Wednesday, June 17, 2009

A model of women's surfing?

In case you haven't cottoned on, my interest in professional, competitive surfing is fairly limited. To be honest, I don't find it to be particularly inspiring or compelling and would much rather talk about surfing more generally - as something that people do as a part of their lives, not as their career. I don't have an issue with surfing as a sport, but it's just not my thing.

However, it is almost impossible to ignore the centrality of competitive surfing, especially since it's the version that is most regularly shoved down our throats by the media. The characters, the locations, the bodies, the rivalries and the impressive levels of skill and achievement provide any number of threads for writers and photographers to grasp onto and make into a story. It's developed into a dynamic and vibrant plate of fodder and, especially when it comes to the mainstream media, it provides evidence of all the surfing cliches that have been perpetuated since the early days of modern surfing - the brown skin, travelling, drug-taking, anti-social, language, cuteness and health. It all fits, even if it's not always comfortable.

Not only that, but the surfers are available. They need to promote themselves and so they're ready to interview, to be photographed and to put themselves up for exposure as a consequence of their chosen career path.

So it's no surprise to see a major American magazine taking hold of the delightfully photogenic and most marketable breed of surfers - teenage girls.

The latest edition of US Vanity Fair has published an article about women's surfing called 'Tubular Girls' (that's bad - even by my standards!) which features a quiver of stunning young women who surf, who are cute, sweet and most importantly look hot. Effectively, it's Hollywood surfing, it's Blue Crush* come to life - it's Blue Crush Illustrated!


A fleeting consideration of such an article and photo shoot (which I've only had online access to) may move you to declare "That's great! Isn't it wonderful that women's surfing is being recognised and promoted in such a big and widely-read magazine!" and to carry on with your day, warm with the knowledge that, at least intellectually, we are evolving as a species!

And it is great! In terms of opportunities, money and recognition women's competitive surfing still has far to go when compared to men's. Exposure in widely read magazines can be helpful in promoting not only the sport, but the women who participate. Obviously, there is also the bonus of exposure for the sponsors too, as evidenced by the centrally displayed logos of the girls' sponsors at every opportunity!

But articles like this one can be a little uncomfortable as well.


VF has created an illustration of surfing that plays into the Little Blonde Surfer Girl ideal that sometimes can be the case, but often is not. But let's not be naive here because VF is a major, mainstream, international, fashion and entertainment glossy - I mean Johnny Depp is on the cover!! The magazine most usually trades in beautiful people and they clearly managed to keep that agenda intact here by ensuring that anyone who doesn't fit the stereotype is omitted. It's difficult to critique who was and was not included in some ways because I don't know (nor am I interested in) the politics behind the shoot. Obviously photographing teenage girls (some as young as 14) will involve parents and sponsors as well as the magazine and lord knows who else.

This isn't really about women's surfing - not in Vanity Fair. This is about explaining the lifestyle that is meant to match your Chanel surfboard. This is about perpetuating stereotypes using the prettiest versions around. This is about selling magazines and selling product - the promotion of women's surfing and the girls themselves is consequential to that.

It's possible to over-analyse these scenarios to within an inch of their life, but in the end I neither judge nor blame the girls for snatching up an opportunity to promote themselves and their sport. If I was that hot I would too! It's just a shame that it's rarely actually about their surfing!



*Let it be known that I love Blue Crush. I really do! I think it's fab!

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