Why do we harshly judge a teenage boy for not being man enough?
I never took much notice of the kid until the fourth or fifth magazine cover I saw of him. Rolling Stone declared, in bold block letters, that he was HOT, READY, and LEGAL. A smooth-skinned teenager with a stoic pose popped out of the magazine at me, still decidedly baby-faced but with a more pronounced jawline and cheekbones than the last time I’d seen his photo. I wondered what made this kid worthy of a Rolling Stone cover, what happened to the Backstreet Boys or the Jonas Brothers, and what the great excitement was about his being of the legal age of consent. And more importantly, why were we expending so much energy on watching—and critiquing—his every move?
For a while I ignored Justin Bieber, until I moved into a flat with two girls who loved his music. Suddenly I heard his voice, slightly deeper than his older songs, almost every day. His new music sounds similar, catchy-cheesy lyrics over catchy-cheesy tracks. But the music videos and the photographs and the blog posts have changed. The Rolling Stone cover and the article that followed manifested a change that I apparently had missed. Suddenly Bieber had become a sex object, not the puppy-eyed boyfriend of tween idol Selena Gomez.
Our society rules that masculinity is the Holy Grail; girls shall submit to machismo and boys shall aspire to it. Advertisers are keen to turn children into miniature adults because maturity (read: sexuality) sells. But what are we reflecting about ourselves when a young boy is so quickly and forcibly morphed into ‘manhood’?
Any search of Justin Bieber’s name on YouTube or Google yields endless strings of insults. Justin Bieber is gay, a girl, or a baby, the comments say. What this reflects is our socialized belief that it is contemptible to be any of those three things, and a person has to be hypersexual, aloof, deep-voiced, and flashy in order to be masculine and masculine in order to be attractive. This isn’t an isolated incident. An entire subculture of sorts has emerged ever since Bieber came to the public’s attention. From comments on YouTube to the Lesbians Who Look Like Justin Bieber Tumblr page, teasing and hatred of him has become an internet and lunchroom pastime. The image he has presented in the past, the playful tween heartthrob with an equally cute and young girl on his arm, is no longer enough to sate his fans and the media. Before puberty a kid is just a kid. Children are weak, innocent, and moldable. After puberty we want to see men demonstrate possession, hardline beauty, and domination over women. Edward Cullen types.
Perhaps what bothers us the most is that Bieber is in-between. He and his predominantly young female fans are navigating the stage where they are no longer children and they are learning how to conform to adult expectations. For most of us, puberty is semi-private, shared only amongst our friends and family. Bieber, however, is growing up in the spotlight. His actions serve as a guide, positive or otherwise, for other teens. Justin Bieber is not yet a man, but neither is he a 100 percent safe child star. Bieber’s agents know this. If Bieber doesn’t develop an edge, his sales will drop. Innocence appeals to a small audience with a specific age and gender, whereas sexuality and a bad boy image—note press coverage of Bieber punching people in the nuts, hitting a photographer, breaking up with his first love—lends excitement to an otherwise stale teenybopper. Agents don’t want Bieber to linger in puberty for too long. They want him to jump into our familiar, however volatile, ideal of manhood.
I am not a fan of Justin Bieber, and I doubt that I ever will be. But that doesn’t mean I have any reason to hate on him. If anything, we need to have compassion for him. Bieber is no better and no worse than other teen heartthrobs. He is assigned an image by a press agent and expected to live up to that reputation while it is sold to the popular audience. He is told who he is and what he wants, not allowed to grow and figure it out for himself. While Bieber is fortunate to have all of his money and fans, his fame is also his biggest curse.
Read more: Twilight, Bieber, and Valentino, By Noah Brand