The Teen Idol Planes of Enlightenment
When I want to call back a certain period in my 1970s girlhood, all I have to do is say aloud to myself: "Leif!: Shirtless!" That's an actual cover line from Tiger Beat, a fan magazine that once targeted teenage girls. Tiger Beat had a chaotic, cluttered photo layout style. Dozens of boys' pictures were crammed together into a patchwork quilt of pretty boy photographs, surrounded by exclamatory headlines. "Donny! Leif! David! Bobby! Robby! Shaun!" A young girl would purchase an issue of Tiger Beat, hide it from disapproving parents (who generally considered it "trash" and a waste of allowance money) and smuggle it to school as a valuable piece of barter in the daily popularity competition. We passed it between our desks during class, hiding it on our laps, inside our math books. We clustered together in the school cafeteria & after school, staring at the pictures on its pages. Eventually, after the magazine had been thoroughly paged over & discussed, we took our scissors to it & dismembered it, pasting the pictures on our bedroom walls, our notebook covers, our locker doors. Choosing a particular pretty boy to obsess over helped you construct an identity: You became "the girl who liked so-and-so." And hearing the alpha girls gush over certain boy stars taught you what was acceptable, what your local community standards were regarding male beauty and the state of being a "hottie."
The boys in Tiger Beat were uniformly beautiful. They had clear skin, long-lashed, beautiful eyes, and pillowy lips. Compared with the Calvin Klein underwear models and the boys on the Abercrombie shopping bags, they weren't very muscular; they had slender, hairless chests, and were rather long-waisted and lean, nearly hipless, wearing the low-riding jeans that have come back into style again. Some cursory text beside the photos told us the boys' favorite things to do and favorite colors, which we dutifully memorized, as if for a pop quiz. The boys never mentioned drugs or alcohol. The profiles were serious stuff. (No boy would have called "cocaine" his favorite food, for instance, although, this being the 1970s, this would have been likely true for several boys.)
Anyway, the whole point of Tiger Beat was less its lists of factoids than the pictures. The photos in the magazine were borderline pedophilia. The stylists at the photo shoots must have done some time at Playboy, or, more probably, at gay men's porn magazines. The boys leaned languorously. Their shirts flapped open or were missing entirely. Sometimes, in the most daring pictures, the top button of their pants was unsnapped. But they never had body hair. Ever. No tufts of underarm hair, no trail of pubic hair starting under their belly buttons. They were displayed for our delectation, lying back with their arms behind their heads, or sprawled on their sides. Nevertheless, we weren't really encouraged to imagine an actual, naked boy. As far as the magazines were concerned, these boys had no penises. No lumps in their jeans, no speculation on whether they dressed left or right. Their penises were the elephant in the room that everyone ignored and refused to talk about. The magazines were not concerned with the biology class or bathroom aspects of sex. They were all about dreams and longing.
Because the magazines and the boys in them taught me so well about dreams and longing, there's a residual fondness still inside me for all the pretty boys of the 1970s. I didn't realize it then, but these boys in their magazines were like a set of training wheels. We needed them until we knew how to keep our balance and coast along on our own. Over the years, from my prepubescence to adulthood, they have taught me about the following subjects:
1. Male beauty. Without these boys, we might have thought that the boys that we grew up beside in grade school & in the neighborhood were healthy & attractive kids. But once we'd seen the teen idols, with their straight white teeth, their symmetrical cheekbones and their blow-dried hair, we realized physical perfection is attainable & that we should treat any man who did not live up to those standards as if he were second-class goods. In order to deserve such beautiful men, of course, we would have to become their female equivalent. Thus, obsession with ideal standards of beauty led to self-examination and … well, girls, you know.
2. Obsession and the cult of celebrity. Once, we actually believed that after the TV was turned off, or the song stopped playing on the radio, it was OK to stop thinking about the actor or singer. We'd already rewarded him with our attention & the transaction had been successfully completed; we should have been able to get on with our lives. We didn't know, until trained properly, that we were supposed to keep thinking about him, that we should purchase objects with his face printed on them, that we should want to read about him, learn about his personal life. Teen idols taught us proper merchandising and consumption and People-magazine-reading habits.
3. Sex. Daydream sex was always going to be better than reality. No birth control, no gel, no foam, no stains on the sheets. No odors. No background noise. No week's worth of unwashed clothes lying around the bedroom floor. No concern about coming, about performance. Just us and the beautiful boy with no penis melting together in some vague, undefined union. This, of course, would lead to a healthy first sexual experience and a lifetime of realistic expectations regarding sex and relationships.
4. Gender relations. You shouldn't talk about the boys in magazines with real-life boys (unless you did so with your friend, the gay boy who nobody knew yet was gay). Real-life boys despised the pretty boys & made fun of them savagely. And they also disparaged your female-specific stupidity and poor taste in adoring them. Especially, real-life boys despised the pretty boys' records. Your brother or your friend next door (the boy you grew up with) would scratch or break your Leif Garrett records, if you left them alone together unsupervised. Thus began my years of listening to self-appointed male rock critics laying down the law on musical taste: any music liked mostly by women is inherently inferior. And, of course, once a pretty boy is tarred and feathered by a straight male music-listening audience as "sort of gay-looking," he will never be allowed to settle into a respectable, mid-level rocker existence, no matter how many guitar chords he learns or how much jaw stubble he sprouts or how many Jersey dive bars he plays.
5. Changing tastes. Time passes; people get older. One day, an 18-year-old girl is cleaning out her room before packing to go away to college & finds a stash of old Tiger Beats, or a folded-up pinup poster. She feels less tender toward it than she does toward her old Barbie dolls. It reminds her of awkwardness, zit-squeezing and training bras. Faced with this evidence of a gauche past self, she feels humiliated and wants only to obliterate any physical evidence. By then, she has acquired a taste for chest hair and a working knowledge of sex. It's embarrassing to be confronted by her own former ignorance and naivete. She consigns these artifacts to a storage box. If she can bring herself to keep them, she will proceed to the next plane of teen idol enlightenment, which is ….
6. Nostalgia and tolerance for human frailty. Eventually, she lives through a lot of actual human relationships with less-than-perfect people. She comes to value them, warts and all, more than she ever did the filmed traces of holographic actors and recorded voices. She comes also to love who she once was. Any reminder of the lost era of her life will move her to tears and affection. So she will, once again, care a little for Leif Garrett. Depending on her tolerance for nostalgia – which is really a kind of grief mingled with love -- she will 1) make a point of watching "Behind the Music" to see what happened to those pretty boys' hairlines, and to compare them with her husband; 2) spring for tickets for a girls' night out, to join old girlfriends in watching the former pretty boys playing in second- or third-class concert venues; and 3) more or less understand her own children's addiction to Justin Timberlake and Britney Spears. In them, the cycle begins again.
7. Cultural artifact studies. All the
junk of your girlhood is still circling in outer space, like the rings
of Saturn, on the eBay Web site. If you want any of it badly enough, and
if you have the cash, you can find it. If not, there are people who will
pay good money for your 1970s Tiger Beat issues. By now, however,
it should feel sort of illegal for you to be gazing lustfully at boys
who are nearly the same age as your daughter's classmates. If you feel
completely alienated from your former self, and your sexuality is sort
of twisted, you realize, looking at "Leif!: Shirtless!" this
is exactly the kind of thing you should be crusading against: the sexual
exploitation of minors. So the pretty boys could, eventually, end up giving
you a completely new purpose in life.
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