Dzhokhar Tsarnaev's Female Supporters Are Not 'Fangirls'

The women of the "Free Jahar movement" have a variety of reasons for defending the alleged Boston bomber, none of which have to do with romantic or maternal feelings.
Brian Snyder/Reuters

Since the April 19th capture of Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, the young man allegedly responsible, along with his now deceased older brother, for this year's Boston Marathon bombings, media outlets have anxiously observed the development of the "Free Jahar movement." Less a typical protest group and more a loosely affiliated confederation of conspiracy theorists, Tsarnaev sympathizers, and anti-government dissenters, these individuals communicate mainly through social media sites like Tumblr and Twitter, where they keep up to date on the latest developments in Tsarnaev's trial by tagging pictures and text posts with #FreeJahar. The Twitter account devoted to the cause, @FreeJahar, has fewer than 2,000 followers. The handful of Tumblr accounts devoted to the same purpose use hashtags to indicate posts related to Dzhokhar, allowing for easy, anonymous perusal.

Those who support Tsarnaev have a variety of reasons for doing so. Some believe he is innocent, and that the marathon bombings were perpetrated by the U.S. government. Others believe that Tsarnaev's rights were violated during and shortly after his capture, while others fear that he will be subject to the death penalty, which they oppose. Yet despite the fact that conspiracy theories and their adherents abound all over the web, it is the primarily female users of these social media outlets who have been, despite their varied reasons for supporting Tsarnaev, uniformly reviled as a single entity in the media.

To properly smear Tsarnaev's female supporters, it was first necessary to lump them together in a gender-based cadre stripped of whatever affiliations they may have ascribed to themselves: Tsarnaev fangirls. In a May 22nd opinion piece in the Los Angeles Times, Charlotte Allen transforms a profoundly varied series of beliefs into a single vulgar premise:

These besotted double-X chromosome-bearers feel sorry for "Jahar,"[...]The fangirls think Dzkokhar was a naive campus weedhead who fell victim to the influence of his jihad-obsessed 26-year-old brother. Or they think both brothers fell victim to a complex conspiracy [...] Or they think the officers who apprehended Dzhokhar on April 19 were mean to fire on the boat where he was hiding [...] Mostly, though, they think Dzhokhar is cute.

Two X-chromosomes is evidently all it takes to make a woman -- the naiveté and cartoonish sexuality presumably come part and parcel. Yet, more disturbing than Allen's clumsy handling of gender is her willingness to collapse a number of differing stances into a single, sexually motivated category.

Allen's leap may seem intuitive because the women she reports upon affiliate with one another through online communities that are dominated by 'feminine' modes of expression, including the sharing of Instagram-filtered photographs, wistful personal ruminations, and even fanfiction. But in uniformly labeling all woman Tsarnaev supporters as "fangirls," Allen reduces meaningful (if misguided) political positions into bad-faith subdivisions flimsily obscuring sexual desire. These women aren't really conspiracy theorists or adamant proponents of Miranda rights, Allen suggests, they're just lusty young lasses throwing up politically-tinged smokescreens. Antonio Planas, writing on July 11th for the Boston Herald, seems to be aware of the willful obliteration of woman Tsarnaev supporters' political positions - and yet still presses on in that same tradition:

A throng of young women devoted to accused teen terrorist Dzhokhar Tsarnaev and wearing T-shirts bearing his image outside U.S. District Court yesterday insisted they aren't smitten "fan girls," they just believe he's innocent. "He's just a baby. Gross," Lacey Buckley, 23, replied when asked if she had fallen for the curly locked, doe-eyed suspect.

Allen and Planas have not been alone in their assumptions about Tsarnev's female supporters. Others have endeavored to similarly erase the distinctions between women whose only commonality is their objection to some aspect of Tsarnaev's pursuit, capture, trial, or presumed penalty. On April 29th, Hanna Rosin wrote a post called 'Why All This Maternal Sympathy for Dzhokhar?' featured in Slate:

But what stands out in the ardor for Dzhokhar is a deep maternal strain...In the past week and a half I have not been to a school pickup, birthday, book party, or dinner where one of my mom friends has not said some version of "I feel sorry for that poor kid." This group includes mothers of infants and grandmothers and generally pretty reasonable intelligent types, including one who is an expert on Middle Eastern extremist groups.

Rosin reverts to the same reasoning Allen exhibits: these people cannot really be expressing opinions arising from different views and analyses. They're all women; therefore, the root of their 'sympathy' arises from some inherent maternal softness. A note of bitter irony: Tsarnaev's own mother has said she no longer cares if Dzhokhar lives or dies, now that her older son Tamerlan is dead. She also spent time on a terrorism watchlist along with her eldest son, and is suspected of encouraging his Jihadist ideation. So much for that gentle, universal motherliness.

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Elizabeth Stoker Bruenig is a doctoral candidate in religion, philosophy, and politics at Brown University. She writes regularly for The Week and Salon.

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