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In Defense of Justin Bieber: Why America Turns on Male Child Stars Who Try to Grow Up

You’ve no doubt read the hysterical, salacious coverage of the ongoing disaster that has been Justin Bieber’s European tour: the scuffles with god-awful photographers in England, the “drug bust” (i.e., getting busted for smoking weed — a nation gasps!), the bizarre heist that apparently involved someone absconding with all the money from the tour’s Johannesburg date. And the monkey. Oh, the monkey. The whole sorry business has certainly had its fair share of perverse car-crash comedy potential, but it’s also illustrative of the way in which society tends to turn on child stars — and especially male ones — once late adolescence starts intruding on their polished cuteness.

Ultimately, the transition from childhood to adulthood is about burgeoning sexuality, and sexuality in general is something that still makes American society uncomfortable. Every country values its children, of course, but the US can take its love of childhood to faintly hysterical levels at times. The idea that children’s “innocence” must be preserved at all costs is used as a pretext for arguments on everything from censorship of music to immigration, arguments that are always largely spurious but seemingly guaranteed to evoke a response from Middle America. And child stars are avatars of that innocence, hyper-cutesy figures who embody everything America loves about its children.

This all changes when they hit adolescence. Celebrities are the tabulae rasae onto which our society projects its prejudices and ideologies, and thus the differences between how we view male and female sexuality are nowhere more prominent than in our treatment of celebrity adolescence. While male sexuality is viewed as aggressive and active, its female counterpart is supposed to be passive and receptive. Both sets of expectations are thoroughly depressing in different ways, of course, and both reflect the way in which patriarchy tends to warp the society over which it holds sway.

When it comes to girls, there’s a hugely creepy element of anticipation of their “blooming” into women, the idea that their adolescence is something to look forward to — see the sexualization of Emma Watson, Natalie Portman, and Chloë Moretz, for instance. (Or, for a particularly distasteful example, see the notorious countdown clock that ticked off the days until former child singer Charlotte Church was “legal.”)

This is obviously disturbing. It’s a manifestation of how society treats girls in general: one minute they’re beautiful, pure children, and as soon as the counter ticks over the age of consent, they’re sex objects to be fetishized. A cute little girl growing into a cute (or, preferably, hot) woman is something that the patriarchy can deal with; indeed, it’s something that the patriarchy rather looks forward to. None of this is to imply that girls have it easy, of course — it brings its own set of issues, and there have of course been plenty of female child stars who have ended up royally fucked up as a result of it. But it does mean that there’s a fairly well-established precedent of female child stars making a smooth transition into adult stardom.

When it comes to males, however, the story is rather different. As far as society’s concerned, male adolescence is intimidating — all of a sudden the cute young boy has a creaky, breaking voice, smells of Axe and testosterone, sleeps for 16 hours a day, and when he’s not sleeping he’s out smoking bongs and getting into trouble. The transition from boyhood to manhood carries connotations of aggression and unruliness, and that sort of thing is most definitely not what society wants from its cute little Biebers.

This means that the transition into adulthood for a male child star often coincides with his career heading rapidly down the can. The roll call of males discarded once their childish cuteness deserted them is a long and kinda depressing one: Corey Feldman. Corey Haim. Eddie Furlong. Jonathan Brandis. Brad Renfro. Danny Bonaduce. Kriss Kross, one of whom died of a drug overdose earlier this month. And, of course, the most famous of them all: Macaulay Culkin.

A male child star trying to establish himself as an adult is often the object of ridicule and contempt. Let’s look, for instance, at the aftermath of Bieber’s scrap with photographers in England, which was captured in a video that was published widely on the Internet. It’s clear from the footage that Bieber was provoked — the photographers make a frivolous claim they were assaulted when he pushes past them, though he barely touches them, then shout into his car, calling him, amongst other things, a “fucking little cock,” a “fucking little moron,” a “prick” and tell him to “fuck off back to America.”

Frankly, if someone did that to me when I was trying to get into a car outside a hotel, I’d probably try to punch them, too. But look how TMZ reports it: “[Bieber] went after a photog in London … and screamed, ‘I’LL F**KING BEAT THE F**K OUT OF YOU.'” Watch the video, and you’ll see that Bieber doesn’t scream at all. What he does do is try to assert himself: he raises his voice, sure, but what he really does is step to someone bigger and stronger than him, aggressively, trying to stand up for himself. He’s trying to be a man, as best he can, even if that just means swearing a bit and being “held back” by his bodyguards.

Clearly, the TMZ comment section is the sewer of the Internet, but even so, it’s illuminating to look at how this online id reacted to this display. Many commenters take a shrewish, parental tone, characterizing Bieber as a child, and one who needs some discipline: “Out of control,” bleats one commenter. “Entitled, spoiled, disgusting.” Another says, “His head is blowing up time for some air to be let out! Your [sic] lucky you are where you are kid. Start being grateful.” (Emphasis mine.)

Most of all, though, they ridicule his manhood. He’s referred to as “a little girl,” “a lesbian,” “a punk” (several times), “PMSing,” “a little bitch,” “a little wimp,” “tiny and skinny” and “a baby.” “He couldn’t beat up my 13-year-old daughter,” says one grown man, who surely has better things to do than reading TMZ, while another says, “Unless the photographer was a six year old girl, [Bieber beating him up] is highly unlikely.”

It’s also interesting to note that the two male child stars in recent years who have undergone a successful transition to adulthood have done so in ways that have generally been employed by women. The first is Justin Timberlake, whose sexuality largely conforms to more feminine expectations — it’s smooth, charming, and fundamentally unthreatening. The other is Drake, whose mild effeminacy is brought into relief by the hyper-masculine world of hip hop, and who also basically disappeared from the public eye for the term of his difficult adult years and emerged, butterfly-like, as a completely different person, so much so that it’s easy to forget that he was ever on Degrassi.

These, perhaps, are role models Bieber can look up to, because god knows there aren’t really very many others — your choices are either remaining in a state of perpetual faux childhood or moving in with Pete Doherty. Up until recent months, Bieber’s career has gone so smoothly that it seemed inconceivable that things could ever go wrong, but as so many have found out before him, one’s public image can go south very quickly once society decides that you’re no longer an avatar of the purity and chastity of its children. That’s the point to which Bieber has gotten now — as one other TMZ commenter says, “He seems to be spiraling out of control… What parent in their right mind would want their kid to go see him now?”

Look, it’s easy to resent Justin Bieber. He seems to have it all: money, fame, legions of fans. I’ve never met him, and neither have you. Maybe he is a spoiled little shit who needs to be taken down a peg. But he’s also just like any other 19-year-old — a person who’s going through the same thing all of us have been through, the awkward transition between childhood and adulthood. The scrap heap of kids who were in his position and are now washed up is big enough already. I hope he’s not another addition to its forlorn slopes.

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