The Inescapable Canadianness of ‘Anne With An E’

Confession: I don’t particularly like Anne of Green Gables. When I was younger, I mostly found her kind of irritating.

And that’s still kind of true, what with the Netflix show and all. Anne With An E (or just Anne, in Canada) is something I can’t really define as good or bad – it’s like that’s almost an irrelevant question to what the show is. From the absolutely stunning visuals to the Anne’s obnoxious tendency to refer to things as “tragical” or “fantastical” rather than doing what any human would do and calling them tragic or fantastic to the subdue way in which it takes every possible opportunity for added melodrama to the wonderful soundtrack, it’s just A LotTM. But as a Canadian, I recognize that Anne of Green Gables is iconically Canadian. And I think the show is even more so. Because while it is ridiculously over the top, it’s also clearly screams Canada in a way that few things ever do.

There are a lot of things that get filmed in Toronto and Vancouver. And even when they’re Canadian productions, they usually shy away from being Canadian. And honestly, that’s not hard. Take something like Orphan Black. It’s one of my favourite shows, and I think that’s partially because it didn’t avoid being Canadian. You could see Canadian money and Canadian driver’s licenses. The skyline shots were very clearly of Toronto. There were frequent references to Alison living in Scarborough, which Felix refers to as “Scarberia”. So all Ontarians knew where it was set. But even so, I saw a lot of Americans thinking it was supposed to be American. I guess they’re just so used to Toronto doubling for New York, it was weird to just see it as a fictionalized version of itself. And when that happens to something that’s very clearly and explicitly set in Canada, it’s easy for shows that avoid associations with Canada to make viewers forget where they were made.

Unlike Orphan Black, Anne With An E is never subtle about where it’s from. It tells you directly. In an early episode, Gilbert came back to Avonlea talking about how he’d seen Western Canada. When Anne was avoiding going to school, she said that they were going to be learning about the district of Saskatchewan. There’s even a song dedicated to how fantastic Prince Edward Island is.

The added drama in the show does a lot of things, and one of those things is romanticizing Canada. While people do do that in reality, it’s never about how beautiful it is. American liberals look upon it as some magical place free of problems to which they can threaten to move in the event of a politician they don’t like being elected. And Canadians like to smugly say, “we’re much better than the US!” Neither of those things are true. What is is how stunning parts of the country are and how much they deserve to be remembered when we talk about gorgeous places to visit.

In the show, the death of Gilbert’s father compelled Gilbert to leave home and find work. During the first half of the second season, he was away and longing for home. And when he got back, he was genuinely delighted to be there. Sure, he didn’t want to be a farmer, but he still wanted to be back in Avonlea. That is almost absurdly relatable to me. In all the years I lived in Canada, when my family and I travelled, we’d usually fly out of Detroit. And when we got back, the sense of relief upon being home didn’t hit me upon landing or getting off the plane. No, the sense of relief came once we crossed back over the border into Canada. I’m sure everyone feels like when they come home, regardless of where their home is, but as a Canadian, even one from somewhere much less gorgeous than Prince Edward Island? I one hundred percent understand where Gilbert was coming from. It might not be for everyone, but Canada is an excellent place to grow up.

The Tragically Hip’s Ahead By A Century plays over the opening credits. There’s nothing a bout that song that’s exclusive to Canada, but the Hip is pretty much the most Canadian band out there, and the song was very much written with Canada in mind. That alone would be evidence of how utterly Canadian the show is, but it goes deeper than that. Upon Gord Downie’s death last year, this article, largely about the aforementioned song, was published in The Conversation. It explains the Canadian context of the Hip’s music and their vision of the country, and I think the explanation makes it clear how the song relates to the show.

Their vision of Canada is beset by tragedy and injustice, but also lifted by beauty, humour, and courage. Most of all, at their finest, they urge us to rethink the present, and to imagine a more generous and accepting future that should not be ahead of us by a century.

Anne With An E is a more cynical take on the traditional Anne of Green Gables than we usually see – or rather, a more honest one (yes, even with the show’s propensity for melodrama). It may romanticize the world, but it also doesn’t shy away from the idea that growing up with a series of guardians that didn’t care about her and neglected her would have left Anne with some traumas that can’t just be glossed over or fixed with a positive enough attitude. It adds LGBT characters, because while no one in the books was such, LGBT people did exist at the time, and while it recognizes that nineteenth century Canada wasn’t a good place to be gay, it also recognizes that that isn’t something that needs to be portrayed accurately. It portrays certain aspects of the past as closer to how it should have been than how it is, because that’s what we need, and in doing so, points out some of the areas in which we still have a ways to go.

These are universal themes, not exclusive to Canada. But all of it put together – the Canadian book that is the source material, the themes of home in a country where more than a fifth of the population is foreign born, the Canadian music, the Canadian showrunner – it combines to create a show that’s absolutely, inescapably Canadian. Many of the actors may not be, and the show may certainly have an appeal to people outside of Canada, but at its core, Anne With An E is a story that is, in large part, about Canada.

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