Thanks Rolling Stone and Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, I Guess, for Legitimizing the Cell Phone Selfie
My favorite time to take selfies is when I am drunk and alone in the bathroom. I tend to take the majority of them while inebriated, actually, and online evidence proves even middle-aged women do the inebriated selfie in the bathroom too.
Yes, even the Boston Marathon Bomber Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, when he wasn’t sober, whipped out his cell phone and took selfies. And one of these non-sober self-portraits (speculatively) is on the cover of Rolling Stone right now and making a name for itself as the most controversial selfie on our planet.
Media critics are calling Rolling Stone everything short of evil for using his selfie photo as cover art, never mind that Instagrammed self-portraiture is becoming a legitimate form of art and feminist self-expression. This universality is exactly why the self-portrait of the young and handsome (and murderous, don’t you forget) Tsarnaev as cover art choice is outrageous. How dare we relate to a killer! How dare a magazine make us feel this way! If I were the art director over at Rolling Stone right now, I would be creaming my panties: this is the type of feedback creative types have wet dreams about.
Tsarnaev’s selfie effectively normalizes him, and as the three-day long controversy has shown, we just cannot deal with that. We would rather depart reality and delude ourselves into thinking national-headline-making killers are ugly and have nothing in common with us than see them engaging in everyday behavior. If we could somehow magically teleport to a place where we all believed Tsarnaev didn’t know how to operate a phone, we would.
In fact, to portray Tsarnaev as ordinary is dangerous, they imply, because in order to feel better about the bombings we need to see the differences, not the similarities, between ourselves and the cruel killer. It sounds absurd, but this is more or less what the critics are saying. The New York Times thinks this kind of madness is a result of the heatwave. Possibly. I think it might be a combination of Tsarnaev’s image making fresh the horror of the bombings, much like that just-healing summer scrape you accidentally pick at only to have it start oozing.
The selfies we share on the web are supposed to be the best reflection of ourselves. This skewed mirror is precisely why the Boston Globe in a Thursday post echoing the collective rage calls the use of the selfie “ill-advised” and “irresponsible.” While many of us cannot fathom Tsarnaev’s terrorist intentions, we can all relate to photographing ourselves and (dare I say it), creating a typically blemish-free personal brand online. The self-portrait via cell phone is a “language we all understand,” but… we don’t want to understand a bomber. Please don’t make us understand one.
This now infamous selfie, originally displayed on Tsarnaev’s twitter profile, was the “mask” he chose to portray to the world and glorifying it by featuring it on a rock-and-roll magazine is akin to “collaborat[ing] with Tsarnaev in the creation of his own celebrity,” continued the Boston Globe.
Need I remind everyone, Tsarnaev was already a “celebrity” before his Rolling Stone cover, having graced newspaper front pages the world over, with some even featuring that same image. Rolling Stone is not responsible for the mass media interest in Tsarnaev, the spread of the photo, or for Tsarnaev’s fanbase of young girls cooing over the soft locks in his approachable selfies. To suggest Rolling Stone is appealing to Tsarnaev’s misguided female fans by choosing this already-widely circulated photo when this same criticism was not levied against the New York Times is logic I’d only be able to process if my head was in the sand.
CVS banning the sale of the magazine in its shops (and now Walgreens too), and folks celebrating this decision, is akin to saying “monsters must be clearly portrayed as monsters, or else.” Who wants to live in that black-and-white society, presumably filled with bad art? Not me. (Not to imply Tsarnaev’s selfie as magazine cover photo is good art — it is in fact the opposite for a variety of reasons and not just because of the bad captions.)
The disconnect between the villain within and the exterior shell of Tsarnaev as a potential sweetheart through his selfies is precisely why the self-portrait should be used for feature-length pieces about his descent into terrorism. But don’t just take my word for it.
Cover Think points out Rolling Stone’s cover is “doing nothing more than reflecting back to us the vanity of a young man’s narcissism, complete with his Armani Exchange T-shirt.” The Washington Post writes “the photo in question jibes with the impression of Dzhokhar Tsarnaev that has emerged from countless interviews with friends and schoolmates” before calling the cover art choice “an accurate and journalistically responsible portrayal of this young man.”
To not use the photo as cover art because it humanizes, then, reveals a willful ignorance on the modern human condition. It is not only “irresponsible,” but bad journalism too. Art that elicits strong emotions is powerful, but banning it only increases its strength.
We can’t will away Tsarnaev’s cell phone, his looks or his seemingly normalness, just like how we can’t will back the lives and limbs his actions stole. And maybe that’s okay, because sometimes we need to see the similarities between ourselves and the villain in order to help us understand the differences. Cell phone selfie and all.
As for the cell phone selfie as legit art form, well, this Rolling Stone cover controversy took care of that.