Canadian politicians defend Finnish PM's dance video, saying backlash shows double standard

·7 min read
In this image taken from video, Finnish Prime Minister Sanna Marin, left, is seen dancing with her friends. The video has sparked debate about her abilities as a leader.  (Altavista - image credit)
In this image taken from video, Finnish Prime Minister Sanna Marin, left, is seen dancing with her friends. The video has sparked debate about her abilities as a leader. (Altavista - image credit)

As women around the world have taken to social media in the past few days, posting videos of themselves dancing to show #SolidarityWithSanna, some Canadian politicians and strategists are also coming to the defence of the Finnish prime minister, suggesting she is being unfairly judged due to her gender and age.

Sanna Marin became a target after a video emerged last week, showing her dancing with friends at a private party. In the wake of the leaked clip, some political opponents questioned whether her judgment was impaired, prompting some to demand she take a drug test.

Marin — who took the test and passed — said she did nothing wrong.

"I didn't have any work meetings planned for that weekend," she said after the video surfaced. "I had work meetings on Monday that I, of course, handled. But we didn't have any government meetings during that week, and I had time off, and I spent it with my friends and did nothing illegal."

Marin became Finland's youngest prime minister in 2019, at 34. At the time, the Social Democrat told reporters she would remain true to herself. This isn't the first time her private life has become the subject of public debate, leading some to say she is being held to a double standard — while others say a world leader should always be prepared to be called upon to make important decisions.

Celebrate — then tear them down

Montreal mayor Valérie Plante weighed in to this latest debate early, posting an Instagram story the next day featuring Cyndi Lauper's Girls Just Wanna Have Fun, and the words, "Me, responding to the reactions to Finland's prime minister," adding an eye-roll emoji.

val_plante/Instagram
val_plante/Instagram

"The fact that this became a huge story is absolutely absurd," said former Liberal cabinet minister Catherine McKenna, who faced sexist attacks during her tenure, including being called Climate Barbie by an opposition colleague — an insult hurled at her for years by her critics.

"When you think about all the critical issues that we're going through in the world right now — a climate crisis, a COVID crisis, a security crisis — and that we are focusing on the way someone, a prime minister, but a real person, behaves in her own private time because she's a younger woman … then I think we've lost the plot."

McKenna said she didn't go out socially for the first two years after being appointed minister, because she felt she was under such scrutiny and pressure.

Giacomo Panico/CBC
Giacomo Panico/CBC

Former NDP MP Peggy Nash says people often celebrate women's presence in public life, but then proceed to tear them down at the first opportunity.

There is a clear double standard when it comes to women in politics — especially young women, said Nash, who wrote a book called Women Winning Office: An Activist's Guide to Getting Elected.

"I think for women — not only in politics, but in any aspect of public life — there is still this traditional stereotype of who is a leader," said Nash. "And that is male, unfortunately."

More leeway is given to male politicians who make mistakes, she said, as they are often thought of as not yet "fully formed," with room to improve.

"Men are held to a standard of their potential, whereas women are held to a very rigid standard of accountability now," she said. "And it doesn't matter how much they've accomplished or what experience they have. They have to be hyper-perfect or else they get hyper-criticized. It's an unfair double standard."

Richard Lam/The Canadian Press
Richard Lam/The Canadian Press

Conservative strategist Tim Powers, chair of Summa Strategies, says while there could be a double standard at play, he believes there's more to it.

"I think there's a lot of rigidity of view, which diminishes and takes away from what we all say about wanting authenticity," he said. "I think there's more hypocrisy than there is a double standard."

He suggested some ageism is also involved when it comes to Marin, who is 36.

Quebec Liberal Leader Dominique Anglade, who has spoken out about how women are treated in the province's National Assembly, said she wasn't surprised by the reaction to the video of Marin.

"Every level of diversity brings a level of complexity, if you will. So the fact that she's a woman, the fact that she's young … is two levels of diversity, in an environment where people are older and it's more of a male environment."

Anglade said she was, however, surprised by how quickly the comments about Marin's dancing turned to speculation about drug use.

"She's not taking drugs, she's dancing," Anglade said of the video, questioning whether a man in a similar situation would have been asked to take a test.

"There was no evidence of anything.… It was just people thinking that she might have."

Jacques Boissinot/The Canadian Press
Jacques Boissinot/The Canadian Press

White males seen as natural leaders

Marin likely had no choice but to take the drug test to silence her critics, said Andrea Reimer, a former Vancouver city councillor. She agreed with Anglade that her male counterparts probably wouldn't have even had to consider it.

"Where Boris Johnson or former president Donald Trump may not have had to deal with that type of request, a young woman in a position of leadership doesn't have as many options," Reimer said.

People see older white males as natural leaders, she suggested, and it takes a lot to change that perspective — but it's been different for Marin.

"This young woman, who's led the country through some very challenging times, and one period of dancing … was enough to confirm people's bias that somehow she's not capable," said Reimer.

Belle Ancell
Belle Ancell

Societal expectations

On Wednesday, Marin spoke about the experience, telling a crowd in Lahti, Finland, that she is human and never failed to attend to a single work task because she took time off.

"I want to believe that people look at the work we do, not what we do in our free time," she said.

Powers, who's worked on campaigns for former prime ministers Joe Clark and Stephen Harper, says a good leader has to be connected to their own humanity.

"You can't be a good leader if you're a robot, you're disconnected, you're unable to, you know, understand what everybody else might be doing at that time of night and having some fun," he said.

"And what's the test we always use in Canada? Who would you like to have a beer with?"

Cynthia Munster
Cynthia Munster

Yaroslav Baran, who directed the Conservative Party's communications through three election campaigns, agrees there probably is a double standard applied to a female leader. Had it been a male leader caught on video dancing, he said, "people would probably just kind of smile and, you know, move on. Or they'd think it's hip and cool, and then move on."

The bigger issue in the debate, he said, is whether a head of government is able to make an important decision when the need arises.

"Certainly, it wouldn't pass the societal tests of the expectations that a public has of their leader, if a leader were genuinely impaired and an occasion came up where they had to make a significant decision," he said, noting he saw no evidence of that in the Marin video.

"Where this comes into play is national security concerns, where, theoretically, if one's perception or judgment is impaired, then they may theoretically give up state secrets or they may engage in some kind of activities that could later be used against them."

Earnscliffe
Earnscliffe

As for McKenna, she said she is fine with any politician or leader being criticized for the job they are doing or for a policy decision — but not for having a personal life or having fun with friends. She worries the kind of criticism experienced by Marin will have detrimental impacts, particularly if women start changing their behaviour.

"It means you stop wanting to be a real person. It means that you aren't bringing, you know, what you have that is so valuable — your experiences — to the table," she said. "Women need to push back and they need to push back hard."