Why we can’t stop looking at that photo of Justin and Sophie

People have dismissed that Vogue photo of Justin Trudeau and Sophie Gregoire-Trudeau, but it telegraphs an extraordinary message

Justin Trudeau and his wife Sophie in a photo from the January 2016 issue of Vogue magazine. (Norman Jean Roy/Vogue)

Justin Trudeau and his wife Sophie in a photo from the January 2016 issue of Vogue magazine. (Norman Jean Roy/Vogue)

For weeks I, like millions, have been mesmerized by Justin and Sophie. Not the Prime Minister of Canada and his wife, but the parents of three young kids who seem so … together—as a family, as a couple, as individuals. In public they appear self-assured and chic and calm and surrounded by “the right people,” whoever they are.

The latest example is the best yet: The Vogue photo of them, basically, about to get it on. You have probably seen it by now. Justin in his usual shirt and tie (a bit unbuttoned, sleeves rolled up), Sophie in a lacey Oscar de la Renta dress (provided by the magazine). He is seated, she is standing facing him, and they are embracing, nearly kissing. It’s intense.

The sensuality of the image has many people cringing, maybe even while stealing repeat glances. I have been staring at the photo intermittently ever since it turned up on my Twitter feed. Yesterday morning, while my kids were asleep and my husband was at the gym, and I was at the computer slurping coffee before sunrise, I couldn’t help but look again. My husband came home. I called him over. “What do you like so much about it?” he asked. Me: “They’re so hot! They’re so in love! They’re so not stressed out!”

Thank God that Canada has at least four more years of Justin-the-PM so we can relish Justin-and-Sophie, the public personification of what so many people want for themselves. Unity, emotion, connectedness. Yes, I know, I’m projecting. Justin and Sophie have a massive team behind the scenes who make them look good. The photo shoot was directed and the photo was edited. He used to be an actor, and she was an entertainment reporter; they understand optics, and have seemed to take an entrepreneurial delight in shaping their own public image.

Let’s not get distracted by all that for now. The big picture is not as interesting as the Vogue picture. Fact is the photo is more than titillating; it telegraphs an extraordinary message. Historically, political marriages have largely been portrayed as efficient, respectful partnerships or plagued by scandal and deceit. The issue of love or desire has only gotten attention after an affair; arguably, marriage itself has only come up then too. Romance is not a common theme in the public realm.

The Obamas may have been the first exception, openly acknowledging the effort and humour and devotion that have gone into making their marriage last. Justin and Sophie have had to work hard too: she has reportedly said that they’ve seen a marriage counsellor, and, as Canada learned last week, they have nannies to help raise their kids. But it is their public display of affection—especially in the Vogue photo but also before it—that is so unique. They are not uncomfortable exhibiting intimacy (real or staged), even if it makes other people uncomfortable.

In a way, glimpsing your politicians in a romantic moment is akin to catching your parents in the act. But it happens, kids. And for Justin, who has been heralded a hunk around the world since being elected—inspiring a dress-up doll, and drawing flocks of admirers at events—his fixed gaze and cozy hold on Sophie might be like insurance. It’s a way for him to publicly affirm his marital commitment, and counter all the flirtatious energy directed at him.

Many people are inflamed by the photo: they say it’s just showy nonsense, an inappropriate use of the Prime Minister’s time and energy. There’s a whiff of sexism to the criticism: Vogue is a women’s magazine, after all, so what place does a political leader have in it?

But there’s another way of thinking about it too: with that single photo, Justin and Sophie have demonstrated what many people already know about marriage: a lot more than meets the eye goes into making it look easy.


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