by Matt Moir
Michelle Rempel rolled her eyes and paused, choosing her words carefully.
Standing in the lobby outside the House of Commons, the Conservative MP for Calgary Centre had just been informed that she had been voted Sexiest Female MP in an Ottawa newspaper’s annual poll.
“I get the opportunity to speak to a lot of women’s groups about encouraging women to run for office, and about women’s leadership issues and the number one thing I always say is women should be judged and evaluated by their merit.”
If only her boss would heed her message.
Her Conservative Party’s negative ad campaign against Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau may, as some have claimed, be successfully rallying the Tory base, and thus helping the party fill its coffers. But it’s also alienating a section of the electorate vital to Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s chances of winning another majority government: female voters.
Trudeau’s poll numbers are overwhelmingly positive among women. A recent Harris/Decima poll found that 61% of Canadian women view Trudeau favorably, whereas Harper is viewed favorably by only 37% of women.
Some commentators attribute this support for Trudeau to the fact that women in Canada traditionally are more supportive of left-leaning politicians than conservative ones.
Others say that women are drawn to the Liberal leader’s charisma and good looks- he was, after all, voted sexiest MP in The Hill Times’ annual survey.
What shouldn’t be discounted, though – and what probably should be explored further – is that Canadian women might be able to identify with the young MP, and the nature of the personal attack ads he’s had to endure.
Immediately after Trudeau won his party’s leadership race, the Tories unleashed a torrent of ads attacking the newly minted Liberal leader. This is nothing new, of course. The Conservatives are well versed in the art of the political takedown; just ask Stéphane Dion and Michael Ignatieff. But what makes the ‘Justin’ ads different is the unseemly gender baiting aspect to them.
In the commercials, Trudeau is depicted as a vapid intellectual lightweight who has relied upon charm and good looks to achieve political prominence. In one ad, video of the MP stripping (for charity) is played as a voiceover mocks his supposedly trivial and unworthy experience for running a country (Trudeau is ridiculed for once being teacher; traditionally a profession occupied primarily by women).
The tenor of this commercial is one that successful and ambitious women across the world can identify with. When women begin ascending the ladders of power – and, thus, threatening male dominance over that power – they are often belittled by opponents for their supposed lack of substance. The nature of the putdowns vary from subtle condescension to outright misogyny, but the reality is that whether it’s in politics, business or some other traditionally male dominated power center, women are commonly smeared as being little more than a pretty face.
Hilary Clinton knows this all too well. During her campaign for the Democratic nomination in 2008, Clinton was regularly mocked for her gender by hecklers and network pundits alike. Julia Gillard, the Prime Minister of Australia, has been forced to confront misogyny on the floor of her country’s House of Commons on multiple occasions. And right here in Canada, Premiers Christy Clark and Kathleen Wynne have both been subject to sexist musings, via social and traditional media.
It’s difficult to determine why the Conservatives would take an approach that smacks of bullying and chauvinism. From a purely political standpoint, one possible explanation is that they calculated that Canadians prefer a tough-talking, Very Serious politician to lead the country; not one who expresses interest in investigating the root causes of ideological violence, and certainly not one who has the temerity to wear shorts. Challenging Trudeau’s masculinity, however, might play well to the Conservatives’ rural base, but it surely won’t be well-received in the socially liberal, fiscally conservative suburbs surrounding Toronto- the ridings that Harper needs to sweep to even consider winning another majority government.
So when the Tories produce attack ads that, as noted by other media outlets, are rife with ‘feminine’ elements- cursive writing and glittering stars- and feature tag lines like ‘He’s in way over his head’, it’s hard not to think that they’re going leave a bad taste in women’s mouths. It’s equally hard not to think that Canadian women won’t punish the Prime Minister in the ballot box in the next election.