Trudeau Attack Ads: Masculinity The Subtext In Tory Campaign

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OTTAWA - The headline on the Conservative party's latest mailout reads "He's in way over his head," but what's drawn around Justin Trudeau's head could be carrying a powerful subliminal message too.

A swirl of tiny little stars — reminiscent of Tinkerbell's trail of sparkles — frames the Liberal leader. He's shown with a goatee, open collar and his jacket slung over his shoulder.

The flyer produced for Conservative MPs to be sent to constituents contains several negative bullet points about Trudeau that are written in a cursive font, while the points lauding Prime Minister Stephen Harper are in a bolder print font.

The letter "i" in Trudeau's first name is capped with a star in the Conservative materials — like a pre-teen girl might apply to her name.

So what exactly are the Conservatives getting at here?

"I think there is a subtle attempt not necessarily to question Justin Trudeau's masculinity but to at least make him appear less masculine," said David Coletto, a Canadian market researcher and CEO of Abacus Data.

Coletto says recent polling shows Trudeau does just as well with men as with women, something that would worry the Conservatives.

"I think (the ads) are meant to weaken his standing particularly among middle-aged men, who are really the core of the Conservative government's coalition, so they're trying to shore that up...the idea that this guy's not a man's man, and maybe therefore not worthy of our vote," said Coletto.

The initial volley of the Conservative ad that ran last weekend was carried during a Blue Jays baseball game, an English Premier League match and a PGA golf tournament — all of which are overwhelmingly watched by men. The ad went into wider distribution during top-rated programs this week including Wednesday evening's broadcast of American Idol.

Christopher Greig, co-author of the book "Canadian Men and Masculinities," also believes the Conservatives are trying to frame Trudeau as "unmanly" in their most recent flyer. He explains that society has certain views on what an appropriately masculine identity is.

"Men who exhibit non-traditional gender behaviours or engage in non-traditional male activities or work, tend to get positioned as less manly," said Greig, a professor of education at the University of Windsor.

"In the Justin Trudeau case, the mention that he was a drama teacher sort of plays into those anxieties around being appropriately male, where drama has been historically gendered feminine."

When Conservatives were asked Thursday about a potential subtext in the ads said they saw nothing of the sort.

"I don't think anybody's saying anything like that," said Alberta MP Leon Benoit. "All the ads are saying is that he's not ready to govern this country as prime minister."

Greig notes that in politics, leadership is often equated with masculine attributes. He points to athleticism and an embrace of the outdoors as the Canadian angle on those ideals.

Prime Minister Stephen Harper has used several traditionally masculine backdrops over the years. His media advisers have made sure he was seen riding an ATV in the North, playing hockey and watching hockey games. That kind of image-building was not lost on the prime minister when he was asked by a reporter whether he would ever get on a motorcycle with wife Laureen, who is a riding enthusiast.

"You've got to worry about image," he said in 2006. "I don't want to be on the back with my wife driving."

Trudeau is undoubtedly aware of the powers of masculine image-making. His lopsided win in a boxing match against then-Conservative Senator Patrick Brazeau last year was seen as an answer by some to questions about his toughness. Former Liberal leader Stephane Dion tried to fend off similar questions by launching a website that featured him playing ball hockey and snowshoeing.

"I think all political parties work hard to ensure that they construct the public image of their leader as appropriately masculine," said Greig.

American gender studies scholar Bruce Curtis wrote about the "Wimp Factor" in the 1988 American election that pitted Michael Dukakis against George Bush Sr. Bush managed to overcome an image of being too tame, while Dukakis tried unsuccessfully to fight the image by driving a tank and playing baseball on his front lawn.

"It seems to me a method to divert attention from real social issues, and policies, to personality, so you have ad hominem attacks," said Curtis, now retired from Michigan State University.

Curtis notes that attitudes have changed over the years, particularly with women rising in the public sphere and the acceptance in many quarters of gay rights.

But with so much in modern politics about influencing strategic segments of the electorate, sowing doubt in the minds of certain pockets is the name of the game.

"If you question someone's masculinity, then you can also question their leadership capabilities, their ability to make decisions, their firmness," said Coletto.

"If you're able particularly in the current context, with weak economic conditions and now with what appears to be a rise in fear or worry about terrorism...it's almost a perfect combination to playing to those prejudices."

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