Leave Justin Bieber Alone: America's Problem with Male Child Stars
The media narrative surrounding Justin Bieber has spiraled out of control. He's this year's Anne Hathaway, the person whom it's vogue to hate. But this turn isn't completely unfounded. Over the past few years, Bieber has undoubtedly become a bit of a jerk.
He was charged for illegal (and seemingly racist) graffiti, pissed in a mop bucket, left his monkey in Germany and could anyone seriously forget this hat? But for non-Beliebers, there has always been something grating about the singer. Everything from his swoopy hair to his sugar-pop love songs seemed designed to annoy all post-pubescents on sight, breeding discontent which lay dormant until his penchant for leather sweatpants and hocking loogies made him impossible to ignore.
Then all hell broke loose.
Bieber is in the middle of that tricky transition from child star to adult. But unlike Miley Cyrus, Bieber can't just put on a skimpy outfit and hump a foam finger to signify his maturity. It's come to be expected that child stars burn down their innocent image in the shift to an adult career, but when their old franchise is nothing but ash the women still have one thing left standing: their sexuality. This is problematic for an entirely different set of reasons, but sadly it also provides female child stars the means to maintain some form of fan and industry support, no matter how misogynistic it might be.
But for the men, there is no quick antidote to destroying the very foundation of their fame. They're just another peach-stachioed kid who used to be cuter than they are now. So how does a male child star assert control over his image and establish himself an adult? Aggression, cockiness and rowdiness remain foundations of modern masculinity - boys will be boys, after all - so does it come as any surprise that these are the exact traits Bieber is exhibiting with naïve desperation in the hopes of being respected, not as an artist, but as a man?
There are the few male child stars who have been able to navigate the problematic move from baby faced ingénue to bonafide star. But for every Justin Timberlake and Ryan Gosling, there are the dozens of Corey Haims, Corey Feldmans,Edward Furlongs and Macaulay Culkins. Why do people seem so hell-bent to add Bieber to that list? Especially because we are the reason Bieber feels like he has something to prove in the first place.
For his entire career, criticisms of Bieber have focused on ridiculing his manhood - calling him a lesbian, a little b---- and accusing him of PMSing if - God forbid - he expressed emotion or vulnerability. After spending his entire adolescence accused of being less than a man, is it really so hard to understand why he is trying to emulate hyper-masculinity?
Yes, it's been awkward to watch and he's made plenty of mistakes, but he's only 19. Bieber's still figuring out who he is and how that reconciles with society's expectations of him. Unfortunately, it seems as though what society expects is the popular pre-set narrative we anticipate with Schadenfreude-ian glee: that of the child star gone bad.
Since his most recent string of troubles - which include an egging and an assault charge - people have been quick to speculate on when his seemingly eminent breakdown and subsequent trip to rehab will happen. He's even been repeatedly compared to Haim, Lindsay Lohan, Amanda Bynes and Britney Spears. But despite his affinity for marijuana, Bieber doesn't appear to be an addict (like Haim or Lohan). Nor does he have any known mental illness (like, allegedly, Bynes or Spears). So why does everyone treat Bieber as though his life has hit rock bottom?
It's simple. There's no money or excitement in Bieber being kind of reckless, so we sensationalize in order to turn him into this year's train wreck. That drag racing DUI Bieber was supposedly arrested for? He was actually driving under the speed limit at the time and only blew a .04, which is below the legal limit for those of legal age to drink. The singer did admit to smoking pot earlier that night and had taken a Xanax, which he might even have a prescription for, but neither of which is cause for such national alarm. (However, the Miami P.D. lying about the reason they pulled the star over certainly deserves critical attention.)
Bieber's recent behavior is in no way admirable, but he has leagues to go before he warrants the level of concern and criticism he's received. Plenty of other celebrities are just as debaucherous or criminal, yet they aren't turned into a national punch line (or punching bag). When Rihanna gets high or shows up late to a concert, she gets rock star immunity. When Bieber does it, Jon Bon Jovi calls him "an a--hole."
Sadly, Bon Jovi isn't the only one to use his celebrity status as leverage to publically bully Bieber. Last year, Olivia Wildethrew shade at the singer after seeing a photo of him leaving his birthday party shirtless. "Bieber, put your f---ing shirt on. (unless you lost all your shirts in a fire in which case my condolences and please purchase a new shirt.)" she broadcast to her one million-plus Twitter followers. Following Bieber's DUI arrest, Seth Rogen told his nearly two million followers that, "All jokes aside, Justin Bieber is a piece of sh--." Wilde's tweet received 13,000 retweets; Rogen's 200,000.
But why? Neither tweet is particularly clever. And if puns are the lowest form of humor, where does attacking a teenager land?
The reason is simple: People mock Bieber because it's easy. Not because it's right. Yet the entire discussion surrounding the singer is tinged with moral elitism, looking down on Bieber's disorderly and disobedient behavior as though pointing out others' missteps implies we're above such follies.
Celebrities open themselves up to criticism, but like all child stars, Bieber was not able to give fully informed consent to this life-long invasion of privacy. When defending Bieber, people are quick to use his young age as leverage for leniency. But when it comes down to it, it doesn't matter how old Bieber is. What matters is that society has deemed it acceptable for thousands of people to publicly harass someone whose worst offense is simply being kind of obnoxious.
Where is this critical eye and public outrage when it comes to Sean Penn? In 1988, he allegedly climbed into Madonna's house, tied her to a chair and assaulted her for nine hours. What about Jimmy Page? The Led Zeppelin guitarist reportedly kidnapped a 14-year-old girl and began a relationship with her. And when it comes to successful men with past allegations of rape and sexual assault, Page is far from alone. Rob Lowe wrapped up his praised run on Parks and Rec and is now staring in an NBC pilot. Bill Cosby, whose multiple sexual assault claims have recently resurfaced, is currently developing a wholesome family sitcom for NBC. And let's not even get started on Woody Allen.
Yet these men and countless others are still successful and treated with respect. What gives?
There are those who argue for separation of the art from the artist, a defense I do not necessarily believe in but find oddly absent from the conversation surrounding Bieber. In December, the singer released not only the best album of his career, but a good album in its own right. And don't like my Belieber status fool you; I'm not the only one to think so.
A soulful R&B record, Journals is a far cry from the bubblegum Bieber rose to fame on. It's patient, subtle and sincere. When he was booed at the Billboard Music Awards last year, he told the audience that it should be about the music and he was right. Yet no one seems willing to look past his public image and give him a chance.
Justin Bieber doesn't owe us anything. He doesn't have to be a "good boy" and he doesn't have to fit into the accepted "bad boy" model, either. All he has to do is make good music. That's his job and he's doing it well. But that doesn't seem to be enough anymore.
We want to know our celebrities, to see a glamorized reflection of ourselves in their image. We raise them up to impossible heights, but expect them to be humble. And when they don't live up to our expectations we crucify them publically and viciously. Bieber might be a spoiled piece of sh-- right now, but this mob mentality against him won't make him a better person. If anything, it only makes us worse.
What we need to do is give Bieber some room to breathe and to grow up. If he's still an imbecile in five years, then we'll talk. But for now, just leave Bieber alone.
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