“I sat for many days in the New York Public Library...I found a change in the image of the American woman, and in the boundaries of the woman’s world, as sharp and puzzling as the changes revealed in cores of ocean sediment.”
Betty Friedan, "The Happy Housewife Heroine,” The Feminine Mystique
In order to best understand the present-day representation of women surfers in the media, it is critical to understand the past history of women’s representation in the sport. While social media obviously did not exist at the time surfing was introduced to the continental US, popular culture was alive in music, TV shows, and photography. This section examines how the Second Wave Feminist movement coincides with the rise of women in the surfing counter-culture. Even though women were included in the surf culture, were they seen as surfers in their own right?
THE GIDGET ERA: 1960S COUNTERCULTURE AND SURFING’S WEST COAST RE-BIRTH
Looking at the origin of the sport of surfing in the Hawaiian islands dating back to before the 16th century, surfing was not ruled by the gender order. Both men and women participated in the sport as a communal activity (“Ancient Sport and Ali'i Surfers”). They played in the waves for fun—just as we might have gone to the playground after school when we were little kids—but people of all ages were participating. Numerous Hawaiian legends from the time document the integration and prominence of women who surfed. Chiefess Mamala conquered the storm waves in Honolulu, O’ahu when everyone else was afraid to go out (“Womentum: Rethinking the Women’s Movement,” Walker). Kalea, the king of Maui’s sister, is known as one of the best surfers in all of Hawaii—a courageous and daring water woman (“Women Surfers in Old Hawai’i,” Dashu). But, with the arrival of Christian male missionaries from Europe in the 1700s, the ancient Hawaiian pastime was stripped of its inclusivity. Christian values of morality and domesticity mandated separate spheres for men and women: the men could go out and surf, but the women had to stay in the home. In other words, Christian values established a gender order in Hawaiian surfing. Two centuries later, famous Hawaiian Olympic swimmer Duke Kahanamoku introduced surfing to California on the mainland in the 1920s. Though the number of surfers is unclear, by the late 1940s and early 1950s Malibu, California became “a popular surfing spot” (“Women in Surfing Chronology” from Gabbard, A. (2000) Girl in the Curl: A Century of Women in Surfing). Above all, the rise of surfing in California coincided with the advent of U.S. youth culture in the 1950s and 1960s because of the way it represented something completely opposite to white-picket-fence Cold War America and conformism.
Because of surfing’s identity as part of a counter-culture movement on the U.S. mainland, it presented itself as something that might also challenge the established gender order. Women were demanding equal rights through various public platforms. In 1963, Betty Friedan published The Feminine Mystique, emphasizing that women were not being fulfilled as housewives. In 1966, the National Organization for Women, NOW, was formed. They lobbied to pass the Equal Rights Amendment and argued that equality could only be achieved by creating new and real societal expectations for women that would give them the confidence to create their own futures (“The Feminine Mystique and Women's Equality—50 Years Later,” Dreier). The demand for women’s rights became a more prevalent part of the cultural landscape. As author Richelle Reed explains in her 2010 book, Waves of Wahines: a History of Women's Surfing, women’s participation in surfing returned because of the backing of the second-wave feminist movement. Women were eager to leave the home and get in the water (Reed 16-19).
Were they really surfers in the way men were? Were they surfers in the same sense as the women in Blue Crush? To the outsider looking in on surfing counter-culture during the 1960s, it may have seemed that women were freer than they ever had been, but they were subject to the constraints of the system of power that perhaps they were trying to escape. Unfortunately, sexist imagery saturated surf culture and undermined an accurate depiction of professional female surfers in the 1960s.
The women who were involved in the surf culture of the 1960s were adjuncts to male surfers; they were not identified or recognized as surfers in the same way men were.
Indeed, as women’s surfing researcher and writer Linda Chase of Occidental College explains in Surfing: Women of the Waves, “surfing...was...a kind of aquatic locker room to which women were not admitted...girls were largely decorative objects, relegated to cheering on the boys from the shore and making beer runs” (Chase 15). While women were a part of surf culture, they were not surfers in their own right; they were treated as the perfect accessory to the macho, carefree male surfing life. Women could enhance a man’s masculinity in the context of a group of other male surfers, but could not be surfers in the way that men could. John Fiske tackles this issue in his 1989 book Understanding Popular Culture, a groundbreaking analysis of the implicit messages behind popular artifacts, or rather, why people like the stuff they do:
It is worth remarking on the sexist nature of most youth subcultures, where male and female behavior is clearly distinguished, and where males are active and dominant and females passive and subordinate. Vans, motorbikes, and surfboards are conventionally driven/ridden by males and the size, skill, decoration involved in them is part of the male status order. Females are passengers, spectators, there to be won, flaunted by the male. (Fiske 60)
The surfing culture was, just as other counter-culture movements during the 60s, still ingrained in sexism. Even though these subcultures maintained the illusion that they were breaking from the norms of society, they were still grounded in the same systems of power.
The only difference was that this sexism was able to thrive under the aura of freedom and subversion from normal American society. Women were welcomed into the world outside the home as “a part of the male status order,” there to be “flaunted” and “shown off”, just like a husband going to work at the time might boast about his fantastic trophy wife to his friends. Women had a “passive and subordinate” role in surf culture, the same role that they traditionally played in the home.
The role of women as objects and subordinates in surf culture is further reflected in a 1960 Getty Images photograph of Hawaiian surfers riding a wave together.
Three of the men in this image carry women on their shoulders while riding the wave in parallel. One woman sits at the nose of the 4th board, while a man maneuvers the tail end behind her. There is an air of competitiveness to the photo—as if the men are seeing who can keep their woman up the longest while simultaneously riding the wave. The way the men seem to be showing off the women in the image literally makes them look like trophies, a symbol of how women were seen in surf culture: a prize to be won and to be shown off to the men around them. Even though these women are in the ocean, none of them are surfing themselves.
The distinction between the male sphere and the female sphere within the context of surfing culture is further illuminated by popular surf music at the time. The Beach Boys, an American pop music sensation of the 1960s sang about surf culture from the male’s perspective. In their 1963 song “Surfer Girl,” they write patronizingly: “Little surfer little one/ Made my heart come all undone/ Do you love me, do you surfer girl /Surfer girl my little surfer girl/ I have watched you on the shore/ Standing by the ocean's roar...In my Woody I would take you everywhere I go/So I say from me to you/I will make your dreams come true.”
The Beach Boys infantilize the “little surfer girl” and depict her as helpless, incompetent, and less than. She is under the singer’s heteronormative gaze as he “watch[es]” her and assumes that she loves him. He depicts her “standing on the shore,” limiting her control over what she can do and deciding which space she is allowed to occupy.
The only way she can leave is to be paraded around in his “Woody,” a type of surf car. Perhaps she is wishing or dreaming she could be surfing with them, but her “dream” is dependent upon him, it is not her own. In their 1965 song, “California Girls,” they write, “I wish they all could be California girls/The west coast has the sunshine/And the girls all get so tanned...I have been all around this great big world/And I seen all kinds of girls...Yeah, but I couldn't wait to get back in the States/Back to the cutest girls in the world.” The “wish” for all girls to be “California girls”—“tanned” and “cute”—reflects the cultural expectations for how women had to fit an outdoorsy and young image to accentuate the ideal male surfer life. Again, their identity is defined by the male gaze.
Even though the male gaze controlled the image of women in surf culture, some argue that the increased representation of women in surf culture, via the 1965 television series Gidget, for example, was inherently a good thing. Indeed, the TV show established some of the first images of women who actually surfed.
As Linda Chase, women’s surf researcher, postulates, it is possible that the sensationalization of Gidget, aka “the teenage surf-girl midget,” via the 1965 television series, began to push these boundaries because the show was a platform for women’s representation in surfing, a representation that they did not have before (Linked above, Chase 51). Gidget’s presence on television alone inspired many young girls to go surfing. Library of Congress historian, Ryan Reft, writes in his article “Riding waves, Forging Communities: Surfing, Gender, and Feminism in 20th Century California”: “1982 women’s surf champion Debbie Beacham has told interviewers that she learned the sport by watching Sally Fields [the actress who plays Gidget] ride waves on television.” As the first image of the female surfer that was widespread in American culture, Gidget gave many of the female surfers that came after her from the ‘70s, ‘80s, and ‘90s a role model, or at least an idea of what they could be like. She created a mold for what the girl who surfs looked like, acted like, and how she fit into surf culture in general.
Gidget was welcomed into the male surfing world in the TV series. The show was based on the experience of Kathy Kohner, a fifteen-year-old girl, who during the summer of 1956, “went out to the beach in Malibu” and “became part of this group of guys who hung out at the Pit at Surfrider and spent their days waiting for waves” (Chase 51, linked above). Figure 2 is a famous photo of Kohner and her group of guy friends. Kohner is not only basking in the sun, she is basking in the attention from the guys around her. All of their legs point towards her, along with their heads: their body language reflects their admiration of her.
She is also special by nature of being the only girl in the group. In the middle of them all, she is symbolically put on a pedestal. Their attention and care for her could have allowed for her acceptance into the surfing world with ease.
Kohner herself assimilated to the male surfing bubble as a teenager. In an interview with Time’s Olivia B. Waxman, Kohner said, reflecting on what she had written in her diary, “every time the love interest was at Malibu. And if he wasn’t at Malibu, it was like, ‘Oh I’ll have to paddle harder to make this day well worth it” (“International Surfing Day: Gidget Interview & Vintage Photos,” Waxman). Kohner herself was focused on boys first, and then the waves and her own surfing second. While Kohner was transcending the boundary between the women’s domestic sphere and the men’s sphere by getting outside and engaging in physical activity, she did not have the opportunity to surf with the mentality of independence and self-sufficiency.
She had to surf with the goal of finding a love interest in mind in order to be accepted into the male surfing world.
Along these lines, the TV show explicitly created an ideal image of the girl who surfs, but the image it set forth was restricting and demeaning because Gidget was portrayed as incompetent and foolish. When examining Gidget’s opening titles, it becomes clear that Gidget is not portrayed as a serious surfer whatsoever. Gidget stands on the beach in a pink bikini with a smile on her face, her dark hair in pigtails. She says, making eye contact with the audience, “For fifteen and a half years my life was a complete and total ick.....but then on the twenty third of June...I fell in love with two things, Jeff, my moondoggie, and surfing!” (“Gidget-Opening—Titles”).
The focus of Gidget’s infatuation with surfing is undermined by her infatuation with boys. Her relationship with the waves is insincere because she is portrayed as a ditsy teenage girl in love who just happens to like surfing. She is depicted as silly, young, and dumb. Surfing is not the focus of the show by any means, the whole premise is that she thinks she is in love.
Then, in the next scene, she tries to knee paddle on the board and falls in the water. “I am happy to report that falling in love was as easy and natural as learning how to surf,” she says (“Gidget—Opening Titles”). Then, Moondoggie is holding Gidget’s waist on a one-inch wave as she talks to the audience. “I’ll never forget the first time he told me he loved me,” she says (“Gidget—Opening Titles”). Two seconds later she falls into the water like a falling tree or a cartoon character with stars in their eyes.
On the very surface Gidget, or rather Kathy Kohner, transcended the gender order by pushing back against the culture of domesticity. However, the way Gidget, the Beach Boys’ songs, and the photographs at the time portrayed women in surfing culture confined them to the gender order insofar as their participation in the culture was not focused on surfing. They were treated as objects to be shown off by male surfers, things that could help them enhance their masculinity. While the ‘60s were a time of progress for women in surfing, and in general because women surfers were blurring the line that separated the male sphere of the outside world from the traditional female sphere of the home, it seems that the ideal of the female surfer was controlled by the patriarchal values of the gender order such as passivity and objectification.
There were successful professional female surfers at the time, but their accomplishments did not have an impact on the image of the female surfer.
In fact, a few women had tremendous achievements in the competitive surfing sphere. At 15 years old, surfer Linda Benson won the first US Championships and the Makaha International surfing championship in Hawaii in 1959 (Gabbard). She grabbed the smallest board she could find and entered the contest the day of, competed against a group of only men, and came out with the win to top it all off (“Before Female Surfers Were Sex Symbols, They Were Trailblazers,” Herreria). Joyce Hoffman won in Makaha in 1964 and five world titles between 1966 and 1971. Margo Oberg won the first of numerous world titles in 1968 and started a pro-career that would last for three decades (Gabbard). But, the popular and familiar image of the female surfer did not change. Benson, Hoffman, and Oberg’s experiences did not have an effect on the images of women in surf culture at the time. Professional female surfers were overshadowed by Gidget, an emblem of the ever-present gender order (Waxman).
While women were relegated to playing the role of objects and trophies instead of surfers in the surf culture of the 1960s, in the coming decades, women’s role as serious and committed surfers would be legitimized because they would become professional athletes.
This is a FOUR part series: Part Three: WOMEN’S SURFING COMES OF AGE posts March 10, 2021.
Additional Photo Credits:
Linda Benson surfing: Photo by John Severson
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.
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