Editor’s note: A little over a week ago, Karen Knowlton wrote an article on Medium called “F*ck You Billabong. Seriously, f*ck you” – a hard-hitting albeit ranty opinion piece about the brand’s hyper-sexualized advertising of females in surf juxtaposed against Otis Carey lofting an enormous air as the face of the men’s side (read that here). The piece was shared far and wide, so we reached out to Karen to see if she’d pen us a follow-up piece for us.
I wrote “F*ck You Billabong” in a fit of a rage, then posted it within 24 hours. I had no idea it would blow up the way it did. I figured a few hundred people might read it but that the title and obvious emotionality would put others off. If nothing else, I was relieved to just get it off my chest. If even one person read my article and had a spark of realization that “oh yeah, that is super messed up for the homepage of a surfing company”, it would have been worth writing.
I shared it on my Facebook Tuesday and it took off from there. One friend posted it on her girls’ surf group in Bondi, and then Still Stoked shared it, getting lots more eyes on it. Wednesday and Thursday I started to get more and more traffic through Medium, then a handful of other outlets wrote pieces on Thursday and Friday and it spiraled out further.
I was so excited when I learned that pro athletes like Jamie Anderson had shared my post. I can only imagine how tough this stuff must be for female pros to navigate, across virtually every sport. Either cave to the pressure to market your sexuality, or miss out on well-deserved sponsorship deals in favor of someone less talented but more “marketable.” It’s insane to me that even at the pro level, and even in 2017, women’s sexuality is still more important than their skill. Surely we all deserve better than this?
“F*ck You Billabong” going viral has been a crazy experience beyond my wildest dreams. So many women wrote me to say thank you for writing this; thank you for standing up to this. So many men too, for that matter. The response has overwhelmingly been: damn right women deserve better, and good on you for saying so. It was incredible to read through all of the comments and to see all the people who shared it. It was also pretty incredible that Billabong changed their website. I’ve now seen two new incarnations, both featuring women actually surfing.
The people who didn’t like it fell into two camps. They either didn’t understand the point I was making, or they felt that since this must be what sells, there is nothing we can do about it. I disagree wholeheartedly. Billabong’s homepage was so tone deaf it was laughable. We need to push back on this stuff, as consumers, as people.
We all have a role to play in changing the culture, we are all responsible. I am responsible as a consumer for how I spend my dollars, for what companies and what messages get my vote. I am responsible for my clicks, for resisting the cheap and easy clickbait of hyper-sexualized images or outrage mongering designed to drive ad revenue. I am also responsible for speaking out when I think something is wrong, even if nobody cares or people think I’m crazy.
Media reflects culture, but it also shapes culture. Companies like Billabong, who have such a wide reach, have the power to shift cultural perceptions of women in sport. They are such a huge company, they could be a leader in this. Billabong could take responsibility for the impact they have, and accept the challenge of making that impact positive on girls and women. Sure it might be tough at first, but they would earn true customer loyalty and be ahead of the curve when other big brands catch on too.
I’ve had two different athletic brands reach out to say my message really resonated with them and that they want to talk further about their own marketing. These are the brands of the future, brands who listen to their customers and have the humility to embrace change.
We are waking up to this stuff as a culture. It is happening, otherwise my post wouldn’t have struck such a nerve. This gives me hope.
Surfing taught me to fight hard for what I want and to seize the opportunities that come with faith that something miraculous is possible if I take that leap. This has been an amazing ride so far, and I hope there’s more to come.