Voices from Sunnyvale Trailer Park: the US Meets Canada Via the Trailer Park Boys

Curator's Note

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?

 

Comments

Will Straw's picture

 Lorna, I met a young

 Lorna, I met a young British post-doc in Amsterdam a couple of weeks ago who had discovered Trailer Park Boys on a cable station in the UK and watched it with devotion.   Although he loved it, and knew it was Canadian, it seemed disconnected from anything he knew about Canada and I took pleasure in describing some of its context.  I think the show goes further than anything else in de-sentimentalizing East Coast life and poor communities, and for that it is a noble enterprise.  

Will

Lorna Roth's picture

What is Canadian about TPB?

 

I agree with you on this Will. It’s fascinating how well it cuts across national borders and plays with the local, marginalized working class ‘elsewhere’ culture as an exemplar of this kind of lifestyle and interpersonal engagement that can take place in multiple sites around the globe.  …and it certainly deromanticizes Nova Scotia!

 

 

 

 

Lorna Roth, Associate Professor Department of Communication Studies Concordia University - Loyola Campus 7141 Sherbrooke Street West - CJ 4.325 Montreal, Quebec H4B 1R6 514-848-2424 Ext. 2545 lorna.roth@gmail.com

Tim Anderson's picture

In the tradition of Meatballs and Porky's, and Cinema Verite'

First of all let me say how much I enjoy TPB as a series. I was introduced to it friends from both Canada and the US almost simultaneously in the Spring of 2007 and have been watching the DVDs as I am able to get them through interlibrary loan. 

As I watch the films and the shows I think of it as existing in the tradition of Meatballs and Porky’s, films where little to no Canadian referents are buried issues of class and what it means to be a "loser" in order to gain entry into American markets. What is fascinating for me is that TPB has Canadian referents (the tenants of Sunnyvale watch hockey, talk about getting their "Grade 10", etc.) that many viewers such as myself recognize, but we enjoy it anyways. And for me the show is refreshing simply because it does a much better job of finding humor in poverty than other US equivalents (I am thinking mainly of My Name is Earl). There is a kind of "truth" in these shows that US comedies do not even get close to depicting. The truth exists in sedans with no doors, unkempt kitchens and matresses with no boxsprings and frames. Maybe it is the attention to the conventions of documentary conventions of "verite’" where the Canadianess lies. Just a thought. 

Serra Tinic's picture

TPB and Public Broadcasting?

Lorna and Will, it sure ain’t Road to Avonlea in its depiction of East Coast life, is it? I think it is precisely that "anti-bourgeois" sensibility that allows the series to not only speak to issues of regionalism within Canada but also to larger experiences of marginalization globally. It still fascinates me that TPB had to enter the American market via BBC America when it was considered too controversial for even the subscription and cable networks. I think this really speaks to the different expectations of audiences/fear of advertisers’ wrath in countries without a history of national public broadcasting.

Tim, I think you’re spot on in your depiction of ‘truth.’ This corresponds very well with a recent column in Flow about The Office and the conceptualization of an emergent  "comedy verite." My apologies to the author of that piece for not first looking it up and citing it accordingly!

Michele Byers.'s picture

It's funny. I have all the

It’s funny. I have all the dvds of the show, but haven’t watched much of it yet. I think this reflects the local ambivalence about TPB. Its popularity is met witth pride and a bit of discomfort… the fear that the rest of the country/world (Toronto?) will think this is "real" Nova Scotia. And that speaks to Serra and Tim’s point about the way "truth" and "authenticity" circulates in and around Canadian media texts.

 

The way that identity and particularly racialized/ethnicized identities are read/made meaningful in the Halifax/Nova Scotian context is, in my personal experience, quite unique. This local quality might be part of what comes through in the text; it also disrupts the more traditional representations of life "out here," the basically uninterrupted white Anglo landscapes of series like, as Serra pointed out, Avonlea.

 

I guess I’d better get watching.

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