of a secret marriage depriving Scarecrow of his angst; his brooding vulnerability giving way to a slightly henpecked domesticity. Well, Scarecrow, nice knowin’ ya, but… Cruel, I know. But, as mom told me, I’m simply capricious to the core.

Fortunately, 1987 brought the brooding back to Bond as Shakespearian actor Timothy Dalton took on the role of MI-5 agent 007 in The Living Daylights (and again in 1989 in License to Kill). Now that was more like it, after years of Roger Moore’s too-lightweight take on Ian Fleming’s dark, self-destructive hero. And I had my new crush. In the meantime, technology blazed ahead at light-years per minute, creating more venues for in which to tend to my addiction.

We now had our first real computer, a blazing IBM XT (complete with a gigantic 10 megabyte hard drive.) I mean no disrespect to our trusty Commodore 64, which got both my husband and I through graduate school with its 64K of memory and cassette tape drive. After all, that computer linked us to the mammoth IBM 370’s at U of I enabling us to play endless hours of the classic text game “Adventure” in between seasons of Hill Street Blues, St. Elsewhere and Night Court. But I digress.

Our new super PC fully loaded with (trial) subscriptions to Compuserve and one or two other long defunct proto-Internet services connected me to other fans through Usenet and other such Internet antiquities. The new and readily accessible information superhighway was this kid’s candy store. By logging onto premium information services, I could discover simply everything there was to be found on the darkly handsome Dalton. Not that I was stalking him. I just wanted to know everything about him.

I chit-chatted via the old cumbersome Usenet with other fans, but, alas, there were few other females around the ‘net, and therefore had to couch my Timothy-love in terms of his greatness as a classical actor and his general Bond-ness. I haunted comic book shops to discuss the relative merits of the various Bond incarnations. I flipped through (very expensive) British Bond magazines seeking validation for my fangirlishness as I read others describe Timothy’s perfection as THE Bond for the 1990s, and secretly dreamt of a day when hopelessly hung up women could gather in some technologically fantastical place and openly extol the virtues of their crushes in anonymous abandon.

More years passed and Dalton, after another outing as 007 was banished to the world of Bond has-beens (and making some really bad movies). DOS gave way to Windows (giving non-Mac users a reasonable facsimile of a user-friendly Graphical User Interface) and the techie world of Compuserve and GE Genie gave rise to the more populist America Online. And life was good. My second child was born, and crushing on fictional characters was replaced the realities of marriage, work and raising two kids while trying to complete a seriously-past-deadline book.

The X-Files debuted in 1993, introducing a now fully WWW-equipped fandom to the questing, brooding, and sardonic Fox Mulder. I was in love again, and much to my delight, I was in the company of thousands of other intelligent and Internet-savvy sisters, like the folk of the David Duchovny Estrogen Brigade and X-Files University.

Instant messaging, chat rooms, message boards and fanficition were all there for the partaking. A royal feast of fandom. And all a mere mouse click away. I had found it. The fangirl’s Garden of Eden. I quickly learned the necessary technical jargon of this dream-like world. Terms like UST (Unresolved Sexual Tension—as in the mutual but unacted-upon attraction between protagonists Mulder and Scully,) RST (resolved sexual tension, which usually kills a television show for fangirls, even though we long for it endlessly on the internet), fanfiction (and its diminutive “fanfic) ” and its subgenre “slash.”

For the first five and a half seasons of X-Files, I was a bona fide addict. Mulder was tormented over his sister’s disappearance when she was a child. He tried to suppress his inner turmoil through a sardonic sense of humor that could only partially hide his angst. But the X-Files fell victim to “stuff,” and Mulder was relegated to a supporting role, fundamentally and fatally altering the show. So it goes.

The 21st century rang in and now slightly overwhelmed with multiple fandoms, forums, blogs and websites, video clips and internatonal newspapers at my fingertips, I meandered from crush to crush. I swept through a series of brief but intense flings with Maxiumus (with the double bonus that Russell Crowe, who played the character in Gladiator was also a terrific musician and songwriter) and Ralph Fiennes (who first made me weep for poor, tragic Oscar in Oscar and Lucinda).

Jeremy Northam had barely registered when I first saw Altman’s Gosford Park, but then got to me playing opposite Gwynyth Paltrow in Emma, causing me to re-read every single Jane Austen on the shelf at the local Barnes and Noble. There was Alan (Rickman, in Truly, Madly, Deeply and again in Sense and Sensibility). And of course the other Jeremy (Irons, whose velvet voice caressed rather than simply spoke). I had DVDs that could play in my private little laptop computer, removing the embarrassment of having to explain to my husband and children why I was watching THAT movie for the 50th time. And I had the Internet. And hence, validation that I wasn’t really so alone in my obsession(s).

Which brings us to the present and my current TV sweetheart Dr. Gregory House, and his alter-ego Hugh Laurie. (And my “Welcome to the End of the Thought Process” feature on Blogcritics.) I’ve been loyal to Hugh and Gregory House now for three years. No longer alone with my obsession, and knowing I’ve a cadre of millions of other similarly middle-aged fangirls to call “sister,” I can hold my head up proud, withstanding the (always gentle) teasing of my (very) indulgent husband and my two (less indulgent) children.

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About Barbara Barnett

Barbara Barnett is Publisher/Executive Editor of Blogcritics, (blogcritics.org). Her Bram Stoker Award-nominated novel, called "Anne Rice meets Michael Crichton," The Apothecary's Curse The Apothecary's Curse is now out from Pyr, an imprint of Prometheus Books. Her book on the TV series House, M.D., Chasing Zebras is a quintessential guide to the themes, characters and episodes of the hit show. Barnett is an accomplished speaker, an annual favorite at MENSA's HalloWEEM convention, where she has spoken to standing room crowds on subjects as diverse as "The Byronic Hero in Pop Culture," "The Many Faces of Sherlock Holmes," "The Hidden History of Science Fiction," and "Our Passion for Disaster (Movies)."
  • barbara barnett

    Ragtag–au contraire. I’m so glad you’ve found my little spot in cyberspace. Agree about Dillane. This happens to me about once a decade or so. Although my husband assures me there seem to be about three or four objects of my esteem.

  • Hehehe…well, what can one say after this? I too am a HUGE fangirl and have always been one, ever since Knightrider (I loved that car) to my latest crush Richard Armitage. I know he won’t be my last – it’s already fading next to Stephen Dillane. *Sigh*.

    I wrote a post about how ridiculous and embarrassing it all seems BTW i’m not spamming, just find this topic really interesting. I think what makes a fangirl is the following:

    * Creativity – this is what helps us keep the novel or movie character alive in our minds. It explains the plethora of fanfic, fanvids and the ability to imagine we know more about the character than what was presented during the reading/viewing.
    * Empathy – the person must have a strong ability to see from another’s perspective, this strengthens the intensity of the world in the movie or book, and makes their character traits resonate in our minds and hearts.

  • iamdaffodils

    “His attitude, the walls he puts up and the other defenses he employs are to prevent his feelings from both exposure and from getting in the way of the objective rational problem solving he needs for his job (and his passion.)”

    Perfectly said Barbara. He won’t ever let anyone catch him caring for exactly the reasons you said. But I would love for them to do an episode where we see him deal with his emotions in the aftermath of a patient’s death, a child, who he had bonded with but of course never let on that fact to anyone. There’s always fan fiction I guess!


  • I like that you describe House as “supposedly” unemotional because we know how untrue it is to call him unemotional, or when someone says he doesn’t care about a patient. We’ve had too many scenes of him in the hallway silently, intently watching his patients. We know better. Another thing I dislike is when he’s described as a grouch or cranky. To me that’s just too easy a label to put on the character. He’s far more complex and layered to be explained away with an adjective. As he told Stella in Need To Know, “I’m complicated. Chicks dig that.” Oh yeah!!!

    The “supposedly” was placed in there for just the reason you describe so well. I’ve always contended that rather than House not being able to “feel,” he actually “feels” too much. His attitude, the walls he puts up and the other defenses he employs are to prevent his feelings from both exposure and from getting in the way of the objective rational problem solving he needs for his job (and his passion.) We’ve seen House in situations where his emotions are too close to the surface; and like Mr. Spock, his efforts to submerge them behind rationalism and logic sometimes fail. It is then when we get those “moments.”


  • iamdaffodils

    Hi Barbara! Yes I’m quite familiar with (like practically live there!) that particular fan forum (and the one we used to post at too – not sure if you still do since I quit going there). I always love your insight and analyses. You wrote such an amazing one for S3 – made me realize things that as many time as I’ve watched those episodes, had never thought about, and I understood the journey from Meaning to Human Error.

    That is so cool that your brother made you a trasmitter! My brother is 6 years older so he was a teen and really into Man From Uncle back in the day…of course he watched it for very different reasons than I did!!!!

    I like that you describe House as “supposedly” unemotional because we know how untrue it is to call him unemotional, or when someone says he doesn’t care about a patient. We’ve had too many scenes of him in the hallway silently, intently watching his patients. We know better. Another thing I dislike is when he’s described as a grouch or cranky. To me that’s just too easy a label to put on the character. He’s far more complex and layered to be explained away with an adjective. As he told Stella in Need To Know, “I’m complicated. Chicks dig that.” Oh yeah!!!

    Oh and glad to know there’s not an age cutoff on fangirlhood – I’m 50 and so happy to be in the sisterhood of Hughlovers!

  • Hi Cathy,

    I’m “sasmom” on a fan forum which we both well (I think, anyway!)

    I had an Illya doll too! And my older (musician) brother made me my own transmitter out of a 1/4 inch amplifier jack!

    But, as you say, back to the subject at hand (and although this essay isn’t part of “Welcome to the End of the Thought Process” my House feature here on BlogCritics, it’s certainly the source it is certainly related to it). Hugh Laurie’s splendid, nuanced and emotional portrayal of the (supposedly) unemotional Gregory House certainly spawned this most recent (and long-lasting) crush.

    As far as an age cutoff, I’m ancient at 52, so… I say there is no age cutoff to this particular sisterhood!


  • iamdaffodils

    My name is Cathy and I’m a Hugh-holic. Excellent blog Barbara! And yes, another Ilya Kurakin fan here. I was probably about 6 or 7 when Man From Uncle started. I never understood how anyone could have a crush on Napoleon Solo – there was just no comparison as far as I was concerned. I even had an Ilya Kurakin doll with the gun that really worked! Wish I still had that.

    My first three childhood crushes were Richard Chamberlain, David McCallum and Davy Jones, so I had a thing for British accents early on – (Chamberlain moved to England after Kildare ended, so he had one too at one point!)

    But back to the topic at hand – Mr. Laurie makes me feel like I’m back in grade school again. He’s definitely the best crush I’ve ever had – even though I’m WAY told old to be a fan girl. What’s the cutoff age on that by the way?


  • But, I tend to be loyal–or obsessed–I just purchased a DVD to keep watching Peter O’Toole in Lawrence of Arabia–the VHS tape wore out. Ah, there along with Rochester is a prototypical wounded hero.

    I did the same thing with the BBC Jane Eyre. And of course I absolutely HAD to have both the UK and US versions of Maybe Baby (with Hugh Laurie). And then get a region decoder for my computer so that I could watch the Region 2 version (and the director/actor commentary track with Hugh and Ben Elton)…ah, what we do for our men!

  • Judy

    ditto, ditto, ditto! I have found my true family!! welcome home girls!

  • Louise

    Dear Sister Barbara,

    You do have exquisite taste. I really thought I was past all this intense absorption until the additively fascinating Hugh Laurie brought his talents to House. But, I tend to be loyal–or obsessed–I just purchased a DVD to keep watching Peter O’Toole in Lawrence of Arabia–the VHS tape wore out. Ah, there along with Rochester is a prototypical wounded hero.


  • Thanks Sdemar!

    Genagirl–You are so right. No muss/no fuss. Perfect men. It’s funny how our tastes are established so early on. When I look back and think of how young I was when my attraction to a specific male type began, it’s pretty bizarre. I don’t think the same can be said for my daughter (although I don’t know for sure).

    But oh, my. Jack Wilde on HR Puffenstuff. Wasn’t he also in the original Oliver! cast? I seem to recall something about that. But it’s been (sigh) 40 years?


  • genagirl

    I hear you, Sister! My fictional boyfriends began with Jack Wilde on H.R. Puffenstuff (his cute accent made me fall in love with Brits for the next 40 years). I still get a kick out of David McCallum on NCIS though I was a Napoleon fan and my obsession with Hugh Laurie and House is as great as yours. What can you do, they’re always sexy, complicated and usually wounded, they never make messes and they leave you alone when you turn off the TV set – the perfect man.

  • sdemar

    Barbara, I, too, loved Illya Kuryakin and Spock. I even attended a Star Trek convention so I could meet LN. Luke, of General Hospital, was another one that tugged at my heart. And now, Hugh Laurie, and those beautiful blue eyes of his. He makes me sigh. You are in good company, my friend.

  • I have found (especially in the last couple of years) that a lot of women have followed a similar set of actors. I can post a comment making reference to Illya on a House, MD or a Hugh Laurie fan message board, only to have 15 people acknowledging that they, too, had a “thing” for Illya. My reason for writing this blog was to try to make some sense out of that exact phenomenon!


  • Only the other day I was trying to explain my Bezuhov/Hopkin “thing” to somebody on-line and now I find him at the top of the page!

    Kuryakin, Rochester, Dalton, Rickman, we must have been seperated at birth!