Volodymyr Zelensky Is Not a Meme

Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelensky’s household picture retains showing in my social media feeds. Maybe you’ve seen it, too. The image exhibits the politician alongside his spouse and daughter, holding his son in his lap. Father and son grin, carrying superhero facepaint. It’s a blissful second. This picture is captioned with a snippet of Zelensky’s inauguration speech from 2019: “I are not looking for my image in your places of work. The president will not be an icon, an idol or a portrait. Cling your youngsters’ photographs as a substitute, and take a look at them every time you’re making a choice.”

As Ukraine continues to combat towards 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 photographs of him dressed for fight. His quip turning down an evacuation provide from the USA (“I would like 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 is perhaps this second.

However politicians aren’t meant to be idolized, even of their best 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 sensible to use the googly-eyed logic of fandom to his actions. In truth, it’s distinctly unwise. Treating Zelensky like a superhero—name it Marvelization—recasts a geopolitical battle through which actual persons are actually dying into leisure, into content material. As Russia bombed Kyiv, the New York Put up revealed an article about who may 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 Courtroom justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg as “the Infamous RBG,” I suppose: no one. Regardless of her exaltation, when Ginsburg died, she was changed by a girl who’s in each manner her ideological foe. When sure segments of the liberal crowd in the USA 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 impression the Trump administration. If something, this habits 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 special taste of movie star, somewhat 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 id. With Zelensky, the fandom sprouting up round him in the USA is very dispiriting as a result of the circumstances he’s in are so relentlessly grim. It feels merciless to place the concept 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 received 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, at the same time as I’m sitting right here writing about why it’s a mistake to mythologize politicians on this explicit manner. 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 newest action-movie star usually are not doing him any favors. “What we see in finding out memes and politics is that whereas memification helps a political message or trigger unfold to many individuals, it typically 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 may ask, in viewing Ukraine because the Insurgent Alliance and Russian president Vladimir Putin as Emperor Palpatine? Effectively, for starters, Zelensky is an individual, not a Jedi. He doesn’t have magical powers. Thrusting an precise individual into the function of Cinematic Savior is wildly unfair. Plus, Putin guidelines a rustic crammed with 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 taking a look at their telephones, sighing sadly, possibly wiping away just a few tears like they did on the finish of Avengers: Endgame. Perhaps, as Zelensky warned them to not do, they’ll admire his portrait. After which they’ll hold scrolling.

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