After New Kids on the Block, Jonathan Knight, came out earlier this week to a chorus of sarcastic “who knew?” and “who cares?” Mary Elizabeth Williams of Salon.com took it upon herself to explain pre-teen gals attraction to gay pop stars. According to Williams, heartthrobs occupy a brief moment of innocence in a young girl’s sexual awakening. A time when a young girl “wants a boy like those purity vow-taking Jonas Brothers. A boy like Bieber. Gay or straight, it's their aura of youthful safety that makes these guys so huge, that makes it okay for a girl to scream her desire without ever feeling like she'll be challenged to prove it in the back of the tour bus.”
Oh, if only it were so simple Mary! Unfortunately, teen girls and their gay idols often break out of the sexual roles prescribed to them by the marketing division and the land of teen heartthrobs is as gender-bending and sexually transgressing as your average John Waters’ flick. There’s the teen idols who grow up gay; the teen idols who look gay, but aren’t (or maybe...); the teen idols who look like lesbians; and the girl who wants nothing more than for her favorite two heartthrobs to kiss while she watches. Oh, and then- and then! - there is Rock Hudson in Pillow Talk: A closeted gay man playing a straight playboy who pretends to be a neurotic fairy in order to snag an empowered modern business woman named Jan Morrow (Doris Day). What a tongue twister of a gender bender.
What exactly are we reading as gay here? If not the homoerotic subtext of pretty young boys gathering together to choreograph dance moves and get wet and semi-naked in places like showers, than we seem to be reading gay as young and effeminate boys who mince around singing pop songs. Though that may be a stereotype of gay men, it’s certainly not all gay men. It’s 2011, Williams, and burly masculine gay men called Bears exist and they have (facebook) advocacy groups. Knight’s successful packaging as harmless and pretty has nothing to do with the fact he grew up gay. He was harmless and pretty because he had androgynous and youthful effeminate features. To say otherwise smacks of a confusing essentialism that disavows masculine gay men and roots Knight’s homosexuality in his years in a boy band with the strange wink-wink nudge-nudge caveat a sissy boy once is a gay man always. There's nothing wrong with being effeminate and gay, or effeminate and straight, or masculine, hairy, and gay. The problem is when we align gender performance with sexual orientation at an age when a boy's lisp is beyond his control.
The lynchpin of a heartthrob’s success is not so much his gay aura as his androgyny. This androgyny creates a space where girls can both sexually pine for their idols and fantasize about being them. The 2010 bio-pic of The Runaways does an excellent job of charting how the carefully cultivated androgyny of glam-rockers like David Bowie and Lou Reed provided the cultural space for fans Joan Jett and Cherie Currie to cross the cock-rock barrier and form an all-girl teen rock band of their own. In the movie, Cherie’s first steps into the limelight take place with her in Ziggy Stardust drag at her high school talent show. With the conquering of Ziggy under her belt, Cherie is armed and ready to step out in front of real guitars and create her own rock'n'roll legacy. The tween girls’ sexual imagination is not so much innocent, as primal. It occurs at a time when they’re still learning to decode cultural symbols; making gender and sex as confusing and unknown as basic arithmetic.
Though record companies market boy bands as nonthreatening, this doesn’t mean their girl fans simply buy it hook, line, and sinker. The sexual frenzy induced by teen idols from Frank Sinatra to Justin Bieber is hysterical not because girls are, by nature, hysterical, but because girls- for the first time in their young lives- are given a chance to release that pent-up sexual energy in a space where they hold all the power. In the anonymous crowd, Bieber is not singling a girl out to provide masculine approval for her female sexuality. It’s the girls who are in charge: firmly appraising and ascribing value to the male pop star’s sexuality. For Bieber, that’s a value that cashes in at an estimated 5.5 million.
In a culture where girls are caught between the double-bind of Bratz dolls dressed up like porn stars and bizarre purity ring rituals where fathers vow to protect their daughters’ virginity; heartthrobs provide a space for a girl to express her sexual selves in as many ways she sees fit. Often, what girls do with these crushes is far from innocent. From crashing through police barriers in an attempt to touch the Beatles to creating online worlds of slash fanfiction (where fangirls take the homoerotic subtext of boy bands and make it very, very explicit); tween girls use their fandom as explorative space for their sexual desires. Heartthrob crush-hood is not about safety, but about transgressing the sexual binds our culture gives young girls and creating a space for themselves to explore their desires in many different shapes and forms. To say it’s anything less is to pay a great disservice to tweens and the heartthrobs they love everywhere.