As I was sitting listening to Paige Alms and Devyn Bisson talk about their film The Wave I Ride in front of an eager crowd at the London Surf Film Festival, I suddenly saw it: slow-moving at first, building in the distance, gathering momentum, the formidable, the unstoppable wave of change. That evening, it was clear a wave of change had finally come to professional female surfing, and this time it was big!
Both Paige as a big-wave surfer and Devyn as a surf film director are both heirs to a long tradition of surf feminism. Originally, feminism was a word unnecessary in a Hawaiian surf culture that was “abound with the exploits of those who attained distinction among their fellows by their skill and daring in this sport, indulged in alike by both sexes; and frequently too… the gentler sex carried off the highest honors.”
Then, as surfing became more commercial, its culture started mirroring the ownership of the businesses that sought to appropriate the sport: it became white and male. Storytelling became white and male.
“Not one.” Devyn lamented. “Not a single print mag did a cover on Paige’s wave,” referring to the Pe’ahi monster that earned Paige an XXL award nomination for Ride of the Year. “The reason I am following the guys’ contest is because their story is told. The girls’ story is not seen because it’s not told.”
And when it is told, Paige nails just how little understanding of drama event organizers seem to have. “Of course it’s so exciting to watch the men’s contest!” she says. “I like watching the women’s events, but only when the waves are good, and they so often put them in those wave that are… horrible! Anybody watching the guys in waves like that would say it’s lame!”
The Wave I Ride seeks to redress the imbalance. It tells the story of a young woman’s passion for big wave surfing, along with the usual battles big wave surfers face: doubt and determination, injury and recovery, crushed hopes and glorious victories, punctuated by the rarely-seen-on-screen banality of earning a living.
“You never know what the willingness of the lead character is going to be,” Devyn said about the film. “I am lucky we both have a very similar outlook on life that we were keen to portray. Paige didn’t want just to tell the story of her life, she always wanted it to do more. It became a film about what she lives by.”
In telling the story, the massive disparity between male and female surf sponsorship became very apparent. “I was really young and naive about what it takes to make a feature film,” Devyn said. “Around the time we started following Paige, she got a sponsor and that encouraged us to believe there would be more money coming through. We had started with crowd-funding, but went a year after that without any financial support. I was in complete shock about how hard it was to get a brand to support us. If it was a guy in the film, I could have got ten grand to back us. In the end, we only were able to finish the film thanks to private investment.” That investment, incidentally, mainly came from a female benefactor.
While money is a core issue, equal pay is only directly mentioned in the film once: December 2014, at the Oregon Dive N’ Surf Pro, the event where world-class big wave female surfers meet and compete for the first time. It was groundbreaking in itself. No prize money, but worth putting your life on the line for. Until that slightly soul-crushing moment when the generosity of the organizers scraping for a last-minute $5,000 bounty is exposed in its gender-bias: the men’s event received $50,000. Ten times the prize money.
After Carissa Moore publicly endorsed Paige’s continuous contribution to the sport, new girls started speaking out. Change has happened where it matters: at the top. With the arrival of the Ziff couple in the WSL family, many believe that it is Natasha, the true original surf fan, rather than Dirk, who is a driving force behind female pro surfing.
So are the days of the Reef girls coming to an end? The WSL might just about be on the road to change, but the rest of the industry still has some legwork to do. Nowhere is it more apparent than in free surfing. “While social media is allowing careers to spread out beyond the contests and people can share their story in a different way,” said Paige, “there aren’t many women who are free surfers. The only ones that are, are models.”
It’s often a strange dynamic for women on different sides of the coin. “All these girls are my friends, Alana is my friend, I’ve grown up with her,” Paige continued. “I didn’t want the film to be me calling my friends out. They are four or five years younger than me and they own homes, in Kauai, a million dollar property? Good for you! I don’t think anything bad about what those girls are doing and how they are doing it, it’s just not me. I want to show I am an athlete. I am doing things that they can’t do (like eating food!), because I make those decisions too.”
All that said, though, Paige and Devyn make a point of stating that “the film isn’t about the injustice of female big wave surfing. “It’s stated, but that’s not what it’s about,” Paige reiterates. “If we just stay quiet, things aren’t going to change. I want to be able to say I helped change the way female surfing was portrayed and looked at.”
Having seen with what determination she charges the biggest waves in the world, I have no doubt she’ll be able to do just that.