In March this year, 13-year-old Melbourne surfer Olive Bowers penned a letter to Tracks magazine (dubbed ‘The Surfers’ Bible’) slamming the title’s sexist portrayal of women. When the story landed on mainstream media websites, I was rattled. The magazine I edit, Riptide, (which focuses on bodyboarding – surfing’s prone-positioned cousin) gave up on the boobs-and-butts approach years before I took the job, but the representation of women in our mag is miniscule.
The wave-riding realm, of course, is not alone in its lack of representation for female athletes. Turn on the TV, and you’re likely to see only a few brief clips and reports on women’s sport, among a gushing stream of coverage for men’s sporting news. A 2010 report by the University of NSW Journalism and Media Research Centre and Media Monitors found that coverage of women in sport made up only nine per cent of all sports coverage on Aussie TV news, while men’s occupied 81 per cent (10 per cent was gender neutral). Open up a newspaper, and after licking your thumb until it resembles a withered prune you might find a few column inches dedicated to women’s sports in the back (if it’s not footy season). We already know about this broad disparity of representation; more important is what can or should be done about it. From my squeaky chair in sporting media, being in a position of editorial control, I was grappling with these issues around the time Olive woke me from my stupor.
Bodyboarding is a sport in the sense that we have contests, but it’s also an outdoor recreational pursuit (I will not fricken use the word hobby) for the vast majority, who simply enjoy the thrill of throwing themselves into round chunks of ocean with good friends. The latter – combined with the unending quest to find new waves or go higher in the air/deeper in the tube – means the majority of content covered in waveriding media is largely dictated by exclusive and high-quality photography, rather than ‘sporting’ achievements and competitions. But while Riptide’s latest reader survey told us women make up 10 per cent of our readership, no one seems to be taking photos of them. In fact, we’re lucky to get three or four usable shots of women riders sent to us per quarterly issue. Conversely, our most recent issue contained about 75 images of male riders, not to mention the advertisements (which all featured men).
When I started the job, I didn’t question the disparity. Deadlines edged closer, and I sifted through content I’d been sent, largely basing stories around the riders featured in the most powerful imagery. But I soon began questioning why we weren’t being sent shots of female bodyboarders. It’s not as though there weren’t plenty of women ripping. Brazil’s Isabela Sousa, 24, has already won three Women’s World Titles, and on contest webcasts can be seen doing everything the guys are doing in waves of consequence (such as Hawaii’s infamous Pipeline). She asked to enter the trials for a men’s world tour event in 2012, but was knocked back due to the rulebook (no doubt to the relief of a few competitors).
I began to realise the disparity in coverage was a chicken and egg situation. We weren’t running stories on women because they weren’t being submitted to us, but they weren’t being submitted because photographers and the public had long ago received the impression we weren’t interested. You could hear photographers thinking, Why organise a shoot with the young girl ripper down the road, when the images are just going to sit gathering dust on my memory card? Similar standoffs have arisen whenever stories are published in the media discussing the lack of women’s sports coverage. In the comments section, some will assert that there’s little coverage of women’s sport because of a lack of public interest, while other commenters will respond that there’s no interest only because the lack of coverage means readers aren’t familiar with the players or teams. In light of this, it became clear I was leaning on a crutch: It’s not my fault we’re not running much stuff of the women – no one’s sending us anything! We were lucky there weren’t any 13-year-olds eloquently slamming us in the media. We could carry on the same as always and everything would be peachy, right?
Well, not really. For one thing, running a print mag today is no mean feat. Several big-name titles in the waveriding realm have folded or turned solely digital since I started my job, and in this volatile age of print every sale and subscription is crucial. While my background is in editorial, and I’m certainly no businessman, logic tells me that by not running many shots or stories featuring women, we’re effectively excluding 50 per cent of our potential readership. In the words of Olive Bowers, ‘It’s a shame you can’t see the benefits of an inclusive surf culture that, in fact, would add a whole lot of numbers to your subscription list.’
My job at Riptide is fundamentally about encouraging more people to jump in the ocean to enjoy this crazy-weird yet highly-addictive pursuit we call bodyboarding – keeping fit with mates among nature, far from the clutches of iPhones and TV shows. Bodyboarding’s such a gift – why wouldn’t I want more people to share in the magic stoke of sliding down the face of a swell on a 40-odd-inch piece of foam? And for what possible reason would I want the vast majority of these new bodyboarders to be men?
Bronwyn Adcock’s brilliant Griffith Review piece on sexism in surfing, ‘Is it Hard to Surf with Boobs?’, contains a neat quote from American activist Marian Wright Edelman. Discussing the reason women were often underrepresented in positions of power and influence, Edelman said, ‘You can’t be what you can’t see.’ How true! With the dearth in imagery and stories (and hence role models) of women in waveriding media, we’re reinforcing the notion to young girls and anybody else who picks up our mags, that surfing/bodyboarding is largely a man’s game.
So how to change it? Clearly, it won’t happen overnight – and I’ll readily admit to feeling like I’m fumbling in the dark for a way forward (I’ve found no guidebook on the topic yet) – but I do know it will take a fundamental shake-up on my behalf to create and champion the creation of regular content featuring women riders. Certainly, relying on what trickles through my inbox won’t change a thing. I’m well aware that all of the above is simply hot air (from a guy who’s so far done not-that-much to bridge the disparity) if I don’t start changing now. Perhaps come back and check in with me in a deadline or two.
Image credit: 大吉