Canada’s prime minister has managed to succeed where Cameron, Blair and Putin have all failed: a bare-chested snap that prompts neither horror nor hilarity
The Guardian, Thursday 2 March 2017
Oh go on then, if you insist. There aren’t many world leaders I could bear to look at without a shirt and I suppose the Canadian prime minister, Justin Trudeau, is near the top of the list. Pictures of a young Trudeau, leaning against a window sill with curly hair and dark glasses, are claimed to have “broken the internet”, which is what we say now when a lot of people all look at the same thing.
Trudeau looks a bit like Jim Morrison, whom older readers will remember as the tragically good-looking lead singer of the Doors. Despite sharing a first name and initials with another singer, Justin Timberlake, Trudeau has sensibly avoided the competitive world of showbiz and opted for the safer milieu of politics. It is part of his job to meet other world leaders, most of them men, and even with his shirt on he outshines just about every bloke he shares a stage with.
Trudeau prompts these swooning reactions because he’s operating in a limited field. I’ve never liked the line that politics is showbiz for ugly people, but beauty (especially male beauty) isn’t the first thing most of us look for in a potential leader. That doesn’t mean male politicians aren’t sometimes preposterously vain, a proposition demonstrated every single time I look at Donald Trump’s hair, but they aren’t used to being judged on their appearance in the way women are.
When Theresa May launched her bid to lead the Conservative party and then became prime minister last summer, she gave the impression that she’d planned every public appearance down to the last detail. She’s been around long enough to know that it’s childishly easy to distract supposedly serious political commentators with a pair of faux leopard-skin shoes.
Male politicians have to do something more dramatic to break the internet and few have the confidence – or the gall – to attempt it. I suspect it comes naturally to Trudeau, who is strikingly at ease with his own body: he accidentally photo-bombed a beach wedding in Canada last year when he strode past in a rolled-down wetsuit. It is undeniably a form of display and carries risks, even for someone as confident as Trudeau, because being looked at is traditionally associated with femininity.
It didn’t do David Cameron a lot of favours when he appeared bare-chested on a beach in Cornwall in 2013, looking overweight and uncomfortably red from his time in the sun. But upper-middle-class men aren’t brought up to parade their masculinity, which is entwined with ideas of restraint honed by generations of military forebears. The then prime minister looked a great deal more relaxed posing with a pint in his hand, and his shirt back on, later that day.
Cameron and his predecessor, Tony Blair, were both mocked for having “man boobs”, an unpleasant neologism that confirms the link between displaying the male body and feminisation. I don’t suppose either of them enjoyed the scrutiny or the sarcastic comments, which would have been unimaginable half a century ago. We live in a much less deferential age these days, which is no bad thing, but the line between fame and celebrity is blurred. Few world leaders aspire to the status of heart-throb but Trudeau, deliberately or otherwise, appears to have it.
One of the reasons he gets away with taking his shirt off, I suspect, is that it doesn’t feel as though he’s trying to prove something. The same cannot be said of the Russian president, Vladimir Putin, whose stripped-to-the-waist appearances always take place in the context of rugged, masculine, outdoor activities. Putin usually shows off his bare chest while standing in a river, preparing to do battle with a monster fish, or balancing on the back of a stallion. It causes hilarity everywhere but Russia, where the president’s hyper-masculinity feels like a response to the country’s loss of empire and prestige.
In the last few months Washington has become a lot more macho, dominated by a group of golf-playing business cronies in their 60s and 70s who hanker for the days when men were men and it was acceptable to talk about “pussy”. It’s impossible to imagine Trudeau doing that, and I suspect that his version of masculinity – cool, modern, metrosexual – will prove more enduring in the end.