In the world of surfing, as in any other cultural hegemony that values American masculinity to the exclusion of other perspectives, the feminine is the Other, the “like me but hotter,” and is conceived of as an object with a greater or lesser ability to sexually arouse the male libido… the woman. Masculinity is perceived as the virile, risk-taking, aggressive and valorized male who dominates waves and women. Each stereotype carries consequences. For women, being objectified and reduced to their ability to arouse the male libido can exclude them as they age, occlude their accomplishments, lead to eating disorders, open them up to sexual violence, etc. For men, risk-taking and aggression can lead to death by monster-wave-hold-down, brawls in the line-up, imprisonment, substance abuse, overdose, or countless other problems.
The oligarchy of the surf industry (the Association of Surfing Professionals [ASP], surf clothing and accessories companies, surfboard manufacturers, surf media, etc.) ignores the consequences of the gender driven stereotype. It goes to great lengths to create and maintain these images within surfing as it attempts to move from a marginalized sport to a more mainstream, higher profit-making institution. Sports have been estimated to be the sixth largest industry in the United States, averaging between $213-324 billion annually. The surf industry regulates the identity of surfers so it can present a unified, “clean” image to emerging global markets in order to get a larger slice of the pie. The vision of surfing is tailored from the top down, with surfers being presented to the world-at-large as a homogenized group through event broadcasting and media content.
The majority of the ASP’s money originates from the largest surf brands: Quiksilver, Billabong, Rip Curl and O’Neill. These surf companies are able to make decisions about surf events through two “event representative” seats on the ASP’s board of directors. Of the seven seats available, two have recently been given to independent directors, Angus Murray and Kathy Kendrick, who bring a more global, mainstream vision into the boardroom. Murray offers experience with the sponsorship, online/new media and mobile marketing of Formula 1 while Kendrick hails from the Walt Disney Company and Dreamworks SKG. These independent consultants were brought in, not from the sport of surfing, but from within the business world–a world that values image over integrity and marketing over principles. Recent changes to the ASP tour illustrate a renewed surge within the surf industry toward mainstream acceptance with a loss in quality of events for surfers.
The oligarchy established by the largest surf brands also exerts massive control over the content of surf media. They have been known to walk into the main surf media offices in order to pick and choose what audiences/consumers see in the surf media. Maintaining and directing the image of surfing through the media is of paramount importance. This is most obvious, not through those stories and images that are printed, but in the limited amount of content that provides dissident opinions, voices or viewpoints.
This is also made clear through the actions and words of those entrenched in the surf media as they take the time to attack or otherwise intimidate emerging online media outlets that seek to present diverse viewpoints on surfing, surfers and surfing’s cultural hegemony.
Stories submitted that might damage the image the surf industry wishes to portray are ignored or the writers paid a kill fee, ostensibly to keep a controversial story out of the surfing conscious. Blatant shock-jock stories aside (they prey on aggravation and hostility while having no consciousness altering value), controversy is pervasive in mainstream media and while the value of controversy might be argued, its absence in surf media suggests the fragility of the image the surf industry is seeking to maintain. The surf media wishes to appear devoid of any controversy, at any cost, in order to maintain a “clean” image.
What is this carefully constructed and closely monitored image? A quick content analysis of any surf print magazine or online surf site shows surfing to be an activity primarily composed of white, risk-taking, athletic, heterosexual men. Surfing certainly isn’t touted for its diversity.
One group that seems to have had a modicum of success penetrating the projected image is that of female surfers (there were more pictures of women in the June 2011 print issues of Surfer, Surfing and TWS than non-white males). This may be a deceptive snapshot, however, given that the June print issue of Surfing Magazine spent two pages advertising its swimsuit issue and the upcoming Nike 6.0 Leave a Message women’s surf film. This film prompted a story in the June print issue of Surfer Magazine along with ads in each magazine. For every one picture of a woman in these three print issues, seven of men could be found. For every one shot of a woman actually surfing, there were twelve and a half more images of men surfing. Unfortunately, in both image and content, the surf media is right in-line with mainstream sports whose own media often trivializes and minimizes the accomplishments of female athletes.