The Surf Sister Blog
‘This is a man's world, this is a man's world
But it wouldn't be nothing, nothing without a woman or a girl…’
—(James Brown, 1991).
When it comes to surfing it might appear that all it boils down to is riding waves. However, beneath the surface there are a myriad of tensions and negotiations taking place in which not all the parties involved operate on an equal footing. A critical issue here is the undercurrent of hegemonic masculinity within the surfing world. I use this term to refer to the socially constructed belief that male behaviour is the normative ideal (Donaldson 1993, p. 645), which is characterised by the tendency for males to dominate other males and to subordinate women (Nick 2009). Characteristics of this dominant model include the encouragement of aggression, strength and toughness in males and the discouragement of the same traits in females which have been common until recently in contemporary Western society and survive, unreconstructed, in surfing culture. Men still dominate the sport, despite the rise of women’s professional surfing, and it is the culturally privileged qualities of hard bodies and male on male bonding common to the most visible and highly valued sporting contests in the wider society that carry over into surfing culture.
In this article I explore surfing at the level of intimate experience, examine the homo-social bonds between men and the unspoken codes that regulate a line up. I will reference articles from surfing magazines as case studies to illustrate how the common codes of hegemonic masculinity are produced and reinforced. I will also draw on my own embodied research, coming from experiences surfing an iconic break on the New South Wales north coast.
Going surfing is one of the greatest pleasures that I engage in on an everyday basis, yet when I consult mainstream surf media I find the representation of just who surfers are distinctly skewed. In the mainstream magazines the representation of surfers to surfers, and beyond to a wider readership, is driven by gendered codes of conventional hegemonic masculinity. Ubiquitous throughout these magazines are images that, whether we realise it or not, shape and mold our ideas of gender and sexuality (Nick 2009). The pages are adorned with images of women in skimpy bikinis and chiseled, tanned men surfing aggressively. These magazines preserve the representation of hegemonic masculinity within surf culture. Men are glorified for putting themselves in harm’s way, taking off on dangerous, big waves with bravado.
Rebecca Olive argues that this performative display of courage describes the ‘monotonous, hyper-masculine narrative of surfing’s established history and myth’ (Olive 2009, p. 3). Such representations ring true in the visual codes of surfing magazines, with quotes splashed across the cover that exhibit male toughness, strength and ambition. In issue 306 of Surfing World, for example, the cover shot reads ‘Madness & Wisdom The Philosophy of Surfing’ (Blakey 2010). The text is a prequel to articles about surfers charging big waves and reflecting on their lives as professional surfers. All the surfers interviewed are male, confirming the ideal of male dominance in surfing and the discourse privileges qualities of hardness and tough bodies.
Although revered as a broad minded, open and carefree counter-culture, surfing can be interpreted in a very different manner (Booth 2001, p. 115). Exploitation of women reverberates throughout the sport. In the July/August 2010 issue of Stab there are two instances where such exploitation is demonstrated. In an article titled ‘Panama’, the author describes the environment, the waves, what to bring, the history of the country and, notably, offers advice on what to do if you don’t get waves.
Panama has plenty to do, especially if you don’t mind paying minimal cash for maximum sex. Prostitution is legal and government regulated here. There are an estimated 5000 hookers in Panama (Stab 2010, p. 85).
The author goes further, with detailed recommendations about whorehouses in Panama City (Stab 2010, p. 85).
This example illustrates the heterosexual norm that surfing magazines assume among their readers and reinforces the connection between the body and conventionally gendered constructions of masculinity. Clifton Evers argues that learning masculinity through the body enables us to negotiate and interact with the world and others (Evers 2008, p. 235) but these examples demonstrate how this indoctrination is produced and reinforced in surfing culture according to conventional gender codes.
The second example is the regular feature article in Stab titled ‘The Joy of Sex’. In the same 2010 issue, nineteen year old Ford Archbold answers questions relating to sex, girlfriends, turn-offs, g-spot technique, and the frequency of intercourse in a day (Stab 2010, p. 86). Archbold displays a typical, dominant attitude of men over women reinforcing the idea that women are disposable, anonymous and, as Rebecca Olive puts it, ‘a piece of flesh’(Olive 2009, p. 1). Archbold writes:
I’ve seen, like, so many friends get so whipped over chicks. I don’t think it’s worth having a girlfriend unless you’re going to get married (Stab 2010, p. 86).
These comments are characteristic of the masculinist discourse, long criticised by feminist writers, that represents women as either whores or wives.
Women Who Surf
It needs to be acknowledged that there are women surfers, a women’s professional world surfing tour and surf specific brands for women. Yet, against the backdrop of mainstream surfing magazines, women surfers are, in a sense, performing masculinity by adapting their demeanour to fit in with such ideals. Some women surfers, for example, have traded their bikinis for wetsuits, abandoning their femininity to conform to the dominant male presence in the line up. In these cases, masculine standards and values determine acceptable practice, to the extent that these successful women are, effectively, ‘doing masculinity’. In this regard, Rebecca Olive makes the point that although surfing is freedom personified the representation is always that of ‘white guys charging impressive waves ’(2011, p. 34).
This representation is the cornerstone to how surf culture is interpreted and provides the model for who surfers are, but the model does not hold up. Surfers ride all types of waves. To devalue the type of surfer one is, due to the size of wave one rides, is extremely narrow minded. Recalling a recent surf session with a friend, Olive was stung with the reality of such a value system. The friend, frustrated from not getting any credible waves in the busy line up came in and exclaimed that he was ‘going to find some real waves’ (Olive 2010, p. 35). The statement rocked Olive and diminished her sense of herself as a surfer. When seven times women’s world champion Layne Beachley gained exposure in 2009, she took on the notorious surf break, ‘Ours’, in Sydney. Flanked by the infamous ‘Bra Boys’, Beachley rode enormous waves that typically break just metres from exposed rocks, and in so doing generated extensive media coverage not only in surfing but mainstream news (Gee 2009).
I provide this as an example of a woman ‘doing masculinity’ by matching herself against male expectations. If the consensus was that Beachley was ‘gutsy’, women surfers already knew that from her fierce competitive record. This subsequent recognition may have served to confirm her dominance, conferred as it was by the judgment by the men who surf there, men who hold the power to decide who is and who is not a good surfer (Olive 2009). But, as Olive argues, to align herself this way, with a certain style of wave riding and the people associated with it, ‘validates them and their ideas and gives them more and more currency’ (2009). In effect, Beachley was left at the mercy of their acceptance by performing masculinity in this fashion.
Now, looking to an alternative entry point for women surfers we cannot ignore the importance of the male gaze. Sex sells, it is said. In recent times – you could call it the post-Beachley era – professional women surfers have been gaining more and more exposure based on the level of femininity outwardly displayed for the male gaze. Olive draws attention to the way the body has been an object for inspection and interpretation (2009, p. 2). Men paddle by, inspect a female surfer and ‘decide if they like what they see’ (2009, p. 2).
Twenty-six year old professional surfer Claire Bevilacqua recently posed, quasi nude, for international sporting publication ESPN magazine. In her interview with Stab Bevilacqua revealed that ‘A lot of the girls are getting more confident and realise they can make a good living from being marketable’ (Bevilacqua in Stab 2009). In fact, not only are they ‘marketable’, it is also argued that they are judged on looks more than skill. An article in a March issue of The Sunday Mail shed light on the rise in interest of women’s professional surfing due to the revealing outfits world tour competitors have been wearing and modeling for their sponsors (Western 2011). In fact, some surfers were allegedly shooting up the rankings due to their sex appeal rather than their raw talent (Western 2011). (It would make an interesting study to examine whether male surfers are increasingly being sexualized too for the viewers’ gaze, for marketing reasons.)
Despite the consensus that women’s surfing has reached a new plateau, dominant ideas around hegemonic masculinity continue to flourish. Western cites the attitude of one male surfer:
A few years ago they were ugly and weak. You could really tell they were a female surfer“ (Jamie Mather, cited in Western 2011).
However, Claire Bevilacqua holds a different opinion. She believes that female surfers ‘…don’t want to be boys anymore. They want to be girls on a surfboard’ (Stab 2009). This sexing of the body to outsiders may seem like a simplistic marketing ploy, however it might also reveal the extent female surfers are prepared to go to swing the hegemonic ideal towards femininity rather than the dominant masculinity. In either case, the effect of the presentation, it could be argued, still plays off dominant male expectations.
Surfing is an experience deeply felt within the body. ‘Only a surfer knows the feeling,’ states the 2010 Billabong advertisement. As Clifton Evers describes it Surfers are deeply connected to the ocean; they don’t ride on top of waves, they ride with waves (2008, p. 232). Evers believes the body is integral to understand how surfing culture works. Each wave ridden is a culmination of successfully interpreting codes, practices, riding techniques, rituals and power relationships within the lineup (2008, p. 231).
Evers focuses on the experiences shared by men who surf, and finds that doing masculinity is built on carefully managed feelings of intimacy between men (2008, p. 229). Male to male intimacy depends to a large extent on the exclusion of women, except in a sidelined, ornamental capacity.
Evers challenges R.W. Connell’s proposition that gender is central to the body in the development of masculinity (Evers 2008, p. 232). He believes that Connell’s construction of gender doesn’t take bodily feelings into account, relying too heavily as it does on socially-based masculine emotions (2008, p. 232). Let’s take, for example, the ‘stoke’ phenomenon. ‘Stoke’ is the surfer’s embodiment of satisfaction. Surfers experience ‘stoke’ in varying degrees throughout a surf session. If a newcomer surfer saunters into the line up you can be sure that the pack will not be stoked.
Surfing the iconic surf break Lennox Head, on the north coast of New South Wales, leads Evers to provide a similar description surfing his local break with the ‘local crew’ (2008, p. 236). The crew who surf there are extremely protective of ‘their wave’. They are bonded, as Evers notes, ‘by the fear, joy, and pride that their bodies go through together’ (2008, p. 236). Upsetting one of the crew would send shockwaves of anger through the entire cohort, demonstrating the bond these men share. As Evers puts it, ‘…my mate’s blood is the same as mine’ (2008, p. 236).
The bonds that these men share are felt on a social, physical and biological level and this is how they ‘do’ masculinity (2008, p. 229). Proving yourself to the crew is the ultimate expression of masculinity and can bring acceptance from the hardened men who regulate a line up. Summoning the courage to take on big, heaving waves and dropping into them with confidence leads to acceptance by the flock. Evers explains that these actions ‘prove to the boys I know how it feels’ (2008, p. 239).
How these line-ups regulate themselves may seem like a mystery to an outsider. To the inner sanctum, however, the intimate cues and unspoken codes are paramount within a mostly harmonious system of governing. Evers paints surfers as ‘superstitious, respect oriented, and [can be] a closed crew to outsiders’ (2008, p. 238) and David Sparks writes in Tracks that surfer’s instinctively lateral intelligence for reading the ocean is what sets them apart from ‘landlubbers’ (Sparks 2011). Sparks dubs this intelligence, which surfers mostly adhere to the world over, the ’self regulating lineup syndrome’ (Sparks 2011). Hour upon hour, day after day, lineups run like clockwork as surfers share the waves, with hardly a fight taking place.
What drives these lineups to remain peaceful and in harmony is an implicit pecking order. If a surfer doesn’t respect his place in the order, other surfers take it upon themselves to drop in on, snake, burn and, in worst cases, take on violent means to assert their authority. Better surfers are generally at the top of this pecking order, generally due to their ‘superior awareness of the conditions’ and their ‘vibe of confidence and competence’ (Sparks 2011).
Olive argues that such behaviour creates the differentiation between ‘those who belong and those who don’t’ (2011 p. 34). The pecking order can be interpreted as classifying those who are strong and those who are weak. However Sparks believes that the ‘weaker birds’ barely contest and are happy scrapping for the leftovers from the ‘big red roosters’ (Sparks 2011). Olive challenges this model and finds such a division of power alienating and disempowering to surfers (2011, p.34). She cites the shortboard revolution associated with high performance surfing as the catalyst to upholding surfing as ‘only for those with the “balls” to take part’ (2011, p. 34). This factor underlines a male dominance of the lineups and stresses the division that leads to women surfers feeling themselves to be a minority.
Mainstream surfing magazines continue to depict a model of hegemonic masculinity to the outside world. Images of women fall into one or the other of two categories, either as ornamental, or as performing according to masculinist codes. As women’s professional surfing increases in popularity, outward displays of femininity have crept into the spotlight as many cash in on the marketability of their body. Women surfers who challenge norms of subordination and tackle large waves continue to be misrepresented under a model of hegemonic masculinity. In either case, men rule.
For male surfers the body is the focal point to prove their masculinity and find their spot in the pecking order. Within the male dominated gendered ordering of the lineup, the loving brotherly bonds male surfers share are given acceptable expression.
In summary, surfing culture is an ongoing negotiation that both unites and divides through its representations in the media and the codes that regulate the exclusion and inclusion of members in the fraternity. Despite all this, all surfers continue to search for the embodiment of satisfaction called ‘stoke’ each time they enter a lineup.
Words by Alex Workman
Alex Workman in Byron Bay
“It’s all about the ‘stoke’...why else would you surf?”. Alex is a Media student majoring in Journalism. A keen surfer, writer and photographer Alex loves to combine his experiences into stories he hopes you will enjoy. If you’d like to see more of Alex’s work take a look here.
Blakey, V 2010 ‘Madness & Wisdom’, Surfing World, no. 306, Surfing World Magazine
Booth, D 2001, ‘Excerpt from Australian Beach Cultures, London, Frank Cass
Donaldson, M 1993, University of Wollongong, What is hegemonic masculinity’ , viewed 4 September 2010, < http://ro.uow.edu.au/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=1149&context=artspapers&sei-redir=1#search=%22hegemonic%20masculinity%22>
Evers, C 2008, ‘Queer Waves’, Kurungabaa, vol. 1, no. 2, pp. 1-5
Nick 2009, ‘Images of Hegemonic Masculinity Hegemonic Femininity and Sexuality on Magazine Covers’, viewed 5 September 2011, < http://www.sexandgender.net/author/nick/>
Olive, R 2009, Layne Beachley – one of the boys?, viewed 6 September 2011, http://kurungabaa.net/2009/05/18/layne-beachley-one-of-the-boys-by-rebecca-olive/
Olive, R 2009, ‘Ignorance Is Bliss’, Kurungabaa, vol. 1, no. 3, pp. 1-3
Olive, R 2011, ‘Wax On’, Kurungabaa, vol. 3, no. 2, pp. 32-35
Offord, B & Kerruish E 2010, Study Guide: Gender, Sexuality and Culture, Southern Cross University, Lismore
Western, P 2011, The Sunday Mail, Women’s surfing gets too sexy as competitors judged on looks more than skill, viewed 6 September 2011, http://www.couriermail.com.au/sport/confidential/womens-surfing-gets-too-sexy-as-competitors-judged-on-looks-more-than-skill/story-e6frepnx-1226016383019
Sparks, D 2011, Tracks, Bright Sparkes: Surfer Intelligence, viewed 6 September 2011, http://tracksmag.com/201108083528/Blogs/Tracks-Blog/Bright-Sparkes-Surfer-Intelligence.html
Smith, J 2010 ‘Panama’, Stab, July/August 2010 no. 43, Stab Magazine