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If Justin Were a Woman

04/18/2013 03:05 EDT | Updated 06/18/2013 05:12 EDT
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So, full disclosure: Initially I was not at all shocked or outraged by the Tory ad showing new Liberal leader Justin Trudeau stripping down to his undershirt. Yes, it would have been more sporting had the ad pointed out that Mr. Trudeau was prancing around shirtless for a good reason (fundraising for the Canadian Liver Foundation), rather than leaving viewers to assume he'd taken to the stage and doffed his clothes for the pure joy of it. But attack ads don't usually come with helpful footnotes casting their subjects in a better light.

I was also not shocked or outraged by Justin's performance. I've seen these sorts of things before: Auction off a handsome hunk for charity. He parades around a bit doing a sexy but safe little "here's what's on offer, ladies" schtick and the female members of the audience clap and whistle approvingly and appreciatively -- but not too appreciatively because that would just be weird.

All in good fun (if that's your sort of thing) for a good cause.

But I started to think a bit more about the whole idea when I read Conservative Minister of Labour Lisa Raitt's comments on Justin's mildly provocative peeling. Raitt wasn't there at the 2011 gala that's featured in the Tory ad. But she was present the year before, when Justin performed a similar cutesy partial disrobing for charity. So she was an obvious target for reporters -- how could this woman be critical of an event which she herself attended and supported? Here's what she said, as reported by the CBC:

"You wouldn't see me making that move, getting up on a walkway and taking clothes off in front of a bunch of men or women.

"What would be the conversation today if that was a female MP who had done that in a room of men, guys, why don't you think about that?"

I did think about that. Logically, I knew it shouldn't matter whether an MP who did a semi-sexy dance for charity was male or female. Either it's okay for a politician to put on a third-rate burlesque scene to help out a non-profit, or it's not.

But voters are not always logical.

And Raitt is absolutely right that the conversation would be wildly different if the subject were a female MP taking to the catwalk and stripping to her bra, while a group of eager men bid on the opportunity to lunch with her. It would seem exploitive and distasteful. People would definitely question the MP's judgment -- they'd probably also accuse her of having pushed back the cause of women's equality by decades.

"Why aren't there more women in politics?" I can almost hear the critics growling. "This is why." And think about today's female political leaders. Can you imagine Hillary Clinton getting up on stage and shedding her clothes with a suggestive little shrug? Angela Merkel? Condi Rice? Would anyone ever take them seriously as politicians again if they did? Or would we all just blush at the memory of their lingerie every time they tried to talk geopolitics?

This is, of course, what the Conservatives are trying to get at with their Justin ad. Not the gender part. The serious-politicians-don't-strip part. It's a good try. But it might not succeed for the very reason that Lisa Raitt identified: There's a double standard at work. If men play at being sex objects -- particularly if it's for a socially accepted reason -- it's considered cute, possibly even endearing. "Oooh, the ladies just love him. Good for him for having a sense of humour. Did you see those abs (wink, wink)?" We're allowed to treat a man this way because we know we'll still respect him in the morning.

Yet with women, such role-playing hits way too close to home. Despite their many professional advances, women still have to fight the fact that when they become public figures they're often looked at as sexual objects, if not first, then still second or third -- even if this should objectively nothing to do with their job. The last thing women leaders want to do if they're serious about politics is reinforce the public's unconscious preoccupation with their bodies, their hair, their physical attractiveness -- ultimately their ability or likelihood to tempt men.

I'm not saying they have to dress in boxy suits and sport unisex haircuts. As Tina Fey wisely advises in her excellent book Bossypants, women in the public eye aren't doing themselves any favours if they abandon all cares about their appearance either. "If you look weird, it will distract from what you're trying to do," she writes. "If you look as good as you can, people will be able to pay attention to what you're actually saying." If, however, you start taking off your shirt, that attention to your words will probably dissipate awfully quickly. It's true if you're a man. But it's true ten times over if you're a woman.

So, I have revised my opinion of the Tories' Justin attack ad. Upon a third viewing, I do find the whole thing disturbing. Not because the Tories have been too nasty. The ad strikes me as more silly than nasty. And not because I'm shocked by Justin's judgment. What he did was unremarkable in the current climate and didn't hurt his reputation. The part that disturbs me is knowing that I could never write that same sentence about a woman had she done the exact same thing. This tells me that there is work to be done. That work could involve trying to get society to a place where women too can do charming mini-stripteases then still be viewed as serious leaders. But my preference would be rethinking how casually we view using sexual innuendo suggestive of prostitution as a happy little joke -- my preference would be getting society to a place where we'd find the practice cheap and distasteful for people in general, regardless of gender.

Either way, Lisa Raitt is right: If the pol in the Justin catwalk video had been female, we'd be having a very different conversation indeed.

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