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.

Perhaps the iconography of Tsarnaev is in some part to blame here. Before his crime and subsequent capture, he had been active on social media, and left behind the flotsam and jetsam of any teenager's life online: posed photographs, tweets, favorite song lyrics. Images of Tsarnaev are therefore easily accessible, plentiful, and usually filtered and angled to be flattering, unlike the post-rampage mugshots usually disseminated after a horrific act of violence. Since online communities thrive on the sharing of images, it is easy to imagine picture-heavy exchanges between supporters to be reducible to nothing more than the images themselves.

Accusations of "hybristophilia," the experience of immense sexual attraction to suspected, confessed or convicted violent criminals, have arisen in support of the latter notion. Rosin used the term in her article, and Allen alluded to it by indicting "something more primal and less pretty in the female psyche." The pathologizing of female sexuality is nothing new, but more stunning than this modern rerun of hysteria as an explanation for aberrant female sexuality is the fact that adopting this theory requires us to openly dismiss Tsanaev supporters' claim that they believe him to be innocent. The old, worn-out whine that women only go for bad boys is especially puzzling when a large contingent of the women themselves are insisting that the boy is not, in fact, bad.

Major media outlets would rather imagine Tsarnaev's female supporters as deviant or hysterical, but never just plain wrong. If there is a legitimate criticism to be made of the individuals who believe Tsarnaev to be innocent it is that their beliefs are counterfactual. Different arguments await engagement with those who question how Tsarnaev's Miranda rights were handled, or with those who oppose the death penalty in this case or all cases.

But I doubt that those arguments will ever be had. It is not surprising to me that many of the writers who have most angrily shredded Tsarnaev's female supporters are themselves women. After all, women are aware that we are always in danger of being dismissed due to unfair associations with slanderous gender stereotypes, and are therefore quick to distance ourselves from women who are out of line. The looming threat of being labeled just another one of the repugnant, hysterical ones is doubtlessly enough to discourage young women with unpopular opinions on the Tsarnaev trial from joining important discussions.

In a July 10th L.A. Times opinion piece by Alexandra Le Tellier called "Dzhokhar Tsarnaev and his Disgusting Fangirls," Le Tellier echoes Rosin, Allen and others in viciously tearing into Tsarnaev's 'disgusting' female supporters. Above her screed is a photograph, and in it is a pair of protestors. One is a man with a shaven head wearing a black sweatshirt and Guy Fawkes mask. He is holding a piece of poster board decorated with pro-Tsarnaev slogans. The other person is a young woman with long dark hair, wearing a t-shirt emblazoned with Tsarnaev's face. It reads: Dzhokhar Tsarnaev is innocent.

Their opinions, it seems, are substantively identical. But only one of them is disgusting.