Beauty: skin deep

It’s well established in the literature that attractive people generally fare better. In many cases, humans attribute positive characteristics, such as intelligence and honesty, to physically attractive people without consciously realizing it.

I think that’s why the story of the dental assistant in Iowa who was fired for being too attractive – Cheri noted it recently – got so much attention.

At some level, I think the issue of the recent cover of the magazine Rolling Stone was upsetting to some people because Dzhokhar Tsarnaev is not homely. In TIME magazine, Alexandra Sifferlin quotes psychologist Ellen Berscheid: “While seeing an attractive picture of a villainous person isn’t likely to change our opinion of that individual’s egregious acts, as the uproar over the image indicates, it could lead us to feel some emotions that we may not think are appropriate. That includes sadness, and perhaps even a douse of empathy over why an attractive person would commit a terrible crime.”

William Rivers Pitt in Truthout opined: “The outrage over Tsarnaev’s face on the cover has everything to do with the fact that there is a puppy-dog cuteness about him which is jarring in the context of his alleged crimes… As for glorifying Tsarnaev or potentially upsetting the bombing victims, his face has been on the front page of every newspaper in the Western hemisphere more than once…” In fact, as Rolling Stone’s Matt Taibbi noted: “They used an existing photo, one already used by other organizations. The New York Times, in fact, used exactly the same photo on the cover of their May 5 issue.”

Same picture that Rolling Stone used was on the front page of the New York Times a couple months earlier.

Pitt said: “Putting newsmakers on the cover [of the magazine] is not out of line. Hell, they had Charlie Manson on the cover once upon a time, as well as George W. Bush in 2009.” It’s not as though Rolling Stone dubbed him sexiest terrorist or something.

Ty Burr of the Boston Globe complained the picture was a selfie in a bit of psychobabble I don’t quite follow.

I was reminded that, back in 1994, TIME magazine darkened a cover picture of O.J. Simpson. It was supposed to be some artistic decision, but many people thought it was designed to make him seem more sinister. And TIME has had as Man of the Year Adolf Hitler (1939) and the Ayatollah Khomeini (1979), but they weren’t endorsing them, merely noting their significance.

I’m not unsympathetic to those who might find the photo unsettling, and I understand why some stores took it off the shelves. But I don’t think the cover choice is outlandish.

10 thoughts on “Beauty: skin deep”

  1. Rolling Stone has even done it before: Charles Manson, June 1970.

    It is disturbing that Tsarnaev looks like a boy that you’d be pleased to see with your daughter. He look like a good, sweet kid.


  2. I think one of the reasons this photo is so jarring is that it raises questions about the appearance, or face of evil. In looking at this picture one can imagine an alternate universe where this face, particularly give its appearance on a Rolling Stone cover, is the face of a singer for some alternative rock band, thus it would represent a kind of youthful, rock-n-roll mischief, which on some level society generally approves of as the natural course of a person’s development. Instead, however, what we have is a face that is expressive of the kind of pathology that allows one to justify mass murder. It makes one consider what lurks beneath the surface of apparent banality, or even what lurks in the human heart. It makes a person wonder about how one so young become so ideologically hardened, and beholden to evil, and perhaps it makes one wonder if such evil is potentially within range of all of us. Perhaps I am over reaching is saying this, but of course, if I really thought so I wouldn’t be writing this on your blog. It just makes evil too close.


  3. Jezebel had a great piece on this as well — — that I think hit a string of great notes about our perceptions of what “threatening” people are supposed to look like. I think everyone’s gut instinct was that the photo of Jahar was doctored by RS (a la the OJ cover of TIME you mentioned) but it wasn’t. Also, RS has a pretty solid history of crime reporting that people have apparently forgotten about — — so even if you take away the penchant in the past for RS to put controversial subjects on the cover, they’ve been somewhat consistent in their desire to write about crime (as much as a music magazine can be consistent in that arena of writing).


  4. I can understand those directly affected – victims, their families, people near the bombings – being upset, but the responses from most of the rest have seemed like unthinking overreaction. One of the main points the cover makes is that terrorists DON’T look like people we expect them to, like stereotypes suggest. Sometimes, they’re even young and attractive. Critics complained it “humanised” him, but isn’t that a good thing? If we reduce him to a caricature, an inhuman monster, then we don’t have to look for WHY he did what he did, HOW he became the “monster” so many people seem to want to dismiss him as. If we look hard, we may not like all that we find out, but isn’t it better to find the truth so that we can prevent the creation of other stereotype-defying terrorists? I think a little discomfort at one magazine cover is worth it if it helps break out of mere emotive reactions.


  5. Sure, there is a sweetness to his face. I recognized the photo from countless publications, websites, and TV stations. People forget that Rolling Stone was founded on radical principles – that, even though they have “gone mainstream,” there are those of us who remember the touching photo of the Lennon issue with a naked John Lennon embracing a clothed Yoko Ono, putting the “usual spin” on its ear and making the man dependent on the strong woman, surrendering society’s usual depiction of gender roles.

    This kid is not EVIL; we all possess the ability to do evil deeds. This guy got caught, doing extremist and deadly harm. He is a young man who got caught up in old men’s ideology, every bit as much as the knee-jerk volunteers for Afghanistan in the beginning fell for Bush’s line. People will hate me for saying this, but let’s face it, young men have been fighting old men’s wars for millennia; this picture shows that even the sweet-faced kid next door NEEDS GUIDANCE. NEEDS ATTENTION. NEEDS A VILLAGE. He was isolated and acted in that context. Sure, it was horrible, but our own president does more every time he pushes a drone button.



  6. I’ve thought for a long time now that the media tends to glorify these types of deeds in the name of journalism. Sure, we all want to know the latest on each of these instances and the people behind the heinous acts of violence. But I always wonder if doing this, to some extent, feeds something in this type of personality to be the center of attention for a little while.


  7. ah ha ha I dont believe it… hey Ray, hey Sugar, tell em who we are)Well, we big rock singers, we got golden fingers, and were loved everywhere we go.(That sounds like us)We sing about beauty and we sing about truth at ten thousand dollars a show.We take all kind of pills to give us all kind of thrills but the thrill weve never knownIs the thrill thatll getcha when you get your picture on the cover of the Rolling Stone.Rolling Stone wanna see my picture on the cover-Stone- wanna buy 5 copies for my mother-Stone- wanna see my smilin faceon the cover of the Rolling Stone.


  8. As John Judis of The New Republic puts it , the cover picture depicts Tsarnaev as exotically attractive, and its corresponding article attempts to reconcile a high school student who was thought of as exotically attractive with the criminal who murdered three people, injured hundreds, and caused immeasurable mayhem. And that is precisely the problem.


  9. Perhaps because I’m a hetero male I don’t see Tsarnaev as attractive. Actually he looks to me like a snotty kid. He looks like someone dumb enough to pull the stupid pointless stunts that he did.

    As for the darkening of OJ, you might recall that back in 1994 there was a prominent national figure who was constantly running for president named Pat Buchanan. This guy today would be identified as a Teabagger, anti-liberal, anti-immigrant, pro-corporate etc. But Buchanan bucked the Republican Party establishment and refused to stop running for president. So the corporate media conducted a smear campaign to force him to stand down, which was successful.

    Shortly after the OJ darkening, Time Magazine put a darkened, sinister picture of Buchanan on its cover, along with negative copy. It was part of the propaganda campaign. No one noticed this at the time (or cared) except me, and I sure sounded like a paranoid nut trying to point this out and explain it to people. I’m sure the editors of Time Magazine did a lot of private sniggering with each other over that.


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