You know the feeling. You’re watching TV, and a music video or an ad for gum comes on. Your jaw drops as a kid with frosted tips starts surfing against an obvious green screen filled in with a giant wave. The typical 60s surf music is pumping too, as the kid reaches for the gum, or the breakfast cereal, or whatever else the clip is trying to sell.
When this sort of thing happens, we get mad or insulted: “Is this really what the world thinks my culture is all about? Leis and blonde hair and shell necklaces?”
But should we really care how people on the outside perceive surf culture? They’re not even part of the club anyway. So what does it matter if tween heartthrob Cody Simpson just titled his latest album Surfers Paradise? And who knows? Maybe some of the best pro surfers out there are hardcore Cody Simpson fans. Probably not, but anything’s possible.
This sort of cultural appropriation is nothing new. Actually, surfers have been dealing with it for a long, long time.
In the the early 90s, you couldn’t go anywhere in America without hearing somebody echo Pauly Shore’s surf-inspired lingo. His early MTV reality show, Totally Pauly, even put a surfer in its title sequence. Nevermind all the Spicoli-isms of the 80s.
Go even further back, and you get a clean-cut Elvis in Blue Hawaii, playing a surf instructor who gets all the girls. Go all the way back to 1907, and you get George Freeth surfing as part of a publicity stunt to promote the opening of a railroad.
It’s clear that surfing has been co-opted, not just by individuals who want to look cool, but by big business for profit. Freeth was making a youthful splash on behalf of Henry Huntington’s railroad. Simpson is fuelling sales for his record label.
Blogger Dino Boreanaz nailed it when he wrote: “Fuelled by the media’s glorification of the surfing lifestyle, the surf industry has grown from small shops serving the needs of the wave riders to multi-national manufacturing operations that clothe and accessorise [sic] those with a desire to look the part.”
But surfing is hardly the only thing that’s been tainted by big business. So why does its appropriation so anger those who have surfing in their hearts and souls?
SFSU’s R. L. Rutsky got right to the core of the issue in his paper ‘Surfing the Other.’ He argues that the big Hollywood surf films of the 50s and 60s — think Gidget and Beach Party — offered “a reassuring conformity as an escape from the troubling social problems of the times.” As opposed to juvenile delinquent and anti-establishment youth films of the era, “the beach movies helped turn the beach into an exaggerated version of the suburban backyard.”
The big issue here isn’t just about individuals faking their way into the surf scene. It’s more about whitewashing a huge slice of youth culture to sell a particularly sanitized, obedient image of young people who fit into society’s prescribed mould.
The appropriation of surf culture trivializes and oversimplifies the real motivations, thoughts and experiences of youth in the surf scene, replacing them with images of happy, wholesome teens who respect the status quo, and have no real conflicts or challenges of their own. We’re much more diverse and complex than that.
So, is it really worth hating on the Cody Simpsons and Gidgets of the world? Sure, phoney representations of surfers spread a false image of what we’re all about. But anger probably isn’t going to get us anywhere.
Maybe, instead, we should be putting our energy into sharing our own perspectives and experiences of surfing, and show the world why it’s a lifestyle we care really deeply about. Then, go and watch a Cody Simpson video on YouTube. Because, man, when you’re not mad, the little hodad is actually pretty catchy.