During my senior year of high school (2018-2019), I participated in a capstone program called Senior Scholars. For my project, I chose to research the history of the representation of women who surf in popular culture and surf-media in the past century. At the end of the year, I wrote a paper summarizing my research. Two years later, with the help of the WithitGirl editorial team, we have together adapted the original paper into a four-part series for the WithitGirl platform. The language and analysis have been adapted from the original version, which will be available for download at the end of the series. This piece is dear to my heart. I am stoked to finally share it. Maija Fiedelholtz, February 2021
The FIRST CRUSH—Falling in Love with SURFING
The first time I was exposed to the female-surfer lifestyle was when I watched the movie BLUE CRUSH at the age of eleven (directed by John Stockwell, released in 2002). I started surfing a couple of years before I watched the movie for the first time.
It was the first time I realized how women who surf might fit into the surf culture and surf lifestyle.
The movie traces the story of Anne Marie Chadwick, a white blonde surfer (who very much resembles Lisa Anderson—we’ll get to her later), and her friends who live together. They all take care of Anne Marie’s younger sister while trying to make ends meet. Anne Marie is presented with the opportunity to compete as a wildcard at the women’s Pipeline invitational. A good performance at Pipeline could land her sponsorships and recognition from major surf brands. It could be her chance to come back from a scarring accident she had at her last competition as a young girl.
To this day, eight years later, at age nineteen, every time I watch the first surfing scene in the movie, I am stoked. Anne Marie and her girl gang paddle out to the sandbar next to Pipeline. They are totally killing it as the ‘90s pop music blasts in the background. Each of the women pulls off impressive and sharp maneuvers on their surfboards with intention and ease. They are connecting with the water, they are connecting with each other, and they are connecting with their bodies. The waves are perfect: not massive, but big enough to provide the speed necessary to perform critical turns.
At this moment I wish I was out surfing with them.
I feel the same way when board-shaper Eden, Anne Marie’s friend, and biggest support system, is towing her into waves with a jetski. I think these parts of the movie characterize a sort of 3rd Wave Feminist “sexual liberation” because women are empowered and given strength through the use of their bodies.
I wonder why, is Anne Marie the focus of the movie and not Eden, her incredibly talented surfer friend? Ultimately, it is probably because Eden does not fit the heterosexual, blonde, perfectly bronzed skin image which Anne Marie does.
Then there’s the love story component of the movie. Anne Marie meets a handsome, tall football player at the hotel where she works as a maid. He offers her a good amount of money to give him surf lessons. It is an offer she can’t refuse; she needs the money. They hit it off and spend time together during a couple of surf lessons. They have a sleepover in his luxury hotel room. He invites her to a luau at the hotel, and she gets out of her beat-up car in a sexy black dress. He smirks and says “you look weird—no—gorgeous. Let’s show you off” (Blue Crush).
The focus of the movie suddenly becomes 75% their love story and 25% her surfing.
Their relationship even begins to distract her from practicing for the competition. At the end of the movie, he is the one who gives her the advice that inspires her to continue to participate in the contest. But in the end, she gets her moment of glory. Then, she gets out of the water and kisses the football player.
Blue Crush not only demonstrates the tension between feminist progress for female surfers and patriarchal norms, but it also gets at the complexity of breaking away from the gender order. On one hand, there is something quite inspirational about the movie. We see this evident in Anne Marie’s lifestyle, progress, and achievement captured throughout, coupled with the time she spends with her surfer friends just having fun in the water.
On the other hand, the plotline of the movie is a traditional Cinderella story that echoes a version of womanhood which the Third-Wave feminist movement attempted to break away from. And, let’s not forget that the whole reason Anne Marie gets to have her Cinderella story in the first place is because she fits a certain image - that her friend Eden does not.
Blue Crush provides a lens through which to better understand the surf industry. On the surface, the industry defies patriarchal norms by showcasing talented female athletes. But, a more implicit version of sexism shines through in the limiting nature of the images set forth.
As Scout Fisher of Sea Kin Magazine puts it in her 2017 article “WOMEN, SURFING AND THE REBIRTH OF THE SEX OBJECT”: “A sly glance, or maybe two, at the world of women’s surfing, makes it difficult to decipher whether you’re witnessing the rise of girl power or the rebirth of the sex object”. The implication is that a feminist reading of women in surfing becomes more and more complex as new imagery arises and we dig deeper into its significance. This provides insight into one of the main arguments of this series: while women in surfing have made progress as athletes, sexism persists in the surf industry.
SEXISM in SURF Culture: The Historical Context
After being exposed to Blue Crush and surf advertisements, I have thought a lot about what it means to be a woman who surfs, and what it looks like to be a woman who surfs. In this struggle, I have become obsessed with a Cinderella story version of being a surfer girl, searching for an ideal. I envy the women around me who seem to be effortlessly beautiful and effortlessly capture the attention of those around them, that seem to fit in with the guys by playing a specific role that I couldn’t quite put my finger on until writing this piece. Growing up, I did not relate to the images being disseminated by the corporate surf industry. My curiosity in researching this topic stems from wanting to learn more about why I felt out of place. This piece is a further exploration of how my experience coming of age in the patriarchy has been at odds with my youthful desire to become an amazing surfer and have fun while surfing.
To better understand my identity as a woman who surfs in 2021, it is necessary to develop a historical understanding of the expectations for how the female surfer should look, act, and interact with the people around her. In this series, I will examine how the definition and portrayal of the surfer girl have changed, and also remained the same over time. After careful analysis, it appears that sexism in surf culture has merely become less explicit. The first contextual element to consider is the general cultural zeitgeist surrounding women’s behavior at different times in history. Examples include the 2nd Wave Feminist Movement of the 1960s, Title IX Legislation in 1972, Third Wave Feminism in the 1990s, and its implication in the status quo in the form of what some argue is a 4th Wave of Feminism focused on women’s empowerment.
These cultural changes help provide the context for what the general American culture would consider to be the gender order at the time, what Jane Pilcher, former professor of Sociology at the University of Leicester, and Imelda Whelehan, Professor of English and Women’s Studies at De of English and Women’s Studies at De Montfort University, define in their book, Fifty Key Concepts in Gender Studies as a patterned system of ideological practices, performed by individuals in a society, through which power relations between men and women are made, and remade, as meaningful. It is through the gender order of a society that forms or codes of masculinities and femininities are created and re-created, and relations between them are organized .
In essence, the gender order is a way of referring to how both men and women should behave in society at a given time. Of course, the gender order changes based on our cultural understanding of acceptable behavior and action for members of a specific gender.
The second factor is the reflection of female surfers in media such as television, movies, and songs. These sources indicate how pop culture influences surf culture. The third factor is the portrayal of women who surf by the surf industry itself. “Surf industry” will be used in this series to refer to both the competitive tour and surf brands, as the two are intertwined given that many surfers depend on sponsorships from a major brand to have the money to tour in the first place. These sources help to shed light on the manifestation of the male gaze through time: “originally in film theory, the tendency of filmmakers and films to assume the point of view of a heterosexual male; now, often, the perspective of the heterosexual male in viewing women generally.”
As a male-run and dominated industry, analyzing the media and the surf industry helps explain how women are depicted to satisfy a heterosexual assuming male point of view.
The presence of the male gaze in these mediums is a way of explaining how men in surf culture view women based on the gender order in our culture.
I have discovered that my own continuing uncertainty in not knowing how to embody the ideal surfer girl is due to the overwhelmingly restricted and limited images of women in the surf industry.
Initially, surfing presented itself to me as something liberating and inclusive - a counterculture to the status quo. But sexism, racism, and homophobia deeply infiltrate the world of surfing.
Senior lecturer at Monash University in New Zealand, Dr. Lisa Hunter, wrote in her book Surfing, Sex, Gender, and Sexualities that from the outset, “the subjective position ‘surfer’ was well and truly set as white heterosexual male...Normality, defined by this stereotype of white heterosexual male meant anything different was ‘marked’ by the use of terms such as ‘women’ or ‘black, as in ‘women surfers."
Essentially, anyone who is not a white, heterosexual, male, (really we can expand this to anyone who is not a cisgender, able-bodied, white, heterosexual male) does not fall into the category of “surfer” because they do not meet society’s historically ingrained criteria for being a surfer.
In this series, I will argue that since the cultural rebirth of surfing in California during the early twentieth century, there has been some progress for women who surf in terms of participation and athletic engagement with the sport. That said, the female surfer is still defined by the male gaze and patriarchal values of the surf industry, which have the effect of limiting the way women engage with the sport to the constraints of the patriarchy.
Encouragingly, women are increasingly taking back control of their image in the media and pushing back against their objectification by the surf industry.
This is a FOUR part series: Part Two: The Gidget Era posts March 3, 2021.
Further Readings and Informative Links
SURFING? THAT’S A WHITE BOY SPORT”: AN INTERSECTIONAL ANALYSIS OF MEXICAN AMERICANS’ EXPERIENCES WITH SOUTHERN CALIFORNIA SURF CULTURE. (2018 Dissertation by CASSIE ANN COMLEY)
Textured Waves: A Conversation About Diversity in Surfing, 2021, Surfline by Dashel Pierson
Additional Photo Credits:
Anne-Marie Photo Credit: People.com and Blue Crush
Maija Fiedelholtz is a student at UCLA, majoring in history. She grew up in Brooklyn, New York. For her whole life, she has spent summers in Montauk, a small town on the Eastern point of Long Island. She learned to surf in Montauk, and it is now where she works as a surf instructor for Coreyswave when she's not at school. She just finished an internship with SeaTogether Magazine (another awesome surf history source). She is stoked to continue contributing to Withitgirl as a member of the writing team. She hopes to pursue her passions for history and surfing in a podcast that will be streamed by UCLA Radio in the next few months.