A Deeper Understanding of How The Manchester Attack Targeted Girlhood

During the digital maelstrom of what was social media users responding in shock and confusion at the Manchester Arena tragedy (that happened after Ariana Grande wrapped a concert as a part of her Dangerous Woman U.K. tour) one of the tweets I saw was from Jill Filipovic, author of the book, H-Spot: The Feminist Pursuit of Happiness. In a stern tone, she asked all of us to not find it plausible to use the Manchester casualty as a means to dispense mean-spirited diatribes at the core of Grande’s fan base: teenage girls.

At that point, it had felt like an hour and half of news trickling at “Breaking News” speed. That Monday, May 22, explosives were denotated around Manchester Arena in England, killing twenty-two Grande concert-goers and at press time injuring fifty-nine others, via the U.K.-based publication The Telegraph.

The Greater Manchester Police soon identified the culprit, Salman Abedi, 22, who killed himself in the attack. He attacked the Arena, full of Grande fans, many of whom went to the event as a family gathering, with homemade bombs. Those fans and families consisted of a lot of teens, young adults (including popular pop culture fan and blogger Martyn Hett), and children as young as 8 years old, as was the case for the now deceased victim, Saffie Rose Roussos. The New York Times, like many newspapers worldwide, published pictures from the deadly scene, including paramedics taking to the injured inside and outside the Arena. The news on TV showed footage of scared individuals running for their lives down flights of stairs and scrambling to get out of the arena. (A lot of fans were also stranded or separated from who they came with for hours).

Filipovic’s tweet earned a retweet as soon as I got to the period. I had an idea of the type of people she was calling out. I’ve met them numerous times, though our encounters are otherwise imaginary because the setting is often on Facebook and in many the comment section of nationally recognized newspapers and magazines.

When Beyonce released the single “Formation” in winter 2016, I felt emboldened by her take-no-prisoners stance on standing up for Black womanhood, feminism, and pride. I soon charged at a couple of Facebook comments I found to be onslaughts on women’s rights and Black Lives Matter situations. But in months, I grew weary, becoming more and more stunned at the ignorance and xenophobia running rampant. My repartees lessened and I sat back disappointed at my work desk or while in public transit.

Fast forward to May 2017 and I’m back to lending a voice for the greater good. Filipovic’s tweet would’ve hit me in the chest regardless of renegade mode, but being that I was just on Facebook a day before, I read a comment from a man I did not know and had taken it upon himself to blame “teenage girls” for guiding the state of music (this was his way of grieving the dumbfounding death of Chris Cornell). It jolted me as he had placed such enormous responsibility on a young demographic and categorized girls as near airheads. It also pissed me off that a man of his age was even checking for the soundtrack of a teenage girl. Where the hell was he in his day? A second look at his default, I guessed he was in his thirties. So that meant he went to school with girls that screamed for Debbie Gibson, Tiffany, New Edition and NKOTB. Or Backstreet Boys, Britney, and *NSYNC. The teenage love affair with pop music and its often comely and decent vocal ability stars is nothing new and acts from Led Zeppelin to Guns N Roses still managed to come out legendary in the larger scope of mainstream music. His comment was so instigative. Why so harsh on teenage girls? (I almost wrote in utter pettiness: “Well on the flip side, it wasn’t teenage girls that put Lil Yachty on the map.”)

Coincidentally, after that Facebook comment and Filipovic’s tweet, I came across four articles with a motif in relation to the tragedy: this terrorist attack (ISIS also claimed accountability for the monstrosity, but this is still listed as unconfirmed) was an attack on women, teenage girls, and feminism. Read: misogynist.

Sometimes when tragedies occur, I tend to be very surface. Evil is evil. I do not care what the intent was. If injuries, killing, and humiliation occurred, you’re done, canceled and sealed for shipment to hell. These articles made me stop and think about what was at stake through this particular terrorist attack. My heart wept a little towards what the articles implied which was that girlhood was under attack.

Before sharing excerpts from those articles, it’s important to note that I’ve attended an Ariana Grande concert. For her Honeymoon tour, a friend and I, who had received tickets from a music festival initiative, saw her at Barclays Center, in Brooklyn, New York, September 2015.

Pre-showtime, I noticed that a lot of the fans coming from the MTA and parked cars nearby were children and teens. The kids were accompanied by their families, and the teens looked to be attending a concert show for the first time on their own. I was surprised by how young they were as Grande was 22 and her lyrics were beginning to showcase a burgeoning womanly sexuality. There were hints of it on tracks like “Love Me Harder” (mainly through her duet partner The Weeknd) and “Hands On Me.” This was further expressed in her attire of short, negligee-inspired dresses and Louboutin style platform heels. This was counteracted by her beloved accessory of animal ear headbands–clearly very childlike– but they too would evolve into Playboy style ears, or Catwoman masks, matched by the clearer sexual content on the darker, headstrong feminism of 2016’s Dangerous Woman (hence, “Side to Side” featuring Nicki Minaj).

I did not judge for I was once ten, eleven years old listening to the Spice Girls and knew songs like “Last Time Lover”, “2 Become 1”, and “Naked” were about sex, intimacy, and flings. But I adored the Spice Girls. I would understand their lyrics in time. Besides, the Grande fans looked so excited to be there. They’re nicknamed “Arianators” and many of them wore animal ear headbands in true fandom for their idol. When I heard the news of what happened in Manchester, I didn’t have to imagine what the audience looked like. I knew.

On The Washington Post, a first-hand account of how the Manchester attack affected just a handful of its surviving victims was reported. Fans like Polly Ahmed, a Manchester native, and a hijab-wearing young woman said: “I used to watch her on Nickelodeon when I was in school because she’s the same age as me. Everyone sees her as this Disney Channel princess. But what she’s doing is to show her transition from girlhood to womanhood [on the Dangerous Woman tour].”

James Mcauley, of the WP Post, also spoke to Shashank Joshi, a senior research fellow at the Royal United Services Institute, for insight on how the attack was possibly and deliberately anti-woman: “It’s very well known that misogyny is deeply rooted in the radical Islamist worldview.” Joshi added: “If you go back to early Islamist documents, misogyny and cultural hostility have often been two sides of the same coin. There’s a connection between the targeting of a concert like this and the enslavement of young girls in northern Iraq.”

The fans that Mcauley spoke to for The Washington Post agreed that the attack seemed to target young women and their desire for freedom of expression and ownership, which Grande’s presence, with not just this Dangerous Woman era but as an American on U.K. ground, represented.

Over at The Atlantic, Sophie Gilbert did not mince what was the intention of suicide bomber Abedi: “The goal of the attack, therefore, was to kill and maim as many of these women and children as possible.” Furthermore: “[The attack] reminded girls and young women that there will always be people who hate them simply because they were born female.” In her piece, Gilbert also included an excerpt from Ann Powers, long-standing music critic for various publications, including NPR. Powers had written a personal message on Facebook about how concerts were an indelible factor in almost every woman’s youth. The impact deepened when the artist they had seen, with the spotlight shined on them, were also a woman. The entire recollection is below:

“The best night of your life, girl version: a ticket in an envelope you’ve marked with glitter glue, putting on too much of the eyeshadow you bought at the drugstore that day, wearing a skirt that’s shorter than your school uniform, telling your mom it’s okay and you’ll meet her right after the show, running toward the front hand in hand with your best friend like you don’t even have a mom right now, flirting with the kid who sells you a soda, dancing experimentally, looking at the woman onstage and thinking maybe one day you’ll be sexy and confident like her, realizing that right this moment you are sexy and confident like her, matching your voice to the sound, loving the sound, falling into the sound. This is truth. Young girls loving music, whatever kind of music, are truth. I believe in them and nothing can annihilate their truth.”

The legend of concert-going as a teen or young adult was echoed on Dazed Digital, where Thomas Gorton reflected on what Limp Bizkit, Korn, Red Hot Chilli Peppers, and Slipknot shows meant to him. Considering Gorton is not female and will never have his sexuality tested at the center of a political debate, or feel threatened for being male, he referred to the Manchester attack more generally. It was a blitzkrieg on “teenage dreams.”

“The horrific attack on the Ariana Grande show at the MEN Arena, reportedly killing over 20 and injuring many more, specifically targets children, teenagers, and their parents. It targets euphoria, joy, and happiness, it targets every emotion you feel when, caught in the beautiful, unique mixture of delirium and freedom – that specific concoction that only youth and pop can offer – you give yourself away to harmless obsessions, lost in those moments of dedication to people whose posters adorn your bedroom walls and dominate your conversations. Pop concerts offer respite from the rigidity of classrooms and allow a brief, ecstatic catharsis that kids don’t stop talking about for days.”

In his closing statement: “Churches and temples are recognised sacred spaces, but pop music is the world’s greatest unofficial religion, one with many different leaders from all over the world, one that unites thousands of people in one place of worship to share an experience that for many will border on spiritual. Terror comes for that because it knows it to be untameable and eternal.”

Lastly, at Rolling Stone, Emily Crockett chose to forgo a PC brief and confront the realization that the Manchester attack could intensify “protectionism” for women, even stateside. But first, she acknowledged how Grande was an undervalued champion for women and various walks of lifestyle for some time now.

“These girls and women weren’t just listening to any music, either – this was feminist music. Through her songs and public statements, Ariana Grande has taken a strong stand against sexism and the objectification of women, and she does so kindly, joyfully and without apology.

“All of that is threatening enough. But Grande goes even further, daring to embrace sex positivity: the idea that sexuality is healthy, that it can and should be expressed in diverse ways, and that it deserves no shame.”

Here is where Crockett introduced protectionism in her article: “Misogyny’s other most powerful tool is protectionism – the idea that women’s freedoms have to be curtailed for our own good. You should cover up because men are lascivious beasts who can’t be trusted. You shouldn’t go out at night because you might get attacked. You definitely shouldn’t go out at night wearing that, because then you’re just asking for it. Come to think of it, better not to go out in public at all, just to be safe.

The Manchester attack was every parent’s worst nightmare, and many might turn to protectionism in response.”

I appreciated so much of what Crockett touched on. She acknowledged the obvious reasons a Grande concert would be targeted but more importantly what the tragedy really spelled out in its aftermath.

Terrorists have struck every global pastime and havens of solace and betterment on the map in the last decade: elementary schools, churches, movie theaters. Now concerts. The worthy of a gasp truth for women is that we may have to collectively think where can we celebrate being women? Can we let it be known who are icons are that bear the truth and encouragement that we seek? What an unfathomable world, or better yet, the people that breathe amongst us that believe girlhood is the enemy.

Crockett concluded, amongst stating that it was very clear what this terrorist attack tried to ambush, that carrying on was the answer. I agree.

We cannot stay still. We cannot not attend a show. As women, we will not go into hiding. Or dismiss reclaiming “girl power” out of fear. We must dance and sing for those that no longer can and uphold (intersectional) feminism and human rights for everyone and continue drawing out in bright red lipstick on the mirror just how erroneous and baneful these terrorists and misogynists are.

It doesn’t get easier to understand why these tragedies occur. While the hashtags may change by name, the feelings are the same: grief, disbelief, and exhaustion. #PrayForManchester indeed. #PrayForTheWorld absolutely.

As someone who has been attending shows for twenty-years come 2018, I was numb by the reports and footage. Seeing concert-goers running for your lives after getting their life by singing their favorite songs and experiencing a euphoric sense of “so, this is what memories are made of.” I don’t even want to imagine fearing for my life, my safety, after such a rush.

I have felt what Grande fans have: excitement and inspiration. I recall like yesterday how starry-eyed I was when I saw Amy Winehouse at Avalon. Or screamed when I finally saw Britney Spears at the Garden. How about Rage Against the Machine at Lollapalooza, amongst rock fans that knew this was a moment as Zach de la Rocha spoke of a pre and potential President Obama leadership. Or Lauryn Hill, who has had so many reports and comments dagger her for chronic lateness and erratic behavior, yet all I saw was musical talent in spades.

My very first concert was actually Janet Jackson‘s The Velvet Rope Tour in 1998, with opening act Usher, hot off of My Way being a success. It was a show packed with sexual imagery and songs of emancipation. Though I cringed when Jackson performed a borderline lap dance for a lucky male fan (I was eleven!) I took in the sense of liberty in the large arena of the Boston Garden. There was the iconic Jackson and her powerful, personal take on womanhood, sadness, and independence. I was quite young, but I grasped it like a firefly I just happen to catch and would later set free in confidence and hope. That experience has stayed with me nineteen years later. I know for Grande fans worldwide, their attendance at her shows will and have too. Oh, how sad I am that for those night in Manchester the event is forever plagued by tragedy.

This terrorist attack was an attack on girlhood, our formative teenage years and the unity music so often brings. I’m not even sure how to end this article, but I wanted to share why plenty of people, and justifiably so, felt this attack aimed for our heartstrings in the most direct way: our childhood.

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