Little Mosque on the Prairie (LM) is one of the most popular series the CBC—Canadian Broadcasting Corporation—has aired in recent memory. Given embarrassing incidents like passing on Canadian Idol and losing the theme to Hockey Night in Canada, LM has been a redemption song. LM has captured attention nationally and internationally by offering something that could have only been made in—multicultural, liberal, socially conscious, diverse—Canada… or so it seems.
The Canadian press has been critical of LM, arguing that it’s opportunistic—“Muslim is the new gay,” writes Mark Steyn in Maclean’s Feb. 5/07 issue—and too gentle—“Too bad it wasn’t offensive… it might have been funny,” Neil Boyce writes at montreal.com. It’s true; if you compare LM to some US sitcoms it does look gentle and eager to please. But we could argue that it’s doing what the CBC is supposed to do: “be predominantly and distinctively Canadian,” “reflect Canada and its regions,” “actively contribute to the flow and exchange of cultural expression,” “contribute to shared national consciousness and identity,” and “reflect the multicultural and multiracial nature of Canada” (1991 Canadian Broadcasting Act).
While LM does something new by tackling the “issue” of the Muslim diasporic experience in rural Canada, it’s a traditional Canadian sitcom. The clip I chose, from the very beginning of season one, highlights the intra-community tensions on the show, as well as showcasing the tension between Mercy and Toronto. Although the tensions between the Muslim and non-Muslim Mercy residents are also an important feature of LM, they are somewhat less important than the former—serving primarily to showcase the ignorance and gentle bigotry of the locals.
Especially in the first season with the arrival of the new Imam—Amaar: upper-class, Torontonian, and a former lawyer—to the small town of Mercy, Saskatchewan (pop. 14 000), LM highlights a dual critique of Toronto—suggesting that “us” versus “them” means more then just racial/ethnic difference—and Islamophobia. The issue of region versus centre is “essential” Canadian sitcom fodder. That this is a little mosque on the prairie and not a (little) mosque on Danforth Ave. is significant; it creates unity and what we might call a context for assimilation in the Canadian vein. The diverse Muslim characters on LM (white coverts, observant African woman, young feminists who wear the hijab, traditional patriarchs, barefaced young Imams) create one of the basic heuristic conceits of the show: that the Muslim characters are as different from each other as they are from the (homogenous white) population of Mercy, and that everyone in the small town is the more the same than different in being from Mercy and not from Toronto.
Initial adjustments of Little Mosque to audience feedback....
I remember when Little Mosque began, there were some struggles to figure out the portrayals and comedic aspects to the satisfaction of the Muslim and non-Muslim viewing communities. Michelle, can you provide details on this audience “adjustment?”
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 firstname.lastname@example.org
Michele, one of the things I've wondered about in relation to Little Mosque, and to Canadian "ethnic" sitcoms generally, is whether they differ from their US counterparts in not drawing strongly on well-established traditions of ethnic community comedy. Key successes in the U.S. (like Seinfeld or Fresh Prince) draw on the well-honed conventions of Jewish and African-American comedy, respectively. The sometimes stilted character of Canadian sitcoms (or the sense that they are overly contrived) has something to do, it seems to me, with the feeling that they are trying to create comedic traditions out of nowhere.
Lorna, the press accounts of
Lorna, the press accounts of the early days of the series do indeed speak to this anxiety. What was clear early on was that LM was not going to be able to make everyone happy. Some, particularly secular, Muslim groups spoke out about the strong equation of Muslims with religiosity—as opposed to, for example, representations of Christians or Jews—as well as the stereotyping of Non-Muslims on the show as rural bigots. But other viewers were pleased to see representations of Muslims that extended beyond terrorists and burqas. One of the first jokes in the first episode comes from Amaar, being held by the police at the airport. He says: "Muslims are known for our sense of humour...."
I've thought about the issue of religiosity and LM quite a bit and I don't think the criticisms are quite accurate. Not all the characters are religious per se... but life does revolve around the Mosque. I suspect that this represents an accurate portrayal of life in small town Muslim communities but one that may read as problematic to urban viewers, especially secular ones. When I first moved to Halifax I was amazed at how much Jewish cultural life revolved around the city's two Synagogues. But now I get it. There's nowhere else. There are few secular cultural spaces because the community is just too small. I suspect that some of the issues raised by LM reflect the location of those making the criticisms (ironically underscoring the urban/rural split in the show itself).
To link this to Will's question... part of the issue is very much that there just isn't an ethnic televisual tradition in Canada. Will, your points are important and, I think, really interesting (and under-researched). This is what I'm focusing on in my most recent work. The different paths along which Canadian and US TV grew up, especially the sitcom, created very different grammars. The US grammar is very much derived from ethnic humour. In Canada not only is this not the case but, I would argue, the impulse to create this type of humour—because remember a lot of people who have always made American TV comedy have been Canadians—is continually refused in Canada because it is read as being "too American." So we get a show like LM where the multinational and cultural Muslim characters all sound surprisingly like the characters from Corner Gas.
I also think it's worth mentioning that some shows have, recently, tried to draw on these "US" comedic traditions and have been pretty unsuccessful and/or have been relegated to relatively out of the way TV corners. For example, Billable Hours, a Showcase series in its 3rd season, is probably the closest thing we have in Canada to a Seinfeld or Curb Your Enthusiasm. It follows a group of junior associates at a law firm: a short guy with a Jewish mom and an Italian dad, a rich white Anglo, and a sexy blonde from a "trailer park." Another example is the short-lived CityTV/TVO series Less Than Kind, about a highly dysfunctional Jewish Family in Winnipeg. It bombed. The Maclean's review went on and on about Jewish stereotypes, but they missed the point. The show wasn't perfect, and some moments were painful to watch, but it was, for me, immediately recognizable. They weren't just making a show with a bunch of diverse characters (cast: Julie—Ukrainian, Sam—Russian...) who are exactly the same, but drawing on—certainly at times essentialist and stereotypical—ethnic ways of seeing, relating, speaking, and negotiating life in Canada. LTK and BH tried to do something new, which is drawing the tradition of ethnic humour into the Canadian TV landscape.
LM, which has a lot more at stake for itself and for the CBC, hasn't quite been able to do something like this... at least not yet.
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