Photo credit: Neil Griffith and Modyssey
The author is Rebecca Olive, a longboarder living in Queensland who has embarked on writing a PhD about women in surfing. How amazing is that?
Like surfing, a PhD is a long game. And Rebecca is clearly a committed academic and surfer. Now if that doesn’t deserve a super hi-five, I don’t know what does. I think she’s awesome!
I was planning on writing a bit of a narrative based around the questions I asked Rebecca, but her writing is so darned good, here is the Q&A below. It’s a bit longer than your average post but well worth the read!
Some food for thought next time you paddle out…
1. What is your PhD about, where are you studying and when did you start? (a 3-in-1!!)
My PhD research is about how women experience the male-dominated culture of surfing in Australia. Partly, it was a response to existing research about women and surfing, which said women are constantly marginalised and sexualised as surfers. These claims about sexism in Australian surfing history and culture are well-deserved, but my experiences as a recreational surfer were a bit more complicated than that.
While I am often treated with a fair level of disdain out in the water, I am also really encouraged and supported by men who surf as well. I took my experiences as a starting point for talking to other women about their thoughts and experiences to see if there was more to the story, which of course there was.
It’s important to mention my research is really about longboarding based in Byron Bay. Of course longboarding and shortboarding cultures can be really different, and so can the cultures of different breaks. I mean, to say that surfing in Byron Bay is the same thing as surfing at Bondi, or Torquay, or in Margaret River is just not necessarily true. It’s the same if you want to talk about the ways that women are accepted into different lineups as well. It is a lot more common to see women surfing in Byron Bay than it is to see women in the surf at other breaks, so their experiences are a bit different.
This research is a cultural studies project, but it also connects with gender studies, sociology and history.
2. What made you decide to do a PhD about women in surfing?
I did my PhD because I was really interested in researching women and surfing culture. That might sound dorky, but that I was so interested in the project is really the only reason I did it. But it’s been a great decision!
3. Has there been much published in the academic world about women’s surfing?
There is a growing body of literature about women and surfing being published by researchers in places including Australia, New Zealand, America, Brazil and England. Having said that, there’s always room for more!
For a long time, the focus was on surf magazines and how they represented women, but that is changing. The idea that magazines necessarily reflect what it’s like to be out in the water on any given day – what it’s like to go surfing – is flawed, and so is the idea that magazines reflect the experiences of most surfers. To look at most surf magazines is to despair for the place of women in surfing culture. But to go surfing, that is where you find the most hope and excitement. When you talk to women who surf, they’re stoked about it and they’re stoked about the other surfers they know. The media isn’t always a part of their experience in an immediate way.
4. How long have you been surfing for? Where’s your favourite break?
I have been surfing for about ten years. I grew up in Byron Bay, but I didn’t start surfing until my mid-20s. I was immediately hooked. I surf a longboard, so I am happy at any of the peeling point breaks that are up and down the coast of north east NSW and south east QLD. I’m spoilt really.
5. Any recommended reading for the academically-minded surfer ladies?
Oh yes! There are plenty of great articles and books coming out. As a starting point, Krista Comer has a book called ‘Surfer Girls and the New World Order’, Isaiah Helekunihi Walker wrote the excellent ‘Waves of Resistance’ about surfing as a form of resistance to colonisation by Hawaiian people, and Clifton Evers has a book called ‘Notes for a Young Surfer’ that is aimed at talking to younger surfers about how they can negotiate the culture of surfing in Australia. All of these books have been really inspiring to me. And then there are more articles coming out all the time in academic journals about culture, sociology, gender, feminism, geography and sport. It’s getting hard to keep up!
Surfers, Cori Schumacher and Bec Woods, write thoughtful articles for mainstream media that you can find online. Some surf magazines and websites are publishing more pieces by and about women. There are some great surf magazines for women now – Curl and Salted are both good and publish interesting articles. And ‘Kurungabaa: A journal of literature, history and ideas from the sea’ is a magazine I have been involved with for some time now, and it always publishes good and often critical pieces.
6. Who is your favourite female surfer and why?
I have two favourite surfers and they both surf at my local breaks. The first is Jules Carle, who is amazing. Her attitude and resilience are inspiring and I admire her so much. She lives for the surf, and wants everyone to love it as much as her. She is so graceful and is beautiful to watch on a longboard. I also love that she taught all her kids to surf.
I also love watching my friend Isabelle Braly. Izzy used to surf on the women world longboarding tour, so she’s super accomplished in the water. Her surfing is really strong and stylish. Also, I love how tough she is out in the linuep – she will always get more waves than anyone else out there because she works for them.
I’d like to add that these women are not only my favourite female surfers, they are my favourite surfers.
7. Where do you think women’s surfing is headed?
I think that women are having an increasing influence over surfing and surfing culture. They’re surfing more, writing more, getting images published, making more films – generally making more and more contributions to surfing in a whole heap of ways. I think there will be more representations of women surfing in the past, in books, in films and in artworks. I have noticed more and more stories about women surfing in the past coming to light and I get really excited about that. All of that has to have an impact, even if that impact is difficult to measure.
For me a big step will come when we stop hearing people talking about how well women are surfing as though it’s some kind of surprise. Like, duh.
I see an increasing discontent amongst many surfers – men and women – with the ways surfing is represented, and who it excludes. That is about more than just women, but is also to do with sexuality, race, nationality and ability as well. I’m hoping that the positive changes I see for women will have positive changes in terms of the other kinds of discrimination I see happening in surfing culture.