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Salting Old Wounds in Saskatchewan: 1950s Nostalgia and Barbershops

I was in Berlin when I saw friends and family posting about the men’s only Ragged Ass Barbershop (RAB) in Regina.  I had gotten involved in a debate around sexism the previous week, concerning Canadian prairie musicians and the performance of masculinity that can veer into the realm of the chauvinistic and the misogynistic.  Why — I asked myself — was I so concerned and frustrated about the lack of rational discourse around what I saw to be blatant gender divides in the culture of Saskatchewan?  Why couldn’t I focus on my present reality — the lovely, albeit rapidly gentrifying, cultural centre of Berlin?  The answer of course is that I feel personally invested in the city of Regina — I lived there for my first twenty-one years, did my undergraduate degree there, lived in my first apartment in the downtown core, and was at The Exchange every weekend to support local prairie music, improv, and dance.  Today Regina feels like a child that was once very close to me, but then hit puberty and bought a truck and turned away from the morals I invested it with and started running red lights and acting rather dick-ish.  What happened, I asked, to the lovely little kid with its eyes wide open and its understated but nonetheless potent potential?

Those of us who have lived, or still live, in Regina know that it is a prairie city more akin in its mentality to a small town than it is to an urban center.  It’s like a big dysfunctional family that all gets together every Christmas as if nothing has changed, even though many members of that family are scattered in city centres across Canada.  This is where things tend to get messy: if you critique anything about Saskatchewan culture (the music, the entrepreneurial endeavours, the art) the town runs toward your house with torches aflame.  “How dare you critique someone who is trying to do something here!” “Are you with us or against us?”  Critical discourse around the form and content of culture — including the music scene, the visual arts scene, and the entrepreneurial scene — is a keystone of any healthy and democratic community that wants to flourish and grow.  Most artists understand that the ability to receive criticism in an open and healthy way is imperative to developing as a professional artist.   Rather than seeing criticism as an attack to get defensive about, or prove that the critique isn’t true, we might take a step back and ask ourselves why it we are all getting so defensive in the first place.  Criticisms mounted by those who no longer live in Regina – traitors, as it were — is especially fraught.  I am aware of this as I write this piece, and want to let readers know that I am voicing my criticisms around the sexism (and racism) latent in this culture because part of my own identity is as a Regina woman.  It is not only Regina’s problem — no.  This is not an attempt to make this a great Canadian pissing contest: it is an attempt to get people to wrap their minds around what structural and systemic sexism means and how it is still an issue for us Canadians who make and consume arts and culture today.

“It’s just a song.”

My fellow gen-Y’ers tend to see their actions as somehow outside of, or separate from, ideology.  Indeed, VICE magazine, the rag of the times, would have us believe that random signifiers — of white trash culture, for example — can be played with, parodied, and pastiched indefinitely in a Sisyphean “life is meaningless so let’s just have a good laugh” gesture.  And yet we are always already in ideology.  Every utterance you speak, every action you enact — more eerie still, every thought that you think — is shaped by the ideological circumstance that you have found yourself in.  Here I turn to Louis Althusser, a Marxist theorist who wrote the canonical “Ideology and Ideological State Apparatuses (ISAs)” in 1970.  Some irony perhaps, especially here, is in the fact that Althusser murdered his wife in 1980 — a detail that is rarely mentioned in the classroom and is thus, presumably inconsequential.  And yet I know that this detail is consequential — that, if the lines between art and life, life and performance, and work and life are blurred, it does not make sense to view a theorist’s or an artist’s work in a vacuum.  I can read Althusser’s work and appreciate his contribution to Historical Materialist thought, while also keeping in mind that his ethics are fraught (again, he strangled his wife to death).  Do the ‘real life’ actions of writer, artist, or philosopher matter — or can we read a text as just that text?

I undertake a similar balancing act when I read the Beat favourite Naked Lunch by William S. Burroughs, or when I walk through an exhibition of Abstract Expressionism (Jackson Pollock was a notorious drunk and masculinist brute, to the extent that Tennessee Williams, having met Pollock at a party, used the aggressive painter as the basis of Stanley Kowalski in A Streetcar Named Desire).  Strangely enough — or perhaps not strangely at all — the Beat Generation tends to appeal to the young and alternative group of society; the group we assume to be on the side of progressive politics, grassroots uprisings — the group I would assume to be on the side of civil rights and more radical conceptions of gender and identity.  Jack Kerouac’s Dharma Bums, Allen Ginsberg’s Howl, William S. Burroughs’ Junky sit atop the bedside tables of VICE-readers around the world, who want to believe that they are somehow outside of ideology, that a life of chain-smoking cigarettes on the streets of Berlin while reading Bukowski is a radical means of sticking it to the man, as it were.  And yet, we cannot escape ideology.  It’s like the God I was raised with as a child — even if I hide under my covers, God still sees me and knows what I am doing.  It is not that ideology is some omnipotent narrator figure who sees everything that I do, but rather a dispersed matrix of power and control (Foucault) that inflects every element of our society.  I wonder if anyone reading Junky or Naked Lunch knows that in 1951 Burroughs shot and killed his second wife, Joan Vollmer, in an inebriated game of shoot the fruit off the top of my head in Mexico City.  Absurd, perhaps, for the story — and yet disturbing in its real-world consequentiality.

(NOTE: I am currently working my way through my comprehensive exams in the English department at York University.  I am reading many male writers — mostly male writers, in fact — including the ones I have spoken about above.)

I am torn between the desire to actively engage in the discourse (“fight the good fight!”) and the desire to protect my own heart and mind by hiding out in my room meditating, writing haikus, and watching Simpsons reruns.  But as a client at the Living Room Drop-in, a mental health and addictions centre that I used to work at in Vancouver, BC, used to tell me everyday — You are Lisa Simpson!  I am Lisa Simpson: “the show’s idealist, (who) exposes the shortcomings of institutions she yearns to trust” (David Hains, “The referential sensibility of The Simpons, Globe and Mail 30 August 2014).  I yearn to trust in liberal democracy, in freedom of speech, in public education, in critical thinking and higher education, in the pursuit of life-long learning, in the capacity for my fellow humans to be rational, compassionate (or at least gentle), kind (or at least decent), equitable, and self-aware individuals who can get along with people who are different from them. And then I go out into the world, or glance at my Facebook newsfeed, and any trust that I had is replaced with a sense of dejection and existential despair.  Our economy, our educational institutions, our continued violence toward ‘the Other’ (even in a post-WWII contemporary context) makes me want to crawl back into my turtle shell and have some peace and quiet.

Today, after seeing a single screenshot (of what I have been told are many) of comments directed toward the Regina woman Evie who dared to bring into the public light the sexist policies (yes — only allowing access to one sex is sexist … it’s actually a pretty basic concept to grasp), I felt sick to my stomach.  I am generally sensitive to these things — many might say “too sensitive” — though I see this sensitivity as my own internal barometer.  The thing is, this stuff is heavy and traumatic.  During my time as a mental-health and addictions worker in Vancouver’s downtown eastside, I learned about a phenomenon called “vicarious trauma” from Vikki Reynolds, a wonderful activist, educator, and advocate for First Nations women who also happens to hold a PhD and teach up at SFU.  Vicarious trauma says that, in the act of talking about your trauma or something traumatic, you both re-live that trauma and risk passing on that trauma to the person you are speaking with.  This training proved an invaluable resource for me at the time, as I sat in the Living Room Drop-in for my eight hour shifts, willingly absorbing the trauma of the clients who frequented the space with my well-intending though mis-guided idealism.  The issue of trauma and “trigger warnings” was recently complicated when Jack Halberstam published the contentious article “You Are Triggering Me!  The Neo-Liberal Rhetoric of Harm, Danger, and Trauma.”  Perhaps worth noting is that Halberstam is a man who would not be able to get his hair cut at RAB in Regina because Halberstam is a trans-man. In introducing the discourse of trauma in my discussion of structural sexism, I seek not to begin a ‘hierarchy of woundedness’, nor do I wish to argue over whose feelings are more hurt by this situation.  Rather,  I want to remind us of why it can feel exhausting and depleting — emotionally, psychologically, spiritually, physically — to engage with this loaded material.  Evie was not alone in her receiving of death threats this week.  Anita Sarkeesian of Feminist Frequency was driven out of her home by death and rape threats after releasing her critical web series ‘Tropes vs. Women” which focuses on the representations of women in popular culture and video games (http://thinkprogress.org/culture/2014/08/28/3476787/feminist-video-game-critic-death-threats/).

Sexism, misogyny, racism, bigotry, violence against women — this stuff is traumatic.  It is not dramatic to say this: it is actually quite even keeled.  Whether or not you feel personally affected by these issues does not mean that you can go ahead and shame, or blame, or further wound someone who does feel a lot of emotions around these issues. There is something wrong with a society that doesn’t see the living history of brutal violence and cultural genocide against First Nations women in Canada as traumatic and urgent.  As I write this, I want to take a moment and pause out of respect for Tina Fontaine, the fifteen year-old girl who was found dead in a bag in Red River, Manitoba.

I want people who engage in discourse about gender, violence, and inequality — whether they are men, women, trans, gender queer — to have some understanding of context and power and ideology and the simple truth that nothing is ever “just something” .  It’s never just a cupcake or just a song; just a television show or just an ad campaign; just a tee-shirt, or a barbershop, or a photograph; and most of us know that it’s never just a joke.  My partner who teaches studio art and conceptualism at two Toronto universities notes that this tends to be a site of struggle in each of his first-year art classes: getting students, who are recently out of high-school and who are at art school (to become makers of images) to understand that every choice they make in their work effects the meaning that the work possesses and evokes.

How, I ask, have we regressed to a point where we do not see the implications of our everyday decisions in shaping the larger social and political landscape around us?  If the personal is not political, and vice versa, then why should we care about politics anyway?  The (faulty) logic behind these “It’s just a —“ arguments is that, unless you are talking about something BIG like war and genocide, you are wasting your time or being deliberately contrarian for fun.  It is as if the “big things” exist in a vacuum, sprouting spontaneously out of random nothingness.  We know this isn’t the case.  We live within an ideological system.  Our system, in contemporary Canadian society, is a patriarchal society in which women and queers have gained more rights than they used to have, and have more mobility than they used to have, but which is still, nonetheless, organized around patriarchal structures and beliefs.

Stephen Harper decided to take the it’s just a — route in his unsurprising and yet still devastating claim that we should not “commit sociology” when talking about the murder of Tina Fontaine.  “Harper’s seemingly bizarre beef with sociology is actually an ideological attempt to prevent us from being able to identify, and tackle, our structural injustices,” says Jakeet Singh in his article in The Toronto Star entitled “The ideological roots of Harper’s vendetta against sociology.”  To quote Singh:

“Stephen Harper really seems to have it out for sociology. In 2013, in response to an alleged plot against a VIA train, Harper remarked that we should not “commit sociology,” but pursue an anti-crime approach. And last week, in response to the death of Tina Fontaine, Harper argued that an inquiry into missing and murdered indigenous women is not needed, because this is not a “ sociological phenomenon ” but simply a series of individual crimes.  Of course, not only is all crime a sociological phenomenon , but also without a broader sociological analysis we can’t begin to understand why the rates of missing and murdered indigenous women are tragically high compared to non-indigenous women. Furthermore, it’s clear that if rates of violence against non-indigenous women climbed as high as those of indigenous women, this government (even with its woeful record on women’s issues) would be more likely to announce not only a public inquiry but a full-scale national strategy. (This double-standard in how we value human lives is what sociologists call “racism.”)”
(http://www.thestar.com/opinion/commentary/2014/08/26/the_ideological_roots_of_stephen_harpers_vendetta_against_sociology.html)

During my time up at York this past fall, I had some very difficult courses.  Not difficult in terms of challenging material that we were reading, but difficult in terms of being in seminars where a group of people with very clearly divided and divisive views (of politics, art, theory, post-colonialism and race relations) were supposed to be able to speak in a more or less civil way about issues that they felt passionately about.  You could sense the people in the room becoming defensive, as if the room itself took a sharp inhale and there wasn’t oxygen left for the lot of us to breathe.  White privilege.  “Why do we have to talk about white privilege?” “That wasn’t me colonizing those countries or owning slaves — why should I be held responsible?”  Or, “We’re not all like that.”  Hence the “not all men” argument comes to resemble the “not all white people” one, and we’re left with a mass of defensive and divided people who are more concerned about bruised egos than they are about rising to the challenge of creating a more democratic and just world.

The worst thing about these reactionary positions of defensiveness is how quickly they can spiral into anger and hatred or blame of ‘the Other’ (women, people of colour, First Nations people, queers, and so on).  The media outlet ‘FOX News’ has mastered this formula, banking on the ‘rage capital’ amongst the economically disenfranchised Americans (often Southerners and fundamentalists, who often lack post-secondary education and strong critical thinking skills).  If you rally together disenfranchised groups who feel frustrated and rather helpless in a context of economic precarity (post-2008), and make them believe that an imaginary ‘enemy’ is responsible for their current suffering and misfortune, an us versus them situation emerges.  In the case of FOX, this imaginary enemy is the ‘Left’: and the rhetoric of the ‘latte-drinking liberal’ has succeeded both in America and, more recently, in Canada to fuel an anti-intellectual backlash.  Of course, this functions very conveniently for the economic elite who back outlets like FOX (America) and SUN (Canada), and those Republicans who directly benefit from the disenfranchised populist FOX viewers voting against their own interests.  Which is to say: by making ‘anti-elitism’ about intellectualism rather than the real elitism of money and the sheer power and influence of this money in shaping our so-called democratic political landscape (“the 1%”), the Right succeeds in not only detracting any attention away from their corruption, but also in ensuring there is a scapegoat to take the blame for their economic missteps (the crash of 2008).

The same can be said, I am arguing, for contemporary debates around sexism.

I soon realized that I would have to sit with this discomfort, that I would feel what I was feeling — some defensiveness, some fear of my own position being compromised — and reflect on what that said about my own identity and subjectivity.  When I accept that white privilege exists, and that white privilege is in fact a lived reality — even for someone living in the most multicultural city in the world (Toronto) — this does not mean that I am hating on white people, or that I am becoming a reverse racist.  It is not about me feeling as if everyone is hating on me because I am white.  It is not about me needing to ban together with a bunch of white people and fight against this reverse-racism and start a white rights group.  Do you see where I’m going with this?  The logic of ‘reverse sexism’ and ‘reverse racism’ simply do not stand, because sexism and racism take place within a context, a history, and a present moment wherein power informs every social situation we find ourselves in.  Sexism and racism are structurally embedded, are engrained in our institutions.  Yes, such things as affirmative action exist.

I can stand up and say that, yes — I am a woman, I am white, I am cis-gendered — and it just so happens that I live in a society in which my whiteness brings me a certain degree of privilege.  This doesn’t mean that I am a bad person, or that society is suddenly trying to hate on me by saying I am privileged.  No.  It just means that we all have varying degrees of power and privilege in this world, and historically it has been men — specifically white able-bodied men — who have held the positions of power and who have shaped the very societies we find ourselves in today (because they were the ones in control).  Feminism actually has a very recent history, if we take Mary Wollstonecraft’s Vindication of the Rights of Women as the first ‘feminist manifesto’ (1792).  It wasn’t until the early twentieth-century that women’s rights in the public sphere even began to be disputed, let alone won.

Some people point to advances for women as proof that equality has been obtained: for example, in University enrollment and the high percentage of women getting post-secondary degree. With a dark irony, theses advances quickly become excuses for backlash: “They’re taking over!”

Critically rigorous journalists understand that in some cases, like climate change and global-warming, balance is bias.  Stephen Whitworth reminds us of this when he calls for people to: “drop the stupid arguments. “How come Curves can be a women’s gym but Ragged Ass can’t be a men’s barber shop?” Answer: because society is not as welcoming for women as it is for men. Thanks to harassment, sexual assault and violence, women need safe spaces in a way that men don’t. No one can reasonably claim they’ll suffer because a woman got a men’s-style cut at the same place they get their beard trimmed. But a lot of women have been harassed while working out.” (http://www.prairiedogmag.com/ragged-ass-barbergeddon/).

In the city where I currently reside, a white man who has behaved in obscene, bigoted, irresponsible, and hateful ways — a white man who is known to have been a domestic abuser — is in power.  Yes, we can all have fun watching as a Canadian! (Rob Ford) is featured on Jimmy Kimmel — but to what end?  Even though this man is a laughing stock — a walking joke, as it were — he is still the mayor of Toronto.  Political theorists and statisticians are predicting that he will be voted in again for another term.  As the laughing wears off, it becomes clear that this joke is anything but just a joke.  I know of someone who is in a position of power in Toronto.  He wants to retire but hasn’t found anyone whom he trusts with the kind of responsibility his job entails to take over.  The exception was an individual he had worked with for years, who had extraordinary credentials and experience.  This individual also happened to be a woman.  A prominent City of Toronto politician (not Rob Ford) was on the committee and, like a stubborn child might do, kicked his heels into the ground and said there was no way in hell he would vote for a woman to be hired into the position.  He even refused to give her an interview.  This is politics.  This is power, influence, and privilege.  VICE magazine can play with white trash culture in parodic, playful, and ultimately ironic (not sincere) ways, but the truth remains that disenfranchised young white boys in small-town Ontario now think it is cool to cover their cars with Confederate flags.  (http://www.thestar.com/news/gta/2013/02/23/york_region_high_school_in_flap_over_confederate_flag.html)

So — what does this mean for Regina?  The men of Ragged Ass Barbershop (RAB) wanted their men’s only space to be a masculine sanctuary like there used to be back in the good old days — the 1950s.  Like Stephen Whitworth points out, these men are not vindictive and they’re likely not trying to be dicks.  My take is that they are unaware of the ideological implications of their nostalgia.  “It’s just a fifties-style barbershop.”  OK.  Sure.  But as soon as this prodded further … as soon as, say, the question of race is brought into it, this seemingly innocent nostalgia flickers and takes on a more ominous tone.  The politics of segregation.  Are black men allowed in the barbershop?  Well uh, what year are we talking here — maybe by 1960 they are, but in the fifties … no sir-ee.  Prodding further.  Where are the women?  In the kitchen, of course.

So: what is it about women that would change the space of the barbershop for these men?  Is it the conversations or humour in the space that would be awkward for women, or make them feel uncomfortable?  While this debacle could be a wonderful opportunity for those involved to take a step back and reflect on their own biases, worldviews, fears, desires, etc., and speak about it in a respectful manner, it has devolved into an all out ‘gender war’.  I’m not one for drawing clear lines in the sands of humanity, marking one side as us and the other side them.  My tendency is to deconstruct every binary opposition that I come in contact with, like the good PhD student in Critical Theory that I am.  And yet, I see two sides developing in here.  On one side are those who understand what sexism is, who perhaps see gender as operating on a spectrum, who are queer and trans* (or allies) — and on the other side are those who still choose to believe that “isms” are no longer a concern in our postmodern culture.  “We’re all equal now, right?”  or,  “We’re just having fun.”

Another issue seems to be the nature of the kill joy: more specifically, the feminist kill joy.  The responses I saw to posts about the RAB were “Stop being so negative,” someone posted on a friend’s wall after they posed about the RAB debacle.  “Someone in Regina is trying to do something cool — why do you have to be so negative about everything?”  The same mass of people that want to shy away from sociological analysis (re: Harper), and who want to believe that such “isms” as sexism and racism are no longer of concern, also seem to believe that critical discourse is essentially negative.  This fascinates me, as I can see nothing more negative than a world in which critical discourse is stifled — the world of feminist back-lash, for example, where critiques of the culture as patriarchal are deemed trite, silly, useless, unfounded, cruel, or masturbatory (in the case of the academic, “wasting her time” by writing about cupcake culture and femininity, for example).  I soon realized that the ‘feminist kill joy’ is she (or he, or they) who ‘kills’ the bliss of ignorance, the joy of being able to live in a world where people are blissfully ignorant of the social, political, and economic ramifications of their actions.  Undergraduate students at universities are hesitant to watch music videos during a class on ideology because they want to be able to just enjoy the music video as ‘just’ a music video.  Oh, if only.  As an emerging academic myself, I am trying to find ways of challenging students and peers to be willing to look at popular culture as/and ideology without recoiling and digging their heads back into the sand.  In my own life, I am working toward cultivating the balance between critical rigour and joy, pleasure, and enjoyment.  I believe that, rather than the ‘feminist kill joy’ model, we can evolve toward becoming a society that can healthily critique its institutions (Government, Police, Religion, Education, Legal, University, Communication, Business, and Culture) from various lenses (feminist, queer, post-colonial) while having fun, creating new spaces, taking pleasure in our life and work, and ultimately realizing that a world of justice, equity, and safety for all is the only world worthy of taking such pleasure in.  Just as Judith Butler writes her feminist queer theory in an attempt “to make more lives livable,” so too do I write here today that we stop fighting a misguided ‘gender war’ and start listening to our fellow human beings with compassion and respect.

– By: Lauren Fournier

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3 thoughts on “Salting Old Wounds in Saskatchewan: 1950s Nostalgia and Barbershops

  1. Pingback: Not All Men, But Apparently Enough Men | Prairie Dog

  2. Thanks for taking the time and effort to unpack the issues around the Ragged Ass controversy so thoroughly. There are some golden nuggets in here; I enjoyed your observations on Regina’s reflexive defensiveness. I hope a lot of people read your excellent analysis.

    • Hi Stephen — thank you for the encouragement, and for taking the time to read! I really appreciated the approach you took in your article: a non-aggressive voice of reason that mediates ‘both sides’ in an attempt to restore some peace and sanity. Thank you.

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