Putin — and the Pecs That Launched a Million Memes

According to "Putin Kitsch in America," those beefcake shots not only boosted Putin’s image, they sexualized his public image.

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In August 2007, Russian President Vladimir Putin vacationed in Tuva, Russia, in the south of Siberia. He was photographed shirtless on a fishing expedition. The photos were posted on the Kremlin’s website and the rest, as they say, is history.

According to Putin Kitsch in America by Alison Rowley, a professor of Russian history at Montreal’s Concordia University, those beefcake shots not only boosted Putin’s image as a rugged outdoorsman, they also sexualized his public image. Along the way, they helped to popularize all sorts of Putin artifacts: T-shirts, coffee mugs, baby’s bibs, swimsuits, online memes, “slash” fan fiction. Rowley discusses all of this in this entertaining, if not fully convincing, new study.

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The Vladimir Putin garden gnome

Rowley quotes Merriam-Webster’s primary definition of kitsch: “something that appeals to popular or lowbrow taste and is often of poor quality.” She does not, however, present the dictionary’s secondary definition: “a tacky or lowbrow quality or condition” [emphasis mine]. The problem is that tackiness resides always in the eye of the beholder. Most likely, the Kremlin web curator who posted the “shirtless Vlad” pictures did not intend them to be seen as lowbrow and giggle-worthy any more than Cassius Marcellus Coolidge strove for tackiness when he first painted dogs playing poker. There’s long been an ironic dimension to kitsch: the perception that it’s humorous because its shabbiness is ridiculous and its admirers lack sophistication. You may buy a velvet painting of Elvis Presley because you admire Presley as a singer and you find the painting beautiful. Or because its preposterous gaudiness transforms it into a hoot.

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It’s tricky, then, to sort out just how a particular Putin artifact is presented and perceived. In America, it seems, Putin kitsch is almost exclusively treated ironically. However, it can be used by people across the political spectrum. Putin’s image as a virile strongman can help to depict him as an absurdly vainglorious and brutal character. It can be juxtaposed with images of other people (Sarah Palin, Hillary Clinton and especially Donald Trump) to show them as relative weaklings who either cower in the Russian’s formidable presence or are caught in the thrall of his magnificence. Putin, notes Rowley, “makes an ideal foil.”

Depictions of Putin as a puppet master pulling Trump’s strings would certainly have flourished in political cartoons if we lived in an era when newspapers still had great power. Instead, we live in a multimedia culture that has undergone what Rowley calls “pornographication.” Putin’s propensity to dominate and control others has prompted tame Geppetto-Pinocchio depictions as well as far raunchier fare, such as a thong imprinted with “Go Hard Like Vladimir Putin” and descriptions of Putin and Trump in erotic situations, usually with Putin dominant and Trump submissive. Rowley explains that such graphic presentations aren’t new: “In the decades leading up to the French Revolution, for instance, pornographic pamphlets attacked the country’s social elites.”

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Sometimes Rowley seems overeager in her search for sexualized Putin imagery. She suggests that puppets have a built-in sexual connotation, akin to blow-up sex dolls. Is this really true? She describes a T-shirt logo that reimagines the children’s cartoon CatDog as a similarly cross-species character, Trumputin: “In a typically postmodern ironic fashion…the logo inspires a different meaning for those in the know. ‘Trumputin’ looks like a sex toy — a double-headed dildo to be exact.”

Rowley need not look hard, however, to find explicit sexual imagery in Putin cyber-fiction, descriptions of which constitute some the most enlightening portions of her book. She describes a brand of fan fiction that she calls, puzzlingly, “fake fiction” — a term that is either redundant or a double negative. Putin stories with Trump as his co-star are also found in a brand of “slash” fiction in which familiar non-queer characters are represented in same-sex, carnal relationships. In one such novel, The Adventures of Trutin and Pump, the US president proclaims himself “the world’s greatest power bottom upon encountering the Russian leader’s prodigious erection.” In another novel, Trump’s first act as president is to declare Putin “the sexiest man on earth.”

Some people take issue with such tropes, which have been presented on such TV shows as Saturday Night Live and The Late Show with Stephen Colbert, as they would seem to make gay identity the punch-line to a homophobic joke.

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Rowley acknowledges these concerns, but she’s primarily interested in describing the content of fake/slash fiction, not assessing its moral rectitude. In any case, not all slash fiction seems inherently homophobic: there’s apparently a strain in which boy-band members also get busy. Still — blessedly — Rowley makes it clear that virtually no one reads Putin-Trump porn to become aroused.

Would it, though, be something that attracts those with serious political interests? Rowley tries to make the case that the fascination with Putin kitsch signifies that Americans are relatively engaged with and knowledgeable about politics. She believes it takes a certain understanding of current affairs to comprehend the jokes embedded in the kitsch.

Canadian scholar and author Alison Rowley.

I don’t find this argument completely convincing. Isn’t it possible to be aware of Putin’s identity without having much knowledge of him, beyond his status as “shirtless Russian strongman?” As for Trump, Rowley doesn’t make much of the fact that he was already a very well-known nonpolitical figure prior to his presidential run (nowhere does she cite The Apprentice). In 2016, Trump clearly gained traction with the electorate simply on the basis of his name recognition. Had voters been savvier about politics in general, would they have still latched onto a guy who is more showman than statesman? To her credit, Rowley does make concessions when her hypotheses fall short. For instance, she admits that video games featuring Putin seem to get little play or media attention.

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For all of this, meantime, a major question hovers around Rowley’s thesis: To what degree does the irreverent, ironic political humor embedded in kitsch Putiniana (and on programs like The Daily Show or Saturday Night Live) preclude a sober assessment of the political dangers presented by Trump and Putin? In his song from the musical Anyone Can Whistle, “Everybody Says Don’t,” Stephen Sondheim advised: “Laugh at the kings or they’ll make you cry.” These days, are we laughing all the way to apocalypse? Rowley thinks not:

In the debate over whether postmodern irony is a positive force for change or a negative force that could lead to the destruction of democracy as we know it, I fall on the positive end of the spectrum. I agree with [arguments] that The Daily Show’s humor actually says that “something better is possible.” The kinds of sources that I work with, and that fill the pages of this book, say the same thing. They show a deep level of political engagement, even if it is not expressed in traditional terms. Here, satire functions as an important social corrective that shocks people into recognizing their own assumptions and forces them to think about alternatives.

This would make sense if those whose opinions might be changed were actually consuming an array of political satire. In a polarized culture like ours, people unfortunately tend to stick with the brands and views they’re most comfortable with.

At one point, Rowley tells us that she’s still “kicking” herself for passing up the purchase of a Putin garden gnome offered on Etsy in late 2017:

Even the product description is delightfully playful and clever since it is plum full of Putin references, showing that the maker of the statue is well aware of Putin’s recent actions. “He’s coming to invade your neighbours’ gardens,” writes Sniglart, the owner of [the store that sells the gnome], and he might even decide to turn up to the G8 summit in his armoured car… yes, by popular request and with no fear of poisoned umbrellas, I present…Vladimir Putin the garden gnome.”

Perhaps the Putin gnome would seem more of a delight to me if this were late 2017 and we were all still getting used to what a Trump presidency looks like. But in the last months of 2019, after close to three years of living with this menace, the little bare-chested statue doesn’t seem so jolly. Maybe gallows humor is more amusing the further you are from the dangling noose.