Tsarnaev Brothers: Why'd 'The Week' Draw Them in Brownface?

The Week’s caricature of the Tsarnaev brothers has left some, well, in a darkened mood. As Hari Stephen Kumar from the blog Brofiling pointed out, the Tsarnaev brothers have clearly had their complexion tampered with on the most recent cover of The Week.

In a side-by-side comparison between the cover caricature and photographic pictures of the brothers, it’s blatant that the pair had their skin darkened from a lily white that any Victorian lady would positively die for to an olive brown.


The American media and certain corners of pop culture have often painted the villains (or at least, those they perceive as the bad guys) a little darker. Almost as infamous as the trial itself was Time’s darkened cover portrait of O.J. Simpson.

Antagonists from children’s literature and film also tend to be physically darkened. Scar from The Lion King, Ursula from Little Mermaid, and Mor’du from Brave are just a few examples of villains whose complexion is noticeably darker than that of the other characters in the film. Almost as if to make for their lighter skin, those villains who don’t have darker skin will sometimes wear darker attire, such as Jafar from Aladdin and Dr. Facilier from Princess and the Frog.

 



But in children’s literature and film the villain is always easily identifiable, the divide between good and evil is typically black and white, both literally and figuratively. We know who the bad guys are immediately and rarely does this vision of them falter throughout the narrative. Bad guys are pure and unrelenting in their evil motivation.  Voldemort is out to commit mass acts of genocide against non-wizards simply because he has some sort of power complex and prejudiced. Jafar and Scar are power-hungry. There are hardly ever any sort of characteristics that the audience can identify or sympathize with.

But this is not so in the case of the Tsarnaev brothers. As the media slowly unraveled their stories, especially Dzhokhar’s, it became easier and easier to forget that they were the bad guys. Here were two brothers from struggling immigrant families from a war-torn part of the world. Tamerlan had had his dreams crushed by a rather silly rule. Dzhorkhar appeared to follow a rather normal teenage path: he was in college, he had many friends and Instagram and Twitter accounts. As it turned out, the Tsarnaev narrative was rather complex and relatable. 

While racism most likely also played a part in the darkening of the Tsarnaevs’ skin — Americans tend to identify terrorists with Middle Easterners, who tend to have darker skin than the Tsarnaevs — is it possible we were being reminded who the bad guys were?