BOOK REVIEW #1
by BRENNA CLARKE GRAY
Celebrity Cultures in Canada
by Katja Lee and Lorraine York
[Waterloo: Wilfrid Laurier University Press, 2016.]
In his Souvenir of Canada series, Douglas Coupland makes a compelling case for a Canadian identity that is rooted in the experience of “secret handshakes,” those shared moments of quiet recognition that make up the very act of being aware of English-Canadian culture within the larger North American cultural landscape. In perusing the table of contents of Celebrity Cultures in Canada, I felt that same reassuring recognition Coupland talks about: oh, a chapter on Callum Keith Rennie! I know him! Even within the context of the book under review, the phrase, “He’s Canadian, you know” ran through my head. As P. David Marshall notes in the book’s foreword, this is “another feature of Canadianness, a way in which Canadians work to self-identify.” We seem to always be so grateful to remember there are others of us around.
Celebrity Cultures in Canada is a welcome addition to the field of Canadian celebrity studies, an area of scholarship that, in literary studies, has largely been dominated by the collection’s co-editor, Lorraine York.1 Her Literary Celebrity in Canada (2007) and Margaret Atwood and the Labour of Literary Celebrity (2013) are essential interventions into a discipline that has historically eschewed the notion of celebrity as at all relevant. Just as those books demanded deeper consideration of the star persona in the Canadian literary landscape, Celebrity Cultures in Canada offers an interdisciplinary consideration of celebrity that includes all venues of stardom: film and television are certainly well-represented, but so too are politics, poetry, and sport. The range of perspectives and theoretical approaches lends much to the larger discussion of this burgeoning field.
What is most welcome in this collection is the complete lack of apology for its existence; when I sat down to read Celebrity Cultures in Canada, I expected to find some cringing circumlocutions about how yes, there really are celebrities in Canada, hahaha. Instead, the introductory chapter is titled, “Celebrity Cultures in Canada. It’s Not a Question.” From its very framework, then, the book resists easy rote narratives about Canadian culture. Instead, the book’s contributors examine the uneasy relationship Canadians feel to national celebrity and its attendant transnational contexts without pretending there is no celebrity machine in Canada, however it might differ from the Hollywood star system we are somehow more familiar with. Indeed, in their introduction, Lee and York do an effective job of locating Canada’s relationship to celebrity within similar contexts of small countries sharing language and culture with a larger and more hegemonic country’s media landscape, and the comparisons they offer with Wales and New Zealand suggest fruitful ground for future study.
I would be remiss if I did not mention how immensely readable this collection is — how welcome it is to engage with scholarship that is actually pleasurable to read! There is much here for the curious non-academic with an interest in Canadian popular culture and its machinations, and there are few chapters that demand an extensive theoretical grounding to comprehend. Indeed, all the scholars in this collection position themselves in relation to the existing body of work in celebrity culture, both within and beyond the Canadian context. To that end, it is also a useful primer for those curious about the field and interested in identifying its most significant scholars, but within the perhaps unexpected context of Canada.
While all the contributions in this collection are of high quality, there are several significant contributions worthy of particular note. In her “Terry Fox and Disabled Celebrity,” Valerie J. Miller demands a reconsideration of what the nation’s idolization of Terry Fox has meant for narratives of disability. I am someone who has stood at the monument to Terry Fox in Thunder Bay, Ontario and wept, but this chapter challenged my reading and my internal biases in necessary ways. I think the chapter could be quite productively applied to a reading of Gord Downie’s illness and the national catharsis that was the Tragically Hip’s final tour stop in Kingston this past summer. Jennifer Bell’s “Canadian Political Celebrity: From Trudeau to Trudeau” is an excellent interrogation of how celebrity functions in the political sphere in this country, and will certainly be a touchstone for future readings of Justin Trudeau’s administration as a text in its own right. And Ira Wagman’s contribution, “Bureaucratic Celebrity,” interrogates the role of government structures in constructing national celebrity, which is an essential component of understanding the Canadian media landscape. These three chapters are particular high points in what is overall a robust collection of thoughtful, nuanced approaches to a topic certainly worthy of further study.
If there is a short-coming in the book’s scope, it is the primary focus on English-Canadian culture and limited discussion of the more established French-language star system; likewise, while the chapter on Indigenous celebrity is most welcome, absent are extended discussions of celebrity in diasporic communities in Canada. There is only so much one collection can do, however, and these absences are really just sites for future work in this field. Indeed, one gift this collection offers us is a sense of just how much work there is left to do in a field that, to date, has not been offered extensive enough critical engagement.
Overall, this is a necessary, timely book worth the attention not only of scholars in the discipline, but also general readers who would like to understand how celebrity cultures function in Canada from a more nuanced and often challenging perspective than mainstream sources might offer. What Douglas Coupland calls the “secret handshakes” of Canadian identity, the things we only recognize in each other, the contributors to Celebrity Cultures in Canada turn into sites of energized, thoughtful examination. Katja Lee and Lorraine York have collected a series of welcome interventions into Canadian culture that should prompt productive future study.
1 In the interests of full disclosure, readers should be aware that Lorraine York was the external examiner of this reviewer’s PhD dissertation, defended in June of 2010.
– This piece was originally published in HA&L issue 9.2
Brenna Clarke Gray holds a PhD in Canadian Literature from the University of New Brunswick. She is faculty in the English department at Douglas College, where she also serves as the Associate of Arts Coordinator. Recent publications include work on contemporary Canadian comics and representations of Canada in American comics.