Even aside from the Beach Boys song of the same name, “California girls” became key symbols of the mainstream surf culture industry. The female body figured centrally in the iconography and imagery and commodification of surf culture. In the mainstream, the image of beach “bunnies,” babes, complemented the post-war domestic ideal that prescribed supportive roles for women.
Men’s looks were also important to the surf culture industry and young southern California surfers defined a particular look—from hair, clothes and cars that movie, music and merchandise producers used to promote their products. However, the focus on women’s looks eclipsed the focus on her surfing abilities emphasizing women’s passive role; while men were more often portrayed as active, in the water. The impact was to shape notions of ideal beauty and reinforce the importance of women’s identity and self-worth as tied to her outward appearance. Yet, historically, women as athletes and surfers played important roles in the history of surfing.
When Euro-American advocates of surfing transported surfing to California, first, and then Australian beaches, they re-invented the sport in the masculinist, competitive sports culture of the Anglo-European world. While surfing, on the one hand, is often used as an icon of countercultural individuality, and, on the other, pays homage to Hawai‘i and Hawaiian culture, in practice the Californian surfing revival of the 20th century re-invented the sport in such a way that mirrors mainstream male-dominated, Anglo-European society. Thus, surfing, which ancient Hawaiians originally practiced together and, according to Hawaiian legend, was first undertaken by the Pele, the Goddess of Volcanoes and the women she taught, entered the United States primarily as a male domain. Yet, albeit in smaller numbers than men, women participated in the rise of modern surfing at almost every step. First, in Hawai‘i, with greats like Keanu, and later, as part of the international competitive circuit from the Makaha International Surfing Championship, which held its first women’s division only a year after it opened, first for men and in invitationals from Peru to Australia between the 1950 and 70s. In addition to opening up doors for future generations of female riders, they also contributed to the sport as a whole.
Women like Marge Booth Calhoun and Eve Fletcher pushed against a sometimes unwelcome reception by boys in the water. Yet, in candid interviews with fellow surfers, Andrea Gabbard, in her Girl in the Curl, revealed that most of the leading surfer women, while noting initial resistance from some men in waves, seemed little phased by it. More often these women describe being embraced by the close-knit surfing community, particularly once they had established they had skill. Interestingly, it was not until the mid-1960s, when thousands of surfers crowded the beaches, that women felt the greatest resistance. Gabbard describes how, “Suddenly, we didn’t recognize everyone in the water. And, sometimes, we got hassled by guys who would cut us off on waves.”