WE LOVE YOU BEATLES: Female Fandom in ‘I Wanna Hold Your Hand’

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Few figures are as vilified in music audiences as the fangirl. Their screaming, bug-eyed frenzies are pathologized by mainstream entertainment media, who paint them with a broad brush as stalkers and creeps. Music critics often write off the objects of teenage girls’ affection as lacking in substance, pointing out the prefabricated origins of boy bands and girl singers and their lack of original songs to emphasize that they’re more about marketing than artistic integrity. And yet, fangirls have been on the vanguard of discovering and popularizing up-and-coming talent since the dawn of rock and roll, making superstars out of bands and solo artists from Elvis, the Beatles, and David Bowie, to Duran Duran, Hole, and Billie Eilish. Fangirls have honed their writing and photography skills by reviewing albums and taking pictures of their faves in concert, and these fans performing covers of songs by bands they love has brought out untapped musical talent. Even less ambitious fans have made lifelong friendships through their shared love of musical artists.

 These fangirls are the true protagonists of the 1978 feature I Wanna Hold Your Hand. Director Robert Zemeckis and co-writer Bob Gale show us the early days of the Beatles’ fame through the eyes of Grace (Theresa Saldana), Rosie (Wendi Jo Sperber), and Pam (Nancy Allen), three New Jersey-based fans with different reasons for wanting to greet the Fab Four on their Ed Sullivan Show appearance. A pair of skeptics join the three devoted fans on their road trip: Janis (Susan Kendall Newman), a smug folk-music devotee who sees Beatlemania as a marketing scam, and Tony (Bobby Di Cicco), a meathead who prefers manlier singers like Elvis and Frankie Valli. Because it was made a few decades before poptimism was a talking point in the contemporary discourse, the film dips into some sexist depictions of fangirls. However, Zemeckis and Gale also look at the ways fandom can serve as an outlet for ambitious or restless girls, and the heartfelt performances at the center of the film humanize what could have been shallow stereotypes.

Rosie, Grace, Pam, and Janis represent four different experiences female fans have. Rosie is a single-minded Beatles fanatic who has a squealing fit at the sight of a Paul McCartney cardboard cutout, while folk music devotee Janis pickets her father’s record store, encouraging his young clientele not to buy Beatles records because they’re just “a big publicity stunt”. Pam likes the Beatles well enough, but just wants to spend one last night at home with her friends before she and her fiancé elope to Atlantic City. Grace, who believes that exclusive photos of the Beatles will launch her journalism career, talks Larry (Marc McClure), the son of a local funeral director, into borrowing one of his father’s limos for a road trip to Manhattan.

Never known for their subtlety, Zemeckis and Gale depict their protagonists with big characterizations. They leaned into the standard depictions of obsessed fangirls and smug snobs who disdain trends when they wrote Rosie and Janis, and while actors Sperber and Newman have some nice moments in their performances that add nuance to transcend these archetypes, those characters are written a little too broadly to work as audience surrogates. With her benevolent diffidence towards the Beatles, Pam initially stands out as the most relatable of the central characters. Her focus on gaining some independence from her family through marriage to an older man was a more standard experience in the early 1960s, particularly for lower-middle-class girls, and Pam’s wish for practical gifts (“like Tupperware!”) from her friends instead of Beatles tchotchkes gives her a grounding in a world beyond high-school crushes. Nancy Allen’s understated line readings and calm screen presence contrast with the more exaggerated performances from Sperber and Newman.

 These factors also make Pam’s evolution into the biggest Beatlemaniac of all her friends funnier and, oddly, more believable. Rosie and Grace both try the direct approach to getting into the Beatles’ inner sanctum, only to be turned away by their security detail. After almost losing her engagement ring in the hotel kitchen, Pam sneaks under the tablecloth of a room-service cart that’s wheeled into their suite. Zemeckis and cinematographer Donald Morgan shoot the ensuing scene like a stag film, with tight closeups of Allen’s ecstatic facial expressions as she inhales the scent of their suits and drinks the dregs of their leftover coffee. It should be noted that editor Frank Morriss adds a certain softcore frisson by cutting from a long tilt up the neck of a Hohner bass to a close-up of Allen, who contemplates it with a wide-eyed, open-mouthed facial expression.

Pam’s near-brush with the Beatles shows her there’s a wider world outside her suburban life, culminating in the moment when a hotel maid finds her while cleaning the band’s suite. Instead of reprimanding her, tour manager Neil Aspinall (Michael Hewittson) schedules a press conference, where she comes into contact with local media personalities and other giddy fangirls to talk about her adventure. Returning to her incipient domestic life seems confining in light of her day, and her fiancé Eddie (James Houghton)’s monologuing about his job and his expectations for their early years of marriage make her realize that marriage for her is a big mistake. When their car stops at a red light near CBS Studio 50, Pam removes her ring and says “There are more important things in life than marriage… like the Beatles!” before leaving the car, her fangirl passions enabling her to reject societal expectations and gender roles. 

If the Beatles give Pam a way to escape a boring existence, they give Grace a way to start her career as a photojournalist. Or they could, anyway, if she’s able to get close enough. In her first scene, Grace barges into a phone booth where Rosie is trying to win Ed Sullivan tickets in a radio giveaway. When Rosie hangs up, Grace details a plan to get past security at the Plaza Hotel: Hire a limo to get past the security. She shows that she’s thought the plan through by explaining to Rosie that the cops will be checking cabs for Beatles fans. Saldana’s rapid-fire delivery and slight Jersey accent sell her bait-and-switch conclusion: “I have got to get through to the Beatles. My entire career depends on it!”

Grace’s attempt at getting exclusive photos of the Beatles puts her on the same footing as female fans who broke into music or arts writing through publishing fanzines. She runs into similar problems that many female fans in her position experienced, as in a scene where a stagehand at CBS Studio 50 promises her backstage access for $50. Seeing this as her only chance to get the photos, she almost ends up on another well-trod path for female journalists on film—as an undercover sex worker—when she overhears a man staying at the hotel call an escort service for a rendezvous. Her desperation to make that money is comparable to the stories about groupies who work through the stage crew in the hopes that they’ll eventually meet their favorite member of the band.

Though Grace is able to bribe the man at the hotel, the money she makes doesn’t seem to bring her any closer to the Beatles; she uses it to pay off a cop who’s detained Larry for parking illegally by the stage door. The pair remained parked for a beat, only for four uniformed men with British accents to pile into the backseat in a classic case of mistaken identity. The film’s final shot—of a flashbulb going off through the car’s rear window—is a testament to being in the right place at the right time, which is of utmost importance to fangirls and photographers alike.

I Wanna Hold Your Hand allows us to meet several Beatles fans and understand what the band means to them — an outlet for teenage puppy love, a window into another world, or a stepping stone in a photojournalism career. The individual fans are fine, but screaming hordes of teenage girls are another story altogether. In the opening scene of the film, Ed Sullivan (Will Jordan) tells a group of stagehands and ushers to “be prepared for excessive screaming, hysteria, hyperventilation, fainting, fits, spasmodic convulsions, even attempted suicides. It’s all perfectly normal. It merely means these youngsters are enjoying themselves.” In the first scene after the opening credits, we see disembodied hands grab at Beatles records from off camera and watch as faceless groups of girls in school uniforms mob a record store clerk as she opens a shipment of Beatles LPs. When we do see the faces of Beatles fans on camera, Zemeckis and Morgan shoot them at low angles, emphasizing their glassy eyes and slack-jawed facial expressions. This movie would be terrifying if the soundtrack was anything other than the sprightly pop of the Beatles. If we knew how these girls ended up outside the Plaza and what they hoped to get from the experience, would we still think they were creepy?

Criterion Collection

The extreme behavior of some characters in I Wanna Hold Your Hand is played for comedy, but the film represents a more naïve period in fan culture. While the Beatles’ security detail and the NYPD are a constant presence in the film, the protagonists’ frequent attempts at gaining access to the band’s inner sanctum must have played differently after John Lennon’s assassination in the winter of 1980. The most high-profile stalking incidents — including one against Teresa Saldana, who played Grace in this movie — were committed by men, but because the media had already depicted teenage girls as obsessed fans driven by the whims of their hormones, celebrity stalking incidents were frequently used to pathologize them.

The hysteria teenage girls expressed towards the Beatles also led contemporary music writers and more high-minded listeners to disparage them, a trend we see depicted in the film. Janis, the daughter of the music store in the opening scene, makes her first appearance picketing the store, holding a sign that says BOYCOTT THE BEATLES and imploring customers — including Rosie and Pam — not to buy Beatles records. Throughout the film, she writes off the band as a publicity stunt and tries to sell her friends on the socially relevant lyrics of Greenwich Village folk singers like Bob Dylan and Joan Baez. Her arguments against the Beatles are similar to those the music press of the day levied against them, and actress Susan Kendall Newman’s plummy voice, perfect posture, and pursed-lipped facial expression have the smug quality associated with fans of folk music who really want you to listen to the lyrics. While Janis’s smug attitude is off-putting, seeing a female character push against the status quo like this can be refreshing. Who knew teenage girls were not a monolith? 

In the years since I Wanna Hold Your Hand was released, there’s been further discussion of the role teenage girls play in music fandom. Mainstream publications have added more diverse groups of writers to their mastheads, allowing for critical appraisal of artists who don’t fall outside the acceptable narratives of legacy artists. Fangirls have pushed back against the popular narrative, showing how their love of teen idols has played a role in shaping the pop and rock music canon. I Wanna Hold Your Hand may play to some of the stereotypes of fangirls, but some of the film’s characterizations and plot points foreshadowed our current discussions about how teenage girls engage with pop music… and why it matters.

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