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Questions of ethnic identity persistence in mass-media dominated North America (Part Two)

By Mark Wegierski
web posted February 1, 2016

Thirdly, there is the fact of virtually no Polish-Canadian or Polish-American presence in the North American pop-culture.

Indeed, Polish-Canadians have faced the withering effects of North American pop-culture from the 1960s forward. The scintillating allure of pop-culture usually overwhelms young people of Polish descent, resulting in quick Polish language and identity loss. The younger generations have virtually disappeared into a conformist, mass-mediated North American identity. It may indeed be argued that the exciting pop-culture overwhelms everything that appears "stodgy," "old-fashioned" and "unprogressive."

The period when Polish-Canadian identity might finally have had some chance to attract substantial numbers of young people (in the 1960s and the 1970s) was also the time of the burgeoning of a new, dynamic, exciting counter-culture. It was also a period of wrenching cultural revolution, a "revolt against the elders" into which most young people were drawn. And a new, protean North American pop-culture emerged.

In the late 1940s and 1950s, Polish immigrants to Canada had faced the problems of establishing themselves in a climate that often required very hard work. It also often required of renunciation of ethnic affiliations for one's children, if one wanted to avoid their marginalization. When greater prosperity and the valorization of multiculturalism arrived in the 1960s, this was also a time of wrenching social transformation that tore away children from most of their parent's values.

The publication, Echo, edited by Les Wawrow, in which many articles appeared in English, was probably the only major attempt among young Polish-Canadians to try to "ride the wave" of Sixties' change, endeavoring to create a unique amalgam of Old Country rootedness and progressive idealism. However, the publication failed after a few years.

In the 1960s and 1970s, there flourished the music of the iconic figure, Bobby Vinton. Reflecting the very brief saliency of "white ethnics" in North America, there appeared in the 1970s, a major television network series with a suave Polish detective, Banacek (played by George Peppard). Unfortunately, the show was marred by little research into actual Polish background. For example, even the name Banacek is typically Czech, not Polish. Persons of Italian descent in the U.S. have certainly achieved a far greater presence and participation in North American pop-culture, thanks of course to such phenomena as The Godfather movies, and, to cite another example, the movie Moonstruck (with Cher and Nicholas Cage). Michael Cimino's Heaven's Gate, a commercial failure, is one of only a few major Hollywood movies where Poles are rather prominently and positively portrayed. More recently, there have been a number of biographical/historical television specials based on the life and times of Pope John Paul II.

About the only subgenre of popular music in America and Canada with a large Polish presence and influence is, of course, polka music. However, it is certainly one of the smaller subgenres of popular music, and has certainly faded even further in the last few decades. 

In Canada, persons of Ukrainian descent have some presence in the media, for example, the prominent 1980s rock-singer Luba, and hockey-star Wayne Gretzky (although he was somewhat ambiguous about identifying himself as a Ukrainian). There is, of course, a large negative Polish presence in North American pop-culture, in the form of those often nasty "Polish jokes." The Archie Bunker Show also did not do wonders for the status of Poles in North America. Although the show was obviously meant to send up bigotries of various sorts, the group that seemed to get the brunt of the put-downs were unfortunately Poles (in the person of Archie Bunker's son-in-law). One supposes that the occasional more positive representations of Polish-Americans in the media -- such as Sypnowich in NYPD Blue -- have been of some slight comfort to persons of Polish descent in the U.S. and Canada. Many highly successful persons of Polish descent follow the Martha Stewart (born Kostyra) model of total assimilation.

Thus it can be seen that Polish affiliations have a very minute presence in the North American pop-culture.         

To be continued. ESR

Partially based on an English-language draft of a presentation read at the conference, Transatlantic Encounters (Lodz, Poland: University of Lodz), September 28-30, 2008.

Mark Wegierski is a Toronto-based writer and historical researcher.




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