“Standing Up To Russian Aggression Really Brings Out His Eyes”: Zelenskyy Thirst-Trapping
By Miriam Eve Mora.
The Internet has been rejoicing in “Zelenskyy the Hottie,” praising his role as a leader ready to heroically sacrifice himself for his nation, and creating around him a following of American superfans. As we applaud him from afar, focusing on his image, we are, unfortunately, also relieving ourselves of some responsibility, letting ourselves off the hook as responsible world citizens who should not accept his role as a lone stoic David facing down the Russian Goliath. In turning his American supporters into fans, we fictionalize and dramatize Zelenskyy the man (to a degree he clearly stated in his inaugural speech that he was uninterested in obtaining), and potentially neglect Zelenskyy the leader under siege. Not a soldier, not a Punisher, but a comedian turned politician. Thousands of thirsty voices call out his heroism, and it is hard to imagine that they have not already fated him to be a martyr.
At fault for this slide into potentially irresponsible fandom is the emphatic embrace of Zelenskyy as a Jewish masculine hero. Let us first consider the obvious, which is that in the midst of a brutal war, it may seem truly frivolous to focus on a gender analysis of a leader under siege. However, this is what commentators have, largely unintentionally, been doing in their praise for the heroism of Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy, who became an overnight international celebrity when Russian forces invaded. Americans have delighted in sharing and celebrating his physical manliness, a quality which has rarely been attributed to American Jews, who are seldom recognized in this manner while they are still alive and fighting. While lauding his masculinity, his Jewishness has not been dismissed, but embraced, and even celebrated in American Jewish circles. It is important to recognize that this gendered, sexualized commentary is constructing a narrative which will provide the stage for interpreting events as they unfold in this conflict.
He is being positively compared to non-Jewish leaders like Putin and Donald Trump, who, unlike Ted Cruz or Bernie Sanders (also unfavorably compared to Zelenskyy) have previously been so determined in their masculine presentation, and praised by their supporters for their embodiment of manhood. Zelenskyy, however, has spent his career in comedy, appearing in drag, or in scenes and costumes which Trump and Putin, highly protective of their masculine images, wouldn’t dare wear. Yet the language being used to praise him is as over the top as is their own masculine hyperbole, and unlike many masculine Jewish heroes, his Jewishness has been highlighted, not downplayed.
This fawning over aggressive Jewish masculinity emerges from a long history of Jews both embracing and struggling against gentler forms of masculinities, and attempting to access the more aggressive American hegemon.1 Zelenkyy’s Jewishness is emphasized when measured against Jews of the past, simultaneously praising his manhood and condemning “weaker” Jewish men. His sudden embodiment of heroism provides an antidote to the old antisemitic canard that Jews evade military service and violent conflict, that Jews are not loyal to their countries of origin (or are more loyal to Israel), and that Jews are less capable of holding their own in conflict due to their timid or cowardly nature.2
The American Jewish response to Zelenksyy is a predictable result of an ongoing process of the glorification of Jewish “tough guys” emerging in pop culture after the Second World War, continuing through the second half of the century, and erupting in the early years of the new millennium (culminating in the Eli Roth’s Bear Jew of Inglourious Basterds, 2009).3 The most celebrated images of Jewish heroes in American media in recent decades have been of Jews fighting in WWII (Israeli sabras, resistance fighters, and Jewish soldiers). Such representations counter the image of Jews as meek and acquiescent, while condemning those who were not strong enough, going “like lambs to the slaughter.” Zelenksyy’s emerging image comes on the heels of this established tough Jewish hero, but unlike the manliest of these Jewish characters, Zelenskyy is real, and is fighting in real-life. This idolizing of Zelenskyy as a masculine sex symbol is a very American phenomenon. Eliot Borenstein, scholar of post-Soviet Russian culture and author of Meanwhile in Russia…Russian Internet Memes and Viral Video, confirmed that Russian language memes circulating about Zelenskyy are “definitely less macho. In the US, there’s a kind of spectator sport aspect about all this.”
Why is masculinity so idolized in Jewish media outlets in the United States? Zelenskyy is not American, but he presents a long-awaited manifestation of Jewish masculinity, and his own journey to politics mirrors many American Jewish stories. He’s a comedian turned politician (like American Jew Al Franken), a winner of the Ukrainian version of Dancing with the Stars (a victory recently shared by an American Jewish man and celebrated in American Jewish press), the descendant of Holocaust survivors, and he still looks the part of an Eastern European Jew (the Ashkenazi descent which dominates American Jewish archetypes). As a result of this connection, American commentators are using the opportunity to present Zelenskyy as the antidote to emasculated Jews, and one which is not reliant on the State of Israel.
The result is extolling the virtue not only of Zelenskyy’s resolute bravery, but on his vanquishing of the Jewish body, praising every part of him so as to erase the typical galut Jewishness from his system. This phenomenon is fascinating because the praise is not particularly reflective of his body, but of the perception of his masculinity by the content creators. It is more reflective, in fact, of the focus on the male body which Trump and Putin normalized in their shared vanity. 4
Zelenskyy is in fine physical shape, but does not possess the sculpted body on which meme creators continue to superimpose his face, which might justify Stephen Colbert’s joke that Putin was jealous because Zelenskyy looks better with his shirt off. This transference of behavioral masculinity to praise of his body is exemplified the air of surprise many demonstrate, “I never noticed before – Zelenskyy is hot. Standing up to Russian aggression really brings out his eyes.”
An astonishing amount of memes praise his physical maleness, including those presenting lists of objects visible from space that include Zelenkyy’s testicles; referring to him as a “Chad” or a badass (again, with balls of osmium); as the proprietor of the heaviest known object in the universe: his balls; and even delighting in the musical ability of his penis. Memes acknowledge those elements of his stereotypically Jewish features, such as his short stature5, but they do so with captions like “An inspiration to short Jews everywhere.”
The sexual nature of these memes and articles is striking, given the gravity of the conflict. The most circulated thirst tweet (shared on Twitter at least 262,000 times) comically mirrors the reality of breaking news about the devastating events in Ukraine, exclaiming: “BREAKING: every woman in your life now has at least a small crush on Volodymyr Zelenskyy and there’s absolutely nothing you can do about it.” Internet commentary abounds with debates about who will play Zelenskyy in the inevitable heroic war film, suggesting action heroes like Jeremy Renner, Vin Deisel, and The Rock to play Zelenkyy and his comrades. Mockups for movie posters with Zelenskyy’s face imposed on action heroes crop up in my feed. Dozens of thirst traps praising his manliness and sex appeal flood my Jewish, professional, and personal social media. Twitter user “Zelenskyy the Hottie,” describes their account as “A place to see and share your favourite pics of the hot president who’s motivating the world and will kick Putin’s ass.”
But Zelenskyy is not Jon Bernthal’s Punisher, a hot Jew who cannot be killed. He’s not the Eli Roth’s Bear Jew, a well-muscled Jew out for vengeance against a fascist army. He is a comedian turned caring politician, who has based his career on avoiding a cult of personality. And he is not facing off against Putin to kick his ass, he is under siege and in mortal danger. He may be motivating the world, but he and his country are still fighting alone. Regardless of how hot he looks doing it.
Miriam Eve Mora holds a PhD in American Immigration and Ethnic History. Her contribution is informed by her upcoming book, Carrying a Big Schtick: American Jewish Acculturation and Masculinity in the Twentieth Century (Wayne State University Press). Her research addresses antisemitism, nationalism, Jewish history, Jewish gender, Holocaust representation, Irish history, migration, and masculinity. She lives and works in New York City.
- For an analysis of Jewish struggles against the influence of the masculine hegemon, see Daniel Boyarin, Unheroic Conduct: The Rise of Heterosexuality and the Invention of the Jewish Man (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1997). For a history of the Americanization of the Jewish religion through a redefinition of Jewish masculinity, see Sarah Imhoff, Masculinity and the Making of American Judaism (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2017). For a history of Jewish American masculine identity in the United States from Roosevelt to the Yom Kippur War, see Miriam Eve Mora, Carrying a Big Schtick: American Jewish Acculturation and Masculinity in the Twentieth Century (Wayne State University Press, forthcoming).
- See my forthcoming book from Wayne State University Press, Carrying a Big Schtick: American Jewish Acculturation and Masculinity in the Twentieth Century, anticipated 2022.
- See Miriam Eve Mora (Borenstein), “Heroes, Victims and Villains: Character Inversion in Holocaust Cinema.” Master’s thesis, West Chester University of Pennsylvania, 2009.
- Sarah Ashwin and Jennifer Utrata, “Masculinity Restored? Putin’s Russia and Trump’s America,” Contexts 19, no. 2 (May 2020): 16–21.
- See Tanya S Osensky, Shortchanged: Height Discrimination and Strategies for Social Change (Lebanon, NH: University Press of New England, 2018).