Tuesday, December 20, 2016

Diversity is not a white woman

A couple of days ago, I saw this film about  19-year-old surfer Kadiatu Kamara (aka KK) from Sierra Leone. It's a mesmerising film, in which surfing is a very recognisable aspect of KK's life, whose life is, in some ways, very unrecognisable to my own.


(Check out the rest of the Surfs Up series at Nowness)

What I like most about this film is the lack of narrative about white people bringing surfing to an African community. In this film, surfing is KK's own, removed from California, Waikiki, the North Shore, Byron Bay, Biarritz, Tahiti... And yet, we can hear ourselves in KK's relationship to the waves - to that sense of removal from the mundane, the stressful or the sad.  KK's story is a surfing story, and yet it's something else as well. It's a story in which how we look, who we know, where we're local and have status is unimportant. It's a story that doesn't claim a place, or demand anything. It's a story that reminds me what surfing is about once you strip surfing culture away - that surfing is about our relationships to and experiences of places, water and our selves. Community can come into that, and skill can play a part too, but for KK, just being in the water on a board catching waves is the thing. She doesn't even talk about lots of waves - she's just seeking one!

One wave can change someone's world, let alone their day.

This clip, along with The Ghost Ship, Bernie Shelley's story about ageing and injury, have had me thinking about the kinds of stories we see in surfing. In particular, the kinds of stories we see about women in surfing.

For a long time, surf media represented women in ways that are sexualised and marginalised and really shitty. This wasn't always the case. From the early 1900s to the 70s, women were a visible part of surfing in mainstream and surf media. A couple of my colleagues recently discovered that, actually, women were the most represented group associated with 'surfing' in Australian media in the early 20th century! You can find their article here. (Email me if you have trouble and want to know more.)

And in the last few years, things have been looking up. More women are more visible in the surf everyday, competitive surfers are getting higher pay, and there are increasing opportunities for women across the surf media and industry. Surf magazines are going out of their way to feature women. The problems of course, is that features about women are still seen as a great achievement, rather than part of the surfing more usually. As I just wrote, magazines are going out of their way to do this.

And there's something else. As we see more women in surf media, I've noticed that in fact we see basically one kind of women - slim, tanned and long-limbed with long hair and a big smile across her face. With some Hawaiian girls and women making it big, the majority of those we see are white women, straight women, heterosexy women. Women who fit established ideals of beauty that Krista Comer describes as 'the clear eyed, super fit female surfer'. Some of these women are hyper sexualised (think Alana Blanchard and Laura Enever, and the back covers of Stab magazine), but that's not entirely what I'm talking about. Far from diverse, the women we most often see represented as surfers fit a mould of femininity that is accessible, palatable and marketable.

This has been playing on my mind a lot lately, evoked by the recent Billabong Women's campaign that took  their female surfer to Hawai'i to surf and film a bunch of things and to engage in live Q&A sessions with the girls and women on Facebook. While this group of young women are great surfers and seem to be really nice people, claims of their collective diversity are difficult to buy. Slim, long-haired, and feminine, they are, despite their difference, very similar. They're all even around the same height!

(via @seakin Instagram)

I should clarify here that I don't have any problems with any of the women who are participating in this campaign, and I'm stoked to see that women have so many more opportunities to be visible in surfing, as surfers, and to make some coin for doing so. I know and have a great affection for some of the women in the image here as well - they're smart, kind, fun people who are always lovely to have in the water. These women did not choose this campaign, they did not appear to be particularly stoked about being part of the live Q&A on Facebook, and I doubt they had much say in who was part of this whole thing.

That's all on Billabong.

And Billabong should be embarrassed at some of the activities they go these women to participate in. The live Q&A included questions about who they had a surf crush on (ever asked John John that?) and their favourite karaoke song. While there's surfing and rock jumping and fun-looking silliness, the whole thing feels one step away from a pillow fight!

Billabong aren't the only company to pull this shit. I remember a teenage Carissa Moore blowing a raspberry at the interviewer in the Roxy film, Shimmer, when they asked, 'Aussie boys or Hawiian boys?' I really love Carissa Moore. In the same interview, Kassia Meador answers the question, 'Is this the most stupid interview you've ever done' with a resounding 'Yes!' (Watch Shimmer here - the interviews are from 44.40.) So none of this is new. In Billabong's videos they got the women to line up and perform a parody hula dance, something that is a common tourist activity in Hawai'i. Hula is more than a cute summoning of (male) attention, but is an important and amazing form of storytelling. Billabong wouldn't ask these women to dance on the spot with feathers in their hair in a Cowboys-and-Indians parody of Native American dance, so why this? Again, I'm not finger pointing at the women in this clip, who I believe are committed to greater visibility for women who surf. I'm questioning the lack of sensitivity of Billabong's marketing and media folk, and the practices they promote as normal for women who surf.

What is great in this Billabong Women's campaign, is the emphasis on women's relationships with other women. These women all support each other and are playful in their relationship to the sea. They use different kinds of language and metaphors to describe their experiences of surfing, and focus on different aspects of surfing culture. It's also great that women's surfing in this case isn't only in the realm of high-performance competitive surfing. Like men's surfing, Billabong is using a range of people who surf well but not in World Tours as part of their brand identity. This is great news! And most especially, what this campaign does well, is highlight that women's surfing no longer requires men's surfing for commercial or recreational success.

Still, the women in this campaign deserved better. The women this campaign is aimed at deserved better. The live Q&As in particular brings up some awkward moments, with some women clearly uncomfortable answering the stupid format questions that get each of them to talk about how much they love bikinis.

Why couldn't we hear more about Josie Prendergast's family connections to the Philippines and how surfing fits into that? Why couldn't they get Lauren Hill to discuss her activism? Why couldn't Laura Enever be asked more about her experiences on Tour? Why aren't we treating the girls who these campaigns are aimed at as intelligent, thinking people, interested in politics and the environment as much as they are fashion and boys. They don't have to be mutually exclusive! Teen Vogue knows this, and their recent article, Donald Trump is Gaslighting America, should have come as no surprise to anyone who knows teenagers.

I suppose that what I'm most worried about with the Billabong campaign is that it is seen as representing diversity amongst women. It doesn't. These women in the campaign have a range of skills and identities, but collectively, they're pretty similar. I'm not suggesting that throwing someone like me in the mix would change anything at all either. While using me to sell bikinis might see your sales drop, and while I hate to admit it, I'm still a middle class, hetero, white girl whose body is comfortable in swimmers and who mostly conforms to the surfer girl stereotype.

It's women like KK and Bernie who offer new perspectives on women who surf. Women like Melissa Combo, Jodie Barsby, Isabelle Braly, Cori Schumacher, Keala Kennelly, Pauline Menczer (who, despite her World Champion title, never received a major sponsor, paying her own way over the years and surfing with severe arthritis), and Marg, Sally and Carol who star in Michelle Shearer's film, Women Who Run With the Tides. Women you know in your lineups but who don't get thousands of followers on Instagram or use #gurfer.

And I know this isn't only a story in surfing. Look at representations of yoga! Going by the most visible representations, you'd be forgiven for thinking on skinny white people are allowed. They're not of course, and there are an increasing number of diverse bodies presenting themselves online, my favourite being Jessamyn, who is incredible and talks openly about body image and her yoga practice. She's awesome.


We know full well that images have a big impact on body image, and research is showing that the constant stream of babes on social media is taking this to a new level. I've been thinking and talking about this a lot lately in my work in other realms, but it's a story that is increasingly coming to light in mainstream discussion as well. This story on Hack is a good example and links to the study I mention above.


My issue with all of this isn't about the privileging of slimness itself, but the effects of this privileging. I mean, look back at the Billabong photo. Who gets left out of surfing? Who can't see themselves? This is not a new argument about women collectively and we know that representation is an important aspect of encouraging participation and equity. So now that women are in the surfing frame of visibility, it's time for us to think about what that looks like. And for now it's white, hetero, slim, long-haired, young, smiley and bikini-clad. And while there's little that companies like Billabong who are are in the business of selling bikinis are going to do about it, those of us who write and take photos and edit and film should be thinking.

What are the stories we tell and who do they leave out?

More than anyone else this question is aimed squarely at myself. I am well aware that my own work has focused on women like me, and while we all like to think we're so different from the mainstream, I'm really not. I need to make an effort to tell more diverse stories, to listen to other women, and to step right back to allow for more diversity to emerge. It's not that the stories of women like me don't matter, rather it's that while we're still at this tipping point of greater visibility of women who surf in the media we should all push to do something different than how it worked out for men. We shouldn't just support the women around us and the women we know, but open up the discussion to include women we don't know, women we disagree with, women who challenge us, women who look different to us, women who will take up some of the space we've fought to have. We can do something bigger than allow companies to decide what surfing looks like.

And this isn't just about women. This is about people. Ted Endo recently published a great article about racism and surfing - one of a few he's written on this topic. We can pretend all we want that surfing is this inclusive, open activity and culture, but we'd be lying. I do feel like things are a lot better in the water than they are in the media, but the two are linked, shaping our ways of thinking and our assumptions about surfing.

We shape who is included and excluded in surfing in our everyday decisions - what we click on, what we read, what we watch, how we react, what we write, film, photograph, who we put on the cover is all political. These decisions can seem small at the time, but they are cumulative and come to tell a collective cultural story, to shape our cultural memory.

7 comments:

  1. Excellent, thoughtful story, Bec. I always enjoy reading your work. Warmest Aloha, Cher

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  2. Nick Carroll8:41 AM

    Bec I look around me at the modern surf culture in which I grew up and in which I swim every single day and I think it can almost solely be defined by exclusion. "Locals only". "Only a surfer knows the feeling". Paying for access to waves where other people aren't allowed to go. Secret Spots. I'm a super hero and you're not. On and on and on. The exclusionary urge is in a constant tug of war with the communal urge -- the boardriders clubs, the sense of fellowship and belonging that'll occasionally infect even the most rabid lineup - yet exclusion seems mostly to come out on top. The only weapon we have against the impulse toward exclusion is our curiosity about other people and about ourselves. I really love that you engage with this stuff in a curious and fundamentally warm way. Good on ya.

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  3. SO great Bec...Point well made. Love it!

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  5. Great post Bec. Thought provoking stuff, unfortunately I've always been disappointed by the culture of surfing. Not the process itself which can be selfish yet also communal at the same time as it can be triumphal and humbling. But the attitude and limited vision of the overall surf culture operates at a very basic level. It did seem to take on a broader outlook in recent years, but fundamentally not much has really changed. Sexism, racism, exclusivity are all pretty much front and centre in any frank appraisal of surfing as a culture. That 'surf culture' has now been firmly commodified and profits very rarely equal imagination or the pursuit of equality and diversity.

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  6. This article reminds me of an encounter I had a few years ago with a bunch of young girls in Bali on a high performance surf camp - they spent as much time reviewing their turns, perfecting their skills as they did worrying about what bikinis to wear to score the most instagram likes, which in turn scores the sponsorships.
    I love that you can be feminine and strong in your surfing and neither one is mutually exclusive but it was sad to see these girls tormented with what they know they must do to get sponsors.

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  7. Always time well spent reading your thoughts. Thanks for sharing, Bec. I like the comments above - though am not in the market for hot air oven. As airbus who photographs surfing, waves and has the occasional backhand reo while edging closer to Retirement, I liken your observations to the many layers of onions. Gender is definitely an issue. Localisim/exclusivity an issue. Ageism an issue. Only yesterday I saw McT's sponsored golden boy posting about wahines. It's part of the retelling of surfing history according to some sections of NSW surf culture who have never bothered to learn how things got to where they did in other states. It's also about exclusivity and race. I had the good fortune to swim around at Johno with a DSLR camera on a crowded arvo where drop ins were abundant. Some Kool Big Names were out there surfing well. Some athletic women were surfing well. Some old guys were giving it acrack. I didn't see any older women out. A few random beginners upped the Carnage Potential. In three hours of shooting only one surfer said g'day - a blackfella and we ended up splitting my commission when I got three pics of him published in the Koorie Mail. I did take some shots of some ladies surfing that arvo too - but the gender ratio was good thirty to one M:F. As an old sociologist bored with a popular culture dominated by Sydney, Melbourne LA and London, I welcome more thought pieces like yours. Merry Christmas

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