Waves of Commodification: A Critical Investigation Into Surfing Subculture

 A Thesis Presented to the Faculty of San Diego State University


In Partial Fulfillment of the Requirements for the Degree

Master of Arts in Geography


Michael Alan Reed

Copyright   1999






















This work is dedicated to my parents, Judith and Marvin, who each holiday season cleverly disguised the gift of books among the plastic toys and assorted electric joys of my childhood.



Many faculty, friends, and colleagues provided aid and guidance during these last three years of study. Of course, I thank my committee members: Dr. Stuart Aitken, Dr. Larry Ford, and Dr. Bill Nericcio. Dr. Aitken’s advice, support, and tireless editing have been essential to the completion of this project. At times I suspect he had more faith in the project than I myself did. Dr. Larry Ford generously served on this thesis committee and on a previous incarnation as well. Also instrumental were the suggestions and support I received from Dr. Doreen Mattingly, who, despite not officially serving on my committee, spent a great deal of her time encouraging and advising me. I want to thank the staff at Surfer magazine and Ruth Meyer, in particular, for providing me with access to the Surfer archives. Also, this project would not have been possible without the generous financial support of the San Diego State University Department of Geography. Finally, thank you Jennifer Miller for dealing with my wildly shifting moods during this long process.



I sit now in a small cafe at the beach in San Diego. It’s a clean and stylish place, the kind that appeals to fashionable, upwardly mobile coffee drinkers - slick and marbleized. I choose this cafe initially because it looked like the kind of place that would encourage long thoughtful visits as opposed to quick consumption. The furniture is padded and the lighting bright and there is a great deal of open space. I prefer cafes where lingering is encouraged.

Once inside I found a seemingly perfect place to reflect upon surfing and its relation to globalization: a beachfront cafe with a California surfing lifestyle theme. The ceiling is reverently adorned with numerous glossy surfboards, both new and historic. Five television monitors conduct a continuous surfing film festival. There is a small section of books and videos documenting surfing’s history. They also provide dramatic splashes of deep ocean blue and the suggestion of a surfing aesthetic. On the walls, between the televised exploits of big wave surfers, hang painted vistas of tropical paradise, as well as empty bags of coffee shipped in from the developing world, and reverently framed photographs of surfers and waves.

The carefully stenciled scriptures were not as obvious as the slick surfing paraphernalia, but they were there, wrapped around the ceiling, hiding behind the shiny surfboards: "Blessed is the man who walks not in the counsel of the ungodly, nor stands in the path of sinners, nor sits in the seat of the scornful..." Conversations with the owner revealed a tale that weaves together many issues that intrigue me. The owner, a born again Christian with missionary aspirations, opened a small surfer’s cafe in the Philippines while working there as an Internet entrepreneur. He combined his California roots with his Internet skills and created "CoffeeCalifornia.Com."

The idea was a hit and he opened eight locations in the Philippines. He is now receiving international franchise requests. It occurred to him that it might add to his credibility to actually have a presence in California, though no one ever asked. Blond hair, blue eyes, and a 1970s Berkeley education enable him to play the stereotyped role of California surfer. Thus the San Diego cafe is the flagship location, although it is the most recent addition to his enterprise.

Here is an intriguing reversal of nineteenth century imperialism. Surfing, which originated in ancient Hawaii and was condemned by Protestant missionaries, is now a tool of the missionaries. No longer a pagan practice, surfing represents the good life in California. God-fearing Christians, entrepreneurs even, are proud to say they’ve adopted a surfing lifestyle and they’re taking that lifestyle with them into the periphery and bringing their insights on high-technology capitalism and their coffee imports with them. But the story is not actually a complete inversion of the eighteenth century explorer and investor. After all, no one from the periphery has come to take something away from the core. Instead, like their predecessors, these contemporary explorers have come back home from the periphery hoping to take advantage of the capital they’ve acquired abroad. In this way they are not so different from any of us who travel internationally and are empowered by the experience.

In fact, it was my own travels as a surfer in the periphery that initiated the questioning that led to this thesis. In June of 1996, I drove throughout Baja California with a good friend, camping and surfing. Later that summer we flew to Costa Rica with a few thousand dollars in our bank accounts and more than a few misperceptions about Latin America in our heads. Everywhere I went I found myself exposed to American popular culture and witnessed its grip on the young people of these nations. The most dramatic examples of this occurred in the first few days of the trip to Costa Rica. Leaving Santa Cruz, California we flew to San Jose, Costa Rica by way of San Salvador, El Salvador. At our first meal in San Jose we were tormented by loud coverage of the Jose Cuervo professional volleyball tournament being broadcast from the beach in Santa Cruz, California - a distance of about five city blocks from the apartment we had just left.

After a day in the city we took a six hour bus ride to the west coast town of Jaco. Here, among the many small hotels and shops, we discovered a pleasant pizza parlor. The television inside was playing a surfing video filmed at my home break, Steamer’s Lane, Santa Cruz. It seemed I could not escape these images of California. Even more surprising were the fashions worn by young Costa Rica surfers. In deliberate mimicry of California style the children of wealthy city dwellers in San Jose had adopted the essential elements of the macho youth surfing culture I knew so well from home: the tattooed arm bands, the baggy shorts, the sheepskin boots, the skinhead haircuts, the sharktooth necklaces. We were confused. Our image of Costa Rica was forever changed, the old myths destroyed. Where were the ox-carts that we had seen in so many of the tourist brochures and surfing films? What had happened to the idyllic, primitive lifestyle we had imagined, with its close knit kinship ties and its detachment from the first world? It is now obvious to me that so much of how we think about "foreign" places is the product of mythology distributed by the mass media. Many questions were raised by that trip: What exactly is surfing subculture and who does it serve? Why are surfers always talking about lifestyle? What role does surfing play in the selling of places? Is it tied to particular places, thereby facilitating what Yi-Fu Tuan called topophilia, or is it placeless, a style and lifestyle engaged in the homogenizing of places? This thesis represents an attempt to address these questions about the role of surfing in America and about its part in the globalization of the planet.




The public and the academy generally dismiss surfing as either irrelevant or irresponsible, both as an activity and as an object of study. This oversimplification is contradicted by the power and ubiquity of surfing imagery, not to mention the economic force of what has become a substantial industry. Despite the generally grim image of the surfer, he (and I use "he" deliberately here) remains one of the most powerful and enduring icons of twentieth century America. The most popular television show in the world, Baywatch, is little more than an updated version of the 1960s movies Beach Blanket Bingo and Gidget. And southern California, the center of the world’s largest imaging machine and the promised land of American mythology, is virtually equated with surfing and beach lifestyle in much the same way that the cowboy is equated with the wide open spaces of the American West.

Surfing’s history ties together tales of colonization, resistance, and globalization - themes that are central to recent cultural geography. At one time a threatened sacred act in ancient Polynesian culture, surfing is now an important commodity in today’s global economy, spawning a substantial industry in the core countries of North America, Australia, and Europe. The image of the surfer is supremely salable. Surfing-inspired products and images are bought and sold by millions each year. Furthermore, surfers are enthusiastic and extensive travelers of the less developed world. The world is a small place today for the wealthy tourist and the surfer literally has the entire world open to him as a choice of destination. For numerous reasons, both symbolic and economic, many choose to explore the periphery.

Surfing is also actively involved in the shaping of places throughout the world. The practice and imagery of surfing have been involved in place making and place marketing for almost a century. Beginning with the use of surfing in travel advertisements for Hawaii in the 1920s and 30s, the sport eventually came to be a recognizable facet of American culture through its association with particular places and a distinctive lifestyle revolving around the beach and waves. International travel and the quest for "the perfect wave" are staple elements of surf media. This representation of "foreign" places shapes the surfer’s cognitive imagery of the periphery and in turn is likely an important factor in determining how surfers engage these places.

Finally, the social construction of surfing is directly tied to specific notions regarding masculine travel and adventure. Surfers, in their search for the perfect wave, have set up outposts all over the developing world. These tourist places suggest that surfing may be exemplary of the neocolonialism project, whereby control is exerted over the periphery not by overt military actions but instead by means of economic and cultural invasion and persuasion.

The fact that the vast majority of traveling surfers are male, wealthy, and white suggests that a familiar intersection of ideas about gender, class, and race are as involved in this contemporary project as they were in the historic periods of colonization and imperialism. An analysis of surfing subculture, then, provides insight into the processes by which myths and stereotypes of masculine mobility, travel, and conquest are perpetuated and disseminated.



My primary research goal is to critically examine the contentious and complex relationship between a spatially distinct subcultural practice, surfing, and the underlying social and economic structures in which it takes place. The approach to the subject adopted herein is best summarized as a theoretically informed strategy for investigation. By carefully analyzing the writings and films created by and for surfers, I attempt to identify and describe the worldview of the surfer, as represented in the media.

The specific methods of inquiry used include (1) a review of the existing literature in the areas of culture, commodity, gender, and film in order to place surfing subculture within the realm of cultural studies research; (2) a historical review of surfing subculture which serves as an introduction and situates surfing in commercial and cultural production; (3) a critical, theoretically informed, review of surfing films, including description and analysis of the narratives and themes of a number of influential films; (4) a review of travel articles in the last 30 years of Surfer magazine, resulting in an theoretical analysis of a handful of travelogues; (5) visual and thematic analysis of surfing subculture’s relation to societal conceptions of "nature"; and (6) participant observation.

The data for analysis essentially fall into one of three categories: surfing films, essays in surfing magazines, and surfing books. I watched each film with a critical eye, taking notes on content and symbolism. The magazines were mined for relevant travel essays and articles. The books, often autobiographical and deeply personal, provided more extensive and complete reflections upon the subculture, by both surfers and literary observer.

A substantial body of literature exists on the subject of geography and literature, much of it written from a humanistic perspective that values the experiences of the individual, often elite, subject (Pocock 1981; Burgess and Gold 1985). Geographic study of the media is a logical extension (as well as reaction) to such work on literature, broadening the study of culture to include the means of communication that are central to the lives of most people: television, journalism, and film.

There is no simple recipe for the appropriate method of such analyses. Stuart Aitken (1996) argues that analysis of texts, when supported by theoretical and political insights, is well established in cultural geography. However, he also adds that none of the textual methods he catalogues "by themselves, or in combination, are infallible. Textual methods are social constructions...Today we accept our fallibility and we try to produce work which is honest and trustworthy" (Aitken 1996:211-212).

Various observers note that there is currently a crisis of method in the social sciences (Johnston 1993; Rose 1993; Denzin and Lincoln 1994; Surber 1998). Older positivist methods, which sought to generate numerical data appropriate to categories which were supposed to represent an objective social reality are now highly criticized and dismissed as overly reductionist or naive. Even traditional ethnographic methods, wherein the researcher supposedly marched off into foreign territory to document and record the ‘true" nature of some native culture, now fall victim to valid criticisms about the inherent interpretative biases of such work and the arrogance and ethnocentrism implied by any attempt to present ‘truth." These ongoing debates regarding qualitative methods in the social sciences elevate the importance of interpretation, reflexivity, theory, and politics. Clearly, once a researcher chooses to admit that there are biases in his or her work it becomes necessary to reflect upon those biases, as well as the motivations for the research, and to dispel any notion that there is but one true interpretation of any data, as Norman Denzin makes clear in The Handbook of Qualitative Methods:

In the social sciences there is only interpretation. Nothing speaks for itself. Confronted with a mountain of impressions, documents, and field notes, the qualitative researcher faces the difficult and challenging task of making sense of what has been learned. (Denzin 1994:509)

This does not eliminate the need for researchers to seek truth or be rigorous in their investigations. Instead, it suggests that there are multiple interpretations and that all presentations of "fact" are therefore both biased and political to some degree. As a result of these observations my work shares the skepticism of much critical theory. In particular I am attracted to that school of critical theory which "reads social texts (popular literature, cinema, popular music) as empirical materials that articulate complex arguments about race, class, and gender in contemporary life" (Denzin 1994:509).

This thesis, like much recent cultural geography, focuses on critical and political issues in popular culture (Burgess and Gold 1985; Cresswell 1993). I am concerned with the nature of a specific masculine subculture and, in particular, how this subculture both contests and is transformed by the more dominant culture. Neo-marxist social theories (Gramsci 1971; Harvey 1989; Cresswell 1993) instruct me to look for the underlying economic logic of the production and distribution of the assorted texts and values we are offered by modern consumer society. However, my concern is not so much with these underlying economic structures, but with the texts themselves and how they make explicit both the reification and contestation of capitalist structures through ideology. Of course, the control of ideology and, thus, texts, is not complete or direct. Gramsci’s notion of hegemony was developed to address the subtle, often unconscious control exercised by the powerful over images and thoughts. As a result of the work of Gramsci and his students, geographers, with their traditional emphasis on culture, have rightly expanded their notion of culture to include popular media. As Tim Cresswell notes (1993:250) in his gender sensitive reading of On the Road (Kerouac 1957) "Cultural geographers have begun to view culture as a product of the whole process of living which crucially includes the process by which subordinate groups contest dominant forms of consciousness." Moreover, the social theory of Bourdieu (1986) suggests that choices about identity and lifestyle are ideologically charged. The representation of various styles in the media and their adoption by individuals are not valueless aesthetic choices. Instead, they reflect the pervasive and continuous struggle between social classes that is played out in the media.

A concern for class is not sufficient to an analysis of the role of surfing in American culture because surfing, like many sporting practices, is a highly gendered activity. Insights from the feminist theory of Rose (1993) and Massey (1995), among others, encourage me to search for the connections between gender roles, space, and power. Surfing spaces are gendered spaces and much of the discourse surrounding surfing is intimately tied to patriarchal notions of masculinity, especially notions of exploration and conquest. Thus, I interrogate representations of surfing which tend to value limitless mobility and competition. as well as more feminine representations of surfing which often focus on "nature", the ocean, "foreign" places, and "foreign" peoples.

In addition, feminist theorists force me to question my tendency to structure my thinking in terms of rigid dualisms and to speak in an authoritative, unreflective voice. Much recent feminist geography suggests a radical revision of traditional research methods, elevating the importance of introspection and reflexivity while criticizing reductionist and "totalizing" discourse. Kim England, for example, argues that "the researcher’s positionality and biography directly affect fieldwork" (England 1994:80). Thus, because I am an active surfer, I have included an appendix wherein I explicitly describe my relationship to surfing (See Appendix A).



My investigation of surfing subculture revolves around the theoretical positions which have influenced my thoughts about the study of culture. Therefore, this chapter is both a review of academic work on culture and a theoretical position statement. Many of the theories are discussed again, in greater depth, in later chapters. I begin with a discussion of hegemony because this concept is essential to my understanding of the structural role of the media in society. The media serve as powerful tools in the struggle over ideology and social control, a battle which is complexly related to class. This leads me to a discussion of the role of sport in society and its relation to social class. But surfing was not, traditionally, a team sport, nor was it initially embraced by mainstream society. The transformation of surfing into a popular and profitable element of American society - now legitimized in competitive high school teams and widely marketed - suggests commodification. My review of academic work on commodification illuminates intimate connections between the media , representation, and identity. Central elements of identity are well established topics in the geographic literature and I turn next to geographic works which focus on identity politics.

Because surfing subculture is rigidly gendered, work on gender and representation of gender is addressed first. I discuss the ties between gender, geography, and the media. This feminist literature notes relationships between gender and mobility. A review of geographic work on mobility and travel, particularly as relates to political identity, follows. Next I discuss geographic work on place. Literature about the study of landscapes is related to surfing by surf tourism, imagination of surfing adventures, and surf media imagery. On the other hand, I am critical about the way surfers have represented most landscapes, thus I review work which has attempted to complicate humanistic notions of place by reasserting the contested meanings which locals attach to particular places. Surfing subculture embraces a contradiction, seeing "foreign" places in narrowly traditional ways and yet arguing that home surf breaks represent something unique and personal.

Finally, since this thesis relies entirely on media sources for its data, I briefly review recent geographic literature on the media. In this final section, I suggest that theoretical insights provide an essential structure necessary for an analysis of anything as complex as culture and I outline how the theories I review structure the chapters which follow.

The Geography of Popular Culture

Many of my scholarly interests regarding surfing subculture lie within the boundaries of the most traditional themes in geography. These include my interests in travel, exploration, foreign places, and culture. However, much of my research revolves around theoretical concepts which are relatively recent additions to the discipline. For example, my concern with class and social control is derived largely from the influence of Marxist thought which began to influence geographers in the 1970s and remains a prominent voice in theoretical debates. More recently, influences fom cultural studies and the humanities extended geographic analyses to include new sources, including films and literature, while expanding the possible foci of such analysis to include, as in my work, critical questions of meaning and power. Only in the last decade did feminist voices become well represented in the geographic literature, but their critiques of ‘scientific" method and objectivist research were influential, forcing many cultural geographers to critically reflect upon issues of gender and identity. Finally, work on sense of place, so influenced by humanism in the 1970s, was criticized and eventually broadened to include work which is both political and critical. My work, then, involves a somewhat eclectic theoretical collection adapted to my specific research questions.


Much of my analysis of surfing subculture entails discussions of surfers’ ideologies regarding masculinity, mobility, nature, and "foreign" places. I examine the accordance or opposition of these ideas with various elements of mainstream, or what Gramsci (1971) calls hegemonic, ideologies. I understand ideology to mean systems of thought which conceal the exercise of power. Gramsci’s theory focuses on the way that spontaneous and subconscious consent is created by the pervasive, yet subtle, limiting of discourse in all spheres, especially the media and academy. Gramsci argues that many of our ideological choices are limited by the subtle ‘taken-for-granted" nature of shared ideology. The range of ideological viewpoints is limited in all spheres, including the academic, and hence the narrow range of possibilities for resistance or change seem quite normal. In this subtle, taken-for-granted manner, elites exercise limited control over society without resorting to police actions or violence. Gramsci’s work is vitally important in the analysis of popular culture because it introduced what Theodor Adorno called the "culture industries" into Marxist formulations of culture and economy. Thus, we cannot speak, in the manner of early Marxist materialists, of a single ideology, imposed from above by those in power. Instead, because of the cacophony of voices in the media and because of the existence of dissenting voices, we must talk of dominant discourses as opposed to marginalized or subordinated ideologies.

Surfing and Class

French sociologist Pierre Bourdieu (1991) specifically discusses the role of sport in the formation and perpetuation of these hegemonic systems of social class. Bourdieu’s work is concerned with the formation and reproduction of what he calls structured inequalities (Surber 1998:258). When discussing sports, he notes that the working class is largely involved in team sports, such as football or soccer, or a number of working class individualistic sports such as boxing and wrestling. These sports serve important socializing functions including an emphasis on strength, endurance, competition, violence, the importance of sacrifice, and submission to collective discipline (Bourdieu 1991). It is in his comments on the more distinctive sports engaged by the bourgeoisie and the upper classes that his analyses are most applicable to surfing. Golf, riding, skiing, and tennis, as well as the less status rich sports of mountaineering and gymnastics are within the scope of his comments, but we could easily add surfing and, more recently, snowboarding to his list.

The engagement in these sports by a distinctive group of socially mobile actors as opposed to the working classes is not simply a factor of differences in economic or cultural capital and free time. Bourdieu argues that choices about recreation and leisure say a great deal about the social aspirations of the individual. Furthermore, it "is the hidden entry requirements, such as family tradition and early training, and also the obligatory clothing, bearing, and techniques of sociability which keep these sports closed to the working classes and those rising from below" (Bourdieu 1991:370). While these sports provide unique, and exclusive, social opportunities to their participants, Bourdieu argues that it is just as much the result of a fundamental difference in approach to the body and physical activity that distinguishes these sports.

The privileged classes tend to treat the body as an end in itself. This can be seen in the "cult of health" that reaches its fullest expression among the wealthy and their obsessive dieting, exercise, and attendance at health spas. Moreover, in the most individualistic sports that make up the new "extreme" or "adventure" sports complex (i.e. mountaineering, skydiving, surfing) the health aspects are combined with the symbolic gratification of practicing "a highly distinctive activity" which "gives to the highest degree the sense of mastery of one’s own body as well as the free and exclusive appropriation of scenery inaccessible to the vulgar" (Bourdieu 1991:371-372). Surfing and its emphasis on travel to islands of paradise, even if often imagined, is part of this trend. This "surfing lifestyle" is the result, then, of a pervasive ideological system whereby cultural capital is acquired via taste (Bourdieu 1986). The exchange of such symbolic capital, he argues, is an important tool in the construction and reproduction of inequality in our society.

In short, Gramsci’s and Bourdieu’s ideas help to explain the very narrow range of ideas presented in the surfing media as well as the apparent wealthy white male homogeneity of the culture. They suggest avenues for critique and analysis of the most commercial and elitist elements of surfing ideology. However, we must remember that unlike many bourgeois sports (golf, tennis, etc.), surfing traces its roots to a ancient tribal culture. Thus, although surfing is adopted by some of the wealthiest in the West, subordinate threads of the subculture are also reflect surfing’s Polynesian origins. The opposition of different ideas in any popular discourse is played out in the commercial media, where ideas are often dramatically transformed by market forces.


In a capitalistic society the most important mechanism for the hegemonic control of ideas is commodification, that process whereby places, products, people, ideas and images are construed primarily as goods for consumption in accordance with the directives of the market. Dick Hebdige (1979), in Subculture: The Meaning of Style, demonstrates how consumption of status-rich commodities reflects a desire to be affiliated with particular subcultures. More importantly, Hebdige argues that economic interests function to destroy the political power of subcultures by means of a commercial subjugation of their icons and style. A subculture, he argues, usually forms as a reaction to mainstream culture. Generally, once the subculture is large enough to be noted, the subculture is then demonized, converted into some kind of "Other," particularly if it represents a threat to economic interests. This kind of resistance, then, is quickly subsumed by commercial aggression, with the "Other" simply becoming a novel style within consumer culture, thereby losing almost all of its revolutionary character. Examples of this process, from Rap music to hippie fashion, abound.

A number of geographers attend to the (re)structuring of places and the international economy resultant from commodification (Relph 1976; Peet 1986; Harvey 1989; Zukin 1991). The commodification of surfing has ramifications for many places, primarily through tourism (Cohen 1988; Urry 1990), but also as a result of its strongly gendered affect on surf culture. I believe that the result of this commodification in surfing is an emphasis of traditionally masculine myths and stereotypes which serve to eliminate or limit the possibility of resistance, by both men and women, to a global industry based on the consumption of stylized representations of a lifestyle and the places it inhabits.

The most obvious and incontestable effects of this commodification in surfing are the growth of professional competitive surfing and the growth of the surfwear industry. The transformation of surfing from an individual act into a competitive sport appealing to the masses required some radical changes. First, competition had to be introduced. Rules for surfing and judging had to be standardized. Sponsors with mass appeal had to be attracted. Budweiser’s Association of Surf Professionals (ASP) Surf Tour is the most famous of these.

In the process of professionalization competitive surfing focused on those elements of sport most associated with the masses (i.e. violence, competition, masculinity). The result is a nearly continuous conflict between the ascetic aesthetic of the upper class surfer and the mass appeal of the competitive and aggressive surf hero. In the 1997 documentary, Liquid Stage, the act of surfing is compared to the performance of a graceful dance in a fluid, natural theater. This idea is contrasted with the more aggressive notions of surfing depicted in most surfing contests, magazines, and films. Interestingly, Bourdieu argues that dancing, of all sports, is "the most accomplished realization of the bourgeois uses of the body" since it demonstrates the most successful mastery of one’s own body - measured, self-assured tempo of movement versus a working-class abruptness in speech and action (Bourdieu 1991:372). As we will see in later chapters, the masculinization of surfing developed largely from its association with commercial interests. In the modern economic system, the commodification of ideas and the commodity fetishism surrounding products is essential to their inclusion in this system. However, surfing is unique among the individualistic sports I listed in that it involves lifestyle choices which are potentially reactionary. Commodification of surfing, therefore, acts as an important control of these potentially dangerous ideas. May (1996) and Jackson (1991b) are among a small group of geographers who now direct their attention to the commodification of cultural difference. In particular, they have noted the power involved in the process of ‘eating the Other’ (hooks 1994), whereby wealthy professionals revel in ethnic foods, even ethnic faces, in their neighborhoods, but do this in a very controlled and unequal way. As with surfing, commodification of difference helps to control and limit its influence.

Surfing in the United States was initially regarded as rebellious, even radical, by both surfers and outsiders. The commodification of surfing reduces surfing to sex, machismo, and the conquest of nature and the less developed world. This process continues today and appears to be accelerating. Tom Frank, in a recent article for the Utne Reader (1997), cautions that the symbolic use of youth, alternative, and hip subcultures in the advertising of mainstream and corporate products, "the ultimate corporate takeover," is vital to the current acceleration of commodification. The world is increasingly dominated by large, often multinational, corporations and the standardized products and workplaces they create. At the same time, there is an increasing proliferation and sophistication of media delivered to us each day. The solution for many, in today’s postmodern consumer culture, is a consumer desire for the illusion of individuality. Niche products, such as surfing paraphernalia, present the ability to act on this desire. More and more we set ourselves apart from our peers through the symbolic use of the products we buy. These products are organized conceptually into broad categories supposedly reflecting our identities and lifestyles.

Surfing and Gender

Much of the media representation of surfing capitalizes on heroic battles of man against nature. Big wave surfing dominates the media and has been used to gain market share and a commercial foothold for surfing products. Hollywood surf movies such as Big Wednesday (1978), Point Break (1991), and the recently released In God’s Hands (1998) all dwell at length upon the theme of men conquering "Mother Nature", alone, and without the traditional constraints of home, family, or work. Furthermore, there is a long tradition within surf media, both in print and film, of surf adventure and exploration stories. Endless Summer, the most commercially successful surf film, featured just this kind of masculine voyage. Scores of travel stories in the surf magazines, particularly Surfer, provide rich material for the consideration of recent geographic work on gender, masculinity, and mobility.

My thoughts regarding gender are drawn from work by a number of feminist geographers who brought attention to the pervasive division of the world into oppositions by means of dualistic, gendered linguistic structures (Rose 1993; Massey 1995). Dualisms, such as work/play, technological/primitive, thinking/feeling, public/private, aggressive/passive, and many others have been the mainstay of our ideologies for centuries (See Table 1). These metaphorical divisions are applied to spatial relations as well, coding some spaces as masculine, and hence valuable or valid, and others as feminine and exploitable. Moreover, by reducing all things to dichotomies and classification we miss much of the subtlety inherent in the world. More importantly, we build systems of knowledge which linguistically and ideologically condemn people and ideas to hierarchically structured roles within a system of power:

Dualistic thinking leads to ... the structuring of the world in terms of either/or ... Moreover, even when at first they may seem to have little to do with gender, a wide range of such dualisms are thoroughly imbued with gender connotations, one side being socially characterized as masculine, the other as feminine, with the former thereby being socially valorized (Massey 1995:490).

Table 1. Surfing Dualisms

Surf Culture


Violent and Aggressive



Work (Masculine) or Play (Feminine)



Spiritual and Cyclical

Rational and Linear



Feeling (Hedonism)

Thinking (Rationality)







While most authors focus on the gendered restrictions such systems place on women, Peter Jackson (1991a) discusses the sometimes equally powerful control such ideologies exert upon men. An obvious example is the outright hostility towards homosexuality in our culture, but the control exercised over men is much more pervasive and insidious than the mere existence of such taboos.

A number of geographers show scholarly interest in the gender implications of exploration and travel (Katz and Kirby 1991; Gregory 1994). These writers draw attention to the intimate relationship between the consistent feminization of the natural and less-developed worlds and the concomitant subjugation and economic development of these places.

Surfing and Mobility

Geographers also discuss the symbolic role of masculine travel and mobility in the media, examining both literature (Porteus 1987; Cresswell 1993) and film (Kennedy 1994; Aitken and Lukinbeal 1997). Porteus examines how manhood, in the autobiographical novel Ultramarine (Lowry 1933), was depicted as an obsessive sea voyage, a rite of passage, for the protagonist, repeating the predominant view of the masculine adventure. Tim Cresswell (1993) explores Kerouac’s On the Road (1957) in an effort to understand beatnik travel as resistance to patriarchy. However, he argues that Kerouac reproduced some of the dominant norms of his day, constructing, for example, travel and mobility as masculine, while home and place were feminized - a wonderful example of dichotomous patriarchal thought. Aitken and Lukinbeal examine a number of films, including Paris, Texas and Priscilla, Queen of the Desert in order to demonstrate how space and scale act, through individual travel and mobility, as "important aspects of political and sexual identity" (1997:357).

I argue that surfing discourse includes elements which attempt to resist patriarchal norms, particularly through individual mobility (escape from sedentary patriarchal roles) or alternative notions of work and community but that these elements are most often overwhelmed by commodified images of surfing which are masculinized (i.e. reproduce patriarchal norms) or are simply fatuous and meaningless. Furthermore, the traveling surfers themselves reproduce many elements of the traditional, patriarchal culture which in other instances they reject.

Travel and exploration have been mainstays of geographic work from its inception. Only recently, however, did we become reflexive about the role of Western explorers in the periphery. A number of geographers direct their attention to the writings of European travelers. Cindi Katz and Andrew Kirby (1991) examine the journals of Scott and Amundsen in their respective races for the South Pole. Their analysis touches on, among other themes, nature, myth, and the romance of plundering exploration. Derek Gregory, in Geographical Imaginations (1994), examines the epistemic function of the journals of early explorers in the Pacific, including James Cook and Joseph Banks. In a more recent article, Gregory (1995) specifically reads the journals which emerged from the Nile Valley travels of Florence Nightingale and Gustave Flaubert in order to illuminate the complex intersection of Orientalism with patriarchy, sexuality, and colonialism. My work on the traveling surfer draws heavily from these authors and particularly from Gregory’s investigations of "imaginative geographies," a term he borrows from Said’s (1978) work on the discursive practices of the West regarding the Orient.

Surfers were represented as nomads as early as the 1940s, when influential California surfers began to live in used cars, dedicating themselves for months or years to the search for empty waves and a lifestyle that was spatially and temporally reactionary. However, as the sport increased in popularity and commercial success, increasing globalization made the world seem smaller and more accessible. The increasing accessibility of the jet airliner brought international destinations even closer to the California surfer and the search went international. Travel stories were passed by word of mouth prior to the foundation of Surfer Magazine in 1960, but articles in Surfer, films such as Endless Summer (1963), and the Beach Boys’ Surfin’ Safari soon opened up a world of travel and fantasy for the American surfer. Many of these travel stories revolved around the search for waves. These quests, often to the less developed world, also provided escape from American norms. Surfers travel to get away from crowds, but they also apparently travel to fulfill fantasies about themselves and "foreign" places. In fact, for many surfers, travel to "the third world" is a rite of passage, after which they take on elevated status in the subculture. As any number of authors demonstrate, there is in the West a long history of fascination with the Periphery. Western authors actively imagined and imaged the peoples of the periphery, inscripting values and meaning onto places and peoples in order to satisfy the cultural, economic, and even psychological needs of the West (Said 1978; Gregory 1994). What, then, is the meaning of all this questing? What needs are being satisfied?

I believe that surfing culture, through films, travel writing, advertising, and travel is involved in active and aggressive "Othering." In the process of representing these quests, surfers are engaged in exactly the kind of uneven and unequal processes of inscription that Gregory and Said illuminate: "figurations of place, space, and landscape that dramatize distance and difference in such a way that "our" space is divided and demarcated from "their" space" (Gregory 1995:29). The political blindness of The Endless Summer and the blatant feminization and fetishism of foreign places in In God’s Hands which I discuss in a later chapter are examples demonstrating that the discourse surrounding surf travel functions to depoliticize and even encourage unreflective penetration deep into peripheral places and cultures.

Surfing Places

Geographic work includes a long tradition of landscape studies. In past decades the emphasis of these studies shifted from mere description to attempts to discern the sense of a place, often by analyzing the symbolic elements of landscapes. In surfing, experiences of place are integral to tourism as well as the everyday practice of the sport, thus geographic work on sense of place is relevant. While early work on tourism was involved primarily in economic flows or the logistics of tourist resort management (Squire 1994), a great deal of work done recently addresses the imagining of places and the creation of tourism mythology. Efforts by individual geographers such as Yi-Fu Tuan (1977), David Lowenthal (1975), Peirce Lewis (1979) and Larry Ford (1984) have helped to bring place back into the core of geographic research. While these authors are primarily interested in the individual interpretation of landscapes, a number of authors address the creation of tourist places via advertising and the media (Thurot and Thurot 1983; Cohen 1988; Butler 1990; Urry 1990). Obviously, the reason a tourist visits a particular place is a product of the complex fantasies he has adopted and created regarding that place. Urry’s (1990) The Tourist Gaze, analyses tourist ways of seeing, tracing the development of the European desire for the beach resort, while reflecting on the social creation and representation of "foreign" places. John Goss (1993), in a study examining tourist advertising of Hawaii, shows how the tropes of paradise, marginality, liminality, and femininity are used in a spatializing discourse which serves to signify Hawaii as alterity (i.e. foreign; alien). Hughes (1992) argues that the commodification of places results in a discourse where myth and reality blend.

One of the more obvious examples of this kind of process in the United States is the widespread myth that cowboys remain economically important in a traditional American "Wild West." Much of the pleasure and sense of adventure a tourist derives from travel in the American West is a by-product of such fantasies. Similar, but infinitely varied, myths and images create tourist demand all over the world. With surfing, the myths tend to revolve around notions of alterity (particularly paradise, the past primitive, femininity, and adventure). David Lowenthal (1985) argues that travelers to the periphery often imagine that they are seeing the past. The "backward" technology of the developing world provides an opportunity to imagine our own past as much as it does a chance to be present somewhere else. I argue that surf travel represents a kind of neocolonialism and that this neocolonialism functions by means of very particular ways of "seeing" the world and its places.

The Home Break: Reexamining Familiar Places

There is another side to the surfer’s interaction with place, however. Surfers uniquely engage their local environment. Through daily contact they are literally immersed in the landscape. References in the surfing media to a more intimate and everyday experience of place, while less common than the dominant views I have discussed, provide a contrast to the placelessness and consumption that is encouraged by surf travel and surfing style. These views suggest that elements of surfing’s reactionary past may persist.

In the last decade geographers found themselves in the center of larger debates in the social sciences about space-time compression, the symbolism of imagined and spectacular places, globalization of markets, and migrations and identity. Many of these debates center on changes in human communication and mobility resulting from new technologies. There is even talk of the demise of geography at the hands of telecommunications. However, geographers continue to demonstrate that there is an intimate relationship between people and the places they inhabit. Places are both physical and symbolic and people give meaning to places as well as derive personal meaning from them. Places serve to limit and control the individual’s access to resources, ideas, and other people and, thus, help to shape the individual’s worldview. Particular identities are still constituted through place, even if these places are constantly being changed and their borders continuously reshaped and permeated (Surber 1998).

Much of this new work on place is a result of influences from the British school of cultural studies initiated by Raymond Williams (1961). Williams’ work stressed the importance of lived experience to the creation of identity. This focus on everyday life shifted his emphasis away from "High Culture" and instead to the various forms of popular culture, wherein most people construct the meaning and values of their lives. In particular, he developed a notion of culture he termed ‘structure of feeling." This view of culture, less deterministic and rigid than the concept of ideology, argues that a given culture’s beliefs, values, and practices color and shape the responses of its members (Surber 1998:238). The goal of the analyst or critic of culture, then, is to discover the underlying structure of feeling of any culture. Moreover, by linking identity to the specifics of a locality, Williams’ work is a starting point for issues of local resistance to dominant culture.

In geography, authors such as Don Mitchell and Peter Jackson utilize Williams’ emphasis on lived experience and the shaping of identities by place to understand particular places as bases of resistance. Don Mitchell (1995), for example, traces public debate about the uses of People’s Park in Berkeley, California to show how the meaning of places can be highly contested. His work suggests both that places can be sites of resistance and that dominant forces will attempt to exercise control over space in order to limit the creation of such oppositional places.

Jackson’s (1991b) work on local culture in many cases focuses on issues of gentrification in urban settings. Drawing upon diverse theoretical sources ranging from Raymond Williams to Stuart Hall, Pierre Bordieu, and Clifford Geertz, he attempts to problematize simplistic models of neighborhood change and historic preservation. He addresses the intersections of economy and culture inherent in urban reinvestment projects. How is it that certain elements of a "locality" come to be considered "economic" or "cultural" resources and others do not? He suggests that the cultural and economic spheres are generally separated as if they were independent when, in reality, they are tightly intertwined. Jackson suggests, for example, that the transformation of the lofts of SoHo, in New York City, from "worthless" industrial space in 1962 to chic boutiques and upscale dwellings for the urban elite by 1974 "may be better understood as raising a series of questions about representation rather than as involving a stark choice between genuine preservation and deliberate misappropriation of an "authentic" urban past" (1991:224). Importantly, he suggests that such gentrification may represent a symbolic appropriation of working class history. Both of these authors are concerned with the contests of representation that are a central element of cultural change. While Mitchell is largely concerned with the legislative processes that eliminate public spaces and Jackson focuses more on the role of meaning and representation in localized changes, both authors share the belief that resistance to dominant (hegemonic) ideologies is often tied to localized identity and in this way are relevant to my study of surfing subculture.

Geography and the Media

The geographic study of culture, which historically involved field study of foreign cultures, is now both more expansive and more reflexively political (Shurmer-Smith and Hannam 1994). Studies of culture now often address the politics of popular culture at home. Moreover, culture is understood to be complex and contested. Initial geographic forays into popular culture used literature as their data. Today cultural geographers regularly utilize films in their investigations of place and political identity (Aitken 1991; Natter and Jones 1993; Ford 1994; Kennedy 1994). This literature will be explored more fully in chapter V.


The many theories I draw upon to inform my analysis of surfing subculture are not in complete agreement with one another. Nonetheless, each of these authors offers to me some insight, some avenue, into critically understanding popular culture and surfing subculture, in particular. To Gramsci, for example, I owe an understanding of ideology as something complex and contested, while Bourdieu provides a structure for understanding the social importance of image and style. Dick Hebdige has contributed his model of the commodification of radical subcultures. From Doreen Massey, Gillian Rose, and Peter Jackson, I gain a sensitivity to the linguistic oversimplification of gendered dichotomous thinking, as well as an awareness that patriarchy has always had geographical implications. Stuart Aitken and Tim Cresswell open up new avenues for cultural critique in geography by complicating discussions of travel, mobility, and gender. Derek Gregory and Edward Relph inspire me by demonstrating textual analysis which is literary, historical, and emancipatory. Humanistic works on sense of place, by authors such as Yi-Fu Tuan and Larry Ford, encourage me to not underestimate the importance of place to the individual. Finally, the works of Raymond Williams, Don Mitchell, and Peter Jackson counter that the meaning of place is often contested by both groups and individuals.

Thus, the following chapters are structured around these theoretical avenues for investigation. In chapter V, I utilize the concepts of hegemony and commodification, as well as the literature on film, to investigate mainstream representations of surfing subculture. Chapter VI examines the character and importance of surf travel using the literature on travel, exploration, and mobility. In Chapter VII, I test the literature on gender and its relationship to nature against representations of nature in the surfing subculture. Finally, in Chapter VIII, I analyze elements of resistance and transgression in the surfing discourse. I can do none of this without first elaborating on a somewhat naďve historicization of contemporary surfing cultures. This mapping dominates my discussion in the chapter that immediately follows.



Surfing has a long history in Polynesia, but it is a relatively recent arrival in much of the rest of the world. The practice of surfing and the social meaning associated with it were dramatically transformed over the last two centuries via its diffusion from Hawaii and its eventual adaptation by the West. The modern practice of surfing involves myriad rules, roles, myths and institutions which collectively create a distinctive subculture. However, this modern culture retains only suggestive fragments of its Hawaiian roots.

This first chapter briefly outlines how a ritual element of a pre-industrial culture on the most geographically isolated island in the world diffused throughout the world to become a highly visible and successful element of Western culture and economy. In particular, I will focus on the emergence of a distinctive subculture and mythology centered around Southern California surfing and the lifestyle it represents in the mass media. Surfing is now more than just a sport. It is a lifestyle, one of the hundreds of themed niche commodities which shape the mass market which is American popular culture. In short, the story of the development of this subculture is tied intimately to geography, colonization, mythology and economics.

Ancient Beginnings

Surfing apparently originated in Polynesia when the ancestors of the Polynesians and other Pacific Islanders started to move eastward out of Southeast Asia to colonize the Pacific. Their cultures were centered around the ocean and their famous ocean-going canoes which allowed a remarkable diffusion across vast open expanses of the world’s largest ocean. The evidence we rely upon today to date the emergence of surfing comes entirely from accounts of early European explorers and thus any attempt to accurately date surfing’s emergence is largely conjecture. Assuming that it developed early in the culture of Polynesia would place the date as early as 2,000 B.C. More likely, the sport reached its full technical and ritual development, including the riding of waves while standing, hundreds of years later in those places where geography conspired to create the best conditions for large surf, namely Hawaii and Tahiti. The first European explorers to see Hawaii and Tahiti found rich traditions of surfing already in place (Lueras 1984; Finney and Houston 1996). Archaeological evidence suggests that Hawaii had been reached by no later than AD 400 so we can safely assume that surfing existed for at least a thousand years in Hawaii before the Europeans invaded (Finney and Houston 1996:21).

The role of surfing in pre-contact Hawaii was central. Men, women, and children apparently participated with almost equal vigor. While the surfing abilities of King Kamehameha and his wife Ka’ahumanu were memorialized in ritual songs and chants, ordinary Hawaiians practiced the sport with equal relish (Lueras 1984; Kampion 1997). Westerners commented on the importance of the surfboard as personal property and one missionary even suggested its possession was as important to the Hawaiians as was the ownership of a light carriage to the Englishman of the day (Stewart, quoted in Finney and Houston 1996:27). In retrospect it is clear that European impressions of surfing reflected highly misguided notions about both the practice and meaning of surfing in Hawaii. Early engravings show the islanders in awkward, often impossible positions on the waves. Many of these engravings depicted naked native women (Figure 1).

Most commentators simply categorized it as a sport in the European sense of the word: a recreation. They missed the point entirely. The Hawaiians relied on the sea for much of their livelihood and their relationship to the sea was probably the most important element of their spiritual life. Finney and Houston (Finney and Houston 1996:27) suggest that surfing was "the center of a circle of social and ritual activities that began with the very selection of the tree from which a board was carved and could end in the premature death of a chief - as was the result of at least one famous surfing contest in Hawaiian legend." In short, surfing was a central element of ancient Hawaiian life and was important to both sexes and all classes as recreation, ritual, and celebration.

European "Discovery" of Surfing

Regardless of when it originated, by the eighteenth century surfing had developed to a degree that amazed the European explorers and missionaries who first came into contact with it. The very first European descriptions of surfing come from the journals of Captain James Cook. While at anchor off Tahiti, Cook noticed a Tahitian in a dugout canoe catching and riding waves. Cook first suspected that the man had stolen something from one of his ships and was rapidly attempting an escape, but when the man paddled back out to do it again Cook began to understand: "I could not help concluding that this man felt the most supreme pleasure while he was driven on so fast and so smoothly by the sea" (Cook 1784, quoted in Duane 1996b:18). Later on the same voyage, Cook’s first lieutenant, James King, excitedly recounts watching Hawaiians ride standing on the surf: "their first object is to place themselves on the summit of the largest surge, by which they are driven with amazing rapidity toward shore" (1784, quoted in Finney and Houston 1996:21). Daniel Duane in his book-length essay on surfing culture, notes that Cook even mentions the apparent disregard of the surfer for the Europeans, despite the awe-struck gaping of many other Tahitian villagers. Duane argues that Cook and King were essentially correct in their analysis of surfing, attributing to it "words and thoughts that still cluster around it - absorbed in a clean swell , that eighteenth century Tahitian has no use for wealth, no yearning for greener grass, no fear of the imperialism at his doorstep" (Duane 1996b:18). Duane sees surfing as a kind of escape and he seems thrilled that Cook noticed this as well.

Whereas seamen like Cook and King saw the excitement and joy in surfing, most of the earliest European witnesses inscribed Western ideas onto surfing, categorizing it as either dangerous or unproductive. The missionary, William Ellis, hiking around the island of Hawaii in the 1820s notes that "the thatch houses of a whole village stood empty...daily tasks such as farming, fishing, and tapa-making were left undone while an entire community - men, women, and children - enjoyed themselves in the rising surf and rushing white water" (1831, quoted in Finney and Houston 1996:27). Already we see the conflict with Western notions of work and productivity that will cling to surfing throughout its history. Drew Kampion, in his history of surf culture, Stoked (1997: 33), argues that ‘surfing’s association with nakedness, sexuality, wagering, shameless exuberance, informality, ignorant joy, and freedom were counterproductive to the designs of the church fathers who, curiously, wound up owning most of the land in the islands." In addition to these notions of hedonism and pagan immorality were interpretations which focused on danger, bravery, and other masculine notions. One of the first of these comes from another missionary, George Washington Bates, who described surfers as "borne on the foaming crest of the mighty wave with the speed of the swiftest race-horse toward the shore, where a spectator looks to see them dashed into pieces or maimed for life" (Bates, quoted in Duane 1996b:18). Duane astutely suggests that these early European interpretations which focused on "risk, daring, and conquest" were more reflective of Europe than anything in Hawaiian surfing: "...the tropes of Western writers scrambling to give an alien sport familiar meaning" (Duane 1996b:19). Richard Henry Dana, the young Harvard dropout turned romantic seafarer, in his Two Years Before the Mast encounters a group of ‘sandwich Islanders," Hawaiians, living idly on the beach at San Diego. Although Dana does not recount any episodes of surfing, Duane (1996b:35) feels "safe assuming they used driftwood planks or felled trees as surfboards, or at least bodysurfed." When Dana’s captain attempts to hire the Hawaiians he has a remarkable conversation with them that again suggests surfing’s conflict between Western and Pacific Islander economic thought (Dana, quoted in Duane 1996b:124):

"What do you do here, Mr. Mannini?" asks the captain.

"Oh, we play cards, get drunk, smoke -- do anything we’re a mind to."

"Don’t you want to come aboard and work?"

"Aole! aole make mokou I ka hana. Now, got plenty money; no good, work. Mamule, money pau -- all gone. Ah! very good, work! --maikai, hana hana nui!"

But you’ll spend all your money in this way, " says the captain.

"Aye! me know that. By-"em-by money pau -- all gone; then Kanaka work plenty."

So, in the middle of the eighteenth century, we see certain familiar ideas attaching to surfing and Polynesian culture - indolence, gluttony, and diffidence.

Mark Twain was probably the first tourist to actually attempt surfing while on a visit to Hawaii and write home about it. With his usual pluck and humor Twain paints a romantic picture, replete with references to naked heathens, for his stateside readers:

In one place we came upon a large company of naked natives, of both sexes and all ages, amusing themselves with the national pastime of surf-bathing. Each heathen...would wait for a particularly prodigious billow to come along; at the right moment he would fling his board upon its family crest and himself upon the board, a here he would come whizzing by like a bombshell!...I tried surf-bathing once, subsequently, but made a failure of it. I got the board placed right, and at the right moment, too; but missed the connection myself. The board struck shore in three-quarters of a second, without any cargo, and I struck the bottom about the same time, with a couple of barrels of water in me (Twain 1872, in Finney and Houston 1996:101).

Finally, he concludes that "none but natives ever master the art of surf-bathing thoroughly."

Such dispatches would eventually be part of the reason for surfing’s growth, but in the middle of the eighteenth century surfing was actually in an acute state of decline. Disease combined with missionary zeal against "pagan" practices, which included surfing, conspired to virtually eliminate most aspects of ancient Hawaiian culture. By the turn of the twentieth century only a handful of people practiced the little known sport of surf-riding. In 1892, Nathaniel B. Emerson, an author with an interest in the decline of native Hawaiian traditions stated that:

There are those living...who remember the time when almost the entire population of a village would at certain hours resort to the sea-side to indulge in, or to witness, this magnificent accomplishment. We cannot but mourn its decline. But this too has felt the touch of civilization, and today it is hard to find a surfboard outside of our museums and private collections. (Emerson 1892, quoted in Lueras 1984:54)

This was just two years before the overthrow of the Hawaiian monarchy and six years before the U.S. military annexation of Hawaii in 1898. Most authors agree that the sport barely survived colonization (Lueras 1984; Kampion 1997), but the seeds of surf culture, which included a healthy dose of resistance to Western norms regarding work, family, and spatial and temporal regimentation, would bear fruit during the sport’s 20th century renaissance.

Surfing’s Rebirth

The origins of a revolution that would change surfing from a largely Hawaiian sacred act into a haole recreation can be traced to Waikiki Beach on Oahu. It was here that the deliberate promotional efforts of a handful of Hawaiians, both haole and native, and the writings of journalists and advertisers, including Jack London, brought the sport to the attention of the West and an emerging tourist industry.

At the turn of the century the Waikiki beachfront, one of the original centers of ancient Hawaiian surfing, had already begun to be developed for tourism. Hotels were starting to crowd the beachfront. Among the few remaining surfers were a number of well connected haoles including journalist Alexander Hume Ford and local Irish-Hawaiian beachboy George Freeth. These men, along with a handful of native watermen including Duke Kahanamoku, would be instrumental in the sport’s survival.

During his visit to Hawaii, Jack London happened to befriend both Ford and Freeth. The two Hawaiians introduced London to surfing and in 1907 he published "A Royal Sport: Surfing at Waikiki" in Women’s Home Companion. Later, in 1910, Ford, concerned about increasingly limited access to the beachfront, organized the world’s first surfing association, The Outrigger Canoe Club. Ford secured a twenty year lease on an acre of beachfront property, built a symbolic grass hut, and charged annual dues for surfboard storage in lockers. The club’s stated purpose was

to give an added and permanent attraction to Hawaii and make Waikiki always the Home of the Surfer, with perhaps an annual Surfboard and Outrigger Canoe Carnival which will do much to spread abroad the attractions of Hawaii, the only islands in the world where men and boys ride upright upon the crests of the waves.(Ford, in Lueras 1984:70-71)

Here already are the signs of a dramatic change in the sport from its Hawaiian past. First, surfing in Western culture was immediately linked to the marketing of place and the promotion of tourism. Furthermore, women were no longer included. The Outrigger Canoe Club, though it did eventually include a number of women, was an avowedly male realm. Finally, as Drew Kampion (1997:36) points out, "the Outrigger was an almost strictly haole organization." In fact, three years after its formation a number of renegade members broke off and started a rival club called Hui Nalu. This new club was overwhelmingly composed of native Hawaiians. Although we can only guess at the motivations of Duke Kahanamoku, Hui Nalu’s first captain and founder, it seems apparent that a divide between the haoles and the more traditional surfers had emerged. Surfing’s association with wealthy white men had begun.

Jack London’s writings on surfing only deepen these initial themes. His report on surfing was characteristically masculine and did much to promote the sport in the United States. As in all of his works, London seemed to be unable to view nature, the sea in this case, as anything other than a realm for conquest and Men as nothing less than Judeo-Christian Gods:

Why, they are a mile long, these bull-mouthed monsters, and they weigh a thousand tons, and they charge in to shore faster than a man can run...And suddenly, out there where a big smoker lifts skyward, rising like a sea-god from out of the welter of spume and churning white...appears the dark head of a man...He is a Mercury - a brown Mercury. His heels are winged, and in them is the swiftness of the sea. In truth, form out of the sea he has leaped upon the back of the sea, and he is riding the sea that roars and bellows and cannot shake him from its back... He has "bitted the bull-mouthed breaker" and ridden it in, and the pride in the feat shows in the carriage of his magnificent body as he glances for a moment carelessly at you who sit in the shade of the shore. He is a Kanaka - and more, he is a man, a member of the kingly species that has mastered matter and the brutes and lorded it over creation. (London 1907, quoted in Finney and Houston 1996:106)

London eventually published much of his surfing material in The Cruise of the Snark (1911), further cementing surfing’s image as an extreme sport of conquest for men.

During the first three decades of the twentieth century surfing became a recognized part of the image of Hawaii sold to well-to-do travelers throughout the world. Cruise line travel brochures, carnivals, and even silent films helped to solidify the image of Hawaii and its people as exotic and different (Figure 2). Cruise line and hotel promotional brochures of the period focused on themes of paradise, difference, and implied sexuality (Goss 1993).

Many of these advertisements depict white tourist women surfing with Hawaiian beachboys (Figure 3), a tradition that continues to this day and which still has an association with sexuality, even male prostitution (Bone 1994). Many others simply show tourists posing with surfboards, the ultimate evidence of having been to the Other side of the world.

Helping to solidify and spread this image were the exploits of a young Hawaiian athlete, Duke Kahanamoku, the founder of the aforementioned Hui Nalu Club. Duke led a life that likely did more to promote surfing and Hawaii than the efforts of all the others combined. Duke was first and foremost a fantastic athlete. Without training he broke numerous world swimming sprint records and he did this by impressive margins. Eventually, he broke the 100 and 200 meter sprint records and went on to astound the world at the 1912

Olympics, winning a gold medal while looking over his shoulder to see how far behind his opponents were. He did all of this without any formal training and stories about his remarkable abilities spread by newspaper to the U.S., Europe and Australia (Lueras 1984; Kampion 1997).

Duke’s real love, however, was surfing. He was a founding member of both of the world’s first surfing clubs and became so well known that he is now generally considered the "grandfather" of modern surfing. After his Olympic wins, Duke toured the world giving swimming and surfing demonstrations, visiting much of Europe, Australia, and both coasts of the United States. Despite all of this fame, his promotion of the sport, and Hawaii, became muddied by his association with Hollywood. Filmmakers decided he was the perfect figure for all sorts of swarthy foreigner roles - Arab kings, Apache and Hindu chiefs, and so forth. As a result Duke ended up spending nearly twenty years of his life living in and around Hollywood playing bit parts in major motion pictures. Not surprisingly, it wasn’t until 1948 that he actually played a Polynesian when he was cast opposite John Wayne in The Wake of the Red Witch (Figure 4).

While Hollywood used Duke to represent the generic Other and rarely featured his surfing talents, surfing’s depiction in film can be traced back all the way to silent films. In the next chapter I focus in depth on the link between films and surfing as commodity, but in 1910 it was still almost fifty years before the advent of the surfing film and professional surf journalism. Expositions and tourism were still the most significant factors in surfing’s growth and worldwide diffusion (Figure 5).

Diffusion to California

It was during this period of press promotion and tourism that surfing spread to California, where the new commercial culture of surfing would eventually take final shape. This ironic reversal was linked from the start with the necessary expansion of capitalism and tourism. As we shall see, this pattern was to be repeated over and over

again throughout the subsequent spread of surfing. It was actually three Hawaiian princes attending military academy in San Mateo in 1885 who were probably the first persons to surf in California. They visited Santa Cruz and had redwood boards shaped so they could test the waves at the San Lorenzo rivermouth. Although Santa Cruz would become a beach resort soon thereafter, it seems that the exploits of these three Hawaiians went largely unnoticed and unexploited.

It was George Freeth who successfully transferred the idea of surfing to California when in 1907 he promoted the opening of the Los Angeles to Redondo Beach Railway by giving wave-riding demonstrations in front of thousands of spectators at Redondo Beach. This was the same year that London’s article appeared and the fortuitous combination, combined with Duke Kahanamoku’s first visits to Southern California in 1913, guaranteed that surfing would prosper. However, they also further linked surfing to commercial interests and the marketing of beachside places. All of this promotion increased the number of surfers in both Hawaii and California. In 1928 Tom Blake, inventor of the hollow surf board, organized the Pacific Coast Surfriding Championships at Corona Del Mar and in 1936 the Palos Verdes Surfing Club became California’s first surfing organization. According to Drew Kampion (1997), San Onofre became one of the first centers of the emerging California subculture.

He notes that in the years after the Depression surfing was one of a limited number of opportunities for recreation among the young people of Southern California. As the economy improved and cars became more common, a core group of surfers started congregating at the beach, camping sometimes for weeks, in a deliberate attempt to recreate the Waikiki beach scene, replete with grass skirts, ukuleles, and palm frond hats. Kampion’s description of this group notes the centrality of a symbol that remains an important element of surfing places to this day: "the surfers found a grass shack left behind by a Hollywood movie company, and that became a focal point" (Kampion 1997:48). Grass and palm frond shacks of this sort are constructed all over the world by surfers. Their importance as symbolic centers of surfing culture and elements in the promotion of tourist destinations was made particularly evident in 1998 when the San Diego Historic Site Board voted unanimously to designate a palm hut at Windansea beach in La Jolla, California a San Diego Historic Site (Figure 6). An application for its recognition as a National Historic Site is now in progress (Rodgers 1998a).

The construction and occupation of beach huts by surfers in California led almost immediately to confrontations with mainstream authorities who felt threatened by this appropriation of space. Evidence of this can be seen in the architecture of the Windansea hut itself. The Windansea hut, constructed originally in 1947, is unique in that it has no side walls. The architect of the hut explained that this was in order to prevent its destruction by police who had torn down similar shacks in Pacific Beach under the pretense that illegal "drinking and cavorting" were taking place inside their thin walls (Rodgers 1998a:B3).

Shortly after the emergence of San Onofre as a center of surfing culture, a new spot was discovered just north of Los Angeles. Malibu, a small point which faces south and receives the summer South Pacific typhoon swells, eventually would become the most influential focal point of Southern California surfing. However, in the early years of this century the point was the private property of the Samuel K. Rindge estate. His widow fought the construction of the road that is now State Highway 1, in the courts and with armed cowboys, but in 1926 construction began. For years access to Rancho Malibu was still limited to property owners and their business partners. Eventually Marblehead Development Company purchased and developed the land just north of Malibu and bit by bit the old Ranch was sold off, including tracts purchased by the state that would soon become Leo Carrillo State Beach. Many early Malibu surfers claim to have sneaked onto the Rindge property at one time or another, always keeping a watchful eye on Rindge’s armed ranch hands. Despite this early exclusion, by 1950 Malibu was the place to be if you were a Los Angeles county surfer, especially in the summer. Although the crowds were still small, they were growing. Throughout the boom time of the 1950s, a highly mobile and varied youth culture began to emerge. More and more young people, buoyed by greater access to expendable income and automobiles, were heading to the beach.

Hollywood Discovers Surfing

When this emerging beach culture was portrayed by Hollywood in Gidget (1959) and other beach films during the 1950s and 60s, surfing exploded in popularity. Brian Wilson and the music of the Beach Boys (who did not actually surf) reached even more of America. When the classic surf travel film The Endless Summer was nationally distributed in 1963, there were only a handful of countries where surfing was practiced. Today, as the result of the very successful commodification of surf culture, virtually every country that has a coastline has surfers and hosts surf-tourism and surfing themed products are used to sell everything from internet services to luxury sport-utility vehicles.

Gidget is the film that most dramatically changed everything for California surfing. Old time surfers talk today about a sea change in the water between 1959 and 1960 (Liquid Stage 1997). Prior to Gidget a Malibu surfer could pretty much ride any wave he wanted. Crowding was virtually unheard of and every surfer knew every other surfer at the home break. Gidget changed all that in one season by making surfing seem sexy and adventurous to millions of moviegoers. What is more, Gidget placed surfing within the reach of anyone. After all, apparently even a girl could do it. One year there were about twenty surfers at Malibu, the next year there were hundreds. Gidget was so popular that it led to five sequels and two television spin-offs. This is the film that many argue cemented America’s fascination with the mythical Southern California beach lifestyle. Surfing was now growing fast and becoming big business too. What’s more, the whole atmosphere of surfing changed. Crowding, territoriality ("localism"), and travel increased.

While the rest of America was watching Hollywood’s simplistic surf films and dancing to the music of the Beach Boys, surfers were making their own films, presenting them on the "four wall circuit" in high school gyms and community centers all along the California coast. The first of these low budget films to take on national importance was The Endless Summer, a film many still consider the only truly authentic surfing film.

Bruce Brown introduced The Endless Summer in 1964 in Santa Monica. It was a huge hit with the surfing crowd, but Hollywood distributors wouldn’t touch it. To prove it would sell to mainstream America, Brown rented an auditorium in downtown Wichita, Kansas, smack in the geographic center of the country. In spite of frigid winter weather conditions, the film sold out and was a smash hit for two solid weeks, outselling the theater’s previous engagement of My Fair Lady. Buoyed by his success, Brown debuted the film next in New York and critics raved. "the Fellini of the foam" said one; "Bergman of the boards" cried another (Lueras 1984:49).

Reportedly produced on less than $50,000, the film eventually grossed $30 million. Brown personally reaped around $8 million and became surfing’s first mogul. The film is technically simple. There is no dialogue since Brown, like other early surf film directors, generally performed live commentary while touring with his films. The plot is even simpler: two young California surfers set off to travel around the world following the summer and the surf. Filmed in a "down-to-earth" documentary style with a healthy dose of humor, the film apparently started a mad rush of surfing related tourism. The search for "the perfect wave" was on. Surfing magazines, the first of which was John Severson’s Surfer in 1960, soon made travel articles about "the search" a staple. Since then, his magazines have steadily increased their travel and international coverage.

The Surf Media and the Growth
of Professional Surfing

Magazines provided another means for the dissemination of surf culture. The circulation of Surfer went from around 5,000 in 1960 to roughly 100,000 in 1970. Today Surfer is one of an increasing number of specialized surf magazines, including Longboard, Surfing, Surfer Girl, Wahine, and The Surfer’s Journal, as well as numerous foreign publications. Most of these magazines dedicate the majority of their copy space to the coverage of professional surfing, which emerged during the 1970s.

The lineage of surfing competitions can be traced to ancient Hawaii, but it wasn’t until CBS discovered surfing in 1969, with the help of a young surfer named Fred Hemmings, that surfers could hope to make any money at their sport. The total prize money offered that first year was only $1,000 but surfing would never be quite the same and a deep split developed in as a result of the sport’s new competitive professionalism. At various times all three television networks would cover professional surfing, but television marketing was soon surpassed by the sponsorship of surf clothing and equipment manufacturers. By 1984, about $500,000 in total prize money was available on the international professional surfing tour (Lueras 1984). That figure has since risen to dramatically, with the top surfers earning hundreds of thousands each year. Moreover, lucrative sponsorships and apparel endorsement contracts now routinely exceed $1 million. But even more important than the money paid to the surfers is the surf media’s emphasis on professional surfers and the products these surfers promote.

While few surfers will ever compete in a contest, virtually all the articles and photographs in the surf media focus on professional surfers. In addition, extensive magazine advertising and the sponsorship of contests and individual athletes by surfing retailers and manufacturers creates a massive industry focused around the marketing of surfing style to the world of consumers. The surf wear industry alone is now worth $1.7 billion and includes such familiar names as Gotcha, Billabong, Quicksilver, Rusty, Stussy, Mossimo, and Pacific Eyes and Tees (Earnest 1999:C1). All of these companies, along with the successful movie makers and magazines, managed to capitalize on the symbolic appeal of surfing and in turn they helped to shape the image of surfing, transforming an iconoclastic subculture into a powerful element of what some commentators are calling "liberation marketing" (Frank 1997:44). Even very mainstream products are now often marketed with surfing imagery (Figure 7).



Surfing has experienced a geographic and cultural transformation. The sport was practiced for untold centuries by ancient Polynesians, survived attempts to destroy it by Western colonizers, was dismissed as mindless play by much of middle class America, and was, in the end, glorified and exploited by sophisticated twentieth century marketing. Throughout all of this surfing acquires the status of a prominent element of American mythology, a subculture apparently peopled by a diverse group of eclectics, entrepreneurs, consumers, and image makers. In the following chapters, I delve more deeply into the political and spatial implications of this commodification .



In this chapter I explore the depiction of surfing subculture in American films. I begin by reviewing a number of geographic works that focus on film. Since I am explicitly interested in film’s role within larger social structures which encourage particular ideologies, I also discuss some of the recent work on the commodification of cultural difference. Films are often intensely personal statements, reflecting the imaginations and biases of their writers and directors. However, as commodities and important elements of popular culture they also reflect the zeitgeist of their times. I turn first to a discussion of these wider historical and political contexts. I elaborate why I chose to analyze these particular films and then I discuss the narrative of each film in detail, noting those instances where each film exemplifies various insights from the geographic and social theory literature. In the end I suggest that these films use the powerful tools of visual, spatial, and chronological "re-presentation" (Aitken and Zonn 1994) to serve ideological ends. By focusing at length on a number of these films I unpack and critique stereotyped portrayals in order to illustrate their ideological character.

The Geography of Film

Despite a marked hesitancy by geographers to take up the geographic implications of film, there has been real growth in the area for more than a decade now (Burgess and Gold 1985; Kennedy and Lukinbeal 1997). Much of the hesitancy derives from the complexity and uncertainty inherent in the analysis of films. Rarely is the meaning of a film or a scene in a film explicit or incontestable. In addition, unlike much literature, a film is a product of multiple authors. Moreover, it is difficult, even impossible, to untangle the intended messages in film from their infinite variety of possible interpretations by individuals, particularly since many films are distributed across traditional national and cultural boundaries. Then there are concerns about the relative importance of film as an indicator of the social, since most films are explicitly commercial in nature and are sometimes dismissed as "mere" entertainment (Kennedy and Lukinbeal 1997). Despite the aforementioned concerns, geographers find film a particularly rich source of data for investigations in three areas: landscape and place, environmental perception, and the politics of identity. Burgess and Gold’s (1985) Geography, The Media, and Popular Culture was the first extended treatment of popular media by geographers. Aitken and Zonn’s (1994) Place, Power, Situation, and Spectacle was a book length text devoted entirely to the geography of film.

The difficulties of film interpretation are reflected in the variety of methodological approaches in the literature. Kennedy and Lukinbeal (1997) suggest that approaches to film in geography roughly paralleled trends in the discipline. Thus, they trace the emergence of film studies first to humanistic approaches to the landscape (Relph 1976; Tuan 1977; Meinig 1979; Ford 1994) and then to interest in cognitive psychology and transactional approaches to environmental perception ( Zube and Kennedy 1990; Aitken 1991; Aitken and Zonn 1993; Kennedy 1994). Most recently, geographers of film turned to postmodern and social theory approaches which acknowledge film’s role as an institution which "mediates social knowledge, reinforces ideological constructions of the status-quo and is an active agent of hegemony" (Kennedy and Lukinbeal 1997:34). It is these latter works which set the stage for my own investigations.

Postmodernism is a much contested and often muddied concept, with various authors using the term in widely varying contexts and with often contradictory meanings. It is variously applied to recent developments in everything from art and the media, to architecture, literature, academic theory, and politics. I use postmodernism to refer to a perspective which denies universal truths and all-encompassing scientific or social explanations and instead values a diversity of perspectives. In art and architecture, postmodernism may combine multiple themes and traditions in a single "pastiche" or collage. In academia, the postmodernists talk of the "crisis of reason" and the abandonment of metanarratives and metatheories. In film studies, as Kennedy and Lukinbeal (1997) suggest, there is a need to bridge the bipolar concepts of individual agency versus societal structure, to connect cognitive theory with social theory and political identity. One of the primary insights of postmodernism is that everyday experiences are often not exclusively or even immediately experienced but instead are re-presented to us by various media, particularly via television, video, and film. Some postmodern theorist argue that we live in a dramaturgical society where life is much like theater. Spectacles and images, often images of which do not reflect any material reality (simulacra), substitute for direct emotional or observational knowledge and feeling. The result, argue many theorists (Baudrillard 1988; Jameson 1991; 1992; Aitken and Zonn 1994) is that we live in age where the image is more important than any underlying ‘truth," where the "reel" is more fundamental than the "real." In this kind of society, an individual often finds herself comparing her everyday life behavior and experience to media images. When this kind of comparative information is incorporated into an individual’s actions, goals, and choices, then the individual also becomes a "dramaturge – a product of the representation" (Kennedy and Lukinbeal 1997:39). Hopkins (1994:58) argues that the persuasiveness of film lies in the "ability to misrepresent that which it stands for in a subtle, almost invisible manner." Thus, insights from postmodern social theory posit an explanation for the pervasive influence of media over individual action and social conceptions of normality. An additional insight of postmodern theory is that the media is now completely integrated into the processes of commodity production (Jameson 1991; Shurmer-Smith and Hannam 1994). Literature and other traditional elements of "high-culture" are no longer the primary or even most influential reflectors of cultural consciousness. Instead, the commercial media now fill this role and there is often apparently little difference between information, entertainment, and advertisement. All manifestations of the media are now seen to be thoroughly commodified.

The Geography of Commodification

Geographers, slow to address the ramifications of this change, often choose instead to work on consumption. Much of this work relies on narrow definitions of commodity which limit analysis to material products and goods or the places in which these are consumed (Jackson 1999). However, work investigating the commodification of place has proliferated in recent years (Gregson 1995). Noting the extension of commodity production to the creation of public and private spaces, a number of geographers focus on the shopping mall as a text to be read. These authors argue that the merging of public and private space within a pastiche of architectural styles meant to create a carnival or spectacular place for consumption makes the mall a quintessential example of the postmodern (Zukin 1991; Goss 1993; Hopkins 1994). The emphasis on textual interpretations, on "reading" the mall, in these studies leads to another recent trend, the "reading" and deconstruction of advertisements, often with an emphasis on the gendered nature of messages in the advertisements (Rose 1993; Gregson 1995). While these works still focus on material products, their discussions of representation and meaning suggest broader conceptions of commodity. A few works deal with the implications of the globalization of consumer culture (Peet 1986; Harvey 1989). Of particular relevance to my study are geographic works that direct attention to the commodification of cultural difference. These are often studies of tourism.

Work on tourism notes the ability of tour providers and whole communities to sell representations of "native" culture. Often these commentators lament the deliberate manipulation and misrepresentation of ethnic cultures in order to appease the visual and imaginative appetites of Western tourists (MacCannell 1976; Cohen 1988; Urry 1990). A quest for contact with "authentic" ethnic cultures – those thought to be untouched by Western influence - is said to the be the goal of much tourism. As we shall see, this kind of quest is an essential element of surfing subculture.

Recently some authors note the tendency of Westerners to revel in the consumption of ethnic cultures without ever leaving their own neighborhoods. In his study of a gentrifying neighborhood in North London, May (1996) notes that the ability to consume "foreign" cultures in local restaurants is a central element of lifestyle choices for the professionals who are the newest residents in that formerly working class neighborhood and serves as a way for these newcomers to distinguish themselves from the area’s other, poorer, residents. In a similar vein, cultural critic bell hooks (1994) notes that by "eating the Other" consumers assert power and status over the cultures which are devoured. Such lifestyle choices, Bourdieu (1986) notes, are highly aestheticized and take on dramatic visual and emotive characteristics which add to the pleasure of the act (May 1996). As we shall see, the rhetoric surrounding surfing, and particularly surf travel, is infused with similar highly aestheticized and romanticized visions of experience. This kind of sensuous consumption is instrumental in the marketing and commodification of any kind of cultural difference and it is largely through such aesthetic strategies that films so powerfully commodify cultural differences.

There are significant parallels between film and commodity studies in geography. First and foremost, both areas of research address issues of culture and its relation to personal identity. Whereas film studies look to the representation and reproduction of landscapes, both material and psychological, for insight into culture, commodity studies often focus on the production of consumer landscapes or the marketing of cultural differences. In either case, the researchers are concerned with the complex interactions between society, commodity, and imagery.

I see three processes as related to the commodification of cultural difference in surfing films. First, the increasingly successful marketing of surfing films reflects the historical shift whereby films and other media became the dominant, commodified, means of cultural communication. Next, the commodification of the surfing subculture itself is reflected in the films, whereby an association with surfing and "the surfing lifestyle" represents a type of status and an element of a consumer lifestyle as opposed to a rejection of mainstream culture. Finally, surfing films, by aestheticizing the consumption of "Other" places, are instrumental in the geopolitical commodification of international cultures.

American Films and American History

The complexities involved in understanding a film are substantial. Added to all of the personal, even psychological variables, are the changing biases and sensibilities of each historical epoch. While a product of only a few individuals, a film reflects the time in which it was made, because both the filmmaker and the audience are to some degree products of a particular historical moment. And yet films, even documentary films, can not be viewed as simple mirrors of social reality. For example, images of blacks, Native Americans, Asians, and other minorities in America may reflect very little about their social reality. On the other hand, these same depictions may tell us much about prevailing attitudes or underlying social tensions. Film historian John Belton (1994:xxi) uses the metaphor of a two-sided mirror to suggest that by looking "through" films we can attempt to see how "American identity is shaped in the movies and, at the same time, how the movies are shaped by it." Furthermore, the movie industry, in a similarly complex interaction with its audience, progresses through various thematic and stylistic trends. The inclusion of graphic violence in a film may reflect the desires of the filmmaker or it may simply reflect a broad trend in cinema. Most likely, it is a product of both factors, with the trend influencing the individual director or writer in much the same manner that films, over time, influence audiences. Thus, let us now turn to a discussion of the specific historical shifts and trends which are reflected in American surfing films since 1950.

Films and the 1950s

Initially, surfing films were low budget, 16 mm productions made by traveling film makers who also toured to promote their films. Bud Browne and Bruce Brown (no relation) both made films this way in the 1950s and then toured Southern California, exposing California surfers to the waves of Hawaii and Australia. There was no plot, just a nearly continuous reel of surfing shots, sometimes interrupted by comic interludes. These films generally emphasized fun and concentrated on the eccentric characters who lived at the beach. These early filmmakers often had trouble making a profit. At the other extreme were the very successful, yet truly silly Hollywood surfing films of the 1960s. The Gidget series (all five of them), Ride the Wild Surf (1964), and Cat On a Hot Foam Board (1959), were just a few of the big money makers that did little to reflect the surfing lifestyle, but much to attract the attention of America’s youth. Still, surfers continued to make their own films, hoping to create something more true to their experience than Hollywood could dream up. Bruce Brown’s The Endless Summer (1963) remains the single most popular surfing film ever, but even after the success of The Endless Summer, most surf films were made on minuscule budgets by people who loved to surf (Warshaw 1998).

When examining the surfing films of the late 1950s and early 1960s, two social influences are notable: the economic and technological changes that swept the nation altered movies and moviegoing as well as the anti-Communist hysteria which dominated national politics and at times targeted Hollywood writers, actors, and directors. After World War II, technological and demographic changes forced studios to change the type of movies they were making. Increasingly suburban and young, moviegoers had to be lured away from their homes and televisions by blockbusters that appealed primarily to youthful audiences. John Belton (1994) notes a broad shift from the passive to the active in American recreation during this period. The booming postwar economy shortened the work week from six to five days for many. For the first time in U.S. history, employers began to offer one and two week paid vacations. In fact, the length of the average vacation doubled between 1941 and 1953 (Belton 1994:258). The increased income and vacation time available to Americans allowed them to dedicate much more time to active recreations such as gardening, golf, bowling, hunting, boating, and fishing. Television, which enabled for unscheduled viewing, was more suitable to such active lifestyles. Movie attendance suffered and the studios responded in three ways. First, they sought blockbusters which would draw people out of the suburbs (often these focused on World War II). Second, they used technology to distinguish films from television. Drive-ins, 3-D, Cinemascope, and other changes aimed to enhance the movie experience and bring it to the suburbs in a persuasive way. Finally, they targeted more films on young viewers, who also now had more expendable income than ever before (Belton 1994). The collection of surfing films released by the studios beginning with Gidget in 1959 can be seen as part of this effort to bring the kids back to the movies.

We must remember that these demographic changes took place in a political environment which was possibly more paranoid and xenophobic than at any other time in U.S. history. The House Un-American Activities Commission renewed its decades old investigation of subversives in the film industry in 1947. Ten "unfriendly" witnesses began serving jail sentences in 1950, after they refused to participate in the naming of communists. Shortly thereafter more than 50 studio executives met and agreed to "blacklist" the original ten, refusing them work anywhere in Hollywood. By the mid-1950s the list had been expanded to more than 200 "suspected" communists and this list remained in place well into the 1960s (Belton 1994). Such communist paranoia, fueled by nuclear anxiety, is the background hidden behind the façades presented by the feel-good films about the beach that started to appear with Gidget (1959) at end of the decade. These films exhibit a concern for social control that reflects the rigid fears of the time.

Films and the 1960s

In 1964, Vietnamese torpedo boats purportedly attacked U.S. warships in the Gulf of Tonkin. The Vietnam War had begun and over the next eleven years debate over America’s appropriate geopolitical role would divide the U.S. populace. Throughout the early 1960s, American blacks, with the eventual help of millions of white liberals, would contest racial segregation, resulting in the 1965 passage of the Civil Rights Act. Both of these schisms divided Americans largely by age. John Belton’s (1994) film history American Culture / American Cinema divides the 1960s into two separate categories. The first is characterized by epic films, Disney family pictures, James Bond thrillers, and lavish musicals aimed at conservative middle-aged, middle class viewers – "the second of two 1950s" (p. 295). The second 1960s on film is seen as appealing to the younger, more liberal generation with films like The Graduate (1967), Bonnie and Clyde (1967), and Easy Rider (1969) that took more controversial stances on American society.

The Endless Summer (1963) stands in the middle of the divide between the 1950s and 1960s. Released just a year before Vietnam and two before the Civil Rights Act, the film, while clearly aimed at the youth audience, retains a conservative social outlook and a naive, unexamined geopolitical sense. This was still a few years before the Mau Mau rebels in Kenya would break free of colonial rule and initiate a virtual onslaught of anti-colonialist revolutions in the Southern Hemisphere. The film reflects the increasing affluence and independence of American youth characteristic of the late 1950s, as well as the beginnings of the self-absorbed youth recreation culture that would emerge in the late 1960s and into the 1970s. But our heroes still wear business suits when taking a flight and keep their hair close-cropped. Bruce Brown presents the surfers as much more mainstream and socially acceptable than the stereotype of the drop-out or beach bum would suggest. The film helped to clean up the image of the surfer, drawing the sport into the realm of commodity production, and making Brown's work surfing's first real commercial success.

Films and the 1970s

In the films of the 1970s, there is an emergence of postmodern storytelling. Jameson (1991) sees the breakdown of linear storytelling as a central element in the move to postmodernism. Images and themes, often incoherently arranged, in films such as Martin Scorcese’s Taxi Driver (1976) tell stories that are distinctly postmodern and fragmented, sending confusing, sometimes contradictory messages (Belton 1994). While George Greenough’s Innermost Limits of Pure Fun (1970) is a movie with a very different tone and message, it shares with Taxi Driver a break from traditional narrative techniques. Greenough’s surfing film is essentially two hours of continuous footage from inside breaking waves. There is little structure to the film. Psychedelic colors are splashed across the screen as we experience a wide range of sounds and wave images, accompanied by rock n" roll music and images of simple beach living.

Another element of Frederic Jameson’s postmodernism which appears in films of this era is a nostalgia for images of the past. American Graffiti (1973) presents us with a mythical portrayal of pre-1962 America. These types of films reacted to the disintegration and change in traditional forms of identity (the family, work, sexual mores, etc.) by referencing a past that could be seen as simpler and more whole. Big Wednesday (1978) by John Milius is just this sort of Hollywood film, providing images of Southern California before Watergate, Vietnam, and the Watt’s Riots. In addition, many of the surfing films of this era reflected the extreme individuality and alternative lifestyle choices made possible by the social transformations that swept the nation throughout the 1960s and 1970s. Films like Five Summer Stories (1972), Morning of the Earth (1972), Free Ride (1978), Pacific Vibrations (1970), and Going Surfin’ (1973) stressed harmony, fun, and often featured psychedelic imagery and music. These films seem to express the jubilation and freedom felt by surfers at the time and many seemed to make the statement that surfing was a way to achieve a peaceful, non-consumptive lifestyle. Surfers are portrayed living in cars or in shacks on the beach in Hawaii or Australia. Country and bluegrass music often suggest a conflicted choice of rural over urban lifestyles.

Meanwhile, Hollywood continued to portray surfers as lowlifes, weirdoes, and criminals. California Dreaming (1978) was another updated Beach Blanket Bingo with surfers playing bad guy roles. Apocalypse Now (1979) reflected the 1970s concerns with individuals versus the system. John Milius' screenplay includes two shell-shocked surfers, Sergeant Kilgore and Lance, the professional surfer from California. Kilgore is obviously mad, forcing his charges to surf "Charlie’s Point" under constant bombardment, but he is also shown to be an effective leader, demonstrating the absurd logic of wartime. Milius and Spielberg are suggesting cultural intrusion using surfers as stand-ins for the West. Lance is a vacuous, happy-go-lucky surfer stereotype until he looses a barrage of homicidal violence on a boatload of Vietnamese peasants. While examining deeper issues of social control and the ethics of war, Hollywood finally added some complexity to its depiction of the surfer, but the film only touches on surfing and if anything, continues to portray surfers as obsessed with their sport.

Films and the 1980s

Filmmaking in the 1980s and 1990s is characterized by a reemergence of conservative politics in the early 1980s and a corresponding growth of straightforward action and violence with films starring violent male heroes such as Sylvester Stallone in Rambo: First Blood Part II (1985) and Arnold Swarzenegger in The Terminator (1984). Reaganite conservatism is reflected in such right-wing fantasies as director John Milius’ Red Dawn (1984), wherein Cuba invades rural America and is defeated by gun-toting youngsters.

In a number of 1980s films, the shopping mall is central, reflecting the consumerism that drove the boom economy of the 1980s. Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure (1989) and Fast Times at Ridgemont High (1982) provide a background of suburban conformity which the teen heroes of the film often contest or expose. The surfer in Fast Times at Ridgemont High, Jeff Spiccoli, is inarticulate and on drugs, but he is nevertheless distinctive, honest, and intelligent. Ultimately, he is portrayed as a deeper character than those that inhabit the consumptive world of the mall.

The 1980s contributed a number of Hollywood films expressly focused on surfing, including North Shore, a sadly inane adolescent romance set in Hawaii (though our hero is a white kid from the mainland, of course). Like most studio films, the narrative is derived machismo and imagined exoticism. Meanwhile, independent producers continued to create a handful of surfing movies each year. While these films were not in any radical way different from their immediate predecessors, their titles suggest that the commodification of surfing was affecting their content and attitude. Films such as Blazing Boards, Full Blast, Puberty Blues, and Storm Riders emphasized competition, technical skill, and performance over personal experience or counter-culture philosophy.

Video in the 1990s

While it is too early to accurately judge the influences of history on cinema in the 1990s, it is clear that the emergence of video dramatically changed the motion picture industry. By the end of the 1980s surfing films were largely replaced by a outpouring of homemade surfing videos distributed by small Southern California companies. This trend merely exaggerates changes occurring throughout the motion picture industry. Major motion picture distributors now offer their films to the video rental market after only brief runs in the theaters. In many cases, films are even sent straight to the video market without appearing in a theater. The 1990s gave us three major surfing film releases: Point Break (1991) is a police genre film featured surfing cops and robbers; The Endless Summer II (1994) revisits surfing’s most famous travelogue; and In God’s Hands (1997) follows macho surf competitors as they battle and seduce foreigners throughout the less developed world.

Surfing video productions repeat similar themes, but have experienced even more dramatic changes in film techniques. Even a casual glance at the titles of these videos suggests a highly competitive and aggressive view of the sport (Wave Warriors, Surf Assassins, Stormtroopers, Mad Dogs, and Primal Urge were among the titles recently available in my local video store). All of these videos, created in the last decade, are representative of the commodification of surf subculture. In addition, the editing of the videos, and the style of the surfing depicted in them, is telling. A virtual barrage of images rush by at breakneck speed. Slashing maneuvers predominate as the young surfers translate their linguistic ideals into action, "thrashing" or "shredding" one wave after another. This emphasis on domination of the wave is formalized in the judging of competitive surfing, where particularly aggressive slashing maneuvers are now compulsory.

Selling Surfing on Celluloid in America

Throughout these developments, the surfing subculture was increasingly brought into the sphere of commodity production. As a result, the content, symbolism, and style of surfing films generally reflect the directives of the market. Moreover, and somewhat obviously, the film medium itself is a commodity that propagates diverse related commodities. The detailed examination of a number of the films which follows makes this point clear. While each film owes something to its historical context and to the individuals who created it, I argue that shared ideological themes in the films are the result of the successful commodification of surfing and the ability of films to construct a make-believe, simplified world where cultural difference is confronted and often resolved or removed. Wherever possible, I show how film techniques are used to make these ideological points.

Gidget, 1959

Any review of surfing films must logically begin with Gidget. Though Bud Brown and Bruce Brown both traveled throughout Southern California with their homemade films in the 1950s, it was Gidget that first brought surfing to the screen across America.

The phenomenal success of Gidget is a puzzle to modern viewers. The film is a trite and formulaic romance that portrays surfing in terms that today seem remarkably naive, but the stars are sexy and likable and the images of surfing and the beach are beautiful and bright. The film has that compelling picture postcard magical quality of the early Technicolor films (Figure 8). Colors appear brighter than life and the beach seems warm and welcoming, the surfing effortless and thrilling. These uses of color and scene help to create a sense of beauty and excitement at the beach, the place wherein most of the action takes place.

The story is a classic tale of middle class sexual anxiety that must have had wide appeal during that conservative time, especially for young people questioning their assigned roles. Our teenage heroine is at risk of mating with, even marrying, someone well beneath her class - a surfer. Our heroine, Frances, played by prim, peppy Sandra Dee, looks like she stepped right out of a Norman Rockwell painting. Her Daddy wears a cardigan and tie or a business suit at all times. Mom’s house clothes tastefully match Dad’s formal look. The whole family even breaks out their violins and cellos on Saturday evenings for family "duet night."

The action starts when Daddy tries to set Frances up with a co-worker’s son, "a nice boy ... uh ... I mean, he’s a man, he’s a college man," he tells her. But "Francie" refuses to have anything to do with boys and dates. Imagine Mom and Dad’s shock when innocent "Francie" starts hanging out at the beach with a bunch of "beach bums," roughnecks seemingly right out of Mutiny on The Bounty. These guys literally live at the margins of society, without employment of any kind.

Frances takes on a surfer nickname, Gidget, and then falls in love with, not one, but two of the beach boys. At first, she goes for the older, wiser Kahuna, but soon falls for Moondoggie, a younger, stern-faced beach bum in training. The two men live in a palm frond shack on the beach and are planning a carefree life of travel, chasing the sun across the tropics. Gidget is confused about who to choose and spends lots of time around the shack getting to know the men. Mostly she runs errands for them and makes them coffee. She is shocked to find out what Kahuna has planned for himself after the summer.

"Peru?" she asks.

"...gotta follow the sun," he says.

"You can’t mean...?" she whines.

"Yeah, I’m a surf bum. You know, ride the waves, eat, sleep, not a care in the world."

Gidget doesn’t quite understand at first. She looks fretful and finally stammers, "Um ... uh ... It may be awfully nosy of me Kahuna, but when do you work?"

"Oh that, " he spits back, ‘tried it once, but there were too many hours and rules and regulations."

It seems he used to fly planes for the Air Force. Now he just spends his time alone with nature and his fellow primitives. This theme of mobility and travel as a kind of escape, even resistance to the dominant culture, comes up again and again in surfing films and literature.

Moondoggie, it turns out, is also an embittered outcast from society. Moondoggie’s "old man" worked himself up to the top of the corporate ladder. He’s the epitome of the successful middle class man, "How am I going to compete with that?" Moondoggie pleads with Kahuna. Moondoggie’s answer is to not compete. Instead, his eyes full of rage, he tears up his allowance check and decides to "make a clean break of it." He’ll bail out on society. He’ll run off to Peru with Kahuna.

Meanwhile, while Gidget is trying to figure out which of these guys is the man for her, she’s also learning to surf. She buys a board from Stinky, who at first laughed her off. "You’ll never even be able to lift it," he laughs. Yet our rambunctious heroine picks it up easily and hits the water. Unfortunately, Gidget gets sick after Moondoggie nearly drowns her, holding her under repeatedly, in a particularly sadistic display of machismo. Soon she’s back at home getting old-fashioned lessons on love from Mom and reading up on surfing. By the time she returns to the beach she’s mastered surfing and has some pretty silly ideas about love. It turns out that surfing is primarily a way to entice the heart of a man, not something to be pursued by a woman for its own sake. Gidget, now healthy, heads back to the beach.

After wowing the boys with her surfing prowess, Gidget and Kahuna talk again about life and the future. Gidget remarks that Kahuna is different than the other beach boys, "You’re different than me ... I mean, you don’t need anybody ... you have to be able to turn your back on the way everybody else lives ... Well, I mean, everybody in life is working for some sort of goal. Well, I mean, you don’t have to have a goal ..." Gidget explains that she would be just miserable if she was "alone" like Kahuna. She’s making the case that to live outside of society entails paying a very high price. If nothing else, you don’t get to go out with a nice girl like Gidget. Eventually, she gets herself pretty worked up about Kahuna’s personal loss, "Oh, I mean, ... I’m so sorry, Kahuna."

Kahuna’s response is quick, but he seems a bit shaken by Gidget’s questioning, "What’s there to be sorry about? I told you myself, I’m a surf bum." We’re left wondering whether Kahuna thinks he’s made a mistake by choosing such a solitary life.

In the next couple of scenes, Gidget proceeds to make nearly every boy on the beach jealous by one means or another. Eventually, this whole tactic builds up to a kind of crescendo represented by a "wild" beach party: fiery torches, loud music, women being dragged off to the hut, apparently under the influence of alcohol. Gidget leaves this raucous party with Kahuna, seemingly having made her decision about which man was right for her. They head to a friend’s groovy beach house to teach Gidget a few things about the birds and the bees. Kahuna lights a fire and Gidget even has a beer before Moondoggie, the police, and Gidget’s parents show up to save the princess from the heathen surfer. "Young lady, if I have to lock you in your room, you will not go near those beach hoodlums again," yells Dad at the police station at the conclusion of this episode. The newfound independence and mobility of young people is clearly at issue here.

Next we see our crestfallen heroine doing yard work and offering to get Dad’s slippers and newspaper. Having given up all hope of ever getting a man Gidget turns her life back over to her parents. She suggestively pleads with Mom for help, "Oh Mom, I’ll never make the step."

"You’re right Francie. A girl does have to become a woman someday, but I think you’ve got it all wrong, " says Mom, "do you remember Grandma’s motto?"

"Yes," says Francie while the two of them turn to look at a crocheted picture that hangs on Francie’s wall. Francie reads it aloud while the camera zooms in and fills the screen with the underlying message of the film: ‘to be a good woman is to bring out the best in a man."

The narrative resolution of the film is nearly complete. Gidget realizes that dad knows best and agrees to be confined to her house. But what has become of Kahuna and Moondoggie? All is resolved when Gidget finally agrees to let Dad set her up with that co-worker’s son. It turns out that the blind date is none other than Moondoggie himself, only now his real identity is revealed: he is none other than Jeffrey Matthews and he’s now wearing a jacket and tie. Furthermore, he’s decided to go to law school and is now a fraternity man. After a brief spat, he pins a fraternity pin to Gidget’s breast. She is as ecstatic about this as she was previously about surfing. "this is the ultimate," she croons. Together, they drive down to the beach to have one last look.

There they find Kahuna tearing down the beach shack. He’s headed out of town and confronts Moondoggie about his betrayal, "Like I said, kid, either a man’s got a talent for a certain kind of life or he doesn’t. It doesn’t count for anything unless you really mean it." But while Kahuna is preaching, Gidget finds an airline employee’s pass with Kahuna’s picture on it. "Why, he’s gotten a job!" she crows to Moondoggie. Moondoggie doesn’t let on that he knows about Kahuna’s reversal and he allows Kahuna’s tirade to continue for a few minutes before calling his bluff.

The symbolism is evident. The shack is coming down. The surfing lifestyle is a failure and the surfers’ philosophy is bankrupt. There is no escape from sedentary norms in surfing escape or in travel to Peru or the other exotic places of the world. All those surfers needed was a good woman like Gidget to set their priorities straight and make them act responsibly, like men again. We’re left with all loose ends tied neatly into place. The surfers are removed from the margins and directly transported back to the center. Capitalism and the domestic norm apparently prevail.

Hollywood, in its first major depiction of surfing, eliminates the possibility of a serious consideration of surfing. The post-war U.S. economy was booming and social control was paramount. Surfers, like the Beats, were among a handful of groups which were actively resisting the dominant norms of the day. While Gidget appealed to the youth culture’s desire for style and distinction from the older generation, Hollywood was certain to prevent any discussion of these alternative values regarding gender, work, home, and mobility. In this appeal to the aesthetics of surfing culture we can see the formulation of "lifestyle" choices which Bourdieu (1984) urges us to understand as an element of economy. Gidget repeatedly makes it clear that surfers appeal to her sense of taste; they’re the "coolest" and surfing is "the ultimate." The surfers, though outcasts, possess a style, an aesthetic, that appeals to young people, including Gidget and Moondoggie. Bourdieu (1984:218) suggests that a social class is only likely to adopt a sport "if it does not contradict that class’s relation to the body at its deepest and most unconscious level, i.e., the body schema, which is the depository of a whole world view." So, for example, the most privileged classes, and those that aspire to these classes, will adopt sports that "in no way offend the sense of the high dignity of the person." Surfing appeals to just this sort of body worship. It is athletic and yet solitary. Self-expression, style, and dignity are fundamental (as opposed, for example, to team sports where submission to others and body sacrifice are important). What Gidget does so effectively is use film images to convey the style and dignity of the surfers, particularly in gloriously depicted scenes of actual surfing, while at the same time suggesting that surfing’s counterculture aspects are not appealing. Thus Gidget acts to both shape and sell the surfing style. The film’s message is that this surfing aesthetic and the corresponding attitude towards the body are acceptable, even attractive, and can be incorporated into a normal, middle class lifestyle. There is no need, we are told, to radically alter goals or worldview – women can surf and still be traditionally feminine as long as they remember their place. It is noteworthy that Frederick Kohner’s original novel, upon which the film was based, had neither the tidy ending nor the tame morality lessons.

Big Wednesday, 1978

John Milius’s Big Wednesday was the first big-budget film to be made by a surfer. The source of surfing mythology becomes more difficult to pinpoint when a film is made within the surfing community; it becomes nearly impossible to separate out which of the representations of surfing are created by outsiders and which are created or promulgated by surfers. Moreover, many of the myths surrounding surfing are embraced by surfers. Thus, the creation of surfing myths flows in both directions: out of and into the surfing subculture. The distinction is, however, not necessary. My concern is primarily with the resultant messages conveyed to the audience. While it is not always possible to trace the genealogy of particular myths, we can still interpret these messages.

Big Wednesday traces the surfing lives of three Southern California buddies as they transition from the halcyon days of "unspoiled" 1950s Malibu, through the tumult of the 1960s, to, finally, in the 1970s, regaining their paradise together through magical surf, if only for a day. The story dramatizes the almost mythological nostalgia that so many of America’s surfers feel about the early years of Southern California surfing. Along the way, the film revisits some of the most common surfing themes and reifies again notions of gender and demonstrates how surfing subculture is tied to middle and upper class aesthetic and social notions.

The film opens on a beautiful clear morning at the beach, "South Swell, Summer, 1962." Young surfers and their girlfriends are waking from a night on an undeveloped beach. Campfires still glow from the night before. Our heroes enter walking arm-in-arm. Jack and Leroy help a stumbling, drunken Matt walk on his own. Jack, in a somber voice-over, tells us that "in the old days ... My friends and I would sleep in our cars and the smell of the offshore would often wake us, and each morning we knew this would be a special day." The paradise that will be destroyed is now laid out in front of us. The myth of surfing’s past is more than just the big wave stories upon which the media generally focus. In fact, much of surfing’s magical past has to do with a history associated with spatial and geographic issues. Crowding and the onslaught of surfers created by a rapidly developing Southern California are often the impetus for surfing myths and dreams.

Big Wednesday’s opening act also introduces us to Bear, a grizzly older guy who lives out on the public pier and shapes boards for the kids. Wide-eyed grommets stand around Bear as he shapes a rhino chaser. The kids want to know when it’ll be done and if he’s ever surfed surf that was really big:

"I rode twenty feet alone at Makaha once," says Bear.

"You surfed twenty feet alone?" ask the incredulous kids.

that’s the test of a surfer, " replies Bear, ‘to ride alone. He shouldn’t have to depend on anyone else."

"When will you ride this board, Bear?"

"It’d take a big day ... a swell so big and strong, it’ll wipe clean everything that went before...," Bear answers.

With that speech Big Wednesday has already drawn upon common surfing myths. First, Bear is clearly the macho Kahuna in town. He is presented as the wise old, masculine surf shaman. Second, it’s explained that surfers must work alone, outside the system. They are not community people. They stand outside of the rules. It is by riding dangerously big waves "alone" that surfers achieve this position.

A number of other standard themes are presented early in the film. There is a ridiculous bacchanalia, with hints of Porky’s (1981). Then there is a trip to a Tijuana strip joint. There, Leroy buys a Mexican woman who immediately falls in love with him, though we never learn anything about her and he leaves her the next day. Finally, in the first fifteen minutes, there are two fist fights involving our surfing protagonists. One of these fights even ends in a choreographed, bare-chested brawl. While the use of violence and adolescent sexual antics is exceedingly commonplace in films, the masculinity of our surfers is blatantly, embarrassingly established in these scenes. What’s more, there are striking similarities between the party scenes in Gidget and Big Wednesday. Generally, the wildness of the parties is represented in both films by rough, playful handling of the women at the parties. In both we see women being carried off by surfers like Neanderthals dragged by their hair to the cave. Surfers, we’ve been told, are a wild, strong, hedonistic bunch of likable goofballs.

The film’s next act, "the West Swell" depicts the destruction of this early Eden. It opens with Jack, now a lifeguard, kicking a drunken, unrecognizable Matt off the beach. Jack, citing county ordinances with his bullhorn, represents the oppressive rules of society while Matt suggests an abandonment of social values. Jack and Sally, his loving girlfriend, then take a sunset walk out on the pier and find a drunken, enraged Bear destroying the shack where he has shaped so many boards. There is an obvious symbolic reference to Gidget in the destruction of the shack and the conflict between surfing and traditional masculine roles is made explicit: "Move inland ... live under a roof ... marriage ... taxes ... divorce, the whole damn thing. They’ve condemned the pier, Jack, " Bear groans, "You’ll be living under the booted foot of the lifeguard state." Here in a film made by a surfer, we see some of the spatial (in a narrow sense of the word) elements of surfing culture. In this case, the real need to be near the ocean degenerates into a disdain for all other places and people.

Ironically, Jack is now himself a lifeguard. What’s more, this is the day that the three protagonists receive draft notices. Eventually, Matt and Leroy manage to fake disability, but Jack accepts the responsibility. Again, Jack is presented as the conformist and we watch a tearful farewell party as Jack heads off to Vietnam. Meanwhile, the Watts Riots rage quietly on the television in Jack’s middle class home, a spectacle in the distant background.

Next the camera switches to a shot of a man polishing a beautiful red sports car outside of a shiny new surf shop, "Bear Surfboards." Inside we discover that even Bear has turned his back on his own ascetic philosophy. He now owns a fancy shop. He wears a sport coat, even smokes a cigar. Just in case we haven’t gotten the message that surfing is now commodified, we watch an adolescent board shaper (Bear’s employee), covered with toxic dust, ask Bear if he can take a break from his labors. "Waxer, you’ve been on break all morning, " says Bear, " ... every time the surf comes up these guys want to take a break. That’s what I get for hiring surfer labor." The message is clear. Things have changed forever, and for the worse. The three buddies are split apart, Jack to Vietnam, Leroy to Hawaii, while Matt stays at home and settles down with his girlfriend.

Finally, we come to the last act, "the Great Swell, 1974." Bear is an old drunk. He’s lost everything: the store, his wife. He’s back living on the condemned pier. Matt visits with him and is told by the old man that the massive swell that "will wipe clean everything that came before" is on its way. There is much worrying about whether Leroy and Jack will find out about the swell and return. The mythic swell arrives on "Big Wednesday" and all three friends show up at the last minute to ride together again, triumphant. There is royal brass and fanfare in the air. The overwrought score and the choice of camera shots and angles leaves no doubt that we are watching the final performance of masculine heroes. The waves, of course, are huge. The three buddies survive, but they are the oldest guys in the water and Matt nearly drowns before he is saved. In the end their friendship is the apparent victor. The scene is bittersweet. Youth is gone; Eden is gone; and society is gone awry. But there is still this magical dance with the water. These buddies still find friendship and bliss, even transcendence, out in the surf.

Big Wednesday adds some complexity to the images of surfers in the media. These characters are more human and less predictable than those of previous surfing films, but still we find the reification of traditional masculine roles: in the fight scenes, in the focus on big wave riding, in the absence of women’s voices and the traditional masculinity of our heroes. Moreover, the early scenes dramatically depict a glorious make-believe world that seems quite real. Malibu is depicted as the perfect place in a powerful way that only film, with its careful creation and selection of visual images, can accomplish. These scenes help to further create a positive, saleable image of the surfing lifestyle. Just as in Gidget, the power of these sensuous images helps us to suspend our disbelief and, therefore, accept the many other messages the film contains. For example, the resolution of the film serves an important cathartic purpose. The final "Big Swell" provides us with a happy resolution to the issues the film so gingerly touched upon before, including commodification, individual responsibility, ideas of masculinity, and participation in war. The film, in the end, criticizes no one, and says almost nothing. The viewer is reassured that there is little need for change, that the act of surfing itself makes the status quo acceptable, even enjoyable. All three friends are depicted, in the end, as content and victorious, thus the film erases any political or personal tension, leaving no real critique of society.

Point Break, 1991

This 1991 film revisits the popular police-crime genre, but adds a surfing twist by sending the hero, FBI agent Johnny Utah, undercover into Southern California surf culture. Agent Utah is hot on the trail of the perpetrators of a string of nearly perfect Los Angeles bank robberies. Ostensibly these robberies are being committed by a group of surfers in order to fund their endless summer fantasies. Early in the film we meet Bodhi, the leader of this gang of surf criminals.

We first see him at the beach, through Johnny Utah’s eyes. The scene is a slick montage of graceful slow-motion surfing feats. The music transitions from playful and melodic to ominous and dramatic. Bodhi is initially shown performing a difficult and beautiful surfing maneuver, gliding across the glistening, unmottled shoulder of a small wave. His back is to the surging curl and he reclines, dragging his torso along the face of the wave, stretching to fit inside the spitting. It appears that the man is totally at ease in that orbital battleground of liquid energy. There is little doubt that we are witnessing a fantastic achievement. We are left awestruck, as is Johnny Utah.

"Who’s that?" he asks.

that’s Bodhi." replies the female co-star. "It’s short for Bodhisattva...He’s a real searcher."

"A searcher?...What’s he searching for?" says Johnny.

"You know...the perfect wave, the perfect rush." she answers.

Thus we meet Bodhi. In the course of the film we learn much about Utah’s intriguing nemesis. First, he has a strong, almost animalistic, influence over women. Bodhi is shown easily seducing beautiful women at a party. Then, we are told that in the past he controlled the female heroine of our story, who now, of course, loves Johnny Utah. The setting is ripe for a tremendous battle to win the woman.

Next, in a graphic fight scene, we learn that he is an imposing opponent, able to single-handedly fend off multiple muscle-bound attackers. He is depicted as nearly invincible. Interestingly, his opponents in this fight are also surfing criminals, though they are depicted as pathetic drug addicts and degenerates. In contrast, we learn that Bodhi is no common criminal. He operates under a philosophy which places him beyond the margins of the mundane world of work and community. Crime, for Bodhi, is rationalized as a testament to the beauty of individuality and resistance to the system: "to all of those sorry bastards in their tin cans on the freeway commuting to work, we offer a message of hope. We tell them that the human spirit is not dead." Thus, Bodhi is depicted as virile, philosophical, nonconformist, and criminal. The stage is set for a violent, goal-centered conflict, a conflict between Good, as represented by the police and society-at-large, versus Evil in the shape of an hedonistic, amoral surf criminal.

As we have seen, media representations of surfing are rife with such myths and stereotypes. Films, in particular, embrace the simplistic depiction of what has come to be an American icon: the Southern California surfer. Surfers are almost universally depicted as embodying one or more of three basic myths. First, surfers are never participants in the economy, the "system." They stand literally, and figuratively, at the margins of society. They are dropouts, bums, criminals, pagans, deviants, or ascetics. Often they are sexy and virile (This is apparently a symbolic reference to the Polynesian origins of the sport and the sexual openness associated with the South Pacific) . Most importantly, they are never normal and never employed. Surfers apparently occupy a place outside of the mainstream. Surfers of all ages are shown to be "goofing off," neglecting responsibility. They seem to be overgrown adolescents, wasting their time when they could, and should, be working. Never is their activity or culture interpreted as a legitimate or, even reasonable resistance to hegemony. In short, they are depicted as ideologically bankrupt or simply lazy. Even when films dramatically appeal to the aesthetic elements of surfing and the style surrounding surfing subculture, they tend to associate these characteristics with the safest characters. Thus in Point Break, a cop eventually adopts surfing style, but remains an enforcer of rules. In Gidget a young boy and girl take up surfing only to learn that it is dangerous and must be a limited aspect of a more normal, even collegiate lifestyle.

Secondly, surfers are always masculine characters. Surfing and the surf zone itself are represented as supremely masculine realms. Thus we are presented with images of tough, brave, strong, and often violent surfers. Women, if they are to be involved in surfing, must be masculine (Gidget, after all, is a self-described tomboy). They must be strong. More often, women are simply provided as objects for acquisition or visual feasting. Furthermore, many surf films suggest that much of the act of surfing involves conquest, a searching out of the biggest and best waves in order to "shred" or in other words dominate them or the discovery of distant, exotic and untouched waves abroad. Surfing, we are told, has no place for feminine mentalities. It is not about sharing or understanding. It is about winning and conquest. This remains true despite the increasingly presence of women in surfing.

Lastly, popular images of surfing embrace the notion that surfing is a recreation which occupies a decidedly foreign space. Many of these films suggest that surfing is a means of spiritual awakening. Others focus on travel to Other places. Surfing is beyond the boundaries of our mundane landscapes and communities. The surfing criminals in Point Break are funding their seasonal surfaris around the globe with bank robberies. Many other films also suggest that the act surfing itself is foreign in character. Surfing is presented as mystical or Eastern: meditation, enlightenment, sometimes even transcendence. As the young surf shop clerk tells our hero at the beginning of Point Break: "surfing is the source. It’ll change your life." Most often this spiritual side of surfing is dismissed as an intellectual shortcoming, not a potential insight.

All of these myths coalesce somehow into a vague and familiar, Kato Kaelin image of the surfer. Kaelin, the amiable witness in the O.J. Simpson trial, admittedly never surfed yet the media continually referred to him as a ‘southern California surfer." He was simply an inarticulate long-haired Californian and nearly any surfer would suffice to fill the role the media provide for surfers. But there is something more ominous about all of this than the questionable veracity of media reports and a gross oversimplification of the surfing lifestyle. Ideological violence is being exercised against a distinctive subculture and against masculinity. Surfing is reduced to a series of stereotypes, while traditional models of masculinity are reified. The most recent Hollywood surf film, In God’s Hands, makes the point well.

In God’s Hands, 1997

A discussion of a contemporary film demonstrates that these processes of commodification and stereotyping have not diminished, but are, if anything, becoming more prevalent. Zalman King’s 1998 film, In God’s Hands, is exemplary in this regard. The simplistic plot follows three friends, tough professional surfers, as they travel through generic "foreign" places while training to ride the world’s biggest waves. The movie opens with the main characters running from the law in a "godforsaken" third-world port town, clinging to the top of a jeep as it races along the waterfront. Soon they are off, leapfrogging from Hawaii, to Southern California, Indonesia, Africa, and Mexico. Along the way, our heroes mate with nameless, dark skinned women, overwhelm foreigners in street battles, and generally admire the randomly generic, but colorful backdrops of Balinese, Hawaiian, and Mexican "primitive" culture (dances, ceremonies, and the like). As Zalman King cuts quickly from continent to continent and from beach to beach, the places of this geographical montage become truly placeless. They are little more than subtly varied representations of a single stereotyped "foreign" place that only the Western traveler can imagine or visit. This depiction of the less-developed world, while clearly disjointed from the spatial scales of the real world, is understandable to viewers conditioned to see the periphery as a single, exotic place from our past.

The subplot of the film is a poorly developed conflict between traditional surfing and newer motorized surfing techniques used in waves that are too large for human paddling techniques. This supposed conflict allows for macho posturing among our heroes. Moreover, King is able to include scenes of some of the largest waves ever ridden. Utilizing the spatial (mis) representation that film allows, he switches from break to break, even continent to continent without explanation, depicting waves in disparate places as a single treacherous location in Hawaii. Eventually, one of our macho heroes drowns in this huge Hawaiian surf, supposedly martyring himself to the cause of manhood and adventure. The result is a confusing collage of powerful and contradictory images which conflate violence and competition with manhood, third world tourism and sex with spirituality, and irresponsibility with nonconformity.

Selling the Status Quo with Surfing

The geography in surfing films lies in their power to (mis) represent places in such a way that a viewer suspends her disbelief both about the nature of the place and the fictional actions that take place within that space. The spectator at a film is situated in a cinematic landscape where space and time are manipulated in order to create a convincing image "wherein societal ideals, mores, values, and roles may be sustained or subverted" (Hopkins 1994:47). Whereas some geographic work on film investigates the utilization of unconventional spatial and temporal transitions by directors who wish to subvert generally held notions (Natter and Jones 1993; Aitken and Lukinbeal 1998), I instead draw upon three films which generally "color within the lines," utilizing narrative and film conventions that neither surprise nor challenge the viewer. Only In God’s Hands strays from these narrative conventions and instead utilizes the hectic style of current music videos, sacrificing narrative while elevating the role of spectacularly sensuous imagery.

The avoidance of tension in the earlier films serves to keep the audience focused on what they already know – the social conventions of the day. These are examples of the processes of subcultural commodification described by Hebdige (1979). In all the films there is an appropriation and redefinition of a surfing style by mainstream media which use surfing as a trope to argue for traditional notions of masculinity. Gidget demonstrates that traditional masculine responsibilities are both necessary and attractive. Our heroes return to school, work, and home. Big Wednesday makes similar points about work, particularly through its depiction of Matt as a drunken drop out, but is even more traditional in its conception of masculinity. The male heroes in Big Wednesday physically challenge their enemies, whether those enemies are rivals at a party or monstrous waves. Point Break directly links dedicated surfers to social protest, but represents them as criminals. In the end, the criminals are physically destroyed, while our policeman hero adopts surfing as a minimal, recreational aspect of a "normal" life. All participants are represented as violently macho and the whole film repeatedly explodes with the gun violence typical of recent action films. This trend, particularly in crime films, reflects a neoconservatism prevalent among some moviemakers and much of the public during the 1980s and early 1990s. Finally, In God’s Hands also depicts macho conceptions of masculine identity but now the surfers are professionals, reflecting the complete commodification of surfing culture. King's choppy, MTV style filmmaking is typical of postmodern media that juxtaposes spectacular images in a rapid, often non-chronological manner. But its depictions of surfer identity are every bit as traditionally masculine as those in Gidget. Thus, the media succeed in "selling" the status quo along with the surfing style by linking surfing to attractive heroes who uphold traditional notions of masculinity.

This is a good example of exactly the kind of hegemonic control that Gramsci (1971) envisions. Class control for Gramsci was not complete or coercive. Instead, hegemonic control entails persuading other classes to accept dominant moral, political, and cultural values. Coercion is only used when absolutely necessary, for it is both expensive and risky. The media, which according to Gramsci are essential tools in the distribution of these dominant ideas, are controlled by those already in power because of the unavoidable influence of capitalist relations. So, as a result, we see in all spheres, including recreation and entertainment, a reflection of the dominant ideas. In fact, it is within the realm of activities which are considered pleasurable that such hegemonic messages may be most effective for it is there that the messages are most subtly embedded and may not even be recognized as political statements. In the next chapter I analyze tales of surfing travel and adventure which appear at first glance to be nothing more than stories, but which under closer scrutiny reveal important political viewpoints and messages.



The media’s representation of surfing generally portrays elements of resistance and counterculture. Despite this portrayal, I argue that traveling surfers often, if inadvertently, reinforce oppressive elements of mainstream, patriarchal culture. There is a complex and contradictory relationship between surfing and mobility. On the one hand, travel and mobility, especially as represented by the truly nomadic lifestyle of some surfers, represent a rejection of the traditional sedentary masculine roles of father, homeowner, and breadwinner. On the other hand, the aggressive and adventurous questing engaged in by many male surfers has distinctly patriarchal overtones. An analysis of this contradiction in the writings and films of surfers illustrates how hegemonic ideology shapes the worldview of even those who strive to be overtly resistant.

The sport of surfing is today a recognizable facet of American culture through its association with particular places and a distinctive lifestyle revolving around the beach and waves. Another central element of this lifestyle is easy mobility. While many geographers influenced my thoughts on travel and tourism, Tim Cresswell’s discussion of masculinity and mobility in Jack Kerouac’s On the Road initially inspired the analyses of surfing travelogues that comprise this chapter. Kerouac’s ode to Beat mobility is thematically similar to the mythical surfing lifestyle: the freedom and joy of movement, the living out of an automobile, and the roaming, in the case of surfers, from surf break to surf break, even from country to country. Also, both groups of rebels are predominantly male.

This chapter aims to provide examples and insight into the processes by which myths and stereotypes of masculine mobility, travel, and conquest embodied in surfing serve to further larger ideological and political ends. It is my belief that the rhetoric surrounding surf travel serves to encourage unreflective penetration, both literal and ideological, into peripheral places in much the same way that mapping and exploration and, more recently, ecotourism opens places up to the West for development and exploitation. It strikes me as no mere coincidence that surfing travelogues are replete with maps, directions, and passionate descriptions of "Paradise."

Surfing travel was in many places a precursor to ecotourism. The beginnings of widespread surfing travel in the periphery go back nearly forty years. Like the ecotourist, the surfer travels to gaze upon and engage a scenic natural resource. In addition, both of these travelers are more interested in the landscape itself - the cloud forest, game park, or wave - than the culture through which they pass. Finally, because both genres of travel require relative solitude, commercial successes threaten to destroy the aesthetic resources upon which they depend. The central desire in this type of travel is to experience the uncrowded past no longer possible in much of the overdeveloped world. Thus, most of the destinations are in the Periphery. Even a cursory review of surfing magazines and films turns up a lengthy list of featured destinations in the less developed world. In my review of nearly 40 years of Surfer magazine I found that those destinations which appear again and again are consistently in the less developed world. Mexico, El Salvador, Puerto Rico, Costa Rica, Nicaragua, Indonesia, Fiji, Mauritius, Tahiti, Hawaii, Ghana, South Africa and Senegal all appear with regularity. The exceptions are Hawaii and Australia, but it is important to remember that both of these locations were colonial possessions of the core countries.

The desire to get away from it all is nothing new in Western literature and thought. The tale of Robinson Crusoe and the real life adventures of explorers as varied as Sir Lawrence of Arabia and Captain James Cook fired the imaginations and fueled the desires of young men for centuries. But the male conquest fantasy exercises its ideological power not only via actual travel, but just as often by means of the imagining of places. Thousands of surfers will never physically travel to destinations that they nevertheless visit over and over in their imaginations. This geographical imagination is an essential facet of the processes that allow us to divide the world in between "us" and "them," "here" and "there." Contemporary surfing films and literature deliver the messages that inscript these places as "foreign" and simultaneously glorify notions of masculine adventure.

Masculinity and Mobility

Mobility and travel may mean different things in different contexts. At one extreme are metaphorical conceptions of motion, such as Said’s (1978) "traveling" theory, which suggest the way theoretical ideas migrate and "travel" from person to person and place to place. At the other extreme lie the movements of individuals in material space. In the middle there is vast room for interpretations of the meaning and significance of "mobility." In this chapter, I use mobility to describe two types of freedom, both of which are generally assumed to be masculine. First, mobility is the freedom to choose where you will travel in the material world. But it also is the ability to define and structure the terms of engagement with your destination - a mobility of power or the power to present yourself as the subject of both action and metaphor. Such mobility is historically associated with masculinism. The explorations and conquests which led to European control of much of the world are the quintessential example of such masculine mobility. Hernan Cortez, Francisco Pizzaro, and Christopher Columbus were the creators of narratives in which they were the heroes and nearly everyone and everywhere else were secondary, even invisible. An aspect of their project was to map meaning onto the unknown lands and peoples of the world. These lands and peoples were generally depicted as feminine - either fecund and fertile or hostile and hysterical. In other words, space itself is coded as either masculine or feminine, with places in the periphery generally taking on feminine associations (Rose 1993; Gregory 1994).

Gillian Rose suggests that geographical knowledge in the West is the product of the separation of reason (male) from nature (female) and as such is dependent upon epistemic constructions which depend upon gender dualism : "Masculinity defines itself through a rejection of the non-masculine, and the autonomy that this implies establishes a distance between the masculine self and its Others" (Rose 1993:66). This "autonomy" is the basis of an imbalance in power between the Western subject and the objects of study or observation. Thus, with regard to geography, she argues that landscape studies, and fieldwork in general, are not value free methods of data collection but are instead elements of a "visual ideology" (p. 86) that understands the landscape as an element of feminine Nature. Drawing upon Mulvey’s (1975) work on "the Gaze," she finds parallels between the sexual pleasure men derive from examining women and the pleasure geographers experience when "looking at landscape." This controversial thesis suggests that subjects engage in the exercise of power whenever they "gaze" upon their subjects. The power lies largely in the freedom to choose these objects and to control the terms of our engagement with them. This kind of objectification is an essential element in the construction of dualistic ideologies discussed in earlier chapters. Mulvey’s classic psychoanalytic critique of films suggests that the pleasure we derive from watching films comes partly from the sheer joy of looking, but also "films re-enact our own mirror stage and force us, male or female, to identify with the self-certain he (ro)" (Rose 1993:107). Fieldwork and explorer narratives written by geographers function in much the same way. As the hero in his own adventure, the male explorer leaves home, which is universally understood as a feminine realm, and exercises a radical mobility. This mobility involves not only the freedom to travel, but also the freedom to depart from the responsibilities of home and instead voyage to a fantasized utopia where "the self becomes realized as the hero of its own narrative of departure and return" (Robertson et al. 1994:5).

Such free masculine mobility is generally contrasted with the home, which is understood as a feminine place characterized by sendentarism, child-rearing, maternal virtues, the kitchen and cooking – mobility limited only to "the everyday geography of kitchens and bedrooms" (Rose 1993:142). Home is generally thought to be the essence of identity – "the story we tell of ourselves and which is also the story others tell of us" (Sarup 1994:95). What is interesting about travel is that identity is reinforced by observation of Other places and Other systems of social order. In travel we learn as much about ourselves as we do about "foreigners." The Other simply provides the antipode necessary to our understanding of ourselves, which is always the "real" here and now.

Thus, the West is mobile not only with regards to planes, trains, and automobiles, but in this other sense as well. In expeditions and explorations we devise narratives that allow us to enter and exit other places and times freely. It is a dialectic of both knowledge and power: "We are over here and over there. They are simply being. We are being and becoming. Frozen in our objectivity gaze, 'they' are at once the record of our journey and the benchmark of Western progress" (Roberston et al. 1994:4). Moreover, the tales we construct as travelers inevitably involve a return to home: "Every voyage is the unfolding of a poetic. The departure, the cross-over, the fall, the wandering, the discovery, the return, the transformation" (Minh-ha 1994:20). The freedom to return home and the corresponding transformations of home, and hence, our own identity, dramatically distinguish the wealthy traveler from the displaced: the masses of refugees, migrants, and exiles who are not guaranteed a return trip.

However, the concept of home runs deeper even than the family and notions of the maternal. The concept of home is also deeply tied to nationalism. Whereas home at one level is the realm of the family, the kitchen, and the mother, at another level it is the social and political milieu of your origin – your "home land" or "mother land." Travel involves the crossing of boundaries. The stimulation and excitement of travel is largely derived from the novelty of such transgressions and the comparisons to home. The creation of a story from the collection of experiences and images is the essential element that personalizes the journey: "destination and destiny are etymologically linked and travel, with its timetabled arrivals and departures, provides a particularly acute experience of the relation between predestination and the free play of choice and volition" (Curtis and Pajaczkowska 1994:199). Having surveyed the contradictions embodied in masculine notions of travel, let us now turn to how surfing travel narratives illustrate the connection between voyages "over there" and political identity "back here" at "home."

Tales of Surfing Travel and Adventure

While Gidget is ostensibly about adolescent dating and the joy of surfing, there are important attacks on the mobile elements of surfing most at odds with mainstream American culture. Remember that our two male heroes live in a palm frond shack on the beach (at the margins of culture) and are planning to drop out of economic society. Kahuna even lashes out verbally at the expectation that he should get to work, "tried it once," he says, "but there were too many hours and rules and regulations." When, at the end of the film, we watch Kahuna destroy the beach shack we are essentially told that resistance is futile, that the surfing lifestyle is unworkable. Gidget was Hollywood’s presentation of the surfing lifestyle, so it is hardly surprising that the lessons it contained were patriarchal. Many later films and writings dealing with surfing were authored by surfers themselves. These were often more complex and nuanced portrayals, but even in these films traditional conceptions of masculinity dominate.

The Endless Summer represented travel as an essential element of surfing. Despite the infectious fun of the film, an onerous political subtext running throughout reflects a political and historical ignorance. The two young Americans are free to move about the planet, entering and leaving the Periphery at will via international airliner. The world and its people become the personal playground of two California kids. The native people they meet along the way serve as colorful elements of the background. The tale is primarily about waves and recreation, but the Periphery provides an exotic stage upon which the surfers act out their fantasies of exploration. Neither of the surfers can speak any language other than English so we never learn anything other than generalities and stereotypes about the "natives" we see depicted in Senegal, Ghana, Nigeria, Zulu South Africa, or Tahiti. For the most part these natives are included in comic interludes that highlight their difference from the surfers, and therefore, us. These places are all clearly "foreign" and present to the surfers primarily a gauge of their technological and moral progress.

By way of contrast, in Hawaii, Australia, and New Zealand we meet young surfers, all of them white, and we hear their voices and learn their names. This basic distinction in the portrayal of Europeans and non-Europeans helps to keep the "natives" at a psychological distance, stereotyped and enframed for our viewing and fantasy pleasure. Much of the enjoyment in watching the film comes from the fantasy of free and easy mobility enjoyed by the protagonists. They don’t have to work, they don’t have to go home, they just surf and travel. Brown, who is the voice of the film, and his two surfers consistently revel in this freedom. Take, for example, their first stop abroad, in Dakar, Senegal. Brown tells us that Mike and Robert kept shouting to each other in the water, "Hey, we’re in Africa!". They just "couldn’t get over being in Africa. I don’t know what it was but it was hard to accept," he tells us. On the plane, on the way to Senegal, Brown tells us that "Robert wondered what was in store for them. Would they find surf? Would they catch malaria? Would they be speared by a native?" This feigned naiveté plays directly to Western male fantasies of dangerous adventure, reminiscent of the famous explorations and conquests.

Brown uses a familiar technique to track the travels of the film’s heroes. Their progress is traced on a world map as each new land is encountered. We don’t see them using maps. Maps instead are a conceptual tool, showing us their progress as they conquer the globe. We receive a visual record of where they’ve traveled, what destinations they have mastered, and how far they are from home. The maps are even depicted in the faded sepia tones of old film footage. This is yet another reference to the familiar historical journeys of exploration. "Maps, after all, are visual tools of colonization, functioning themselves to conquer and label spaces perceived as empty and uninhabited " (Curtis and Pajaczkowska 1994). What’s more, Brown’s mapping of the "adventure" illustrates the self-centered importance of our male he(roes).

Brown makes the desire to return to an imagined pre-colonial past explicit in Senegal when the surfers disappointedly realize that they are required to stay in large and expensive modern hotels controlled by the Senegalese government. We see the surfers carrying their boards down the steps of a huge colonial hotel and Brown comments that "they had their introduction to primitive Africa at one of the primitive little hotels along the seashore." When they find surf nearby and we are presented with another of the standard tropes of surfing travel literature, the virgin surf break. Right out in front of the hotel was surf ‘that one had ever surfed before and as far as we knew, no surfer had ever seen before." This whole episode demonstrates well the point of much surf travel. The goal is to find those places that are least developed, undiscovered, most pristine, "unspoiled" – in other words, natural (i.e. virginal):

The unravaged haunts of beauty offer an experience of time before the vitiating effects of modernity and all the losses of innocence that it entails. The journey and its destination are often described as a passage through symbolic time, forwards towards a resolution of conflict and backwards towards a lost aspect of the past. (Curtis and Pajaczkowska 1994:199)

Thus, the hotel was a disappointment. It was too modern (masculine) and too expensive to meet their fantasies of a primitive Africa where they could exploit their economic power and revel in the fantasy of being the first white man to "discover" (penetrate?) the place. But the surf provided a way to make the fantasy true. If you can’t be the first white man, at least you can be the first white surfer.

Laura Mulvey (1975) argues that The Gaze, the enframing and objectifying of Others, and women in particular, is a central element of those patriarchal ideologies which seek to control women. Said (1978), Rose (1993), and Gregory (1994; 1995), among others, expanded this insight to Westerners visually "gazing" upon "foreigners" during periods of travel and writing. Most of the The Endless Summer is spent in just such gazing. On the other hand, almost everywhere Mike Hynson and Robert August travel in Africa, small crowds of Africans of all ages gather to watch them surf. This reversal of the Gaze, whereby the eyes of the Periphery view and enframe the European, at times unnerves the surfers and at other times seems to inspire them. The tension caused by being viewed is revealed in Senegal when Brown mentions that the onlookers "being good Africans, threw some rocks." It is even more apparent later in what Brown calls a "primitive fishing village in Ghana," though Brown admits that they are only a few minutes drive from Accra. He tells us that

Most of these people had never seen a white man before. As they [Mike and Robert] walked down the beach, they really wondered whether they were doing the right thing. They didn’t know if the U.N. had been there or not. They were a little nervous on the beach so they paddled right out into the water. Paddling out, they had the horrible thought that maybe surfing would trigger some religious taboo of the natives and they would attack.

The landscapes and peoples of Africa provide a ruler that allows measurement and comparison to the West. The U.N. is posited as the antithesis of the "horrible" possibility of a "religious taboo" that might imperil the surfers. This is also good example of the representation of the Other as dangerous.

Later, some of the natives, who are gracefully adept in the surf in their dugout canoes, paddle out to fish. The music switches to African drumming and chanting, though there is clearly none of this actually occurring in the scene we are watching. Now Brown returns us to the position of power and we are again voyeurs. He notes that the African’s paddles look like forks (they do) and comments that "You don’t know if they’re coming out to have you for dinner." Instead, he exchanges a couple of mutually incomprehensible sentences with the fishermen, who laugh. They say something like "hum yum mummy wo mow," says Brown, and Robert replies, "yeah, man, hang ten." The natives then row off rhythmically chanting "Hang ten..hang ten...hang ten. It was really something, " he says.

After Robert and Mike surf, we watch the local kids and some adult men attempt to surf with the Californian’s surfboards. Robert and Mike even give a bunch of the kids surfing lessons. At another point, Robert is surrounded by curious locals and exchanges more incomprehensible talk along with lots of grins. The overall effect is quite playful and any tension we have about the intentions of the surfers or the "natives" is relieved in a spirit of friendly cultural exchange. But a 1990s observer is well aware of the power imbalance in the scene. We never learn anything about any of the individuals in Ghana. Instead, we are told about their primitive fishing techniques, their self-reliance, and their tribal mentality. Simply put, the people of Ghana make for great "local color" and little more than an opportunity to demonstrate surfing to the unschooled. Moreover, the natives are represented in this one scene in both of the categories the West generally applies to the Periphery. They initially appear to be dangerous, but in the end are naive, happy and benign. The danger adds to the adventure and reinforces notions of "darkest" Africa. The happy natives represent the innocence of prehistoric nature.

The next stop is Lagos, Nigeria. The crew takes a cab to the ocean where they have to hike through what Brown calls "a full on jungle, full of snakes and all kinds of creepy things, " He says that they expected ‘Tarzan to come swinging by on a vine." After that comment we immediately see a native attack our heroes. But it soon becomes clear that the attack was staged. Their attacker is actually just another blond California surfer, dressed up in black face, war paint, and loincloth. The effect is supposed to be comic, but today it seems embarrassingly ignorant. What’s more, the reference to Tarzan is an ironic reminder of yet another tale of tropical adventure and travel wherein the European remains center stage at all times.

The Endless Summer is presented as a documentary. The heroes traveled from here to there, recorded what they found, and presented this reality to us as a film. Geographers who study film question the idea that reality can be so easily presented in film. Films, like any medium, require the careful selection and ordering of material to tell a particular story. Aitken (1994) suggests that documentaries are simply another form of fictional narrative. Kennedy and Lukinbeal (1997:41) agree that "the boundaries between objectivity and subjectivity are elusive in documentary cinema." The inherent biases of selection are exacerbated when documentary film makers seek entertainment and economic success. The comic interludes in The Endless Summer are obvious examples of fiction, but they are contrasted with a majority of scenes that represent places and nature as real. The three-dimensional quality of film, its ability to depict landscapes and action with visual impact, make all films persuasive. Documentary films add to this power the assumption of truth and objectivity.

Mike and Robert travel eventually from western Africa to South Africa, Australia, and New Zealand. We, of course, see only a line progressing across a map of the world. The "travel" happens instantaneously from the audience’s point of view. More importantly, the documentary presents us with very different representations of whites than it does of Others. These representations at first seem unproblematic. This is a documentary. These encounters really happened. For example, in the colonized states we meet young white surfers and witness conversations and camaraderie with them. This is a far cry from the depiction of natives in western Africa, where we saw Africans "throwing rocks" and fishing in "primitive" villages. Moreover, the natives seem to disappear when whites are present. We meet no natives of South Africa, Australia, or New Zealand. Instead we travel and surf with colonial whites and marvel at the wildlife of these only recently "civilized" places. It is important to question not only what is represented in documentaries, but also what is left out. How many hundreds of hours of film were rejected to present us with such simple caricatures of native peoples?

In South Africa the surfers travel with Terrence, a self-employed game hunter, looking for surf. It’s during this trip up the east coast of South Africa that they stumble across a surf break that would eventually become legend. At a place called Cape St. Francis, after hiking across three miles of dunes, they discover a small, peeling wave breaking in clean, regular lines around a point. Brown brazenly declares that they’ve found "the perfect wave" and we see shot after shot of long, graceful rides along smooth, otherwise unoccupied waves. "the rides were so long I couldn’t get most of them on one piece of film," he says adding that "from all the information we could gather from local fisherman, it’s like this about 300 days a year." Brown adds that they traveled for hundreds of miles surfing point after point and never saw another surfer. Surfers all over the United States watched this scene in 1963. It seems certain that many fantasized about making the trip themselves. In the Endless Summer II (1996) we learn that the break is actually "fickle and doesn’t break all that often." Here again is another example of how powerfully the conventions of documentary film convey the director’s messages. The real surf break held up as evidence of the existence of the mythical perfect wave was actually a fiction created in the process of making an entertaining documentary. Biases of many types, including gender biases, are incorporated into documentary films.

At three different points in the journey, the narrator leaves Mike and Robert to visit big wave spots in California and Hawaii. Although The Endless Summer lacks the obvious machismo of some later surf films, it is in these scenes that the gender biases of the film become most apparent. The men involved in surfing these big waves are described as "roman gladiators" and the musical score becomes uncharacteristically dramatic. Probably more important, though, is the general absence of women in the film. Our narrator, the surfers themselves, and all of the surfers we meet along the way are men. The only exceptions to this are a number of instances where women and girls are presented as objects of sexual attention. In Australia, the guys go goofy over skimpy bathing suits and fall off their boards repeatedly. Later, Brown tells us that there are a lot of really good girl surfers in Hawaii, only to then show us a woman surfing while his voice-over directs attention to her body (she’s wearing the green "chest protector").

We don’t learn the names of the women, nor do we see any real interaction with them. Apparently, surfing travel is a male pastime. This is of course nothing new. Travel and exploration are always male enterprises in our culture. What’s new here is the creation of a specific kind of male exploration: the surfari. The goal is to find a wave that no one else, or at least very few, have seen or ridden before. The destination is not particularly important and landscape and culture are secondary to wave quality. At every surf spot we are told three basic pieces of information: the water and air temperature, the degree of isolation from the West, and the cost of travel there. Thus these places are easily summarized. Ideally, they should be warm or tropical. They should be inhabited by "exotic" natives and they should be inexpensive by the Western surfer’s standards.

The film ends with the sun setting into the Pacific Ocean in California and Brown leaves us a final bit of his lifestyle philosophy: "With enough time and enough money you could spend the rest of your life surfing and following the summer. This is Bruce Brown. Thanks for watching. I hope you enjoyed my film." The enticing images of Brown’s film helped to bring surfing mythology to the masses, but it was the steady and ever-increasing coverage of surf travel in Surfer and other magazines that spoke directly to surfers themselves. Though the analysis to follow is largely based on textual narratives, photographic images of destinations were often as important as the text itself. For this reason, I include a number of images taken from the travelogues. They serve to reinforce Derek Gregory’s arguments regarding the enframing and positioning of foreign places in order to satisfy the West’s imaginative needs:

The voyages of discovery...all took place within a web of textualizations in which dreams of the fantastic were captured in intricate display. And it is that process of spinning, capturing, and displaying, a process of inscription, uneven and unequal, that preoccupied Said when he urged the reading of what he called "imaginative geographies." (Gregory 1995:29).

In most of these foreign travel narratives one gets the feeling that the Periphery flows past the Western viewer, but the converse is actually true; the Western traveler is the real foreigner. It is the Westerner who is in motion and yet he appears to be stationary, as if scenery were brought before him for appraisal and judgment. He remains central and omnipotent.

In a particularly revealing essay entitled A Feel for the Road, published in Surfer Magazine in 1990, two of the most prominent surf travel writers reflected upon their nearly two decades of surfing adventures in the Periphery (Naughton and Peterson 1990). Kevin Naughton and Craig Peterson spent much of the 1970s and 1980s roaming the globe, beach-hopping from places like war-torn West Africa and remote Indonesia to more comfortable destinations like southern France and Portugal, in order to satisfy the wanderlust of U.S. surfers. Their personal reasons for traveling speak directly to the contradictions I am exploring:

There’s a getaway rush in traveling from wave-to-wave...like slipping through the tightening grip of time, or thumbing your nose at a life of dedicated mediocrity and the blind pursuit of dollars. It’s an offbeat notion that goes back decades, to when surfers were real fringe-dwellers in the social order. From the start, traveling surfers picked up where the fifties’ Beat Generation left off (Naughton and Peterson 1990:55).

Imagining themselves true revolutionaries, they return later to the comparison with the Beats:

The Beat Generation was a wandering group of writers and poets who went against the grain of a society bent on producing thousands of ants in pinstripe suits...Add a surfboard to that frame of mind and what emerges is the prototypical traveling surfer. No single group or subculture has moved across the globe as extensively as surfers (Naughton and Peterson 1990:56).

They make a good case for the surfer-as-radical position until they begin to discuss their feelings about leaving home, where it becomes clear that there is little unusual about their conceptions of home and masculinity:

A rite of passage is played out time and time again: Mom wiping her eyes, and Dad nodding his okay as the boy leaves home. His story gets underway as the world map unfolds and the miles go by...Feeling comfortable with change, he can now move around the planet with confidence...And finally, at the end of it all, a man returns home. (Naughton and Peterson 1990:56).

Of course Mom cries while Dad "knows" that the boy must explore to become a man and nods his approval. Again we see home depicted as feminine and travel and exploration as masculine. Moreover, the surfers see their travels as a story of which they are the hero and wherein they "unfold" the map of the world. The travel is seen as part of personal processes of growing up, especially for men.

The transition from childhood to adulthood has been narrativized and ritualized in myriad forms as a rite of passage...Leaving home is a repetition of the first journey in the ‘travail" of childbirth, an active and painful displacement from the safety and unfreedom of the "maternal" home to the unknown elements and horizons of the "big wide world." (Curtis and Pajaczkkowska 1994:200)

Thus, the surfers’ travel narratives utilize the less developed world as a dramatic example of the "big wide world" in which they test their independence. These locations are presented as dangerous and very unlike the home world the surfers departed, but it must be remembered that the surfers enter another society where they instantly become wealthy and, to a degree, powerful. Most of the danger is fantasized.

Moreover, there is a contradiction in the surfers’ "simultaneous rejection and embrace of stability and home life" (McDowell 1996:415) that is very similar to the contradictions of Kerouac’s (Sal) and Cassidy’s (Dean Moriarty) constant questing and yet repeated dependence on women in On the Road (Kerouac 1957). In her response to Cresswell’s (1992) interpretation of mobility in On the Road as a type of resistance, McDowell (1996) argues that Kerouac relegated Beat women to the role of minor players, thus reifying patriarchal assumptions and ignoring the "resistance at home" that Carolyn Cassidy engaged in to make a traditional home for Kerouac, Neil Cassidy, and her three children. The men always return to her and depend upon her for support and comfort. For McDowell On the Road is a "confirmation of the values of home against the endless waiting and ultimate disappointment of the road" (1996:417). Herein lies the root of the distinction between travel and migration, adventure and exile. The masculine adventure depends as much on an eventual return to home, and the reliance on others this implies, as it does on solitary conquests while away. In depth analysis of surfing travelogues highlights these gender contradictions.


In the remainder of this chapter, I focus on a series of Central American travel stories by Naughton and Peterson which were published in Surfer in 1973 and 1975 under a heading that read "Centroamerica." The outline of their tale is simple. Three guys in a beat up VW bus strap surfboards to the roof and head for Central America. They pass through Mexico and into El Salvador. Along the way, they experience various misadventures, including frequent mechanical troubles and a $20 payoff to a corrupt Mexican policeman. More telling, though, are the themes which repeatedly appear in the description of the trip: the joy of mobility, the excitement and danger of exploration, the sexuality and beauty of Latina women, the primitivism of Latino culture, and the constant references to paradise.

Their story begins with a fast trek south across Mexico’s deserts. The journey is described as dull and tiresome and yet the joy in motion conveyed by their inspired descriptions of the landscape echo Kerouac: "nothing but full-on conscious-corroding driving along the asphalt snake through cloud-breaking mountains ‘til Mexico City..." (Naughton and Peterson 1973a:41). At other times they complain of the work and pain involved in their travels, but the tales are more adventure than hardship and the reader is given the impression that they would do it all again in a second:

We lived in an old wiped-out Volkswagen Bug, crammed together like molecules for 12 days, 1 hour, 23 minutes and timeless seconds, driving a sweaty, enduring 3,385.4 miles along a treacherously crooked and badly pitted snake of a road in ill-tempered weather...All this for the sweet taste of paradise! (Naughton and Peterson 1973a:42)

Their is an element of joy in their explorations, a joy which is intertwined with desire: the desire to view the Other, the desire to experience earthly Paradise, the desire for escape, however temporarily, from the norms of their middle class Southern California lives.

Later in the trip they explore the local Mexican coastline with the help of nautical charts. They describe a two day drive that takes them into the "sticks": "A long haul down a dirt and rock road in the mountains left us in a valley so peaceful our van was very out of place amongst the beautiful sites and sounds" (1973b:49). They encounter frequent hazards. These hazards serve two purposes in the narrative. First, they suggest the danger inherent in the landscape. Secondly, they are significant because they threaten to limit their mobility – to put an end to the story of themselves they are writing. They are repeatedly stuck in the mud, arrested, or faced with mechanical difficulties:

If it wasn’t for some of Mr. Chuck’s wild rides, we would never have made it to these spots. Related instances on attempts: stuck at 45-degree angle in gravel-sand, out on a beach in nowheresville [sic]. We had to build a 15-foot road out of driftwood and palm fronds to get out. Blew out four tires during the entire trip, stuck deep five times. Chuck, living up to his motto, "We’ll go until we can’t," on one journey kept on plowing through rivers, mud puddles till we went in to this marsh and sank to the frame! We waited for two hours, four miles from the surf, till a four-wheel drive yanked us out of the goo, free once more. (Naughton and Peterson 1973b:51)

Eventually, they reach "the one perfect looking point" and take stock of their reward:

Around the bend we feasted our eyes on waves, surf. We stroked harder and harder, reaching the rivermouth - probably the first surfers ever here. A small tree-clad island a little off-shore, nobody in sight, blue sky laced between puffy pure white clouds taking on odd forms. (Naughton and Peterson 1973b:53)

The key phrase in this last quote is "nobody in sight." Finding such a privileged view of nature is the ultimate goal of the search. Although it is impossible to discover a place for the West more than once, it is possible to playfully imagine yourself the heroic discoverer of an empty beach or point, as long as there is no one else there. The appearance of others, and particularly other Westerners, shatters the illusion that the surfer is conquering empty spaces on the map.

It does not take much of a stretch to make the psychoanalytic observation that these journeys echo masculine conquests of women. The landscape is consistently feminized, and hence is either represented as nurturing and lovely to gaze upon (mother/virgin/lover) or as dangerous and fickle (bitch/monster). The obsessive desire to be the first to surf a particular beach, or at least to surf it alone, suggest intentions which are familiarly possessive and controlling. They are masculinist goals in the same vein as the historical biases which elevated virgins and degraded "soiled" women. So, ideally, there are no other people in Paradise. When there are others, they should be brown and they should be unthreatening, even inconsequential, though they may be quite dangerous. As elements of the feminine landscape, the natives are also presented on one or the other side of the mother/bitch dichotomy.

In virtually every surfing travelogue I read, the "natives" are described as "friendly" and ‘simple." This linguistic strategy is essential to casting the characters of the Periphery in the role of Other. The natives are depicted as innocent and naďve – throwbacks to a time (and place) before the sophistication of modernity. Naughton and Peterson’s work is typical:

Native people of the land here are overly friendly and trust gringos the same as their own family. How long this will last with a continuing high tide of wayfaring surfers pulling in is questionable, as some natives have already been abused by a few asinine surfers. The women down here are beautiful - long, straight silky hair, dark tanned and always smiling (Naughton and Peterson 1973a:43)

The description of native women as "always smiling" is clearly suggestive. Native women, in surfing stories, are generally inviting: beautiful, friendly, and smiling. The eroticization and feminization of the native landscape is of course most complete with native women. Such eroticization of landscape and natives is not exclusive to surfing travel. The advertising of holiday tours offers an obvious example of such desublimation of sexual desires:

Images of bared photogenic bodies, energetically or restfully "at one" with the native habitat, are offered as evidence of the desirability of place and experience…The naked power struggle hidden in this seductive eroticization of difference remains the real dynamic of all attempts to live out such fantasies. (Curtis and Pajaczkowska 1994:211).

The erotic attraction of Western travel in the Periphery is reflected in the conscious thought that vacations are the time when we are free from the usual demands and rules of work and society. We imagine ourselves returning to our animal instincts, focusing only on the pleasures of the body. Excessive drinking and eating, and a sense of being someone else, of being anyone we want to be, are typical reactions to vacation travel. The most dramatic example of this is the merging of prostitution with mass tourism in Southeast Asia, but the fantasy of freedom from society exists in all tourism.

In surfing travelogues, native men tend to be presented as one of a number of standard types (drunkard, servant, menace, friend, etc.), but generally fall into the same two broad categories as women: natural or hostile. This reflects once again the association of all that is native/foreign with feminine characteristics and the power this provides to the subject of such a gaze. Surf travelogues are full of stories of hostile policeman, menacing drunks, and angry locals. On the other hand, there is also frequent mention of newfound friends and generous hospitality. The naturalness of native men is described not as physical beauty but as simplicity, honesty, or mirth. Rarely, though, do we actually learn anything of these new friends. They are given scant attention and we are left to wonder whether they even have names. More often, they are simply part of the cast of characters that make up the primitive romantic setting for our surfing story.

As I noted, an essential element of this romantic setting is nostalgia for an imagined past of primitive bliss. Time, we are told, slows down in the heat of the tropics:

And what makes the experience even nicer is the fact that it’s Mexico; a slower culture based on the realities of a hot, arid, ruggedly majestic desert land. When you stay down there for any length of time, you yourself slow down to the same pace. Past priorities become more obviously unreal, and days are filled by very simple things like surfing, relaxing and delaying that drive back to the nearest town for gas, ice and more beer until it’s absolutely necessary (Naughton and Peterson 1975a:32).

Naughton and Peterson use the phrase "hammock consciousness" to describe this laid back, timeless atmosphere, apparently unable to distinguish between their experiences and that of the locals who serve them. Moreover, frequent references to the illogic of time in these regions serves to reinforce the notion that these places are ruled by irrationality, the very antithesis of Western cultural standards.

Furthermore, the landscape itself is described as somehow fundamentally different from the Western world. It is both more dangerous and more fantastic:

The tropics, in all its splendor, lives up to its legendary fierceness: intense heat, flooding rains, king-size killer mosquitoes....mass swarms of deadly bugs, wild animals, and cannibals, all in full force. (Naughton and Peterson 1973a:42).

These imaginative geographies are woven around numerous carefully framed photographs which serve to complete the illusion. Images of oxcarts, beasts of burden, and other simple technologies are common (Figure 10). Derek Gregory (1994) aptly characterized European ways of knowing the Periphery as "the world-as-exhibition." This epistemic project allows Europeans to conceive of the world as a series of pictures, thus making the world systematically understandable through the process of enframing and categorizing places for European discourse. There is "colonizing" power in the selection and presentation of places as images and categories (backward, paradise, primitive, etc.) in Western systems of thought. These images, both visual and linguistic, serve as exhibitions of the premodern Other.

There is nothing literally wrong or untrue about these photographs. They depict aspects of a reality. Yet, there is ideological power wielded when we depict the Periphery as a place back in our own history. Places which are clearly present become historical dioramas for Western gazing and comparison. This visual logic makes the grossly unequal distribution of wealth and power seem quite reasonable and logical. We understand that at some point in our own distant history we lived like "they" live now. We are led to believe that these places will eventually follow in our footsteps and will also become wealthy and powerful. This assumption is highly questionable, particularly since the West has such a stranglehold of the increasingly global economy. It is not likely that any former colony will rise up and extract wealth from other regions of the world. Britain, a small country, needed a massive empire which included much of the known world to achieve its economic status. How many worlds will China or India need to accomplish the same thing? Instead of asking these difficult questions, we choose to see the Periphery as a reflection of our former selves. Thus, it is the absence of the elements of modernity (or oppression) in travel imagery that completes the ideological mapping of these places (Figure 11). The automobiles and factories, the urban and technological elements of these cultures are rarely, if ever, depicted. Instead, surfing discourse returns over and over again to the themes of Eden and the primitive, even primordial landscape:

Taking all in stride, the good is here to be enjoyed too. Palm and coconut trees merge white sandy beaches, untouched by man, which melds into the warm 85-degree blue-green ocean with ease. Listening to a daily chorus of various birds of the jungle, relishing the Hawaii-type weather, peace is all about. Meat is tough to come by but shellfish and fish are our daily ecstasies. All of these earthly delights are either free for the taking or can be bought for a pittance. (Naughton and Peterson 1973a:45)

The close association of references to Eden (i.e., "earthly delights" and "ecstasy") with discussions of cost serves to illustrate once again the importance of economic power in this fantasy.

First, the poverty helps to complete the image of these places as living in the past, in a time when humanity was supposedly not so blessed with goods as we are today. Secondly, Heaven on earth is even more attractive when it is a bargain. Surfing travelogues set in the Periphery generally rave about the advantages that economic imbalances provide to the traveling surfer and Naughton and Peterson are no exception: "A small pool in front, a few poker tables that are in constant use, outdoor shower and bathroom, coconut, papaya, banana trees scattered about, gardener and his quarters, good clean water, three parrots: all for $50 a month!" (1973a:43). But after only a week at the beach in El Salvador, they pack up and move on:

But for us, we’ve about used up this paradise and are moving on towards a better land, searching for a perfect wave yet to be discovered, yet to be ridden. This is in the future, and what happens there nobody knows. That will be another adventure, another joy, another tale. (Naughton and Peterson 1973a:45)

The Westerners’ desire to posses and control is evident; Paradise is something acquired and then "used up." The real joy apparently lies in more travel, more exploration, and further fantasies of conquest and adventure. Again, the comparison to masculine sexual conquests is striking.

On their next trip to Latin America, Naughton and Peterson explore Baja California. Their description of that landscape summarizes well this ceaseless desire to explore new territory as well as the feminization of landscape that is essential to these conquests:

Baja California represents a surfing resource that reminds me of a beautiful lady that you really dig, but only work up the courage to ask out once or twice a year - and then only kiss her timidly goodnight...Until recently the depths of Baja had been one of the truly unreachable, tantalizing areas of the surfing world. Now, a paved road exists....between the border and the tip are major quality point breaks, rock reefs, sandy beach, and rivermouth waves. But for years, their virginity was protected by their extreme isolation - miles from any type of road or track. (Naughton and Peterson 1975a:32).

Like the beaches of El Salvador, which were "used up" after a week of surfing, Baja is no longer a virgin and although she is still attractive, she no longer possesses the virtue and excitement she did when first acquired.

The imagination of this Eden is directly tied to a long intellectual tradition in the West that sees the seashore, and particularly islands, as means of escape from society. Yi-Fu Tuan traces the central importance of islands back to the earliest cosmographies, but it was not until the voyages of discovery that he discerns the current appeal of these myths:

Above all, it [the island] symbolizes a state of prelapsarian innocence and bliss, quarantined by the sea from the ills of the continent... The voyages of Captain Cook largely confirmed the desirability of the South Sea islands...In the nineteenth century, missionaries assaulted the Edenic image of tropical islands. On the other hand eminent writers who visited them - including Herman Melville, Mark Twain, Robert Louis Stevenson, and Henry Adams - upheld their reputation. (Tuan 1974:115)

Islands are places we conceive of us as places which fall outside of the structures of time or society; they are mythical (Figure 11). This allows us to then map onto these tropical islands our own selfish structures, creating places which serve our pleasure principles.

When our traveling surfers finally return home, Southern California appears to them as a collection of urban troubles and it is evident that they feel they’ve abandoned their Shangri-La:

Behind a web of power lines, a burned out sun committed suicide by throwing itself into the ocean. Cruising the boulevard home through a tunnel of neon lights in the night, our attention was accosted by flashing signs flirting an offer to all, no discrimination against the color of a dollar here. Dine with ‘two half slices of cheese and Two half slices of tomato on your taco, " then a ‘sensual Massage" next door for dessert. There’s no limit to the possibilities in America, only in yourself and how much you can take, or vice versa. We had to laugh because we’d been to so many places that now even home seemed like a foreign place. It would take some time to adjust. (Naughton and Peterson 1975b:97)

The traveling surfers use this final passage to reaffirm their outsider status, their identity of rebellion. This rebellion, as we’ve seen, is sorely limited.


I hope I have demonstrated that surfers are not only travelers to the less developed

world, but that they are also travelers in realms of geographic fantasy. These fantasies of the

Periphery, which are rooted in very particular ways of seeing the world, historically served to place the Other in systematic Western classifications of the rest of the world. Today this process continues in the surfing media, where travel to "the third world" is often a right of passage, after which a surfer takes on elevated status in the subculture. The traditional patriarchal elements of this travel - the danger, the penetration of virgin territory, the male hero - directly contradict the common image of surfers as reactionary outsiders.

More importantly, this worldview represents a potentially destructive kind of neocolonialism. Just as 19th century travelers to the third world were instrumental to the geopolitical projects of that time, today’s surf tourists are involved in extending the West’s cultural influence to the far corners of the planet as well as reifying dominant categorizations of the Other. Surfing magazines and films emphasize and elevate both real and imagined exploration of "foreign" territory while rarely, if ever, reflecting on the ideological, economic, and cultural effects of these journeys. The result is a discourse that encourages simplistic stereotyping, aggressive intrusion, and the efficient utilization of economic imbalances, all of which involve the exercise of power.

Moreover, conceptualizing "foreign" lands as less civilized and more natural serves to reify and naturalize the surfers' categorizations of home. By romanticizing the beauty of their international destinations, these surfers make the economic and political distinctions between urban Los Angeles and the periphery seem inevitable - natural. The naturalizing of distinction occurs at home as well. This theme of "nature" and the natural is recurrent in the surfing literature. I move now to a direct examination of the subculture’s views on nature.



Open up just about any surfing magazine and you will find photographs of men riding enormous waves - waves ten, twenty, even forty feet from trough to lip. These massive walls of water and the men suspended on their speeding faces are impressive, even fantastic. It’s hard to not be awestruck by the courage and skill of the men or the beauty of the waves. At the same time, this commercial focus on the biggest, meanest surf strikes me as something more than simple appreciation. There is an aura of the battlefield about these photographs and the articles that accompany them. If the surfer’s world-wide search for the perfect wave is an invitation to ongoing quest and conquest (Chapter VI), then this big-wave fetish provides his Coliseum, a locus for contests between men and the natural world. Big waves provide a place for individual men to act out specific notions of masculinity. Moreover, the consistent notion that the sea is somehow feminine contributes to an ideology that sees the ocean and waves as something to be controlled and subdued. Again the surfing discourse demonstrates that ideology (notions of masculinity, in this case) is often tied to place and identity.

On the other hand, few surfers ever seek out these abstract, somewhat meaningless conflicts, choosing instead to pursue a more personal everyday relationship with the ocean and their home breaks. Many surfers approach surfing and the actual riding of waves as just one part of an intimate relationship with the sea. These alternative representations of the sport tend to glorify and romanticize the surfer’s interaction with nature.

Recent debates in the geographic literature suggest that the word "nature" has an important ideological history. Conceptions of "nature" serve to separate society from the environment and can generally be linked to projects of social control. The surfing discourse illustrates this trend well. In neither of the aforementioned approaches to the environment is nature understood as universal and ever-present. In this chapter, I contrast the big-wave passion of some surfers (and much of the surf media) with the more romanticized and more personal experiences of less aggressive surfers to explore how the surfing subculture reflects the limited range of ideas about human interaction with the natural world.

The Social Construction of Nature

In the most patriarchal constructions of nature, nature is seen as a powerful, dangerous, and beautiful realm separate from humanity. She serves as a place for men to challenge themselves and thereby build character and fortitude. The separation of "man" from nature can be traced back to the Bible and perhaps even earlier. In addition, early European conceptions of nature were distinctly negative. Wilderness was perceived as uncivilized place full of danger and evil. In the nineteenth century, the Romantics, including Emerson and Thoreau, contributed to a dramatic philosophical revolution in conceptions of wilderness. For the Romantics nature became a realm of the sublime (God in nature). Human transformation of the earth was now seen as "an outrage" (Nash 1986; Proctor 1988).

Today, there is vigorous debate in the social sciences about the concept of nature (Proctor 1998). One extreme in this debate lies with those who argue that "nature," rather than being a fundamental aspect of external reality, is an ideological conception that serves to remove human beings from landscapes in order to devalue them. The primary trends in Western philosophy, whether Romantic, Scientific, or Marxist, assumed a separation between Man and Nature. This separation leads to domination of much of the land, an ignorance of the "environments" inhabited by most of humanity everyday, and an environmentalism which favors technocratic solutions to environmental problems and fails to see the "universality" of nature (Katz and Kirby 1991). European thinkers, it is argued, removed humanity from nature in order to naturalize human domination of the land. Concomitantly, they separated women and Africans from humanity, linking them to nature, in order to control them as well. Women and blacks are consistently depicted as more natural; they are seen as more intuitive and animalistic. By "othering" nature and peoples in social discourse, we utilize familiar notions of "wildness, purity, instinctuality and animalness" (Katz and Kirby 1991:265) to explain subordination and domination.

Katz and Kirby use American preservation examples to demonstrate the politics inherent in discussions of wilderness. They argue that preserves and parks, such as Yosemite and Central Park, are contrived representations of our ideas regarding wilderness, suggesting that these parks are arguably as socially constructed as some urban environments. For example, in Yosemite, the forced removal of Native Americans, the crowding, and myriad rules and regulations (not to mention crime) all manage to coexist within an area generally accepted as pristine and untouched by man:

As a construction of nature, Yosemite Valley works so well that when visitors view it, choked with vehicular traffic and clogged with users of all kinds, they still come away with the sense that they have experienced nature in its pure form. (Katz and Kirby 1991:266)

The national park system also provides examples of how this separation of humanity from nature serves capitalist systems of resource exploitation. Outside of the delimited boundaries of our national parks Americans allow, even encourage, intense economic development of the landscape. Mini-marts, movie theaters, ranch motels, and all of the neon attendant to strip development radiate from the majority of American national parks. Tusayan, just south of the Grand Canyon is a classic example. Already boasting an IMAX movie theater, two general stores, two airports, a handful of hotels, and two gas stations, Tusayan has announced plans to build a massive new hotel and restaurant complex. There is, outside of our preserved "natural" areas, an "anything goes" attitude toward development. Katz and Kirby (1991) are among a group of scholars who argue that the concepts of nature, wilderness, wildness, and even biodiversity, are predominantly social constructions which serve ideological ends (Proctor 1998).

Realist Responses

This view stands in stark contrast to the opinion of many scientists and environmentalists, for whom the notion of wilderness is "a relatively unproblematic category of nature" (Proctor 1998:355). These scholars argue that nature, including wilderness, is something that can be observed and empirically situated. While many of these authors agree that knowledge is often subject to cultural biases, they consistently refer back to facts to justify their environmental prescriptions. Thus, environmentalists often believe that a real nature exists independent of human conceptions of it. Moreover, they see this nature as increasingly threatened by humankind. To those concerned about the destruction of species and ecosystems, the social-constructivist argument dangerously courts relativism:

If indeed "wilderness" is a culturally constructed concept, then to some extent truth-claims about wilderness make sense only as viewed from that cultural perspective. (Proctor 1998:357)

In other words, how can we justify protection of remaining uninhabited lands or threatened species, if the whole notion of nature carries with it our cultural and political baggage?

These two differing opinions about the concept of nature reflect a deep philosophical gulf that runs throughout contemporary environmentalism. The Sierra Club and other preservationist organizations, including The Surfrider Foundation, who advocate separate preserves for recreation and spiritual uplift clearly fall on the anti-constructivist side of the debate. Wilderness is something "out there" and must be protected. Nature for these organizations is a separate realm where we can seek rejuvenation and spiritual fulfillment.

Individual surfers writing about their experiences often embrace the adventurous and romantic positions. Never do they acknowledge the artificial line they draw between society and the surf. In these depictions we see the complex interplay of ideology and everyday life, for whether surfers view nature as a threatening feminine enemy (the older concept) or as a positive, even sublime, place (the Romantic view), they reify the separation of humans from nature. Surfing shares with other "adventure" sports the central contradiction of ‘nature’ outings (camping, hiking, surfing, parks, and the like):

Wilderness embodies a dualistic vision in which the human is entirely outside the natural. If we allow ourselves to believe that nature, to be true, must also be wild, then our very presence in nature represents its fall...To the extent that we celebrate wilderness as the measure with which we judge civilization, we reproduce the dualism that sets humanity and nature at opposite poles. We thereby leave ourselves little hope of discovering what an ethical, sustainable, honorable human place in nature might actually look like [emphasis in original]. (Cronon, cited in Proctor 1998:356)

Katz and Kirby (1991) argue that what is needed is a reinsertion of nature in everyday life. Nature, they suggest, is universal. It is not in any way separate from humanity. In fact, the attention of environmentalists to the few remaining untouched places around the globe ignores the necessarily local "environments" which occupy the vast majority of the planet. It is in these places where people live out their everyday lives and negotiate the organization and conditions of everyday existence. Simply put, they argue that there needs to be less concern for the preservation of wilderness areas and parks when so many people suffer injustices every day in their local environments. Theirs is not a call for a reinvigorated spirituality or "environmental ethic." Instead, Katz and Kirby are demanding environmental rhetoric and action which is ethical, pragmatic, and deals with the everyday world. In the remainder of this chapter I discuss specific depictions of nature in the surfing discourse and show how they embrace a simple dichotomy which does not allow for anything other than a separate and inhuman nature.

Rhino Chasers

The majority of media images of surfing focus on the theme of men opposing nature. Drawing upon a long tradition in English literature which portrays the ocean and its creatures as daunting or life-threatening forces, these articles suggest that the meaning of surfing is to be found in bravery, courage, and the ability to overcome the sea, if for only a moment. A recent example was the K2 Challenge, a 1997 big wave contest sponsored by a California snowboard manufacturer apparently hoping to tap into surfing’s marketable image. The company offered $50,000 to the "man" who managed to ride the biggest wave of the 1997-98 winter surf season. When asked by reporters about the intent of the contest, Bill Sharp, the contest’s organizer, replied: "I was really interested in doing something which was man against nature, which is really the essence of the sport of surfing."

In addition to reflecting particular notions of masculine identity, these images of macho conquest reflect ideological constructions of nature. The risk and, eventual, domination of big wave surfers over Mother Nature depends upon depictions of nature which harken back to the earliest Western conceptions of nature as a wilderness that is uncivilized, inhabited by danger and penetrated only by heroic men whose courage, violence, and power protects them (Nash 1986).

Images which reduce surfing to a battle with nature suggest important ideological projects. Most obvious is the link between feminization of the ocean and its control and subjugation by society. Recollect that, in Chapter VI, I noted the tendency of surf travelogues to depict "foreign" lands as either dangerous and primitive or sublimely inspirational. Just as the project of separating the Core and the Periphery serves relations of power, the separation of humans from the inhuman world aids the control of places and resources by dominant forces in a capitalist society. The feminization of the ocean in surfing imagery is an important part of its construction as Other. As essayist Barry Lopez remarks:

The intense pressure of imagery in America, and the manipulation of images necessary to a society with specific goals, means the land will inevitably be treated like a commodity; and voices that tend to contradict the proffered image will, one way or another, be silenced or discredited by those in power (Lopez 1998:137).

Lopez’s comments are as relevant to the nearshore and coast as they are to "the land." That the most powerful image makers should focus on simplified representations of nature simply reflects this long history in the West; nature is seen as either menacing or sublime. In either case, it is to be subdued.

Masculinist ideas regarding surfing infuse every aspect of the subculture, from the content and style of surfing videos, clothing, and magazines to the specifics of the physical act of surfing itself. Even the distinctive lingo of surfing reflects masculinist notions of encounters with nature. Machismo pervades the lingo of surfspeak. Surfers variously talk of destroying, thrashing, shredding, or dominating the waves. To suggest that a surfer "rips" is to bestow upon him the highest honor. An attractive girl is a chick or a "Betty" (a reference to Barney Rubble’s vacuous and pretty wife in The Flintstones). Sex Wax is a preferred brand surf wax for waxing one’s "stick." Finally, the big-wave heroes use specialized boards they respectfully call "rhino chasers" or "elephant guns," after the large caliber weaponry used to hunt big game.

While the macho image of surfing as "extreme" sport and human conquest of nature is nothing new (Peter Dixon’s 1968 collection of surf writings was suggestively entitled Men and Waves), it seems to have reached a fever pitch of late. The pretentious 1998 film, In God’s Hands, by focusing on masculine violence, competition, and big-wave surfing only reifies standard notions of masculinity. Director Zalman King, better known for his mildly pornographic films 9 1/2 Weeks and Wild Orchid, infuses the film with languorous camera work and voyeuristic images of foreign places (and women). There is the suggestion, not at all uncommon in surfing literature, that there is something sexual about the act of surfing (penetrating Mother Ocean?). When asked about surfing in an interview, King replied that it is not so different than sex: "It’s all about passion" (Wharton 1998:124).

One of the most common themes in surfing fiction, which was a staple of Surfer and other surfing magazines in the 1960s and early 1970s, is the story of the Great Wave, representing the "danger and conflict that are found in life" (Dixon 1968:240). This wave generally serves as either a masculine rite-of-passage or makes a martyr of an heroic protagonist (for two typical examples see Burdick 1968; Doggett 1968). In reality, rideable big waves occur only in a very few places where open ocean swells meet favorable bathymetric contours. These are the places that almost all surfers know by heart: the North Shore of Hawaii, Mavericks, California, G-Land in Indonesia, Tavarua in Fiji, and Jeffrey’s Bay, South Africa. Many surfers can even recognize the shape of these particular waves from photographs and films, despite never having actually been there. It is in these places, both real and imagined, that the surfing subculture (particularly its most commercial elements) reifies mainstream masculinity through contests, machismo, and overwrought commentary. Moreover, the ability to recognize these particular breaks is an essential element in the commodification of these places. There is status associated with such knowledge. The Endless Summer II tells us early on that our protagonists memorized the surf breaks and beaches from the original film, having "watched this thing [The Endless Summer] a million


Men Who Ride Monsters

The emphasis on big wave riding and professional competition in the surfing media is inextricably linked with patriarchal notions of masculinity and nature. A timely example is the "Men Who Ride Monsters" contest created in 1998 at Mavericks, a recently discovered big-wave break in Half Moon Bay, California. In addition, a series of videos entitled "Monster Mavericks" is now available. Even the name of the break, Mavericks, implies macho rebellion and risk. Many surfers will immediately dismiss this critique, pointing out that Mavericks is, after all, quite dangerous. They’ll reply that the "monster" took the life of professional surfer Mark Foo in 1995. There is nothing political or patriarchal, they’ll contend, about dramatic media coverage of a surf spot that is infused with drama; infested with Great White sharks, it only breaks in the largest cold winter swells, and has claimed the life of one of surfing’s big wave heroes.

I counter that the whole endeavor is steeped in patriarchal ideology and commercial bias. First, why even attempt to ride these waves? Big wave surfing is the clearest example in surfing of macho attitudes regarding conquest. These surfers search the world hunting for the largest and most dangerous waves. This is not so different than the single-minded stubbornness of those who attempt to climb Everest (where one in five climbers perishes). The motivations of big wave surfers vary from surfer to surfer, but all these men are driven to

stand atop the world’s tallest waves. More importantly, magazine and video companies devote large amounts of coverage to this kind of surfing, emphasizing elements of danger (even though few big wave surfers actually die surfing). Even the mainstream media picks up big wave stories; A recent National Geographic story, In the Teeth of Jaws (Achenbach 1998), featured big wave surfers in Hawaii. The cover photo of Laird Hamilton being pulled by jet ski into massive offshore waves at a spot called Jaws in Hawaii is typical of surfing coverage (Figure 12). Outside and Sports Illustrated also devote inordinate attention to big wave surfing (Hoffer 1995; Krakauer 1995; Duane 1998).

Despite the commercial value of these big wave stories, a mythos surrounds big wave surfers which suggests that the surfers themselves don’t do it for the money. Daniel Duane notes, while interviewing big wave surfers in 1998, that the K2 contest brought the issue to the fore:

... it clarified the blurry lines between the purity of the surfer’s pursuit and less noble aspirations. In other words, the $50,000 potentially waiting in the trough of every big wave undermined the dearly held belief that real surfers never do it for money (Duane 1998:27).

This myth may have had some basis in the 1950s, when surfers were rarely paid for their pursuit, but the vast majority of big wave surfers today are professionals who do nearly all of their surfing for money, even when not competing. In order to become sponsored you must regularly appear in the photo pages of the magazines. There is no quicker way to achieve this than to challenge the biggest waves.

Mark Foo’s career and death provide a useful example of the relation between big wave surfing and marketing. Before his death at Mavericks in 1994, Foo made little secret of his desire to become famous. Utilizing advanced surf prediction services and jet airplanes, Foo managed to ride nearly all of the biggest swells each year, often outrunning a single swell in order to surf it on multiple continents. The media coverage focused on heroism:

Fairly or not, most of society regards surfing as a summer pastime for feckless adolescents. But big-wave surfing has little in common with fun and games at the beach. The incumbent hazards and challenges lend the activity a seriousness of purpose, even a certain nobility. (Krakauer 1995)

Once again, the media depicts surfers as errant knights off slaying monsters in the face of mortal danger.

Da Bull

The most famous of these macho characters is Greg Noll, whose big wave exploits in the 1950s and 1960s established him as the first rider of truly huge surf. Noll’s aggressive and

dangerous surfing of Hawaii’s biggest waves at spots like Makaha and Waimea, and his 6’3", 230 lb. frame, eventually earned him the nickname "da Bull." In 1969, after fifteen years of single-minded big-wave hunting, Noll dropped in on the largest wave that had ever been ridden. Noll says, "You could have stacked two eighteen-wheel semis on top of each other and still had room left over to ride it" (Noll and Gabbard 1989:7). He nearly drowned, but managed to ride down the face of a wave that is estimated at over forty feet. It is telling that everything changed for Noll after that wave. He had shaped his life around surfing; at the time, he even owned a successful surfboard shop in southern California. Noll flew to Hawaii in order to catch that particular swell at Makaha. Remarkably, after that wave, he quit surfing and moved to Oregon where he spent 30 years as a commercial fisherman.

In interviews, Noll suggests that he had accomplished his goal: "You’re not going to top that, so where do you go from here? What do you do now?" (Noll and Gabbard 1989:10). He had ridden a bigger wave than anyone in recorded history (Figure 13). In interviews, Noll makes clear how singularly driven he was at the time. After that achievement, there was nothing left for him to conquer and he moved on, despite his conviction that "surfing is not a sport, its a lifestyle...I think you take it to your grave" (Liquid Stage 1998). There is contradiction here. Noll still occasionally attends contests. He even makes a line of classic longboards from his home in Oregon. Still, he has not surfed in years. For Noll, surfing was a typically masculine exercise in linear progress. It involved physical strength, the mastery of fear, dexterity, and the relentless pursuit of specific goals. Having dedicated years of his life to a lifestyle, he was able to abandon it immediately after reaching the logical end to his conquest.

Surfing the Sublime: Romanticized Nature

Despite all of the above, there are alternative notions of the surfer’s engagement with nature scattered throughout the discourse. Often more personal and complex, these ideas about the natural world appear in individual accounts of the lifestyle such as autobiographies and essays, as well as published attacks on competitive surfing. The commodified images of surfing I discussed above have little to do with the actual lived experience of most surfers. In

general, more personal accounts depict surfing as a communion, rather than confrontation, with nature. Some of these essays read as passionate accounts of very personal interactions with specific places and the ocean. After all, many surfers develop extremely intimate relationships with particular beaches and surf breaks. In the documentary Liquid Stage, Mickey Munoz, a retired professional surfer, refers to surfing as his "daily meditation." For most serious surfers, this kind of daily exposure to the coast translates into a real intimacy with specific places.

As many geographers and social critics remark, few of us maintain any real and continuous contact with wilderness or the natural world. Our sense of local geography is derived largely from advertisements which further political or ideological ends. Moreover, people today have little need for contact with the natural environment. Our basic necessities, even in rural areas, arrive packaged and processed at the grocery. Surfers, however, paddle out into a landscape that they perceive as untouched. We have, they argue, been unable to subdue the ocean to any large degree.

The argument continues: such intimacy fosters a respect for the local environment, a respect that is supported by the concrete details of experience, not the romantic ideals of the commercial media. In turn, this kind of knowledge provides a balancing check on the forces of development and change that so often lead to destruction and alienation of the land:

It is through the power of observation, the gifts of eye and ear, of tongue and nose and finger, that a place first rises up in our mind; afterward it is memory that carries the place, that allows it to grow in depth and complexity. For as long as our records go back, we have held these two things dear, landscape and memory...The one feeds us, figuratively and literally, The other protects us from lies and tyranny (Lopez 1998:143).

Therefore, it could be argued that the surfer’s ties to landscape have potentially profound effects on our treatment of the ocean and coastal environment. While surfers only engage the nearshore, this is the most ecologically productive realm of the sea. Thus the potential importance of surfers lies partly in their ability to report on environmental degradation of the nearshore, acting as what professional surfer Brad Gerlach calls ‘talking fish" (Liquid Stage 1997). In addition, surfers spend tremendous amounts of time on the beaches, dunes, and bluffs that front the seashore (and are also under intense development pressure). The existence of environmental organizations consisting primarily of surfers such as The Surfrider Foundation is a testament to these powerful ties to the landscape.

But this argument is deceptive. Very little remains natural about California’s urban shorelines. Oil wells, power plants, aquaculture, and other seashore developments have dramatically changed the coasts where most surfers practice their sport. The experience of pristine nature occurs primarily in the imagination. The romantic surfer imagines his sport not as masculine competition with nature, but as a sublime dance with primeval forces. This alternative view, rarely depicted in the mainstream media (except as evidence of abnormality or vacuous distraction), emphasizes the spiritual aspects of surfing: human striving despite human frailty, the beauty of the ocean, and the importance of respect for the rhythms of the planet.

Bombarded as we are by ideas of masculinity in surfing, it is easy to forget that in ancient Polynesia the sport was practiced by men, women, and children of both sexes. But there remains a fundamental difference between Hawaiian indigenous surfing practice and that of the modern surfer. The Hawaiian did not have to bridge the gulf between man and nature. Nature in most indigenous societies, including Polynesian, was immanent and universal. Rituals linking human activities with spirituality and the natural world attended every aspect of life, including surfing.

A surfer today, on the other hand, imagines himself crossing a frontier into the wilderness. Even those who embrace the concept of surfing as harmony with the earth necessarily conceive of nature as separate from humanity. The counterposition is only enhanced by representations of the sea as the ultimate Western frontier or as a realm of the sublime, since both concepts have historically been attached to ideas regarding the wilderness as beyond "man" and civilization. The irony here is that many surfers apparently enjoy romantic notions about the indigenous threads of surfing subculture (Hawaiian roots, technological simplicity of surfing, nomadic living) while they reproduce dualistic notions of nature which see it as a place of refuge from urban life. As I argued in Chapter VI, the theme of refuge and escape, embodied in the mythical island paradise, is central to surfing mythology.

For Yi-Fu Tuan (1974), the seashore and the island are two of the most basic of natural settings, with consistent appeal to the human imagination throughout history. Tuan traces our attachment to the seashore from the abundant resources it provided hunter-gather societies, to the emergence of seaside resorts in the 19th century, and eventually to today’s culture of beach recreation. However, many surfers argue that there is more to the attachment of surfers to their home breaks than this general human tendency. They suggest that there is something about surfing which allows surfers to uniquely connect with the earth. Mike Doyle, a former professional surfer writes in his autobiography Morning Glass that looking for good waves taught him a great deal about his environment (1993:22):

...it wasn’t enough to just know how to surf. You also had to understand the seasons, the weather, the swell direction, and the wind pattern...In order to be any good at this, you had to understand how your home planet works.

Aside from the great deal of time most surfers spend in the water, over many years, the argument that surfers are unwitting naturalists is buoyed by their attention to the details of the sea and seashore. Some surfers carry tide charts in their cars. Others make a hobby of surf prediction: they own weather radios, check the status of marine buoys on a regular basis, listen to National Weather Service marine forecasts. Still, others collect nautical charts and obsessively explore the coast. Thus, the argument is made that they are in tune to changes in the nearshore environment and are "naturally" inclined to environmentalism.

Daniel Duane’s essay Caught Inside (1996b) chronicles a year he spent surfing in northern Monterey Bay. While his book was originally intended as a cultural critique, Duane’s experiences in the water influenced the course of his writing and what emerged is more reminiscent of Thoreau than Baudrillard. Over the course of the book, while reflecting on surfing and culture, Duane details his emerging appreciation of the littoral landscape:

Unless you’re a strolling naturalist by nature, or a farmer or commercial fisherman or ranger, you need a medium, a game, a pleasure principal that turns knowing your home into passionate scholarship. City dwellers know nothing about neap tides or the topography of local reefs for the same reason few Americans know a second language: not out of moral or person weakness but because it doesn’t matter. (Duane 1996b:5)

The impassioned descriptions of seaside flora and fauna woven throughout the book are testimony to the attachment and knowledge engendered by Duane’s surfing experiences. While writing the book Duane was working on a dissertation in literature, not ecology, and had not previously been a surfer or a naturalist. Later Duane suggests that "a surf break can be a Walden Pond, a material synecdoche of all one finds mysterious and delightful about the world." (Duane 1996b:23). In this passage, Duane explicitly affiliates himself with Romantic conceptions of nature. For Duane surfing is about daily contact with "the inhuman vast" (p. 239), not mastery of a threatening beast. It is important to note that this approach to nature, while not immediately aggressive and dominating, still views wilderness as quite separate and feminine. This viewpoint can be traced directly to Thoreau’s ideas of wilderness, which took on both maternal and godly characteristics, thereby nourishing men’s souls which had been dulled by industrial life in the cities.

I am not arguing that surfing creates naturalists. I only argue that surfing is not always about competition, aggression, or macho courage. Instead, for many people it’s about joy, intimacy with the ocean, and a learning process. In Liquid Stage, a not-for-profit documentary (written by a surfer), we hear from surfers, young and old, who talk about friendship, sharing, beauty, art, lifetime commitment, and harmony. Old timers like Rabbit Kekai talk about days before "dog-eat-dog" attitudes in the water. Former professional surfer, Brad Gerlach, complains that competitiveness interferes with his "art." Others talk about the ocean teaching them to respect limits - their own and nature’s. Surfing is presented as a much less rigid or macho endeavor than in any of the commercial films I reviewed. Listen to Tom Morey, inventor of the Boogie Board, comment on the insights he has taken away from a life of surfing (Liquid Stage 1997):

Before surfing we didn’t have a metaphor for how to deal with everything ... I mean, we had baseball, we had chess to compete and in our schools we’re taught a lot of competition, man against man ... but we’re not taught much to go out into nature and respond to nature and what has happened as a result, for the most part mankind is holding on to all this crap. We built these buildings, we got sucked into that three little pigs story with ..uh .. the guys, the pigs, that built the brick house and didn’t let it blow down, but then got to live like pigs for the rest of their lives.

However, these supposedly environmental lessons reflect once again the contradiction involved in coding ourselves as somehow outside of nature. Tom Morey is a very rich man as the result of his involvement in the commodification of surfing culture. Morey’s and Duane’s idealistic views of human-nature interaction typify the urban preservationist’s worship of wilderness. Ironically, these romantic notions regarding surfing and nature require a distancing from the earth:

The dream of an unworked natural landscape is very much the fantasy of people who have never had to work the land [or sea] to make a living - urban folk for whom food comes from a supermarket or a restaurant...and for whom the wooden houses in which they live have no meaningful connection to the forests in which trees grow and die. (Cronon, cited in Proctor 1998:356)

Most surfers enjoy just this sort of fantasy. Their imagination of surfing as the crossing of the frontier into nature is complemented by their coding of surfing as a sublime and spiritual activity. "Stoke," the surfer’s term for the experience of surfing sublime, is now part of the American vernacular.


Many surfers discuss the spiritual side of surfing, often focusing on the immediate emotional thrill (‘stoke") they feel when riding waves. There is among surfers a firm belief ‘that the act of riding a wave is somehow different from anything else a person can do" (Hawk 1994:26). This notion runs throughout surfing discourse. Hawk, then editor of Surfer magazine, published an essay in Harper’s (1994) arguing that surfing is fundamentally different from other ways of interacting with nature. In no other activity do human beings ride waves of energy, he argues. An ocean wave consists of energy passing through water, much as sound passes through the air. Not until that wave interacts with the ocean bottom, slowing and overturning, does the water actually get displaced:

In the case of sound, a barrage of waves beats against your eardrum; your eardrum activates your auditory nerve; your auditory nerve sends a signal to your brain; your brain tells you to dance. Out in the surf, no such translation is needed. You can feel each undulation, each pulse of energy, as it moves through the universe. With a little practice, you can ride it. (Hawk 1994:27)

Duane’s work echoes these thoughts by extolling the intimacy and rhythm of surfing. He sees surfing as rapport, not confrontation. The sea presents surfers with an unpredictable, but not unagreeable, medium for natural reflection: "thus the appeal of the sea, a commitment to the mundane unknowable, a daily dose of the wild" (Duane 1996b:235). Moreover, the waves are impermanent and ever-changing. The surfer’s actions leave no trace, nor does the wave. A day spent surfing can be entirely ephemeral. There is often no audience and no record. Such arguments suggest that surfing is sublime, somehow more natural than other recreational activities.

However, such discussions, by counterposing the surfing experience to everyday life, demonstrate how clearly tied surfing discourse is to the traditional split between man and nature. Surfing for these authors is understood as primeval, despite the obvious human actor, the various rules, and the aesthetic and social status affiliated with the activity. Thus, even these more sensitive approaches to surfing are political. Furthermore, in the recorded images, the photographs and films, and books, surfing becomes tangible, historic, and ideological. In addition, the decision to embrace the surfing lifestyle reflects a particular intersection of values, status, and aspirations (Bourdieu 1986). Just as access to nature in America’s national park system is effectively limited by class relations, daily access to the ocean and surfing is restricted to those who find a way to live near the ocean or the time to travel to and from the beach. In the end the rejection of patriarchal norms, including the alienation of humanity from nature, is incomplete.

Even Duane, a particularly reflective and eloquent surf commentator, misses the irony of his romantic worship of seashore. Moreover, he focuses entirely on men in his work. The only woman mentioned in his books or articles is the girlfriend he alienates by pursuing surfing instead of more standard masculine responsibilities. Indeed, there are even deeply personal passages in Duane’s writings in which he reflects on his passion for surfing and its relationship to his masculinity. At one point, he describes a friend’s deception of his wife, in order to go surfing, as "a societal sickness...men feeling ashamed of all activity that didn’t directly benefit women and/or children" (Duane 1996b:169). In this and many other passages, it becomes clear that Duane believes surfers have to actively reject certain masculine norms surrounding work, achievement, and respect. Still, Caught Inside is a book for and about men. The ocean remains gendered - a nurturing, nourishing, often victimized, woman or a dangerous and unpredictable bitch. Duane can hardly be blamed for construing the ocean in these terms, for this is the heritage of European literature. Even as he struggles to question our society’s notions of masculinity, he is trapped by the metaphors which ring most true to his readers.

Thomas Farber, author, diver, surfer, and Fullbright Scholar, has published a series of essays and books which take his love of the ocean as their central theme. In the most recent, The Lure of the Deep (1998), Farber directly addresses the question of ocean gender:

Water, gender: sometimes the ocean is a dominatrix. Shrieking at the (male) surfer, "Get down here." Surfer tied, bound. At other times, water’s coy, saying to the surfer courting (her), "Go away, stop paying so much attention"...All the young males, waxing their sticks, each sculpted torso with built-in armor...Board-hard; surfer-hard...I ask Greg what gender the ocean is. He laughs: answer’s obvious. "Male and female," he says. "Or else it wouldn’t be there." (Farber 1998:28)

Throughout his books, Farber, like Duane tries to reinvent the metaphors we use to discuss the sea and yet returns most often to these sexual metaphors. These authors struggle to put new words to their ocean elation, but they cannot escape our shared ideological past and the ocean ultimately retains much of her patriarchal role of the beautiful, but fickle woman.

Still, these authors demonstrate that there is much more to the experiences and places of surfing than suggested by Hollywood’s images of macho surfer dudes - those simple "boys and their toys" (Massey 1995). Duane describes it best in those passages where he makes us see that, by surfing, many men become intimate in the world, reckoning with forces that they cannot, in the end, control. These experiences powerfully connect them to their local beaches, to the ocean itself, and teach them something about how to live a life that is more deeply felt. Duane comes to understand the lure of the beach for surfers as a commitment to place:

I understood why they [surfers] talked so often of the sheer number of boyhood summers spent playing in this water -- the way they’d truly grown up at this reef. They were saying what I would someday: "I am more a part of this life than most Americans are of any life anywhere, and that counts for something." (Duane 1996a:35)

These alternative views of nature and surfing places are repeated in the writings of many surfers and yet are rarely depicted in the media. Former professional surfer Mike Doyle sums up a lifetime of living near the ocean as a romance with coastal places:

It’s important for me to live in a place where I feel comfortable with the ocean, because when I’m in the ocean I feel in touch with nature. I’m able to understand the interconnectedness of all living things, the plant life, the fish, even the water. When I’m in the ocean I realize how insignificant my life is. And that fires in me the desire to live in harmony with other creatures. I think a lot the destructiveness in this world is a result of people losing touch with nature. (1993:237)

The highly aesthetic and mythic appreciation of wilderness these alternative surfers enjoy is an ethical improvement over the stridently destructive commercial themes which dominate the popular media. Still, these romantic images are often part of the process whereby society separates (and elevates) humanity from the earth, preventing the recognition that nature is now and always part of all human experience.

Landscape painters and novelists of the nineteenth century, including Thoreau, embraced an image of the Native American as Noble Savage. However, such romance and aesthetic appreciation did little to protect natives or landscapes. Americans powerfully romanticized Native American culture, even as they aggressively worked to have it removed and, eventually, exterminated. "Romance and rapacity are familiar partners", argue Katz and Kirby, the "strategies of domination and possession - mythologizing and aestheticization - are each forms of representation, deriving their power from the artifice of distance" (Katz and Kirby 1991:265). In other words, representations of sublime nature, which depend on a separate, pristine, inhuman landscape, serve to obfuscate the social construction of nature and reify society’s inordinate attention to uninhabited areas at the expense of the everyday environments which, naturally, all humans must everyday, all of the time, occupy. We continue to set aside tiny parcels of untouched land while plundering the rest and overlooking the human beings (and the material conditions of their lives) who occupy the places we consider despoiled and unnatural.



Because of my concern with the dominant images of surfing in the media I generally downplay the attitudes of individual surfers. My primary arguments, detailed in the previous chapters, are that the images of surfing predominant in the media generally serve ideological purposes and that these images are tied to particular representations of place. This focus on mainstream imagery obscures the variety of viewpoints in the subculture. After all, many surfers do not passively accept the roles assigned to them by the media. To the contrary, surfing often becomes a central part of the surfer’s identity and lifestyle, dominating a participant’s time and space to a remarkable extent. As a result, many surfers devise uniquely personal relationships with the sport that are diverse and difficult to categorize. In the previous chapters, I demonstrated that surfing is often used to encourage consumption of status-rich goods and the acceptance of particular notions of masculinity. By focusing on competition and aggression, third-world travel, and expensive fashion - the essentials of a modern consumer existence - representations of surfing become ideological tools. In media presentations, time and again, we are shown that any philosophy espoused by surfers is vacuous, criminal, or just plain silly. Gidget, Point Break, and Fast Times at Ridgemont High all make the same point: surfing is not to be taken seriously. In the end, the surfers are always brought back into society or destroyed; they are forced to find jobs, to go to jail, or they are killed by police or waves. Of course, these kinds of representations ignore and deny the often esoteric views held by actual surfers. Their ideas about society, reflected in concrete life choices and in their writings, have been successfully subordinated to more dominant American ideologies, but a careful reading of surfing literature demonstrates that a self-consciously resistant subculture always struggled to exist underneath the media hype. This resistance has in many cases taken the form of determined individualism and independence, while in others it has seemed downright xenophobic. The choice of a surfing lifestyle involves certain political contradictions. On the one hand, there is a partial rejection of mainstream values regarding work, scheduling, even income. On the other, membership in surfing subculture is likely to represent an investment in cultural capital. In fact, the commodification of surfing has made membership a more attractive social investment than ever before. This chapter analyzes how a handful of outspoken surfers have understood their relationship to mainstream culture and how this understanding translates into political action.

Radical Surfing?

Originally surfing was practiced by very few, thus it inevitably seemed outside of the mainstream. Until the 1960s, when surfing was popularized, there were few surfers, no surfing publications, and few surfing films. Many surfers in the 1950s even conceived of themselves as politically revolutionary. Interviews with these early American surf pioneers highlight a desire to buck the economic and social trends of the time. Mike Doyle, in his autobiography, Morning Glass, describes surfing in as an essential element in the formation of his identity in high school:

What thrilled us most of all, I think, was that we were thumbing our noses at the stifling Fifties mentality and getting away with it. We didn’t have to act like square football jocks...we had our own style now. The creative freedom and exhilaration we’d found in surfing was affecting our whole lives. (Doyle 1993:46)

Steve Pezman, publisher of The Surfer’s Journal, comments similarly on the Southern California surfers of the late 1950s in the 1996 surfing documentary, Liquid Stage:

My father.. was conditioned to get a good job and keep it at all costs and life was about being white-knuckled to an income...Well, as a surfer, it became apparent to us that those rules and that paranoia might not be worth worshipping for the rest of our lives...so we threw off the values of our parents and assumed all these postures which were the antithesis of our parents’ values, saying ‘Look, all your rules are theoretical constructs. They’re not necessarily the real rules.’

The life of a dedicated surfer, the daily waiting at the beach for waves, the nomadic travel, the sleeping in cars, was a far cry from the life of television’s Cleavers or the explosion of suburban and consumer comforts that dominated 1950s middle America. During that time there were no magazines, no movies, no commercial surf culture at all. There was only a small subculture reacting against the norms.

In addition, skillful surfing requires a dedication to nonproductive activities which does not rest well with American economic ideologies. The skills involved in surfing are complex, to put it mildly. Surfing conditions change constantly. Learning is a slow process for most. Months of daily practice are essential. Furthermore, "wave knowledge," or comprehensive information about the ocean and its ways, is required if one is to become at all accomplished. Moreover, surf occurs sporadically and seasonally. The surfer cannot structure the surf around his schedule. Instead he must structure his schedule around the surf. Even then, surf with good shape for riding may occur only a few times a year. If you are not there, you have missed it. Thus many surfers feel that they can not be tied to a forty or fifty hour, nine to five workweek. Former professional surfer Mike Doyle argues that:

surfing affects your lifestyle like no other sport I know of...The surf is only good at certain times - maybe three or four days a month. If you’re a serious surfer, you have to design your life around it. (1993:235)

Daniel Duane echoes this notion in a 1996 essay in the The New York Times Magazine, ‘surfing is a lifestyle, not a hobby - the surf is good when it is good, and you have to be available" (Duane 1996a:35). As a result, serious surfers have time and again sacrificed traditional economic and social success to the sport.

While the most famous surfers today can earn great sums of money the majority of surfers, who will never make a penny, have to make important concessions to the sport and the associated "lifestyle." This notion that surfing is a lifestyle and not a sport is common in the surfing discourse. While I previously argued that the term "lifestyle" is generally linked to consumption of particular types of goods, the spatial and temporal restrictions of surfing provide for many surfers the essential elements of the lifestyle. Thus, for many serious surfers this lifestyle is not simply an association with the appropriate status markers (clothing, brand names, travel destinations) but with the physical act of surfing and the requirement to live near the ocean and maintain a flexible work schedule. These requirements suggest that surfers at times transgress American norms. As a result some dedicated surfers suffer economically, hardly the consumption of status-rich commodities addressed by Bourdieu (1986). These surfers thus often act counter to dominant ideologies, resisting some of the trappings of mainstream culture.

Tim Cresswell’s (1996) use of the term transgression instead of resistance is useful in an analysis of surfing subculture. Cresswell’s primary problem with "resistance" is that it implies intent. Although a handful of surfers, especially in decades past, probably intended to change the system, it is primarily by breaking societies rules, crossing established boundaries that surfers become resistant. Cresswell demonstrates that such transgressions generally result in the definition of acts or people as deviant, which "clearly has a great deal to do with power...When groups come into conflict...one group generally has the power to define the other as deviant " (p. 25).

Surfing as Deviance

Surfing is, for some, truly an all-consuming pursuit. It is common knowledge that surfers will go to extremes to secure their time in the water. As dawn breaks along the California coast, at almost any surfing break in almost any town, one can spot the early risers floating offshore in the morning chill or sipping coffee and staring wistfully out to sea. Hollywood and the press generally portray these dedicated surfers as societal dropouts. We need only remember Jeff Spiccoli, the infamous surfer-doper in the 1982 film Fast Times at Ridgemont High, addressing his uptight teacher to be reminded of this interpretation of surfer philosophy: "Hey Dude, all I need is a righteous buzz and some tasty waves." Spiccoli spends much of his time stumbling about in a marijuana daze and generally comes across as a dope, albeit a likable dope. In fact, surfers in the late 1980s used the term "Spiccoli" to describe anyone who seemed to fit this stereotyped image of the single-minded surfer.

Such total commitment is rare. Still, many surfers find ways to dedicate months or even years to a passionate relationship with surfing and the ocean. Many more negotiate work, domestic relationships, space, and time in such a way as to make surfing a essential part of their identity year after year. If one is wealthy, this is a simple matter, but for most surfers such choices entail careful choices and even economic sacrifice.

Mike Doyle in his autobiography, Morning Glass (1993:68), tells us that he moved to Hawaii in 1959 and lived in "an old army barracks Quonset hut" on the North Shore with Buzzy Trent and Ricky Grigg, both of whom would, along with Mike Doyle, become famous surfers in the 1960s: "there was no furniture except a few old smelly mattresses thrown down on the floor" (p. 68), Doyle tells us. Doyle lived for years on the North Shore improving his surfing and winning contests. Throughout his life he was involved in a number of surfing related business schemes, but always quit if the work cut into his surfing time. Meanwhile, a number of his friends, including Tom Morey, inventor of the boogie board, rode surfing’s popularity to financial success. Doyle nearly became entwined in this commercial bonanza, "I was getting sucked down into that Southern California obsession with money, fast women, and manic parties, " he says (Doyle 1993:234). Instead he always walked away from business success in order to retain his freedom:

I’ve lived my whole life around the patterns of the ocean, and I’ve taken a lot of criticism for that. I’ve made a few women unhappy, I’ve made some employers unhappy, But I can’t help it, I’ve always known what my priorities are. (Doyle 1993:235)

Such autobiographies provide numerous examples of similar sacrifices. In 1960, Harry Hakman, father of professional surfer Jeff Hakman, left a good job in Southern California’s aircraft industry, sold his home in prestigious Palos Verdes, and took his wife and three kids to Hawaii, where he had no job prospects and few plans other than to surf. In Dan Duane’s Caught Inside we meet Vince, a full-time instructor of mathematics at the University of California, Santa Cruz, who has shaped much of his life since Vietnam around "a break and a sport Vince had been studying for thirty years" (Duane 1996b:89). To Duane, Vince’s intimate knowledge of the ocean, his dedication and skill, deserve respect. Instead, Duane laments, our society understands men like Vince as children who never grew up:

The whole world at work while this educated, middle-class adult walked the nose for a clean five, cut back into the foam, launched himself into the air...his whole professional and personal life organized around its demands. Promotions missed, tenure never a possibility, no pension or job security. (Duane 1996b:89)

The kinds of choices surfers make about work, income, scheduling, and where to live suggest that there is something in surfing that encourages transgression of certain dominant norms. Furthermore, the practice of surfing provides little in the way of accomplishment or achievement in the traditional sense. There is no goal, no box to check when finished. In addition there is no destination, no linear movement. The surfer exits his daily pursuit of pleasure at the same place as he started.

Hence, there is a cyclical quality to the surfing experience. There is something decidedly different about the accomplishments of surfing, something Eastern, even, in the search for brief moments of pleasure through repetition, dedication, and process. The surf arrives in repetitive sets which take their rhythm from distant storms and lunar cycles. Moreover, surf appears seasonally, following the long solar cycle. Even the riding of the wave itself is a cyclical process: paddle out, wait, turn and ride, then paddle out again, wait, turn and ride. It has no logical ending or beginning. Contrary to the big-wave obsessions discussed in Chapter VII, then:

A surf session is a small occurrence outside the linear march of time; sure you can catch your last wave, but rather than a natural conclusion to a well-lived tale, it will simply be the point at which the circle was snipped (Duane 1996b:114).

Many surfers come to understand surfing as meditation or process, not as conquest and immediate accomplishment. After all, over years of surfing, only a few hours are actually spent standing up riding waves, while most of one’s time is spent waiting, watching, and anticipating. Listen to retired professional, Mickey Munoz, in Liquid Stage (1996):

I’m out -- sitting out there alone. And I’m thinking ... this is what I need, this yoga of sitting and meditating and waiting for the wave, and then I realized that -- that surfing, for me, was the process of surfing, not the wave riding itself. That was only the icing on the cake ... The real meat of surfing is living life.

So, again, we see that there is something different about surfing which encourages the decision to forego the pursuit of more Western (rational, masculine, etc.) goals and instead pursue waves - ephemeral moments of experience. In some cases, surfers who embrace these alternative ideas have clashed with those who sought to commercialize the sport.

Soul Surfing

Starting with the rise of competitions in the 1960s, a conflict arose between the more aggressive and commercial ways of understanding surfing and these more personal and experiential views. A cleavage of the subculture appeared between surfers who thought of themselves as "soul surfers" and those who aspired to competition, commercialism, and professionalism. Very deliberate efforts to create professional surfing contests and associations were often met with outright hostility by self-appointed soul surfers.

The most influential of these early protesters was Mickey Dora, a charismatic Malibu surfer whose fame preceded the rise of contest surfing. Dora is infamous for various pranks and protests. He actually achieved much of his fame by condemning the commodification of surfing in surfing magazines and various nefarious stunts. In a Surfer Magazine advertisement, Dora publicly tossed into the garbage his 1966 Duke Kahanamoku 1st place contest trophy, calling it

scrap metal tokenism as a grubby little payoff to keep me in line and my mouth shut. Such outside pressures will never succeed in making me a lapdog for the entrenched controlling interests who have turned our once great individualistic sport into a mushy, soggy cartoon. (quoted in Duane 1996b:189)

Although Dora did stunt work for Ride the Wild Surf (1964), his refusal to compete or sell his name to sponsors prevented Dora from earning a living as a surfer. Starting in the late 1960s, Dora lived as an expatriate in South Africa, South America and Europe. At one point he was actually busted for passing bad checks in France and was deported. Most of his peers think he earned much of his living illegitimately (Doyle 1993). Sadly, Dora’s rebellion was often mixed with criminality and a distasteful territorialism that bordered on xenophobia. He was famous for aggressively haranguing outsiders at Malibu.

As contest surfing became a mainstay of the surfing scene in the 1970s a few voices continued to protest. A 1974 essay by Hawaiian big wave surfer Kimo Hollinger is fairly typical:

The system is like an octopus with long legs and suckers that envelop you and suck you down. The free and easy surfer, with his ability to communicate so personally and intensely with his God, is conned into playing the plastic numbers game with the squares, losing his freedom, his identity, and his vitality, becoming a virtual prostitute. (Hollinger 1975:40)

Dora’s and Hollinger’s viewpoints are admittedly extreme, but they share with many others the opinion that competition and commercialization have changed the sport for the worse. In a 1988 special edition of Surfer, entitled The Changing Shades of Soul, the editors interviewed twenty of the most famous surfers, men and women, young and old, about soul surfing (which the magazine said "lies opposite commercialization, greed, and ego"). The responses included predictable statements of support for competitive surfing from professional surfers and product manufacturers, but some of the responses pointed to the continued conflict between commercial marketing and the everyday experience of most surfers. The current world champion on the pro tour, Damien Hardman, said that "Everyone surfs to get better now, to get results, where in the old days everyone surfed just because they enjoyed it" (p. 80). Big wave surfer Mark Foo got right to the point. Competition, he said, "provides a tangible way to measure somebody’s marketability. It makes the sport viable to the mainstream..." (p. 85). Drew Kampion, an author of surfing publications, responded somewhat mysteriously that "competition is designed to organize the brains of those who need to have their brains organized" (p. 83). Many of the respondents argued that competitions bring out the worst in surfers, making them more aggressive and greedy.

Of course, Surfer did not interview true soul surfers, the men (and women) who surf for its own sake, without any audience or hope of fame or fortune. The everyday experience of surfing has little to do with the images generated by the commercial marketing apparatus. In Liquid Stage (1997), publisher Steve Pezman notes that the photographs in surfing magazines overwhelmingly depict the roughly one thousand people worldwide who enter surfing contests, whereas the vast majority of surfers will never enter a surfing contest.


Much of the soul surfing mystique revolves around the notion of escape. The standard fantasy of escape to a deserted island, so embraced by the surfing subculture, is just one of a whole package of escapist themes in the surfing discourse. Mickey Dora, the infamous protester against commercialism, in the film Surfers, The Movie, sums up his entire life in escapist terms:

My whole life is this escape, my whole life is this wave I drop into...and shoot for my life, going for broke, man, and behind me, all the shit goes over my back...the screaming parents...screaming teachers, police, priests, politicians...they’re all going over the falls head first...into the fucking reef...Buow! And I’m shooting for my life and when it starts to close out I pull off the bottom out to the back and I pick off another one and do the same goddamn thing (quoted in Duane 1996b).

But even the politically tamest of everyday surfers has imagined surfing as escape. It is easy to imagine civilization as restricted to the land on the other side of the waves. Sitting offshore, society’s problems and rules seem to wash away. These escapist thoughts represent at least a temporary and partial rejection of society, but the rejection is rarely effective and never complete. In every case, surfers hang on to some of the most traditional and oppressive elements of the culture they reject. The traveling surfer imagines himself beyond the reach of Western culture, but is often a tool for commercial and territorial expansion of the very culture he flees. The big wave surfer may imagine himself as extraordinary and unique, but he is acting out standard macho fantasies. Finally, even the radical soul surfer can only escape such norms to a very limited degree, because the desire to be affiliated with surfing inevitably overlaps with the ideological implications of lifestyle (and thus the xenophobia, territoriality, and machismo of surfing).

Surfing, Rebellion, and Class

The discourse surrounding surfing and surf culture is replete with references to the "surfing lifestyle." There is a surprising uniformity of symbolic themes. They are necessarily the result of a long process of commodification acting upon the ideas, products, and activities surrounding surfing in America. Lifestyles are collections of decisions about identity which represent an individual’s attempts to map out favorable stylistic positions within a framework wherein the leveraging of style and taste may be as important as the investment of economic capital (Shurmer-Smith and Hannam 1994). The prevalence of surf wear throughout the United States is certainly a clear example of this: an attempt by consumers to associate themselves with surfing, Southern California, and the predominant ideas (i.e. leisure, health, sex appeal) that these realms imply. By dressing like a surfer you may very well be attempting to leverage the associated connotations to your cultural advantage.

What then is the relationship between the commodification of surfing and social class? Surfing is primarily a sport of the middle and upper classes and, thus, reflects class specific ideology and desires. In addition, Western surfing increasingly engages the periphery, where nearly any surfer occupies a place in the global elite, relative to his peripheral hosts.

However, many of the early American surfers, though often wealthy, were in some limited way protesters, drop-outs, or rebels . They rejected much of the ideology of their native upper-class upbringing in favor of an aesthetic and spiritual ideology derived from ancient Polynesian tradition and fueled by emerging radicalism in American culture. Of course, this rejection was often incomplete and a bourgeois attitude towards the sport persists, though I argue that this is partly the result of successful commodification.

Moreover, the mass marketing of surfing necessarily expands the ranks of surfers, making the sport less elitist within American culture. In this way, surfing is, to some degree, democratized. A concomitant result is the development of a more homogenized, largely depoliticized surf culture. In addition, the success of surfing commodification brings many potential rebels into a powerful economic system, pacifying alternative voices with monetary rewards. Yesterday’s outsiders are in some cases today’s surf industry moguls. Among the young surfers who predominate at the beaches, the evidence of this class bias is probably most obvious in the localism that is rampant (and sometimes violent) along California’s coast.

Localism and Xenophobia

The rapid growth of surfing as a sport and industry since the 1960s has contributed to significant crowding at most of California’s surf spots. The Surf Industry Manufacturers Association estimated in 1996 that more than 750, 000 active surfers lived in California. Aggressive territorialism is common. Graffiti at popular surf spots declare "Locals Only" and "Kooks Keep Out." In some instances crowding has even led to violence. Locals tend to see themselves as threatened by "Valleys," the weekend surfers who drive to the coast from California’s inland valleys. In general the "Valleys" are of more limited economic means, unable as they are to afford to live right at the coast. Hence, the hostility towards outsiders is tied to style and class, with locals inhabiting a somewhat higher status. Again, Mickey Dora perhaps best exemplifies the contradiction between radicalism and xenophobia, demonstrating how tied to surfing subculture is to particular racial and economic biases.

While Dora is famous for his outspoken rejection of the commodification of surfing, he is also notorious for rejuvenating a surfing subculture fascination with the swastika. For a number of years he sported Nazi paraphernalia and surfed Swastika surfboards. He even played tennis once with Mike Doyle in Beverly Hills while wearing a Nazi helmet and an army trench coat covered with German war medals (Doyle 1993). Dora came from a wealthy Malibu upbringing and his protests were primarily aimed at protecting the aesthetic position his class had carved out for surfing. This kind of rebellion, while clearly a type of protest, is tied to ideologies which are reactionary, not revolutionary.


Dick Hebdige, in Subculture: The Meaning of Style (1979), argues that alternative subcultures are dealt with in one of two ways. Either they are appropriated via commodification or they are construed as deviant. The language of deviance, even disease, is used to deliminate social boundaries. Hegemonic ideologies, as Gramsci understood them, exist as taken-for-granted notions about behavior and place. In order to determine what kinds of behavior are acceptable and unacceptable in a place society draws attention to those that cross the boundaries of the acceptable. At first, alternatives are deemed deviant so that they may be actively discouraged, even legislated against (See Mitchell 1995, on the homeless). Later, and often more successful, attempts at control often result in commercial appropriation of a subculture’s style. The most successful of these processes actually bring radicals into the system through economic empowerment. Always they dilute the message of protest. Hence, those elements of the surfing subculture which are most threatening have been consistently suppressed by commercial interests in an attempt to make surfing more marketable. Many of these efforts were deliberate. For example, Fred Hemmings, who organized most of the early surfing competitions and founded the Association of Surfing Professionals, describes how he worked tirelessly to create a profitable surfing industry by cementing major television contracts and increasing the available prize money. In his rambling account of a life in the surfing industry, The Soul of Surfing is Hawaiian, Hemmings (1997) boasts that his efforts, including his endorsement of the now mandatory drug testing for competitive surfers, helped to create a "responsible" sport. In one section, he derides what he calls "the bad boy sell" whereby "commercial interests have used anti-establishment-in-your face [sic] marketing to sell their products" (1997:117). In a blatant attack on Mickey Dora, Hemmings says "...this guy was a small-time con man and ripped people off regularly...it always amazes me that some surfers give the finger to the "establishment" and then complain that the establishment does not go out of its way to help surfing." Apparently what bothers Hemmings is not commercialism, but only commercialism which includes anti-establishment messages.

Many surfers have tried to resist these mainstream messages and the few published biographies of dedicated surfers reveal the unique solutions and iconoclastic philosophies that have emerged as a result of the nearly continuous tension between commercialism and the everyday experience of the sport, which is rooted in coastal places and their natural cycles. But surfing, as an independent and radical subculture, represented a threat to the Protestant work ethic, to the middle-class contract, to those who believe in constant growth for its own sake. There are many elements of the subculture which did not rest well with Western, capitalistic ideology. A waitress at the beginning of the film Big Wednesday makes the point clearly:

"You damned delinquents are going to have to settle down someday and get a respectable job," she tells the surfers.

"But we’re well respected surfers," they reply.

"Shit," she says, "the sport’s a disease."

As Cresswell (1996) noted, deviance is a device of social control.

Commercial forces have been very successful at bringing surfing culture into the mainstream and exorcising radical messages in the subculture. Still, autobiographies, interviews, and the sheer number of dedicated surfers who have made sacrifices in order to pursue the sport suggest that elements of an alternative ideology persist. If nothing else, surfing promotes both pleasure and the importance of place to members of a culture that increasingly works longer and harder and moves rapidly in search of economic opportunity. Mike Doyle feels that this is his most important contribution to his readers:

I think too many people feel guilty about enjoying themselves. I think the world would be a lot happier place if everybody spent a little time every day doing something they really loved. If there’s one thing I’ve learned, one thing I can tell people that might be useful for them, it’s this: It’s okay to have fun (Doyle 1993:235).

Yet, we must remember that surfing is today clearly tied to class and style. Furthermore, these class positions entail particular types of political action. Surfers are not an oppressed group, despite the voluntary sacrifices some make. They are highly independent and any protest they engage in is generally through transgression of norms regarding work and time. In addition, few actively protest at all. Surfing is no longer a sport of outcasts and children, it is a popular style of recreation marketed to the masses. The forces of commodification have largely silenced those who understood surfing as something more than a recreation and escape from work.

The only organized and sustained political action by surfers in the U.S. has been accomplished by the Surfrider Foundation, an environmental watchdog group whose members now number over 25,000 (Rodgers 1996). A discussion of Surfrider’s most recent success, Pratte’s Reef, is a fitting conclusion to this investigation of surfing politics because it demonstrates how notions of class and politics intersect with concepts of nature and gender.

Pratte’s Reef

In an ironic twist on the middle class nature aesthetic of surfing, Surfrider Foundation is helping to construct the world’s first manmade surfing reef in urban Los Angeles. Chevron Corporation is footing the bill as part of mitigation for the loss of a surfing break caused by a protective groin erected in 1986. Ferocious waves during the 1983 El Nino battered the coast offshore of El Segundo, removing protective sand from pipelines connecting an offshore oil terminal and a refinery on land, leaving the pipeline vulnerable to continued large surf. To protect the pipeline, Chevron built a 900-foot-long concrete groin in 1986 and deposited 750,000 cubic yards of sand on the newly created shoreline. Surfers at the time, including the project’s namesake Tom Pratte, protested that the groin would destroy a popular El Segundo beach break by depriving it of necessary sand. Meanwhile, Pratte and Surfrider successfully persuaded the California Coastal Commission to classify surf spots as "coastal resources." This action grants surf spots the same legal status as any other environmental or recreational resource along California’s coast. After years of legal disputes, Chevron settled the matter by handing over $300,000 to the State Coastal Conservancy to restore the site.

The ironic possibility now exists of reefs becoming mobile and surfers more sedentary. One of the reef designs under investigation consists of hollow concrete sections which can be filled with air and moved back into position when large winter surf dislodges the reef. In theory, the surf can now be brought to the surfer. There are other ironic implications of the Pratte’s Reef project. Some critics oppose the reef project, fearing that success will lead to a profusion of such reefs and the loss of natural reefs. Companies, they argue, will seek to justify destructive new coastal projects by promising to create more reefs elsewhere. Recognizing this threat, Surfrider, in August 1997, voted to remove language from the organization’s original charter calling for it to actively "enhance" surfing sites. This is just another example of the absurd logic of mitigation which suggests that society can restore and replace natural areas.

In addition, the debate over natural versus artificial reefs in El Segundo highlights the absurdity of our conceptions of the natural world. Very little remains "natural" about El Segundo’s beaches. If the reef is completed, surfers will paddle out to a man-made reef and look back on a paved coastline, replete with the first crude oil refinery in Los Angeles and the West Coast’s largest sewage treatment plant. In any case, California’s beaches have been diminishing for many decades as the result of widespread damning and the redistribution of water in California (which both remove sand from beach systems). As a result, Dave Skelly, the engineer in charge of the construction of Pratte’s Reef argues that many of the best surfing spots in California occur where we have built groins, jetties, and piers:

"if we want to have beaches in Southern California, it’s clear to me that we’re going to have to build them...if we took out all the piers and groins, we’d probably eliminate 50 percent of all the good surfing spots in California" (quoted in Rodgers 1998b:B4).

Hence, we see here again the conflict between romantic visions of nature and the reality of widespread human induced change and control. Given the extent of our manipulation, "natural" beaches will require constant human supervision, much as the "natural" flora and fauna of our national parks now routinely need human care to ensure their survival. The masculine control of nature, which Surfrider believes damaged the planet, is now being replaced by romanticized supervision of nature and the creation of simulated surf spots. Surfrider aims to protect "natural" beaches and surf breaks which long ago ceased to exist except in the imaginings of an overworked urban elite.



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American Graffiti, 1973. George Lucas (Director). Youth coming of age picture was a light-hearted mosaic of sex, drugs, and rock and roll.

Apocalypse Now, 1979. Francis Ford Coppola (Director). Vietnam war film includes Robert Duvall as deranged surfer Colonel Kilgore.

Big Wednesday, 1978. John Milius (Director). Epic surf story set at Malibu during the 1960s. Includes Pipeline Master, Gerry Lopez as himself. Focuses on three friends and the changes in surfing culture during this troubled time.

Bill and Ted's Excellent Adventure, 1989. Stephen Herek (Director). The shopping mall and consumerism play an important role in this goofy film about two adolescent airheads who travel through time.

Bonnie and Clyde, 1967. Arthur Penn (Director). Stylish film set in 1930s set the standard for crime flicks.

California Dreaming, 1978. John Hancock (Director). Standard Hollywood view of surfers as deadbeats and drop-outs.

Cat on a Hot Foam Board, 1959. Bud Browne (Director). Early low budget independent surf film.

Easy Rider, 1969. Dennis Hopper (Director). Low budget film about alienated youth traversing America.

Endless Summer, 1966. Bruce Brown (Director and Narrator). The first popular film by a surfer. Mike Hynson and Robert August search the world for endless and perfect waves. Arguably the ‘shot heard round the world" for surf travelers.

Endless Summer II, 1996. Bruce Brown (Director). Brown revisits the world of surfing after the short board revolution with another round-the-world jaunt.

Fast Times at Ridgemont High, 1982. Amy Heckerling (Director). Based on the book by Cameron Crowe. Stars Sean Pean as a dopey San Diego surfer.

Five Summer Stories, 1972. McGillivray and Freeman (Directors). Groovy coverage of North Shore Hawaii set the standard for 1970s surf films.

Free Ride, 1978. Bill Delaney (Director). A solid example of the surf film genre with a 1970s approach.

Gidget, 1959. Paul Wendkos (Director). The first and best of the Gidget series, starring Sandra Dee and Cliff Robertson. Led to five sequels and two television spin-offs. This is the film that many argue started America’s fascination with the mythical Southern California lifestyle.

Goin' Surfin', 1973. Bud Browne (Director). High quality photography and the music of Dave Brubeck made this standard surf film a standout.

In God’s Hands, 1998. Zalman King (Director). Competitive men challenge Nature’s biggest waves amidst generic "foreign" backdrops.

The Graduate, 1967. Mike Nichols (Director). The now landmark classic rite-of-passage film.

Liquid Stage: The Lure of Surfing, 1997. Michael Bovee (Director and Writer). Public television documentary on surfing portrays the artistic and less competitive side of surfing.

Morning of the Earth, 1972. Albert Falzon (Director). Psychedelic Australian surf film with environmentalist overtones filmed in Australia, Bali, Hawaii.

Pacific Vibrations, 1970. John Severson (Director). Depicted surfing as a valid and natural lifestyle.

Point Break, 1991. Kathryn Bigelow (Director). Popular crime flick portrays Southern California surf culture as violent, criminal and sexy.

Porky's, 1981. Bob Clark (Director). Racy, low-budget adolescent rite-of-passage film set in South Florida.

Rambo: First Blood Part II, 1985. George P. Cosmatos (Director). The quintessential example of the violence that comes to be central in action films during the 1980s.

Red Dawn, 1984. John Milius (Director). Conservative, violent film revolves around the ludicrous possibility of a Cuban invasion of the United States.

Ride the Wild Surf, 1964. Jana Film Enterprises. Macho competition and romance at Waimea Bay.

Surfers, The Movie. 1990. Bill Delaney (Director). Two hours of interviews and surfing from the most famous surfers of the previous three decades.

The Terminator, 1984. James Cameron (Director). Futuristic science fiction featured Arnold Schwarzenegger as violent cyborg.






I am a surfer. Thus, far from being an objective study of a foreign culture, this thesis is a work of passion, an investigation undertaken from within a community which is familiar and personal. Furthermore, I am a white male. Though my parents were both educators and hence had incomes similar to, and at times lower than, those of the working class, I always possessed cultural capital, opportunities provided to me via social networks and education. I have generally thought of myself as empowered. As a result of all of this advantage, it has taken deliberate effort to confront the role assigned to me by society and politics.

While society’s categorization of me as a white middle class male opens up many possibilities for me, it also rigidly delimits my role in society. There are strict expectations placed upon each of us based on the social construction of categories such as race, class, and gender. Thus, as a white, middle-class, male, I am expected to do many things: achieve financial success, work hard, be "productive". With regard to gender and personality there are many more expectations. I must be conventionally masculine: have a passion for sports, never cry. These are just some of the multitude of assumptions we make about the category "white middle class male," the complete list is nearly endless and quite familiar.

Part of the motivation behind this thesis, then, is a desire to confront and contest these kinds of simplistic assumptions. The essence of prejudice is just this type of reductionism, the attributing of multiple characteristics to individuals based upon a single category of perceived sameness, such as race, sex, or age. Culture functions at an epistemic level to create these rigid categories of meaning. As Shurmer-Smith and Hannam remark in their cultural geography text, culture acts by "endlessly generating and breaking down groups of people who see themselves as more or less temporarily "the same" (1994, p. 6). Consequently, my membership is with a number of quite "normal" groups: white, male, middle-class, straight, etc. My personal struggle is to confront how these categories, among others, shape me. But what does all of this have to do with surfing? The answer to that question for me lies in my use of surfing as a limited act of resistance to the roles I felt had been assigned to me by society. Surfing has been a part of my life since the morning of April 11, 1994. The story of this development tells much about how and why this thesis came to exist.

In 1992 I graduated from an Ivy League university. Only then, after graduation, did I reflect upon what this might mean for my future. Stumbling into and through college like so many other young people, college didn’t seem like a bad way to spend a few years. After college ended, I accepted the first highly paid job I was offered. This shortsightedness quickly led to misery and soul searching. Within a few months I had decided that the work most of us do every day, all day becomes the essence of our lives. We become our work, particularly if we follow the model which prescribes forty (and more recently fifty or sixty) hour work weeks for many decades. Reluctantly, I realized that in structural terms I was not so much an individual but a commodity, whose time was for sale in a market economy. While hardly novel, this realization was a shock to my naively idealistic young heart. I could hardly imagine myself spending the next thirty or forty years counting sales receipts and attending strategy meetings. Most of what I saw around me in the so-called "business" world seemed to be shaped around corporate attempts to increase consumption, particularly of nonessential luxury goods. Sixty hours each week I was locked into a society whose rules and conventions struck me as odd and often absurd. Within six months I was determined to leave New York and the corporate world. This process greatly clarified my values. Confusion and pain led to discoveries about myself. As I will soon make clear, these revelations led me to the West, to California, and to surfing.

In retrospect, my choices after abandoning New York say much about my emerging values. Reacting against the idea that my time and my mind were for sale, I moved to the beach in California and proceeded to seek out work which did not overly tax my mind or my time. A position with Santa Barbara’s parking staff allowed me to read on the clock. Later, as a tent salesman at the Santa Cruz flea market two days a week, I learned to slow down. For many months I drove a delivery truck half-time. All of these jobs allowed me to survive and at the same time focus my mental energies on the ideas which interested me most. This kind of self-centered activity is generally considered indulgent. I was constantly being asked to justify my lifestyle. Friends and acquaintances argued that I was "not contributing to society" or that I was being selfish to think I should find fulfillment in life and work. Others suggested that I was simply lazy. Strangely enough, if I had been working sixty hours a week in order to acquire the goods and services which are considered so important in middle class America, most of these people would have praised my actions, or at least not openly criticized them. It is my view that we foolishly revere consumption, and its concomitant submission to society, over self-expression, identity, and even justice. This position was inconceivable to most of my critics.

While my actions were largely motivated by personal desires and an interest in my own spiritual fulfillment, they can hardly be seen as strictly beneficial. Among the many costs of these decisions were financial hardship, lack of medical care, loss of status and respect in most circles, and almost no access to political or other realms of power.

It was in this context of personal experimentation with lifestyles and work that I discovered surfing and the surfing subculture. My newly discovered enthusiasm for surfing was ironic because, for most of my life, I had dismissed surfing out of hand, despite having been deeply impressed as a child by the romantic imagery of surfing and the equally magical mythology surrounding California. Surfing and surfers struck me as rich kids with too much time on their hands. Furthermore, the individual surfers I had met portrayed surfing as a high-status club with very limited membership and nearly transcendent benefits. This seemed both arrogant and unlikely.

Such mythology is often repeated in the media’s representation of surfing. Surfers are somehow different. The sport is dangerous, heroic, even transcendent. An outsider, we are told, simply wouldn’t understand. Thus, for the most part, surfers appeared to be self-important and vacuous, if still somewhat mysterious. Only later, after living by the ocean for more than a year and interacting with surfers almost daily, did I come to realize that my characterization of surfers and surfing was rigid and naive. It turns out that surfers, of course, are a relatively diverse group of people possessing innumerable personalities and approaches to surfing. And yet the mythologies of surfing, both external and internal, are part of every surfer’s identity, just as they are for me. It is telling that the first time I walked down the street carrying a surfboard I felt a sense of triumph, even superiority, like a newly christemed member of the church. The current media and marketplace obsession with surfing style attests to the power of these myths.

My academic interest in surfing stems partly from this tendency for surfing to become so vitally important as an aspect of identity and lifestyle. Like so many others seduced by surfing and the lifestyle it represents, my life was soon structured around the activity. It was deliberate and, yet, also necessary. To become a competent surfer requires months of daily practice. Consequently, jobs fell victim to the passion. I became almost religious in my commitment to time spent in the water, surfing daily for six months. Soon, I moved to Santa Cruz, an area known for its surf and surf culture. Taking whatever work came along to survive, I saved my money, surfing the big winter swells of the North Pacific on my days off and in the early mornings. Once there was enough money saved to finance a trip to Costa Rica, surfing’s current Mecca, I packed my bags and shipped out to the less developed world looking for all of the adventure, mystery, and exotic knowledge promised by the mythology. Instead, issues of international politics, international development, the media, and culture occupied my waking thoughts, while surfing dominated my dreams.

The picture of my past that I just painted, like all history and memory, is selective and constructive. The rational and emotional bases of my actions were not as clear to me at the time as I necessarily presented them here, but the story, and my understanding of it, should help to explain my interest in and involvement in the topic. At the most fundamental level, these essays are motivated by conflicts which have arisen in my mind about the meaning of surfing, as well as what my lifestyle choices say about me and the society in which I exist. By focusing on the surfing subculture and its relationship to the wider world, I came to see that specific myths resonate throughout the surfing subculture. These myths are too often taken for granted, both by surfers and by those outside of surfing.














In this lengthy investigation of surfing I said much about gender, but little about women. I cited feminist literature and yet the question, "Where are the women?", would go unanswered until now. The absence can be defended, to a degree. My concern is with the predominant myths and images in the surfing subculture. These have rarely involved women. While women have always surfed and there has been a women’s professional surfing tour since the 1970s, women were largely excluded from the inner circles of the sport and are still noticeably absent in the water. The famous female surfers of the past - Marge Calhoun, Lynn Boyer, and Margo Oberg, to name a few - were exceptions to the rule, winning limited fame and little or no income. Today a number of women surfers including Kim Mearing, Pam Burridge, and Layne Beachley, among others, are making a living at the sport, though they earn far less than there male counterparts. Throughout the history of American surfing, women served primarily as visual objects or members of an adoring public, particularly from the predominantly male point of view. Their role was to sit on the beach and watch or cheer. The waves remained a male realm, generally off limits to women. Obviously myths about the danger of surfing, and the strength and skill supposedly necessary for surfing contributed to this phenomenon, not to mention society’s general prejudice against women in sports.

Despite all of the above, the popularity of women’s surfing underwent a dramatic boom during the two and a half years that I worked on this project. There are now magazines (Wahine) and retail stores targeted directly to the female surfer. Quicksilver, the largest producer of surfing clothing and products, reports that in 1999 they expect Roxy, their recently formed women’s division, to surpass all other divisions combined in sales.

At first glance this would suggest that there has been a dramatic influx of women into the ranks of the sport. However, women’s surfing trunks and bikinis represent the largest segment of these sales. Few surfboards are sold to women by Quicksilver. The changes appear to be largely a successful marketing ploy and not representative of any radical change in the composition of the surfing population. While sales of women’s surfing apparel skyrocket, the number of women in the water is little changed. Of course, the increased visibility of women surfers, who are used now in the advertisements will influence young girls and we can expect growth in their numbers. But, as of yet, much of the growth is simply a consumer fashion trend.

Furthermore, it remains to be seen whether increased participation by women will actually change the macho elements of the subculture. In order to be accepted today, female surfers have to overcome any perceived femininity. Articles praise the top women pros for their strength and "aggressive" style. Gidget Kicks Ass, a 1996 article in Outside Magazine chronicling the career of top female surfer Lisa Anderson, is indicative (Sherril 1996). Anderson is described as the first woman surfer to surf in a truly modern, aggressive manner. She is hailed as a heroine who opened the door to competitive surfing for many other women. Apparently women will have to be as aggressive and competitive as the men if they are to enter into the commercial success of the sport as anything other than consumers or sex objects. The full story of how women surfers have had to fight, and are still fighting, to enter this male realm is a fascinating one, but is an entirely different thesis. Still, the exclusion of women from the sport is yet another example of the spatial foundations of ideology. Ever since the missionaries successfully dismantled ancient Hawaiian surfing practices, women have seemed "out of place" in the surf zone. Surfing’s revival was a male endeavor and was aided by masculine literary figures, including Melville, Twain, and London. All of this helped to solidify the notion that the surf zone was a male realm and surfing a masculine occupation. Let us not forget that there is no reason why women should not be equally involved in the sport. Moreover, by the same logic, there is no particular type of man best suited for the sport. Such exclusionary and xenophobic ideas persist only in order to reify difference. As Yi-Fu Tuan notes, water sports, in some cultures, serve as a democratizing force because "in the water the sexes differ little in ability, when that they could participate as equals in the work and in enjoying water sports" (Tuan 1974:116).














The Southern California surfer is one of the most recognizable and enduring icons of late twentieth century America. Depictions of surfers generally focus on international travel, big wave surfing, or counterculture elements of a "beach bum" lifestyle. This thesis utilizes critical qualitative methods to investigate surfing as a distinctly masculine subculture, focussing in particular on the intersection of ideas regarding commodification, gender, mobility, and nature in media depictions of surfing "lifestyle." Films, magazine articles, and autobiographies are interrogated in light of neoMarxist, feminist, and postcolonial theory. The ideological messages embedded in the discourse surrounding surfing are linked to the successful transformation of surfing from a ritual aspect of ancient Polynesian culture to an important commodity in today’s global marketplace. A central element of the surfing subculture is the international "search for the perfect wave." It is argued that the surfer’s obsessive quest for solitary experience of tropical paradise represents a kind of neocolonialism, extending the reach of Western culture and encouraging self-serving depictions of the less developed world. Moreover, media depictions of surfing rely on traditionally patriarchal conceptions of masculine identity which serve to reify mainstream approaches to nature, gender, and mobility.