Much reporting and discussion about the recent riots at the US Open has been floating about that highlights the disconnect between how the surfing lifestyle has been marketed by Big Surfing and how it is lived. The important distinction here is the epic gulf that exists between surfing-as-a-business and surfing-the-activity.
A list of supposed riot provocateurs can be found everywhere: half-naked girls, crazy tourists, local and inland trouble makers–nearly all white and privileged (living in the area and/or traveling to the area denotes a certain privilege). No surfers, the surfers say, only the non-surfy types.
“Orange County has the highest concentration of Nazi skinheads outside of Cologne, Germany. I’m not sure how old that fun fact is. But the gangs were here; there are remnants of it. Just today Deanna shot a photo of a guy with a white power tattoo on his chest walking shirtless down Main Street.” -Ed Templeton in Ed Templeton’s Huntington Beach
This conversation is going on everywhere online as surfers struggle to disconnect themselves from the media hype that lumps the spectacle audience with surfers. “They’re ruining our image!” So says the surfer.
Yet it must be understood that these non-surfers, these lifestyle purchasers, these spectacle moths are the very target market of Big Surfing. Big Surfing will not grow its profits if it does not find new sources of revenue, new markets. This can mean new surfers but more often it means advertising to those willing to buy into an image, an image that is white, heterosexual, sexy, care-free, spontaneous, rebellious, and overflowing with energy drinks and booze. We know surfers themselves are more and less than this image, but Big Surfing has set and stuck by this stereotype for over 30 years. So what happens when those who buy into the image actually live by this illusion effectively manifesting this image in action after being caught up in the spectacle that is meant to be an immersive experience for the audience?
“Why choose Huntington as the… US Open venue? ‘Easy access for the inland masses’ (from the official event program ).” -Tweet from Matt Warshaw, July 30
Why isn’t Big Surfing embracing its audience?
While surfers and surf brands alike spend their time distancing themselves from the white, privileged port-a-potty pitchers documented on video and in photos from the riots floating around the internet and admonishing the non-surfyness of the crowds, few are discussing why something like this has happened (twice now) in Huntington Beach–one of the most important locations for Big Surfing in the world.
With so much back and forth in our talk about how surf brands have or have not disconnected from “the core,” it is in these moments of rupture and riot that we can see exactly what we mean by disconnecting from the core. At the very least, the question “what is the core” seems to be obvious to all surfers at last: not those port-a-potty pitchers.
Yet here we are faced with a problem. Unless we examine why these people were drawn to the spectacle of the US Open and its attendant “vendor village” scene, we will only be seeing a repeat in this cycle.
It is disturbing, yet predictable, that Big Surfing only accepts responsibility for positive shifts in the culture, even when these shifts are the result of individual achievement or due to external culture shifts (as with the mid-1990s American cultural shift that encouraged athleticism in women that Roxy, et al., took advantage of quite successfully). When something negative or scandalous happens, it chops off the foul mouthed, eliminates the most visible portions of the trouble and rejects any claims that entrenched trends ought to be examined and corporate brands held to account.
Once again, we can use how women are used to sell product in surfing. “This is not your daddy’s US Open,” said one commentator during the event. I wish someone could have tallied how many of these “half-naked, underage girls” were wearing bikinis sold by surf brands and on display in the huge surf retailers lining Huntington Beach’s Main Street. In fact, many of the stories from the US Open post-riot brought up these half-naked girls in such a way that, along with beer, it should have been obvious that trouble was brewing as if the very presence of young girls in bikinis was one of the triggers for the violence of the riots.
Yet, just a short time ago, we as a culture were discussing the merits of selling sex (promoting sexy to those who want to fit into or emulate the culture) that many argued was a harmless and even valuable mode of expressing yourself as a female! Doesn’t this very mode of sexualizing the sport set up the expectation of what ought to be on display at a surf spectacle?
The US Open is a mirror for the industry, a chance to gaze into the faces of those it markets to, and to experience the personification of the image it has created and maintained over time. It is very strange indeed to watch Big Surfing pull back from the very consumers it is beholden to for its profitability. The mirror that the US Open is for Big Surfing is one that should be taken quite seriously. It isn’t rioters who are ruining the image of surfers, it is Big Surfing itself.
You might argue that this is not the case, that surf events go off around the world without these crowd responses, but I would argue that no other place has been as saturated for as long with Big Surfing and the lifestyle it markets quite like the Huntington Beach area. Add to this a Southern California ethos that is entitled and malignantly individualistic and Surf City, USA, during the US Open will continue to be a pulsating bomb ready to blow. Big Surfing needs to be held accountable for the images it has created and promotes while being strongly and constantly encouraged to adjust the culture it projects towards a more culturally responsible, healthy, values-based ideation. Still, one wonders if Big Surfing has the will.
(This piece was originally published in a slightly altered form under the title “I Predict a Riot, US Open 2013” on corischumacher.com.)