Depardieu, Instagram and Ramzan Kadyrov’s ‘adorable side’
Recently in the British press there has been extensive coverage of Ramzan Kadyrov, the Chechen President. While my main research focus is representations of Vladimir Putin in UK print media, it is interesting to observe how another ‘Russian’ leader is portrayed, in reference to both masculinity and international politics.
Over the past few weeks the British press have covered two stories on Kadyrov – the first being Gerard Depardieu’s visit to Chechnya; the second Kadyrov’saccount on the internet photo-sharing site instagram. These stories were picked up by a broad cross-section of the press, from the right-wing ‘tabloid’ Daily Mail to the centrist, ‘broadsheet’ Independent. While these papers occupy different places on the ideological spectrum, their portrayals of Kadyrov are strikingly similar.
It is interesting to note that even when these articles appear in more ‘serious’ newspapers such as The Guardian or The Daily Telegraph, their purpose does not seem to be to communicate any new or ‘real’ knowledge about Chechnya or Kadyrov, as, perhaps, an article on the French President Francois Hollande might. Instead, they are written as pieces whose primary function is to amuse and engage the reader, with some contextualising information describing Kadyrov as a ‘despot’, ‘ruthless dictator’ or passing references to allegations of human rights abuses.
Perhaps the most interesting element of the UK media’s treatment of Kadyrov is how it relates to wider discourses around masculinity and is therefore comparable with portrayals of Vladimir Putin and his allies. Kadyrov is treated by the UK media in a similar manner to Putin; although less well known than the Russian President, Kadyrov is also seen as a figure of fun, a foreign despot, a leader of a far-flung republic who shares ludicrous pictures of himself weight-lifting, shooting a gun or interacting with wild animals with his thousands of online followers.
As these photographs show Kadyrov engaged in activities which fit comfortably within the boundaries of ‘hegemonic masculinity’, the UK media are unable to obscure the ‘manly’ element of his public persona. Instead, Kadyrov is discredited and ridiculed for embodying an irrational, aggressive – even savage – ‘Eastern’ type of masculinity which is implicitly contrasted with what is considered a measured, more intelligent masculinity embodied by Western political leaders. While these leaders engage in fewer feats of physical strength for publicity purposes, they are also considered more ‘serious’ politicians for not ‘wasting’ their time on such activities.
The UK media thus deconstruct Kadyrov’s masculinity by portraying it as beyond the acceptable limits of behaviour for an earnest, ‘real’ leader. In the UK print media, Kadyrov is too masculine – his actions and style of government are so ridiculous and over-the-top that they are ‘flamboyant’, ‘lavish’ and ‘surreal’. This overstep from what is considered an ‘acceptable’ level of masculinity into the ‘hypermasculine’ can be linked to the more general presence of an East-West Dichotomy in Western European media, whereby the ‘West’ is portrayed as rational, developed and superior to the irrational, underdeveloped and inferior ‘East’.
Depardieu’s visit to Chechnya provided fresh material for such portrayals; several UK media outlets chose to illustrate their pieces on the actor’s visit to Chechnya with the same picture of him in a ‘cossack hat’. In wearing this hat, Depardieu – a Western and supposedly more rational masculine individual – symbolically adopts the culture and standards of masculinity of the Chechen ‘Other’and so becomes a figure of ridicule himself. When accompanied by a video of Depardieu and Kadyrov’s ‘dad dancing’ to traditional Chechen music, Depardieu’s transformationis complete.
In many ways, the UK media’s approach to Kadyrov’s exploits can be compared to the way in which Vladimir Putin’s many media stunts are portrayed; with a mixture of incredulity that a national leader is taking part in judo competitions and shirtless horseback riding, and feelings of superiority over this irrational and aggressive way in which ‘Eastern’ masculinity expresses itself.
Volumes could be written on international media reactions to Depardieu’s visit to Chechnya and the new-found fame Kadyrov is experiencing in the West through his use of instagram, as well as how these events intersect with gender, the ‘Othering’ of non-Western cultures andthe formation of media discourses. Another interesting avenue of exploration would be to consider how these portrayals of masculinity impact on international relations and diplomacy. In the arena of international politics, a masculine opponent may be perceived as a risk to a state’s security; this threat may be disarmed if instead of embodying ‘desirable’ masculine qualities the state’s leader is instead a figure of ridicule and fun who is no match for the rational masculinity of the West. Perhaps in the cases of both Kadyrov and Putin there is a risk that such attitudes towards Russia and Chechnya’s leaders may result in a misjudgement of their future relations with the UK.