Riot Square Sanctificare

Beautiful women become victims of political conflict and their images become sainted.

In February, beauty queen Genesis Carmona was shot to death during a protest in Caracas. Some reported she was killed by pro-government militias. Some government officials claim she was shot by protesters. Her lips, wrapped around a breathing tube, became a symbol of the brutality of the Maduro regime. People had been killed before, by both sides. But this was a beautiful girl, obviously innocent.

Beauties and battles go together like war and lies. Causes are personified as women — Columbia, Marianne — bare-breasted babes leading men to the slaughter. The word “bombshell” is derived from the actresses painted on the sides of bombers, a painted prayer looked to by soldiers for encouragement, reassurance.

The Iranian government killed between 27 and 150 people in the protests following the 2009 election (because Iran did not allow independent observers, the number is in dispute). Many were murdered by the basij, or volunteer militiamen. A 26-year-old woman, Neda Agha-Solton, was one of them.

A fellow protester filmed her dying. It was posted by Arash Hejazi, a doctor who tried to save her. Time called it the “most widely witnessed death in human history.”

Five years later, you can still watch Neda die on YouTube. Again and again, a group of men will attempt CPR. The blood will leak from Neda’s mouth. Her searching eyes will go blank. You press play and add yourself to 1,628,679 viewers of this one copy of Neda’s execution. You watch, are helpless, watch again.

Those who knew Neda described her as apolitical, an aspiring musician with dreams of working as a tour guide in Turkey. But in death, Neda meant rebellion. She was youth and innocence, stamped out far too soon, a symbol of all those killed by the state.

The international media misidentified her as Neda Soltani on Facebook; their faces looked similar enough. Neda became an icon of the Green Revolution. Soltani had to flee Iran.

Neda was a bridge character for Western media, which was never good at understanding mass movements, but always loves a photogenic face.

Carmona and Neda are the latest in martyr pinups, their attacks preserved and thus producing a new iconography. Beautiful women as protest memes.

2011’s blue-bra girl was from Tahrir Square’s post-revolutionary hangover. A policeman’s foot was caught one second before coming down on her bare stomach; an abaya was pulled over her face. 2013 saw the woman in the red dress in Gezi Park, wincing in a jet of mace. In 2011, high-ranking NYPD police officer Anthony Bologna pepper-sprayed two white girls at Occupy Wall Street. Their slender arms clawed the air as they fell to their knees in pain. These pepper-sprayed girls won Occupy international sympathy. Few other women — organizers in Turkey, the power brokers and candidates in Ukraine and Venezuela, even the journalists documenting attacks on themselves and other women in Egypt — have drawn the same uncritical adoration.

Renaissance masters painted the church’s female martyrs as beauties, all gold hair and curves. Inevitably killed by pagans as revenge for their Christian virginity, these girls praised God through pincers and flames. Their deaths gained Jesus god knows how many converts. In paintings, the martyrs look salon-fresh as they offer up symbols of their torture. Saint Agatha smiles coyly — presenting her severed breasts on a plate.

Saint Lucy’s eyes shine no less bright, though they’re pulled out of her head.

The most poignant beauty is beauty destroyed, because it’s a loss for us too — the beauty hungry. Like the tatters in the French flag held by Marianne, symbol of the republic, a beautiful woman’s suffering makes her cause seem all the more right. Our cause. Our suffering.

In war, men are seen as combatants, women as victims — even if the woman was a revolutionary, and the man a military-aged one whose wedding convoy passed beneath a drone. Women are grouped semantically with children, as passive receptacles for pain. Their fellow protesters breath tear gas and run from bullets. They hold up these women as their own, and mourn them among their cause’s dead. They want to show what the state has done.

For online consumers of the resulting images, the women’s suffering is the element of a conflict that those far removed from the conflict can still access. Blue-bra girl. Woman in the red dress. Their anonymity allows our role in the production of tragedy. Their pain can serve the classical, psychological purpose of tragedy — catharsis.

Once viral, their images lose politics, lose geography, lose protest. They continue to resonate for what they gain: our sustained gaze. Like saints before them, protest’s girl martyrs are famous not because of what they did but because of what was done to them.

Genesis Carmona joins Saint Lucy and Saint Agatha. She now embodies both the cause itself and the reason it should continue. She is pure, as no living being could be. In Venezuela, Carmona’s face adorns protest banners. Below portraits of saints, worshippers light candles. Carmona lives forever in the blue glow of the cameraphone.

CORRECTION: The BBC did not report that Genesis Carmona was killed by pro-government militias, the post has been updated to reflect that.

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