After watching Nike’s female surfing extravaganza Leave a Message, for the second time, I’m left with two distinct but interrelated impressions. First, this generation of female surfers has made a performance jump unlike any that has come before it. Second, their sex appeal could still be more important for their future professional success. In fact, Nike bombards us with so much good surfing and so many blatant sexual marketing plugs, it becomes nearly impossible to distinguish between the two in some cases. So, I’m going to cut the crap and stop acting like I, as a young man, am being asked to judge these girls on their abilities alone. The following is my review of the surfing and the sexy in Leave a Message.
The movie is divided into roughly three and a half minute profile sections that focus on Nike’s main female lineup: Malia Manuel, Coco Ho, Monyca Byrne-Wickey, Lakey Peterson, Laura Enever, and Carissa Moore.
Malia Manuel is seventeen and looks about 22. I know this because I Googled her, and because there is a helpful scene in her opening montage that has her running out to the beach when two large, stern looking Hawai’ian men stop the camera andseem to be saying “No Perving! She’s not even out of her teens!” It’s corny and somewhat demeaning to suggest that she is a little girl who needs the protection of big strong men, but then again, she is only seventeen, and because the dubious legality of marketing her sex appeal, she ends up with one of the most enthralling sections in the film. Her backhand in particular is jaw-droppingly beautiful, and the way in which she commands her turns has the same undeniable gravity of a Stephanie Gilmore or a Carissa Moore. She’s also prettier than either of them, arguably the prettiest girl in the film so assuming she keeps progressing and doesn’t do something stupid like lose the body of a sixteen year old girl, she will be one of her generation’s brightest stars.
Next up is Coco Ho’s section, which underwhelms, though she is probably the most solid, polished, and consistently great surfer in the movie’s lineup. Unfortunately for both her surfing and marketability, she is a tiny, elfin person, which both impedes the necessary inertia for convincing turns and limits her sex appeal. You’d like to give her a big hug and maybe bounce her on your knee, but she’s no pinup. None of this outweighs her natural skill and drive, though. She should have a long and decorated career – the Rochelle Ballard of generation naught.
The only things I remember about Monyca Byrne-Wickey’s section is that she is gorgeous in an off-kilter way and has an amazing butt. In fact, her posterior should be given supporting-actor status in the credits. She’s a good surfer too, but based solely on her clips in this film, she’s not on the same level as the rest of the women. Directors Jason Kenworthy and filmer Aaron Lieber seem to recognize this as they devote an over-the-top number of clips to showing her in the classic surfer chick pose: looking over her shoulder, beckoning you with those dusky Hawai’ian eyes while showing off a Brazilian bikini clad gluteus maximus. It’s hard to tell how much of this is her own dress choice, and how much is Nike execs saying, “Let’s sell this girl’s ass for all it’s worth,” but it comes off as a lecherous wink from the boys club of old, sleazy marketing execs to the boys club of young, sleazy men like me.
Byrne-Wickey also gets the award for most cringe-worthy moment when she wrestles all of the other girls into submission on the beach while a couple of middle-aged cameramen film/leer. Yep, just a wrestling match between twenty year-old girls in bikinis filmed by men old enough to be their fathers…nothing to see here. If she keeps this up, she should have a lucrative career characterized by more modeling than surfing.
After that, Lakey Peterson, the baby of the bunch at 16, delights with power surfing unmatched by any of the girls except Moore. It’s exciting to watch the way she bends a wave to her will. She also proves to have preternatural comfort above the lip with a slew of airs and grab-rail fin ditches that are among the best single tricks in the movie. Her forehand carves have a distinctly Taylor Knox flare and she has the distinction of being the only girl to make an appearance in a wetsuit.
On the down side, she suffers slightly from what the industry folks might call Courtney Conologue syndrome – all the ability in the world, but a look that is just a touch too masculine for surf brand chic. Broad shoulders don’t sell bikinis, Monyca Byrne-Wickey butts do. However, unlike some less fortunate women, she can be made up to look passably pretty for an American audience that likes its Californian blondes. Expect, indeed hope for, more from her in the future, but don’t expect too many lifestyle shots.
Laura Enever is a bizarre combination of surfing’s misogynistic status quo and a more hopeful feminine future. She gets the craziest barrels of the video and also drops into a wave wearing thigh-high fishnets. She seems to understand her sex appeal and deal in it for all that it’s worth, which is no small task for someone in her early twenties. The slow motion shots of her butt while doing backside snaps wearing Brazilian bikinis would make most fathers cringe. I quite enjoyed them, but then, I suppose that is why most fathers cringe.
Her dredging session at P-pass and its mix of tubes and beatings is glorious in the way it juxtaposes the twig-like girl with the apocalyptic wave. Her only real shortcoming as a surfer is that she is too sylph-like. A bit of extra weight would add a lot of gravity to surfing that is simply too flicky. Of course, a bit of extra weight would also destroy that jailbait sexpot thing she does that helps keep her relevant. What’s a girl to do?
And finally: Carissa Moore. I have soft spot for her because she is the only one of the bunch who can look however she pleases because she is so damn good no one can take it away from her. In her section, Moore demonstrates a spontaneity and effortless style that evokes shades of Slater and Reynolds while remaining unquestionably her own. Even if you put her power and grace to one side, you are still left with a wave rider who draws startlingly unique and beautiful lines. Slater is the only other person, man or woman, in pro surfing who displays the same mix of ferocity and devil-may-care playfulness on waves, as if unable to decide if this is high art, or simply a bit of a lark. Both love to combine front-side snaps with carving 360s; both awe and delight. Moore has limited sex appeal because she doesn’t fit into the current trend of super skinny girl-women (let’s call them Laura Enevers). Ironically, her extra weight is part of what makes her such a sublime surfer. She upper cuts lips that the Enevers of the world simply slap at. This section deserves a spot among great ones.
What a film. The only problem I can see with it, aside from its staggering lack of takeoffs and bottom turns, is the same problem that all of women’s surfing faces: It is a story about young women that is being written entirely by men. This is not to say that Kenworthy and Lieber have not created something admirable here – they have, and they have done us all a service by showing us that the term “women’s high performance surfing” no longer needs an asterisk. Unfortunately, the more the surfing changes, the more the clichés stay the same. Kenworthy and Lieber, with, I’m guessing, pressure from the old men who run Nike is simply unable to avoid the inevitable “Hey, look at the tits on that beach Betty!” moments.
Why? The surfing speaks for itself. The girls are plenty sexy, too – so sexy, in fact, that we don’t need to be bashed across the face with fishnets and ass shots every other frame. If the film makers would just have a little faith that the natural beauty of each young woman, indeed of all women, would show through in their surfing, we would have a much better product, and paradoxically, a much sexier product. Instead, the picture is plagued by the ugly, and ultimately boring shadow of female objectification. But the filmmakers are just doing their jobs, and doing them well. Same with Nike. They’ve got to sell sports gear and sex is still the best way to do it. It’s harmless in small doses, but it creates a larger paradigm in which (and see if this sounds familiar to you) girls who are great surfers but aren’t so sexy don’t get featured in the videos, can’t pick up sponsors, and disappear. The whole sport, if that is indeed what it is to be, instead of just a marketing campaign for small bathing suits, loses out. It’s happened to more than one lady on the World Tour (even today) and it will keep happening as long as we place the same value on a butt as we do on a bottom turn.
This is the way of the world, surfing is no different from other industries, smart women take advantage of their looks to get ahead. And if you believe in these things enough to say them out-lout and with conviction, I feel sorry for the mother who has to endure your kisses.