Saturday, September 16, 2017

Memorialise this! - Politics of inclusion in surfing history

My home town, Byron Bay, is renowned for the number of women who surf there. It’s a point of pride that at some breaks it’s not unusual for women to outnumber men, and women also shape the aesthetic associated with Byron – nonchalance, femininity, grace, colour, and an unashamed preference for smaller peelers. You will have seen this in the many, many, many images and videos and stories of women surfing there, and the many, many, many Instagram posts by women of them on the beach, with familiar lines north coast hinterland acting as a backdrop across the bay.

Women’s surfing in Byron is a robust and highly visible affair, and this has meant opportunities for women to start out here in the surf industry, taking roles or building businesses of their own as surfers, social media celebrities, photographers, surf wear producers, writers, and even researchers! If you took women away from lineups today, all you’d have left is a 1980s issue of a Tracks magazine shoot, and a lot of confused and pretty bummed men.

So when I saw this news piece in the ABC yesterday, I was a bit confused.

Surfer Pauline Menczer is a world champion so why isn't her name on Byron Bay's honour roll?


This is in reference to a mural about surfing that has been in a Byron laneway for some years now. The mural included a list of famous Byron surfers. It’s opposite the Great Northern Hotel, and has been there for years. I don’t notice it much. In a nod to the continued impact of city-lovers on the Byron landscape there’s a current project to reinvigorate this particular laneway. Admittedly, as far as new residents changing the town, painting a laneway and getting buskers to play is much less controversially impactful than other "let’s-build-a-new-suburb-with-inadequate-infrastructure" developmentss, but there are still politics of space and community that come into play.

In this case, it seems, women, including World Champions, have been left off the updated honour roll, which, given everything I began this post with, seems odd. And annoying. And disrespectful. Because not only are women a vibrant part of the recreational surfing scene today, they have been for many, many years. In the boardriders clubs – shortboarding and longboarding – and in local, national and international competitive scenes.

As well Pauline Menczer – World Champ in 1993, her story is AMAZING, you should look her up and read about her – Byron Bay has been home to a number of successful and inspirational competitive women surfers, who led the charge for where we are today, and deserve especial recognition for doing so in an era when women’s surfing received little attention or support. Without making any effort at all, I can tell you that Jenny Boggis, Laurina McGrath and Julie Morris were surfing and competing while we were at high school, rare female faces amongst all the teenage boys, a lack of sponsorship support making it especially challenging to stay on tour. In longboarding, Isabelle Braly has competed on the Women’s World Longboarding Tour while living in Byron, while Roisin Carolan continues to dominate the local and national women’s competitive scene.

And keep in mind this is a two-minute consideration of competitive surfing (which isn’t even the space I think in very often) written in a café, as I am running late to meet friends!

Women, like men, in Byron Bay, have contributed to more than competitive surfing, but have also shaped surfing culture in Byron Bay. Just last weekend, there was a big paddle out to celebrate the life of Elaine Reid, who, along with her dear friend Yvonne Pendergast, has been at the heart of surfing in Byron Bay since the 1960s. These women are as much a part of surf history here as any of the men, and continue to make contributions through community work and encouraging kids to get in the sea.

At this point in time, if you’re working on an Honour Roll and you have no women included, you need to stop. If you are the kind of person who wouldn’t notice such a thing, then you need to consult with other people. If you’re the kind of person who doesn’t care about this, then you need to take a long, hard look in the mirror and think about what a terrible dinosaur you are. It is no longer acceptable to continue with this great surfing tradition of “chicks don’t surf” which was never true anyway, and is a misnomer that reveals more about the person saying it than it does to reflect any kind of historical or current reality. Excluding women from murals like this is lame and disrespectful and damaging and untrue, and they do a dis-service to everyone in the town.

And look, this is the first I’ve heard of this, so it’s a bit rich of me to jump in and critique without knowing all the details. I fully admit that. I’ve not been spending much time at home this year, and I didn’t see the debate that surrounded the decision about who to include. But the politics about who we memorialise in public tributes is not an unfamiliar topic for me, nor should it be for anyone else – the debates about statues arising from Charlottesville in the USA have highlighted how statues (and other memorials) act to privilege certain kinds of histories in certain kinds of ways. I’m not suggesting that this mural is anything so horrible as celebrating wars to maintain practices of slavery, but the notion of what is rendered worthy of remembering through public monuments resonates here.

The article proposes a separate “Women’s Honour Roll”, which I think is a terrible idea. Separating women from men in how we think about and celebrate surfing bears no resemblance to what surfing looks like or is. Sure, it is in a competitive sense, but that’s problematic too, and replicating those separations through a memorial shouldn’t be our goal. Women’s surfing is not lesser, nor should it be suggested to be so.

Because women shouldn’t ever be an afterthought in thinking about the past in Byron Bay, in surfing, or in any other history.

6 comments:

  1. The more things change.....

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  2. Go Rebecca! To add: I recall Pauline Menczer also being on that notorious long list of women denied sponsorship because she didn't have "the look" that was wanted. That came when she was world champion!!!

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  3. "...you need to take a long, hard look in the mirror and think about what a terrible dinosaur you are." Best line ever. I love your truth-o-meter!

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  4. "...you need to take a long, hard look in the mirror and think about what a terrible dinosaur you are." Best line ever. I love your truth-o-meter!

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  5. Considering the aura of surf mysticism that surrounds, or drowns, Byron Bay today, this comes as a bad surprise for me. Are we back to the exclusion theme? I'd like to know more about that. :(

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    1. I know, huh. It's so disappointing. Byron trades on the idea that it's different when it comes to surfing, but it's not. Not really. I mean, you can go and get more party waves, and there are more women in the water and longboarding is dominant, and individual women take amazing and inspiring approaches to not playing the hierarchical game in the lineup, but I'm not convinced that translates into broader structural changes. This is one example. Like I said, it's disappointing.

      I'd love to hear about some of your experiences surfing down there though, Fed. Whether and how you see this aura of mysticism manifesting, or not...

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