ALL OF US TOGETHER, AS IT ALWAYS WAS
Postmodern women’s surfing will just be surfing.
By Lauren L. Hill
The sun is rising in a small Senegalese village, and 15 girls in pink singlets are sitting in Rhonda Harper’s treeless yard.
With Rhonda, a former member of the US Coast Guard, the girls train, dial in nutrition, do dance cardio and run mock heats. She’s preparing them for competitive surfing – the Olympics, the WSL. But first, the African Triple Crown, which doesn’t exist yet but is on its way to fruition in partnership with the WSL. Rhonda, originally from Kansas City, Kansas, later based in northern California and Hawaii, maintains Black Girls Surf training centres and camps in Jamaica, South Africa, LA and Senegal. Her aim is to diversify professional competitive surfing and breakdown social, economic, cultural and racial barriers to the ocean.
These are the sproutlings of the future of competitive surfing, at least. While our tidy and simplistic collective narrative once revolved around the “fact” that Bruce Brown, Mike Hynson and Robert August invented surfing in Africa, we now know better.
Surfing not only existed outside of the white colonial bubble but thrived in rich oceanic cultures along the coasts of Africa, far upriver along the banks of at least one Chinese river, and on reed rafts in Peru. Surfing’s ancient and complex history seems to trace it to many (most?) pre-colonial wave-rich coasts. Organisations like Rhonda’s, that invite women and people of colour to claim their rightful places in the water, are popping up in most countries with a coastline. The Changing Tides Foundation mentors waterwomen and girls in Panama, the Dominican Republic, Peru and El Salvador. The future of surfing will probably look more like its ancient past – not homogenous, but geographically and socially diverse.
One of the defining tensions of professional/mainstream, media-based, modern women’s surfing has been the ongoing pursuit of proving or earning a sense of belonging: first in the lineup at all, then in the jersey, in heavy water, the shaping bay, the executive boardroom, etc. And that’s just to start with white, straight, cisgender women. There are additional layers of adversity for women who live outside of surfing’s racial/gendered “norms.”
In this tension of trying to make a place for ourselves in a sport/industry that had asserted its gender as male (albeit rather late in its life), many of us boxed ourselves into mimicry. What else can you expect when the height of compliment was “she surfs like a dude”?
The comparative lens and male gaze by which we’ve both been seen – and have been meticulously trained to see ourselves and assess our peers – has been grossly self-limiting. But what other outcome was there when the nudest surfer got rewarded with the best sponsorship contracts, most media coverage and recognition? In pro surfing, conformists were rewarded most handsomely.
In keeping our heads down and trying to fit in, we ended up on a cultural trajectory that, in its posey, sexy, part-time athlete vibe, left many women wanting for the humour, playfulness and creativity that defines the lived experience of riding waves.
Self-consciousness is a thief of creativity. Of ease and flow. It’s difficult to innovate when you’re preoccupied with a formula, or the looming threat of devalidating the place of your whole gender with a failed take-off.
What seems most emergent in a postmodern women’s surfing culture is the certainty that bold members of the rising generations will, just as postmodern artists did in the late 20th Century, give the old middle finger to the tired, narrow stereotypes of what it has meant to be female surfer in the mainstream sense.
I’m thinking of surfers like Jaleesa Vincent, her punk rock aesthetic and playful surfing. Or Frankie Harrier, who, at 16 towed Teahupo’o and fit all the moulds for a promising surf career, but decided to go grunge, shave her head, detach from the professional surfing game yet continue to push her own surfing. Or Pacha Light, who could no longer compromise her ethical/ecological values by letting a surf brand commodify her bikini body, while girls probably her own age were sewing the bikinis in sweatshops on less than a living wage or decent conditions.
Our culture is outgrowing the simplistic, clearly defined narratives and narrators of the modern surfing industry – those excitable, white, hetero males largely from California and Australia for whom it’s been so easy to confuse enthusiasm with the realities of extractive surf colonialism. Moving beyond the myths of modern surfing means accepting that no one gender owns surfing; no single race or ethnicity or country, modern or ancient, can solely claim the ecstatic magic of the controlled slide. We surf rats are as pervasive and biologically persistent as our rodent namesakes.
The postmodern reality of complex and interconnected surfing worlds will be informed by myriad coastal (or inland) communities around the globe. Once-universally held truths about who surfers are, where we are from, and definitely what we look like, will be fleshed out and rewoven into dynamic, intersectional mosaics.
In the 1990s, the postmodern art collective called The Guerrilla Girls took to plastering the art world with posters, stickers and demonstrations to call out gender and racial inequality. One of their billboards read:
“Do women have to be naked to get into the Metropolitan Museum of Art? Less than 5% of artists in the Modern Art Sections are women, but 85% of the nudes are female.”
Surf marketing machines have mostly moved away from the hypersexualised trend of last decade for their athletes, but regular representation of women in surf media is still lacking – and how many female photographers have held the coveted page one? Twenty-twenty-one saw the first female editor of a mainstream surfing magazine. Better late than never?
The erosion of centralised surf media and the failings of many surf brands to connect with the living culture of surfing is making for an exciting time – especially for women’s surfing. For every mainstream surf mag that folds, 10 or 20 surf ‘zines and podcasts – many of them female-centric – rise to communicate local iterations of what surfing means within the context of their particular community and ecology. No one is asking permission to be part of this thing anymore; they’re just doing it, defining it, creating the culture for themselves.
The future of women’s surfing holds many more shattered glass ceilings and alterations to the culture at large: surfboard and fin design geared to women’s bodies (to revisit faster entry speed), more women in the shaping bay, sunscreen brands will need to rename so-called “nude” sunscreens that happen to be white/pale, vernacular will change to address the biological reality of vulnerable testicles versus the powerful musculature of the pussy in both birth and everyday life, the macho intimidation tactics of localism will increasingly be revealed for what it really is… big men longing to assert their own importance and belonging. The stories of our culture will change, because new storytellers will bring novel perspectives.
Maybe professional surfing and surf travel will cease to exist as we’ve known it, and maybe surfing will return to the kind of community-driven culture/sport that can assert clear, collective values and do the most meaningful work of swapping localism for localisation. Protecting our communities and coastlines from the real threats of unfettered capitalism, extractive industries and climate change – all direct descendants of the colonial spirit.
And if I have veered from the specific task of addressing the future of women’s surfing, it has been intentional. Because the biggest paradigm shift in women’s surfing is the erosion of a segregated surf culture: no more women’s sections, or tokenistic women’s editions. Just good surfing, meaningful stories and doing the work of keeping the integrity in our ocean play. All of us together, as it always was.