Please, I’m begging you, stop being weird about Volodymyr Zelensky

His response to Russia’s imperialism has been sincerely courageous. That doesn’t mean you should post sex fantasies about him.

Photo by Emin Sansar/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images
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As I write this, there is perhaps no more popular politician on the planet than Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky, a former comedic actor who became an improbable head of state after playing one on TV. In the few short years since his unexpected rise to power, Zelensky has played the lead role in not one but two major international incidents: first by rebuffing then-President Donald Trump’s attempt to extort the Ukrainian government into involving itself in the 2020 U.S. presidential election, and now as the wartime figurehead of a Ukraine in the midst of resisting a bloody assault by Russian President Vladimir Putin.

Zelensky’s sincerely courageous public response to Russia’s imperialism has vaulted him into the rarified position of uniting the typically rancorous partisan divide in the United States, with lawmakers from both sides of the aisle embracing him for his nationalism, bravery, commitment to freedom, or whatever other imperfect paradigm they’ve chosen to project onto him at any given moment. There’s no question that he’s risen to a tragic occasion thrust upon him, and he’s leveraged those circumstances masterfully to maximize his country’s plight — and himself as a central symbol of it.

There is, however, an undeniable tendency to flatten complex, fast-moving crises into something more easily digestible, and more symmetrically pleasing. Decades after the fact, Americans are nonetheless still weaned on Cold War dualism and tales of “the greatest generation” rolling across Europe to defeat Nazi Germany. For most people, a lack of historical context mixed with the fog of war contributes to a tendency to latch onto personalities as the most immediate and accessible entry point into understanding a complicated situation thousands of miles away.

And so, Zelensky has become not only a figurehead for his own citizens, but for many watching Ukraine from afar, a larger-than-life caricature to fit these seemingly larger than life circumstances. And it’s gotten, well, pretty weird. Thanks to his turn in the international spotlight, Zelensky has become, in the minds of some:

  • The platonic ideal of 21st-century masculinity:
  • Also the embodiment of ancient Greek masculinity:
  • ALSO the embodiment of Jewish peoplehood:
  • A sartorial icon:
  • Or maybe a villain??
  • A case study in corporate management:

Even ordinarily level-headed journalists have fallen prey to this bizarre turn. Here’s a paragraph from a piece about President Biden calling Putin a “war criminal,” published recently in The Washington Posthardly an outlet known for hyperbolic flights of fancy:

Biden’s comments, which began more than an hour after initially scheduled and ran half the length of Zelensky’s entreaty — eight minutes to Zelensky’s 16 — underscored the fluid dynamic between the two leaders, with Biden (wearing a suit, subdued, age 79) finding himself, for one of the first times since Russia invaded Ukraine, clearly in response mode to Zelensky (clad in military green, resolute, age 44).

What’s the point of this parenthetical color? To highlight that Biden, an old man who has worked in politics for decades, has a different style than Zelensky, a young man who is currently facing a full-scale invasion and multiple assassination attempts on his life? This reads as an uptight yassification of geopolitical politics — distilling things down to age, clothing, and amorphous vibe. It’s what you’d expect in a glossy celebrity profile, not a description of international war and peace.

And it’s not just that people are being so weird about a man whom 99% of the world probably couldn’t have picked out of a lineup last month. It’s how predictable the whole thing is. Hell, Reductress called it weeks ago!

If there’s a throughline across all these variations on the theme, it’s that Zelensky-the-person has been subsumed and surpassed by Zelensky-the-idea. Which idea? Any of them. As a head of state in wartime, Zelensky has embraced — and excelled at — being a focal point on behalf of his country and citizens. But in doing so, he’s also opened himself to becoming a blank slate for external forces eager to glom onto whatever facet of Zelensky’s deliberately crafted public persona best suits their purpose. Civic and political leaders always lose a bit of control over their own narratives when they’re forced to become larger than life in response to life-altering circumstances. That Zelensky has so effectively done so in such a short time, and in such an extraordinary context, only exacerbates the ease with which those eager to layer a glib, superficial takeaway over his actions can do so.

It’s human nature to take the complex and unwieldy and make it manageable and familiar. But please, I’m begging you, if you’re going to fixate on Volodymyr Zelensky, keep in mind that he is serving as a synecdoche for something much more complicated.

In other words, don’t make it weird.