I was watching an episode of “Shameless”, a Showtime show that itself is based on a UK drama/comedy about a drunkard father Frank Gallagher (played by William H. Macy) and his family forced to fend for themselves. In the second episode of the first season Frank, while passed out, gets deliberately dropped off in Toronto after pissing off his eldest daughter’s boyfriend. Frank wakes up in a clean park and sees something that isn’t right: two female joggers wearing Canada flags on their sweaters, Canadian flags on flagstaffs, and then the two female joggers complaining to an obvious red-suited Canadian Mountie riding on a horse.
This isn’t the first time I’ve watched an American stereotype of Canada in a television show–the continual references to “eh?”, the diatribes against our “socialist” health care system, how every Canadian loves, and is good at, hockey, how Quebec and Montreal are both regarded as strangely exotic and yet sexualized within the context of prostitutes, strippers and porn–and it’s always been mildly annoying. The fact of the matter is, if a significant percentage of American television shows are actually filmed in Canada, isn’t it time we forced these productions to depict Canada correctly?
American television and movie production companies and networks have been successfully lobbied by African-American and Latino-American cultural interest groups to reduce or stop depicting all gangsters and criminals as black or latino (think about it: lately in mainstream movies marketed towards kids and adults, have you ever seen criminals as anything other than white?) because they believe perpetuating these stereotypes is harmful. Then why should the depiction of Canada and Canadians be any different?
For example, in the “Shameless” episode, the big obvious stereotype is that Mounties still wear their stereotypical red serge uniforms, as if we are still stuck in the late 1800’s. As well, Mounties are part of the federal police force or RCMP and do not have jurisdiction in our major Canadian cities. Or that we continually say “eh?” Or that we love hockey (I don’t, sorry). Or that we are continually “nice”.
The annoying thing is when we have academics who defend American stereotypes of other nations. Check out this article for instance, which is a paper a Canadian academic student wrote on the how Canada is depicted on “How I Met Your Mother” through their Canadian character. While the author admits that the writers for “How I Met Your Mother” initially told Cobie Smulders, who plays the Canadian on the show, that they would make her character Canadian in order to play with and break down Canadian stereotypes, indeed the exact opposite occurred, where the main writer for the show admitted it was the basis for tasteless jokes. While the author of this paper goes on to argue that even if the tasteless jokes about being Canadian abound in the show, at the same time some presentation of Canadian-ness is a good thing rather than being totally absent; and furthermore, these jokes are ok because underlying them is a love for Cobie Smulders Canadian character Robin. The overall argument is that however difference is depicted, the overall goal of the depiction is to explore difference rather than perpetuate negative stereotypes.
I would argue that that this argument is naive and white-washes what these writers of these American shows are actually doing. Sure, Americans make fun of themselves as much as other parts of the world, i.e. the hick from the South with the heavy drawl, the snobby North-easterner, the Minnesotan dialect and naivety. But let’s call this type of humor for what it is: mockery, the lowest common denominator of humor. When difference between people is used as the basis of humor, it indicates an insecurity and an attempt to reassert power in the dynamic by reducing the Other to something controllable, contextualized, and ultimately “safe”. But at the same time good writers know that what they write, especially when it is shot and seen by millions of people around the nation and the world, has an impact on the perception of a particular set of people. And in fact, it is a slippery slope to outright racism, where the only mark of demarcation between mockery and prejudice is the extent to which people hold onto their stereotype to define the other person, or know innately that the Other person is a more complicated being and, to a great degree, cannot be defined.
So what’s the point? Balance. If you’re a writer and you’re going to mock someone, make sure you mock yourself at the same time. If you’re a writer and want to use stereotypes to make cheap jokes, make sure at some point you deflate or destroy those stereotypes as well. While there are some Canadian writers for these shows who would argue that when they make jokes, they’re doing it in some kind of post-modern, winking way, like “these Americans are stupid anyways so we’ll just write what they expect and we’ll laugh on the inside”, it still admits that they are catering to American stereotypes and in fact, on some level are gutless enough to make their writing safe to appease their American bosses. So that argument doesn’t fly with me.
For example, I still remember an Archie comic book segment where Archie’s jalopy breaks down in the country and a hick country girl helps him fix his car. Archie jokes with Jughead that he’s going to show this hick country girl a good time by taking her out on a date, and dazzle her with the few bucks he’s got. In a complete turnaround, the girl dresses up in expensive clothes, showcases her farm as a complicated piece of social machinery, drives an expensive sports car, and actually gives Archie money on the date. Archie is left aghast at his former ignorance. So when I cite an Archie comic, of all places, where stereotypes become inversed, it merely showcases that writing smart isn’t limited to art house films. Writing smart is a choice. While I think the writers of “How I Met My Mother” are reveling in their exploration of Robin’s “Canadian-ness”, I do think they could be doing it in a smarter way. The author of the academic paper seems to highlight examples of when the writers do exactly this, but frankly the examples are still maudlin and the basis of the humor is still mockery, even if the “human-ness” of Robin is purported to underline the humor and thus somehow justify its mockery.
What we should do on the Canadian side is withhold our tax credits to these American productions if they continue to portray these insipid Canadian stereotypes. And the least these American production companies can do is at least depict Canadian police officers in their correct uniform when they have a Canadian location written in the story. The least you can be is accurate.