My ability to calculate sums is comparable to a chimp with a handful of dried pinto beans, so I need some help figuring out the following bit of surfing math: Matt Warshaw, in his 2008 New York Times article Surfing: a History estimates that there are about five million people in the world who surf, and ten to fifteen percent of them are women. In the US, SIMA calculates that these women were responsible for buying 503.8 million dollars worth of surf and skate clothing that same year, making it the fourth largest surf/skate related market behind shoes, men’s clothes, and boards (in that order…which in itself is a telling stratification). Even if you ignore the fact that women also purchase boards and shoes, it’s safe to say that, not only are female surfers an important part of surf culture, they represent a sizeable portion of the surf economy as well. Knowing all of this, how is it possible that the ASP was forced to cancel the Honolua Pro – an event widely regarded as the best on the women’s tour – because it couldn’t find a sponsor?
Unless I’m counting my beans wrong, something is amiss in surfer town.
The news of the cancellation brought to mind a video clip of some of Red Bull’s female team riders I had seen a few weeks before. It’s a pretty standard surfer-girl/modeling photo shoot where each lady is given a theme to interpret. Sofía Mulanovich is a director, Maya Gabeira is a dancer, Nadja De Col is a painter, and Sally Fitzgibbons, who apparently pulled the short straw, is jail bait. In all fairness, that is not her official theme, but I challenge anyone to watch the video on mute and try to guess her intended occupation. Male viewers, in particular, will be assaulted with the dueling notions that this young woman is about to appear in something soft core, but may be under the age of consent.
It turns out, she’s 19, so it’s perfectly legal to lust away, but the whole thing left me with a lingering queasiness. It seems strange that no one is willing to put some money into what is supposed to be the season-ending competition for the best female surfers in the world, especially since they seem to have no problem marketing the girls for their pure sex appeal. I wanted to talk to some female pros about sex and surfing, but it can be hard getting interesting quotes out of them because a.) Few are over 25 years old, b.) They tend to be heavily managed, often by their parents and c.) Very few young women or their parents feel comfortable talking about sex with a strange journalist who they have never met. In the end, I got in touch with Keala Kennelly because she fears no reporter – nor much of anything, for that matter. Here is what she told me:
“Sometimes, women pro surfers that are more attractive get more sponsor dollars thrown their way over women that are better surfers who are not as physically attractive. What that keeps reinforcing in women is that it is more important to be beautiful than it is to have talent or skill or to be accomplished.”
Beauty over accomplishments, bodies over brains, tits over turns. You’ve heard this story before. This isn’t promoting women’s surfing, it’s Barbie-ifying it. The message is that it doesn’t matter how hard a girl charges, just as long as she smiles a lot, looks good in a bikini, doesn’t curse too much, and shows up in a Maxim profile humping her board it’s all good.
There is something very Blue Crush about this whole surfer girl paradigm. That movie was inspired by an article called Life’s Swell by a non-surfer named Susan Orlean, and it originally ran in Outside magazine in 1998 (trivia: it features a cameo by the young Cheyne Magnusson). The article does a great job of capturing a brief, idyllic moment in the lives of some of Maui’s surfer girls in their late adolescence and early teens when their entire lives revolved around surfing local competitions and hanging out with friends. Still, her account ultimately falls flat because of the rose tint it casts on every aspect of the girls’ lives. The deck of the article basically sums it all up:
To be a surfer girl in Maui is to be the luckiest of creatures. It means you’re beautiful and tan and ready to rip. It means you’ve caught the perfect dappled wave and are on a ride that can’t possibly end.
That is, of course, until your sponsors decide they don’t want to keep putting money into your sport. For all her skill as a writer, Orlean was unable to see beyond the age old surfer girl stereotype of plucky tomboy who’s perpetual adolescence both infantilizes and hyper-sexualizes her existence. She’s a Lolita with a surfboard, and Orlean unwittingly canonized her by sending her out to play in the pop cultural imagination.
Of course, Blue Crush occasioned a boom in women’s surfing, and it was all gravy so long as it stayed lollipops and pigtails and fun boards and string bikinis. But what comes next? The girls are growing up. And they are calling guys off their waves and busting airs and towing in and doing a lot of other things that little girls don’t, or aren’t supposed to do. In theory, everyone supports it, but words mean little without power or money to back them up.
“It’s all about creating a marketing strategy and interest,” said renowned tube rider and World Runner-Up Rochelle Ballard in an email. “Most of the time the girls are going to shitty waves and have press that is hard to follow unless you go to Surfline and the ASP site. Half the time the video is down and you can’t even watch the event. Most of the time the announcers don’t know their subjects well enough or get lost in silly conversation instead of maintaining interest in what is going on out in the water or telling us about who is surfing.”
The difference between the way they cover men’s and women’s contests wasn’t lost on her, either. “I hear the hype and interest when they announce the men’s heats and how much more depth goes into the live web cast. If they treated the women like they do the men and then some, I would be very interested to see how much more it (women’s competitive surfing) would grow and attract people. If there was more unity in surfing for women and participation from all parties in the same direction…it has great potential. Without that I believe it will always be the same old story that I heard when I was a teenager growing up next to Margo Oberg and hearing her stories, that sound exactly the same as they do today.”
We can do better than this. We owe it to women like Keala, Sally, Sofia, and all the rest to be better than this. Yes, surfing and sex are inseparable; and thank God for that. But female pro surfers aren’t glamor models; they are elite athletes who deserve to compete in the best possible waves. If they want to do it wearing makeup and Brazilian bikinis, tally-ho: there’s no sweeter sight in the world of sports than a beautiful woman riding a perfect wave. But there is no sorrier site than denying the world’s best female surfers the right to end their season with chins held high…instead of relegating them to the beach outside of surfing’s boys’ club, which (consciously or not) sends its message loud and clear: “No girls allowed.”