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Boxing match re-branded Justin Trudeau as leadership material

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Elected Liberal leader a year after the match, Trudeau himself said he “proved a Liberal can take a punch,” and in so doing, not only restored his own identity but pulled a party that seemed down and out off the canvas and back on its feet.

If Justin Trudeau someday becomes prime minister of Canada, he may owe his success in the blood sport of politics to a media image forged in the rough and tumble of the boxing ring, a new University of Toronto study suggests.

Before he beat Conservative Senator Patrick Brazeau in a 2012 charity boxing match, the underdog Trudeau was widely viewed by journalists as a “reed thin, pedigreed Dauphin,” a pretty-boy lightweight who lacked the gravitas for leadership in the political arena.

After the fight, he became a man lauded for his “toughness, strength, honour and courage” who vaulted into the leadership of the Liberal Party of Canada and became a legitimate contender to win the next federal election.

In the eyes of the media, that boxing match was both a turning point and rebirth for Trudeau. It was an opportunity to recuperate his “masculinity” says Elise Maiolino, a PhD candidate in sociology at U of T whose analysis of more than 200 English-language newspaper articles published shortly before and after the fight appears in the May issue of the Canadian Review of Sociology.

“By engaging in performances of traditional masculinity, he created a new brand for himself, and that was done through the media’s construction of him,” says Maiolino. “Whether it was his or the media’s intention, this is what the coverage enabled.”

The impact of the boxing match has continued to resonate well beyond the few months of intense coverage it generated.

Elected Liberal leader a year after the match, Trudeau himself said he “proved a Liberal can take a punch,” and in so doing, not only restored his own identity but pulled a party that seemed down and out off the canvas and back on its feet.

Justin Trudeau in boxing gloves is now such a powerful image it is the illustration used in a profile of him in the May issue of The Atlantic magazine, and the event perhaps even influenced the hyper-masculine world of U.S. politics, where a presidential hopeful agreed to square off with a former heavyweight champion in a similar charity boxing event.

Trudeau is far from one-dimensional, says Maiolino, and can draw on multiple aspects of his masculinity, whether it’s practising yoga on the front lawn of Parliament Hill or donning a Stetson on a tour of Alberta.

“But it is still reliant on his ability to take that punch to demonstrate his masculinity.”

While gender identity has become more flexible for both men and women, the Trudeau-Brazeau match illustrates the durability of “hegemonic masculinity” in Canadian politics, says Maiolino.

Jean Chrétien’s legacy includes the “Shawinigan handshake” he applied to a protester’s neck in 1996 and Stéphane Dion was labelled “submissive, weak, effeminate and nerdy” by the media in contrast to opponent Stephan Harper’s cultivated image of “iron control” masculinity.

Reaching further back, Robert Stanfield was widely regarded to have lost a federal election in the 1970s to arch nemesis Pierre Trudeau, Justin’s father, after a photo of him awkwardly flubbing an attempt to catch a football was splashed on the front pages of newspapers across the country.

Pathways to power remain narrow in Canada and although it was not part of the published study, Maiolino says that truism applies to women as well, whose struggles to balance masculine and feminine performances have perhaps been masked by the successes of leaders like Kathleen Wynne and Kim Campbell.

Maiolino says she hopes the study inspires people to think about how identity plays a role in elections.

“Would a woman have gotten into a boxing match and how would the media have covered that? I don’t know, but it’s interesting to think about.”