Heroes, like all magical creatures—unicorns, gods, dragons—do not exist, but are made by us, the people who need them. And apparently the political and mainstream media in the U.S. really needs heroes in Ukraine.
Heroes are magical creatures. They fill an otherwise grim world with the possibility for a way out and a better future. In Ukraine, “glory to the heroes” is a common response to “glory to Ukraine” and is meant for the soldiers who have been defending Ukraine from Russian invasion since Putin illegally annexed Crimea in 2014. I have spent decades living and working in Russia, including teaching gender studies at the European University at St. Petersburg. Glory to Putin is a phrase I hear—not from anyone I know or love—but from a taxi driver or the woman selling Putin tee shirts in a kiosk.
It doesn’t surprise me that after the breakup of the Soviet Empire, total economic collapse in the 1990s and a confusing world of climate change and late capitalism, many Russians also want a hero to make life bearable. It depressed me that it’s Putin, but I also understand the impulse to feel hope. Heroes, like all magical creatures—unicorns, gods, dragons—do not exist, but are made by us, the people who need them. And apparently the political and mainstream media in the U.S. really needs heroes in Ukraine.
After the breakup of the Soviet Empire, total economic collapse in the 1990s and a confusing world of climate change and late capitalism, many Russians want a hero to make life bearable. It depressed me that it’s Putin, but I also understand the impulse to feel hope.
Watching cable news coverage of the tragic events in Ukraine, I am saddened when I hear Anderson Cooper repeat the phrase. Listening to NPR in the morning, I hear again and again how brave the Ukrainian men who are staying to fight are. But we should be very careful about who we worship—because glory has its costs and fetishizing the masculinist and militarist response of war will hurt women and LGBTQ people for decades to come, by buttressing a patriarchal and masculinist worldview that sees humans as either men or women and then gives full citizenship to men while relegating women to the kitchen.
As one Ukranian mother, Kateryna Yurko, told CNN, “The two most important things a Ukrainian woman needs to know is how to make borscht and Molotov (cocktails).” That’s because it is “men” who must be heroes. The female-identified people are meant to be hero adjacent—making food and explosives for the men. No one glorifies the women—even though some Ukrainian women have stayed in the country to help combat Russian forces.
The ones who do opt to leave must travel long distances with children in tow to escape the bombing. They shelter in subways overnight, many of them pregnant or giving birth. They are sad victims of this war, but because they cannot be full citizens they are excused from the martial law that President Zelensky imposed. It is “men” who must stay because only men are soldiers and therefore full citizens.
We should be very careful about who we worship—because glory has its costs, and fetishizing the masculinist and militarist response of war will hurt women and LGBTQ people for decades to come.
As Margot Canaday explains in The Straight State, participation in the military is central not just to being a full citizen, but to being a real man. In the U.S., fights over who could and could not serve not only divided men from women, but heterosexuals from a variety of sexual and gender “perverts.” That’s why so many soldiers were given dishonorable discharges after World War II for “homosexual tendencies” and it’s why at the height of the Cold War, women in the military were routinely drummed out.
“Women’s proximity to first-class citizenship helps to explain why the focus on lesbianism first became apparent inside the cold war military,” Canaday wrote. “The federal regulation of homosexuality among women also depended on the crystallization of a binaristic conception of homosexuality and heterosexuality.”
Speaking of binaries, Putin’s regime depends on them. The resurgence of extremely patriarchal views about gender in the past 30 years, despite a vibrant and robust feminist movement throughout the country, is one of the depressing facts of Russia today. And Putin has used the figure of the homosexual and a European Union, or Gayropa, intent on perverting “traditional sexual relations” in Russia to solidify his base of “real men and women.”
Putin is a madman, but his regime depends on these century-old notions of binary gender and “normal” sexuality. The way the U.S. mainstream media is covering the illegal invasion of Ukraine is doing similar cultural work. By making masculinist militarism heroic, U.S. cultural gatekeepers are giving us heroes, but they’re also giving us a worldview where there are only men and women and everyone is straight.
Perhaps rather than looking for heroes and unicorns, U.S. media could tell more complex stories where nationalism and militarism, whether in the U.S. or Ukraine, are not heroic, but complicated identity formations that often result in patriarchal and anti-queer regimes. Like Putin’s Russia.