A Thesis Presented to the
In Partial Fulfillment of the Requirements for the Degree
Master of Arts in Geography
Michael Alan Reed
TABLE OF CONTENTS
III. LITERATURE REVIEW
IV. HISTORY AND ORIGINS OF SURFING SUBCULTURE
VI. THE DISCOURSE OF SURF TRAVEL: THE SEARCH FOR THE PERFECT WAVE
VII. MEN AND WAVES: CONFRONTING MOTHER NATURE
VIII. SURFING: LIFESTYLE OF RESISTANCE OR CONSENSUS?
A. REFLECTIONS ON AUTHORITY: MY RELATIONSHIP WITH SURFING
B. SURFER GIRLS: CHANGING DEMOGRAPHICS IN SURFING SUBCULTURE?
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
Once inside I found a seemingly perfect
place to reflect upon surfing and its relation to globalization: a beachfront
cafe with a
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
The idea was a hit and he opened eight
locations in the
Here is an intriguing reversal of nineteenth
century imperialism. Surfing, which originated in ancient
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
After a day in the city we took a six hour
bus ride to the west coast town of
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
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,
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
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.
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.
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
Surfing in the
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
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
Violent and Aggressive
Work (Masculine) or Play (Feminine)
Spiritual and Cyclical
Rational and Linear
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.
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
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
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.
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
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
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
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
Surfing apparently originated in Polynesia
when the ancestors of the Polynesians and other Pacific Islanders started to
move eastward out of
The role of surfing in pre-contact
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.
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
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
"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
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
The origins of a revolution that would
change surfing from a largely Hawaiian sacred act into a haole recreation can
be traced to
At the turn of the century the
During his visit to
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
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)
During the first three decades of the
twentieth century surfing became a recognized part of the image of
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
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
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,
It was during this period of press promotion
and tourism that surfing spread to
again throughout the subsequent spread of surfing. It was
actually three Hawaiian princes attending military academy in
It was George Freeth who successfully transferred the
idea of surfing to
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
The construction and occupation of beach huts by
Shortly after the emergence of San Onofre as
a center of surfing culture, a new spot was discovered just north of
When this emerging beach culture was
Gidget is the film that most dramatically changed everything for
While the rest of
Bruce Brown introduced The Endless Summer
in 1964 in
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
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
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
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
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.
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
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 (
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.
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
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
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
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
In 1964, Vietnamese torpedo boats
The Endless Summer (1963) stands in the middle of the divide between the
1950s and 1960s. Released just a year before
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
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
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.
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
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.
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.
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
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
"...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
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
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
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
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
The film’s next act, "the West
Swell" depicts the destruction of this early
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
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
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;
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.
This 1991 film revisits the popular
police-crime genre, but adds a surfing twist by sending the hero, FBI agent
Johnny Utah, undercover into
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
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
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
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
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
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
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.
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
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."
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
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
By way of contrast, in
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
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
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
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
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
The next stop is
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
At three different points in the journey,
the narrator leaves Mike and Robert to visit big wave spots in
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
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
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
Their story begins with a fast trek south
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
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
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
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
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.
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
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
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
On their next trip to Latin America,
Naughton and Peterson explore
Like the beaches of
The imagination of this
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
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
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
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.
"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
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.
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
As a construction
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
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.
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
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:
pressure of imagery in
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
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
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
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
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
... 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.
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
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
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
Bombarded as we are by ideas of masculinity
in surfing, it is easy to forget that in ancient
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
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
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
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.
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
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
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 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
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
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.
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
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
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).
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
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
The rapid growth of surfing as a sport and
industry since the 1960s has contributed to significant crowding at most of
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
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.
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
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
"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.
Wednesday, 1978. John Milius (Director). Epic surf story set at
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.
Cat on a Hot Foam Board, 1959. Bud Browne (Director). Early low budget independent surf film.
Rider, 1969. Dennis Hopper (Director). Low
budget film about alienated youth traversing
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.
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Summer Stories, 1972. McGillivray and Freeman
(Directors). Groovy coverage of
Free Ride, 1978. Bill Delaney (Director). A solid example of the surf film genre with a 1970s approach.
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
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.
of the Earth, 1972. Albert Falzon (Director). Psychedelic Australian
surf film with environmentalist overtones filmed in
Pacific Vibrations, 1970. John Severson (Director). Depicted surfing as a valid and natural lifestyle.
Break, 1991. Kathryn Bigelow (Director). Popular crime flick
Bob Clark (Director). Racy, low-budget adolescent rite-of-passage film set in
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.
Dawn, 1984. John Milius (Director). Conservative, violent film
revolves around the ludicrous possibility of a Cuban invasion of the
Ride the Wild
Surf, 1964. Jana
Film Enterprises. Macho competition and romance at
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
In retrospect, my choices after abandoning
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
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
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).
The Southern California surfer is one of the
most recognizable and enduring icons of late twentieth century