Canada has a new Prime Minister. And he’s not a monstrous hard-right asshole, so that’s a good thing. The thank god relief many Canadians are feeling about getting rid of Stephen Harper is palpable on social media. While that sentiment is understandable, consider that this relief is just a bit too celebratory and that the progressive cred of the new PM is being exaggerated. But whatever, for the moment. We will see what we will see, and after eight years of Harper Hell, we deserve our relieved sighs at the very least.
But much of the response has gone beyond sighs and turned to swoons as the mainstream media, particularly in the US, takes note of the youth, vigour, and attractiveness of our new PM. If one looks at media coverage and social media response, it appears as though Americans think Trudeau’s fuckability is his most important quality. Of course, this is what American mainstream media always does. The cult of celebrity often outweighs anything else a person can think, say, or do, in terms of gaining positive attention. But while American influence may have generated this focus on Trudeau’s sexual charisma, Canadian women seem similarly eager to share in the swooning. So perhaps Canadians don’t need too much encouragement from south of the border to get all excited about a powerful male with his shirt off.
While you might agree that the focus on Trudeau’s physique is worthy of critique, what’s less impressive is the reaction of women — feminists even — who have labeled it sexist objectification, comparing it to the attention on physical appearance paid to so many female politicians — something that works to their disadvantage. While most people likely understand that there is no such thing as “reverse racism,” given that offences to white people coming from people of colour simply do not occur in the context of systemic oppression and exploitation based on skin colour, it’s clear that some of us, nonetheless, believe there is such a thing as reverse sexism.
— Piya Chattopadhyay (@piya) October 20, 2015
You may be disturbed or annoyed by the shirtless photos and swoony responses to our new PM, but that concern shouldn’t come from a sense of worry that Trudeau will be hurt — socially, politically or personally — by this so-called “sexist objectification.” Because that is simply not what is happening. It’s not as though Canadians will now see him as a vapid, slutty, airhead with nothing to recommend him but his pecs or as someone who got ahead through either fuckability or literal fucking. The reality is that these sexy pics and the fact that so many find him physically attractive serves to enhance his power rather than diminish it. This is because he is not a woman. He is a man. And a powerful one at that.
Feminist analysis tells us that the exact same thing can happen to both a man and a woman, but that the result differs. Women are regularly and systematically objectified and reduced to sexual beings in the eyes of men in order to curb and reduce our social, political, and economic power. It is done in order to remind us of our value in this society — that the most important thing about us is understood to be our bodies and the capacity of men to use (and abuse) them.
“In the eyes of men” is the important part, here… It’s not like our own sexuality is represented in that objectification. Rather, our sexuality is constructed in and by the male gaze and we rarely have the social, political, or economic power to effectively overcome this construction. But when men are seen as “sexy” it isn’t because they are constructed as vulnerable or subordinate. You can see this easily when you pose a man, “seductively,” as women are made to pose. Even Trudeau’s “objectification” presents him as strong and powerful.
Within racist patriarchal capitalism, it is men who have power. So when their sexuality is brought to the fore, the resulting constellation is actually more powerful, not less. They aren’t seen as their sex only (and men’s sexualities are not intricately connected to their subordinate status, as women’s are), but as whole persons whose sexual charisma enhances their power. JFK was not made less powerful due to the fact that so many women found him handsome. Had he not been caught, as it were, with his pants down, Bill Clinton would not have lost political power due to his palpable charm or because women were swoony over him and his saxophone. Trudeau’s own father was the original source of “Trudeaumania,” yet he never lost stature in the public eye as a result of women being “dazzled by his charm and good looks.”
Rest assured that Justin Trudeau will benefit from what some are calling his objectification and women — and the entire polity — will lose. It provides him with the ability to make mistakes behind the curtain of our adoration. He has beautiful children, an adorable wife, and a mother who holds his face in her hands and worships her young prince, along with publicity that you just can’t buy. We’re seeing the beginnings of something that could all too easily turn into the coronation of a cult hero and it might serve us better to pay attention to the unfair advantages that will give JT, rather than the imagined punishment we might have witnessed were he a woman. Look how protective some of us are already…
So don’t worry about Mr. Trudeau. The only way the sexual charisma he shares with his late father might harm him is if he buys into the myth of his own charm and, overwhelmed by self-adoration and ego, “accidentally” sleeps with one of the women who adore him so.
Many of the voices coming to the aid of Trudeau, defending him against this so-called sexism, are not voices we usually hear speaking out about things like objectification, pornography, and the exploitation of women. But some of the response is also coming from feminists who say we would be up in arms if it were a woman who was being treated in this way. Others erroneously see it as a form of “gender equality” as though “equal objectification” (which is not a thing, anyway) is somehow a goal of our movement. But not only should feminists not delude themselves into believing that subordinating our oppressors will resolve the inequality we face, but we should consider that there is far more serious and important work to do beyond focusing on a white, fairly wealthy man with bags of political power who truly cannot be said to be oppressed or disadvantaged in any way by this attention.
Stephen Harper is no longer Prime Minister but we all know his legacy will take decades to turn around in a direction more favourable to women. His replacement is still a proponent of the neoliberal policies that have devastated institutional and independent women’s organizations that we so need to continue the struggle for our liberation.
So let’s allow Mr. Trudeau Jr. to look after his own feelings and focus instead on making him uncomfortable politically and on holding him accountable for his proclaimed support for women’s rights.