Photo: © Ukrainian President's Office/ZUMA Press Wire Service
After weeks of tension on the border of Ukraine, the Russian army has invaded the country, resulting in horrifying scenes of murdered civilians and bombed-out residential neighbourhoods. Hundreds of thousands have already fled the country. According to Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelenskyy, there has been an assassination attempt on his life, while Russian president Vladimir Putin has already put his nuclear forces on high alert.
Yet one unexpected phenomenon in this terrifying news cycle has been what can only be described as the creation of a Zelenskyy stan base. People on the internet have confessed to having a crush on him, calling him “sexy”, a “daddy”; even a “zaddy”. One person even claimed that they got “pregnant just [by] watching him”.
Some have described these statements as distasteful: “The yassification of armed conflict”, writes one person on the emerging phenomenon. “I am begging liberals to stop treating an actual war like a tv show with fun characters,” tweets another.
Emma Salisbury, who wrote the viral tweet “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”, says she was originally being tongue-in-cheek. “I think it's that he could have easily left the country and commanded from safety elsewhere,” she tells VICE, “but he chose to stay and fight with his people for their home – bravery and heroism.”
Salisbury would like to clarify that she doesn’t actually have a crush on him, but she admires and respects him greatly nonetheless. “It's such an awful situation there, and seeing the footage from the ground is heartbreaking, so I'm glad they have someone like him to lead them.”
Mistress Kye, a podcast host and kink educator who posted a photo of the now-famous Zelenskyy quote “I need ammunition, not a ride!” with the caption “BadAssery [sic] is sexy AF”, thinks the Ukrainian president’s appeal comes down to his personal qualities. “In Philadelphia, we are known for our grit,” she says. “I respect and respond to grit because it's comprised of strength, loyalty, fortitude and heart. Grit is sexy. Zelensky has grit.”
Another Zelenskyy fan is Javier Morillo, a 52-year-old from Minnesota in the United States who tweeted: “The z in Zelensky is for zaddy.” He explains that it’s been refreshing to see a politician stand up to an act of authoritarianism, but also behave in a way that politicians aren’t expected to behave. “He seems like a normal guy and is very accessible,” Javier says. “I don't long for heroes but it’s a beautiful thing to see that Ukrainians are rallying around him. I've not experienced [something like] that in my lifetime.”
Zelenskyy’s relative youth compared to other heads of state – he is 44, which makes him 35 years younger than Joe Biden – and his rugged looks may put him at an advantage over other politicians, but it’s clear that these qualities have little to do with his new fandom. It’s doubtful that people would be Photoshopping him into Captain America memes if he was leader-in-exile in neighbouring Poland.
Instead, it’s his perceived bravery and strength that appear to have resonated with people the most. His meteoric rise to broader consciousness is, in many ways, completely understandable. It’s hard to imagine another world leader – like, say, Boris Johnson – shooting a video of himself during an invasion in which he strolls around the capital and tells people he’s not going anywhere.
This kind of romanticisation or sexualisation of a political figure isn’t anything new though – you only have to look back on the 2015 articles proclaiming a newly elected Canadian PM Justin Trudeau “the sexiest leader in the world” or the one-time phenomenon of “Cuomosexuals” stanning now-disgraced New York governor Andrew Cuomo to know that politician thirst has a long and lurid history.
But it goes even further back than that, according to experts. “War or conflict and sex or sexualisation have always been yoked together and have always had a pretty intimate close relationship in Western cultural representation, which goes all the way back to ancient Greece and the Odyssey,” says Dr Kieran Andrieu, a doctor of political economy and an associate lecturer at Birkbeck University.
“You could go right the way back to Alexander the Great, Genghis Khan, Julius Caesar, all the way up to men who by most historical accounts aren’t pretty attractive like Napoleon, at least in his later years.” (Sorry, Bonaparte.)
Dr Jaspreet Tehara, an NHS counselling psychologist, puts part of the Zelenskyy thirst down to a phenomenon that psychotherapists call transference. Though more typically used to describe the redirection of a patient’s feelings onto their therapist, it can also apply to public figures. Politicians like Zelenskyy become vehicles for our own desires “in the absence of knowing them in any real sense,” he explains.
“We start to construct narratives around who they are, based on who they remind us of and who we are accustomed to,” Dr Tehara adds. “If there is an alignment between who we think they are and how they act, we fall into confirmation biases, and it reaffirms our positions on who we believe them to be. That can be incredibly seductive, on occasion.”
Zelenskyy – with a years-long career in entertainment and TV prior to his election – has more raw material for these fantasies than your average politician. Want cuddly Zelenskyy? Look up his voiceover for the Paddington Bear film. Inspirational Zelenskyy? Listen to any one of his defiant wartime speeches. Hip-shaking Zelenskyy? Check out his moves on the Ukrainian version of Dancing with the Stars. Oh, and if you are so inclined, there’s even topless Zelenskyy getting the vaccine. Even the story of his most popular TV show, Servant of the People, in which he played an ordinary man who becomes president – a fictional role he literally brought to life when he was elected in a 2019 landslide – serves to cement his myth.
Dr Andrieu thinks our attraction to political figures has to do with power and its pull on our hearts and minds, particularly in times of crisis. “Historically when there are disruptions in the social order, within a few decades, predominantly, a strong man will fill that void,” he explains. “I think we might find it uncomfortable, but perhaps the ‘yassification’ of Zelenskyy conceptualises that.”
And conflict is not just fought on the battlefield. Zelenskyy’s soaring reputation as the president who stayed behind in his country has also been a useful weapon in Ukraine’s own propaganda war against Russia. It counteracts Russian misinformation and disinformation, rallies support on the ground and around the world, and helps to justify the conscription of Ukrainian men aged 18-60, who have been banned from leaving the country. “It’s definitely leant international dimensions to the resistance in Ukraine,” Andrieu says. “It’s meant that he’s been able to coalesce support and this has had serious and palpable material effects on the situation.”
The downside, of course, is when lust starts clouding people’s political judgement or discernment, particularly in times of conflict. That might mean throwing your lot in with a public figure whose policies might otherwise repel you. “We only have to look at human history to understand that those we deem attractive or aesthetically pleasing at the time are some of the ones we look to follow or fight wars for,” Tehara says.
War and sex might feel like they’re on different sides of the spectrum, but Tehara says our brains might actually respond in similar ways. “An evolutionary trauma response lens would suggest so – we’re in a state of threat, so we do the things that we need to do in order to survive that threat.”
“Times of war are an extremely horny time, because we’re looking at death and destruction vs. life and survival. That’s a rather reductive equation – but I think it mostly holds true.”