When was the last time someone said to you: “Cunt fuck u and die hope u rot in hell”? For me, it was a few weeks ago. And that someone was a 14-year-old girl on Instagram. She followed that comment up with a casual:
Instead of rotting in hell, allow me to explain. This spring, I hosted the Juno Awards gala and dinner. It’s a huge industry event that brings out 2,500 of the biggest names in Canadian music. This was my second time hosting the show, and I was particularly excited about my opening monologue. Any opportunity to do 10 minutes of stand-up about pop culture and music, for people who work in pop culture and music, is one I relish. This year I didn’t hold back. I unleashed jokes about Jian Ghomeshi, the lack of female Juno nominees, The Weeknd’s affinity for cocaine, Donald Trump.
I also did a bit about 17-year-old heartthrob Shawn Mendes. I talked about what a milestone year 2015 had been for him; he had four hit singles and a huge album…and he finally hit puberty! Then I showed one of his shirtless selfies from Instagram. As the crowd cheered and Shawn himself blushed, I lamented the fact that he was still 128 days away from the age of consent in all states and provinces. It was a classic Jessi Cruickshank–style inversion of objectification and hands-down the safest joke I made all night. Or so I thought.
After the show, I checked in on Shawn, who laughed off my creepy crush. As we said our goodbyes and headed out of the venue together, he paused and looked back at me. “I thought your jokes were funny,” he said, “but watch out for my fans.” I immediately dismissed this adorable warning. Your fans are 12, I thought. What are they gonna do, kill me?
My friend Sarah’s text popped up in all caps the next morning: SHAWN MENDES FANS ARE GOING TO KILL YOU.
I rubbed my eyes open to see that I had 8,742 Instagram notifications. I usually have 12. I sat up and clicked.
Plus 8,738 more loving thoughts from children worldwide. I tried to brush it off. I have always believed that as a TV personality, if you don’t piss off a few people once in a while, you must not be very interesting. But as the hours went on and the notifications continued to roll in, I came to realize I wasn’t just dealing with a few people. This was an organized military force known on land and online as the #MendesArmy. Armed with insults, death threats and the word “cunt,” they’ll launch into full-scale warfare with any enemy who threatens their fandom. Now I was that enemy.
This insignificant red-headed lady from Canada suddenly became one of the most hated women on the World Wide Web. While I would like to say I was strong enough to ignore it, I couldn’t. By Day 2, every photo on my account was plastered with hate.
Hate with spelling errors:
Hate in other languages:
Hate for my nieces and nephews:
Hate with instructions:
And hate with consequences:
By Day 3, I was getting more death threats than President Obama (he reportedly averages 30 per day; I had upwards of 75, give or take a few in Bulgarian). On Day 4, my mom called me, crying. My 65-year-old mother, who can’t find the camera button on her phone, somehow found this.
She couldn’t begin to understand it. As I calmly tried to explain the culture of teen fandom and cyberbullying, I realized I didn’t understand it either. Why would a group of kids turn so rabidly against an adult stranger? Why would they go to such extremes in defence of a pop star they had never met? Why would a 12-year-old be using the word “cunt”?
I started to message a few of the angriest #MendesArmy soldiers I could find, hoping we could have a rational and informative discussion. While many regretfully declined…
…I finally got a yes from a 15-year-old—let’s call her shawn.my.boo—who asked her parents and then agreed to speak with me on the phone from her bedroom, “covered with Shawn posters,” in Missouri.
ME: So when did you become a fan of Shawn Mendes?
shawn.my.boo: It was almost two years ago. He had just finished his tour with Austin Mahone. You know Austin Mahone, right?
shawn.my.boo: What about Jack & Jack?
shawn.my.boo: They’re former Viners, but now they sing and stuff. Anyway, my little sister was watching Disney Channel, and I saw Shawn and I was like, “Oooh, like, wow, he’s really cute.”
I could relate. At 13, I fell deeply in love with Nick Carter from the Backstreet Boys. I owned every album on CD, I had every poster on my wall and I recorded every music video on VHS. What I didn’t have was access to him via Twitter, Vine, Snapchat and Instagram. I didn’t have a constant stream of photos and videos from millions of equally obsessed fans filling my feed every minute of every day. What I had was an imaginary connection with my teen idol. The #MendesArmy, however, has a 24-7 Internet connection.
Professor Katherine Larsen, editor of The Journal of Fandom Studies, an actual academic journal I obviously must get a subscription to, affirmed my hypothesis.
“The Internet has changed the whole landscape of what it means to be a fan,” Larsen tells me from her office at George Washington University in D.C. “There is a sense of intimacy adolescents have with their object of fandom now that we never had growing up. And if you’re intimate with someone like that, then you want to defend them.” So how intimate are we talking?
ME: How much time do you spend following Shawn online?
shawn.my.boo: Obviously, homework and school get in the way, which is irritating, but even at school, I’ll be scrolling through my feed on my Shawn Mendes account just looking at pictures of him and seeing what’s going on. I’ll spend the majority of my day doing that, not counting sleeping.
ME: Is that what it means to be a part of the #MendesArmy?
shawn.my.boo: Pretty much. We’re Internet-based. Like, if we didn’t have the Internet, I don’t know what we would do. It makes us feel close to each other. Even if you don’t personally know a fan account, sometimes you’ll just talk to them on DM or Snapchat or text.
ME: Like a pen pal?
ME: Like an “Internet friend”?
shawn.my.boo: Yeah. I mean, we’re all the same. We’re obviously different people, but we all love Shawn. When you find a group that understands how you feel and likes the same thing you do, it’s easy to feel understood. It definitely makes me feel like I have a place where I, like…belong.
Riiiiiight. When you’re 15, virtually every life decision is made just to belong. Every team you join, friend you have, shirt you wear and singer you love is all, simply, to belong. Being a member of the #MendesArmy is like being a part of a massive high school clique. And the dynamics seem to be the same.
shawn.my.boo: There are positions in every fandom. Like, there are people that are the leaders. If they start attacking someone online, the rest of the army will follow; it’s how you prove your level of fangirling.
ME: So a few people saw my jokes about Shawn and decided to rally the troops?
shawn.my.boo: They had good intentions. All the fans, we really felt like we were defending Shawn. We love him, we think he’s adorable and we are very protective over anything that happens to him.
ME: But how did you know he needed protecting?
shawn.my.boo: We could tell he was upset about what you were saying. Since we pay so much attention to him, we know.
ME: Have you ever met him?
ME: But you feel like you know him?
shawn.my.boo: [long pause] It’s a very complicated feeling. You feel like you really know someone. Like, you don’t actually know-know them, but you feel like you know them as a person. You know how they act. You know how they feel on certain topics. You feel like you know him. But you don’t actually know him. You know?
I’m not sure if I know-know, but I know. I felt a bond with every boy whose glossy image appeared in my monthly Tiger Beat centrefold. Now that boy can communicate directly with his fans. He can talk to them, react to them, share intimate details about his life with them—and the lines between knowing and knowing get blurred.
Along with that muddied sense of knowing comes a hazy sense of identity. “As an adolescent, if someone mocks something you are so emotionally invested in, that’s a big deal. So much of who you are, especially at that age, starts to be wrapped up in ‘I am a fan of….’ You’re wearing the T-shirt, you’re talking to other fans, you’re listening to his music—that becomes your identity,” says Larsen. “On an emotional level, they perceived your remarks to be really hurtful, but, on a psychological level, the fact that you were going after something they identify themselves with personally? That was doubly hurtful.”
So, according to the #MendesArmy, I wasn’t just poking fun at Shawn Mendes—I was poking fun at them. And from the safety of their mobile devices, they were ready to fight back.
ME: What are some of the most common insults you see online?
shawn.my.boo: When it’s toward women, it’s “ho” or “slut” or something like that. Now that I think about it, our fandom really only goes after women. I guess we don’t like the thought of Shawn dating or even getting attention from someone else.
ME: How do you know about the word “cunt”?
shawn.my.boo: From the Internet. I’m not totally positive what it means, but I see people using it on the Internet.
ME: People are telling me to KYS. What does that mean?
shawn.my.boo: Kill yourself.
Got it. I’m less disturbed by people telling me to KYS and more disturbed by the fact that “kill yourself” is being used with such a high frequency online that it has its own acronym. It takes just three letters to tell someone to end their life, and, in too many cases, that works. If I can be distraught enough to spend five days parsing my relatively brief #MendesArmy experience for this essay, how difficult must it be for a perpetually bullied teen to cope?
“The ramifications are immense: depression, violence, substance abuse—and at the rarer end of the spectrum, suicide,” says Paula Todd, journalist and author of Extreme Mean: Ending Cyberabuse at Work, School and Home. Not to mention the fear it induces. After facing the wrath of the #MendesArmy, I was afraid to post anything for months—and I’m still worried about what’s going to happen when this article is published. As Todd tells me, that fear is only amplified by online bullying, because unlike in the schoolyard, on the Internet “there’s nowhere to hide.”
Thankfully there are great programs online to promote positivity and discourage cyberbullying, like a campaign by DoSomething.org featuring celebrity ambassador Shawn Mendes.
Yes, Shawn Mendes is an outspoken advocate against bullying.
ME: Do your parents have any sense of what happens online?
shawn.my.boo: Um…no. I mean, I’m sure they think they know exactly how the Internet works, but they really don’t. They just worry that I could meet someone online and get kidnapped.
ME: Right. How often does this kind of bullying happen?
shawn.my.boo: I feel like it happens too often. We get angry at people, and it will be really awful for that person for a few days. But it’ll pass. It’s just what my fandom does.
As predicted, it did pass. One week later, the #MendesArmy marched their way off my account—and undoubtedly onto someone else’s. The dust settled, and I was left with two things: an Instagram page riddled with anonymous teen hate and a deeper understanding of today’s culture of bullying.
ME: Anything you want to add?
shawn.my.boo: Is Shawn gonna be reading this?
ME: I hope so.
shawn.my.boo: [long pause] Wow. That’s like…I’m gonna be in there, and he’s gonna be reading it. It’s just…it’s exciting and it’s nerve-racking. I was honest with everything I said to you, and I just hope…he’s proud of me.