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Zelensky And The Battle Over American Masculinity

On February 25, the second day of Russia’s invasion into Ukraine, a tweet from author, professor, and Religion News Service columnist Karen Swallow Prior began to gain traction online. It showed a video of Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky standing with his embattled aides on the streets of Kyiv, announcing to the world that he had not fled. “We are here,” he said. “We are protecting Ukraine.”

Tens, if not hundreds, of thousands of people were sharing the clip, but it was the observation Prior added to it that drew particular attention, both positive and negative. “I doubt these guys tweet about manliness,” she quipped.

The subject of Zelensky’s masculinity has been inspiring a cottage industry of think pieces, with writers across the political spectrum confessing crushes on the comely leader and other heads of state seeking to emulate his militaristic style. Still, those outside Christian and conservative subcultures would likely have little idea why Prior’s one-line missive elicited thousands of likes and hundreds of angry responses. For those in the know, however, it was a gauntlet thrown.

“Battle” might be too strong a word to describe the obfuscating, snarky, side-eye, sub-tweeting arguments conservatives are having in essays and on social media over the subject of American masculinity, but certainly a clash has been taking shape. And since Zelensky burst onto the world stage, laying claim to him has become the focus of it.

On one side of the divide stand those who have been raising an alarm that healthy civilizations are built on muscular male virtue, and without uniquely masculine leadership, every kind of vice is claiming our institutions and leaving young men adrift. Some of the most prominent of these Cassandras are Pastor Doug Wilson and theologian Owen Strachan.

Strachan, especially, has come in for heaps of criticism and mockery in evangelical circles for advancing his concept of “Christic manhood” and posting statements like, “The gospel of grace takes men who have been softened by the devil and makes them hard, strong, lean, loving, and ferocious in pursuit of God and his glory. … Men aren’t soft. Men must be tough in Christ.”

Along with Prior, the other side is home to progressive-lite pundits like David French, The Atlantic’s Pete Wehner, and theologian Russell Moore, all of whom have joined The Washington Post, The New York Times, and NPR in recommending Jesus and John Wayne as a cure for the toxic masculinity that ails us.

Months before Zelensky arrived on the scene, the book’s author, Kristin Kobes Du Mez, described the “rugged warrior Jesus” she says many conservatives endorse in an article by Wehner. “They believe God ordained men to be protectors and filled them with testosterone for this purpose,” she told him, going on to explain that “men are to exhibit boldness, courage, even ruthlessness in order to fulfill their God-appointed role.”

Again, Du Mez was framing this as a bad thing. Paraphrasing Pastor Claude Alexander, Wehner classified this kind of masculinity as a dangerous form of Southern “male dominance.”

French, too, has written multiple essays questioning the role of traditional masculinity in modern day evangelicalism.

In a November essay in which he lamented the “cult of toughness” he believes has taken hold of the Right, The Dispatch editor particularly warned that jokes about “drinking liberal tears” are the sort of harmful masculinity that “[celebrates] antagonism as a virtue.”

The rise of Zelensky and the near-universal admiration he has received in the West makes this position a bit awkward. For who could argue that the Ukrainian leader has not demonstrated protectiveness, boldness, courage, and, yes, even some ruthlessness in leading his nation in its struggle to fend off Putin? Who would hesitate to describe him as a rugged warrior? Who could deny that he has even indulged in a bit of sardonic antagonism to gain attention for his cause (such as when he tweaked the Italian prime minister for complaining that he’d missed their planned call by saying, “Today at 10:30am at the entrances to Chernihiv, Hostomel and Melitopol there were heavy fighting. People died. Next time I’ll try to move the war schedule to talk to Mario Draghi at a specific time. Meanwhile, Ukraine continues to fight for its people”)?

Thus, since Zelensky emerged as a totem of popular masculine virtue, the crux of the anti-patriarchy group’s complaint has moved away from charging that masculinity is problematic to insisting that performing masculinity is problematic. That is, they have begun to argue — albeit via oblique sarcasm — that there’s something inauthentic on the part of Strachan’s side because they write and tweet about manhood.

French, for instance, bizarrely insisted that conservatives like Matt Walsh who negatively compared American military ads championing LGBT inclusion to Russian military ads that highlight manly strength wouldn’t have guessed that a male Ukrainian ballet dancer would volunteer to fight Putin (something no one had commented on). “This is an ideal time to recalibrate ‘toughness’ away from performativeness to performance,” French said.

That was the angle Prior, too, offered with her post about Zelensky and his men not tweeting about manliness. In a follow-up post she said, “The huge response shows that this posturing of manliness (rather than embodying it) is a problem that many, many see. I had no idea. Pastors, leaders, please step up.”

Step up to do what? Stop the men who are talking about the need for more manliness from talking about it on social media?

The irony, of course, is that Zelensky was in effect tweeting about his masculine virtue in a savvy bid to inspire the world to rally to his cause. In fact, using social media in this way is something he continues to do as a successful tactic to inspire his country to keep up the fight and to pressure the West to offer their support.

Ukraine’s president seems to innately understand that men behaving as men ought to — by courageously protecting home and hearth — appeals to something deep in our core beings. That is, when it doesn’t uncomfortably conflict with prior social and political positions one has staked that necessitate a quick reframing.

Even Zelensky’s snarky response to the Italian PM contained a bit of performance, given that he posted it … on Twitter.

Writing and talking about masculine virtues are among the first steps to cultivating it in a society. It’s the old “fake it till you make it” principle. Teach boys that masculinity is important, talk about it with them in homes, schools, and churches, and eventually they come to embody it.

The Bible has a word on whether calling for “performances” of masculinity is a valid form of public discourse. In his letter to the Corinthians, the Apostle Paul summarizes the behavior followers of Christ ought to exhibit. “Be watchful, stand firm in the faith,” he says, “be strong.” In other words, he finishes, “Act like men.”

The views expressed in this opinion piece are the author’s own and do not necessarily represent those of The Daily Wire.

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