Lesbian-Baiting, a la roxy surfing 2013
One of the most prevalent tools of sexism in the surf industry has been and continues to be lesbian-baiting. Lesbian baiting occurs most often when rumblings are felt within the sexist status quo, when women gain more power in a hierarchy, or when they are acting more self-assertive and less deferential than their male-counterparts are comfortable co-existing with.
“Lesbian-baiting is calling a woman a lesbian, regardless of her true sexual orientation. Just the though of being considered a lesbian makes many homophobic and/or heterosexist women conform to the unequal norms of the male dominated society, and revert to a more ‘feminine’ role.”
I’ve written about the power of lesbian-baiting in my own life and also discussed how the shift in 1990s western culture that occurred as a result of the celebration of female athletic bodies (now considered butch?) in women pushed the surf industry to new financial heights in Huck Magazine’s Quintessential Girl.
“The image of the surfer girl during this time shifted from the waif-thin to the athletic, and saw women charging giant waves on the ASP Dream Tour. Like this new generation coming up, it was lauded by surf media as a Golden Era for women’s surfing.”
In this same article, I also pondered the future of a women’s professional surfing that sought to create a distance between itself and the last generation of women via sexualization:
“The portrayal of women in the nineties as physically strong and healthy inspired many women to jump into surfing (illustrated by the success of all-girl surf schools like Surf Diva), and offered them a chance to create an identity that was centred around ability rather than image alone. These activities, while offering a more active, healthy lifestyle, can be truly empowering in practice. However, if image is emphasised and valued above ability and performance in the competitive realm, it is possible that a competitive form of shape-shifting will arise (distorting the spirit of achievement found in this realm). This is the exact tension within women’s surfing currently. For example, when Stephanie Gilmore posed nude forESPN, what followed was a stream of evermore provocative images (some less tasteful and more passive in their posing) from her peers. Each one of the women who participated in these photo shoots did so for their own reasons. It is too simplistic to say that they are being exploited.”
The key method being used to distance the generations of pro female surfers is the supposed increase in the femininity of this new generation of women on tour from the last. It is done largely through lesbian-baiting.
This is not something new and serves to cut-off one generation of women from the next with each passing generation. While men celebrate their heroes, past female surfers are vilified for not being feminine enough. This is a strange state of affairs in which a woman’s embodied sexuality becomes the centrifugal point around which her success revolves, especially given the rhetoric of inclusion and authenticity used by those in the most visible of female surf brands:
“Authenticity is the most important thing to us, and we would never ask a surfer to change who she is to fit the mold.” -Danielle Beck, VP marketing at Roxy
I hope one day that those who have had experiences within Roxy, as interns, employees and as professional surfers, will stand up and tell their stories. A new picture will most certainly emerge of this “authentic” and “classy” brand. Until then, we must use what we have in order to tell the story as it begins to emerge.
When Roxy finally responded to the comments surrounding their 2013 trailer for the Biarritz Roxy Pro, they did so in celebration of “complex and multi-dimensional” women:
Many of the comments in reply asked about the stereotypical image that offered only a flat image of women surfers, one that was quite one-dimensional and flattering to the male gaze. In fact, the diversity of comments from around the world that stand in solidarity opposing this trailer as a means of showcasing a pro women’s event illustrates more dimensionality and complexity than anything that has emerged from Roxy or Quiksilver in reply.
The one comment that I found to be more revealing of the tactics and true feelings around the issue come from Quiksilver’s Chad Wells, Surf Program Manager at Quiksilver:
There are a couple points about this comment that deserve attention. Here we may assume that:
1) Overtly heterosexual women who are acceptable to the male, heterosexual gaze are somehow more “in touch” with their sexuality than lesbians (or any other expression of female sexuality that falls outside of Wellsian range). A very strange idea indeed.
2) Female surfers (all of them) from the last generation or so were butchy and therefore assumed to be lesbian (please note that even those athletic women who were not lesbian are thrown into this mix, e.g. Layne Beachley. This exemplifies lesbian-baiting perfectly).
To this last point, it was within this comment thread, following Wells’ comment, that Lisa Andersen has finally voiced her opinion of the Roxy Pro Trailer, as if to distance herself from that “butchy lesbo” past generation by embracing the trailer: the new, more feminine, face of Roxy professional surfing:
This is really still happening in 2013, this powerful method of ordering the gendered hierarchy within the surf industry. This is why it is so important for the voices of the fans to speak out. This isn’t about gay or straight, butch or sexy, what it is about is how the fear of being perceived as gender deviant is used to order the entire hierarchy of sexism within Big Surfing.
What is clear is that the rhetoric of “complexity and multi-dimensionality” used by Roxy is fundamentally flawed, if not an outright pathetic pile of nonsense. This may be hard to see from within Big Surfing, but it is clear as day from where many of us sit, outside of it.
Those within the institution of surfing are a different matter, groomed as they have been by the values of their sponsors and Big Surfing. This is not some abstract idea of internalization I am speaking of, but one that I experienced first hand as a professional surfer within the industry for nearly 20 years (shortboard and longboard; amateur and professional levels). The only other institution I can liken this phenomenon to would be religious institutions. The ramifications of speaking out against the surf industry’s heterosexual, white, sexist values are the same: excommunication.
It ultimately shouldn’t be a burden thrown on women to prove their sexuality in the realm of achievement. None of this conversation around sexuality should matter, but it continues to in some retro-progressive way that demands of women to exert their (hyper)sexiness as a sign of their heterosexuality, the sexuality that Big Surfing demands of them.
While this generation might be bullied by lesbian (and gay)-baiting, I feel quite sure that future generations will see through the nonsense and create new narratives of a truly diverse and inclusive nature. There are so many more ways to present surfing than those on offer from a sexist surf industry.