by Matt Sheedy
I recently came across the following political ad (pictured above) from the Conservative Party of Canada in my Facebook feed. The image features a (not unflattering) photo of the current Prime Minister, Justin Trudeau, with a caption reading:
Last seen wandering shirtless in the BC wilderness looking for photo opportunities.
The immediate context for this political barb comes from two recent incidents, separated by only a few days, where Trudeau was photographed topless among the general public. The first incident occurred in Gatineau Quebec, where a young family out on a hike encountered a topless Trudeau emerging from Lusk Cave while on an outing with his own family. The Prime Minister posed for a selfie-style photo with the couple’s young son (pictured right), which quickly went viral.
The second incident took place on a beach in Tofino, British Columbia, where a smiling Trudeau was spotted standing to the side of a wedding party, which he had apparently stumbled upon while surfing in the area.
The satirical website The Beaverton (Canada’s answer to The Onion) also made hay of the first of these encounters, with a piece entitled: “Justin Trudeau waits in dark cave for attractive enough family to walk past.” This was followed a few days later with another satirical piece that made light of former Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s lack of charisma and sex appeal with a headline reading: “Shirtless Stephen Harper photobombs Calgary couple’s wedding: 5 dead.” Not to be outdone, Trudeau posed for a photo atop of Signal Hill in St. John’s, NFLD, with a local comedian standing topless behind him (pictured below).
I’ve long been interested in the performative nature of Justin Trudeau, who first became a member of parliament in 2008 in the riding of Papineau in Montreal. Before that time, he was a fixture in the national imagination as the oldest son of former Prime Minister Pierre Elliott Trudeau, who was arguably the first celebrity head of state in the county’s history, having dated Barbara Streisand and Margot Kidder (of Superman fame), while his partner, Margaret Sinclair (Justin’s mother), had a well-known affair with Ted Kennedy, The Rolling Stone’s Ron Wood, and possibly Mick Jagger.
In 2000, Justin delivered an animated eulogy at his father’s funeral, attended by the likes of Jimmy Carter and Fidel Castro, which gained him praise around the country, with speculation even then that he might become Prime Minister one day. This speculation morphed into a near fait accompli when Trudeau became a member of parliament, where the speculative ‘if’ turned into a question of ‘when.’ Once Trudeau won the leadership race for head of the Liberal Party in April of 2013, a barrage of Conservative attack-ads continued apace until his election, with the oft-repeated slogan, “Justin, he’s just not ready.” In the end, Justin’s charisma and good looks, along with the dynastic narrative that he helped to cultivate, won the day.
In addition to this abbreviated history leading up to the recent topless encounters, some of Trudeau’s better-known viral performances include:
- Helping to carry a man in a wheelchair down the stairs in a Montreal Metro station while he was the leader of the Liberal Party in April of 2014.
- Greeting passengers in a Montreal subway station the day after he won the federal election on October 19, 2015.
- Responding to reporters in Ottawa when asked why he chose to have a gender-balanced cabinet, “Because it’s 2015.”
- Personally welcoming Syrian refugees to the country at Pearson International Airport in Toronto.
- Several magazine spreads, including a Vogue shoot with his partner Sophie Grégoire-Trudeau.
- A glowing reception upon visiting the White House, where U.S. media swooned over the “bromance” between Trudeau and President Obama.
- An image of Trudeau at work taking a moment to show off his athleticism with an acrobatic yoga pose.
- Providing a seemingly competent and knowledgeable answer to the press on a question about quantum computing while paying a visit to the Perimeter Institute, Canada’s primary establishment for theoretical physics.
Reflecting on these and other performances by Canada’s “super hot” Prime Minister, I was reminded of an earlier post on this site by Tenzan Eaghll. Entitled, “A Plea to Critique the Pope’s Pity,” Eaghll’s piece opens with the following remarks:
Since the election of Pope Francis I in March, 2013, the media has effectively given the Pope a free pass on account of his acts of pity. Bathing him in unquestioning acceptance, news agencies around the world have whole-heartily embraced the new pious Pope, and it is near impossible to find one critical article on him.
Much the same can be said for Trudeau. Apart from critics within Canada who see him as a symbol for what is wrong with the Liberal Party (e.g., the image of a ‘tax and spend’ ‘bleeding heart’ from many on the right, and as a neo-liberal centrist from many on the left), his reputation on the world stage seems to be one of glowing praise. Unlike Pope Francis, Trudeau’s good looks and charm account for much of his appeal, though his performative acts of compassion or pity seem to make up a significant part of his persona, which leads me to another facet of Eaghll’s argument:
Due to his acts of pity, Francis is presented in the media as a man channeling the sui generis quality of religion that is independent of politics and cultural difference. This is the danger of pity.
In a similar fashion, Trudeau’s media persona helps to channel a sui generis quality of Canada—e.g., as polite, welcoming, apologetic, safe, tolerant, progressive, and peaceful–through the projection of an image that often carries the weight and even the presumed ‘essence’ of those who assume this national identity. Contrapuntal narratives are rarely seen, save for the occasional bit of satire as with the following Beaverton piece, “Reconciliation: Trudeau shares 30 seconds of intense eye contact with every First Nations person.” The post goes on to read:
OTTAWA – After nearly 150 years of colonialism and cultural genocide, Canada is mending fences by granting every First Nations person in the country 30 seconds of intimate eye-contact with Prime Minister Justin Trudeau. …
Although the Trudeau government has made relatively few changes to outdated existing Aboriginal policy, sources on reserves say the eye-contact has completely changed how they feel about it.
To be clear, I do not mean to suggest that Trudeau is insincere, as he seems like a decent person whose performances have not only helped to project a more friendly image of Canada on the world stage than in recent years, but have also had tangible effects on certain marginalized communities, as when he lashed out against the former Harper government’s preference for non-Muslims Syrian refugees and their attacks on women who wear the niqab, calling it “disgusting.” Trudeau’s rapid resettling of 25,000 Syrian refugees shortly after assuming office provides an example of rhetoric that was matched by actual policy. There is also an argument to be made that Canada is currently one of the more progressive nations in the West, especially with a spate of far right parties gaining traction in much of Europe, to say nothing of the phenomenon that is Donald Trump. But when it comes to the performance of Trudeau and the image that he projects, questions of sincerity are beside the point.
Assessing sincerity is not, generally speaking, a measurable scholarly aim, at least not for those who are interested in analyzing the social effects of charismatic figures, religious or otherwise, in terms of categories like affect, nationalism, ideology, and identity construction. One again, Eaghll offers a useful point of comparison with Pope Francis:
What is so worrying about this warmhearted embrace of the new Pope by the media is that not 12 months ago the Papacy was awash in controversy and scandal. Twelve months ago, if the Pope was in the headlines it wasn’t for washing the feet of a Muslim woman or an impromptu phone call to his dentist, but due to clerical paedophilia, leaked Vatican documents, widespread nepotism and corruption, or controversial claims about the Vatican’s tax affairs. All that now seems to be forgotten and the Pope’s pity has seemingly rendered these affairs inconsequential, or at the very least made them seem to be a thing of the past.
In a similar fashion, 12 months ago Canada was awash in intense controversy over its then-ruling government’s Islamophobia, its hawkish foreign policy, its secretive and controlling dealings with the media and in parliament, and its pariah status on climate change on the international stage (to name just a few things). All of this, too, seems to be forgotten, or, perhaps, it wasn’t paid much attention to outside of the country while it was happening in favour of maintaining more long-standing myths about Canada, which I’ve written about in a previous post entitled, “Beer, ‘Myth,’ and Canadian Identity.”
What is perhaps most interesting about Trudeau from the perspective of a critical theory of religion, is that he provides an instance of how popular images and representations can do a fair bit of work in projecting a quality or essence about certain nation-states or religious groups, which then comes to function on a affective level that often dominates the discourse about them (think Islam and ISIS) and guides the narratives that shape the boundaries of what see and feel as ‘real.’
Matt Sheedy recently defended his Ph.D in religious studies at the University of Manitoba, Winnipeg, and is associate editor of the Bulletin for the Study of Religion. His research interests include critical social theory, theories of secularism, as well as representations of Christianity, Islam, and Native traditions in popular and political culture. His dissertation offers a critical look at Jürgen Habermas’s theory of religion in the public sphere.