You may have read the flood of outrage recently surrounding images on Billabong’s website. A post by Karen Knowlton, irritably titled “Fuck you Billabong. Seriously, fuck you.” appeared on Medium. In it, she expressed her disgust at imagery featured on the site. Billabong had featured a male surfer boosting an air to advertise their men’s range, whereas on the women’s side a female posed in a bikini. Knowlton asserted that this was a highly inappropriate way to sell women’s surf apparel. Her complaint went viral. She wrote about it again here. Billabong addressed it and responded to the critique. Yesterday, Keala Kennelly, a former Billabong surfer and champion of big wave surfing, weighed in with some thoughts of her own.
Chances are you know who Billabong is. They haven’t been a core surf brand for quite some time. Alongside Quiksilver, Rip Curl, and Hurley they comprise a quartet of brands that cashed in on surfing’s adoption into the mainstream in the ’80s and ’90s. However, in more recent years they’ve gone through some pretty tough times. In 2013, they nearly folded altogether before conceding a majority stake to Oaktree Capital and Centerbridge Group in exchange for a hefty loan. Recently, shares in the company plummeted again to all-time lows indicating that they are far from ensuring their survival long term.
So, against this sort of backdrop, up to the neck in debt, shares virtually worthless, what options do the company have? Well, I suppose they could gamble on reinventing surf culture and altering the hyper-sexualized paradigm of modern media. Or they could just stick to what works. After all, Billabong, Quiksilver, and Rip Curl didn’t make their millions by selling shorts to surfers. If a company ostensibly based around surfing hopes to turn a profit, they had better be targeting a mainstream customer base, and, sadly, that most likely means using images of female surfers which are a little backward when it comes to equality.
How long do you think “surf brands” would last if only female surfers bought bikinis? Karen Knowlton concedes in her post that “sex sells.” Right or wrong, that’s a fact. People love having sex! Love it. Billabong is a corporate entity battling to stay relevant in capitalist markets. They’re not in a position to take gambles or attempt to recalibrate the damaged image of women’s surfing.
And why should Billabong be a paragon anyway? Why should surfing? I see far more gratuitous and sexualized imagery of women outside of the surf industry on a daily basis. You only need to scroll through Instagram to see millions of women happily playing along. Why not attack the women promoting these images? I don’t see anyone telling them to go fuck themselves. If these women are openly peddling this sexist branding, and willingly profiting from degrading imagery, then who is at fault?
And if you must have a public outcry, how about mainstream sports with broader appeal and far greater reach than surfing? How about launching your vitriol at the UFC or the NBA?
I’ve just watched Floyd Mayweather beat Conor MacGregor in front of potentially the biggest audience in sporting history. The commentator claimed a billion people were tuned in. And you know who got almost as much screen time as the fighters? The girls in tiny bikinis with “Corona” logos barely squeezed on. What was their purpose? They stood like ornaments, prominent in every camera shot, with smiles painted on their faces. Talk about objectifying women. That’s marketing, and that’s the world we live in.
I look forward to “Fuck you, Corona. Seriously, fuck you.” Will you send it care of the UFC, or the WSL?
While you’re at it, why don’t you pen one to the NBA and the NFL? Or better still, American culture as a whole? You should probably start with cheerleading or any of the other countless examples of exploitative pageantry.
At any rate, all this drama has served to do is drive more attention to Billabong, the brand, which was their aim in the first place. You could say it’s been a marketing coup. So for that, I say well done, Billabong. Seriously, well done.
Overtly sexualized advertising gets attention, in surfing or anything else. Complaining publicly about it serves nothing more than to offer a blueprint for other brands who wish to get noticed.
Whenever brands are accused of promoting demeaning images of women in surfing there is an outpouring of criticism, yet nothing changes. Why? Because it’s not surfing’s problem. Sure, surf companies could try to set an example, they could try to be the guiding light. But there’s not much money in that.
Billabong is not a person. It’s not even a group of people. It’s an asset management company. The husk of what was once a core surf brand. They care about profit, margins, and effectiveness. It’s not their goal, nor their responsibility, to change a culture.
Maybe once upon a time, when brands like Billabong existed only for surfers and were owned by actual people, maybe then they could be held accountable, but not anymore. Their only crime in this instance is to use some pictures which align with mainstream expectations.
I don’t expect you to feel sorry for Billabong. If the company folded tomorrow, I would think it a shame from a nostalgic standpoint, but I wouldn’t dwell on it. But Billabong is not responsible for the wider perception of female surfers and our attitude towards women’s surfwear. They’re just trying to sell bikinis.
Editor’s Note: Opinions expressed by contributors are their own. View a variety of different takes on the matter below: