It’s a scantily-clad Britney Spears clutching a Teletubby and it’s Janet Jackson’s bare breasts being cupped by a pair of hands and it’s Kurt Cobain’s pained, black-and-white stare. It’s an underwear-bearing Jessica Simpson vacuuming, and Jim Morrison’s steady, unfaltering gaze, and the cast of True Blood sans-clothes and covered in blood, and Katy Perry with her whipped-cream-spouting breasts wrapped in a Hershey Kiss bra, and Lady Gaga positioning guns as to cover her boobs (so many boobs). Being pictured on the cover of the Rolling Stone is the assurance of success: once you’re there, you’ve made it. Over the years, Rolling Stone covers have produced some our most recognizable images in pop culture, and as such, being the face of one of the magazine’s monthly installments has become the Holy Grail of fame.
In general, there are two ways that we can looks at entertainment magazines: they are either like a mirror or a roadmap, telling us what values and interests we actively hold, or what values and interests we should be actively holding. While staying true to the gimmick of the artist on the cover, Rolling Stone has consistently published images that simultaneously raise eyebrows, but perhaps hint at deeper sociological meanings. Consider an example: when Britney was pictured with her shirt open, laying back seductively, clutching a stuffed animal in one hand and a phone in the other, Rolling Stone stayed true to young Britney’s gimmick: the virginal, yet sexualized schoolgirl. At the same time, though, Rolling Stone was ruminating on her appeal while displaying what made Britney most controversial at the time — we either wanted to be her, or we wanted to be with her, or maybe even both. The cultural significance of Rolling Stone magazine covers is perhaps what makes its most recent installment, picturing Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, so infuriatingly controversial.
I can understand the immediate anger that many felt upon hearing the news of Tsarnaev’s face on the cover of the magazine, mostly because I felt it, too. We’ve grown up in a celebrity-obsessed culture, and as such, each of us has, at one point or another, learned what a privilege it is to be Rolling Stone’s cover story. It’s a space reserved exclusively for our beloved idols. And so, it’s very easy for us to accuse Rolling Stone of idolizing and glamorizing an individual who planned and carried out an attack that caused the death of three people and the injury of hundreds more. It is very easy to point fingers at the magazine and call them treacherous and un-American and disgusting. What is perhaps more difficult is to take away our blind anger and to look at this cover as a pictorial representation of some layered meaning — something beyond the enraging idea that we are celebrating a murderer to a greater degree than the those he killed.
When we remove our anger about Tsarnaev being pictured in a place usually reserved for idols whom society generally adores, or at the very least shares a love/hate relationship with, what appears to spring forward is a valuable commentary on the modern American citizen’s condition. This picture of Tsarnaev depicts a handsome, perfectly “normal” looking young man. His wild, long mane is reminiscent of rock stars who have graced the magazine’s cover. His neutral expression doesn’t warrant any nervousness. In fact, had the words “THE BOMBER” not been sprawled across the bottom and had I not been familiar with Tsarnaev’s face beforehand, I may have even thought he was the frontman of an indie band of which I had not yet heard. This is what infuriated me and others like me to begin with, but it is also the key to understanding what Rolling Stone may be saying here.
Films have accustomed us to the idea that bombers are those with an evil glint in their eye — a deranged, unfocused gaze — or that they are markedly foreign. Juxtaposed against the protagonist, whom the audience latches onto and identifies with, the bomber is always noticeably different — an anomaly. Beyond fiction, though, is where the most unfortunate categorization of bombers exists: living in a very real, post-9/11 world has meant that to many Americans, whether explicitly or implicitly believed, bombers are any type of individual that comes from a culture or religion that unfortunately appears as a flagrant and blatant “other.” In many’s eyes, bombers are Osama bin Laden. Tsarnaev is a reminder that in many ways, they are not. Tsarnaev doesn’t look like someone we’ve been conditioned to view as a bomber, or a killer, or a terrorist.
At the root of all this anger and frustration is the fact that Tsarnaev CAN be mistaken as being glamorized. If he resembled a movie villain we’ve seen, or if he were ugly, or if he were in some way pointedly alien to us, would we be as enraged as we are? Would we accuse Rolling Stone of idolizing him as harshly as we are? He’s a perfectly average-looking individual with no visible warning sign that blares “DANGER, DANGER.” Under other circumstances, ones perhaps more similar to those shared by others who have covered Rolling Stone, American society would embrace, and perhaps even celebrate him. His exterior doesn’t appear the way that we want it to — we want his hairstyle and the clothes he wears and the glint in his eye to reflect whatever or whoever we have come to expect of those who put into motion the horrifying, traumatizing, and life-shattering events that he is responsible for. We want him to look evil. We want him to look ugly. We want him to look like one of those big, brute, angry, unattractive and broken antagonists from the action films. We desperately want him to wear some sort of scarlet letter so that we may construct a dichotomy of a collective we versus him. We want to see a blatant, visible distinction because we don’t want to believe that this man could be someone we include when we categorize that collective we. On one level or another, we want the exterior to reflect the interior, but it doesn’t, and that’s inconvenient, mostly because this is a very difficult lesson for us to learn — it’s something America has been working on since its inception.
If there’s one thing that human beings are apt to do, it’s to categorize. It’s easier for us to extend our understanding of one type of person to all people who are similar — this is where we run into trouble with stereotypes and demographically-based profiling. We want to categorize Tsarnaev with all those like him by some visible marker, but we can’t. He doesn’t look the way that we want to picture those who do evil — we can’t immediately label him — and that scares us much more than Rolling Stone putting him in a position usually reserved for our most treasured celebrities. The furious reaction to the Rolling Stone cover spells this out for us: we cannot visibly categorize Tsarnaev — he defies our steadfast expectations of bombers — and this, as amoral as America’s inclination to profile is, lays at the very root of the discomfort we feel.
In times immediately following a murder or tragedy, we nearly always hear a friend or neighbor of the accused say something like this on the news: “I never would have thought him to be capable of something like this! He was always such a nice, normal guy.” So many times we’ve learned that we can never truly know what goes on behind closed doors — that we cannot predict behaviors based on appearances — yet whether we are born with an inclination to categorize people or we are socialized to do it along the way, for many, this is still a hard pill to swallow. Rolling Stone can’t have published this cover without some idea of the ramifications it would have. It was a calculated risk. To me, that implies two things: the exploitation of public outcry and emotion for sales, and the idea that this cover — or perhaps the public response that Rolling Stone assuredly predicted to occur prior to its publishing — means much more than the public perceiving the magazine to be glamorizing terror.