I’d rather be hated for who I am, than loved for who I’m not – quote from Brenda Turtle’s tattoo
Brenda Turtle is one of the most beloved and reviled OTD (off the derech) personalities on social media. A Jewish glamour girl, she has a tremendous following on Facebook and Twitter, and uses her platform to talk about why she left the Satmar community and what her views are on life and love. Perhaps her most essential claim to fame are the scantily clad photos she posts of herself in various provocative poses, some of which involve Jewish religious objects such as tallis and tefillin.
A few days ago, Brenda was involved in a car accident, and because of her online persona and following, it hit the news. Immediately, there was the random cause/effect theory in the frum press that Brenda’s accident happened because she left the fold. Kikar Hashabat ran the story with the subtitle, “This was a message from heaven for her.”
Again, none of us are naviim, nor can we know why bad things happen to anyone. I can only wish that Brenda and her friends involved in the accident should have a speedy refuah shelaima and know no further hurt or sorrow. From her Facebook page, Brenda is more than just an online personality, she is a daughter, a sister, and most importantly, a young mother. In essence, there is a real person behind the personality.
The only comparison I can make to the disparate reactions towards Brenda were the reactions people had towards Madonna in the 1980s and 1990s. You either see the artist behind the image or you don’t. Since I don’t actually know Brenda, I can’t address the allegations that people make against her. Some say that she is exploited and coerced by men to make her controversial photo shoots. Others say that she is under the influence of chemical substances, and more in need of help than of accolades. Some people feel that she uses her good looks to prey upon sheltered Chasidic men who drool over her under anonymous online monikers. Others say it’s those Chasidic men who prey upon her.
What I find fascinating about Brenda is her method of rebellion. She went from the strict Satmar community of shpitzel and turban, and is now an in-your-face bombshell. She went from a highly segregated society, to spending much of her time online and offline with members of the opposite sex (at least if her social media posts are any indication). She is essentially embodying the worst fears of the ultra orthodox world – using her feminine sexuality as a weapon of control over her adoring frum fanbase.
Beautiful women throughout the ages have inspired awe and envy, both within the larger world and the Jewish world. However, it’s interesting for me to see it played out online in so blunt a fashion. It isn’t the first time I’ve encountered the community putting a pretty woman in her place. I’ve heard of young teenage girls who were “too sexy” for their skirts, too sexy for their shirts, too sexy. Innocent girls, who had the misfortune to develop too early or too robustly for their community’s comfort suddenly have “a reputation.”
Pretty women whose only crime is being more attractive than other wives are sometimes regarded with suspicion, while plainer women engaging in the same type of conversation, applying the same amount of makeup, or wearing the same style of clothing are above reproach. Sometimes a beautiful woman’s only crime is receiving more attention than her neighbor. Is jealousy, subliminal or overt, a motivation for why some women criticize Brenda?
I do see a certain activism and artistry in some of Brenda’s most controversial photos where she is wrapped in phylacteries or draped in nothing more than a tallis. While it might not be my method of making a point, she does remind me of Madonna in her early years, where she used the shock value of combining brazen sexuality and religious symbolism to make statements about individuality, religious coercion, feminism, and breaking societal taboos. Madonna’s banned Pepsi commercial is one such example.
There is something both heartbreaking and inspiring about Brenda. In some ways, some of her followers display their own hypocrisy by gobbling up every risqué photo while simulataneuosly criticizing her for them. Some of these same men who might feel that Brenda’s accident was divine retribution would happily pay to take her on a shopping spree or enjoy an afternoon of shomer negiah (she stipulates no hanky panky) face time. The question is who is playing who? Are men stripping Brenda of her façade or is Brenda stripping men of theirs? If both sides are playing a symbolic game of strip poker, I’d say the men have already lost their pants.