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It’s Going to Take More Than a War Zaddy to Redefine Manhood

The liberal internet is flooded with thirst over images of Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelenskyy in camo, shirtless and looking tough. Is this ‘redefining manhood,’ or just another embarrassing chapter in our addiction to one-dimensional war heroes?

The dawn of Russia formally invading Ukraine in February triggered a lot of things: A rush of aid and military weapons flowing to the resistance, condemnations of Vladimir Putin’s aggression and the eager rise of far-right elements on the ground. 

But from the shadows, a very different kind of darkness also emerged in The Discourse®: Terminal horniness over Volodymyr Zelenskyy, the 44-year-old president of Ukraine. 

Over the course of weeks, Zelenskyy has gone from unknown politician to the quote-unquote “leader of the free world,” becoming perhaps the most lionized man in the last several decades of war. He has done so by being the figurehead of what is framed as an explicitly moral conflict, standing his ground in Kyiv and calling upon the world to resist Russia’s imperialism through a series of articulate, impassioned speeches

So maybe it was all too predictable that the brain-wormed internet would start crushing on him like he’s 2015-era Justin Bieber, literally making fancam edits and otherwise gushing all over a head of state who’s been forced into a conflict that Ukraine could very well lose

To be honest, I worked hard to ignore this utter avalanche of cringe, which seemed to lean on the very worst habits of enthusiastic liberals who frame conflict in sports-team tribalism, complete with the anodyne sheen of celeb worship. But that ignorance came to a screeching halt this week when I saw Kathleen Parker, Pulitzer-winning columnist for the Washington Post, drop a take that was absolutely pulsating with thirst over Zelenskyy. In this framing, he’s not just another political leader thrust into an unjust, asymmetric war, like so many before him. No, Zelenskyy is “akin to Superman” and “a bird so seldom seen” — “the modern-day warrior-artist… beautiful in his ordinariness.” 

“Equal parts Sam Elliott, Stephen Colbert and, in the romantic fantasies of at least two gullible sisters, a crooner, Zelensky has gone a long way toward redefining manhood in a time of gender muddle and animus toward men,” Parker wrote. 

What, all this because the dude wears T-shirts instead of a suit and doesn’t turn into a puddle of piss and tears when talking about Putin? Is this all we needed in order to “redefine manhood” into the image of, uhh, homophobic Sam Elliott and a talk show host? It is news to me that Zelenskyy has singlehandedly solved the feminist “gender muddle” by taking photos in camo and demanding aid from Joe Biden, but I get the perspective: Why fuss over the spiral of systemic male violence toward women when we can shelve “animus toward men” and just vibe with Zelenskyy’s inherent, unimpeachable goodness? 

Parker’s take is the logical conclusion of so much of the Zelenskyy Thirst Diaspora, which is itself an evolution of the American habit of giving elected leaders and government officials the stan-culture treatment no matter the context. It’s almost like everyone forgot how embarassing the whole “Cuomosexual” thing was (Andrew Cuomo now claims that “cancel culture extremists” control Democrats and are after him in a witch hunt). Or, to a lesser degree, how quaintly useless the adoration of “heartthrobAnthony Fauci ended up being given the current state of things. 

In one sense, this is how the cult of personality in American politics has always worked — and our coverage of politicians has never felt more akin to our coverage of A-list celebrities, with an endless fixation on how relatable they are to us. But in another sense, this is evidence of our collective inability to cope with an existential war 6,000 miles away. Witnessing this war through social media triggers our need to feel like we’re a part of the conflict, even if it’s through two-dimensional emotions like unironic lust. And as former MEL staff writer Hussein Kesvani argues, social media platforms are designed perfectly to encourage and promote this output of seemingly frivolous propaganda, no matter how hard I groan at photoshops of Zelenskyy as “Captain Ukraine.” 

Nonetheless, it’s a good time to pump the brakes on the kind of war worship that led us to uncritically glorify people like Winston Churchill and George Washington — so much so that the true spectrum of their lives and sins are whitewashed from history textbooks. And certainly, there are no new revelations about modern masculinity to glean from a conflict in which two European men are puffing their chests with righteous rage. I consider the thirst over Zelenskyy as the flipside of the shirtless Putin meme: a rendering of “traditional” masculinity that becomes more absurd the more you think about the actual context. 

The championing of an aggressive, composed, take-no-prisoners male spirit has long been a trope in wartime. Indeed, it’s the same energy that transformed a non-consensual kiss by a serviceman into a viral romantic image of wholesome gender roles and sacrifice, rather than just evidence of drunken male entitlement. The tangled knot of masculinity, military service and war constantly leads to toxic assumptions about gender, whether it’s South Korean men bitterly attacking women for not having to serve mandatory time in the military, or endlessly misogynistic debates about the role of women in our own armed forces in the U.S.

This is all to say that, maybe, celebrating the inherent violence of nation-states by going gaga for conventionally attractive men in positions of power isn’t the best way to understand how harmful conflict, and the tribalistic rhetoric around it, can ultimately be. Zelenskyy doing what any moral head of state would and should do in an invasion isn’t “redefining manhood in a time of gender muddle and animus toward men.” It’s just a way to sweep complicated social discourse under the rug. Why fixate on the full range of gender expression and the failures of masculinity when we can just cheer a muscle-y dude who does War Stuff® and is pretty good at posting about it?

As the saying goes: Fool me once, shame on you — fool me twice, shame on me. After witnessing a series of ugly, protracted wars that were loudly justified as morally righteous, I have no more energy to stan anyone involved in this Ukrainian fight, no matter how handsome and capable they are.