June 7, 2013

Icons, Memes and the Hair-Raising Turkish "Lady in Red"

So, much of the photo and online media world (1, 2, 3, etc.) wants to turn the Turkish “lady in red” into an icon. There is a difference between a meme and an icon, however. Though these are just off-the-cuff definitions, an icon is a picture of someone or something that is widely seen to capture and define the essence of a situation. A (visual) meme, on the other hand, is a image or scene which not only hits a nerve, but serves as the catalyst, through humor or exaggeration, to drive home the essence (and, typically, the pathos or irony) of a situation.

Since the “lady in red’ began capturing people’s imaginations, many more frames of the incident have been released. The version that made the incident so notable, however, is the photo leading this post. Now, if one of these other frames had captured worldwide imagination, we would probably be looking at an image bucking for icon status.

In these cases, we see all the political, moral and symbolic allusions — the extreme use of tear gas; the red of the Turkish flag; the remarkable vulnerability of this woman, Ceyda Sungur —  that Marco Bohr thoughtfully addressed in his analysis the other day. Let’s be clear, however. Because they’re designed and built to identify buzz, their viability contingent on parsing exactly what is and isn’t, Buzzflash was the only entity to see the frame leading the post most clearly for what it represents, which is three-fifths state terror, one-fifth Dadaism, and one-fifth Marx Brothers.

Now, the “lady in red” might not have the irony, despair or Groucho-kick to it to truly activate the ironic derivatives as powerfully as the U.C. Davis “pepper spray cop” did…. NewImage NewImage

But the examples Buzzflash offers up begin to show us how the pure inanity of the confrontation — a mixture of the virulence of the cop, the attack and the spray, and the radical paradox of the woman’s repose — invite projections articulating her larger innocence and dignity. Screen Shot 2013 06 07 at 1 56 10 AM



But the rub, at least in my mind — and the element that pushes this frame from the iconic to the meme category — is the woman’s hair. The fact is, we don’t quite — especially not having seen the series of frames that precede or follow the photo, or better yet, seeing the animated Gif — if it’s the spray that causes this otherwise poised and dignified woman’s hair to fly up like that, or some meteorological anomaly or the work of Mel Brooks. Just to reiterate: the woman is clearly heroic, but not — at least, in the frame that went viral — because what is happening is so straight-forward to read. The power of the image may be primarily derived through political horror, but not without some ambiguity and curiosity as to the (literal and emotional) physics, and well as some dash of what feels like madcap (or even Hollywood) special effect.


Trying to wrap my head around that effect, what seemed, at least initially, like a very odd allusion sprang to mind. Not to make this an overly prominent analogy, but one thing that makes the image more of a meme than an icon springs out of the kind of comparison, and the magic, between a vent and a white dress, and the red dress (yes, red like the Turkish flag) and the elevation of an innocent academic’s hair.

(photos: Osman Orsal/Reuters/Landov; Pepper Spraying Cop Tumblr site; meme images: Buzzflash. Murat124nüSatanBilge@solsoledo. Marilyn Monroe:  The Seven Year Itch. Billy Wilder.1955. 20th Century Fox)

Post By

Michael Shaw
See other posts by Michael here.

The Big Picture

Follow us on Instagram (@readingthepictures) and Twitter (@readingthepix), and


A curated collection of pieces related to our most-popular subject matter.


Comments Powered by Disqus