The Women and The Waves - film review

Several months ago, I got a bit of a shock when a friend of a friend sniped at me,

“Why do women surf and then make it all about gender?”

I’d like to point out that he was sitting next to me and rudely failed to introduce himself or to even look up from flicking through the Saturday paper. He was, as it transpired, a complete arsehole, but nonetheless I patiently responded…

“They don’t.”

He snorted and a rather discouraging and upsetting conversation ensued, but his question got me to consider whether women do make surfing all about gender? The short answer of course is no, they don’t. Being a woman in the surf can make surfing a somewhat specific experience, but this doesn’t mean that it’s always front and centre in our minds. Being a woman in the water can also mean negotiating a host of different issues or experiences than men, but it doesn’t mean that you’re always conscious of it. Just like the way I negotiate the guys behaviour in the water they have to negotiate mine too and that means both sides are dealing with gender differences.

Another way to answer the question could be “women don’t make it all about gender, men do”, which, of course, is just as true. I am rarely ever simply a surfer, but more usually a chick surfer, surfer girl, Gidget (ugh!!) or a woman who surfs. Everywhere I look, gender differences do loom large in surfing and in magazines, in films, online, in conversations or in the lineup female surfers are mostly spoken of or referred to in certain ways and those ways always, always, always refer to their gender. Certainly women’s surfing abilities are almost always described in comparison to what men can (supposedly) do - if she surfs well then she surfs ‘good for a girl’ or ‘she surfs as good as a guy’.

But you know what? Sometimes it’s not so unspoken or implicit. Sometimes you do think about it. Sometimes you reflect on how being a chick means having to deal with a whole heap of extra things that the majority of the surfing population - guys - don’t. The ways you are often looked at, treated, spoken about and spoken to can be horrible, patronising and downright rude and frighteningly sexist.

The Women and The Waves is a beautiful film that attempts to negotiate the tension that is inherent in that rude man’s question – how can I surf as a woman, without having to make a big deal of it? And it does it really well.

Heather Hudson and Peck Euwer manage to craft the interviews in such a way to show how women deal with the same issues as surfers that dudes do. They see themselves in many of the same ways, in the same waves, in the same culture. She sets them up as surfers by showing how they use the usual surfing language, ideas, stories, history, media and approaches to surfing to make sure that we understand they are, at the core of it, surfers - surfing and going surfing is central in these people’s lives. The surfing footage is really great with styles ranging from logging in small waves to charging at Waimea and everything in between. There are chicks who surf crowded Malibu and women who go off entirely on their own trekking, camping and surfing in rather frightening looking cold places. The surfing is really, really great and the surfers rip, tear, flow and glide with all the skill, dynamism and grace that we have come to expect from the level of performance shown in surf films.

But the film doesn’t only try to paint women as surfing in a man’s world. The interviews show how they also sit slightly differently within these discourses and the ways that being a woman means they negotiate surfing in their own diversely female ways. It’s not saying that they’re better or worse, it’s saying that women may take a different approach to surfing than guys but, um, well… so what? So what?!! Does it actually matter?

The women in the film approach surfing in distinct ways and with distinct challenges. Whether as surfing pioneers (Linda Benson, Kim Mearig), as soul-surfing hippies (Ashley Lloyd), as young chargers (Shakira Westdorp, Jennifer Useldinger) or whatever, these women seem to have taken approaches and dealt with some experiences that are not so commonly discussed in the surfing media. They talk about fitting their relationships, kids and the house-work in around their commitment and need to be in the water, to get waves. They talk about the expectation that they will always know every other woman and girl out in the water, just by virtue of being a woman themselves (like there is a real sisterhood in surfing, which, in case you were wondering, there isn’t). They confess that if they’ve been the only woman surfing a break for a while they can get a bit jealous when other women come out and surf well too – kinda stealing their thunder. They also talk about localism and aggression being a primarily male occupation and regulation, and that they’re not particularly interested in it. The conversations that emerge from the interviews are interesting and contradictory and really enjoyable.

The other interesting thing, I thought, was that friends and partners were included in the film. When you think over the surf films you’ve seen in your life, consider how many times a woman so much as rates a mention? My point here is that men can easily and happily go on and on about surfing without so much as considering women, let alone including them. And when they do, it’s usually some patronising comment about how they’ve realised that women can surf really well too or that it’s really great that they get out there (prime example was Dan Malloy narrating in The Present. Grrr!). As highlighted in all these films, men (think they) can surf without women, but women can rarely surf without men. And would they want to? I find I surf with women and men in equal numbers and I wouldn’t want it any other way. The Women and The Waves acknowledges the role that men play in our surfing lives by including their voices in the film. Yes, yes, the voices are resolutely positive and supportive, but these voices exist. They’re not patronising, but inclusive. They’re not making excuses but are telling stories - surfing stories. Surfing stories that include women as centrally as they include guys.

And yeah, I’ll admit that the film is also full of the usual kind of surf film images and clichés, which some viewers might find predictable at times, but these are important in setting the film up as being consumable by a surfing audience. I think it’s important that this is a ‘surf film’ in order that it can speak about surfing with some kind of genre-continuity and that it is not simply a girl-surf-movie. Because it’s not; it’s a story that is as much about your surf break as it is mine.

Often I read, hear and see stories that insinuate that women are increasingly ‘gaining access’ to the world of surfing. Such a comment makes me mad. It makes it sound like women want to surf just like men, when often this is far from the truth. Women want to surf and they want to do it however they like. What The Women and The Waves manages to show is that women aren’t gaining access to surfing because they don’t need to. Women are surfing and they’re surfing well and in greater numbers, and that might not fit the ideas and aspirations of surfing that many guys have but that’s bad luck.

Women surf.

They surf with aggression, with grace, with style, with courage, with fear, with trepidation, with flow and with power. And you know what else? Women surf with you.

You should see this film. It’s really, really good and I’m stoked that it’s out there!

Click for a link to buy this film. You know you want to!


  1. I love that idea of exploring the familial or relational side to surfing. Surfers and their counterparts. My wife doesn't surf, but she grew up in a family of surfers, at the beach. She has a different take on the whole thing that completely affects my surfing life. It is an interesting line of thought to explore.
    The struggle with femininity and masculinity is so far beyond surfing, the whole question is a given. The douchebag at the head of the post certainly did hit on something real, if he only went halfway with it as you point out.
    Great review. Super post.

  2. Thanks so much Toddy!

    I grew up around surfing but never started til I was nearly 30 because it all seemed so scene-y with all the guys. Maybe I was right, maybe I was wrong, or maybe I've lost perspective, but it's not as bad as I thought it would be, back in the day. And I reckon there's a lot of reasons for that (which is a whole other discussion)...

    But it's still challenging and, as you say, it all goes much further than just surfing.

  3. Anonymous12:37 AM

    As a non-surfer and 68 year old mother of a woman who surfs, The Women and the Waves and your essay speak volumes about the reality of our world. That men rule even as women make up more than half the population remains incredible. But, change is at hand. I find it remarkable that a WOMAN AND A MAN made this movie. Keep speaking up. Keep creating images. Keep person at a time.

  4. Thoughtful review Bec. Much appreciated. Women and the Waves is now on my must see list

  5. Thanks Mark.

    It's showing at the Byron Bay Community Centre on Jan 22nd if you're in the area...


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