Only a few days after BBC commentator John Inverdale’s offensive comments about Wimbledon champion Marion Bartoli caused such a widespread eye roll around the world, a YouTube promotion for the Roxy Pro Biarritz surf pro competition for women began to cause consternation among viewers.
It’s a sexy ad, there’s no doubt about that. It’s dreamy and slow; The Virgin Suicides if it were set against Sydney’s beaches.
Unfortunately, this isn’t a promo shoot about wistful ingenues overcome by the suburban ennui of their own lives - if that’s what Roxy were going for, they’ve completely missed the mark.
In the promo, a faceless woman (rumoured to be five time world champion Stephanie Gilmore) stretches languidly across crisp white sheets in nothing but a pair of frilly knickers.
Rising, she pulls on a white shirt (also crisp), the outline of her body shadowed through its fabric. She makes her way to the shower, where we watch as drops of water flick off her tanned shoulders and elegant hands.
A sun-soaked electronic summer anthem plays, its beat keeping time with the slowed down tempo of the film.
Our protagonist, dressed now in denim shorts, carries her surfboard across the beach and through Roxy’s draped pink banners while we, the viewers, train our collective eye on her long legs and tight derriere.
Stripping down to her bikini, we switch our gaze to her breasts, perhaps enjoying how pert they remain even as she waxes her board.
Finally, she enters the water and begins to slowly paddle out. Our eyes follow behind, angled up her legs to the skimpy bikini bottoms that tease us with their cheekiness both literal and figurative. ‘ROXY PRO 2013’ the promo informs us. ‘Women’s World Surfing Championships’.
We never see her face.
And we never see her surf.
It’s difficult to imagine a similar artistic vision being cast for male surfers, whether by surfing brands themselves or outside parties aiming to work with them.
When men are cast as the subject of the gaze, they are almost always given an active role.
Tourism Victoria’s promo video for this year’s Rip Curl Pro at Bell’s Beach intersperses the stunning scenery around Torquay with some phenomenal surfing.
There are no slow panning shots up half naked men’s bodies, no irrelevant montages that focus more on the process of getting into the water than what they do once they get there.
Instead, the featured subjects of male surfing promos, documentaries and adverts are given the luxury of being valued for their skills, not their taut buttocks. (To be fair, a 2006 promo for the Rip Curl Pipeline Masters doesn’t focus entirely on the surfing prowess of its stars - there are copious cut away shots of women lolling about in bikinis watching them too.)
Imagine if the reverse were true. In 1997, artist Tracey Moffatt made a short film called ‘Heaven’ in which she spliced together beach car-park footage of male surfers changing out of their wetsuits. Moffatt’s intention was to turn the gaze back onto men, to cast them as erotic subjects with no control over how they were perceived or valued.
As Tania Lusty wrote in 2004, "Moffatt’s subjects are caught in a moment of powerlessness, whereby their strutting performances and attempts at bravado disclose a deeper unease about the exposure of their naked bodies before the camera."
‘Heaven’ works because it turns an expected trope on its head - that it is women who experience the gaze, not they who control it. And as artistic viewers, we know that it works precisely because it is anomalous.
Men would never be expected to get over the facts of their own visual exploitation, perhaps because men are rarely turned into passive victims of sexual exploitation. On the rare occasions that they are, it is received with shock and unease, a wrinkle in the space-time continuum.
When Kim Duthie shared photographs of St Kilda footballers Nick Riewoldt and Nick Del Santo in flagrante delicto, Riewoldt called a press conference in which he said he found Duthie’s actions ‘incomprehensible and distressing’.
Fair enough - I’m sure they were. But I doubt very much whether anyone told Riewoldt that it was just a bit of fun, and that hey, everyone knows that girls will be girls and they all like to have a bit of a look so perhaps next time be a bit more careful mate?
And yet, such understanding and agency is rarely extended to women when they ask for their space or achievements to be respected, even when on behalf of other women.
I am concerned that a brand which markets directly to women doesn’t seem interested in treating those same women like active participants in the world.
Why, in a promotional video for a competition in which champion female surfers will compete to claim a world title, does the host of the competition not think it necessary to showcase their extraordinary skills?
What on earth would compel them to think that images of an is-it-or-isn’t-it Stephanie Gilmore showering, getting dressed and walking across the sand - things that almost every human being can do - would be more fascinating to viewers than images of her doing this or this or this- things that almost none of us can?
It’s tempting to write these concerns off as insignificant.
Indeed, I anticipate lots of feedback to this article telling me to ‘get over it’, to ‘lighten up’ and to just accept the fact that men like to look and women like to be looked at. No big deal, right?
Well, it IS a big deal.
Because the most amazing thing female surfers can do has precisely nothing to do giving a hidden audience a boner.
And while it’s almost amazing that most women spend the majority of our lives in an unacknowledged performance that begins sometime in childhood and ends when menopause makes us invisible once more, our most spectacular achievements (and failures) are unrelated to how appreciative (or dismissive) that hidden audience is of our beauty.
Like the dual heroes of Kathy Lette and Gabrielle Carey's Puberty Blues, Miss Faceless Roxy Girl worked hard to be able to get into the water and on a board.
And yet here we still are, bikini clad girls waiting on the beach and holding on to everyone else's Chiko roll.
- Daily Life