sex and politics

On Trudeaumania, Part Two

Justin Trudeau.
Justin Trudeau. Photo: Blair Gable/Corbis

Because it’s 2015,” the 23rd prime minister of Canada, Justin Trudeau, said when he was asked why his Cabinet members were a fifty-fifty split of men and women. In his satisfyingly succinct sound bite I heard remnants of his father, Pierre Trudeau, the 15th prime minister of Canada; his famous quip in response to the October Crisis — “Well, just watch me” — was the kind of political panty-dropper legacies are made of, certainty being the most compelling kind of power. Because it’s 2015. Because it’s right. Because I know best. There is a numeric sweet spot for Canadian political declarations, and it is preferably under five words.

Of course, Justin Trudeau’s three words are representative of many more — his decision is simply right. Numbers matter; numbers, quite literally, count.

As members of Cabinet, ministers are responsible for those intangible areas of government that directly affect the daily lives of Canadians: transportation, the economy, justice. As a country, our population skews slightly more female, and having Cabinet ministers like Bardish Chagger, Kirsty Duncan, and Maryam Monsef is a small step to reflecting our demographics in our legislative bodies.

This gender parity was a Trudeau campaign promise, and it is by no means considered a radical departure in other governments. Countries like Rwanda, Bolivia, and Sweden all have legislated and/or adopted quotas, and respectively they count 63.7 percent, 53.1 percent, and 43.6 percent women in their parliaments.

Like his father, whose effect on the country was known as Trudeaumania, Justin’s appeal has been rated in terms of his sexiness; social reform as turn-on. His perceived attractiveness has distinctly colored the resulting coverage. I’ve LOL’d quite a bit in particular at America’s commitment to objectifying a handsome man (“The Sexiest Thing About Justin Trudeau Is His Cabinet’s Gender Parity” crowed Jezebel, calling him “non-controversially fuckable,” and the Cut recently created Justin Trudeau paper dolls). But it is not the same kind of sexual objectification female politicians are often subjected to, where their perceived desirability is paramount to their electoral value. Male politicians are rated, in coded terms, by their virility; when we rate them and their actions as young, healthy, aggressive, we are rating them by their perceived ability to produce desire and to get it, whatever “it” currently is. Trudeau wants gender parity, so he is going to take it, and we’re going to like it. 

Perhaps this is why I’ve held Trudeau at an ideological arm’s length, and why I am hesitant to embrace this current iteration of Trudeaumania. The idea of a “Saint Justin” sounds even more ludicrous than “Prime Minister Justin,” a name still associated with the hottest boy in your bio class, in your preferred boy band, in the studio planning his comeback. His age, beauty, feminism, and big, firm … policies have all been venerated with the reverence that only young (read: pre-disappointment) politicians are privy to. He’s saying what we already know; the difference seems to be, if we watch how the complimentary press and people react, how good he looks while he’s doing it.

Progress rarely looks like the intended result. Numbers are too simple; power is found in too-familiar forms. I want more women in power, always, but I am hesitant to reduce real, measurable metrics of change to simple math. I don’t think numbers themselves are the best indicators of progress (think of the female politicians we’ve seen with anti-women agendas, like Carly Fiorina, for an American example). And if it takes a young, conventionally attractive, white male heir to a political dynasty to enact that kind of change, so be it, I guess? If his simple assertion reeks of smugness and presumption — gender imbalance has never directly affected his life, yet he’ll be the one lauded for addressing the institutionalized issue — at least it’s happening.

Too often, political numerical equations become subtractions: The value an inclusive number is meant to add is eliminated.

My colleague, Scaachi Koul, saw this firsthand when she appeared on a televised panel about Trudeau’s gender-balanced Cabinet. People complained that the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation had produced an all-white panel about affirmative action, which, as Koul pointed out, erased her contributions as an Indian woman. As she wrote in the resulting BuzzFeed Canada essay about the experience:

It’s true for all women, but it’s doubly true of women of colour: they have to be everything. Any failure to any particular group is tantamount to a failure on all fronts … Why is this our job and not also the responsibility of the countless white voices in the public sphere?

Even when you are one of the very voices lacking from a national conversation, there will always be someone with their fingers in their ears, determined not to listen until a man with every kind of privilege available to them gives their approval.

But — always a but! That does not mean that the answers will be any less impactful, or that the subtractions along the way will impede the additions made by our elected representatives. Even Trudeau’s response, invoking the year itself, is another number: two thousand and fifteen, a count and a deadline, one that still requires the patience to wait and see. Here, like Koul said, we see a familiar white voice doing the unfamiliar: the right thing. Will Trudeau’s Cabinet make a measurable difference for the representation of Canadians in government? Well — just watch him.

On Trudeaumania, Part Two