When the beguiling self-portrait of 19-year-old Boston bombing suspect Dzhokhar "Jahar" Tsarnaev surfaced in late April, a movement was born. Free Jahar sites erupted on social media proclaiming his innocence, with thousands of young followers believing he had been wrongly accused or that his rights had been violated. Some posted that he was too cute to be guilty.
The heated controversy over the use of the very same photo on the latest cover of Rolling Stone magazine, and subsequent tweets by the Free Jahar camp, prompted the folks at Twitchy.com to blast them as "terror groupies" who are "breathless and lovesick."
Comprised mostly, but not exclusively, of female teens, the Free Jahar brigade has understandably fueled public outrage.
The problem is much of the vitriol directed at this group in the media and in online discussions contains blanket assumptions about all of them, as if they're a seething mass of identical DNA. In a July 12 article posted on Slate, for instance, Amanda Marcotte writes, "The whole thing feels uncomfortably like a Justin Bieber fan squee," while Charlotte Allen asserted on May 28 in the Los Angeles Times that "Dzhokhar in his photos looks cocky. Women love cocky."
There is no question that when navigating Facebook, Twitter and Tumblr sites devoted to Tsarnaev there are cringe-worthy images of girls posing suggestively with come-hither looks. Interspersed with these visual valentines to the alleged bomber are provocative tweets like this one --"I don't care if jahar is a terrorist he's cute I don't want him to die."
Yet just as many female supporters are more decidedly political. Some post photos of themselves in anti-government T-shirts, looking defiant and angry, while others parse the minute details of the case with the earnestness of budding criminal defense attorneys. This group of speculators is less colorful and easier to ignore than a Jahar supporter posing in sexy lingerie. Nevertheless, as Elizabeth Stoker points out in her July 12 piece in The Atlantic, these young women have been dismissed in equal measure as frivolous "fangirls."
But in perusing coverage of the male-dominated pro-gun Sandy Hook truthers (who believe the Sandy Hook elementary school shooting was orchestrated by the U.S government), it is stunning to note how straightforwardly their claims were covered, and with no need to lump them under one sound bite-friendly derisive label.
In contrast, the most popular interpretations of the Free Jahar cohort are also the most reductive. At the top of the list is the theory that the girls are in the throes of passive hybristophilia -- a state of being romantically drawn to a notorious criminal, believing you can change him, rescue him, that he will find you different than all the rest, and desire you.
Scyatta A. Wallace, a psychologist and teen expert who develops leadership and life skills programs for female teens, is skeptical. "I doubt that the majority of the girls are displaying signs of the disorder because only a tiny segment of people would be likely to have it," she told Women's eNews.
Another theory being batted around is that they have come of age in a celebrity-obsessed culture and are trying to achieve their own notoriety by riding the fame-drenched coattails of Tsarnaev.
Here's another: The primal drive of females to nurture catapulted them into the Jahar camp, which dips the brush into the gender stereotype that all female adolescents are biologically primed to want to mother him.
Don't tell that to 17-year-old Mina Belfert of Closter, N.J. "I honestly can't relate to the girls who support him," she told Women's eNews. "I think what he did is so ugly that I can't even consider his looks."
In a society of conflicting expectations, where hyper-sexualized media images confront intensifying expectations of women as sober, competent and responsible breadwinners, it's quite possible that for some of his female sympathizers, Jahar offers a magnet for their own feelings of frustration and powerlessness in a messy world.
After all, teenage rebellion is normal, especially if there is pressure to live up to some impossible standard. "Coming to terms with the horrors we see in the world can be really hard for teens to deal with and can cause a lot of confusion and disillusion," Wallace said. "This can create an affinity with a person they feel has been unjustly treated, especially when they feel they can identify with that person. In this case, Jahar is young and attractive, which can heighten that affinity."
The danger in rushing to stereotype the disparate group of girls and young women is that it stirs up gender bashing. And there has been plenty of that to go around. The rage directed at the girls is quite raw and can escalate quickly into full-blown sexism, which is in full tilt on totalfratmove.com, a website for fraternity men. Vicious denunciations and graphically violent revenge fantasies about Jahar girls on the website devolve into broader statements that call "women's rights a terrible idea" and argue why "women shouldn't be allowed to leave the kitchen."
If such thinking made any sense, we should also argue, by the same token, that the young men who go on mass killing sprees in this country mean that all adolescent males are deadly, dangerous and deserve to be locked up.
As with the Sandy Hook "truthers," there has been no public backlash for the legion of conspiracy theorists creating videos and websites to support their position that the Boston bombings are a hoax. It could be argued that none of them have sexualized their message or created a publicity-friendly movement. But in leaving them alone, in not challenging their equally troubling stance, there is a tacit respect the Jahar girls are being denied.