Of Mounties and Gay Marriage: Canadian Television, American Fans, and the Virtual Heterotopia

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Academic Commentary
Title: Of Mounties and Gay Marriage: Canadian Television, American Fans, and the Virtual Heterotopia
Commentator: Rhiannon Bury
Date(s): June 17, 2004
Medium:
Fandom: due South
External Links: Of Mounties and Gay Marriage: Canadian Television, American Fans, and the Virtual Heterotopia
Of Mounties and Gay Marriage: Canadian Television, American Fans, and the Virtual Heterotopia
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Of Mounties and Gay Marriage: Canadian Television, American Fans, and the Virtual Heterotopia is a 2004 academic article by Rhiannon Bury.

It was published in "Refractory: a Journal of Entertainment Media."

Introduction: "Rhiannon Bury argues examines the American fans of the Canadian television series, Due South (Paul Haggis, 1994-1998), via Militant RayK Separatists (MRKS), an electronic mailing list. Bury suggests that the MRKS is a heterotopic space, based on idealised notions of nationality."

NOTE: despite the test group being due South RayK fans, this paper is not really about the show or fannish dynamics about the show itself, but instead, about people being "fans of Canada." The mailing list, MRKS, is merely a delivery system.

Some Topics Discussed

  • MUD
  • not that much about the actual show due South
  • Militant RayK Separatists
  • "reverse media flow" (a Canadian show becoming popular in the United States)
  • the white, middle-class, Americanism of Usenet
  • MRKS members could take a "Canadian-ness Test"
  • understanding and misunderstanding Canadian identity and customs
  • discussion of some Canadian films and actors
  • mailing list members using due South to illustrate a "quaint, white but gay-positive Canada"

Excerpts

In the last few years, the term cyberspace, coined by cyberpunk author William Gibson (1984), has become part of our cultural lexicon. Whether synchronous or asynchonous, computer-mediated communication is frequently imagined as taking place in a particular location. In logging into the popular role-playing MUD (Multi-User Domain) LambdaMOO, for example, one “arrives” in “the living room” via a screen with a paragraph describing this room. The Palace, a graphical Internet chat, displays a variety of rooms that one enters for the purpose of interaction with others. While newsgroups and mailing lists do not come with “prefabricated” locations, they are nonetheless imagined in spatial terms. Howard Rheingold (1993), for example, talks about the neighbourhood pubs, coffee shops and salons he “frequents” in reference to his experiences as a participant of the WELL (Whole Earth ‘Lectronic Link), a San Francisco-based bulletin board service (BBS) in its pre-Internet days.
At its broadest, this paper is an exploration of the space produced through online interaction by media fans. In 2002, I spent four months conducting an ethnographic study online with the Militant RayK Separatists (MRKS), an electronic mailing list made up primarily of female fans of the Canadian television series, Due South (Paul Haggis, 1994-1998). It starred Paul Gross in the role of Royal Canadian Mounted Police (RCMP) Constable Benton Fraser on assignment in Chicago. In the first two seasons, his partner was Chicago PD Detective Ray Vecchio (David Marciano). In the final season (shown as two seasons in Canada), it was Detective Stanley Ray Kowalski (Callum Keith Rennie). Not only are the MRKS members fans of the “second Ray” (RayK) but they are American fans whose fondness of the show and its actors extended to the nation which produced it. I will present data samples from MRKS discussions on Canadian identity and culture to demonstrate the production of a quaint, white but gay-positive Canada. MRKS, following Foucault, can be considered a virtual heterotopia.
MRKS needs to be understood as heterotopic because it is produced from within the American offices and homes of its members and within the vast terrain of cyberspace organized around American media culture. The alt.tv section of the Usenet, for example, contains 333 newsgroups.[2] Of those, only a few are based on non-American series, e.g. alt.tv.due-south and alt.tv.absolutely-fabulous. Moreover, most of the participants are likely to be American if the membership of MRKS is any indication—only two out of 35 were Canadian and one was British. As with whiteness and middle class-ness in cyberspace, an American nationality is the unmarked norm. In this sense, MRKS could be understood as reinforcing the colonization by cyberspace by American nationals. Yet, through discussion of Canadian symbols, current events, and culture (books, television, film and music), the participants effectively produced a heterotopic Canadian space.
...the MRKS members are readers and writers of slash fiction which pairs Benton Fraser with RayK romantically and sexually. Moreover, about half the respondents identified as bisexual or queer women. As such, it should come as little surprise that they wanted and indeed expected their Canada to be tolerant of and inclusive to gays, lesbians, bi’s and queers.

Based on the discussion of the data samples above, I argue that the space produced by the Militant RayK Separatists is heterotopic because rather than expand the American frontier, it produced a virtual Canada, based on a desire for a nation that is distinct from and indeed superior to their homeland. Their Canada, drawing on the tropes of Canadian identity on offer in Due South, is thus imagined as a land of beer, hockey and toques where the good folks pronounce some words oddly and care about the land and nature. It is safe space, patrolled by unarmed Mounties in red serge. Violence is rare and that which does occur involves assault with a croquet mallet. It is also a space that values and includes Native people, unlike the US where policies of extermination prevailed through to the 19th century. Only the homophobic attitudes expressed by a few Territorial politicians were met with resistance and disapproval. Yet it is also important to keep in mind that this queer, quaint Canada is also white rather than multicultural, the “national” costume worn by the beauty pageant contestant misread as “exotic other.”

In light of the above, it is important not to confuse the heterotopia with utopia. Indeed Foucault (1986) warns us that “utopias are sites that have a general relation of direct or inverted analogy with the real space of society. They present society in a perfected form, or else society turned upside down, but in any case these utopias are fundamentally unreal spaces” (p. 24). Whether physical or virtual, heterotopic sites cannot be expected to be idealized, alternative spaces. In the case of MRKS, the normative national identity of online media fandom, and indeed, cyberspace as a whole, is refused while the normative racial identity—whiteness—is retained. Ten years ago, when Information and Communications Technologies were beginning to permeate the public consciousness, it was assumed that all virtual spaces were the brave new alternatives. Things did not turn out that way. Dominant patterns of media flow and American cultural imperialism replicated themselves in the realm of the virtual through the predominance of cyberspaces dedicated to American media culture. Yet given the uncertainty and instability of text interpretation, and the hybridity and fragmentation of culture in the age of global media, the formation of fan-produced heterotopia like MRKS, which disrupt normative social and spatial relations to some degree, are still key sites of resistance.