Silence

To sin by silence when they should protest makes cowards of men.
Abraham Lincoln

In between the lines of text in surf magazines; in between the commentary and sound bytes in surf competitions; around the edges of surf advertising: there is a silence. In that silence is a message. It is a message only if you look for what is missing. What is missing is outrage. And in that lack of outrage is an implicit agreement that women’s surfing is not really important in surfing.

The ASP is maintaining a structure that disadvantages female surfers and encourages blatant sexualisation of women. This exploitation is being used to market the sport even as women are treated as inferior and told they are not really deserving of decent competition locations or prize money.

spotthedifference

This is not the line you’ll hear through official channels, of course. Women are told their time is ‘coming’. They’re the next big thing. Some of the people who are saying this actually genuinely believe it. But many of the arguments given for women getting less respect in the meantime, seem to focus on the idea that surfing isn’t as big for women; that women don’t attract sponsors; that women don’t surf as well as men. There seems to be no suggestion that the sport’s treatment of women is to the detriment of female performance in surfing.

Women are consistently being used by surfing to sell the sport to men. What impact does this have on women’s surfing?

Surfing has sexualised women to the point where surfing media no longer recognises the extent to which women are marginalised in the industry. In this article by Emma Rogan, Sam McIntosh, founder of Stab Magazine, was genuinely surprised that an audience found his depiction of women in surfing disturbing.

Focusing on appearance in magazines, in advertising, in competition commentary, and constantly suggesting that surfing is ‘glamorous’ is  a way of forcing female athletes to put emphasis on appearance, in order to satisfy gender expectations within society. This distraction can serve to steer energy away from athletic perfection in order to serve commercial interests. You’ll twerk on a beach for attention, wear inappropriate gear in cold water to show off your body, get photographed naked in a magazine- all because if you just prove you are worthy of attention, you might attract a sponsor, and then you might start to be taken seriously.

Sex sells. Until it doesn’t. And then, you give less money to women. They don’t surf exactly like men, partly because they also have to satisfy expectations of their sexuality and appearance, so you get to justify it that way. Here’s a third of the prize money that the men get, and a photo shoot for a magazine. Right after they bend over that chair, of course, and look sexy. And so the cycle continues. Conform to this, you might get that- eventually.

Female professional surfers don’t have representation in the ASP to challenge this imbalance.  Search in vain for the Women’s Tour Manager giving Roxy a blast for promoting ‘sexy’ to the detriment of women’s surfing. She’s only the Deputy Commissioner for the ASP. The Deputy Commissioner for the ASP has no comment? Women earn a third of what the men win as prizes and cope with inferior locations while she remains silent. If your tour manager can’t seem to advocate for equality, what do you do as an athlete?

Hell, what do we do as an audience?

The way surfing treats women is a message to everyone. If they’re not standing for equality then neither are we. Advocating for sexism demands less of everyone in society. As an audience, our silence is considered complicit. We give power to the exploitation of women in surfing by watching and not speaking up.

Yes, we are all outsiders, jumping in with an opinion on surfing’s impossible wet dream. But then, there is ample evidence of a tradition in society of defining others, where any form of diversity is put in a box, labelled and ignored. Surfing is good at this. There’s a reason why it is so homogenous and has persisted with outdated attitudes. That’s the cost of our silence.

Of course, when you speak up, you will be defined as an intruder by the community. Have your surf snaps ready. Speak surfy surf please. Show respect for that anonymous handle masquerading as a surf editor masquerading as an anonymous troll masquerading as some russian doll internet phenomenon that you’re not meant to link to their actual work as a surf editor, thanks very much. A moment’s silence, please, while the professionals on twitter step up and put us in our rhetorical place. 

And may that be the only moment of silence we hold for such vapid, superficial stupidity.

Consider the consequences of continuing to stand mute on the sidelines for fear of being challenged. That sound? The impossible sound byte of stupidity you hear? The comments you read? That’s the sound of unchecked privilege. Take a moment. That is the current value of surfing.

What is valuable in surfing is not an aerial move or a point or an online debate. It is not even the thrill of your first caught wave or getting barrelled. No, what matters in surfing is its community.

He aha te mea nui o te ao? He tangata! He tangata! He tangata!

What is the most important thing in the world? It is people! It is people!

~Traditional Maori Proverb

The way we treat people is the true measure of success. Surfing? It’s marginalising women in an effort to conform to society. If that hasn’t worked for society, why should we hold such low hopes for surfing? Why shouldn’t we demand more of the ASP?

What Price Progress?

Whenever I see people arguing for surfing to be included in the Olympics I think to myself, “That makes perfect sense. With all the cities losing money on hosting the Olympics, what we need is Big Surfing to further exploit that for their own interests. Just like they exploit the sport, the athletes, and the environment, Big Surf needs an exploited audience to further their dreams for profit. And why should Big Surf focus on looking after the athletes it currently has when it can get away with paying the women considerably less and fining anyone who speaks up against it?”

In this article, Fernando Aguerre, President of the International Surfing Association explains why surfing is appropriate for the Olympics:

The key factors in determining a sport’s suitability for the Olympic programme include youth appeal, universality, popularity, good governance, respect for athletes and respect for the Olympic values.

Let’s deconstruct why Big Surf thinks surfing matches those ideals, from the perspective of a woman who has noticed that Big Surf doesn’t actually value women athletes and pays them less than half what they pay the male competitors.

Youth Appeal

Big Surf’s advertising relies on what much of advertising relies on- the appeal of youth and the pursuit of youthfulness. The recent Roxy teaser promoted sexuality as an integral part of this, but the sport itself goes further by referring to its athletes as ‘girls’. Young women in their twenties are defined as female children. Anyone ever think it was a bit odd that surfing commentators never called the men on tour boys? When are these ‘girls’ allowed to grow up?

There is of course, another side to this ‘youth appeal’ and that is that many brands consider their most important source of revenue to be children. The Olympics is as guilty as Big Surf of hoping to promote themselves to younger audiences who cannot distinguish fact from opinion and are vulnerable to suggestion. There are groups working to promote laws to stop advertising being directed at kids for this reason. Many websites set up for children are there to develop brand recognition and loyalty before kids can even critically think. Surfing’s youth appeal? A carefully managed advertising strategy that hopes to further capitalise on this.

You might argue that sport is good for kids. Not necessarily. In particular, not when it promotes traditional roles of gender that stereotype and marginalise a vast proportion of the population. Like, oh, women.

Universality 

Universality in the Olympics refers to people being entered into competitions in spite of inability to meet standards, because their inclusion would promote equality. I’m not sure how surfing would meet this criteria because it’s hard enough for some countries to send women in just running events, let alone allow them to surf.

The idea that surfing is universal is an interesting notion, given that there are so many cities completely inland who would then have to develop wave pools if surfing was to be at the Olympics. But aside from that, surfing has a reputation for not promoting equality. Its insistence on selling surfing via sex would further make it difficult for women in some countries to gain entrance through surfing to the Olympics.

I haven’t even begun to mention the ‘entitlement’ issues that surfing’s elite seem to indulge in. From reading articles demanding the right to party, to seeing advertising promote privilege of men above the rights of women- surfing seems to promote the status quo and privilege rather than universality. I personally find Big Surf’s attitude to gender to be well off the mark by modern standards.

Popularity

Surfing is popular in some populations, but primarily, its competitions do not attract large audiences. Its sexy advertising and blatant focus on objectifying young women attracts more ‘views’ than Kelly Slater.

Even if surfing does have an audience, can you judge it on views? Views can be ‘bought’, as can ‘likes’, as anyone in Social Media can find out. There is an audience for the spectacle of surfing, and that is what Big Surf are hoping to offer the Olympics, but the actual competition of surfing is often in appalling conditions with the worst of the waves seemingly reserved for the women. I like surfing, and I can hardly bare to watch it. You can’t ‘buy’ popularity no matter how many views you have on YouTube videos or Live feeds. True popularity is people actually doing it, and people actually engaged in the sport, not people you anticipate will surf or will buy surfwear after exploiting the Olympics.

Good Governance

  • Riots.
  • Unequal pay for women.
  • Inability to adhere to basic drug testing standards
  • Decisions to hold surf competitions in inappropriate locations with poor conditions
  • Inability to take responsibility for its lack of guidance for own athletes, firing people while not actually bothering to instil proper education and career pathways
  • Censoring its own athletes for speaking up against it
  • Sponsoring companies that don’t look after their supply chain, the environment or athletes

This is surfing as I see it. I’m not an industry insider and this is the sport’s reputation to me. Blatant sexist advertising and sexism in its prize packets is not indicative of good governance.

Respect for Athletes

I’ve started a petition because:

spotthedifference

Let’s not even get into the previously mentioned sexist advertising, and the outrageously sexist commentary at most surf events. Let’s just focus on the price tag. That’s what Big Surf calls ‘respect’.

Olympic Ideals

After all this, what is it about surfing that belongs at the Olympics itself? That stands for the Olympic Ideals? We haven’t even got into that. But here’s a link, and notice that it mentions promoting women’s participation. I’m assuming promotion means you don’t treat them as completely inferior to men at every given opportunity.

If you think I’ve missed a few points, feel free to leave a comment, and I’ll endeavour to write a post under 1000 words dismissing the idea that women in surfing are properly represented, and arguing that they deserve better before Big Surf decide to focus on a place in the Olympics.

What price, progress? Will Big Surf at least advocate a decent prize packet for women while it pours its resources into lobbying for Olympic status?

If you’re a good surfer and you’re gonna get paid for it, it’s a big plus.