JUST AFTER DAWN on a grey muggy morning in February 2012, some of the best surfers in the world, along with their sponsors and event officials, gathered on a beach in southern Queensland, all eyes on the ocean. It was the first day of the opening event in professional surfing's annual competition, a season that would see the best surfers – male and female – compete around the globe for millions in prize money and lucrative sponsorship deals, and a decision needed to be made.
The location, Snapper Rocks, is famous for an unusually thick sand bank that lies on the ocean floor, at its best, transforming the waves that roll over it into long barreling cylinders perfect for riding. This morning, though, the swell was small and tide too high for the bank to work its magic; unsteady waves messily peaked and collapsed without a tube in sight. But the event was on, and someone had to surf.
Asking a surfer to paddle out and compete in poor conditions is a necessary evil in professional surfing; nature shows scant regard for competition timetables. Yet it's something every elite surfer hates and vociferously resists. Good waves equal a better performance; a chance to be your best, achieve greater renown, and potentially, more sponsorship dollars.
The decision of event organisers that morning at Snapper Rocks surprised no one. Send the women out to surf, and let the men wait until conditions improve.
This is how it frequently works in professional surfing, where the women's competition is treated both covertly and overtly as inferior to the men's. As Australian surfing champion Layne Beachley says, the prevailing attitude when she was competing during the 1990s through to 2008 was 'if the waves are shit, send the girls out', and this has proved an entrenched attitude the industry has found hard to shake. 'We still encounter that attitude from our male counterparts when competing alongside them. They still resent it if we are able to score better waves then they do for their heats… It's just disappointing given we are in 2012 and we still have to deal with that chauvinistic attitude,' says Beachley.
Day two of the event at Snapper Rocks dawned with a lower tide and better waves, so this time, the men were sent out to surf first. But as the morning progressed the tide came back in and conditions started to deteriorate. In professional surfing, the unofficial understanding that the best waves should be reserved for the men is so ingrained, that broadcasters in the commentary box began openly speculating that the men would soon be brought in, and the women sent out to surf while the tide was high and conditions poorer.
The contest director responsible for making the decision, Jake Paterson, appeared in a 'live-cross' from the beach. Paterson is a prominent figure in the surfing industry; a gung-ho big wave rider from West Australia who was once rated fifth in the world and who now sits on the board of surfing's governing body, the Association of Surfing Professionals (ASP), and is employed by major surf brand Quiksilver.
Paterson confirmed he was stopping the men's heat and sending the women out. Then he said: 'It's way more contestable for the women when it's a higher tide,' and laughed.
A number of the women surfers waiting to compete that day took this as a cheap jibe; implying that the smaller conditions suited them, and that they – the top seventeen in the world – couldn't handle Snapper Rocks any bigger.
After eight years surfing the World Tour, Australian Rebecca Woods believes she is fairly inured to demeaning comments, but to hear a public insult from such a high-profile figure, stung. 'It's just so disrespectful and disheartening, and it just shows a total disrespect for our sport,' she says. 'And it's coming from someone who represents a major brand.'
IT'S NO REVELATION that sport is home to some of the most entrenched gender discrimination there is in our society. Historically, when sport arrived as an organised social phenomenon with the Industrial Revolution, women's bodies were judged as too unsuitable and inferior to take part. As the founder of the modern Olympics Baron Pierre de Coubertin opined in 1896: 'No matter how toughened a sportswoman may be, her organism is not cut out to sustain certain shocks.'
Women have been striving to combat this view ever since. In surfing, athletes like Layne Beachley and Americans Lisa Anderson and Rochelle Ballard have done this over the past two decades by paddling out into crunching, thumping oceans and taking off on waves as big as buildings, with nothing but a jagged coral floor below.
Australian surf journalist and author DC Green has followed professional surfing for decades, and says the calibre of women's surfing today is phenomenal. 'When I was young a lot of surfers would say about women's surfing, "oh you know, I can do the stuff they do", but there are no guys that say that now,' Green says. 'It's almost been a paradigm shift, a whole other level of surfing ability. They are just super good surfers in all conditions, going left, going right, they can do airs and reverses, they can get tubed off their brains. If they competed against the guys, the guys would be genuinely scared.'
It's an alarming paradox that while the women are the best they've ever been, their professional competition is arguably at its worst. 'They are not even given a chance to display their wares now,' says DC Green. 'It's quite horrifying how much women's surfing has been wound back in the last few years compared to the guys.'
What can we conclude when women have demonstrated their ability in a sport, yet are still treated as inferior players? I've lived alongside the sport of surfing most of my life, and I want to try and unravel what it is that's keeping women on the outer edge of professional surfing.
I GREW UP minutes from some the best surf beaches on Australia's east coast. My dad surfed, as did both my brothers, nearly all the boys I went to high school with and my first boyfriend. But I never did, nor did any of the girls or women I knew.
My experience of 1980s Australian surf culture was one that gave kudos to the boys for going out and bravely riding waves, and to the girls for staying on the beach looking the best they possibly could in a bikini. It wasn't quite the overtly sexist, brutal surf culture described in the iconic Australian novel Puberty Blues, but there were similar expectations. Unlike the girls in the book I never fetched my surfer boyfriend a Chiko Roll, but I did spend hours waiting patiently on cold, damp beaches while he surfed, prepared to answer the inescapable surfer's question: 'Did you see my wave?'
When I finally took up surfing in my thirties, I struggled. It's a difficult sport to master; you need strength, agility, a willingness to suspend fear, and most of all, time. Unlike my adolescent self, I now possessed little of these things: not as fit, sometimes pregnant, always busy, and restrained by an overbuilt sense of caution. Many times as I was swept down a beach in churning white water, arms aching, face full of snot and seaweed, having failed to even make it out to where the waves break, I would start ruminating on those wasted adolescent hours sitting on the beach. Why didn't I learn to surf when I was young? I was athletic, loved sport, and secretly thought sunbaking tedious; no one ever told me I wasn't allowed to, I just never thought to try. Eventually, I realised why. As American activist Marian Wright Edelman said: 'You can't be what you can't see.'
Looking at the beach today it seems the forces that kept me on my towel as a teenager are gone; I'm not the only one making up for lost time. The number of women and girls taking up surfing is soaring. There are women's surfing groups and beachside crèches for surfing mums, schoolgirls are trying surfing just as routinely as they'd try netball. Surfing Australia estimates as many as three in ten surfers are now female, with similar estimates from the United States.
Despite this, parts of the surfing industry are still firmly stuck in the past.
In the autumn of 2012 I was driving into the town near my home when I noticed the Rip Curl surf shop had unveiled an enormous billboard-like structure on its roof. Two, juxtaposed images now loomed above the town: one, a male surfer performing a clever aerial manoeuvre on a large wave, the other, a thin young woman in a bikini reclining alluringly over a large log on the beach. I recognised this message from my youth; quick girls, back to the beach!
That night I vented to friends about this retro addition to the public landscape of our town. One, a male surfer, offered to show me another example of the way women are portrayed in mainstream surfing culture, and pulled out the latest edition of surfing magazine Tracks.
In it was a column written by a fictional character called Rod Cunthorpe. The mother of a young reader had apparently written to Cunthorpe, complaining about the misogyny of his column. He replied:
You state, 'your article was beyond anything I have every come across in my life' which only made me wonder what your response would be if you came across my purple-headed warrior, engorged on Viagra, smothered in Dencorub and spitting hot venom all over your fatty labia bacon strips, which is what would happen if I got my hands on you.
I understand Cunthorpe's column is supposed to be satire. I struggle though to find anything funny or clever about threatening sexual violence against a woman. And how do the legions of young surfer boys who read this popular magazine interpret Cunthorpe's 'humour'?
Looking through a number of editions of Tracks, there is very little to balance out Cunthorpe's take on women. While the magazine describes itself as the 'surfers' bible', women surfers don't appear to be part of the narrative. There is minimal coverage of women's professional surfing; often the only representation of women is glossy advertising images of girls in bikinis – nowhere near a surfboard.
Either trivialising or just plain ignoring women's sport is standard media behavior. Studies in the United States, for example, suggest that while women make up 40 per cent of participants in sport, women's sport only receives 3 to 4 per cent of media coverage. Women athletes are also more likely than men to be portrayed off-court and in highly sexualised poses.
Still, even by these poor standards, it's hard to imagine any other sport where a professional athlete would be questioned like Hawaiian surfer Coco Ho was recently.
In the 2011 special 'Girl's Edition' of TransWorld Surf, Ho – who was then ranked sixth in the world – was asked:
'Is it hard to surf with boobs?'
With a follow up question: 'Is there really a worry to surf sharky areas while it's your time of the month?'
It almost seems as if mainstream surfing media is determined not to take women's surfing seriously.
I SPOKE TO the international contest director for Quiksilver, the surf company that sponsored the event at Snapper Rocks. Rod Brooks told me I was wrong to say that women were given inferior surf conditions.
'I know the girls (the surfers) have that impression,' said Rod Brooks. 'I know they tell people that, but it's not true. I think it is very fair. Over the last ten years (at this event in Queensland) the women have had at least half the good surf. And the men complain about that.'
I also asked Brooks about the comments made by Jake Paterson, the Quiksilver representative at the event, that were interpreted as suggesting the women surfers were better suited to the smaller conditions of the high tide. He told me told me that I, and any others who were upset, had in fact got it all wrong; conditions were best on the high tide that day he said, and Paterson was simply saying he was putting the women out in good conditions.
I'd watched the footage and listened to the commentary of the event, so was incredulous at this explanation, and told Brooks so. 'That's your opinion, our opinion was different,' he said.
According to Brooks, the girls are just too sensitive. 'They get a bit antsy and make all sorts of assumptions,' he said. 'We have had meetings and discussed the importance of giving the girls an equal go, so no one disadvantages them. And we have also talked about the need to be diplomatic with them, because they easily get upset if you say the wrong thing.'
THERE IS PLENTY for professional women surfers to be upset about. Their professional competition – the ASP World Tour – is in a parlous state. While one of the marketing slogans for the tour is 'World's Best Surfers in the World's Best Waves', Layne Beachley suggests a more apt slogan for the women's competition now would be, 'World's Best Surfers in the World's Worst Waves'.
Trouble started when the financial crisis of 2008 hit the major surf brands that sponsor the World Tour. The companies responded to their new austere budgets by withdrawing or reducing support for women's surfing, and a number of events were subsequently cancelled. The men's competition was only marginally impacted.
By 2012, the women's season was down to seven events, finishing in August. The men's had ten, and ran until December.
Most damaging for the women has been the loss of events in locations regarded as the holy grails of surfing; Tavarua in Fiji, Teahupo'o in French Polynesia, and, of course, the ultimate – Hawaii. These are still the highlights of the men's tour, places where a particular combination of reef-structure, wind, and swell almost certainly deliver astounding waves, and a chance for surfers to demonstrate their ultimate ability. 'There are very few challenging waves left on the tour now (for women),' says Layne Beachley.
Women miss more than the best waves by not participating in the season-ending competition in Hawaii. Journalist and writer DC Green has covered the event and says it's the home of influence for the industry. 'The whole surfing world descends on there, all the marketing guys, all the magazines move shop there, the journalists will be there, the publishers, the deal makers, everyone goes there,' Green says. Except for the women. In the most important forum, the world's top female surfers are invisible.
I reached Dave Prodan, media director for the ASP, over the phone from Los Angeles. You know things must be bad when even their own PR person describes the women's competition as 'anaemic', as Prodan did to me. He sounds genuinely regretful, but powerless. 'Unfortunately we are in a bit of a valley in terms of money coming into the women's side of the sport,' he says. 'Given the global financial crisis, and the current global market, we have been challenged to maintain a level of service to the men's tour, so we have been in a difficult position in terms of applying pressure to sponsors to maintain women's events as well.'
I ask Prodan whether he thinks women get given poorer waves than men. He says while efforts are made to give women 'a good crack at good conditions when they are available…I would also admit that generally it falls the other way, that men are given the better conditions.'
Should it be equitable, I ask? 'I think it is a hard question to answer,' says Prodan. 'I do 100 per cent support fair treatment for men's and women's surfing, and I also want to make sure the sponsors are happy… At the end of the day though, the event sponsors are going to look at where do we get the biggest return, and where do we get the biggest audiences.'
This is the Realpolitik of professional surfing, a sport that wouldn't exist were it not for corporate dollars. It's not about equity; it's about giving the sponsors what they want. And right now, prevailing corporate wisdom sees women's competitive surfing as a poor investment – something the ASP seems both unable and unwilling to challenge.
FOR TWO DAYS during an event in Brazil in 2012, the waves were so bad the men were given complete lay days; at the same time the women surfed their semi-finals and finals. It was hard to escape a sense of ignominy watching the world's best female surfers desperately trying to show prowess in knee-high waves more suited to beginners.
'It was horrendous,' says competitor Rebecca Woods. 'You've been watching the men surf in perfect waves, and all of a sudden you are on the next day when the wind is up and it's two foot slop onshore, up to your knees. You have spent all this money trying to get onto this tour and all of a sudden you are out in hopeless waves…and you hardly even get to stand up.'
It wasn't just the poor waves. As one of the women noted on her Twitter feed, event sponsors Billabong produced a glossy program for the men's event, but didn't bother with one for the women.
Other than tentative Tweets, most competitors on the women's World Tour are unwilling to be publically critical about the state of their sport.
Rebecca Woods is an exception. I met Woods on an overcast day at Sydney's Cronulla beach, where she was commentating and mentoring at a girls' surfing competition. At twenty-seven, she's one of the oldest and most experienced on tour, and is deeply concerned about the future of women's surfing. She also doesn't have any valuable sponsorship contract to lose by speaking out.
I'm surprised Woods doesn't have a major sponsor. She's smart, articulate, fit, and has been in the world's top fifteen for eight years. But, as Woods says: 'With female surfing, you are either the best, or you're a model. So if you're in between, you will miss out (on sponsorship).'
For aspiring female surfers, your appearance can make or break your career. Woods believes a girl who is 'model material' can attract sponsorship dollars and 'stay on a lot longer chasing their dream', whereas for a girl who doesn't fit the model image, they 'maybe could have made it, but they don't get backed'. Woods is currently paying her own way on the World Tour, supported by a seasonal job with a local council on the NSW Central Coast as a lifeguard.
Woods is worried that the current run of poor waves and poor locations is going to permanently damage women's surfing. 'How is that positive for the sport at all? Of course people don't want to watch that. They'll just think "it's a silly sport, why would I watch that?" '
It is easy to see the potential for a dangerous circularity: women surf poor waves in low-profile locations; women's surfing looks boring and unskilled; people don't watch so sponsors keep pulling out; women keep surfing poor waves in low-profile locations.
SOME SOCIOLOGISTS VIEW sport as a battleground for a wider power struggle between men and women. A Professor of Sociology and Gender Studies at the University of Southern California, Michael Messner, calls it 'contested ideological territory'.
Messner's theory is that in the latter twentieth century, men are suffering something of a crisis of masculinity – not only are they no longer the sole breadwinners, but women can surge ahead of them in the workplace. Sport then, has become 'a potentially powerful cultural arena for the perpetuation of the ideology of male superiority and dominance.' In Messner's view, it doesn't matter that the guy sitting at home on the couch watching the rugby could never take a hit like the professional he's watching on TV, the fact that another man can, is symbolic of male superiority – and that's comforting.
Women's movement into sport is 'a genuine quest by women for equality,' says Messner, and as such it 'represents a challenge to the ideological basis of male domination.' The 'challenge' of women trying to enter sport is combated in a number of ways: organised sport is a structure dominated by men and corporate interests, where physiological differences between men and women are highlighted, and where the media helps marginalise female athletes by describing them in terms of their physical desirability to men.
This sounds like what professional women surfers face.
WHEN SHE WAS reigning World Champion, Layne Beachley was also the female surfers' official representative. This meant that even on mornings she wasn't competing, she'd be on the beach at 5.30 am, the only woman, battling it out on behalf of the other female surfers. 'The female surfer representative has to be very strong willed,' says Beachley. 'I remember arguing constantly with the male surfer rep, the male head judge and the guys' sponsors, arguing about which conditions we were going to get.'
While male competitors also have their disputes with event organisers, according to Beachley, they were often more successful at holding their ground in this beachside battle of wills. 'Sometimes the guys are forced to surf in conditions they don't want to surf in either and they would stand united and say "no". But whenever we did that…the marketing manager from the company would come down and threaten their sponsored athletes, and say if you are not going to surf then we will fine you or drop you,' says Beachley.
This male-dominated competition structure, heavily influenced by corporate interests, persists today. Rebecca Woods says even with a strong female advocate, the relative youth of female competitors makes it difficult for them to stand their ground. 'They feel intimidated, they are young, some are only seventeen, and they are up against guys who have been around surfing for twenty years,' she says. 'A lot of the younger girls, they don't want to deal with that, they just want to compete.'
Away from the beach, men also dominate the surf companies that influence how the sport is run. While going from professional surfing to employment in a surf company is a well-worn career pathway for male competitors, it's rare for women. And, of the top three major surf companies that sponsor surfing, two – Quiksilver and Rip Curl – have no women on their boards of directors, while Billabong, at the time of writing, has three.
DRIVING THE DESERTION of sponsors from women's surfing is an industry-wide axiom that female competitive surfing is a bad investment.
To try and understand this thinking, I called one of the stalwarts of the industry, Hawaiian Randy Rarick. Rarick helped set up the professional tour forty years ago. Now in his sixties, he is today director of the prestigious Hawaiian Triple Crown, the most important event on the World Tour – an event he says he would love to have the women at, but simply can't find an interested sponsor.
He tells me why: Sponsors back pro-surfing to drive product sales, but women's competitive surfing doesn't sell product. The market is not interested in women as athletes, what they are interested in is what's euphemistically called the 'lifestyle' side of the sport – that is, the girls in bikinis.
Rarick gives me an example: 'I have a thirteen-year-old grand-daughter, and she took up surfing about a year ago. She is a tall girl, well built, I said to her 'you should aspire to be Stephanie Gilmore' (currently ranked number one in the world). She said "no, I don't want to be like her, I want to be like Alana Blanchard, because Alana Blanchard wears a much cuter bikini".' (Blanchard is a professional surfer, though arguably better known as a bikini model.)
'So that is why you are seeing a lot of marketing dollars go into more fashion, more lifestyle marketing, as opposed to dollars going into women's competitive surfing,' Rarick says. 'It is not about the quality of the surfing, it is not about the quality of the athletes themselves because they are better than ever, but it is just the market reality.'
I find Rarick's explanation rather bleak. If it's true that the 'market' is just not interested in women as athletes, then surely this bodes badly for the longevity of women's surfing, and indeed any women's sport?
There is a view that the surfing industry has in fact got it wrong. Many female surfers believe the real problem is for too long those in charge of their sport have relied too heavily on marketing their sport with a 'sex sells' emphasis, instead of focusing on the competition.
'I just think it hasn't been approached right,' says Rochelle Ballard. Ballard, a Hawaiian, spent seventeen years on the World Tour and is considered possibly the best female tube rider yet. She says women's surfing should be marketed more like the men's, with an emphasis on the athletes and the drama of the competition: 'At the end of the day it is a sport, so just approach it like that. It's about the best of the best. Then the "lifestyle" approach can just be the icing on the cake.'
Ballard's instinct is backed up by research recently published in the United States. Mary Jo Kane is a Professor of Sport Sociology and the director of the Tucker Center for Research on Girls and Women in Sport, at the University of Minnesota. She became curious about the insistence on marketing women's sport with the 'sex sells' formula when she observed that 'this is how women's sports have always been portrayed, and yet people then turn around and complain because no one watches.'
Dr Kane and a colleague designed a study to test whether sexualising women athletes increases interest in women's sport. Focus groups were shown images of female athletes in a range of poses: from 'on-court' athletic action, to 'pretty girl' off-court images, right through to a 'sexy baby soft porn' portrayal. Respondents were then asked to rate which images increased their desire to watch the sport on TV, attend an event, or read about the sport.
They found that for female respondents, images showing athletic competence encouraged them to view the sport, and sexualised images offended and alienated them. The same went for older males, some of whom were deeply offended by overtly sexual images. Males in the age group eighteen to thirty-four quite liked looking at the sexualised images, but said it would not encourage them to go and see an event. Says Dr Kane, 'they'd say, "we'd buy the magazine to see her sexy body but we wouldn't go and watch her play basketball because that's not what she looks like when she plays".'
'So the point we made was, these sexualised images do not increase interest to get enough fans in. And at the same time, you are alienating and offending your core base which is women and older men,' says Kane. 'So, the punch-line for me was, sex doesn't sell women's sport, sex sells sex.'
So, what does work in selling women's sport?
'Winning,' says Dr Kane. 'This is not rocket science. People come to watch women's sport for the same reasons they watch men's sport. Which are: Are they good, do they win, do they show courage under pressure, are they gifted athletes. That's why people watch sport.'
It makes sense. But what doesn't make sense to me is why companies or sporting bodies would keep sticking to a marketing formula for women's sport that isn't working?
'I think the bigger questions is, why does this stereotype, this ideology and practice, why does it persist, and who benefits from it?' says Dr Kane. 'I would argue that it is not women, because the more you sexualise them, the more you trivialise them, and the more male supremacy in sport is maintained. And I think that is the real issue.'
ONE OF THE idiosyncratic things about surfing I've learnt over the past few years is the slightly amorphous rules of the line-up. When a group of surfers – the line-up – is waiting out in the ocean and a good wave finally rolls in, only one person can take that wave. This is not determined by the taking of turns; usually there's a complex pecking order based on who's proved themselves in the past, or who's willing to challenge for it now. Being a local, and having some mates in the line-up, can also move you up the order.
Growing up surfing at Copacabana on the NSW Central Coast, Rebecca Woods says she always found the rules of the line-up were stronger than gender. 'It didn't matter if you were a girl or a boy, you were still a pesky grommet,' she says. Once you've shown you can surf, you gain respect and a place in the line-up, man or woman.
Sometimes when Woods is back home from the World Tour and out surfing her local break, a hapless tourist will paddle out and, because she's a woman, assume she is the weakest link and try and take her wave. Woods laughs and says, 'they get a rude shock' when they realise what kind of surfer she is, and must resume their place behind her in the pack.
To me it is a sad irony that while a woman today can paddle out to a surf break and through sheer ability alone take her rightful place in the line-up, the same can't be said for women entering professional surfing. Regardless of ability, it remains a game for the boys.