Written by Emma Rogan.
Stab magazine treads new ground and old, at Semi-Permanent.
My father lived for surfing. I spent my childhood at beaches all over Australia and New Zealand. Summer and winter, us kids pottered about on the shore and in the water while Dad pursued the perfect wave. He taught me the rudiments of surfing when I was ten, how to read the ocean, to stay safe in the surf, and how to get myself out of a rip. We grew up on the black sand at Port Waikato, swimming amongst the biggest waves Dad could find.
By the time I was 18, I had a board of my own. I bought it cheap, sight-unseen off a friend. It was a Hawaiian big wave board called a Gun, and it was so heavy I had to drag it down the beach into the water. In truth it probably hampered my surfing as much as anything.
I never really got past the learner stage with the sport, and though I later had better success snowboarding, it’s the ocean that has always been one of my most revered places. The wilder the better. I still prefer to swim at surf beaches, to dive down and hold the sea floor while waves crash over me. This summer, I taught my youngest daughter to do the same. I am careful to pass on my love and connection with the ocean to my children, and to show them how to respect this reckless, wild element.
So when Sam McIntosh of Stab Magazine started to talk about his vision for a different kind of surfing magazine at this year’s Semi-Permanent, and his mission to capture surfing imagery from new vantage points, I really sat up in my chair.
I love surfing footage, I grew up on those images. McIntosh played a mesmerizing sequence of Taj Burrows riding long lines on green and blue, shot from a helicopter that was snaking along in the air behind him.
The film piece showed the surfer moving across deep water, to shallow reef, foamy veins of whitewater rolling out across the screen. The back-spray kicking up – the kind of thing you can only see from behind the waves.
It was beautiful and mesmerising.
Image credit: Stab Magazine
The magazine has gone to great lengths to show those top male athletes in heroic and dramatic action sequences. Burning flares atop surfboards igniting a black night, technical kicks and maneuvers, lit-up against an enormous white in-water screen. The artistry and respect for the sport evidenced in a series of spectacular, un-retouched photographs.
But where Stab magazine fails, is in the way it presents the sport’s top women surfers. By McIntosh’s own admission, his presentation on the ‘Girls of surfing’ had been controversial at the 2013 Sydney Semi-Permanent. He admitted to “almost being booed off the stage.” At this point in his presentation I began to understand why Radar – the event MC – was standing on the stage in support, and it was Radar who made a gallant effort to navigate & guide what was to follow.
And what followed, was image upon image of exceptionally beautiful, nearly naked, and naked women. The audience were told that unlike female surfers of days gone by, these young surfers no longer look like “lesbians with big solid shoulders”. Stab magazine, reinforces historical patterns of heroic (strong) male physicality contrasted with sexy naked (vulnerable) women. Stab is yet another classic patriarchy. But…is it really sexist?
Is it sexist…when they’re helping those women surfers get more lucrative sponsorship deals with the exposure? When each surfer agrees to the terms, is it actually so bad?
I argue that it is, and defer to Caitlin Moran to help make my point:
Broadcaster, critic, and author of ‘How to be a woman’ Moran suggests a simple way to figure out if there’s some sexism going on.
She suggests that we ask two questions of any suspect situation:
So, is it polite? (And does it really matter?)
As part of his ‘warts and all’ storytelling, McIntosh let us know how fraught these female surfer shoots can be.
He said sometimes the women cry on set.
It should always be the choice of any woman what she does in her life, and with her own body. Surely that’s a no-brainer, it shouldn’t need to be said. But the truth is, it’s only a real choice when the playing field is even.
Patriarchal systems like surf culture suggest that female surfers bodies are worthy of a kind of attention not afforded to men, that their commitment to their sport is valuable only in as much as it has defined their physique as an object of desire.
As long as this demand is only being made of the women in the magazine, and not the men, it matters very much.
That some of these women have then experienced enough distress to cry during the shoot tells us it matters very much indeed, and it’s definitely not polite.
Are the men doing it too?
The male surfers featured by Stab are not shown naked, or holding up a towel to cover their genitals. The male surfers are predominantly shown clothed, or suited-up and in the water, actually surfing.
The women on the other hand were not shown in relation to their sport at all. None of the shots McIntosh showed us at SP had anything to do with the female surfer actually surfing. Or even within eyeshot of a surfboard. Many of the images involved a bed, or a shower.
As an aside: Imagine for a moment asking a male surfer to pull his pants down, then bend over a chair and look back longingly into the camera. (An actual Stab shoot). Ask him to arch his back a little.
Think about that for a moment.
It’s a ridiculous conversation right?
I can’t see the point of asking a male surfer to do this, no matter how ‘sexy’ I think it looks, I would consider that to be demeaning a professional athlete.
There’ll always be some athletes who are happy to artfully express their physicality, their bodies in public. Just as there’ll always be those who prefer to let their sport do the talking – out on the water. Women surfers for whom surfing is not to be confused with their body, or their sexuality. Unfortunately for them, they don’t get to make that choice if they want to get exposure for their surfing in a magazine like Stab. They only get to choose between ‘mostly-naked sexy shot’, and ‘fully-naked sexy shot’.
It’s time to redress (no pun intended), and take stock of just why we demand things of some women, that we wouldn’t dare ask of their male counterparts. Instead of discovering a new way of seeing, Stab is retelling ‘same old’ images of women.
A woman surfer’s body becomes her paycheck at Stab, where a male surfer’s skill on the board is his. That imbalance continues to perpetuate stereotypes of women and men that are simplistic and limiting. For women, it becomes a double-edged sword with an ever-decreasing set of returns. In my view when we make surfing only about western ideals of physical beauty, sexuality, and youth, we hinder the sport, and we give women a tiny lens through which they can shine.
As someone that grew up with surfing this seems like such an injustice for what is an incredibly difficult, awe-inspiring pursuit. Surfing has the ability to connect people with their natural world in a way that is utterly unique. It takes physical strength, stamina and perfect balance, and yet more than that – it takes an almost obsessive love and respect for the ocean, a unique wisdom for the elements.
As the new image-makers on the surfing scene, Stab magazine has the style and the financial clout to change the way we see surfing. It’s a pity they don’t yet have the vision. These are after all, the very women who dive into the same ocean, and pursue their sport with a dedication second to no man.
If Stab has missed the opportunity to redefine the way women athletes are portrayed, perhaps it’s because they can’t actually see the athlete at all.
‘A few small nips’ – Frida Kahlo, 1935