He Who “Makes” History…Gets to Define History


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…)

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6 Responses to He Who “Makes” History…Gets to Define History

  1. Pingback: He Who “Makes” History…Gets to Define History | Pulp and Dagger … | Tv Show Reviews

  2. KO says:

    (comments have been edited for space)

    You’re claiming that we Americans argue that – we’ll tell the Canadian stories worth telling – without any supporting evidence.

    You’re claiming 95 percent of casual depictions of Canada by America is derogatory without any supporting evidence.

    I believe you are misguided on your criticism of the attention Obama received when he announced his support for gay marriage. …it is not surprising that the US will receive lots of global attention when the most powerful country’s president supports something illegal in a majority of the countries in the world. Not to mention the fact that America is not racing Canada, The Netherlands, Spain, etc. on every progressive issue. Gay marriage is an issue that America itself has to come to terms with.

    In regards to WW2, …the then isolationist US entering at all was an act of kindness to our allies, and when the US did enter, we made a huge impact… Canada entered the war soon after the British due to its political and governmental ties to the British Empire.

    In regards to slavery, the US abolished slavery in 1865 after the civil war, the British officially abolished slavery across their empire (which included Canada) in 1833 (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Slavery_Abolition_Act_1833), only 32 years earlier. …so Canada cannot take credit for a policy that they had no involvement in.

    So let’s not get ahead of ourselves in thinking Canada is historically more progressive just because Canada legalized gay marriage “first”.

    The fact that Canada has a constitution that supports monarchy over republicanism proves that Canada isn’t the least bit progressive in that regard.

    • Administrator says:

      We don’t seem to be disagreeing about facts, merely what significance (or lack thereof) we ascribe to those facts.

      But, in a way, you kind of make my point, as your comments seem mainly about insisting anything Canada ever did is irrelevant and anything America did is of global importance. So, in your view, Canada fighting in 1939 is just a sign of its subservience to Britain…while the U.S.’s joining the battle in 1941 (after being attacked!) was a “kindness”. And the fact that Canada was a sanctuary for runaway slaves is insignificant simply because that would’ve been true of any British colony (we’ll put aside any consideration of the 1793 anti-slavery legislation in Upper Canada). I wasn’t opining on why America was late to WW II, merely that it’s self-servingly parochial for the American media to claim the war began in 1941; and my point about same sex marriage was merely that what America does or does not do in that regard is hardly “history making” in Canada. But, in truth, you seem most annoyed merely by the fact that I have the temerity to suggest Canada has ever made any contributions to the world!

      Personally I have great regard for America, for the things it has accomplished, in laws, politics, and pop culture…I just wish such regard was occasionally reciprocated.

      They say you can’t know a man until you’ve walked in his shoes. Look how annoyed you are about my comments about America in just a single, minor blog post. Now imagine if you were bombarded by that everyday, from the most powerful cultural/entertainment machine on the planet, so much so that this singular vision of your culture was even being accepted by your fellow Americans…and you get some idea of what it’s like to be Canadian (and, indeed, other nations).

      • KO says:

        (comments have been edited for space)

        ..you haven’t yet come to grasp with the realities of the world in regards to country popularity… America shouldn’t be blamed for the attention it receives. That’s like blaming the popular kids in school.

        Canada is not a major player on the world stage… And there’s nothing wrong with that, nor is there anything wrong with wanting your country to become a major player in these areas. However, blaming other countries…is unreasonable and unfair.

        In regards to your Upper Canada 1793 anti-slavery point, Canada was not a country until 1867 and didn’t receive full governing powers until much later.

        In regards to your point on America being late to WWII, America wasn’t late because we weren’t obligated to get involved with the european theater of the war.

        In regards to your gay marriage point, Obama’s comments weren’t “history making” in Canada, but from a global standpoint they were. And apparently the Canadian media realized this fact and reported on the story.

        Your view that Canada is bombarded with negative comments by America (or any other country) is false. America on the other hand, is ridiculed, harshly criticized, and unfairly stereotyped for every move it takes by almost every country in the world… I don’t take it seriously because I realize that this comes with territory if you’re the world’s only superpower.

  3. cindy says:

    I think KO has goten off topic, but I do think you have a contradiction when you write American depictions of Canadians are derogatory even as you write some Hollywood films have been set in Canada.

    • Administrator says:

      Yeah 🙂 That’s a reflection of lazy writing on my part (I’m trying to keep my word count down), conflating movies with episodic TV. I was thinking about various U.S. TV series that have thrown in a Canadian as a milquetoast or bumpkin: The West Wing, Law & Order and Six Feet Under come to mind. Or a Saturday Night Live sketch a few years back in which various world currencies were anthropomorphised…save Canada which was depicted as a bawking chicken! Maybe I read too much into it, but the sense one gets is an intent to reassure American viewers that Canada is, basically, America’s hillbilly cousin and not to be taken seriously. There are times when Canadians are depicted as (relatively) smart and savvy, like How I Met Your Mother — but they tend to be rare.