Surfing is having its own #MeToo moment and the reckoning is long past due, surfer Trevor McKewen explains.
In a galaxy a long, long time ago, I started surfing and there were no women.
Actually, it wasn’t a galaxy. It was Main Beach on the Gold Coast in the mid-1970s as a recently transplanted Kiwi teenager. But there were no women – at least not out on the water. Their role was to watch in bikinis from the beach and genuflect to our obvious talent (watch the Australian TV series Puberty Blues set at Sydney’s Cronulla Beach in the same era and you’ll get my drift).
It wasn’t good now when I look back. For all its wanking on about soul, spirit and couscous porridge, surfing has by and large been a cruelly misogynist sport (sport is the wrong word actually. For the committed, surfing is a lifestyle that all else, including work and where you live, revolves around). From the masochistic world of conquering big waves, through the various incarnations of professional surfing over the past three decades (the latest being the World Surf League), to simply trying to get a one foot learner wave on a quiet east coast morning, surfing and male surfers have ensured it has been a rough ride for women.
If you think the huge disparity in men’s and women’s prize money in the South African WSL-endorsed event is on the nose, how about this one for curling your hair?
Not that many years ago, a major surf event in Whangamata run by Surfing New Zealand paid the winner of the accompanying bikini girl beach contest more than the woman who won the female surfing division of the competition. I kid you not.
My younger brother has shaped the surfboards Paige Hareb, New Zealand’s most successful ever surfer, has been riding for more than a decade. Through that connection, and as surfer myself, I have taken a personal interest in her journey.
For a time pre-GFC, Hareb was sponsored by Australian surf company Billabong. Like the other brands in surf retail’s Aussie Big Three, Quiksilver and Rip Curl, Billabong almost exclusively presented its female products on the bodies of models who didn’t even surf, rather than use any of its sponsored female athletes.
I remember walking down Wellington’s Lambton Quay one day during the booming surf retail days and seeing big outlets with massive surfing imagery from the Aussie Big Three plastered all over their stores. The male branding was of the Kelly Slaters and Mick Fannings in surfing action on waves in exotic locales. The female branding was exclusively of impossibly skinny bikini-clad girls wistfully strolling deserted tropical beaches, seemingly just waiting for their man to come in out of the surf before presumably whipping off their Roxy string bikini in a hut on the side of the jungle.
It’s little wonder some of the women competing on the WSL’s female tour – and those aspiring to make a living out of surfing – felt the pressure to sell themselves as sex objects, if only to survive on the championship circuit.
Hawaiian Alana Blanchard is known for having ‘the best bottom in surfing’ – when in fact her bottom turn (a surfing manoeuvre in case you’re wondering) is better than most male surfers will ever master.
The system pushed an unhealthy number of these girls to draw attention to themselves by means of posing nude for a (predominantly male-read) magazine, wearing microscopic bikinis while free or competition surfing, and cluttering their Instagram feeds with sultry pictures of themselves.
But the fightback has begun.
Surfing’s sisterhood – led by strong role models such as Australia’s multi-world champion Stephanie Gilmore and our own Paige Hareb – is propelling the sport/lifestyle to its own #MeToo movement and forcing an overdue reckoning.
Gilmore is stunningly attractive but her persona is more intelligent and athletic-girl-next-door than vampy wave-master. She has refused to fall victim to surfing’s pervasive misogyny and has instead won people over by sheer performance and personality.
Along with Gilmore and other strong-minded Australian surfers like Sally Fitzgibbons, Paige Hareb has held the line too, refusing to lower her personal standards in return for a higher profile in lad-land, and the more dollars that come with it.
“Women’s surfing is becoming more like men’s surfing, which is awesome to see and more people are actually wanting to watch the women because it is just as amazing and exciting to watch now. The future is only going to be better and better,” Hareb said recently.
I think she’s right and within the above quote lies an important point. Gilmore, Hareb and the other 15 elite surfers on the women’s tour surf better than 99% of this water-sodden globe’s male surfers. Don’t underestimate that factor as part of changing male attitudes.
I used to cover the world surfing circuit for the Gold Coast Bulletin. When I first started, there was no women’s pro surfing circuit. It was men only. Women’s contests started in the 1980s along with a pro tour. But it was token. If it was a men’s and women’s event, the “girls” were thrown in on the flatter days or when the tide wasn’t right yet for the men to show their ‘superior’ talents.
But in recent times the World Surf League has seen the light – and truth be told, so have most male surfers.
The World Surf League is run by the very capable Sophie Goldschmidt, a career sports administrator who is proving herself to be especially savvy and visionary – and also, importantly, committed to changing the sport’s Neanderthal ways.
Earlier this year Goldschmidt issued an edict that the camera personnel who film WSL events for surprisingly large worldwide audiences were not to zoom in on women competitors’ backsides.
“All cinematographers have been instructed to exercise discretion while shooting the women’s heats. Cinematographers must be careful to be zoomed out during bottom turns or duck dives,’’ said Goldschmidt’s memo.
In the meantime, another strange thing happened.
As the WSL tour trekked around the globe and the female surfers were exposed to similar wave quality and conditions as their male counterparts, the standard of their performance rose dramatically.
The internationally surf media (not traditionally paragons of inclusiveness and diversity) noted the trend and changed its editorial tone accordingly. The sneering about women’s performance compared to the men – a dominant theme of the past – is now all but gone. The nature of surf magazines and online sites is changing.
One keen (male) observer even told me he enjoyed the women’s contest more than the men’s on the last stop on the WCT tour at the famed left hand break of Uluwatu in Bali. “More style, more grace…a lot of them have a better flow than the men,” he said.
There is still a way to go. The women’s prize money on the elite WCT tour is only 60% of what the men can earn. There are fewer women competitors than men allowed on the tour. The World Qualifying Series (the second tier international tour) is even worse. But I suspect Goldschmidt has that issue within her crosshairs too.
Equal prize money is the obvious next step for competition surfing. Surfing New Zealand can show the way on that one in this country. After all, the organisation’s figurehead surfer is a woman who has shown the way and inspired an entirely new generation of girls who now enter the water without the anxiety, sense of inferiority and fear of the past when paddling into a crowded pack of wave-hungry male surfers.
Their presence makes a world of difference in the water.
The testosterone level drops, the males start behaving themselves, the conversation between waves is gentler and more positive when there are women in the line-up. The stoke level – to use that old surfing expression – rises. Surfing becomes fun again instead of a shit-fight.
What happened in South Africa last week will soon be an anomaly of the past.
Don’t judge surfing or surfers on that one story.
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They’re getting their act together, even if it is overdue.
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