The winners of the 2017 Australian Surfing Awards were announced on Sunday at a ceremony in Newcastle. Pretty exciting stuff! It's easy to argue that awards like this are kind of empty, but they're not. These kinds of events and awards area moment to think about what surfing is, what is important in surfing and surfing culture, and to talk about the people we see as contributing to that. Awards like this are one of the times surfing culture is visible in the mainstream media, so it's worth paying them attention to see something of who surfers are supposed to be, or who, at the very least, surfers represented as being.
So here are the 2017 winners!
Australian Surfing Hall of Fame inductee: Peter Crawford
Male Surfer of the Year: Matt Wilkinson
Female Surfer of the Year: Tyler Wright
Rising Star: Ethan Ewing
ASB Greater Good Award: Walk for Waves – Jade ‘Red’ Wheatley
Peter Troy Lifestyle Award: Jack McCoy
Milwaukee Heavy Water Award: Jamie Mitchell
Simon Anderson Club Award: Burleigh Heads Boardriders Club
Surf Culture Award: Men of Wood & Foam
Nikon Surf Video of the Year: You and Me – The David ‘Barney’ Miller Story
Nikon Surf Photo of the Year: Luke Shadbolt
First of all, sincere congratulations to the winners. It's always nice to have your achievements admired by your peers. Also, this is an interesting range of awards that recognise how surfing culture is linked to everyday, recreational surfing, as well as to the achievements of professional, competitive surfers. I'm really pleased to see that the diversity of surfing in Australia (and beyond) is acknowledged.
So that's all great! But this year, when I saw the images posted on social media that went with the 2017 list of winners, my heart really sank. You already know why, but as you can see the only woman included won the only award that a man couldn't win. Also, the Awards are pretty shortboarding-centric. Like the greater inclusion of women, maybe that can change in coming years, especially given the dominant place that longboarding plays in everyday surfing in so many communities.
There are lots of reasons why this might be. For example, there mightn't have been enough women nominated for the awards. The panel might have been all-male and thus not so engaged with issues of diversity. The only information I could find on the panel was this snippet from media about the 2016 Awards: 'The judging panel included 11 members of the surfing community including competitor, industry and media representatives.' That link is interesting because it also lists the three finalists for each category, so we get a better idea of nominees, which are pretty male-dominated.
Because these annual Awards play a role in highlighting what's important to surfing culture from an industry and media perspective (ref: the panel), the exclusion of women matters. The exclusion of women from this list has nothing to do with the old favourite excuse that 'not that many women surf', or that 'women don't surf as well as men', or that 'it's mostly men contributing to media', etc. Sure, lots of the media and industry might still be male-dominated, but that's not because women aren't participating. That is because, while Awards panels and magazine editors and CEOs and the leaders of surfing stay as men who love shortboarding and high-performance surfing that meets a particular criteria, women won't be seen as relevant or worthy of Awards. At this point, women have done as much as they can to participate and be visible and to contribute. At this point, it's up to those men in the leadership roles of surfing as a sport and culture and industry to make more room for women and to include women as valuable voices in the development and future of surfing.
Pointing this out about the absence of women makes other absences clear as well, because most of the men in leadership roles are also white, hetero and shortboarders. That's not to say that these men aren't opened minded souls who are able to recognise and respect ways of knowing and doing things that are diverse and that include women, Indigenous Australians, migrant Australians, and longboarders (amongst others), but it might be that unless there is an explicit effort to think more broadly about what constitutes a relevant and contemporary and award worthy contribution to surfing and surfing culture, such perspectives and contributions might still be marginalised. And they are.
As one of my research participants once explained to me, no matter what women do, they just won't take that natural place in the lineup. What she meant was that women who surf well, who've surfed at one break for a long time, who are competent, capable, skilled and strong, these women are still viewed differently and as being not-as-good as men who are less competent and skilled. Some women break though this, for sure, but it's harder for women to take that natural place in the literal and metaphorical lineup than it is for men to do so.
So what can we do?
There are some things that need to be changed at a level I can't impact. For example, does the criteria by which they're chosen need to be changed? Perhaps Surfing Australia could ask panellists to be a bit more self reflexive about who they choose? Including more women (and other others) on the panel seems pressing as well.
But we can do things too. We can nominate more women. We can take the time to write great nominations that acknowledge, promote and celebrate the contributions that women are making to everyday surfing and to the surf industry and media. We can pay attention to the things that women are doing during the year, and recognise the diverse range of contribution to surfing culture women make as surfers, artists, administrators, and more. We can recognise that surfing culture isn't only about who is best on the wave - that's what competitions are for - but that surfing culture occurs out of the water too.
And please, know that I'm pointing the finger of blame as squarely at myself as anyone else! One I found out that these were things we could nominate people for, I should have made it a priority to write nominations for cool women. But I didn't. Because I am as tied up with time as everyone else.
But for next year, I'll be making time, so that I KNOW that there were good nominations, so that I can look and know that there were women for the judges to consider. I'll be keeping my eyes and ears peeled for the cool women I know populate surfing culture as colourfully as the men, including in ways that might not be as easily recognisable at first glance. So, in this, I ask for your help. Not only from women who surf, but from men who surf as well.