“Why, every time I say I’m a feminist, does the Twitterverse explode?”
In the U.S., a country where John Wayne, Clint Eastwood, and General Patton are cultural mainstays, and where a steady stream of presidents leverage their military experience to become commander in chief, research has extensively explored the relationship between masculinity and politics. Conversely, in humble Canada, internationally known for peacekeeping, poutine, and an vestigial attachment to the Queen, masculinity’s enduring centrality to the gendered culture of politics is given insufficient attention.
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has introduced Canadians to a new form of masculinity in a party leader. Whereas Stephen Harper, the previous Prime Minister, embodies a stereotypical "suburban 1950s dad," and Conservative party leader Tom Mulcair inhabits conventional (if angrier) notions of "tough guy" masculinity, Trudeau's image is not "managerial, desexualized, and stoic" (Sabin and Kirkup 2). A self-proclaimed feminist, Trudeau is as comfortable climbing a mountain trail in North Vancouver as he is joining the Women’s March.
Indeed, Justin Trudeau’s path to the Prime Ministership was paved with explicitly gendered trials, gauging the public’s perception of his masculinity as a proxy for his readiness to lead. Trudeau’s masculinity has been a source for media fodder, a tool for potent political image making and, at times, a political liability. As Canada’s twenty-third prime minister, Trudeau has received largely positive attention for posing in Vogue magazine, dressing as Han Solo for Halloween, and inviting the media to watch him train at a boxing gym in New York City. However, at the same time, Trudeau’s political opponents have attacked him for his non-conforming gender presentation almost continually since his selection as Liberal party leader in 2013.
According to one Ottawa political communications consultant, conservative attack ads aired during the 2015 campaign attempted to paint Trudeau as “less serious, less trustworthy, less masculine” with the tag line, “He’s in way over his head” written in fairy dust (Sabin and Kirkup 18). These attacks largely focused on Trudeau’s boyish looks and longer, “feminine” hairstyle as evidence of his unsuitability for leadership. In a 2015 Conservative attack ad titled “The Interview,” a hiring team evaluates Trudeau’s resume. They note that he “included his picture”—an allusion to his effeminate vanity—and discuss his likeness to a celebrity who “says things before thinking them through” before concluding that while he is not ready to be Prime Minister, he has “nice hair, though.”
Could Justin Trudeau’s victory, in spite of attacks on his fundamental masculinity and legitimacy as a national figure, signal a shift in Canadian perceptions about gender presentation and electability? Indeed, research provides preliminary support for this notion—while Justin Trudeau’s opponents tended to associate him with notions of subordinate masculinity, he led the Liberal party to an historic majority government. However, in the wake of the election, fan-driven online discourse seemed to fixate on and reduce Trudeau to the surface level of his unconventional masculinity: his physique and good looks. Buzzfeed posts and Guardian articles alike partake in the same sexualized commentary about Trudeau, and his post-election image has struggled to transcend the objectifying forces of Trudeaumania.
Nonetheless, as in the instance of his New York boxing photo-op, Trudeau and his team have begun to spin the media's thirst for juicy bicep shots in order to deflect attention from controversial topics and foster cult-like devotion. In that particular case, Trudeau had made a questionable arms deal with Saudi Arabia several months before, a move which contradicted his professed commitment to human rights causes. By refocusing attention on his ordinariness, his traditionally masculine physique, and capitalizing on the marketability of those images, Trudeau may have figured out how to leverage his sexualized star-image to his political advantage.