Voices from Sunnyvale Trailer Park: the US Meets Canada Via the Trailer Park Boys
by Lorna Roth — Concordia University, Montreal
April 09, 2009 – 00:55
Trailer Park Boys (TPB), the edgy Showcase mockumentary which takes place geographically on the margins of Halifax, Nova Scotia in a fictional trailer park called Sunnyvale, is situated in a parallel sociocultural position on the periphery of Canadian television content. The hoser-like (white, English-speaking, working class, often gratuitously violent, boozers / dope-smoking, foul-mouthed, undereducated and unemployed) mostly male characters on the program (Ricky, Julian, Bubbles, J-ROC, Lahey, Randy, and others) are shown as spending much of their time plotting subversive (read illegal) schemes to make easy money while building an incredibly supportive social network within their community. For this curation, I want to look at TPB through the lens of the appropriation issue and reflect on what is Canadian about the program.
This segment, Who’s the Microphone Assassin (2003), is about J-Roc’s appropriation of the rap music, royalities, and black identity of Detroit Velvet Smooth (DVS), a gangsta rapper living in Moncton, New Brunswick who occasionally visits the Park. Focusing on the artistic and business conflict-of-interest between J-ROC and DVS and its resolution in a collaborative fashion adds a pedagogical edge to TPB: the ‘compromise’ is a very Canadian approach to conflict. Here is some context for the three kinds of appropriation featured on TPB:
Musical appropriation: Borrowing music, melody, song lyrics, or “sound” without permission and presenting it as one’s own - with the consequence of royalties going to the performer/remix producer and not the original creator. The co-optation of black expressive forms is not a new phenomenon. In the fifties, Elvis was considered to have appropriated the musical style of Chuck Berry and Little Richard and popularized it in mainstream America.
Racial appropriation: definitely a non-essentialist notion of race; the camouflage of one’s own race by appearing and behaving as if belonging to a race with a different skin colour, redesigned facial features, often with the assistance of cosmetic surgery, skin bleach, or skin dyes. The notion became popular with the release of John Howard Griffin’s book Black Like Me in 1959 in which he describes his having stained his body black and travelled in the American south for six weeks to get first-hand ontological experience of what it was like to live in the skin of “an other-raced person.” More recently, Michael Jackson chose to bleach his skin and undergo cosmetic surgery as an antidote to his vitiligo (gradual depigmentation) as well as his “colour complex” - the desire to be of a lighter pigment than what one is.
Off-set character appropriation which extends beyond the screen: TPB actors are always “in character” whenever they appear in public, even when seen routinely going about the tasks of their “real” lives. This is a pretty consistent branding technique.
What about these issues and contexts makes Trailer Park Boys Canadian? The issue of appropriation is one that has been widely discussed in Canadian cultural circles and, in particular, has captured the attention of multiple minority communities whose talents have been mined for popularization. The show demonstrates that appropriation issues are not restricted to metropolitan cultural centres. Locating TPB in a rural area in the Maritimes challenges the bias of most North American programming, as well as fulfils the regional mandate of Canada’s Broadcasting Act. TPB is about an anti-bourgeois community to which most people would never have direct access and it humanizes the characters in ways that are creative, provocative, and linguistically challenging to mainstream white, middle-class social values. I doubt if these blatant profanities and obscenities would be permitted on mainstream American broadcasts though there is likely plenty on Pay services. Then, there is the tolerance of pot-smoking and growing that is framed as a means of earning a living. Marijuana laws are not as strictly enforced in Canada as they are south of the border. The openness of Lahey and Randy’s gay relationship is also surprising. TPB is NOT a gay program, yet the Sunnyvale residents have normalized and accepted the legitimacy of this relationship despite the heterosexual bachelor bias of the program. Again, one recalls the Canadian reputation for tolerance.
Beyond these preliminary reflections, in what other ways does TBP represent a Canadian sensibility? Is the program a fair portrayal of a Canadian subculture? Does it add diversity to the airwaves, as defined in the national mandate for Canadian broadcasters? As one of the very few Canadian programs that enters into American social consciousness, what does it say about Canada to Americans? Is it through a show like this that Canadians want to distinguish themselves from US mainstream programming?