The Modern Teen

Inside the mind of the American teen

Why Girls Get Bieber Fever: Hollywood, Are You Listening?

Compared to boys, girls seem far more crazed towards their young crushes. Why?

About a week ago, on New Year's Eve, I sat with my family and friends watching Dick Clark's New Years special on which a combined New Kids on the Block (NKOTB) and Backstreet Boys (BSB) "supergroup" performed a medley of their hits, complete with signature dance moves. I had two reactions to this performance. First, music died a little for me on that night. Second, I wondered how this atrocity of the entertainment industry had come to pass.

I have never been a fan of either of these two groups, both created by the same svengali of the boy band industry. (I hear he has since been convicted of participation in a Ponzi scheme, although I still contend that his contribution to the devolvement of modern music is the greater crime). I admit, therefore, that my expectations were low when Ryan Seacrest announced their upcoming performance.

Still, I was not prepared for what I saw. Grown men struggled to recapture the look, the sound, and perhaps the fame and fortune of their youths. Their shrieks of desperation easily overpowered their melodies, and their dance moves were overshadowed by obvious attempts to lure fans to an inevitable subsequent tour. In a cynical moment, one could easily imagine an entertainment executive pitching the idea for this NKOTB/BSB merger to the forgotten, aging members of these groups. I would suspect that someone told them that they would evoke nostalgia among the now 30-something women who remembered them as their first crushes, and they would develop a new fan base of among today's teenagers who are enamored by the similarly dance-happy, synthesized sounds of Ke$ha et al. Publicity was promised, screaming throngs of women and girls were expected, and a resurrection to the relevance of pop culture was anticipated.

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Interestingly, such a pitch would not be too far from what we know about adolescent development. More specifically, why is it that the entertainment industry is, in some part, most strongly dominated by the whims of preadolescent girls? Whether it is music (e.g., boy bands, Justin Bieber) or movies (e.g., Titanic, Twilight), tween girls' crushes = profits. Equally so, potential role models for preadolescent girls (Hannah Montana, any Kardashian, etc.) also yield cash, and lots of it. It would be obvious to point to science fiction (Avatar), action (Iron Man), it-girls (Megan Fox), and our male-dominated society as a counterpoint. But more surprisingly and interestingly, Hollywood is an 12 year old girl's world, and we all just live in it.

What is it like to be a 12-year-old girl?
Research suggests that girls today are developing more quickly than ever before. For many, their bodies are developing rapidly in preadolescence, but they are still expected to act, think, and behave like a small child. Moreover, they have at least a couple of years to wait until male peers catch up with them physically and emotionally. Research suggests that young preadolescent girls already perceive marked discrepancies between their pre-pubertal bodies and their ideal body shapes, their fears and concerns about succeeding in social venues (especially in romantic endeavors) are disturbingly high, and their desire to be liked by others is paramount. In adolescence, the extent to which you perceive you are liked by others is related to subsequent feelings about yourself more so than at any other time in development.

Enter the boy band. Or any other male prototype of a young, not sexually threatening, highly popular object of affection. This icon can serve many important psychological functions for the tween girl. She may develop romantic feelings directed toward him, but because he has the image of purity and gentleness, she does not need to imagine the pressure of assertive sexual advances she is not ready for. He sings about unconditional love and acceptance, devotion, and romance. To the insecure tween girl who frets about her appearance, this is music to her ears. And as one of the most popular people on the planet, his acceptance translates to the highest sense of her own self worth.

A similar argument can apply to the female role models that preadolescents worship. It is important that she is physically flawless. That is the dream that our media has perpetually projected to young girls as the standard for acceptance. But it also is important that she displays some weakness that makes her relatable. Perhaps she has widely publicized relationship difficulties (yes, Kim Kardashian, that's you), maybe she is a little confused (Jessica Simpson, are you listening), or maybe she is struggling with her own identity issues (pre-pot smoking Miley Cirus, sound familiar?). These types of attributes make her relatable to what preadolescents themselves are going through.

Have you heard the screams of tween girls at the sight of one of these first-crush boys or role model girls? From the days of The Beatles and Elvis all the way to Justin Bieber today, these are the screams of every dream coming true.

Are adult women interested in reliving that time in their lives during their 30s? NKOTB/BSB certainly hopes so.

Copyright © 2011, Mitch Prinstein. All rights reserved.

Mitch Prinstein, Ph.D., is a Distinguished Term Professor and the Director of Clinical Psychology at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. He writes about clinical adolescent psychology.

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