Earlier this year, I attended the Chicago première of the Justin Bieber biopic/propaganda film Never Say Never, which featured a purple carpet (purple is JBiebs’ favorite color), a cardboard standee of the man(child) himself for photo-taking purposes, gift bags containing purple glowsticks, and a hundred or so teenage girls screaming for their idol. A few months later, I attended the dual New Kids On The Block/Backstreet Boys (now collectively known as NKOTBSB) tour at Allstate Arena, which featured homemade clothing made out of old New Kids bed sheets, yard-long frozen margaritas on sale for $12, a hand-written sign reading “Mrs. Wahlberg,” and thousands of former teenage girls screaming for their former idols. Both scenarios probably sound like many people’s idea of hell, but I was once a teenage girl myself, and attending these events stirred up an uncomfortable emotional soup of nostalgia, shame, affection, and scorn.
Even though I resented the Bieber movie for its disingenuous portrayal of the singer’s ascent to stardom, watching groups of young female fans cry, hug each other, and wave glowsticks in the air during musical numbers—both onscreen and in the movie theater I sat in—was pretty powerful. I mean, when was the last time you were at a movie where people waved glowsticks? There are precious few segments of the population capable of that sort of pure, unbridled, high-pitched enthusiasm without some sort of chemical stimulant involved. The collective force of teen-girl idolatry could power a nuclear sub, and it’s awesome to experience in its natural state. But once you’ve outgrown it, or when it’s mirrored back to you through the distorted lens of nostalgia, it becomes a little, well… unsettling.
Witness Elliott Sharp’s piece “You Can’t Crawl Back Into The Culture Womb” on our Philadelphia site; it posits that we can’t repeat that feeling of teen-idol fandom once it’s passed its expiration date. More importantly, though, witness the response to Sharp’s piece: 600-plus comments split between grown-ass New Kids/Backstreet fans defending themselves or attacking Sharp, and people mocking them for liking something so stupid. There’s a similar sort of derision leveled at women appropriating current teen-girl obsessions as adults: Observe the thinly veiled mockery of adult female Twilight fans, or “Twi-moms,” among both the general population and their teenage counterparts. What is it about adults—specifically adult women—clinging to teenage nostalgia that seems to irk us so?
It’s important to realize that the hysteria we see in teenage girls reacting to a Bieber or a Jonas or an Edward or a Jacob isn’t really about that particular pop-culture entity; it’s about community. The turnover rate on teen-idol fixations is extremely high—New Kids become Backstreet Boys become Jonases become Biebers in the blink of an eye—but the frantic, high-pitched response from teenage girls toward these figures has remained consistent through the decades. Because it isn’t about loving that person, but rather loving the same person as your friends, the sense of belonging that comes from being part of a group with a shared fixation. And there is nothing more important to teenagers—teenage girls in particular—than being part of a group. Throw in a healthy dose of hormones, and you have a potent emotional cocktail that borders on narcotic. I remember that feeling; it was amazing. Who wouldn’t want to recapture that sensation as an adult, when things are infinitely more drab and boring than they were during adolescence? But as with actual narcotics, there’s a sort of illicit aura surrounding this feeling that we become more aware of as we get older: Enjoying the things you enjoyed as a teenager, and doing so as loudly and enthusiastically as you did then, implies immaturity, poor judgment, and lack of self-awareness. To put it bluntly, it implies you’re stupid and pathetic.
Yet I know several highly educated, gainfully employed, socially adept women who are thrilled at the idea of attending a NKOTBSB concert, going to the latest Twilight movie, or, to incorporate another medium, picking up Sweet Valley Confidential, the recent “adult” sequel to the ’80s and ’90s YA publishing juggernaut Sweet Valley High. But we do so with an apologetic shrug or a shroud of protective irony that I rarely see in men going to see a new G.I. Joe or Transformers movie. And that has very little to do with the subject matter—sparkly vampires are no more or less silly than robot cars from outer space—but rather with the different ways girls and boys (and women and men) process and express their fandom.
Forgive me for speaking in generalities for the sake of starting a dialogue, and there’s surely a mountain of anecdotal evidence to the contrary, but in general, teen girls are much more expressive about the things they love than their male counterparts. There’s a reason the squealing, hyperventilating teenage girl has become a pop-culture cliché, dating back even past The Beatles, Elvis, and Frank Sinatra, all of whom certainly had young fans in possession of a Y chromosome, though we rarely think of them when we think of the mania surrounding those acts. Girls are more vocal about their emotions and obsessions, and I believe that carries over to the way we interact with those former obsessions as adult women: We either embrace it in the same loud, communal manner that we did as teenagers and face the scorn of others, or we project our shame in a similarly vocal manner in order to absolve ourselves of the sin of nostalgia. (Since we’re playing the stereotype game, I’d posit that the “male” counterpart to this is a more aggressive, personalized response, i.e. “Transformers sucked! Michael Bay raped my childhood!”)
But ladies, why must we shame ourselves and others? Is this form of nostalgia really any different or less valid than collecting action figures or reading superhero comics or writing pop-cultural thinkpieces on Saved By The Bell? All are simply ways for us to incorporate our childhood fascinations—or obsessions—into our adult lives and imbue them with some sort of importance that justifies our continued fascination. Is throwing on your spangliest halter top and going out with your married girlfriends to watch 40-year-old men in satin suits sing and dance really any stupider than dressing like a Stormtrooper and walking around a convention center getting autographs from Star Wars extras? Both activities boil down to the same combination of nostalgia and community. So why can’t we afford NKOTBSB fans and Twi-moms the same indulgence we do Trekkies? (Yes, Trekkies and Star Wars fanatics receive their fair share of ribbing as well, but I’d argue that as “nerd culture” becomes ever more pervasive, there’s a much greater sense of “live and let live” surrounding them.) By its very nature, nostalgia is selective, personal, and yes, silly, and applying qualitative assessments to it is pointless. (And frankly, kinda jerky.)
It’s tempting—really tempting—to draw dividing lines among female-targeted entertainment, male-targeted entertainment, and gender-neutral entertainment, and the qualitative assumptions applied to each, but that’s a difficult, ranging topic that deserves a complete essay of its own. I will simply say that, as someone who tends to cover things for The A.V. Club that fall along the “girly” spectrum, I get a strong sense that entertainment targeted specifically at young girls—one of the most powerful consumer demographics, by the way—is generally a harder sell to the population at large.
However, a recent niche pop-cultural fascination represents a potential evolution in this schism: the unexpected unisex popularity of the children’s television show My Little Pony: Friendship Is Magic, specifically the cult of “bronies,” or adult male Pony fanboys. It’s hard to think of something that screams “for young girls” more than the big-eyed, Lisa Frank-colored ponies that fascinated young girls in the ’80s, yet adult male fans are embracing this revival as a paragon of the “neo-sincerity” movement. Friendship Is Magic and bronies certainly inspire confusion and even mockery from the general population, but their genesis in and acceptance by stereotypically judgmental online forums like 4Chan suggests a potential for “girly” entertainment to be folded into the same warm embrace “nerd culture” has enjoyed in recent years.
Or maybe it’s just an unrelated anomaly, the ouroborus of online irony circling back on itself. Frankly, I’m not sure what it means yet, especially since My Little Pony has its own nostalgic baggage for women today. But I hope it points toward an increasingly tolerant view of sincere, enthusiastic, irony-free enjoyment of youth culture and nostalgia, and that the teenage Justin Bieber fans of today will be able to squeal along to his 2025 comeback concert, free of shame or scorn.