By Vicki S. Hallett
“A vocation passed from father to son, the fishermen of ‘the Rock’ have spanned generations. But disaster struck in 1992 when the cod stock collapsed and a moratorium was declared, effectively shutting the fishery down overnight. Many left the life of the sea, but not the Cold Water Cowboys. […The show…] journeys to Newfoundland to meet these men with salt water in their veins, and follows them through one intense fishing season. […] these bred-in-the-bone fishermen will never trade their boats for boardrooms” (www.discovery.ca).
The television series Cold Water Cowboys, which aired its first 10-part season in the winter of 2014, and is currently showing its third season on the Discovery network, follows the high-seas adventures of six fishing skippers and their crews in the restructured Newfoundland fishery. Ranging from Carmanville to Cow Head (excluding Labrador, except to show it as a potential fishing ground and/or point of sale for two of the show’s skippers), these fishermen target species from crab, to halibut, to shrimp and mackerel, and go to great lengths to make a living from a restructured industry. The show presents the men of the fishery as emblematic of Newfoundland identity, supporting long-held myths of regional/ethnic masculinity.
Much like other reality TV series the world over, Cold Water Cowboys incorporates local cultural narratives in a globalized entertainment genre. As Negra, Pike and Radley point out, “Reality formats, are […] situated at the discursive intersection of globalization, national identity, and cultural representation; they function as a ‘contact zone’ between the local and the global, in which borders of identity, gender, and nation are picked apart and rearticulated” (188). This contact zone is most usefully examined through a feminist postcolonial lens, one that is attentive to Mary Louise Pratt’s definition of said contact zones as “social spaces where disparate cultures meet, clash, grapple with each other, often in highly asymmetrical relations of domination and subordination” (7).
Pratt’s assessment of how we should conceive of relations within contact zones is crucial to bear in mind. She makes it clear that while colonial relations were asymmetrical, they were relations – complex, multifaceted, and muddy. As local culture meets global phenomenon in this wildly popular genre of television, we are meant to see ourselves (or our ‘others’) in varying degrees of ‘real life’. As feminist media scholars Sujata Moorti and Karen Ross put it, Reality TV is “an enduring yet ephemeral phenomenon” (204). Such is the paradoxical nature of this peculiarly postmodern “regime of representation” within which, to borrow from Stuart Hall, cultural identity is constructed “through memory, fantasy, narrative and myth. […] Not an essence but a positioning” (72).’
Newfoundland identity here is multiply positioned at intersections of race, gender, culture, and class. The cowboys are all white and are seen as heroic fisherman bringing home the proverbial bacon, solely responsible for their family’s welfare, facing danger, battling the elements, conquering with technology, yet respectful of the sea’s power. They are risk takers, but are also stoical in the face of calamity – they may curse and swear as things go wrong, but they cannot deny their calling to the sea. They are seen at the crossroads of traditional and neo-liberal masculinity.
Key to this positioning is the denial of the importance of women, past and present, to the fishing industry, and the gendered impacts of restructuring. As Brenda Grzetic has demonstrated, “Women in fishing families have historically taken an active role in ensuring the success of fishing enterprises by doing important ground crew work such as line baiting, washing boats, bookkeeping, purchasing food and equipment for the boat, banking, interacting with fisheries officials and buyers, as well as other aspects of managing fishing operations onshore” (15). Presently, women continue these active roles in the fishing industry, and also participate as plant workers and fish harvesters, not to mention their roles as domestic labourers who keep fishing households going.
The show, despite its Canadian tag lines, also represents Newfoundland as Canada’s other – an exotic location with ‘unique’ people (read: men) who are a breed apart. The use of subtitles helps solidify this understanding of the Newfoundland dialect as another language, and the people who speak it as having a different culture, one that emerged organically from the sea. As Jennifer Deslisle claims, this also often happens in Newfoundland literature. “By claiming a Newfoundland nation in opposition to both a British and Canadian imperial centre, Newfoundland literature often constructs an indigenized culture. It therefore risks erasing the reality of colonial violence…” (Delisle 37).
Indeed, not only do Newfoundlanders get represented as having an indigenized culture, but as Indigenous people. In Episode 6 (Season 1), Conway Caines, one of the show’s most colourful characters, says “We’re Newfoundlanders. Salt water runs in my veins. It ran in my father’s veins, and in his father’s veins”.
This sentiment, featured prominently in the show, perpetuates the mythologization of our inherent connections to the land and the sea, the heartiness of people who were able to survive the harsh conditions of the place, and the natural state of this patriarchal inheritance. All of this serves the process of what Terry Goldie calls “indigenization”, that process through which “the ‘settler’ population attempts to become as though indigenous, as though ‘born’ of the land” (“Man”)”(qtd in Delisle 28), or in this case, the sea.
Thus, the ‘Cowboys’ are also ‘Indians’ in an irony seemingly lost on the show’s creators and stars alike. This portrayal plays well to a Newfoundland audience that likes to see itself as different from the rest of Canada, yet included in the national picture; the image of the rugged, independent, stoic fisherman that was popularized in the quasi-nationalist, Newfoundland cultural renaissance of the 1970s and 80s, today employs its cultural capital in the unlikeliest of venues – reality television. Happily for the Discovery network, this also plays well to a generalized Canadian audience for whom Newfoundlanders are ultimately cast as different enough to be entertaining, but not different enough to be threatening.
Vicki S. Hallett is an Assistant Professor in the Department of Gender Studies at Memorial University of Newfoundland.
Delisle, Jennifer Bowering. “Nation, Indigenization, the Beothuk: A Newfoundland Myth of Origin in Patrick Kavanagh’s Gaff Topsails.” Studies in Canadian Literature/ELC. 31.2 (2006): 23-45.
Goldie, Terry. “The Man of the Land/The Land of the Man: Patrick White and Scott Symons.” SPAN 36 (1993). 1 Dec. 2013 <wwwmcc.murdoch.edu.au/ReadingRoom/litserv/SPAN/36/Goldie.html>.
Grzetic, Brenda. Women Fishes These Days. Halifax: Fernwood, 2004.
Hall, Stuart. “Cultural Identity and Cinematic Representation.” Framework. 36 (1989): 68-82.
Moorti, Sujata & Karen Ross. “Reality television.” Feminist Media Studies, 4:2 (2004) 203-231.
Negra, Diane, Kirsten Pike, Emma Radley. “Gender, Nation, and Reality TV.” Television and New Media. 14.3 (2012): 187-193.
Power, Nicole. What do they Call a Fisherman?: Men, Gender, and Restructuring in the Newfoundland Fishery. St. John’s, NL: ISER Books, 2005.
Pratt, Mary Louise. Imperial Eyes: Travel Writing and Transculturation 2nd Ed. New York: Routledge, 2008.