As a part of World Surf Day activities, The Bungalow in Santa Monica hosted a screening of ‘It Ain’t Pretty’, a documentary about a San Francisco based group of women surfers who refer to themselves as the ‘Outer Bar Babes’, in reference to their home break at Ocean Beach. The group includes local bartender Bianca Valenti, teacher Rebecca Wunderlich, firefighter Anna Wankel, exercise coach Beth Price, personal chef Monique Kitamura, surf-shop owner Sarah Martins, and dentist Suzie Yang. They’re ordinary women taking on extraordinary challenges in the surfing world.
A recurring narrative of the film was Valenti’s story. She’s a talented surfer from SoCal who never quite cracked the pro scene. The film shares a vision that Bianca wasn’t ‘girly’ enough to get sponsorship that would allow her to compete on a larger scale. Flashes of the stereotypical sandy butt are intercut with everyday women who have been hitting the waves for decades, unnoticed by mainstream surf media. Issues of equality are the predominate theme; women aren’t getting enough coverage, sponsorship, acceptance, and approval in a male-dominated sport. It’s hard core feminism from a surfing perspective.
This past season we saw the first WSL Big Wave Tour women’s heat at Pe’ahi. While thrilling, and a milestone for women who surf, at times it was hard to watch. I hadn’t realized just how much physically stronger the guys were until I saw the women clawing to catch (or not catch) waves and cascading over the falls. There were some stand outs, but overall, it was night and day from the men’s heats. The women were not on the same competitive level as the men, and that was fine, in my opinion. For that hour, there were women competing against women. Paige Alms proved her merit on an equal playing field.
In one scene in “It Ain’t Pretty”, a local (male) at Ocean Beach relays a similar sentiment in regard to women being excluded from Mavericks. In his opinion, prefaced by patronizingly stating how much he likes all of the women, there are 30-40 men who are better than the women on that wave and deserve the coveted spots. He said the women just aren’t “good enough”. The women in question, mainly lead by Valenti, challenged that idea with the county and eventually got their own heat in the contest. (It turned out to be a moot point, as the Mavericks managing organization filed for Chapter 11 before the contest could be run).
My question is, why would we set the scale at the level of male surfers? ‘Good enough’ should be measured by women’s achievements. I once asked Carissa Moore if she would competitively surf against the guys and she quickly said no. She feels the guys have a different style, different strengths and tactics and are more cut throat. She smiled and said she thought it would be hard to beat some of them. This is a world champion surfer who still thinks she’s not on the same level with men. And she’s pretty OK being one of the best female performance surfers in the world. She has set the curve for how a good a woman needs to be in her sport.
It Ain’t Pretty proposes that isn’t enough. It suggests the women should have an equal prize purse and equal opportunity. From a business standpoint, that vision is not supported. There’s not yet a financial incentive for sponsors to payout at a higher level. Viewership for the women’s heat at Pe’ahi reportedly dropped off 65% in relation to the men’s heats. The typical big wave woman is outside of the coveted 18-24 sales demographic, and they haven’t stepped up their personal brand marketing to quantify their value in follower dollars. They’re not playing the same game and the money is most likely on par with the sponsors’ ROI.
I’m sure this all sounds like the antithesis of an author who promotes women who surf. I’m all for that. I’m just questioning that a direct comparison to men should be the quantifier for a woman’s success. We’re not men-and thank goodness! I think we should be celebrating the unique style and competitive spirit of women. We should be building brands, becoming leaders to the next generation, and rising above a need for approval from men. If we want the same money / coverage/ opportunity, we should be creating it. Get the edits out there, shake hands, kiss babies; it’s all politics and PR.
I would have loved to have seen everything these women have achieved in a strictly positive light. They are out there charging every week. They’re catching killer waves and have built a strong community of like-minded women. They are breaking barriers and taking on issues that will lay the groundwork for women in the future. That’s a great story all on it’s own, and one I hope to see soon.