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 glad 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 will not be an icon, an idol or a portrait. Dangle your youngsters’ images as a substitute, and take a look at them every time you make a call.”

As Ukraine continues to combat in opposition to Russia’s invasion, its 44-year-old president has remodeled 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 along 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 provide 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 this planet, 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 most interesting hours. That was, the truth is, the purpose excerpted from Zelensky’s speech. And there’s a distinction between admiring a frontrunner’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. Actually, it’s distinctly unwise. Treating Zelensky like a superhero—name it Marvelization—recasts a geopolitical battle wherein actual individuals are actually dying into leisure, into content material. As Russia bombed Kyiv, the New York Publish printed 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 person. Regardless of her exaltation, when Ginsburg died, she was changed by a girl 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 influence 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, reasonably 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 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” along 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 specific 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 assist Ukraine by successfully speaking his nation’s plight with rousing speeches. 

Nonetheless, onlookers who eagerly deal with Zelensky like the newest action-movie star should 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 Know-how 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? Nicely, for starters, Zelensky is an individual, not a Jedi. He doesn’t have magical powers. Thrusting an precise individual into the position of Cinematic Savior is wildly unfair. Plus, Putin guidelines a rustic stuffed 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 individuals in NATO nations to pause over whereas taking a look at their telephones, sighing sadly, possibly wiping away a couple of 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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