Trying to avoid Justin Bieber, pop music’s latest jailbait sensation, is impossible. He’s taken over radio, television, movie theatres and now, newsstands.
On the cover of Rolling Stone’s March issue is 16-year-old Bieber, hair gelled, leather jacket sliding off his pubescent body. If the magazine wanted its readers to feel like sexual deviants for buying the issue, it succeeded.
In chapter four of The Lolita Effect, Durham writes specifically about the sexualization of girls in the media. She writes, “Media portrayals of sexy children are, in fact, promoting that very idea, and young girls in particular are increasingly posed in commercial photography and other media as sexual objects of the adult gaze.” While Bieber is a boy, he is an obvious example this phenomenon.
Rolling Stone’s latest feature not only contributes to the ongoing sexualization of the teenage star, but is emblematic of a double standard on how young celebrities are presented in the media.
The issue comes in the wake of Vanity Fair’s February feature on the Canadian singer. In photos by Art Streiber, Bieber plays checkers with his chest exposed in an unbuttoned shirt, is trapped in a glass room surrounded by ravenous tweens, and is spattered with lipstick kisses on his face, neck and shoulders as a female hand yanks at his tie.
Vanessa Grigoriadas’ Rolling Stone article plays off of Bieber’s already adult image. She light-heartedly writes about Bieber’s relationship with fame, his sex symbol status and meteoric success. “The girls just love him. They think he’s their boyfriend, that there’s a shot for them. Justin sold them a dream, and they are buying it hook, line and sinker,” said L.A. Reid, Chairman and CEO of Bieber’s record label, Island Def Jam.
To his millions of fans, or Beliebers, Bieber is wholesome but covertly sexual. With the lyrics “Girl I promise I’ll be gentle, I know we gotta’ do it slowly, If you give, give the first dance to me,” it’s obvious he’s not only singing about dancing. With the help of choreography, clothing, photos, and music, the publicity team behind Bieber sculpted the perfect, edgy boy next door.
The question consumers need to start asking themselves is why they continuoulsy accept the sexualization of boys in the media. As it stands, society at large considers boys to be sexual at earlier ages, more in charge of their sexuality, and as a result less open to exploitation in the media. The opposite holds for girls.
Without this fundamentally flawed rationale, there is no way of explaining why it’s funny for 26-year-old Katy Perry to reference Bieber on Twitter, writing “I would tap that. Yummy.” Likewise, there is no explanation for why, in 2008, Annie Leibovitz and Miley Cyrus were lambasted by bloggers, news media and pundits when the then 16-year-old appeared in Vanity Fair, photographed with her back exposed.
What if instead of Bieber, “True Grit” star and 2011 Academy Award nominee, Hailee Steinfeld, 14, was Rolling Stone’s feature story? What if she was given an equally questionable cover, one showing her body groped by a male hand or with her clothes falling off? How many angry letters about child pornography would the magazine receive?
From Britney Spears, to Justin Timberlake and Usher, the sexualization of young entertainers in our media-saturated culture is about as routine as a catfight between feral 12-year-old girls during one of Bieber’s concerts. The Canadian boy wonder is simply the latest example of the media’s fetish of making kids more grown up than they actually are. Rolling Stone’s borderline comedic feature (and virtually no reader backlash) added to an ongoing problem.