It is impossible to watch the video of Maya Gabeira drowning then being pulled to shore and brought back to life without wondering whether or not she should consider taking up a new career. That is a fact independent of her gender. It is impossible to watch anyone of either sex literally die doing something without wishing that a) they would have done something else on that particular day, and b) they never do that thing again so they can live a long and fruitful life. But the question of Gabeira’s future still looms.
In one sense, how we look at it is completely gender based. She is a woman in a “man’s sport” who has required saving in two high profile sessions in two years. This fits well with every gender stereotype we have been inculcated with since our first Disney movie: the beautiful, plucky woman can flirt with danger, but inevitably requires the heroics of a man to save the day. In the eyes of many, this will have proven what they already expect of female athletes but won’t say in public – that they are a liability in dangerous conditions and have no business participating in situations like this. I have already seen this implication being made on my FB page.
The other gender-based tint on this is story is the fact that we are culturally conditioned to want to protect women from physical harm. It has to do with the prevailing view that physical beauty – that most sacred of feminine treasures – should be coveted and preserved from anything that might mar it. There is a perversity in the image of a beautiful woman in danger that strikes some very sensitive chord in the public psyche, and perhaps especially in the male psyche. It makes me think of my mother and my girlfriend and the great lengths I would go to in order to protect the women that I care for the most.
But then, I would also go to great lengths to protect my brother. More than anyone else I know, he is liable to do things that risk his well-being. If he had drowned twice in the last few years, I would, without hesitation, demand that he stop surfing big waves. In that context, this is not a sex-based question at all. If I had a personal investment in any of the men who have nearly drowned in the last two years, I would ask all of them to stop and get a desk job. You can talk a very big game about being willing to die doing what you love and living life to the fullest, but if you have people who love you or people who depend on you, dying young is a cruel, selfish thing to do and you have failed as a friend, lover, parent, child, and/or sibling.
As I don’t have a personal investment in any big wave surfer, I judge them by a different set of standards than I would a loved one. What I find really compelling about Gabeira’s near death experience is that it has, for some anyway, humanized big wave surfers and lent an unsettling clarity to their wild, masochistic undertaking. While we have happily watched men, pitch their fragile bodies into the gnashing teeth of watery oblivion for years without ever once stopping to consider the strange combination of happiness and horror that they subject themselves to like the purest of addicts, we only needed to see a single woman do it for the latent tragedy that underpins such an existence to become apparent. We should not be asking why Gabeira would keep doing this to herself. Instead, we should be asking why anyone would keep doing this to themselves with no greater motivation than “because it is there.” Furthermore, we should be asking what kind of fucked up people we have become that we get off watching the carnage unfold.
We watch because they are heroes and because they are heroes we inure ourselves to their essential humanity. Were we to accept that they were people like us, we couldn’t, in good conscience, root for their kamikaze behavior. So their personal tragedy becomes our public legend – Mallory disappearing on Everest, Aikau disappearing into the storm. But Gabeira didn’t disappear. Somehow, her limp, lifeless body washing up on the beach offered just a peek behind that fabled curtain into an ugly reality that we are, in our desperate desire for heroes, helping to create. Sure, every surfer who rides big waves does it for themselves, but a hero is not a self made creature, it is created by society and circumstance. We hoist them up on our shoulders and then pitch them down the moment we grow tired of them. We love that they exist but only so long as they dance to our tunes. When I watched Gabeira in her losing struggle against the sea, it made big wave surfers seem human again and I wasn’t completely comfortable with that. In their humanity, I thought I glimpsed in something of my own fragility, something that makes doing perversely dangerous things like surfing big waves seem like the purest of follies.
If you let yourself be blinded by the fact that she’s a woman you will miss the greater point: No one, man or woman, had any earthly business surfing Nazaré on Monday, not by any rational reckoning anyway. No one needs to ride a one hundred foot wave, not for all the bragging rights in the world. To choose to dedicate yourself to such an undertaking is irresponsible, reckless, and contemptuous of life itself. But because of all that, there is also something very human about it, something that brashly rebels against the notion that we should live like frightened animals who covet life as if there is no greater pleasure than simply eating, breathing and sleeping. Big wave surfers speak to the same element of hope and aspiration that Icarus portrayed in his mythical, ill-fated flight. By going where others fear to tread, they remind us that this stolid, fenced-off world still holds possibilities if we are just willing to reach for them.
The deepest problem in all of this is that in the age of the extreme arms race, our culture has bred a class of people who are pathologically incapable of turning away from risk, who are compelled by the very worst of their unique instincts – instincts that celebrity culture and hero worship have nurtured in them to the sharpest of edges – to seek out, over and over, the moment that will potentially destroy them.
Is Gabeira being reckless? Sure. But isn’t that the point? And the more reckless she gets the louder we will cheer until finally, just as she stands poised against her own annihilation, we are reduced to fits of blabbering ecstasy and gushing monologues of Red Bull cliches about the beauty and wonder of life lived on the edge. Or she will die. Then we will talk about a life cut short before its time but lived “to the fullest” and quickly move on to the next young, good-looking daredevil coming off the assembly line of corporate patronage.
This doesn’t seem noble or heroic to me. It seems like the profligacy of a culture obsessed with watching the destruction of others based on some deeper voyeuristic urge to witness life and death.
I don’t think Gabeira should quit any more than Burlé, McNamara or the rest of them. I do think, however, that we are reaching a critical moment in extreme sports in which the meaning of life, and the meaning of sport itself is cannibalized by the search for the torrid spectacle of tempting death. It will be a hell of a show, but when it comes, let us never say that the blood of the young and reckless isn’t buried deep under our fingernails.