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Pop sensation Justin Bieber performs during his "My World Tour" concert at Foro Sol in Mexico City, Saturday Oct. 1, 2011. Representatives for Bieber say they will "vigorously" pursue their legal options to defend against allegations that he fathered the child of a now 20-year-old California woman. (Marco Ugarte/CP)
Pop sensation Justin Bieber performs during his "My World Tour" concert at Foro Sol in Mexico City, Saturday Oct. 1, 2011. Representatives for Bieber say they will "vigorously" pursue their legal options to defend against allegations that he fathered the child of a now 20-year-old California woman. (Marco Ugarte/CP)

Leah McLaren

Does the Biebs need a lesson in manhood? Add to ...

The comment strand under the MTV News page on Facebook, titled Watch Bieber Fight Back!, is telling. Among other things, it seems to reveal a recent shift in public perception of the star Vanity Fair hailed earlier this year as “the most popular 16-year-old on the planet.”

Brandy Osbourne, a crazy-eyed teen brunette, writes, “He thinks he’s slick hooking up with all these girls and eh [sic]really thinks it would not catch up with him come on … Quit having sex we don’t want a baby bieber ONE’s enough to deal with.” Caitlin Ducote (nickname: Caitybug OctoberSweetie) is somewhat more measured: “thats jus soo stupid, that gurl relly needs to get a life, bc shes incapabale of ruining his. he can be a target, but never a victim!! (i used words, and i dont kno if i kno wat they mean).” [Sic ad infinitum.]Jesse Corona, who shares only some information with everyone, pipes in, “Who cares … I just want Gaga news!”

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What does this sampling of opinion reveal about the social-networking youth of today, apart from an impressive facility with Chaucerian English?

It shows us that they are coming of age in a world in which the idea that an underage teen idol may have fathered a child out of wedlock with an older groupie still has the power to rile fans (or at least get them to declare a preference for Lady Gaga, who, one suspects, never has sex with anyone on account of the horns and meat dresses).

Bracketing for the moment the pressing question of whether Stratford, Ont.’s own boy wonder actually engaged in what 20-year-old single mother Mariah Yeater has described to a U.S. tabloid as “a 30-second sexual encounter” backstage after a concert last year, let’s consider the sexual history, and career progress, of another famous teen idol named Justin.

The Biebs and his glossy-haired Disney-star girlfriend Selena Gomez have long (and by “long,” I mean for the 10 days or so) put me in mind of an earlier pair of canoodling Mouseketeers, Justin Timberlake and Britney Spears. Remember them? (If you’re among those posting comments on the MTV news page, probably not.)

Way back at the turn of the century, that earlier singing, dancing, schoolgirl-crush-inducing Justin was himself a boy star on the cusp of monumental change. I currently feel the same way about Bieber as I did about Timberlake in the late nineties; and by that, I mean I’d happily muss his swoop, but that’s about it. This is only appropriate, of course: He is technically, and by most legal standards, a child.

These days, Justin II’s own seemingly unlimited star quality is entering a tricky liminal stage: He must, very soon, make a smooth transition from child star to heartthrob if he is to keep his brand alive and the money rolling in. The only way he can do that is to expand his crush base to include grown women who would, in his current incarnation, dismiss him as a sexless teenage girly boy.

Women, in other words, like me.

And how do women like me feel about the original Justin these days, now that he has successfully all grown up? Well, let’s just say I made a point of seeing Friends With Benefits, and it wasn’t in the hope of seeing that sour-faced girl from Black Swan with her shirt off.

Timberlake was able to effectively navigate the transition from boy star to manly celeb partly as a result of his much-publicized teen relationship with Spears, which began in 1999. At the time, Brit was one of the biggest stars in the world, a girl who plied her sexy hit parade on a tantalizing mantle of innocence. Dating Timberlake brought her virginity into question, in addition to reigniting the long-raging and utterly pointless debate over the veracity of her breasts.

And it was assumed Timberlake was a willing and grateful recipient of whatever physical access Britney was willing to allow him. Eventually, he broke up with her (she was but the first in a string of Timberlake dumpees) and Brit went on to marry a fat, feckless backup dancer, shave her head and lose custody of her children. Today, Britney’s a punchline of a never-ending comeback story.

Timberlake, on the other hand, parlayed his sexually charged relationship with Spears into a boy-to-man transition that ended in his becoming one of the most successful and versatile stars of his generation.

Bieber’s predicament is, of course, a bit trickier than his precursor’s. There is the possibility of statutory-rape charges being laid against Yeater if the paternity test Bieber has said he will take comes up positive. There is also, of course, the possibility of the pop star ending up not merely the world’s most famous sexual philanderer, but its most infamous teen father.

Working for Bieber, however, is the fact that in the decade or so since Timberlake may or may not have deflowered Britney, teen culture has gone from slightly risqué to unapologetically sexualized. Where a notch on the celebrity bedpost once served its purpose in image terms, these days a paternity suit might just do the trick. It is already completely assumed that Bieber and Gomez are lovers. (As I write this, they are on a “romantic visit” to Paris, coinciding with the promotional tour for the Biebs’s new album.)

But like all child stars, Bieber is growing up way too fast. One day, I’m sure, he’ll make a decent father. In the meantime, let’s hope Mariah Yeater was not his lover (even just for 30 seconds), and that her kid, who’s not even six months old, is not Justin Jr.

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