Volodymyr Zelensky Is Not a Meme

Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelensky’s household photograph retains showing in my social media feeds. Maybe you’ve seen it, too. The image reveals the politician alongside his spouse and daughter, holding his son in his lap. Father and son grin, sporting superhero facepaint. It’s a completely happy second. This photograph is captioned with a snippet of Zelensky’s inauguration speech from 2019: “I don’t want my image in your workplaces. The president is just not an icon, an idol or a portrait. Cling your youngsters’ images as an alternative, and take a look at them every time you’re making a choice.”

As Ukraine continues to combat in opposition to Russia’s invasion, its 44-year-old president has reworked right into a beloved wartime chief. As such, this isn’t the one Zelensky imagery going viral proper now. There’s additionally a front-facing video he made together with his cupboard members as they hunkered down in Kyiv, in addition to images of him dressed for fight. His quip turning down an evacuation supply from the US (“I want ammunition, not a journey”) is already emblazoned on shirts, mugs, and flags for buy on Etsy. Admirers are photoshopping his head onto Captain America, professing to have raging crushes on him, and creating “fan cam” video collages as digital tributes. Zelensky is the number-one goal of the nation with essentially the most nukes on the earth, and he’s not backing down—if there was ever a time to idolize a political determine, it could be this second.

However politicians aren’t meant to be idolized, even of their most interesting hours. That was, the truth is, the purpose excerpted from Zelensky’s speech. And there’s a distinction between admiring a pacesetter’s actions and adulating them like a Okay-pop star. Believing that the Russian invasion of Ukraine is an atrocity and that Zelensky is behaving courageously doesn’t imply that it’s smart to use the googly-eyed logic of fandom to his actions. The truth is, it’s distinctly unwise. Treating Zelensky like a superhero—name it Marvelization—recasts a geopolitical battle during which actual persons are actually dying into leisure, into content material. As Russia bombed Kyiv, the New York Publish printed an article about who would possibly play Zelensky within the inevitable movie adaptation of the battle. (The consensus? Avengers actor Jeremy Renner.)

Who does this assist, precisely? The identical individuals who benefitted from canonizing former Supreme Court docket justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg as “the Infamous RBG,” I suppose: no one. Regardless of her exaltation, when Ginsburg died, she was changed by a lady who’s in each method her ideological foe. When sure segments of the liberal crowd in the US handled the Robert Mueller investigation as a hero-studded spectacle, shopping for T-shirts with the previous particular counsel’s face on them and calling former FBI director James Comey “daddy,” it didn’t negatively affect the Trump administration. If something, this conduct helped Trump, who was all the time eager to painting his opponents as authorities elites. (Not that Trump didn’t encourage his personal stans—he gave them iconic merch within the type of MAGA hats.) Fan tradition has, as critic Amanda Hess identified again in 2019, already swallowed American democracy. We’re worse off for it. Political figures are handled as a distinct taste of superstar, fairly than as public servants. They’ve fanbases who give themselves names— Kamala Harris has the #KHive, for instance, whereas former New York governor Andrew Cuomo had, sadly for everybody, the “Cuomosexuals”—and who see their affinity for his or her chosen politician as an extension of their identification. With Zelensky, the fandom sprouting up round him in the US is very dispiriting as a result of the circumstances he’s in are so relentlessly grim. It feels merciless to place the thought of Zelensky on a pedestal when the flesh-and-blood man is begging for assistance on the bottom.

Zelensky, who performed the Ukrainian president on tv earlier than he was elected, is an inherently likable determine. He gained the Ukrainian model of Dancing With the Stars. He voiced Paddington Bear within the Ukrainian model of Paddington Bear. He performed “Hava Nagila” together with his penis on a piano in entrance of a stay viewers. Typing all of this out makes me like him greater than I already do, whilst I’m sitting right here writing about why it’s a mistake to mythologize politicians on this explicit method. On this second of true emergency, Ukraine has benefitted from Zelensky’s expertise for endearing himself to audiences, in any case. He has rallied worldwide allies to help Ukraine by successfully speaking his nation’s plight with rousing speeches. 

Nonetheless, onlookers who eagerly deal with Zelensky like the most recent action-movie star will not be doing him any favors. “What we see in learning memes and politics is that whereas memification helps a political message or trigger unfold to many individuals, it usually comes on the expense of a flattening of that story,” says Sulafa Zidani, a Massachusetts Institute of Expertise professor specializing in digital tradition research. What’s the hurt, one would possibly ask, in viewing Ukraine because the Insurgent Alliance and Russian president Vladimir Putin as Emperor Palpatine? Nicely, for starters, Zelensky is an individual, not a Jedi. He doesn’t have magical powers. Thrusting an precise particular person into the position of Cinematic Savior is wildly unfair. Plus, Putin guidelines a rustic full of precise human beings, many who’re placing themselves in danger to protest this invasion. It additionally reduces Ukraine’s plight to one thing for folks in NATO nations to pause over whereas their telephones, sighing sadly, possibly wiping away just a few tears like they did on the finish of Avengers: Endgame. Possibly, as Zelensky warned them to not do, they’ll admire his portrait. After which they’ll hold scrolling.

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