Alana Blanchard, as far as these things can be calculated, is far and away the most popular female surfer in the world today – despite finishing dead last in every single event thus far on the ASP World Championship Tour. Currently, you couldn’t fault her competitors for viewing her as a sure-fire “W” if they draw her in a heat. Kind of like a “bye” round. And while it isn’t clear to me how her Instagram following (965,000 and counting) converts in sponsorship and endorsement deals, she has clearly conquered the popularity game of modern surfing, and she has done so without being a great competition surfer. To clarify, she hasn’t won a heat this year in a WCT event. Other women have similar records for the year, but other women are not the most popular female surfers in the world.
Yes, I know, “It’s all about the ass, stupid.” Much of the male surf world wouldn’t know Alana Blanchard from Bronte Macaulay if not for the advent of the Brazilian bikini and Blanchard’s genius/willingness, to take shots of herself bottom turning in it. That, like any sexist argument, sells her short, though. She is, after all, a very gifted surfer. There isn’t a bad surfer among the top 18, and if Blanchard isn’t a title contender, she is far from the worst who has ever donned the jersey. If you ever take a moment to peer beyond the sloppy torrents of T and A she dishes out, you’ll see a surfer who carries a lot of speed and power through her lines.
Aside from being the “most popular” woman in surfing, I think she is probably the most important as well, not necessary for who she is, but for what her rise says about the time we live in and the culture we call ours. As a public commodity, Blanchard stands for all that is fleeting and disposable. She’s 24 this year. At most, she has another six years of diminishing sex-pot appeal before the crows feet and/or plastic surgery see her replaced by other teenagers with the hunger to Instagram, Vine, and SnapChat their way into the hearts and minds of surfers everywhere. Unless she makes a late career surge, which is not out of the question, she will be forever remembered as she is now: a woman in the flower of youth who made men salivate and women wish they looked more like her. Her surfing, despite being worth remembering, will be largely forgotten.
Her popular success represents the triumph of the “sexy surfer” paradigm over that of the female athlete paradigm. It’s the maturation, or perhaps decay, of the late ’90s Roxy vision of female surfers as cute, girlish tom boys – the vision that used Lisa Anderson as its cover girl and saw its apex in the explosion of females surfing around the movie Blue Crush. That movement was, itself, an updated take on Gidget, who was yet another plucky young lady playing a boy’s game by her rules.
No iteration of the female surfing image has ever seriously threatened the archaic and wrongheaded view of women that surfing has always peddled – surfing women have, after all, never been allowed to grow past being “girls” or “chicks.” What is particularly unnerving about this current, Blanchard-esque surfer girl is that it is no longer enough for her to be cute. Now she has to be a girl who you, middle-aged man reading this article, want to fuck. And long after Blanchard has grown old and wrinkly, the image that female surfers are stuck aspiring to will be just that. What the surf world is selling is not the idea of sexy women, per sé, it’s the idea of the sexy pubescent. I have long railed against this kind of nasty, reductive marketing, but it’s not because I’m against selling the idea of sexiness or beauty, it’s because the idea that is being sold is so narrow and warped it really doesn’t do sexiness or beauty any justice at all.
Selling sex certainly doesn’t hurt all women. It has helped Blanchard immensely. The problem as I see it is that it effectively kicks the ladder down behind her for anyone who doesn’t look like she does. No matter what they do, the two best surfers of the last ten years, Moore and Gilmore, will forever find themselves in the shadows of women who were born with slightly different bone structure and body types.
This kind of mouth breathing, “But it’s only human nature!” focus on a narrow range of looks is perhaps justified in some types of performance art – acting and dancing come to mind, but even in movies and television, the lack of roles for not-spectacular-looking women is more of a reflection of these industries’ lack of imagination than it is a justified artistic requirement. Any industry in which a ridiculous ideal of beauty is held as a prerequisite for success is rotten from the inside out and run by a bunch of no-talent hacks who are too lazy and/or stupid to think of other ways to market their stars.
Is surfing like that? It sure looks like it. But it doesn’t have to be. If I look at the top 18 female surfers in the world, I can give you 18 different definitions of beauty, but all of them include things like being incredibly talented, hard-working, dedicated, passionate, and fearless. Last December, I happened to share a few surf sessions with Courtney Conlogue. She does not, at the best of times look like a stereotypical surfer chick, and after a few weeks surfing in Hawaii, she was cut up, covered in bandages, and radiating a take-no-prisoners attitude every time she paddled out. That is what raw beauty in its uncut, unfiltered, unphotographed form is all about. It might not be the type of beauty you see in magazine ads, but it’s the type that lasts and even deepens after your twenties. Until we construct a culture in which the Blanchards and the Conlogues can be valued for their different talents, instead of wrote, knuckle-dragging “sexiness” we, like Alana in a very literal sense (if you ask her WCT competitors), are all losing out.