It’s not sex, it’s “swagger”

bieber.jpgThe cover story of this weekend’s New York Times Style Section was a profile of Justin Bieber, the fifteen-year-old Youtube pop sensation who had four Billboard top-100 hits in 2009. The article focuses on his relationship with his single mother, and also with the unique challenges of being an international pop sensation before you’re old enough to have a learner’s permit. It covers his mentor-mentee relationship with R & B singer Usher, as well as with his image management team, which includes a “swagger coach.” But it also focuses quite heavily on the reactions Bieber inspires in his young female fans.
His hordes of female fans, some of them as young as ten, are described by the Times reporter as pouncing, shrieking “screamers,” and while their support is clearly crucial to Bieber’s success, their high-pitched omnipresence is depicted as a major challenge for the young star and his mother. On stage, Bieber is described as strutting, sauntering and smirking, and when he sprays a bottle of water on a crowd of screaming audience members, the reporter calls it a “rockstar move.”

I’ll be the first to admit that a crowd of shrieking pubescent girls
is annoying (though frankly, it’s only slightly more annoying than
Bieber’s music). But the article seems to imply that Bieber’s fans and
their high-pitched obsessive fandom are alarming, or even threatening.
Their harmless crushes on a pop star merit the kinds of words usually
reserved for cougars and other threatening forms of female sexuality.
“Pounced?” Come on.

Bieber, on the other hand, can strut and saunter as much as he
pleases. This is simply described as “living the tween idol dream,” of
which a horde of screaming fans is clearly a crucial component.
Bieber’s budding sexuality isn’t threatening; it’s simply a part of his

If we turn the equation around and make the pop sensation a young
woman, female sexuality is still a threat; witness the furor around
then-fifteen-year-old Miley Cyrus’ Vanity Fair cover shoot, in which she appeared, wrapped in a bedsheet, revealing an entire shoulder.

So the lesson here is that female sexuality, whether you’re
“screamer” or a starlet, is always cause for alarm. But if you’re a
budding male pop star, then Usher, the man whose most popular song is
about knocking up his mistress, is a totally appropriate role model.

New York, NY

Chloe Angyal is a journalist and scholar of popular culture from Sydney, Australia. She joined the Feministing team in 2009. Her writing about politics and popular culture has been published in The Atlantic, The Guardian, New York magazine, Reuters, The LA Times and many other outlets in the US, Australia, UK, and France. She makes regular appearances on radio and television in the US and Australia. She has an AB in Sociology from Princeton University and a PhD in Arts and Media from the University of New South Wales. Her academic work focuses on Hollywood romantic comedies; her doctoral thesis was about how the genre depicts gender, sex, and power, and grew out of a series she wrote for Feministing, the Feministing Rom Com Review. Chloe is a Senior Facilitator at The OpEd Project and a Senior Advisor to The Harry Potter Alliance. You can read more of her writing at

Chloe Angyal is a journalist and scholar of popular culture from Sydney, Australia.

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Join the Conversation

  • Comrade Kevin

    Again, the conventional wisdom is that women must be protected from themselves and their own supposedly bad decisions, while men are actively encouraged to be devil-may-care. It is a double standard and it speaks volumes about our expectations as a society.

  • Rubbersoul4163

    It’s like a resurrection of the moral panic that ensued after the arrival of the Beatles, when young female sexuality was blatant and unrepentant because of four mop tops. However, with two caveats: that the Beatles were actually worth shrieking over, and that because of the cultural zeitgeist they entered, they were perceived as a march larger threat than this guy ever will be. the beatles touched on all of society, not just the tween set. However, I guess for the people that care enough, this guy’s sexuality and the young tweens that cheer for him is cause for concern. the “swagger” thing really bugs me though.

  • Floyd_Fino

    Not really, if this kid wrap himself up in a bedsheet and posed for the cover of vanity fair then just the same amount of people would be werided out by it. The problem with Hannah Montana and others like her is that young girls tend to imitate more then idolize ,hence why they had such a problem with the cover shoot and the pole dancing.

  • Sigmund

    I’m glad this is being discussed, actually. Just the other day I saw an interview with Justin Bieber on TV, and I remember feeling somewhat uncomfortable while watching, though I couldn’t put my finger on why. Now, of course, it seems more obvious.
    Really, you have to appreciate the irony of his whole “swagger” image. It’s quite clearly sexual, and the minute his young, female fans respond to it, they get bashed. Yet if they didn’t respond to it, Bieber would probably just end up looking ridiculous (well, more than he already does). His whole image is based off the reactions he gets from his fans, yet these same fans are supposedly a “challenge” for him?

  • bluebarracuda

    It’s dangerous for young girls to imitate the sexuality they see in the media, but not dangerous for young boys to do the same? Or did you mean that young boys won’t imitate what they see in the media? Either way, I’m not sure you understood the point of the post.

  • Tara K.

    Actually, I think quite the opposite can be said.
    When young female pop performers (Britney Spears) are oggled by older (even slightly older) men in the U.S., we as feminists tend to slam them for the perverse nature of desiring someone younger. We write about infantalization, sexualizing young women, and the power dynamics at play.
    When a young male star, however, receives similar attention, we generally consider the attention from older women to be innocuous. I’m thinking of the lust that’s been directed toward Taylor Lautner (of Twilight, New Moon). When older women have commented on how sexy they find him publicly on news shows and so forth, it’s been viewed as totally unthreatening, whereas the same would never be said for adult men who vocalized similar thoughts about Spears when she was 17 (the ag e of Lautner).
    Now I’m not saying that male/female power dynamics aren’t different, and there’s obviously a difference between how younger fans and older fans sexualize a pop icon. BUT I think the point remains that we — even we as FEMINISTS — are quick to defend (i.e. assume she needs defense) a young female pop icon who is publicly sexualized MORE than a young male who goes through the same.

  • TigerLily

    Forgive me, but this is driving me crazy: what Usher song is about “knocking up his mistress”? I’m not denying it exists- nearly every song on “Confessions” is about cheating- the title is just escaping me.

  • MaggieDanger

    I agree that PURPOSELY making someone under 18 a sexual public figure is creepy and exploitative. The stuff with Miley Cyrus bothered me, the stuff with Taylor Lautner bothered me. I don’t blame the idols in question, though – I blame the adults around them. Cyrus’s family is clearly in on all her marketing stuff, and Lautner assumedly has a small army of PR people. All those media-savvy adults thought, “Yeah, you’re never too young to oversexualize yourself, this is in his/her best interest”? These are not teenagers who choose to have sex with their teenage peers. These are teenagers who are mainstream media sex symbols being consumed by the entire public–including people much older than their loyal teenage fans.
    I don’t mind some people being sex symbols in mainstream media, but I mind when those people are minors. But I agree that there’s a double-standard in how these sexualized minors are treated…I haven’t heard anyone “blame” Lautner for his marketing the way I’ve heard Cyrus being blamed, for example. (Yet I wonder if that’s partially because Cyrus is a much more powerful icon with more perceived power in her marketing…)

  • Qantaqa

    Actually, I find your example as equally disturbing. I admit I haven’t followed the Twilight trend terribly closely, but if I focus on the idea of women my age/my mother’s age seeing a 17-or-less-yea-old as anything other than “cute”, a word devoid of all sexuality, then I get fairly creeped out. I know 17 is an arbitrary age to deem as the last year of sexual immaturity, but I think 15 is definitely still pubescent enough to be unsettling.
    This is possibly due in part to the societal impetus to see older women as “motherly” towards those of a younger set, but while that may be influencing my view, I view men lusting after Britney as equally disturbing. The point is I find child sexuality to be problematic regardless of gender (because I really believe them to still be children; heck, I’m 24 and I still feel like a child sometimes, and even at this age, you have a lot of growing to do before you understand yourself and your sexuality).

  • LalaReina

    Never heard of him.

  • vegkitty

    I think it’s the song “Confessions.” I only know the words because of “Glee,” but the lyrics go:
    Just when I thought I said
    All I could say
    My chick on the side
    Says she got one on the way

  • ticker

    Agree with those who said it’s not quite as simple as saying that Bieber’s sexuality is seen as OK, while that of his fans is not, and inverting the genders doesn’t provide a mirror image of the issues.
    What interested me is that despite the heavy presence in the story of various coaches, Usher, and his mother, Bieber is seen as his own person and in charge of his career, whereas most female musicians of his age have been generally portrayed (by feminists and music writers alike) as puppets being controlled by various evil agents, as victims of their own sexuality or of society’s sexualization of their personas, or as vapid idiots.