Transnationalism, Canadian Identity, and the Performance of Femininity in Elite Canadian Figure Skating

By McGarry, Karen | Women & Environments International Magazine, Fall 2005 | Go to article overview

Transnationalism, Canadian Identity, and the Performance of Femininity in Elite Canadian Figure Skating

McGarry, Karen, Women & Environments International Magazine

The Case of Joseé Chouinard

In 2002, a coach I interviewed proudly remarked that Joseé Chouinard, a popular Canadian figure skating champion and Olympian in the 1990s, embodied "the essence of a respectable Canadian girl." As Canada's second-ranked sport in terms of television spectatorship and advertising revenue, figure skating has always been imagined as an important part of Canadian pop culture and identity. This is especially true for the many Canadian women who comprise the majority of skating's spectator demographic. Drawing upon anthropological fieldwork among national and Olympic-level Canadian figure skaters, coaches, sponsors, and journalists conducted between 2000 and 2002, this article focuses on women's figure skating, with special emphasis on my informants' comments about Quebecoise skater, Joseé Chouinard.

Widely hailed as the 'epitome of femininity' and a proud Canadian, popular perceptions of Chouinard's Canadianness were contingent upon her adoption of white, upper-class Anglophone aesthetics, as well as the nostalgic imagery of former female Hollywood icons. Chouinard's image was often likened to that of Grace Kelly and Audrey Hepburn, and Canadians frequently regarded the consumption of Chouinard's image by American spectators as tangible proof of Canadian success. Ultimately, and ironically, the circulation and positive international reception of her image in international magazines, ice shows, and other transnational contexts (and especially American contexts) solidified her status as a valued Canadian 'at home.' In many ways, my informants' narratives provide an opportunity for an exploration of the ways in which Canadian identity discourses are dependent upon transnational flows and consumption, and the ways in which the cornmodification of particular images of both 'Canadianness' and 'femininity' converge.

Figure skating, much like other nationalist spectacles, represents an important arena for the construction of a sense of 'Canadian identity' that is partly dependent upon socially conservative, mainstream, and idealized images of skaters for public consumption. Within women's figure skating, skaters are expected to embody a socially appropriate, hegemonic form of femininity, manifested in such things as hairstyles, costumes, and overall demeanour and comportment. Interestingly, the production of a 'respectable' femininity is increasingly predicated upon the appropriation of particular images of race and class as well as the transnational, glamorized aesthetics of Hollywood.

In Canada, women's figure skating has not acquired the same level of status or recognition as men's skating. This is partly because male skating champions such as Toller Cranston, Brian Orser, Kurt Browning, and Elvis Stojko have won a plethora of international medals, World championships, and Olympic medals in recent years, making them household names throughout Canada. In contrast, few Canadian women have achieved the same level of international celebrity and achievement. Elizabeth Manley's 1988 Olympic and World silver medal wins were Canada's last medal victories for women at World Championship or Olympic games. As such, most Canadian female skaters do not acquire the same levels of international recognition or sponsorship opportunities as do their male counterparts. Nevertheless, there were a couple of Canadian female skaters who were nostalgically remembered by my informants and hailed as examples of 'Canadian' female champions. They served as role models for young skaters and were frequently commented upon by coaches and choreographers, who remembered them for their "beauty and femininity," as one coach described them.

Despite the cultural emphasis currently placed on men's singles skaters, however, female skaters are expected to embody a mainstream form of femininity as an index of a national icon. Barbara Ann Scott, the 1947-1948 World Champion and Olympic gold medallist, was often positioned as the supreme role model of both a sense of 'femininity' and "Canadianness.' Even though Scott's Olympic victory occurred over fifty years ago. skaters, coaches, and fans fondly and nostalgically remembered her. At one training centre, a male coach spent a couple of hours indoctrinating his young female students about Canadian skating history. After showing some film clips of Scott's programs, he declared that Scott was noteworthy for her "Hollywood star looks." He discussed how she serves as a model for young skaters. Rather than highlighting Scott's significant athletic achievements, he stressed Scott's physical appearance and success in the United States as proof of her national celebrity status. Indeed, Scott was often likened to a Hollywood princess. Her blonde hair, blue eyes, and ultra-feminine demeanour garnered her lucrative sponsorships and commercial success in North American ice shows and carnivals. She even had a popular children's doll made in her image. Young skaters were also informed that Scott had a very "polite and ladylike" demeanour and that she never acted "better than anyone else." In essence, then, Scott was positioned as a quintessentially 'feminine' skater based upon her appearance and demeanour, which, in turn, was viewed as ladylike and worthy of emulation.

In contrast to Scott, Elizabeth Manley's achievements were rarely remarked upon, and I was often surprised to find that Manley was discursively positioned as a lesser champion in the eyes of many skaters and coaches. Manley may have been bolstered in the media as "Canada's sweetheart' in the days and months following her surprise medal at the Calgary Olympics. Yet she was also de-feminized by the above coach, as well as in the stories of some fans and other skaters. One coach, for instance, claimed that her body was "not ideal." Manley's shorter leg length, according to one choreographer, gave her a "stocky appearance" that was decidedly unfeminine. Other coaches and skaters engaged in gossip surrounding Manley's broken family background, her long string of serious relationships, and her alleged 'party girl' persona, which stood in stark contrast to Barbara Scott's cool, refined elegance. Scott's "glamorous personality" was declared to make her a "notable Canadian champion." The label of 'femininity,' then, was reserved for those skaters who best emulated the stereotype of the demure, chaste ice princess that became associated with Scott and, more interestingly, with a long list of American skating champions like Peggy Fleming. Dorothy Hamill. Kristi Yamaguchi, Nancy Kerrigan, Tara Lipinski, and Michelle Kwan. Ironically, many of my informants equated notions of 'Canadianness' with societally dominant and, particularly, American attitudes and aesthetics of femininity.

Why, then, is a mainstream femininity, predicated upon visual aesthetics as well as conformity to, and emulation of, Hollywood icons, so important within Canadian figure skating? To answer this question, 1 turn your attention to an analysis of my informants' narratives about Joseé Chouinard. Chouinard was born in Rosemont, Quebec, in 1969. In addition to being a two-time Olympian, Chouinard was a three-time Canadian Champion in the early 1990s. Despite the fact that she had long-since retired from amateur competitive skating by 2000. she was fondly remembered and talked about by the skaters, coaches, and media representatives. In many ways, her personality, demeanour, and appearance signified her 'femininity' and her status as a 'Canadian.' Chouinard trained in Quebec for the majority of her amateur career, but in preparation for the 1994 Lillehammer Olympics, and in an effort to improve her technical and artistic abilities, she moved to Toronto to train at the exclusive Granite Club, alongside other prominent skaters including World Champion Kurt Browning. Interestingly, it was only after Chouinard's move to Toronto that she achieved a greater level of recognition from the mass media and corporate sponsors, and, according to one coach, she transformed herself into a "true, feminine lady, like from a Hollywood film." Another coach pronounced that, "we really cleaned her up." There was a general perception that as Chouinard's competitive career progressed, she sought (probably unconsciously) to reinvent herself in terms of her costumes, skating style, and demeanour to conform to an acceptable and desirable upper-class, English-Canadian aesthetic, predicated partly upon nostalgic reinterpretations of and homages to past Canadian champions, such as Scott and other Hollywood-inspired idols. Many coaches cited her move to Toronto as a key aspect of this transformation. To be a 'feminine' Canadian woman, within the context of figure skating, increasingly means defining oneself as white. Anglophone, and in line with the perceived glamour and minimalist aesthetics of the Hollywoodized imagery mimicked by many other top women skaters. As one (Anglophone) informant told me:

She always had such great potential, but she wasn't really realising it where she was. you know. She was just excessive, unfeminine almost, in terms of music, and costumes, so... Quebecois.

Despite the fact that the province of Quebec has produced a large number of top Canadian figure skaters, many Englishspeaking coaches deemed Quebecois skaters to be. in the words of one informant, "unrefined, like diamonds-in-the-rough." Quebec was considered to be a good starting point for skaters, but once they reached a certain age or ability, it was thought best that they receive finishing at other Canadian or international institutions. Prior to her move to Toronto, Chouinard was labelled as having "big hair, glitzy, ugly costumes, and just an unrefined aura" about her. One coach claimed that, "we don't want that here [at our club]." He then went on to describe the skaters at his training centre suggesting that, "our skaters are really packaged well. I think our skaters have amazing finish. That's kind of our trademark."

These comments clearly illustrate the intense, discriminatory regionalisms that exist within discourses of Canadian figure skating, and the ways in which the bodies of Anglophone's are perceived as being the official bodies of Canadian skating as well as more refined than those of Quebecois skaters. The bodies of female Quebecois skaters were often characterized by official (and predominantly Anglophone) skating discourses as 'excessive.' Bodily excess, in the form of the heavy make-up and ornate costumes, as described by one coach, is associated with a variety of identities, including that of a lower-class status. The construction of Quebecois skaters' bodies as aggressive and made-up positions them unfavourably for involvement in the production of a national identity. Nevertheless, discussions of Chouinard's femininity frequently emphasize the perceived hard work and bodily discipline that she possessed, qualities which are metaphorically linked with the success of past Canadian female skating sensations and, ultimately, with that of the nation. Skating to the music from La Fille Mal Gardrée and An American in Paris during the 1994 competitive season, Chouinard was transformed into, in the words of one coach, "a subtle, sophisticated, understated lady." Some people likened her to Audrey Hepburn. At one point in her career, Chouinard even mimicked Hepburn's clothing and hairstyle and skated to the song Moon River from the film, Breakfast at Tiffany's. Chouinard's transformation into a 'lady' of high social class and, by extension, of national worth, occurred through a refinement of her on-ice appearance and technique in well-established, urban skating clubs, as well as her high marketability in international circles.

Ultimately, my informants' nostalgic discussions about Chouinard reveal some interesting things regarding the ways in which discourses of Canadian nationalism and identity are predicated upon the transnational flow of images of 'Canadianness.' While many claim that Canada has a peculiar 'identity crisis,' or a lack of identity, many conversations are predicated upon the need to identify the nation in terms of notions of difference, in terms of what it is not. Most Canadian nationalist discourses, as authors like Margaret Atwood and Eva Mackey have suggested, are narratives of victimization, of the struggle to survive the increasing cultural and economic hegemony of America, and to make a name for itself within such contexts. As such, many Canadian identity discussions are about defining a sense of nationhood that stands in juxtaposition to this increasing hegemony. A favourite Canadian pastime, it seems, is bashing our American neighbour. The popular CBC documentary "Talking to Americans," for example, drew television ratings that rivalled NHL hockey when it first aired in 2001. It featured Canadian actor/comedian Rick Mercer, who travelled throughout the United States with the goal of asking ordinary Americans ridiculous questions about Canada in an effort to reveal American ignorance of its neighbour. The seriousness of many Americans' responses to such seemingly humourous questions as: "Should the mayor of Toronto reinstate the Toronto polar bear hunt?" drew widespread laughter and helped fuel a sense of Canadian nationalism within the domain of Canadian pop culture. Canadians, or so they told themselves, were more enlightened, worldly, and smarter than Americans.

At other times, however, Canadian identity discourses are highly dependent upon the appropriation of societally dominant (and increasingly) American imagery. For example, at the 1994 Olympic games, Chouinard was scheduled to skate her long program immediately following American Tonya Harding. Harding broke a skate lace during her warm-up and had to be shuffled to the back of the skating group. This forced Chouinard onto the ice early, before she was ready. While Chouinard did not have a stellar performance that evening, I spoke with many skaters and coaches who praised Chouinard and her efforts. One coach had this to say about her:

She was stunning. She showed Americans what it really meant to be a lady champion. And the reporters were all over her afterward. I had several American reporters requesting interviews with her, endorsements were coming in... it was just the contrast she provided to Tonya. She was everything Tonya wasn't. And she was Canadian. It made us all feel so good. Here was a Canadian beating them [the Americans] at their own ice princess game! And the attention she got, I tell you...

In this instance, Chouinard's appropriation of Hollywood imagery, and the level of interest that she generated among American reporters and spectators, was cited as a marker of Chouinard's femininity and Canadianness - evidence that she had "beat them at their own game." Chouinard, if only briefly, served as a symbol, demonstrating that Canadians could compete in the global marketplace. Similarly, the discursive parallels my informants made between Chouinard and American screen idols such as Kelly and Hepburn shows she "made it big." It is through this process of juxtaposition that Canadians derive a sense of selfworth and, in many ways, assuage Canadian fears of American economic and cultural imperialism. Chouinard provided a tangible example of Canada's ability to compete in the global marketplace. In this case, her successful appropriation (and consumption by American audiences) of a hegemonic form of femininity fuelled a sense of Canadian national pride. Chouinard illustrates the ways in which Canadians depend upon America to construct a sense of national self-worth. Even though it could be argued that there was nothing uniquely 'Canadian' about Chouinard, in terms of her appearance, musical selection, or demeanour, the fact that she was so sought-after among American journalists following the 1994 Olympics was cited as a source of pride. One skater told me that many Canadian reporters, instead of covering the event, were covering American reporters' reactions to Chouinard - another example of the ironies and transnational influence on the production of Canadian identity discourses. The Chouinard example, then, is a clear illustration of the tension between the homogenizing and hybridizing influences of globalization. In this case, Chouinard's status as a national symbol was ironically dependent upon her successful appropriation and internalisation of global, societally dominant female imagery, and the circulation of her image within transnational (and particularly American) environments.


Further Reading:

Atwood, Margaret. Survival: A Thematic Guide to Canadian Literature. Toronto: House of Anansi Press, 1972.

Keohane, Kieran. Symptoms of Canada: An Essay on the Canadian Identity. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1997.

Mackey, Eva. The House of Difference: Cultural Politics and National Identity in Canada. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2002.

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Transnationalism, Canadian Identity, and the Performance of Femininity in Elite Canadian Figure Skating


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