Justin Beiber is not a victim

15 Dec

If, like me, you cannot resist pop culture news, you may be aware that a paternity suit was brought then dropped against 17 year old pop star Justin Bieber.

His accuser, a 20 year old “fan”, has claimed that she and Bieber had sex last year. When the singer was 16 years old.

While the earliest stories covering this litigation mention this fact, I was struck by just that: that Bieber’s age only got a mention. For example, in its first article about the paternity suit, People magazine noted almost as an aside:

“The allegations are further complicated by the age gap between Bieber and Mariah Yeater, the fan making the claims. In California, the age of consent is 18, and the teen idol would have been 16 when the alleged sexual encounter occurred” (http://www.people.com/people/article/0,,20541938,00.html).

The rest of the article is dedicated to some sordid details of the alleged encounter and competing she-said, he-said claims–with no further mention or explanation of the “complications” that Bieber’s age presented.

And so the frenzy of coverage continued across print and internet media, with a small but notable silence in the middle of it all.

Two weeks after the story first broke, I finally saw it. Rolling Stone published an update on the scandal that spelled out the Bieber “complication”:

“If Yeater’s allegations were proven to be true, police told the Associated Press that she could be investigated for statutory rape” (http://www.rollingstone.com/music/news/justin-bieber-paternity-suit-dropped-20111116).

There it is: rape. That word that took approximately 14 days of avid coverage to surface. Longer than I imagine it would take for the press to mention statutory rape if the story were about someone claiming to have sex with a 16 year old girl. About 14 days longer, to be exact.

Given that statutory rape is both sensationalistic fodder for tabloids and straight-up fact for reputable news sources, it’s both intriguing and obvious why it’s been so glaringly omitted from Bieber news: rape happens to girls.

That, of course, is not true. (See anti-sexual assault organizations RAINN and One in Four for statistics.) However, this myth is part of our social narrative about women and men, and about femininity and masculinity.

And perpetuating traditional notions about gender and power is part of the Bieber persona. To be clear, this is Justin Bieber: 

Bieber embodies a mix of first boyfriend/good “just a friend”/younger brother/choir boy/darling rascal. He’s an impeccably coiffed and dressed teen. He sings about young love. He has nail polish and perfume lines. He’s hardly the poster boy for Manly Men. In fact, there’s a Facebook page devoted to people who agree “The Powerpuff Girls are more masculine than Justin Bieber!” But this is all applying a narrow, stereotypical, default notion of “masculine.” 

To be clear, when we talk about sex, we’re talking about biology: what reproductive organs we have and how that identifies us as male, female or intersex. When we talk about gender, we’re talking about notions of masculinity and femininity–in other words, our socially constructed ideas of how men and women should appear, behave and even feel. And when we talk about sexuality, we’re talking about emotional and sexual attractions and behaviors. 

While sex, gender and sexuality are related, they do not determine each other. But that doesn’t stop us from insisting that boys and men fulfill certain expectations of masculinity, and when they don’t, from assuming that they’re gay. Justin Bieber is a classic example: as a (in some ways) non-traditionally masculine male, he is a lightning rod for gay speculation (adolescent boys who can’t fathom his appeal sling homophobic epithets to describe him, and the internet is abuzz with stories about Bieber coming out).

So what do I mean when I claim that perpetuating traditional notions about gender and power is part of the Bieber persona? Check out the lyrics from his hit song “Baby” (I’ll keep it short–it’s mind-numbing reading):

Baby, baby, baby oooh

Like baby, baby, baby nooo

Like baby, baby, baby oooh

I thought you’d always be mine (mine)


For you I would have done whatever

And I just can’t believe we ain’t together

And I wanna play it cool, but I’m losin’ you

I’ll buy you anything, I’ll buy you any ring

And I’m in pieces, baby fix me

And just shake me ’til you wake me from this bad dream

I’m going down, down, down, down

And I just can’t believe my first love won’t be around

With his soft tenor, Bieber hits all the notes of the traditional love song boyfriend:

  • calling his girl “baby”
  • asserting his ability to care for her by buying her “anything”
  • offering “any ring” to make her happy
  • trying to “play it cool” but loving her so much that he’s willing to seem uncool/unmanly in front of her

He doesn’t have to swagger or punch the other guy out to be masculine: he asserts his gender identity through crooning about how much he loves his baby. Tellingly, the video for this song features a giant neon King Kong and his iconic blonde baby in the background, letting us know that no matter how poppy and frothy Bieber may sound, he is part of the very masculine tradition of men laying claim to their women.)

So when some older female fan claims to have sex with Bieber, it’s just part of the fame game. In fact, a baby-daddy accusation is arguably good for his masculine credibility. However, when that claim would mean that he was raped, it’s another thing entirely for the sweet-faced teenage singer who relies on his soft but masculine persona for his success. It’s a triple threat to his maleness, his masculinity and his heterosexuality because even though the alleged encounter was heterosexual, “rape” casts him as the passive, submissive, weaker and ultimately “feminine” partner.

Regarding the statutory rape possibility, Steve Cron, a California defense lawyer, told the New York Post: “Under a normal situation, no harm, no foul … I would think [prosecutors] might let it go. But under these circumstances, the DA’s office has to show they’re not treating women differently, not treating a celebrity differently, [and] they might have to do something” (http://www.foxnews.com/entertainment/2011/11/02/la-woman-claims-justin-bieber-is-father-her-baby/).

While Cron doesn’t explicitly include the importance of the DA’s office not treating male victims of rape differently, it’s implied. As if to call it out is just over the line of what needs to or should be said. Maybe we’ve come far enough to recognize women as aggressors, but, baby, we have a ways to go before we can acknowledge men as their victims–at least in crimes of rape. 

Bieber’s own statement about the paternity suit perhaps says it best: “None of those allegations are true.  I know I am going to be a target, but I am never going to be a victim” (Today Show, 11/04/11).

Never a victim. While he was ostensibly responding to a question about his alleged paternity, it seems to me he’s really defending much more than that.

I’m not sure how or why there has been a collective muting around the r-word in the Bieber case, but I suspect it’s a collaborative effort, among a gender-conforming mainstream media, the gender image conscious team around the singer, and a gender-traditional public. And while Bieber, his career and the fantasies of his pubescent female fans may benefit from preserving his perceived masculinity, the traditional gender stereotypes that have created silence, shame and avoidance around this case don’t help other victims of rape: male, female, intersex, transsexual, transgender, feminine and masculine.

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