I’m not going to say much about the politics of the Canadian election — I said enough in the weeks leading up to it — except to say that I’m OK with the outcome and I look forward to what the Liberals will do over the next four years to fulfill their promises. I sincerely believe they will do less than we hope, but more than Harper would have done, so call me a cautiously contented Canadian. Instead of politics, I want to talk about the real issue that’s on the minds of Canadians in the wake of last Monday’s election: how incredibly hot our new Prime Minister is.
And why it’s problematic to talk about that.
Let’s face it, “the leader of our country is so attractive we’re afraid we might be objectifying him,” is not a situation that arises really often in Canadian politics. Or in the politics of most countries, since the people who rise to leadership tend to be middle-aged men who are not distinguished by their handsomeness. There are exceptions, of course, and beauty is in the eye of the beholder, but let’s be honest: when Stephen Harper became Prime Minister of Canada in 2006, we were not bombarded by a barrage of shirtless Harper photos and a corresponding barrage of articles analyzing whether it was OK to crush on the leader of our country in this shameless fashion.
But now, it seems, we have a problem.
It’s a problem for us feminists because we’ve spent years telling men that they shouldn’t comment on the appearance of women in politics, in business, and in other area of public life. We’ve told them that it demeans a woman in the public sphere when we comment on her clothes, her hairstyle, or her body. Women are so often reduced to their physical appearance, and to comment on, say Hillary Clinton’s hairstyle, is to suggest that her appearance is more important than her policies, her intelligence or her abilities.
As feminists, we’ve sent the message loud and clear (not that everyone has accepted it, but we’ve certainly said it enough): It is completely unacceptable to comment on a political leader’s physical appearance.
Oh. Except. Justin Trudeau.
Is there a double standard? Is it acceptable to say that Justin Trudeau is incredibly attractive — not even hot “for a politician” but for a human being — when you can’t, or shouldn’t, say that about a woman politician?
Obviously, a double standard makes no sense. Fun as it might be for us women to feel like we’re turning the tables and objectifying an attractive man for once, nobody would seriously suggest that it’s OK to say that Justin Trudeau is a hottie and it’s not OK to say the same about, say, Belinda Stronach (remember her?). At least, I wouldn’t suggest that.
While turning the tables sometimes feels good, to suggest that the solution to objectifying people is to have it go both ways is like suggesting that our domestic violence problems would be solved if only more women would start beating up their husbands and boyfriends so we could even things out a bit.
One reason it’s easy to have that double standard is that appearance has not, traditionally, been used as a way to dismiss and diminish men’s accomplishments the way it has for women. Society demands a high standard of physical beauty for women and often reduces them only to a measurement of how closely they adhere to that standard. Unattractive women are constantly trying to be prettier or apologizing for not being pretty enough, and are judged harshly for plain faces and pantsuits; a man has to be staggeringly unattractive before any aspect of his personal appearance — say, his weird, dead-animal toupee — gains as much negative attention as a quite average woman will get for wearing mildly unflattering bangs.
Meanwhile, attractive women in public life constantly strive to prove they’re “more than just a pretty face.” Rarely does an attractive man have to prove that. If a man is good-looking, the general assumption is that he’s good-looking along with other fine qualities.
But the “just a pretty face” dismissal can occasionally be used against men — in fact, we’ve seen it used against Prime Minister Trudeau in just this way, during the election campaign, with the series of Conservative attack ads focusing on his lack of political experience that concluded with the damning line, “Nice hair, though.”
It was the classic dismissal that’s been used so often against women — you’re pretty, but not capable of much else other than decoration — with the added kick that, when used against a man, there’s also a subtle jab at his virility. A real man, some sneering Conservative voters seemed to hint, wouldn’t have quite such nice hair, would he?
But now that he’s soundly trounced the party that created those attack ads, now that he’s on the brink of being sworn in as Prime Minister — is it OK to acknowledge that it is really nice hair?
One the one hand, I don’t think anyone wants to live in some kind of free-for-all sexual harrassment nightmare society where you can’t walk into the boardroom without someone yelling, “NICE BUNS BABY!!!” as you’re about to make your presentation — regardless of the gender or orientation of any of the people involved.
At the same time, I think it would be kind of sad and colourless to live in a world where it was never OK to say out loud that another person is attractive. To some extent, admiring another person’s good looks is like admiring the wonders of nature. If you see a stunningly beautiful person and don’t comment on their beauty, it’s a bit like going to Lake Louise and when people ask you later what it was like, saying, “Well, the temperature was about 22 degrees Celsius with light winds and variable cloudiness during our entire stay,” without ever mentioning, “Oh, and the Rockies are stunning!!”
As with so many things in life, context is everything. I feel perfectly comfortable telling people (of either gender) at my workplace that they’re looking good, because we have a level of comfort and respect there that makes that acceptable. But even there we draw the line at yelling “NICE BUNS BABY!!” when someone’s about to make a presentation. (Actually, we draw the line at making presentations, too, but that’s another story.)
Those of us who aren’t getting slapped with sexual harrassment suits all the time are pretty good at drawing these lines in our personal and work lives, but what about public figures? Well, there are Hollywood actors, who are pretty much paid to be good-looking. Not that they don’t have other skills, but they make millions and millions of dollars for exhibiting the same skills you can see demonstrated (often better) by thousands of people doing regional theatre for little or no money at all. So clearly, part of what they’re paid for is representing a bizarre subset of humans who are bred in special facilities to be far more beautiful than ordinary humans. (If you want to test the theory that Hollywood actors are weird orders of magnitude above the rest of us in attractiveness, watch any movie that’s “based on a true story” and check out the part at the end where they show photos of the real people the movie was based on. They may be quite attractive people in real life but next to the actors who played them, the real humans like trolls).
So nobody seriously suggests we’re being sexist if we say that Jennifer Lawrence is gorgeous or Ryan Gosling is a hottie, because being hot and gorgeous is part of their actual job description. But people who rise to the top in political life (or business, or any other non-acting, non-modelling area of work) are presumed to have gotten there because of their actual skills, not because they’re good looking. And to draw attention to their looks, positively or negatively, is to undermine their power, to suggest (as with the “Nice hair” ad) that how a person looks matters more than what he or she can do.
Yes, women have had to put up with a lot more of this crap than men have (and we still do), but turning the tables isn’t the answer. Neither is banning all discussion of how people look — which would be as silly as refusing to admire the Rockies. I choose to believe there are ways in which we can acknowledge that people — yes, even world leaders — are attractive, without demeaning or objectifying them.
In hopes of doing better at this, I have set some personal guidelines for how I plan to talk about Prime Minister Trudeau.
- I will not allow my discussion of the Prime Minister’s “hotness” to take the place of serious discussion about his government’s policies. If, for example, he comes back from Paris without making a bold commitment for what Canada will do to combat climate change, I will not be diverted from my criticism by pictures of him posing in front of the Eiffel Tower.
- I will not say anything about the Prime Minister that I would not be comfortable hearing a man say about a female leader. Thus, “Justin Trudeau is a very attractive man, with a beautiful wife and lovely children,” is entirely within the realm of the appropriate. “Canada has the world’s most deliciously f**kable head of government!!!” — less appropriate.
- Though if you do think PM Trudeau leads the world in attractiveness, you might want to vote for him here. Observing the beauty of world leaders is, in my opinion, like noting the mighty power of the Himalayas, the broad sweep of the Sahara sand dunes, and the jewel tones of the Amazon rainforest. It’s a celebration of natural loveliness. As long as you don’t suggest that looks are more important than their leadership qualities.
It’s possible for a human being to be both pretty and powerful. And hopefully, we’re moving one step closer to a world where we can appreciate both the prettiness and the power, without needing to imply that one negates the other — for either gender.