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John Doyle: From Harper’s sweater to Freeland’s red dress, it’s fair game

Remember Our Glorious Leader (OGL) and his sweater? Glory days for mockery, in the long-ago.

Now we live in a magical kingdom. The magic is everywhere. Justin the Good (JtG) goes around the country handing out toys to children, helping out at a food bank and taking kids from a hospital to see the new Star Wars movie. That is, when he's not welcoming refugees, sleeves rolled up and ready to help. Every time you turn on the TV, there's exemplary do-goodery.

Is it blissful or is it blissful? Well, it is until you make fun of Justin the Good's posse of do-gooders. Until you suggest there might be some nitwit, attention-seeking, all-too-obvious branding going on.

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This column's recent Top Ten Most Irritating Canadians (TV-related) for 2015 irked JtG's posse to no end. Apparently, mocking Chrystia Freeland for her ostentatious, repetitive wearing of a red dress is the work of a sexist "journo pig" and is, in general, overt sexism of the worst sort. The sort that gets some people to claim they will never read this newspaper again, ever. Ever, ever, ever.

No less an eminence than Gerald Butts, "Principal Secretary to Prime Minister Trudeau," weighed in on Twitter to admonish yours truly and to claim, for Freeland, "She ended a 7 yr spat with our #1 trading partner in 30 days." Right. That's some magic red dress Freeland is wearing, obviously.

Now you'd think the Principal Secretary to Prime Minister Trudeau would have better things to do than engage with a TV critic's tongue-in-cheek year-end column, and helping unleash Twitter-shaming, but it's an illuminating incident, I think.

No humour allowed, no mocking, no teasing! Is that the gist? You're either a booster for the magical kingdom or you're some kind of "journo pig." Next thing, merely rolling your eyes about the magical kingdom will be frowned upon.

Listen, politicians attempting to establish their bona fides, personality and brand through wearing distinctive clothing for media opportunities is fair game. There is a clear through-line from Harper's sweater to Freeland's red dress. It's all look-at-me chutzpah, calculated to improve standing in a popularity contest.

Just as Harper used a sweater in TV ads to comes across as non-threatening, Freeland ostentatiously wears her dress to signal she's a liberal and a strong and vital minister. It's as blatant as a poke in our eye and that's what makes it as eye-rollingly silly as Harper's sweater. It's risible. We can laugh. It's what we do.

The country has seen a lot of photo ops since JtG took power. And it's made a lot of people feel terrifically positive. That's just peachy. We've lacked the positive for ages.

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But what we also lack is a culture of mocking, indignant scrutiny of politics and image-making. We don't have a Daily Show, Colbert Report or Saturday Night Live. We have the limited, lame 22 Minutes and Rick Mercer's mildness. We don't have regular mockery of the natural tendency of politicians toward pomposity and self-importance.

I mean, seriously – The Lady in Red? It's a gift. A little teasing is in order.

Intolerance of humour and ribbing is unworthy of this government. And if the TV critic's Top Ten Most Irritating Canadians (TV-related) stirs up such sanctimonious tut-tutting, heaven help us all.

The Liberals won the election for several reasons. One is that the campaign was forward-looking and appealed to people's natural instinct for a feel-good future full of decency and compassion. Another was the careful, often inspired management of image. Every election campaign is about persuasion. Every speech and photo op is about that. Some efforts at persuasion are well honed and they work.

There was a time, remember, when Harper's sweater did wonders for his image. It was mocked but it worked.

Freeland's branding of herself works, too. And we can laugh at it, too. See, there's a tipping point coming soon, a point when the phrase "Because it's 2015" becomes empty of meaning and then becomes the punchline to a joke. One hopes, anyway.

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If there is substance to JtG's sunny ways and sunny days outlook it will include a recognition that he and his posse must take the rough with the smooth and are able to have a laugh at themselves from time to time. Anything else is bound to be irritating.

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