A Canuck in an American Sitcom: The Spatial Construction of Canadian Identity in How I Met Your Mother

A Canuck in an American Sitcom: A Paper

February 8th, 2010

Over the weekend, I had the pleasure of presenting at the 16th Annual McGill English Grad Students’ Conference in Montreal, where I gave a presentation on the subject of Canadian space in How I Met Your Mother. I had a fun experience at the conference, but I was never entirely satisfied with my paper: I thought it was a decent representation of the basic argument I wanted to make, and people responded to the clips and were able to “see” what I was talking about, but the paper didn’t represent the depth of the show’s depiction of Canada. I only had 20 minutes, so my time was limited, but it felt like those limitations were keeping the paper from reaching its full potential.

So, rather than posting the truncated version of the paper, I spent part of my 21-hour train ride home from Montreal adding some additional material, expanding on ideas that were only hinted on before. As a result, the paper has been transformed into something far longer than I had intended it to be, a lengthy treatise written in the form of a journal article but with the focus of a blog post (in that I don’t spend a great deal of time with sources and the like, focusing primarily on the show itself). It’s a bit of a bastardization of both forms, too informal for one and too long for the other, but I think it’s the closest I’ve come to feeling as if I’ve done the subject justice, and as a result I’m posting it here for you to peruse at your leisure – enjoy!

A Canuck in an American Sitcom:

The Spatial Construction of Canadian Identity in How I Met Your Mother

The greatest challenge facing a multi-camera sitcom is creating a world that feels real even when it is unquestionably fake. Although we are almost always aware that the locations in such shows are only sets, that they have been meticulously crafted and designed by a series of people behind the scenes, the sitcom depends on building a relationship between the audience and its characters, and their homes (like Jerry’s apartment on Seinfeld) or favourite drinking establishments (Cheers on Cheers) are important reflections of who they are and how we relate with them. Setting is, to adopt John Fiske’s use of Roland Barthes’ term, an important ‘informant’ that identifies or locates in time and space, but the falsehood apparent in a multi-camera sitcom can potentially complicate this process. However, over time, the fact that these are only sets becomes irrelevant, as the sets become synonymous with the characters who habitate them: Central Perk goes from a strangely well-lit coffee shop to “the place where Rachel, Joey, etc. hang out,” and the locations become synonymous with the show’s reality through their continued presence in the characters’ lives.

However, while this explains how regular sets in which a sitcom’s characters consistently interact gain meaning beyond their initial construction, it has only limited effects on additional spaces the show may introduce. What I want to address is how CBS’ How I Met Your Mother manages to create distinctly Canadian spaces within a series set and filmed in the United States in order to develop the show’s Canadian character, Robin Scherbatsky. Although the audience is aware that these spaces are ‘fake,’ the show’s writers establish a real connection between the spaces and Robin – a journalist who moves to New York to make it big – that establishes her Canadian identity as a facet of her character which can be played for humour rather than as a joke which defines her character. Robin’s actions and mannerisms place her comfortably within an external conception of how Canadians act or speak, but through the depiction of cultural, expatriate and significant commercial spaces, the series develops its own complex image of Canada’s national identity that fuels both comedy and character within its universe, all within the spatial limitations present in the multi-camera sitcom.

The work of Henri Lefebvre on the production of space has been well documented, and for the sake of brevity [Ed. – I should remove this comment, since the paper is now the antithesis of brevity, but the irony delights me] I have no intention of delving too far into it here. However, his work in The Production of Space offers a useful architecture for considering how we respond to space presented in the form of a sitcom: “if space is a product, “ he writes, “our knowledge of it must be expected to reproduce or expound the process of production. The ‘object’ of interest must be expected to shift from things in space to the actual production of space.” In other words, if we accept that space is a product (rather than something which just exists) then we are expected to investigate that production further, rather than simply accepting it as factual. And if we consider the multi-camera sitcom in this light, our knowledge that its space has been produced, that the street the show claims is in New York is actually on a Los Angeles backlot, leads us (and should lead us) to consider the nature in which it was produced.

Lefebvre believes “production process and product present themselves as two inseparable aspects, not as two separate ideas,” and I would argue this is especially true in the world of television production. While Lefebvre was particularly interested in the production of space in abstract social terms, viewers are more aware than ever of the practical role of writers and producers in crafting their favourite television series. We live in an age where writer-creators like Kirk Sutter (Sons of Anarchy) are using the internet (through his personal blog and through his Twitter account) to interact with fans, and where writers, directors and actors give detailed interviews or record audio commentaries that shed light on the process of production in a way which is readily accessible through online media or through DVDs. Plus, the 2007 WGA strike made the writers of various shows much more visible, creating an era where the people who put the words in characters’ mouths are in some instances just as popular as their ‘stars.’ This paper is not just the study of how Canada is depicted in How I Met Your Mother, but rather the study of how co-creators Carter Bays and Craig Thomas, in coordination with director Pamela Fryman and their writing and production teams, have created a sense of Canadian space which serves their narrative and comic purposes. Production of space, at least in a television context, is not an abstract concept, but rather an important tool at the disposal of the people involved, and one that viewers are inherently aware of.

However, while this awareness could lead some to disbelieve in the world the show depicts, it eventually serves to reconcile the production of space with the series in question. As the spaces become defined less by their appearance and more by how characters interact within them, we start to forget that Ted’s apartment isn’t actually in New York, or that MacLaren’s doesn’t have a fourth wall.  What I would argue, however, is that this awareness becomes a problem again when the show introduces new spaces, as they are in some ways starting over from scratch: while the acceptance of the show’s primary spaces gives them some leeway in terms of creating new spaces, there is still that reminder that the show did not actually travel to Chicago, San Francisco, or Minnesota (to name a few of HIMYM’s examples) to film scenes set in those locations. Now, in the end, this awareness is fairly innocuous, since all sitcoms face the same issue and usually lean on cheap signifiers (climate-appropriate clothing, local memorabilia on the wall, etc.) to make a space distinctive of a location separate from the show’s primary location. We have no definitive expectations of realism in shows that are clearly show on a soundstage, so these shortcuts are enough to get the point across and allow the show to tell the stories it wants to tell – so long as those stories are funny, most do not likely think twice about it.

I would argue, however, that this becomes more complicated when a series is creating spaces that are meant to represent an entirely different nation from the one in which the show is set (and which forms its primary audience). While depictions of different cities can raise questions of cultural sensitivity, national identity is an entirely different beast. Cheap signifiers can risk essentializing the nation for the sake of comedy, which may be effective for its primary audience (in the case of HIMYM, Americans) but which may offend (or, at the very least, annoy) citizens of that country or those who have a more comprehensive understanding of, or affinity for, its people. While we like to believe that people can take a joke, and that a sitcom should have the freedom to deviate from ‘truth’ in order to tell such jokes, the nation as a spatial entity is held to higher scrutiny than other types of spaces. While it may not be entirely fair, the choices writers/directors/producers make in representing that nation become reflective of their own points of view, which is irrational but understandable considering the complex politics inherent to America’s relationship with the rest of the world.

This is especially true when it comes to the depiction of Canada as a nation within American popular culture. The politics of Canadian identity are vast and complex in their own right, but part of how we identify as Canadians is as “not American,” a drive created by the proliferation of American media north of the border. Canadian content regulations are driven by a desire to protect our airwaves (radio and television, primarily) from American takeover as much as they are intended to celebrate/support Canadian culture, and when you add in political concerns you have a situation where Canada enjoys (perhaps too much) the differences between the two countries. Capturing Canada raises particularly problematic issues of national identity, even if the cultural similarities (which are more plentiful but less meaningful) between the two countries make it a particular easy task to duplicate the country on a soundstage in Los Angeles – How I Met Your Mother can create Canadian spaces, but the question is whether they are able to create Canadian spaces which reflect more than a surface (and thus potentially volatile) reading of the nation in the process.

The fact that one of the regular characters on the show is a Canadian makes this a particularly interesting task for HIMYM, and these spaces become both more challenging and more accessible. While Robin is first introduced into the group of friends as a love interest for Ted, once she integrates into the group her national identity is used as her primary point of comic difference. While co-creator Craig Thomas, in an audio commentary for “Slap Bet,” recalls that he told Cobie Smulders (the Canadian actress who plays Robin) they would make her character Canadian in order to break down pervasive stereotypes about the country, he acknowledges that in fact they used it to “tell the cheapest jokes imaginable.” In “Slap Bet,” Robin’s past becomes a topic of discussion for the first time, and the rest of the characters voice those stereotypes, such as our bilingualism (“They speak French there too? God, that place is a mess!”) and our international reputation (“It’s Canadian marriage! It’s like their money, or their army: nobody takes it seriously!”). As a result, the show has a pre-existing perspective on Canada, voiced by the characters other than Robin (and, in the eyes of some viewers, the show’s writers), which could potentially corrupt any Canadian spaces the show depicts.

However, what’s important about “Slap Bet” is that it is, according to Thomas, a “small, real story.” While the characters may make jokes about Canada, the episode clearly (if humorously) places Canada as a space with great meaning to Robin as a character. After Robin reveals an odd aversion to shopping malls, the show’s characters realize they have no knowledge of Robin’s past, and we as the audience are similarly in the dark beyond traces of an accent and an occasional Canada-specific reference. After a comic plot where Robin lies about having been married in a mall in Canada, and where Barney learns of that lie and believes she did pornography instead, the episode finally gets to the point where it reveals Robin’s shameful secret: she was a teenage pop star in Canada.    .

What follows that revelation is “Let’s Go to The Mall,” a music video from the early 1990s starring Robin’s teenage alter-ego “Robin Sparkles,” which represents an ingenious depiction of Robin’s Canadian past. At first glance, the video reflects American popular culture more than Canadian: the story of a mall tour, and the bedazzled jackets and new-age haircuts, are inspired by artists like Tiffany and Debbie Gibson who grew to prominence in America during the 1980s. However, the show very clearly identifies the video as an artifact of Canadian popular culture, and manages to evade many of the problems listed above by being both extremely clever and extremely thorough in how the video was both created and distributed.

On the one hand, the video features many of the cheap signifiers that we mention above: the mention of Wayne Gretzky’s hair, the presence of the Canadian flag, and the cheesy line about Canada Day are the types of images of Canadian identity that we’ve come to expect from external, rather than internal, observers. However, the video (although in a part which never aired during the episode itself) also features a reference to, and appearance by a false version of, Prime Minister Brian Mulroney, which places the video as an artifact of an actual period in Canada’s history rather than of an essentialized Canada without such context.

The show also justifies these cheap signifiers further by placing them within the context of cheesy 80s music videos. “Let’s Go the Mall” is a Canadian parody of 80s music videos rather than a parody of Canadian music videos, which actually offers a fairly convincing explanation for why the lyrics and images lean on such simple depictions of national identity. If the audience understands the type of song/music video being parodied (which, considering that the show has a fairly young audience, is not something we should take for granted), then they understand that this is not an accurate depiction of Canada’s national identity, just as the video is obviously not a reflection of Robin’s actual teenage experience (in that she hated her life as Robin Sparkles, what with the diet of Orange Julius and Wetzel’s Pretzels).

This is not to say that the video is entirely friendly to Canada. The show gets in a dig about the speed of Canada’s cultural progress, as the incongruity between the time period being mocked and the period in which the video is set (the early 90s) is justified by Robin’s explanation that the 80s didn’t come to Canada until 1993, which is certainly a joke which suggests Canada is “behind the times” compared to America. However, the joke is as much about the video as it is about the country, and so the show has created its own image of Canada in the context of the series, one given life both through its position as an artifact the characters watch and as an artifact which was available to the audience online (on MySpace and YouTube) when the episode aired. It is clear that the video wasn’t filmed in Canada, and that it was produced for the purpose of this episode rather than “found” somewhere, but we accept the space because it is first and foremost positioned as an important glimpse into Robin’s past. The video itself is funny, but it is not a joke: rather, it is a way for the writers to show viewers, and the other characters, where Robin comes from. While she initially reluctant to have the video surface, she ends up believing it was for the best because “you know me better now.” The video creates a gap between the Canada the characters joke about, a simple and vague notion of a nation different from their own, and a Canada that has real, tangible space within the show’s narrative through its role in Robin’s past.

Benedict Anderson, in his theory of the nation as an imagined community, argues that “to understand [cultural artefacts of nationalism] properly we need to consider carefully how they came into historical being, in what ways their meanings have changed over time, and why, today, they command such profound emotional legitimacy.” And while it’s very funny, “Let’s Go to the Mall” also answers all of these questions by tying the video to both well-known trends during the 1980s and to Robin’s character, who provides the emotional legacy necessary to sell the video’s meaning in the series. It was a process so successful, not only in terms of humour but also in terms of informing her character, that the show made it into a recurring bit: another music video (“Sandcastles in the Sand,” featuring a cameo from prominent Canadian Alan Thicke) was integrated into the series, and a number of clips from her work as a journalist in Canada (including her coverage of an August 1st Ice Fishing competition) were integrated into the show as a reflection of Canada’s cultural space as it relates to Robin as a character.

“Let’s Go to the Mall” was an early sign that stories which deal with Robin’s Canadian heritage exist to investigate rather than lampoon her relationship with the country. The show can still joke about Canada in small doses, as the characters respond incredulously when Robin insists that Canadian Thanksgiving is the “real” one, but when Robin’s connection to that nation becomes a story point there is an intriguing reverence present. This is apparent in “Little Minnesota,” a fourth season episode where Robin gets nostalgic for her homeland close to the holidays. Marshall’s solution to this is to take her to a local bar, the Walleye Saloon, where he and his fellow Minnesotans gather. It is what I would consider a self-aware simulacrum of Minnesota, where everyone wears Vikings jerseys and where they engage with activities common in the state (like fishing) in ways which are more possible in an urban environment (in the form of a virtual fishing simulator). While it essentializes Minnesota, it does so as a reflection of its role in these people’s lives: while living in New York City may mean they don’t always get to embrace what they love about their home, this is a place where their points of difference in the rest of the city become points of belonging, and so the most basic are highlighted and encouraged to help satiate their desire to “be back home” for just a few hours.

Considering Minnesota and Canada share a similar climate and some cultural similarities (at least relative to life in New York City), Robin enjoys an environment closer to home, and even begins playing the role of a Minnesotan; she goes so far, in fact, that she joins in on their jokes at Canada’s expense, all of which are based on the ludicrous (but funny) assumption that Canadians are afraid of the dark. However, after Robin steals one of Marshall’s personal stories about the Vikings’ 1999 NFC Championship loss, Marshall begins to resent her presence. Robin’s ability to just slip on a Vikings jersey and present a shared anger over the tragedy of that championship game and be accepted by the fellow patrons makes the essentialized simulation too apparent for Marshall, reminding him that this is not, in fact, Minnesota, but rather a rather thinly drawn synecdoche. Once she beats his high score in the fishing game, Marshall can’t stand it any longer, so he asks her for a piece of trivia (the identity of the kicker whose failure led to the tragic loss) that he never told her, and that only a true fan of the Vikings would know. Her failure to answer leads to her being “outed,” prompting Robin to give an impassioned speech defending her homeland:

“You know what, I’m glad you found out, because I’m proud to be Canadian. We may not have a fancy NFL team, or Prince, but we invented Trivial Pursuit – you’re welcome, Earth! Plus, in Canada you can go to an all-nude strip club and order alcohol. That’s right – from Moose Jaw, to the Bay of Fundy, you can suck down a 20 oz. Pilsner while watching a Coal Miner’s Daughter strip down to her pelt: jealous?! In Canada, people don’t care where you’re from as long as you’re friendly, and maybe loan them a smoke or hand over a donut. I’m proud to be from the Great White North…and I wish I was there right now.”

The speech is unquestionably funny – perhaps the biggest laugh I got in the episode was Smulders’ delivery of “You’re welcome, Earth!” – but it also establishes that all fitting in at the Walleye Saloon did for Robin was make her want to be back in Canada that much more, the similarities giving way to the differences (albeit those relating to strip clubs and ingenious board games). Since this is a show about friends who stick together despite their differences (Marshall and Lily’s marriage, for example, served as only a temporary wrinkle in the group dynamic), Marshall apologizes to Robin, and has an idea of how to ‘solve’ Robin’s dilemma. The episode then takes us into The Hoser Hut, what I’m considering an expatriate simulacrum within New York City, a space where Canadians out of their own country can capture that feeling of being “back home.”

It is a space which works for Robin as the Walleye Saloon works for Marshall, offering her an environment where points of difference become points of shared knowledge. The space, like “Let’s Go to the Mall,” is not devoid of cheap signifiers: hockey is on the television and a picture of Paul Schaefer (a prominent Canadian New Yorker, due to his role as David Letterman’s band leader) hangs on the wall, while Robin confirms it “feels like home” by bumping into a patron to see if they take responsibility and offer her a donut on the house (they do). However, the effect on the audience’s understanding of Robin’s character and the role of Canadian space in her present (rather than her past, as with “Mall”) is not cheap in the slightest. For one, the space is (like “Mall”) meant to be essentialized space, offering a clear sense of being in Canada in order to appeal to its patrons. The point of the space is to provide an outlet for people to engage with part of their identity they sometimes feel pressure to hide in the rest of the city, and so it leans towards clear symbols of “home” to help patrons slip back into that rhythm – the real sense of belonging, after all, is feeling comfortable with the people around you, rather than the cheap images of Canada which line the walls. While the similarities between the Walleye Saloon and the Hoser Hut are complicated by the fact that one depicts a state while the other depicts an entire nation, both spaces are grounded by the positive effect they have on the characters, which justifies any shortcuts that might be taken.

The other element which helps give the Hoser Hut increased credibility is a clever bit of metatextual reinforcement. When Marshall and Robin get settled, Marshall enters the role of the interloper, masquearading as “Marshall from Ontario” in order to perform karaoke. And while Robin failed her test at the Walleye Saloon, Marshall passes the test at the Hoser Hut by performing “Let’s Go to the Mall,” something that (within the show’s universe) Marshall should have no knowledge of unless he was Canadian. It also reminds viewers in countries other than Canada that we have seen Canadian space before, and that the show is building on that image of Canada rather than creating a different Canada distinct to this space. While Canadian viewers may notice particular details the show never explicitly points out (like the Crash Test Dummies’ “Mmmm” being performed during Karaoke), the presence of “Let’s Go to the Mall” gives non-Canadian viewers context regardless of their awareness of Canadian culture/identity, and encourages the accumulation of knowledge that is inherent to the serialized elements of the show’s narrative and character development.

As a result, the Hoser Hut evolves from a simple set filled with cheap symbols of Canada to an expatriate simulacrum which helps Robin remain connected to her Canadian identity through a space that encourages and cultivates those parts of her heritage which she may not otherwise display in an American city. The space has a profound impact on Robin’s character in that particular episode, in that it solves her homesickness in the context of “Little Minnesota,” but the show extends its influence beyond that episode by bringing the space back into its narrative in the season five episode “Duel Citizenship,” in the process implying that Robin has been visiting the Hoser Hut on a regular basis in the interim period. In “Duel Citizenship,” however, the Hoser Hut’s sense of freedom to engage with her most-Canadian qualities comes into conflict with her reality: the simulation of the space is shattered when a fellow patron sues Robin over a hockey brawl incident, which her lawyer suggests would be most easily solved by becoming an American citizen (so as to avoid being deported back to Canada, which the show vilifies less due to a negative opinion of character and more due to the fact that Robin would be forced to leave the show’s narrative).

With the help of Barney, her boyfriend at the time, she begins to study for the citizenship test, although Barney’s lessons go beyond learning and engage with the act of unlearning: he not only wants Robin to learn the facts that are necessary in order to pass the citizenship test, but he also wants to use this as an opportunity to take the Canadian out of her, as he believes this is just as important to becoming American. This may seem like a contradiction of the above argument that the show shows a clear interest in celebrating Robin’s Canadian heritage and its importance to her life, but there are two factors which make this storyline viable and, eventually, highly effective.

The first is that Barney, as a character, is able to get away with this in a way that no other character on the show could. Barney is an extremely broad character, which does not necessarily mean his words have less meaning but does place his actions into a particular comic context for the viewer (who is used to seeing Barney as a character who makes jokes rather than someone who makes legitimate observations about anything but picking up women or the politics of Brodom). While the show has evolved beyond cheap jokes about Canada, Barney has not, which feels true to the character and his relative lack of evolution over time. While it may not be a particularly deep discourse, Neil Patrick Harris is a gifted comic actor, so he makes the most out of fairly shallow material in terms of selling Barney’s frustration with Canada (including, later in the episode, our colourful money).

The second factor is that there is value to testing the strength of Robin’s relationship with the nation, reinforcing (or potentially deconstructing) its role in her life. Similar to Robin’s attempts at becoming a Minnesotan, her efforts to become an American end up as a cheap simulation: in a scene following Barney’s lesson, we hear Robin’s inner monologue as she walks down the street littering, yelling at cab drivers, and pondering robbing liquor stories becomes “it’s a free country.” It’s an effective scene at pointing out the absurdity of an essentialized American culture, and the question becomes what will make Robin see that absurdity, which is readily apparent to the outside observers in the audience (even Americans, who are suddenly seeing the show’s investigation of national identity turned in their direction).

The answer to this question is The Hoser Hut, which the show positions as the ultimate test of Robin’s attempts to assimilate into stereotypes of American identity. After entering the Hoser Hut for just one beer, Robin ends up drunkenly singing along to “O Canada,” and any sense that she had forgotten her heritage went out the window. It’s another example of the distinctiveness of that space, in that Robin can be happily acting “American” outside its walls but immediately returns to her Canadian roots once she enters; the transformation is a bit over-stated by the editing, which cuts between the two moments as if they are only seconds apart, but even over a longer period of time it proves the value of the expatriate simulacrum in engaging with this part of Robin’s character.

However, while the Hoser Hut is an ideal space in which to test Robin’s ability to hide or overwrite her Canadianness, “Duel Citizenship” is particularly complex in that it turns the tables on Robin and tests how Canadian she really is. It achieves this by going to the source, taking Robin (and Barney) to Toronto, Ontario, where Robin ends up after her Hoser Hut sing-a-long turns into an all-night cross-border bender. This being the first time the show has actually ‘traveled’ to ‘Canada,’ there are now a whole new set of expectations: they no longer have any loopholes in which essentializing the nation into a single space is justified or necessary, which means that they need to find a different way of conceptualizing Canadian space through their productive capacities. The show even draws attention to this fact, as Barney (having arrived to rescue her) attempts to reveal their location by dramatically pulling back the curtains to reveal the Toronto skyline, only to find that the window faces only a brick wall – there are easy ways to ‘fake it,’ but the show is less interested in what Canadian space looks like and more what it represents.

As a result, it is both potentially problematic and quite clever that the show chooses Tim Hortons as its first depiction of actual Canadian space (beyond the hotel room, which it resists locating in any substantial fashion). On the one hand, the location is caught up in narratives of commercialism, both in terms of Tim Hortons’ position as a corporation and in terms of their presence in the episode being part of the ongoing trend of product placement. While I will argue that the writers clearly used Tim Hortons for more reasons than monetary compensation, it cannot be forgotten that Barney compliments the coffee a few too many times, just as we cannot ignore that Tim Hortons franchises were popping up in major American cities (including New York) at the time the episode aired. To suggest that Tim Hortons is an accurate reflection of Canadian space seems to “brand” Canada in a way that many would find offensive to the true spirit of the nation.

However, while HIMYM has to contend with that baggage that comes with Tim Hortons, it utilizes the space due to its position as an effortlessly Canadian environment. The show is not so much interested in Tim Hortons as cultural symbol – although that certainly offered a nice boost to the space’s authenticity – as it is interested in a space that could be located on any street corner (although Robin locates this one close to the Hockey Hall of Fame), and that is filled with people going about their daily lives. While The Hoser Hut encouraged Canadians to engage with what makes them Canadian, buying coffee or chatting with neighbours are such innocuous parts of our daily lives that we do not think about nationhood or identity in the process. It is a space which is clearly defined as Canadian, but which thanks to its familiarity to Canadians would not be self-aware of that representation, resulting in an environment where Robin’s base Canadian identity, without the stimulation from the expatriate simulacrum, is tested.

What Robin discovers, much to her dismay, is that she is mistaken for an American when she returns to Canada: she says neither please nor thank you to the cashier, pays with American money, and did not watch the Leafs game the night before. What follows is a really interesting depiction of the expatriate individual, in that national identity becomes relative: Robin is Canadian in America and American in Canada, and what results (at least in her mind) is a loss of any national identity at all. It takes Robin’s Canadian identity into the real world, moving beyond her group of friends and beyond the simulacrum; while Tim Hortons may be a commercial entity, and its presence may be the result of a behind-the-scenes deal made with producers, it is nonetheless the kind of space that exists in Canada, populated with the type of people who would be found in that environment., and thus an environment that Robin finds familiar but in which she stands out like a sore thumb.

The scenes in Tim Hortons are also particularly interesting in terms of how Barney responds to the new environment. True to the character, Barney insults Canadian currency (in particular its colour), and suggests that Canada is a country without a tailor (as he has suited up while everyone else has not). However, when Barney stands up to give a rant while at Tim Hortons, his purpose is not to mock Canada in general but rather to attack the country for “letting Robin Scherbatsky get away.” Barney is still being irrational in his perspective on various issues, but the idea that his vitrol is driven by empathy for his girlfriend’s condition is a nice twist on the character’s usual lack of emotional motivation, and it helps ground the Canada jokes in something beyond an abstract desire to insult the nation as a whole. Also, it’s helpful (and humorous) that the show has Barney’s soapbox rant end with a savage beating at the hands of the Canadians he insulted, which insinuates that the kind of Canadian bashing that Barney employs has no place within actual Canadian space. It demonstrates that the show is paying careful attention to the change in national environment, and is respecting the space and those who would inhabit it in terms of how the show’s sense of humour and its characters respond.

Eventually, upon returning to New York, Robin stumbles upon the conclusion that the episode’s title and logical thought lead one to: dual citizenship, clearly, offers both a neat legal loophole to solve her predicament and a fairly accurate depiction of how she self-identifies. However, if she had come to this conclusion without first investigating that identity further, it would seem as if she were taking away from her Canadian identity in order to become American. Instead, the episode reaffirms the strength of her Canadian identity while also acknowledging that it has limits, and that she is not less Canadian than she was before but rather a different person who views her Canadian heritage in a new (but not less important) light. The character does not fundamentally change in the span of the episode, but rather confronts her current identity in different spaces in order to locate the role of Canada in her past, present and future, reaffirming its role as an important part of the series’ development.

Robin Scherbatsky is not the first Canadian character on an American sitcom, but she is without question the first who has been provided a comprehensive sense of national identity within the framework of the series in question. While it still capable of operating as an extended joke (like the “Canadian Sex Acts” website in “Old King Clancy”) or as a brief throwaway (the characters switching a situation from baseball to hockey so Robin better understands), the show has taken the time and the energy to depict Canada as a powerful, if not necessarily “real,” space within its narrative. By grounding Robin’s character in the series’ depiction of Canadian space, the writers are able to overcome limitations of the multi-camera sitcom in order to take fabricated, often essentialized spaces and make them both extremely funny and, more importantly, extremely relevant to Robin’s place within the group dynamic.

In the world of How I Met Your Mother, the past plays an important role: the show often flashes back to earlier stages in the characters’ lives (like Ted, Marshall and Lily’s college days) and the show’s narrative structure is built around Future Ted telling his children stories about his life before meeting their mother. And while many of these pasts are fairly general, not deviating very far from normal character tropes (smoking marijuana in college, for example), Robin’s past is comparatively complex, representing a sense of national identity that could confound those who do not understand Canadian culture. What depictions of Canadian space, whether through artifacts like “Let’s Go to the Mall” or simulacrum like the Hoser Hut, accomplish is allowing Robin to participate in the show’s narrative interest in the past. While her Canadianness is a source of difference, these spaces ensure that from a production standpoint Robin is just as important as any other character, and the degree to which the show goes out of its way to construct these Canadian spaces for an audience with very little understanding of the nation demonstrates their awareness of the challenges and opportunities inherent in their choice to make the character Canadian in the first place.

In some ways, Canadians appreciate How I Met Your Mother for the small details, like Robin’s accurate recitations of playoff hockey games: they demonstrate that the writers have taken the time to research and implement real artifacts of Canadian history/culture to make Robin’s character more realistic. However, while we as Canadians notice the little things, many international viewers would have trouble conceptualizing Canada in general, entirely ignorant to the accuracy of minute details. While this presents a challenge, one made even more difficult by the spatial limitations of the multi-camera format, Bays and Thomas (and Fryman, and Kang, etc.) have proved they are up to the task: while it is occasionally a cheap representation of Canada in physical/symbolic terms, it is never cheap for Robin as a character, buying the spaces a legitimacy that transcends pre-existing knowledge to form an important element of her life for both Canadians and non-Canadians alike.  The show may not be filmed in Canada, or set in Canada, but Canadian space is a necessary part of the show’s development, and that Robin has remained distinctly Canadian for this long is entirely dependent on these spaces and their impact on her journey as a Canuck in an American sitcom.



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18 responses to “A Canuck in an American Sitcom: The Spatial Construction of Canadian Identity in How I Met Your Mother

  1. Ryan

    I’ve always thought that Robin’s teenage pop stardom was also a sly nod to Alanis Morrisette; another Canadian star who has a (weakly) hidden history as a pop teen idol. Likewise, Morisette barely acknowledges and seems regretful of her pop star, “Alanis” past since it contradicts her adult credibility as a serious artist.

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  4. I was wondering if you have the url to the source?

  5. Something to consider (for further thought, not for this) is the way in which Canada is dismantled for American television, in addition to the way it is constructed. So take shows that are filmed in Toronto or Vancouver but then de-Canadized, e.g., The X-Files and Psych in Vancouver.

    Psych is interesting because they talk about being in Santa Barbara in nearly every episode, but only use generic establishing shots fo SB. s4e1 includes a meta-wink by taking a vacation to … Vancouver, Canada! So they reconstruct Canada out of de-Canadized Vancouver.

  6. wow… dude… that was really long an in depth..but very enjoyable.

  7. Discovered this article during a quest to collect names of TV characters on US TV who are Canadian… so far I have Dave from NewsRadio, Robin from HIMYM, and Southpark’s Terence and Philip as having Canadian characters… Very interesting read and comments so far –

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  10. Kyle Quinton

    An interesting discussion. I am surprised you did not touch on how Robin’s enthusiasm for guns and handguns in particular informs her Canadian identity.

  11. Rob.

    Watching HIMYM lead me here. I found the attitude of the Americans towards Canada troubling. It reminds me a little of the relationship between Australia and our neighbour New Zealand. What makes the emotional space so interesting is not the Canada jokes, mostly they fall flat on this side of the Pacific, it is in the relationships between the Canadian and her adopted home. She teaches them much through being her Canadian self rather than accepting an American norm.


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