Jagmeet Singh’s name has become nearly synonymous with the word charisma. After he became the NDP’s leader earlier this month, the National Post declarded that the “NDP aims to fight fire with young charismatic Jagmeet Singh as leader.” Vice News attested that “Jagmeet Singh invented charisma.” Reports and editorials in the Toronto Star, the Guardian, the New York Times, GQ, and other outlets echoed the sentiment, highlighting Singh’s youth, fashion choices, and engaging social-media presence. They also drew inevitable comparisons with Justin Trudeau, who has been featured in Vogue, Rolling Stone, and Esquire, and whose socks have sparked public discussion and punditry.
So far, discussions of Trudeau and Singh’s charisma have revolved around their style, although there is no standard definition of what we mean when we say a politician is charismatic. Originally, charisma referred to religious leaders who had a godlike quality to them. In the early twentieth century, the German sociologist Max Weber applied it secularly in his concept of “charismatic authority.” For Weber, charisma referred to a supernatural but, more broadly, “exceptional” quality that others detect in an individual. Because of this quality, the person is treated as a leader.
Weber’s theory foreshadowed the rise of powerful figures like Adolf Hitler and Mao Zedong. Today, with the rise of widely distributed and highly visual social media, Weber’s emphasis on detection, how people see leaders, helps explain why Singh’s and NBC‘s Joe Scarborough, for being too serious when she was talking about policy or for not smiling enough. “She just comes across as my bitchy wife/mother,” one Republican texted his friend, conservative pollster Frank Luntz, who released the text in a tweet.
Women in Canadian politics face similar controversies as they struggle to find a safe middle ground between style and blandness. Just last month, Catherine McKenna, minister of environment and climate change, was publicly criticized for her hair colour. In response to a report that no major industrialized economy is set to meet the guidelines of the Paris climate accord, Conservative MP Gerry Ritz tweeted, “Has anyone told our climate Barbie!” (The tweet has since been deleted.) And in 2011, BC MLA David Schreck tweeted, “Is Premier [Christy] Clark’s cleavage revealing attire appropriate for the legislature?” Although Schreck later apologized, he defended his assertion that Clark’s dress and blazer were unseemly.
That same year, NDP MP Rathika Sitsabaiesan wore a white scoop-necked top for her official photograph on the House of Commons website. It appears, however, that the photograph had been Photoshopped to raise Sitsabaiesan’s neckline and erase cleavage. Mark Austin of Old Barns, Nova Scotia, alerted the media to the issue after a Google search for Sitsabaiesan produced another version of the photograph that showed a lower neckline and some cleavage. Heather Bradley, director of communications for the Speaker’s office, told the National Post at the time that MPs approve their final photo, which led some to speculate that Sitsabaiesan had requested the touch-up. Regardless, the Post story, headlined “the case of the disappearing MP cleavage,” highlights the difficulties women in politics face when it comes to how they dress.
As a Sikh man who dons brightly coloured turbans, Singh’s appearance is frequently dissected too. In his interview with GQ in February, Singh talked about how he reclaimed stereotypical images of men in beards and turbans by using his appearance as part of his political strategy. “Because I was considered stylish, with these colourful turbans and well-cut suits and showing myself as a confident person, I could use that as a tool to talk about things like unfairness, injustice, poverty, and inequality in the public sphere.”
Two weeks ago, Celina Caesar-Chavannes, an Ontario Liberal MP, adopted a similar strategy when she used her braids to draw attention to reports that girls and young women have been banned from school because of their hairstyles. “Body shaming of any woman in any form from the top of her head to the soles of her feet is wrong,” Caesar-Chavannes said. She then explained her decision to wear braids was not only because they “look pretty dope” but also, more importantly, to show girls and young women that their diverse hairstyles, from dreads and weaves to hijabs and head scarves, “belong in schools, in the workplace, in the boardroom, and, yes, even here on Parliament Hill.” Unlike discussions of Singh’s style, Caesar-Chavannes’s speech generated little publicity among mainstream media outlets. Moreover, outside of a performative statement, women’s bodies remain frequent targets of ridicule.
Given the unwanted attention most women in politics already get for their appearance, it is almost impossible for them to strike a balance between being considered stylish and being taken seriously. And as long as charisma is associated with style, women in politics will face yet another barrier as they aspire to positions of leadership. For this reason, we need to recognize that there is a lot more to charisma than appearance. Looking cool can bring attention to a political cause, but it is not the same as inspiring civic engagement or implementing meaningful change. As Kim Campbell, Canada’s only female prime minster, famously said, “Charisma without substance is a dangerous thing. It creates expectations that cannot be satisfied.”