Tuesday, April 30, 2013


Hanna Rosin examines the possibility that the still-living Boston bomber is getting sympathy from some women because of "the fact that Dzhokhar is cute." "Fact" is the word she uses. But she leans more strongly towards the possibility that certain women feel "maternal" towards the 19-year-old (is it paternal when men notice the looks of a 19-year-old woman?), or that still other women are crazies who are turned on by murderers. (To be distinguished from: who are able to say objectively that some murderers are more physically attractive than others, and to analyze how this impacts their coverage, without swooning over people who've committed heinous crimes, let alone swooning over them because they've done so.)

The missing-white-girl phenomenon - the way news stories change when those involved are white (blonde doesn't hurt), female, and photogenic - is well-known. And it carries over to stories where the alleged criminal, and not the victim, fits the description. Amanda Knox - mentioned in the Slate comments - is generally agreed-upon to be good-looking, this fact generally thought to be relevant to how her story is reported.

In the world of real people, many non-white and "ethnic"-looking men have plenty of admirers, of all races and of both sexes. But we-as-a-society are not (yet) used to discussing beauty as something found in a) men and b) the not-entirely-white-looking. This Dzhokhar, whatever he looks like, doesn't look like a Victoria's Secret Angel. Our thoughts don't immediately turn to how this latest menace might be receiving a different treatment in popular opinion than he would if he looked like he'd been hatching conspiracy theories and living off Twinkies in his parents' basement for the last 40 years.

And that's what this is about. It's not about devastatingly handsome - as in, Harry Styles, the rare 19-year-old dude whose appeal to grown women is legendary - but within-normal-limits. To me, from the photos we've seen, Dzhokhar looks utterly normal, like some kind of amalgam of guys I knew in high school or college. (Also a lot like Aaron Swartz - perhaps among the women Rosin spoke with, there's some subconscious conflation of a murderer with someone who is, for many, a tragic hero.) And young plus within normal limits is, in this context, attractive enough for that to potentially impact the coverage.


-k- said...

I wonder if there is another option for those who teach or have taught students of the same age? Or does this fall under the 'maternal' umbrella, given that I am a woman? My thoughts as this all unfolded were of freshman and sophomore students I've had in classes: legally adults, but in other ways very much not so.

Phoebe said...

I had this thought as well, having taught many men and women - mostly women - that age.

There is obviously some difference between how (straight or bisexual) women view 19-year-old men and how our male equivalents view 19-year-old women. The whole 'men get better as they age' thing is a bit of wishful thinking, but whether it's social construction or reality, 19-year-olds look to many grown women more like overgrown boys than like men.

But it seems like overshooting the mark to say that women's perception of 19-year-old men outside a classroom setting (where chaste is the only way to go!) is entirely chaste. That a guy is 19 will rarely add to his appeal, the way it seems to go for men-who-like-women. Meaning, it's considered a feat for a man to "get" a 19-year-old woman, but not for a woman to do the equivalent. But a man's 19-ness won't in all cases make him come across as a little boy. 19-year-olds aren't actually boys, and women do notice men. What got to me about the "maternal" interpretation is, it seemed somewhat about pretending that women don't notice men, or only notice men who'd be appropriate husband material.