Gendered Media Representations in International Relations: Part 2

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This piece is the second part of a three-part series that focuses on excerpts from my master’s dissertation about world politics and gender bias in media reports. In this Part 2, I present Prime Minister Justin Trudeau as a case study. Trudeau has arguably become a feminist icon, whereas this narrative generally remains unassociated with stateswomen. He encounters fewer roadblocks in media reports about his alliance with feminism. How the gender identities of Angela Merkel, Justin Trudeau, and Theresa May are portrayed in international media may damage their public images or create a viral trend of positive publicity. Consequently, the executive office sustains contemporary archetypes of masculinity.  

Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau  

Canada’s diplomatic power primarily relies on symbolic gestures and cooperation with other countries. Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau is tasked with boosting relationships with Western powers, such as its bilateral relationship with the US, and focusing on specific global issues like climate change, the refugee crisis, and peacekeeping missions. Since his election in October 2015, Trudeau has been a vocal advocate for gender equality, which is uncommon for a statesman. His leadership qualities are often undisputed in the media, and more recently, journalists have posited his new role as a “global leader” (Lindzon 2017) and “leader of the free world” (Kristof 2017). Media sources tend to focus on Trudeau’s appearance with reports ranging from commentary on his “Disney prince” looks (Lindzon 2017) to his novelty socks causing an uproar on Twitter.  
 

The “F” Word

While Trudeau’s remarks as a self-proclaimed feminist have made rounds on social media, news sources report his feminist inclinations. He will continue calling himself a feminist “until it is met with a shrug” (Justin Trudeau 2016). In an interview before election night, Trudeau stated: “Yes. Yes, I am a feminist. I’m a proud feminist” (Garza 2015). He does not avoid using the “f” word, and as an avowed feminist, he can play a key role in exposing the double standard that often arises when stateswomen attempt to identify as feminists.  

When Trudeau was asked about his gender-balanced cabinet, his response drew international attention and went viral: “Because it’s 2015” (Wang 2016). In 2016, at the World Economic Forum, Trudeau said: “We shouldn’t be afraid of the word feminist” (Wang 2016). It is rare for a politician to describe himself or herself as a feminist, but it has not been a problem for Trudeau. His ownership of the term has earned considerable praise. Elle described Trudeau as having a “stellar feminist record” (Sklar 2015) and “gleaming feminist credentials” (Kahn 2017). Both Fortune and Glamour called him a “feminist hero” (Zarya 2016; Brill 2017).

Canada’s newfound heroism cannot be easily separated from Trudeau, the statesman.

In March 2016, Trudeau also wrote an editorial piece in The Globe and Mail about how feminism and equality are synonymous concepts. He argued: “Equality is not a threat, it is an opportunity” (Trudeau 2016). The ease with which Trudeau can discuss and articulate his feminist values in the media without facing a backlash and criticism is noteworthy. His reputation and credibility remain unscathed. Trudeau’s claim to feminism is taken at face value. The media accepts his feminist stance because he is presumed to be an authoritative political figure, a legitimacy enshrined in his personhood as male.

Qualities of Leadership

Politico describes Trudeau as a “global superstar” (Lindzon 2017). He has gained popularity in part due to “his Disney prince looks and movie-star charisma” (Lindzon 2017). His leadership qualities are subject to caricatured descriptions about his appearance, but his competence and political power are seldom scrutinized. The Canadian leader’s appearance receives substantial media coverage but does not have a negative impact on his public image or inspire criticism about his ability to govern. According to Politico, Trudeau finds himself in an unlikely role “for a Canadian prime minister: global leader” (Lindzon 2017).

His approach to governance and diplomacy have been catapulted onto the international stage. Following the election of Donald Trump, and early in Trudeau’s second year as prime minister, concerns that he “was ‘too immature’ to be a world leader soon melted away” (Lindzon 2017). Trudeau’s media characterizations position him to play a leadership role with increased visibility and international media coverage. The Economist suggests that Canada sets an “example to the world” (‘Liberty Moves North’ 2016). With the rise of nationalism around the world, in a “lonely defence of liberal values, Canada seems downright heroic” (‘Liberty Moves North’ 2016). Canada’s newfound heroism cannot be easily separated from Trudeau, the statesman. As a popular global icon, Trudeau has positioned Canada to participate actively, and set an example, on the world stage.  

Physical Appearance

As a newly minted politician, Trudeau participated in a photoshoot with Vogue. In Vogue, he is depicted in the following manner: “Strikingly young and wavy-haired, the new prime minister is dashing in his blue suit and jaunty brown shoes — a stylistic riposte to the old world of boringly black-shoed politicians” (Powers 2015). He slightly modifies a masculine dress code in international politics that eschews being fashionable due to its association with femininity.

Trudeau still successfully operates in global politics, despite subtle challenges to the public image of men in power — by virtue of being male and being able to perform and embody different masculinities. His personality expresses a “personal charm” (Powers 2015) that is highly regarded in the media. Hence, his leadership skills are reported in tandem with commentary about his appearance. His physical appearance, however, tends to take precedence, which he can use to his advantage. Different from  Chancellor Angela Merkel's experience, since press coverage about a stateswoman’s appearance usually have negative implications.

Trudeau maintains gender constructs of power relations and male dominance by exercising his ability to create a discourse for men and fashion in politics.

The NYT reports on Trudeau’s “sock diplomacy” (Friedman 2017). During the NATO meeting in Brussels in May 2017, Trudeau wore pink and blue NATO-themed socks. His socks were a sharp contrast to the traditional black and navy colors, and communicated “a message of solidarity” (Friedman 2017). More to the point, the NYT argues that seldom have “a man’s ankles said so much” (Friedman 2017). Although fashion diplomacy is typically associated with feminine constructs, Trudeau effortlessly embraces such a practice. However, stateswomen in high-profile positions lack the ability to exercise fashion diplomacy without facing potential damaging effects to their public image and reputation, as discussed in Part 1. Criticisms against Merkel’s appearance put her under pressure to represent the image of Germany as a nation in ‘a proper way.’

The media makes a point of reminding us that women in power, and responsible for running a country, are still women rather than politicians. Trudeau maintains gender constructs of power relations and male dominance by exercising his ability to create a discourse for men and fashion in politics. For statesmen, fashion practices associated with femininity are permissible. He challenges norms of hegemonic masculinity and state power in subtle ways, which are usually communicated through images of men in suits and non-themed socks. Within the IR discourse of hegemonic masculinity, Trudeau can reproduce gendered relations of power and negotiate with feminine and masculine constructs without necessarily facing the same consequences as stateswomen.


Clara Martinez completed her master's in International Relations at the London School of Economics and Political Science.


Bibliography:

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