Over the last couple of weeks or so, Polish bring reports of songs about the coronavirus. I decided to have a look at them and here are a few comments on what I found.
Before I start, as ever, I want to make a reservation. This post is a reflection of a cursory perusal of the coronavirus songs. The songs’ lyrics were taken from teksciory.interia.pl and I do not want to suggest that the sample is representative of anything. I am only reporting on a few patterns I found.
1. The first and the most striking pattern in the songs is the virus’ anthropomorphisation, which consists attributing of human characteristics (including behaviour, emotions, volition) to inanimate objects, animals, or natural phenomena. Let me give you three examples. In the most famous of the songs (it was reported in mainstream media), the singing family address the coronavirus with these words:
Coronavirus, you want to come here,
But we’ll not surrender).
(Koronawirusie, chcesz dostać tu się
lecz my się nie damy)
But addressing the virus can be even more direct:
Ok, listen, you old virus,
You think that you are Jack the lad,
That you will come here
And will roam freely.
(dobra słuchaj wirusie lamusie
myślisz ze co że jesteś taki kozak
że przylecisz do nas
i będziesz się na naszym terenie panoszył)
And so, not only can you speak to the virus, but also the virus in invested with human volition and agency, and cognitive capacity. In another song, the author writes:
Coronavirus… won’t let anybody off
When it catches you, you will not be so fine.
(Koronawirus … nikomu nie daruje
jak cię dopadnie, to ci już nie będzie fajnie)
Such constructions are probably not particularly surprising. They are consistent with representations of illnesses which often has them as attacking and those ill as fighting. Some time ago, I wrote about how cancer was represented in a social campaign in Poland (here is the link to the post). In the campaign, cancer looks like a reptilian alien attacking a female human trooper. Incidentally, that might be a step too far for the coronavirus, I am yet to see its visual representation as a person.
2. What is perhaps less obvious is nationalisation of the virus. Yet, it seems to have joined us, Poles. The virus doesn’t just spread, it crosses national borders. Given media reports, nationalisation of the virus is not particularly surprising, yet I was quite interested in the use of the Polish Messianic founding myth (on founding myth you can read here). Needless to say, we, Poles, will not go down with this ship.
Two points are worth making here. First of all, the virus is Chinese, possibly Italian, but certainly we, Poles, had nothing to do with it. It travelled across borders to Poland, it wanted to come, perhaps also by God’s will. For example, here is a song making the point explicitly, in addition playing on the Polish national anthem where it says:
from the Italian land, directly to Poland
100% God’s doing.
(z ziemi włoskiej prosto do Polski
to na sto % uczynek boski)
The first line is taken directly from the refrain of the anthem (only the word prosto ‘directly’ is added), except that in the anthem a great general is coming to the rescue, here, a deadly virus is coming. This use of the anthem and the origin myth is interesting as it is used sarcastically. Indeed, the few references to God and Poland are all bitterly sarcastic, as if making fun of the divine role of the Polish nation.
This sarcasm at the expense of the Poles can be seen in other contexts too.
Soap is becoming absent from the shelves,
What happened that Poles wash their arses
)Mydeł na półce pomału już brakuje
Co się stało że Polacy myją dupę)
While there is no doubt that the virus is foreign, all deadly serious, references to Poles are not so serious at all. Indeed, we are shown as, possibly, raising our hygiene game, as we run to the shops for some pasta. Fortunately, however, hope is afoot. As we should not play like Italians, and should maintain isolation when needed, but soon:
the coronavirus will leave Poland’s borders
(koronawirus opuści Polski wnet granice).
This idea of the virus-free Poland is reminiscent of weather-free space outside Poland. Polish news still sports weather maps in which weather ends at the Polish border and Germany might have a weather, but it’s bloody German, not ours, Polish!
It’s worth mentioning that Polish media have been carrying reports of priests ‘exorcising’ the virus out of Poland in walking or (it is true) flying procession. Poles have been praying hard, as reports tell of people convinced that the virus doesn’t reach true believers and stops at the doors of churches.
But, most fascinatingly, hope has come from the (stereotypically at least) favourite Polish pastimes – drinking hard liquor:
The pandemic is ending
Poles are happy it’s the crown’s end
Wuhan is staggering drunk
Says sorry to all those infected
Percents*) are being poured
We’ll be having fun.
As Polish vodka defeated COVID.
(pandemia kończy się
Polacy cieszą sie to korony kres
wuhan zatacza się
przeprasza wszystkich ludzi zarażonych
kieliszki brzęczą gdzies
proenty leją się
Bo właśnie Polska wódka COVID pokonała)
*) This is a common metonymic reference to alcohol derived from representing alcohol content in terms of percentages.
The final message is clear. We, Poles, were able to drink the Chinese virus under the table! After all, drinking our liver silly has all been worth it. Na zdrowie!
3. But what I was particularly interested in was whether the coronavirus has gender. And I was fairly surprised that gendering is rather absent from the songs. The most explicit reference to gender is a reference to love as being infected with coronavirus. Needless to say, it’s the woman who infects. The second such reference is that the epidemic is ugly as the female sumo wrestler’s boobs.
The most explicit reference to the gender of the coronavirus itself is the reference to Jack the lad (Polish kozak) I quoted above. The word kozak can hardly be used in reference to a woman. Apart from that, the gender of the virus is only implied. But implied it is.
We must start with the fact the word wirus in Polish in masculine gender (depending on who you ask, Polish has either one masculine gender or three of them). The second fact is that Polish nouns are declined, that is to say, Polish has grammatical cases. One of them is the vocative, which is used when you address someone, call someone. So, my name, “Dariusz”, in the vocative, would be “Dariuszu”.
Now, we could debate whether nouns referring to inanimate objects have genuine vocative forms, because we tend not to address them. However, grammatically, such forms are possible, semantically and pragmatically, such forms are strange and probably used only metaphorically. And here we come to the form wirusie (‘virus’ in the vocative case). If the vocative case is used mostly in nouns referring to animate objects (humans and animals), then the use of the vocative has the power to imply such a characteristic on the virus. Indeed, the vocative case underpins and is underpinned by the act of addressing the virus.
The conclusion is that virus is male, both linguistically and, probably, stereotypically. After all, the aggression that is bestowed on the virus is more likely to be masculine. Indeed, stereotypically, you also drink a man under the table.
So what, I hear you ask. Well, perhaps not so much. Except as masculinity is so often represented as toxic, representing the virus (or, indeed, cancer) as masculine contributes to such imagery, creating yet another context in which masculinity equals trouble. And, for one, I’d prefer not to think about Mr Coronavirus, but just a virus that needs to be dealt with by medicine, rather than half a litre (the stereotypical size of a bottle of vodka in Poland).
And finally, As I’ve been writing this post, I’ve been wondering what exactly the point of the post is. And the more I’ve been writing, the more I’ve been convinced that it is not about representations of the coronavirus at all. Rather, it is about their source. In other words, the representations tell us more about us, our societal pressure points, rather than about how we perceive the damned thing. But this would take me into politics way further than I would like to go.