Friday, February 25, 2011

The beaver bites back?: American popular culture in Canada (1993) - review

The beaver bites back?: American popular culture in Canada. eds. David H. Flaherty and Frank E. Manning, Montreal: McGill-Queen's University Press, 1993.

The purpose of this collection of essays was to examine how Canadians view and consume American culture. While Canadians consume, alter, and react to elements of American Culture, the editor, David Flaherty, argues that there has been little work done on examining how these processes have and do occur. The closest approximation to such a field of study is folklore. However, as of the book's publication in 1993, departments of folklore only existed at Memorial and Laval universities, where researchers study their local cultures, which are some of the cultures of Canada which are least affected by American culture. While the editor suggests that the lack of formal study of the influence of American popular culture upon Canadians might be explained by Canadians having accepted such foreign cultural products as their own, he also argues that such a conclusion is too simplistic since it ignores how many Canadians only selectively adopt elements of American culture, and those which they do adopt is often altered or reinterpreted for popular Canadian consumption.

The book's contributions examines the effects of American culture upon Canada by focusing upon 1) its transmission through the print and broadcast media, as well as live performances of sport, entertainment, religious evangelical events, and other performances; 2) its influence upon Canada's own popular culture; 3) and various Canadian responses to American cultural products and events.

Unfortunately, nowhere in the preface to the text does the author address the issue of the exclusivity of his notion of "Canadian culture." The reader must assume that Flaherty's idea and examples of popular Canadian culture are largely those of English-Canada and its interpretation of American culture. Furthermore, he does not address unique regional interpretations of American culture within English-Canada. While he does recognize that regional cultural differences exist in Canada through his reference to the regionally specific folklore studies programs at Laval and Memorial, regional Canadian interpretations and reinterpretations of American cultural products is not a major concern of the text, although it is touched upon by several of the contributors. Instead, the editor, and thus the organization of the text, assumes, possibly unconsciously, that popular Canadian culture is homogeneous and directed by English-Canadian forces of cultural production, most of which are situated in Ontario.

In the introduction the second editor of the text, Frank Manning, argues that Canadian interpretations of American culture are often neither unquestioning nor irrationally negative. Rather, he views Canadian consumption and reinterpretation of American cultural products as often a creative means of both borrowing elements  which are useful to the Canadian experience and subvert the power and hegemony of the American source. This interpretation and manipulation of American culture, Manning argues, can be understood as a form of resistance to American cultural domination. This contradicts the traditional view of many Canadian commentators that American culture will eventually overrun Canadian culture. Rather, according to Manning, the very presence and threat of American cultural hegemony fuels the strength and creativity of Canadian popular culture. Writing soon after the introduction of the US-Canada Free Trade Agreement of 1988, Manning stresses that, unlike in the United States, which is typically apolitical, popular culture in Canada is highly political and an expression of national sovereignty. The politically motivated support and defense of Canadian culture, as well as the uniquely Canadian ways in which American culture is interpreted, ridiculed, and parodied, are, according to Manning, the means by which the Beaver Bites Back.

In describing the contributions of several of the volume's authors, Manning does concede that Canada does have regional differences, and that Canadians in different regions consume and react to American culture in different ways. Bernard Ostry, for example, argues that Canada's cultural strength is dependent upon its regional and ethnic cultural differences. Similarly, Stuart Adam argues that there is not one Canadian culture but many, and that "Canadian culture" is the expression of the country's many cultural groups through different media and public events. However, Manning then appears to conflate regionalism with multiculturalism, claiming it to be a "Canadian value" along with "state capitalism, social democracy, middle-class morality, regional identities,... the True North, the parliamentary system, institutionalized compromise, international neutrality, and so on." (p 8).  This interpretation in itself suggests a hegemonic set of values which are accepted by almost all Canadians. However, in the almost twenty years since the book was published, there have been many significant examples of different groups of Canadians rejecting many of these "Canadian values." Thus, one could argue that the notion that such values are essentially Canadian may have been a reflection of either ideology, or a cultural and political bias (a southern Ontario Liberal/1980s and 90s Progressive Conservative bias).

This English-Canadian/southern Ontario bias is continued throughout the rest of Manning's introduction and much of the collection as a whole. In discussing Feldthusen's essay on the Canadian television industry, Canadian content regulations, and the influence and extent of American television programming viewed by Canadians on both American and Canadian television channels, little mention is made of French-Canada, its significant television industry, and how it consumes American programming. In addition, in the discussion of the production of Canadian content, nothing is said of regional programming. The assumption of both Manning and Feldthusen appears to be that Canadian programming is a reflection of the culture of all Canadians, and that one's Canadian culture is protected through both its creation and broadcast. There is no mention of the possibility that centrally produced "Canadian culture" itself could contribute to the homogenization of Canadian society, threatening the multiculturalism/cultural regionalism which Manning claims to be so distinctively Canadian. This bias is again obvious in his discussion of Andrew Lyons and Harriet Lyons essay on the differences between American and Canadian evangelical television, as well as Mary Jane Miller's contribution on cultural differences between L.A. Law and Street Legal. These examples assume that the perspectives of the southern Ontario writers and producers of these programs reflect general Canadian perspectives, and that the influence of American culture, and the differences between American culture and such representations of Canadian culture, says something about Canada as a whole.

While the manipulation and reconfiguration of American cultural influences are discussed in Michael Taft's essay on Canadian popular music and Charline Poirier's essay on burlesque entertainment in Quebec, their position in the collection is to serve as examples which support the English/liberal/southern Ontario bias of Canadian culture outlined by Manning in the introduction. While offering examples of uniquely French-Canadian appropriations of elements of American culture, the appropriation and manipulation of that culture is understood to be a Canadian characteristic. It is obvious that French-Canada, which is linguistically different from the United States, is less directly challenged by the hegemony of American popular culture. Thus, it is difficult to see how the use of elements of American culture for French-Canadian cultural ends is a rebellion against Americanization in the same way it would be for an English-Canadian in southern Ontario.

This reflects the theme running through all of the contributions to the collection: that Canadian culture did not evolve on its own, but has largely been the result of an interaction with the culture of the United States. As Manning argues in his introduction, while Canadians are not Americans, they are also not not Americans. This distinction is made to explain how Canadians are probably the non-American population which is most like, and most familiar with, American culture. However, this assumption of closeness, of the compulsion to consume, and the compulsion to transform and borrow from American culture to make something distinctly Canadian, is more distinctive of some Canadian communities than others. Whereas cultural differences between many English-Canadians living close to the American border might be difficult for the external observer to recognize, differences are more apparent in more remote areas of the country or where linguistic barriers exist. The provinces studied by the Laval and Memorial folklore studies centres, for example, are culturally distinct. This distinctiveness is not only historical, but is also affected by other factors including language and geography. While he does not aggressively challenge the notion that there exists an all-inclusive Canadian culture, Stuart Adam in his response paper to Feldthusen's views on broadcasting and Canadian culture, does recognize in his essay that one's culture is composed of many elements, including patterns of political and social organization, memories, values, history, and geography. These very real factors likely play a role in the degree to which various elements of American culture can be adopted. However, as mentioned above, such regional differences are only briefly addressed throughout the collection, and certainly not to an extent which would threaten the editors' notion that American culture is a hostile threat to some kind of pan-Canadian culture.

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