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Opinion | The toxic masculinity of Georgia’s gangster prince

17 March 2021
Illustration: Mariam Nikuradze/OC Media.

The sexist tropes parroted by Bera Ivanishvili tell us a lot about how gender and power operate in Georgia, and the incompatibility of celebrity with the real-world power of a “prince”.

On 6 March, the public became privy to explosive personal conversations between Bera Ivanishvili, the son of Georgia’s richest man and founder of the Georgian Dream party, and Irakli Gharibashvili, the country’s Prime Minister. The two men appeared to discuss violence committed against critics (some of them school-age) who had dared to insult Bera online.

There have been no legal consequences for the alleged violence or against its instigators. Quite the opposite, the channel that released the recording, TV Pirveli, is under attack by the government for allegedly disseminating false information. Meanwhile, Bera Ivanishvili and Irakli Gharibashvili get away scot-free.

But did they really get away with it? 

The public discussion following the incident has resulted in a wave of negativity towards Bera, including on his favourite social media platform, TikTok. He recently bemoaned this as the ‘worst’ in the history of the platform. 

This negativity has shattered his celebrity myth — an image of unattainability tarnished with alleged real-life violence. 

The gangster prince

In an interview with pro-government news channel Imedi, Bera summed up the harsh judgement levied against him as the work of the type of man who ‘lack love for their mother’. 

Such a trope does not see women as individuals but as a territory of disputes.  Such a ‘mother’ exists only in relation to her male kin, not as her own person. The insult against her is thus only a problem because it poses a threat to her son/father/brother/husband. Love of one’s mother then, is not the love of the woman herself but rather of one’s honour attached to her, and the love towards one’s status as ‘a real man’. 

In this mindset, punishing someone who has insulted one’s mother is damage control with regard to one’s honour as a man. The actual living, breathing mother remains invisible. We do not see her, we do not hear her, she does not exist beyond the pride of her son. 

The trope is simple and should have worked well for Bera, but unfortunately for him, his attempt to gain a ‘common touch’ only reveals his incredibly elite status.

Bera has in the past attempted to position himself rather wholesomely, as a hip-hop artist and family man who wants nothing more than to share his many joys with his fans on TikTok. 

This, of course, ignores that he is also the son of the richest and most politically influential person in the country. Not only has Bera previously participated in his father’s political campaigns, but he has compared his father — who at present says he ‘retired’ from politics — to the ‘glorious kings’ of the past. 

If his father is a king, then Bera’s actions neatly fit into that of a spoiled prince. 

Send out lackeys to punish random children who were mean to the prince?  This is exactly the sort of pettiness and violence that comes with unmitigated power and regressive privilege of being a country’s medieval sovereign — or perhaps it’s closest modern equivalent, that of a gangster in the 1990s.

Reasons for Hope?

At the end of his interview with Imedi, Bera spoke about the widespread hostility he has received on TikTok. He was very popular on this platform, with nearly five million followers. 

The backlash on TikTok is the only thing he does not blame on Georgia’s political opposition, specifically the United National Movement.  And to my eyes, it seemed this was also the only backlash he was honestly sad about. Meanwhile, on the platform itself, he has remained silent — perhaps fearful of stoking even more resentment. 

What Bera appears not to understand is that online criticism from ‘haters’ is a natural part of the social media ecosystem (‘haters gonna hate’, in other words), and is also an integral part of the celebrity culture he actively seeks through both his music career and his TikTok videos. 

It is a celebrity’s very distance from ‘haters’, their unattainable status as near-superhuman adressats of envy and admiration that gives them power. 

Sure, they can be petty and they can bully, but it cannot be directed towards the common folk — for example, a famous rapper can have a public dispute with another famous rapper, but cannot be seen berating a convenience store clerk in a video.

Unlike the code of upholding male honour which binds kings and mafiosi, in which any slight or insult must be responded to with swift retribution, an online celebrity must not only tolerate the anger of the public, but it is indeed sustained by it (as the saying goes, ‘all publicity is good publicity’).

This is how Bera’s need to be at once a sovereign and a celebrity came to a fundamental contradiction. By bringing his actual inherited power as a quasi-prince into allegedly violent action he inadvertently damaged his digital power as a celebrity. 

One cannot have it all, I guess.

Worse still for Bera, is that he keeps forgetting that TikTok is much more diverse than the conservatives he imagines them to be. Outdated macho language, in which honour and violence is the currency does not so easily transfer onto a stage in which the currency is instead ‘likes’ and ‘hearts’.

It was also obvious from the comments Bera has received on TikTok that his followers empathize with his alleged school-age victims. As violent as social media can get, in this case, it seems that users are denouncing digital violence that shifts to the real world, especially with such an asymmetry of power. 

This also made me wonder if perhaps young people are done with the type of fragile, toxic masculinity offered by Bera? Maybe there is a hope to redefine gender in more equal terms at least in the symbolic and digital realms? 

After all, most male violence can only be enjoyed by the men of money and power, while for everyone else, it is just an oppressive system that could turn them into the next victim of men like Bera.

The opinions expressed in this article are the author’s alone, and do not necessarily reflect the views of OC Media’s editorial board.

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