Media War in Ukraine: Class and Gender

Like all physical conflicts, the current war in Ukraine is also an ongoing war of narratives, in this case one making heavy use of visual imagery.  As they have played out, the threads of these narratives have a telling sequence of their own, revealing the tragic arc of most wars as they confront the ultimate—and ultimately gendered and classed—victims of modern warfare:  women, children, the elderly, the poor and working classes.

War narratives do not open with such storylines of course, and this conflict is no different.  Before the first shot was fired, the West provided satellite images of Russian’s early military buildup along Russian and Belarussian borders.  It was an interesting strategy, a visual foretelling that put Russia in a defensive position from the first, establishing a story-line that made its military moves seem predictable and almost robotic, a product of earlier Soviet mismanagement.

Without dismissing in the least the admirable resilience and capabilities of the outnumbered and outgunned Ukrainian forces, it is important to recognize a key motif in this storyline that is part of Western mythos: individualism over collectivity.  In this narrative thread, the unified front displayed by Ukrainian forces is not entirely overlooked.  Rather, stress is laid on the failure of Russia’s military to properly delegate authority, a theme long-stressed in Western narratives opposed to collectivity in general.

On the heels of that media opening, another key thread has been built, one allied with an ethos of individualism as embodied in a regular aspect of most narrative: key characters.  Not surprisingly, the most significant characterizations to date are of the war’s primary protagonist/antagonist figures:  Volodymyr Zelensky and Vladimir Putin.  As the war’s central hero/villain figures (no matter which side the story is told from) they embody key class and gender distinctions, but with an ironic yet important reversal in storylines. 

Shirtless white man (Vladimir Putin) sitting on a brown horse in front of a rocky hillside

Putin’s early public persona has shifted over time as he has morphed from shirtless romance hero to suited executive, a role more in keeping with both his age and his current role. The infamous pre-war photo of germaphobe Putin and French President Emmanuel Macron, separated by a 20-foot-long table, only enunciates Putin’s splendid isolation. The setting, which hearkens back not to a socialist state but to Tsarist excess and luxury, underscores his current persona.

Two white men (Vladimir Putin and Emmanuel Macron) dressed in dark suits seated at opposite ends of a long white table.

As was made clear from the viral vignette of his dressing-down of the Head of Russian Intelligence, Putin now embodies the role of an ironically Western, Apprentice-like corporate executive and member of a masculinist elite—albeit one with nuclear weapons and a penchant for murdering his opponents. 

Contrast Putin’s autocratic put-down with the now-famous selfie video of Zelensky and his cabinet refusing to leave downtown Kyiv.  In occupying the foreground of this informal video Zelensky is not attempting to establish his singularity or dominance.  Rather he is one among equals, visually embodying group cohesion.

At the same time, Zelensky’s visual placement among this band of brothers is augmented by his delivery of what are admittedly formal but nevertheless powerful lines.  As his fixed, hand-held phone captures the small group, Zelensky quietly repeats “tut/tyt”: “here,” “here,” “here” while he names each individual cabinet member, thus solidifying the group’s physical and metaphorical placement together and among the inhabitants of Kyiv.

This video from the first days of the war was a key moment in establishing the ensuing narratives, a strategic rhetorical move equal to the military’s decisive maneuver to deny Russia use of Kyiv’s airport by destroying its runways.  These storylines quickly countered the prevailing expectation of a rapid and thorough conquest of Ukraine by Russia.

The impact of Zelensky’s video on the overall narrative within the West was not lost on the Ukrainian administration.  On the 100th day to the war, Zelensky issued a direct reprise of the first video, again emphasizing not individualism but a unified collective front opposing oligarchic power and using these videos to bolster morale and unite the population as a whole. 

Five white men dressed in dark parkas and hats carrying another white man on a stretcher in front of a brick building with all its windows missing and several bare trees, smoke rising in the background.

At the same time, the changing nature of the conflict has forced the basic storylines to follow two new major threads—the ongoing carnage in Ukraine and the wider devastations to come—which also shift the focus to the war’s real impact. The most horrific details remain images emerging from Ukraine that show the impact of Russia’s use of the non-combatant warfare they tested in Syria (much as the Nazi’s tested their pre-WWII warfare in Spain). They are systematically reducing Eastern Ukraine’s economic structure to rubble and erasing what population is left, mostly people who most lack the capacity to evacuate:  the old, sick, poor and working classes.  In the words of an American military official, the Russians “just bomb the hell out of people, . . .  trying to break the will or the spirit of the Ukrainian people by just leveling large sections or entire towns.”

The devastation of this war will not be told solely through images of destruction, because Putin’s attacks are not all so visible.  Having failed to overcome Ukraine in one quick ‘special military action,’ Putin and the oligarchs who support him have chosen to follow the Western lead and widen the material war in Ukraine into an economic battle with Europe and the West as a whole.  Oil and food are the weapons in this narrative, with the West scrambling to offset the losses incurred through boycotts and Russian blockades.

As the United Nation’s International Labor Organization reported as early as May 1, the war’s impact will be visited on those least capable of creating alternatives to their situation:  namely those with the least social and economic power.  In the dry language of the report, the war “will have a negative impact on incomes and poverty, especially among the poor who rely on wages as their main income source. . . .  Some countries [will] face not only higher prices, but also real shortages, particularly in grain. . . . [T]he World Food Programme estimates that an additional 47 million people are at risk of acute hunger in 2022 on top of a baseline of 267 million people.”

Whatever images and narratives of the war we see, it is clear that the primary victims will be those at the bottom of the economic ladder.  That is horrifyingly visible in the immediate deaths and destruction in Ukraine itself.  Over time, it will be similarly visible in world-wide images of unemployment, hunger, sickness, and unnecessary death among those least able to resist global economic forces.

James V. Catano

James V. Catano is producer/director of Enduring Legacy:  Louisiana’s Croatian Americans and author of Ragged Dicks:  Masculinity, Steel, and the Rhetoric of the Self-Made Man. He is Professor Emeritus of English and Screen Arts at Louisiana State University.

This entry was posted in Class and the Media, Class at the Intersections, Contributors, Issues, James V. Catano and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

1 Response to Media War in Ukraine: Class and Gender

  1. Pingback: Media War in Ukraine: Class and Gender - | Bible Prophecy In The Daily Headlines

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