What Sophie Grégoire Trudeau says about feminism and politics

Stylish. Emotive. Everywhere. Anne Kingston on what the weight-bearing pillar in brand Trudeau means for politics and feminism

Sopie Grogoire Trudeau. (Adam Scotti/PMO)

Sophie Grégoire Trudeau. (Adam Scotti/PMO)

As anyone who follows geopolitical developments is aware, Justin Trudeau celebrated his 11th wedding anniversary three days early last week, taking a day off in Japan before his first G7 summit. He was leading by example, he said: “This is the kind of work-life balance that I’ve often talked about as being essential in order to be able to be in service of the country.” Had the Prime Minister decided to take a day off that lacked romantic significance in the midst of the summit, the outcry would have been even louder than it was. But celebrating his marriage, a love story told in breathless detail on Liberal.ca, the Liberal party’s website, proved heart-warming for many. Of course, even those less charmed couldn’t avoid the inevitable result: footage of Trudeau and Sophie Grégoire Trudeau holding hands on an anniversary hike, trailed by RCMP, as she looked up at him, laughing, her hand (where else?) on her heart.

It wasn’t the world’s first glimpse of the Trudeaus’ talent for exhibitionist intimacy. That came last November when they were photographed in American Vogue, Justin Trudeau’s first sit-down media portrait after being sworn-in as Prime Minister. The resulting image—Trudeau gazing soulfully at his wife, his arms wrapped around her as she leaned into him—made waves internationally, which isn’t surprising. The pheromones practically leapt off the page.

The accompanying story, which referred to Trudeau as “dashing in his blue suit and jaunty brown shoes” and the “youthful, optimistic face of Canada,” borrowed heavily from American political imagery. It quoted a Canadian journalist who was only “half kidding” when referring to the new Trudeau era as “our Camelot,” a mythical metaphor for the JFK presidency (started, it turns out, by Jacqueline Kennedy, who mentioned it after her husband’s death in an interview with Life). Anyone attuned to the complex semiotics of first lady imagery will have noted Vogue accorded Grégoire Trudeau first lady status, outfitting her in a form-fitting blue-and-gold dress by Oscar de la Renta, a designer famously worn by first ladies from Nancy Reagan onward; Hillary Clinton appeared on the November 1998 Vogue cover in one of his ballgowns. The New York Post declared Grégoire Trudeau “the hottest first lady in the world,” apparently unaware that, unlike in the U.S. where Michelle Obama has a staff of more than 20, no such political role exists here.

That reality appeared to be challenged last month when Grégoire Trudeau told Le Soleil she was overwhelmed by the volume of requests; she needed “a team to help me serve the people,” she said, adding she had to work on her dining room table, a comment that doesn’t quite square with the fact that Rideau Cottage, the family’s home, has 22 rooms.

WATCH: Chatelaine interviews Sophie Grégoire Trudeau. Here, on her new role:

The response was immediate, polarized and telling. Opposition parties painted Grégoire Trudeau, who has a full-time assistant and the benefit of a cook and two nannies (themselves the source of a previous firestorm), as out of touch with the realities of Canadian working women. A Toronto Star columnist saw the criticism arising from jealousy that she was “a people’s favourite.” Hashtags #PrayForSophie, #SophieStrong and #JeSuisSophie popped up on Twitter. The PMO jumped to her defence: “We are in 2016 and we should celebrate the fact that Madame Grégoire Trudeau is championing women and girls’ issues; it shows that it is possible to be a feminist even if people still refer to you just as ‘the wife of,’ ” spokesman Olivier Duchesneau said in a statement.

Of course, it’s precisely as “wife of” that Grégoire Trudeau, an engaging and eloquent woman, exists in the public imagination. Why else would anyone think it was acceptable in 2016 for a woman to work without pay? What is also clear is that Grégoire Trudeau is a vital, weight-bearing pillar in brand Trudeau, a linchpin of his identity as a sensitive, progressive PM and dad. “If he hadn’t been feminist, it would have been a dealbreaker,” she told CTV News in a November 2015 interview. The imagery surrounding the marriage reinforces Trudeau’s optimistic political agenda, says Alex Marland, an associate professor of political science at Memorial University: “By presenting himself as part of a team, he’s embodying gender equality.” It also inadvertently signals what Marland calls a “growing ‘presidentialization’ of the parliamentary system, and not only in Canada.” And beneath the progressive sheen of the Trudeau family brand may lurk something surprisingly more retrograde.

It’s telling of the way the Trudeaus resonate with the political zeitgeist that Vogue described them as “an advertisement for the future.” Yet, if anything, they are an exceptional 21st-century update of the ’50s Leave it to Beaver unit: feminist breadwinner dad and socially engaged mother raising three kids together. It’s a model well-entrenched in the political realm, a place where coverture, the laws that subsumed women in their husband’s identity until the late 20th century, remains in vestigial form. In the U.K., David Cameron came under fire recently for the $100,000-a-year stylist employed by his wife, Samantha. Chatter about interim Brazilian president Michel Temer’s decades-younger wife, Marcela, is focused on her bikini pics and “Marie Antonette spending” while the Brazilian economy crumbles. Donald Trump ratcheted up the retrograde quotient by sending out a tweet comparing his wife with an unflattering image of Ted Cruz’s wife, Heidi. Political wives are expected to conform, be it to tradition or more modern branding needs. Witness the way Sophie Grégoire added “Trudeau” to her name after years of marriage during the 2015 election, just as Laureen Teskey before her tacked on “Harper,” immediately after her husband became prime minister in 2006.

Justin Trudeau and bride Sophie Gregoire leave the Sainte-Madeleine D'Outremont Church, Montreal, after their wedding ceremony here, May 28, 2005. In the back is Margaret Trudeau. (Bernard Weil/Toronto Star/Getty Images)

Justin Trudeau and bride Sophie Grégoire leave the Sainte-Madeleine D’Outremont Church, Montreal, after their wedding ceremony on May 28, 2005. In the back is Margaret Trudeau. (Bernard Weil/Toronto Star/Getty Images)

Post-election, we’ve seen Grégoire Trudeau’s body become public property, a fashion billboard as her yoga-instructor wardrobe—harem pants, peasant blouses, moonstone jewellery—was replaced by more tailored offerings by Canadian designers. She was criticized for not wearing a homegrown designer in the Vogue shoot, as if that call was hers, as well as for modelling a loaner dress that retails for $5,700; she came under similar fire for borrowing a $7,000 maple leaf brooch from Birks to meet the Queen. Showcasing Canadian designers while in Japan, on the other hand, won her points, and stoked the undocumented claim of a “Sophie effect,” similar to the “Kate effect” that sees everything the duchess of Cambridge wears selling out immediately.

There’s a reason parliamentary democracies like Canada, in which people ostensibly vote for the party, not the person, have sedulously avoided the American-style, institutionalized first lady role. We’ve taken what can be seen as a feminist approach, giving spouses of first ministers choice in defining a role that’s real, if indeterminate, as Maureen McTeer told the National Post in 1999: “There’s a responsibility. And sure there is staff so you don’t have to do dishes, but there is an expectation.” McTeer was barbecued in the late ’70s for not cleaving to an unwritten script by keeping her birth name and continuing to work as a lawyer after Joe Clark became PM (she’d produce a book of official Canadian residences in atonement).

Since Justin’s mother, Margaret, made headlines in the ’70s, PMs’ spouses have been low-key, Mila Mulroney being an exception. Aline Chrétien kept a low profile while helping Jean Chrétien win three majorities. Most Canadians could not identify Sheila Martin, wife of Paul. Laureen Harper supported animal causes while engaging in the under-the-radar networking and entertaining that comes with the position. When Rona Ambrose introduced her at the Conservative convention last weekend—“She doesn’t maintain or want a splashy public persona”—it was viewed as a veiled swipe at Grégoire Trudeau’s clear comfort in the spotlight as the prime minister’s wife, beginning with her show-stopping appearance at Justin’s swearing-in in bridal white.

Marilou Trayvilla, one of two women employed to take care of the Trudeau children, is seen at left as she joins prime minister-designate Justin Trudeau and family upon their arrival to Rideau Hall for the swearing-in ceremony in Ottawa on Wednesday, November 4, 2015. (Sean Kilpatrick/CP)

The Trudeaus arrive at Rideau Hall for the swearing-in ceremony in Ottawa. (Sean Kilpatrick, CP)

Grégoire Trudeau’s emotive candour, while relatively new from a prime minister’s wife, dovetails perfectly with her husband’s public call for greater government transparency and accountability. She won headlines in January for singing a song she wrote for her daughter at a Martin Luther King Day celebration in Ottawa, intended to honour former Progressive Conservative prime minister Joe Clark: “This is not planned, trust me,” she said. (Comparisons were inevitably drawn to her mother-in-law, who serenaded the wife of the Venezuelan president at a 1976 state dinner.) Grégoire Trudeau’s familial footprint has expanded since; her parents stepped onto the national stage when they, with Margaret Trudeau, were included in the Canadian delegation attending the White House state dinner in honour of Trudeau.

The higher profile can have value: it starts a conversation we should be having. “We don’t have clear comfort with the wife of the political executive in Western democracies, says Sylvia Bashevkin, a political science professor at the University of Toronto: “We dissect female politicians and wives of prime ministers in terms of intimate and trivial details—their appearance, how they speak, how they raise children and treat their spouse—very little about the benefits they might bring to public life, which is how we evaluate male politicians or even male spouses.”

WATCH: Chatelaine interviews Sophie Grégoire Trudeau. Here, on motherhood:

But if we find ourselves talking about Sophie, and Justin’s clothes and romantic life, it’s in part because we’re being led there. An “intimization” of politics is increasingly taking hold, argues James Stanyer, who analyzed the phenomenon in his 2013 book Intimate Politics: Publicity, Privacy and the Personal Lives of Politicians in Media-Saturated Democracies. As he sees it, this is the result of a confluence of forces: social media, a 24-hour news cycle, and politicians using the same channels as celebrities and sports figures. Stanyer, a professor of communication and media analysis at Loughborough University in the U.K., also cites a decline in the clout of political parties, which requires politicians to build other bonds of loyalty (the Liberal party, for one, is rebranding itself as a “movement”) as well as a narrowing of policy differences: “The old left-right divide is less distinct—so you distinguish yourself by appealing to the electorate through your personality,” he says.

What this means also is that at the very time the definition of “family” is broadening and gender roles are becoming more fluid, we’re seeing what Linda Trimble, a political science professor at the University of Alberta, has coined “family strategy,” the showcasing of an idealized heteronormative domestic life to optimize a leader’s identity and appeal. And no one in Canadian politics has finessed this as overtly or successfully as the Trudeaus.

In some quarters the Sophie Grégoire–Justin Trudeau love story has been elevated to the stuff of Canadian folklore, up there with the invention of pencillin or the Riel Rebellion. It began, fittingly, on stage promoting a good cause when the two co-hosted the 2003 Mercedes-Benz Grand Prix ball in Montreal, a fundraiser for the Starlight Children’s Foundation. Grégoire, the daughter of a former nurse and a stockbroker, was making a name for herself in Quebec TV as an entertainment reporter and host. She’d known the Trudeau family growing up as a classmate of Justin’s youngest brother, Michel. Justin was then studying engineering, cultivating a public profile, readying for the political career anticipated since his emotive eulogy at his father’s funeral in 2000. The couple’s first date—an Afghan restaurant, then karaoke—has taken on a sense of manifest destiny in the retelling. “I felt a giddy sense that Sophie would be the last woman I ever dated,” Trudeau recounts on Liberal.ca. Grégoire provided details in Vogue: “At the end of dinner he said, ‘I’m 31 years old, and I’ve been waiting for you for 31 years.’ And we both cried like babies.”

It’s shocking just how much we know about their courtship. Trudeau’ s 2004 proposal in a “beautiful candlelit Old Montreal hotel room,” as he put it, involved champagne, oysters and scattered rose petals. He chose Oct. 18, his father’s birthday, to pop the question, he says on Liberal.ca, first taking his future wife to visit his father’s gravesite for benediction: “I quietly asked for his blessing on what would have been his 85th birthday.” Their May 2005 nuptial was Canada’s royal wedding; a photo of the happy couple driving off in Pierre Trudeau’s 1960 Mercedes roadster, Justin behind the wheel, was front-page news. Grégoire spoke of the union in fairy-tale terms shortly after: “I call him my prince because he treats me like a princess,” she told Maclean’s.

She’d be a working princess, hired months later by CTV’s eTalk Daily to “focus on the nexus between celebrity and altruism, showcasing stars who use their power for the greater good,” a CTV press release said. Trudeau framed his wife’s new gig as noblesse oblige: “There is a sense of responsibility that comes with [fame],” he told the Toronto Star. “That’s something that’s been important to Sophie from the day I met her.”

WATCH: Chatelaine interviews Sophie Grégoire Trudeau. Here, on being a feminist:

In October 2006, just months before Trudeau secured the nomination in Montreal’s Papineau riding, Grégoire was introduced as the “new Mrs. Trudeau” on Chatelaine’s cover, even though she’d kept her birth name. The accompanying profile expressed surprise she did: “Sophie held on to her surname, even though the mark she’s made with it professionally has been modest.” As Justin emerged on the Liberal stage, the couple presented as a more physical, less cerebral version of the Obamas—a GIF of them dancing backstage before Trudeau spoke at the 2013 leadership convention went viral. By then, Grégoire Trudeau had transitioned from TV into full-time advocacy. She accompanied Margaret Trudeau to Ethiopia to support a clean-water charity, and was active on the speaker’s circuit, sharing her experience overcoming eating disorders. Her causes were unassailable—the Canadian Mental Health Association, Me to We (Free the Children), Fillactive, a foundation that encourages girls to adopt a healthy lifestyle—and uncontroversial.

Her value to the party was reflected on a a “Meet Sophie” page on Liberal.ca, where she’s described as “an advocate for change.” She’s also a red-carpet-worthy mom of a young, happy family, seen jumping into a swimming pool fully clothed for Chatelaine, out canoeing in the wilds, out trick-or-treating. Details of family life were shared judiciously; the family liked to cuddle in bed on Saturday morning, she told the Globe and Mail; in her first post-election interview she told Chatelaine she was still breastfeeding her youngest. She’d also admit all wasn’t as picture-perfect as it appears, telling the Globe and Mail last year that she and her husband had seen a marriage counsellor, without providing details: “It’s boring, relationship stuff.”

First Lady Michelle Obama and Sophie Grégoire-Trudeau share a laugh during a ceremony at the White House for an Official Visit March 10, 2016 in Washington, DC. This is Trudeau's first trip to Washington since becoming Prime Minister. (Olivier Douliery/Getty Images)

First Lady Michelle Obama and Sophie Grégoire Trudeau share a laugh during a ceremony at the White House for an Official Visit March 10, 2016 in Washington, DC. This is Trudeau’s first trip to Washington since becoming Prime Minister. (Olivier Douliery/Getty Images)

Since election night, the couple’s PDAs—heads touching, loving gazes, hands on hearts—have telegraphed happiness and an 180-degree shift from the chillier optics of the Harper marriage, which was marked by stiff hand-holding and Laureen making John Baird her date at public functions. Toronto marketing strategist Clive Veroni revives the Obama comparison. “People look at the Obamas together and feel good—they are two people who really like each other; that’s an appealing, emotional image.” The Obamas also convey a playful sexuality in public never seen with political leaders, he says. “You could picture them heading back after a state dinner and getting frisky under the blankets.” Veroni, author of Spin: How Politics Has the Power to Turn Marketing on its Head, sees Grégoire, like Michelle Obama, as a “political spousal brand,” which is complicated: “It has to be both independent and subservient to the ‘master brand,’ ” he says. It’s called “piggyback branding” in marketing—when a brand is known only in relation to another brand, Intel being an example. “A good piggyback brand increases the value of both brands.”

Yet if family is the core of the Trudeau brand, Grégoire Trudeau appears to be managing it: “I organize everything,” she told the Globe and Mail last fall. “The kids’ lunch to the finances to the spending to the house, groceries, everything. He carries the travelling documents. And you know, I choose my battles, so he can have that.” Because it was 2015, it made the PM seem all the more progressive.

Grégoire Trudeau assuming a more formalized role was something she alluded to days before the election in an interview on CTV in which she spoke of herself as part of a political team: “If we are honoured enough to have Canadians give us their trust, I will push that even more forward,” she said, referring to her advocacy work. “I want to use the platform I’m blessed to have been given,” she said, calling it a “natural extension of the work I was doing before I met my husband.”

The difference, of course, is that she was often paid for her labour then (she was on the roster for a speakers’ bureau). Were Grégoire to charge for speaking she’d be accused of exploiting her position. She’s seen to be rewarded in political currency, supporting causes she cares about while burnishing the Trudeau brand. She’s performing what the economist Nancy Folbre calls “caring labour,” caretaking or nurturing jobs—teaching, nursing, mothering—that are undervalued and underpaid, if paid at all; the compensation is seen to be emotional. The wages paid the Trudeaus’ nannies—between $11 and $20 an hour—offer an echo of that point.

Why Grégoire Trudeau went public with the need for a team is unclear. She could get additional help if needed, PMO spokesman Olivier Duchesneau told Maclean’s (he also declined Maclean’s request for an interview with Grégoire Trudeau). She is given staffing on an “ad hoc” basis, he says; when she’s travelling with her husband, the PM staff provides support. Certainly a prime minister’s spouse setting up her own office has precedent; Mila Mulroney had a staff of three in the ’80s, garnering criticism that she was emulating her friend Nancy Reagan. Perhaps Trudeau’s call for help was, as many people thought, a nod to the U.S. system.

Margaret Trudeau with daughter in law Sophie Gregoir-Trudeau in Ethiopia on a mission with WaterCan on October 6, 2006. The former wife of Pierre Elliott Trudeau is honorary president of the Ottawa charity that places fresh water wells in East Africa. (Peter Bregg/CP)

Margaret Trudeau with Sophie Grégoire Trudeau in Ethiopia on a WaterCan mission October 6, 2006. The former wife of Pierre Trudeau is honorary president of the Ottawa charity that places fresh water wells in East Africa. The organization now goes by the name WaterAid Canada. (Peter Bregg, CP)

But emulating the first lady model, which has narrowed in scope over the past half-century, comes with a downside. There’s no 21st-century equivalent to Eleanor Roosevelt, who took on controversial issues—expanding roles for women in the workplace, civil rights and rights of migrant workers. On occasion she publicly disagreed with her husband’s policies. In the late 20th century, Rosalynn Carter sat in on cabinet meetings, Nancy Reagan acted as one of her husband’s closest advisers, and Hillary Clinton took an active policy role, carving out an ill-fated health care bill. Since Clinton, who was strafed for her active role, first lady causes have been dialled back to domestic issues revolving around education and children: literacy for Laura Bush, childhood obesity, poverty awareness and fitness for Michelle Obama.

The spectre of the first “male first lady” suggests that could change. Hillary Clinton has announced that, if she was elected, her husband would take on an advisory role directing policy on income inequality and unemployment, joking to NBC News: “You know, every first lady has taken on special projects.” Had Barack Obama announced a similar outlet for his spouse, an accomplished lawyer, there would have been an outcry.

That’s because “the private” realm continues to have different meanings for women and men, says Trimble, who has just completed a book looking at female prime ministers in Canada, Australia and New Zealand. “Men seamlessly cohabit the public and domestic realms, while women are more typically defined by their roles, and duties, as wives and mothers,” she says. “Female politicians shy from discussing their personal lives, since media narratives can position their political ambition as unnatural and raise doubts about their devotion to family life. The media doesn’t even know what to call spouses of female prime ministers, says Trimble: “They’ve tried ‘first bloke,’ ‘first dude.’ ” First man doesn’t cut it, she says: “The word ‘man’ means something powerful in the public sphere; it was giving him primacy.”

Memorial University’s Marland, the author of Brand Command: Canadian Politics and Democracy in the Age of Message Control, sees a bigger problem in Grégoire Trudeau assuming a more official role without discussion. “During the election the Liberal party was incredibly at good identifying the government apparatus and how it needed to be renewed and more democratic but the issue of the spouse of the PM was not there,” he says. “So to come out in the first year and say, ‘We need more resources,’ is a problem. Critics are right to say, ‘Where is this coming from?’ This is acting in an imperial manner and at a disconnect from what we were anticipating.”

Grégoire Trudeau was politically naïve to speak out, he says: “It would have been better to have Liberal spinners comment and for her to rise above it and say nothing.” Yet that’s the Trudeau family hallmark: to speak from the heart.

As for the relentless focus on Grégoire Trudeau and her husband, there’s risk when the personal eclipses the political, says Stanyer: “There’s a danger that politics blurs into the world of celebrity, and elections become a moral contest about personality and how you identify with a particular person—whether you like the way they look, their clothes, their family.” It becomes distraction, which in itself can serve larger political ends. We know Grégoire Trudeau’s a capella performance in January won a standing ovation; whether Joe Clark, the honoree, got one is unknown. Likewise, her call for “a team” in May happened to deflect attention from her husband’s government’s lack of progress on electoral reform. But the first few months of watching the riveting Trudeau-Grégoire marital unit has made something else clear: this is a political partnership that’s completely new to Canada. Where exactly that takes us remains to be seen.

Clarification, June 5: The opening sentence of this feature has been updated to clarify that Trudeau’s day off occurred between meetings in Japan and the start of the G7 summit. A second reference to the G7 was removed from the final paragraph. 

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