‘Roxy and the “sex sells” agenda of surf corporations a la Big Surfing are completely disconnected from what we know surfing to be about: freedom. We don’t want what you are selling’
When writing my column on the objectification of women in sport, I came across the writings of American surfer and Women’s World Longboard champion Cori Schumacher. I was impressed. Cori can both surf and write. I can only write. But she makes me want to surf! You’ll see why in this piece which she has given me permission to reprint in full.
Crossing the threshold from land to sea, the weights of gender and sexuality attached to the wings of my soul fall away. It is as if the ocean itself has the power to remove the stench of centuries from this form; a body I was born with, did not ask for but have found a way to cherish despite all the messages received from a world that would label me as second-class, nearly worthless, save for a tiny window in time if I were but to follow the intense pressures to submit to an ogling gaze that deems me worthy if I relentlessly give away my true power to embrace an ephemeral faux-power wrapped up in beauty and youth.
Let us be clear as to what this ephemeral faux-power of sexualized beauty entails:
“The answer to who has the power in these videos is blatantly clear.
We are the ones constantly depicted naked or semi-naked, in hyper-sexualized ‘biting-our-lips, batting-our-eyelashes’ demure, weak and submissive poses. It’s a position that signals vulnerability. You can’t be naked, while everyone else is clothed, and be in power. You can’t be naked and be the one in control. You can’t be naked and be the one choosing. To be naked is to be exposed; to be weak. Ultimately, it’s to be powerless.
Even when women are sold the story that their beauty is power over men, it is a deceptive and temporary truth. It’s baseless power. It is the kind of power that only exists in relation to a man’s desire. In this equation, women are defined only in relation to the men in their lives; only to the hard-ons they can incite. In these videos they’re always the cheerleaders to the male ego, standing on the sidelines, prancing around in panties, smiling with a come-hither, non-threatening look…” -Toula Foscolos
When conversations around women’s sexualization rise, the most eclipsing and ignorant of responses seeks to polarize our conversations between those who are prudishly opposed to a woman embracing her sexuality and those who are in-touch and empowered through their sexualized nakedness. Please. Women and men, our sexualities, our genders, our desires, how they are exploited and maintained, expressed and repressed, are far more complex than this simple polarization, both in the good ol’ USofA and abroad (yes, that’s right, even the French are engaged in this conversation). The conversation as it stands is due for expansion.
That is, an expansion in the conversation around the difference between the commodification of sexuality for the gain of profits and exposure for a few elite vs. the truly empowering freedom found in working to release both men and women from this circular conversation of a relentlessly disempowered binary that does nothing to celebrate our complexity as human beings.
Sex Sells (seriously, again?)
When I hear the hauntingly redundant “sex sells, so who is losing here” argument I wonder at the absolute lack of imagination and empathy this entails. Rather than argue abstracts, however, I find that it is much better to use specific examples to illustrate who loses when image and sex become the ideas sold rather than the promotion of agency, efficacy and non-image oriented achievement.
Anna Kournikova became the poster-child for sexualized female tennis beginning in the late 1990s. She inspired quite a bit of debate around image and achievement similar to the conversation surrounding Steph Gilmore’s recent trailer for the Roxy Pro. Though what was said regarding Kournikova cannot be said of Gilmore (exemplified by the use of the “Anna Kournikova” in the lingo of some poker card playing variations meaning a hand that “looks great but never wins”), we can look at the impact of Kournikova and the likes of Maria Sharapova in women’s tennis easily enough now that time has passed and draw parallels to who will lose when we allow this unimaginative and lazy rhetoric of “sex sells” to infiltrate surfing or other women’s sports, for that matter.
Marion Bartoli, who recently won the prestigious Wimbledon championship, has had to deal with the most disgusting and pathetic of the dark side of the sexualization of tennis. After winning her first grand slam trophy, BBC TV and radio sportscaster John Inverdale felt the need to comment that she was “never going to be a looker” to which Bartoli responded with the courageous comment featured in the above image. This however was light commentary compared to the “fans of tennis” who decided to let loose a tirade fit to inspire projectile vomiting. Even in the midst of accomplishing one of her greatest dreams, Bartoli has to deal with the sexism that persists for women in sport. This is a loss, not only for tennis, but for female athletes in the future who are no doubt reading all about this. Sexism persists.
“Sex sells” is regurgitated tripe that should be divested of its cowls. Sex sold product when sex in our culture wasn’t visible. Now that sex is everywhere, it is easy to gaze at it as an artifact of creativity and innovation, and indeed, gazing is all sex-used-to-sell is good for these days. A new generation of consumers (whose views translate to purchasing, which is ostensibly what companies like Roxy want) is more attracted to values-driven companies than lifestyle-fetish fodder (as exemplified by the fact that Patagonia saw growth over the last recession by 25%-30% annually while companies like Quiksilver and Billabong continue to lose millions). Sexy marketing once was an innovative way to fill a vacuum only to be found in magazines tucked under the beds of adolescent males, but with this vacuum filled to overflow in the culture-at-large, it has become as redundant and banal as commercials for pharmaceuticals on television.
“There was this one time that I saw an ad that objectified men and it didn’t offend me…”
I suppose it would be just as impossible to explain what it feels like to be a woman in the world and how surfing can be a moment of respite amidst the sexist noise to some as it would be to explain to these victims of sex-trafficking how Steph Gilmore’s trailer for the Roxy Pro 2013 might exemplify Steph embracing her “power” as a woman.
Although some, like Dustin Hoffman, have honestly delved into this question with moving and resonant results.
Why do women run to the sea? Ask yourselves this. What does it mean to cross-over from a culture-land of trauma into a sea of freedom and how impossible will it be to get others to understand how hard some will fight to retain this space where we can release the weight of gender and sexuality imposed on us by our culture-at-large?
I have hope. Strike that. We have hope, for it must be understood that this is not simply about an “I” that states that “this makes me happy so, what’s the big deal” but a “We” that in empathy, asks if this is the right direction for each other, our kids and the future of surf culture. What must be understood is that this is a movement of women and men who understand the nature of the gift we have when we cross the threshold of land to sea to dance. Roxy and the “sex sells” agenda of surf corporations a la Big Surfing are completely disconnected from what we know surfing to be about: freedom. We don’t want what you are selling. Take it back to the drylands.
If you want to embrace the ephemeral, it’s your life. No one should tell you what or how to use your body. But don’t pretend we are empowering the future here or that it is good for anyone else. This trend shows a complete lack of regard for the health of future generations of female surfers and does not bode well for the future of men’s surfing either. Do you see it yet? The first rumblings of it in the bare-chested way the top 34 male professional surfers are being presented to fans during 2013′s ASP contests?
Cori has a petition against Roxy at Change.org Sign here