This is part of what’s turning into a kind of mini-series of posts looking at the concept of culture and cultural identity in Canadian pop culture…following on the heels of my previous post about “Canadianisms”.
Stories are, in a sense, the legacy the current generation leaves the next generation, the forum by which we say: “here’s how it was” (even if exaggerated and dramatized for the sake of a gag or, y’know, monsters or alien invaders). We look back on Shakespeare, on Cervantes, on Murasaki Shikibu, on Jane Austen, on Alexandre Dumas, both for entertainment…but also as a chance to catch an imperfect glimpse of the world that was.
Now this becomes a fundamental issue when looking at Canadian entertainment — pop entertainment specifically — because often the predominant philosophy has been to try and hide the Canadianness of Canadian movies and TV. Usually by setting the stories in the United States featuring American characters. You can watch a lot of “Canadian” movies and TV shows…and never know a country called Canada even exists! And even movies and TV shows that do admit they are Canadian…often do so in a “soft” way — sometimes the makers will claim their story is set in Canada simply because nothing overtly says it isn’t set in Canada, sometimes a Canadian flag will be glimpsed waving limply in the background of a shot. And that’s all.
And the question that often comes up is: so what? Who cares? Does it matter? Does it matter if a Canadian-made police thriller admits it’s set in Toronto, or is the fundamental core of the story served just as well by pretending the action takes place in New York?
Well, obviously, part of it relates to the old storytelling adage: write what you know. If Canadian storytellers are constantly setting their stories in the United States, one can assume you’re losing a layer of authenticity in the telling. They aren’t writing what they know…they’re writing what they gleaned watching what somebody else wrote (who himself might have simply been cribbing ideas from someone else).
And a part of it relates to that “identity” idea. What I alluded to at the beginning, about how stories are our legacy to the future — and future generations will look back and might actually find it hard to realize there was a nation called Canada! Let alone, have an understanding of what was going on within its borders during our times.
It also fosters that weird sense of insecurity that plagues Canadians — of a second class status. An attitude that, ironically, many Canadians actually embrace…many Canadians often seeming to revel in a kind of cultural self-loathing (or rather, they revel in a chance to denigrate Canada and Canadians…while seeing themselves as somehow above the rest of the herd).
And it’s a cliche only too happily encouraged by America. I mean, an argument against Canadian pop culture that is often offered by Canadians and Americans both is that if Canadian stories are worth telling then, don’t worry, the Americans will tell them for us…even as references to Canada in American movies and TV shows are rare, and 95 percent of the (casual) depictions of Canada and Canadians in American movies and TV shows tend to be, well, derogatory…subtly derogatory, perhaps, but derogatory. Now I make a distinction about “casual” references to Canada because, to be fair, over the years there have been American movies set in Canada with Canadian characters (as I detail here) — but such movies are still just a drop in the bucket. In most American representations of Canadians, they are often depicted as nerds or comic relief geeks, ineffectual buffoons or, on occasion, smarmy bureaucrats obstructing righteous Americans. Years after the fact, American media and politicians continued to happily tell people the 9/11 terrorists entered the U.S. from Canada…when they know very well they didn’t.
Canada has nothing to offer, these American depictions of Canada seem to say, and they are happily parroted by many within Canada — including those in the Canadian entertainment biz.
I was thinking about this attitude recently when the news wires became a-blaze with the announcement that U.S. president Obama has announced that he supports same sex marriage and the press has declared with this statement “the president makes history!” — a sentiment repeated even in the Canadian press.
While many Canadians might look and say, “What? Are the Americans still talking about that old thing?”
Because Canada legalized same sex marriages in 2005 (it was the 3rd/4th country in the world to do so — it was the third to pass legislation but, given the slow bureaucracy of Canada’s government, it was a couple of months before it was actually made law, by which point Spain, with I guess a more streamlined system, had beaten Canada to the punch and become, technically, the third country to legalize it). The recent hoopla over Obama’s statement (preceded by his Vice-President taking the stand first) has echoes of a few years back when, again, some months after Canada had legalized same sex marriage, an American court also sanctioned it and, again, was accompanied by news headlines about America “making history”. So seven years after Canada legalized same sex marriages the United States is still only mulling it over (and some states have actually forbidden it)…yet apparently it’s the United States, not Canada (or Spain, or Belgium, or The Netherlands, or the six other nations that have legalized it to date) that has “made history”! Indeed, Obama’s statement was no more than a declaration of personal principal…there was no indication it would actually lead to any legislation.
One wonders if future school children in Canada will write stirring essays about how the United States “made history” when it came to same sex marriages — because that’s what the media reports of the time will tell them. In much the same way that America — through its movies and TV series and books — has tried to push forward the start of the second world war to 1941…when Canada and other nations were fighting Nazis in 1939!
And let’s not forget that old 19th Century slavery thing — when U.S. slaves fled to the “promised land” of abolitionist Canada.
Canada has nothing to offer? Sure — other than, you know, repeatedly clearing a path for “progressive” America to follow in its footsteps. (Okay, obviously I’m cherry picking events — certainly there are other areas where Canada followed America’s lead).
I’ve written before that, in a sense, pop entertainment, whether deliberate or accidental, is a kind of propaganda — America has established itself as the cultural centre piece of modern civilization, in part, because their movies, books, CDs, and TV series are constantly reinforcing that image. All the exciting crimes are solved in New York, all the wackiest sitcom characters live in America, etc. What’s funny about the whole same sex marriage thing is that I’ll bet a lot of people half assume same sex marriage has been legal in the United States for years…simply because plenty of American movies and TV shows (made presumably by progressive liberal filmmakers) have depicted gay marriages and never once alluded to the fact that these were symbolic unions, not recognized by American law. Or given the prevalence of American medical dramas over the years, how many have explicitly dealt with — or even acknowledged — the American profit driven and private insurance system? A short-lived Elliot Gould sitcom called E/R (not the later big budget drama) comes to mind, but not too many others. How many episodes of Grey’s Anatomy have ended with the smiling doctors congratulating themselves on a procedure well done…while the patient is left sobbing on the gurney, faced with bankruptcy and a life time of debt incurred by their medical bills? Not many I’ll wager.
Actually, and perhaps tellingly, one of the few times I’ve seen an American series that acknowledged the profit driven hospital system, where the characters had to discuss paying for treatment, was in the TV drama, Life Unexpected — which, though American, was filmed in Canada!
And, of course, as always — I tend to think in kind of pop entertainment terms. There have certainly been Canadian movies and TV shows dealing explicitly with the Canadian experience — earnest, ripped-from-the-headlines docudramas. But I’m also thinking of just nonchalant, casual acknowledgements of Canada in the context of just a comedy, or a thriller. Stories which are not intrinsically Canadian…but are rooted in a Canadian reality. Which is a good lead in to my next post… (actually, it ended up being the next post after the next post…)