Female Big Wave Surfers Don’t Get No Respect

As top women surfers brave death at Teahupoo, their own sponsors condescend

Keala Kennelly rides Teahupoo this week.

When big wave champ Keala Kennelly won the “Girls Best Performance” award at the Billabong XXL awards earlier this month, she criticized the surf industry in her acceptance speech for not financially supporting women in this dangerous, awe-inspiring sport.

“It has to change sooner rather than later,” she said. “We need to demand it. Demand change. Make it happen.”

Her prize money was $5,000—equal to the “Men’s Performance Award,” but far below that of the three top categories, which are male dominated. As Kennelly has pointed out in an essay for The Inertia, the competition circuit isn’t any better: Two of the top big wave competitions, the Mavericks and Eddie Aikau Invitationals, don’t invite women. One event, Oregon’s Nelscott Reef Big Wave Classic, invited her and six other women to compete in an exhibition round in 2010, but only three showed up because, she argues, there was no prize money to be had. Her reward for winning? A trophy calling her the “Top Chick.”

Even for the few female big wave surfers with sponsors, this kind of condescending language is the norm. Take this week’s widely celebrated session at Tahiti’s Teahupoo (check out the photo we posted yesterday). Both Kennelly and AT50 athlete Maya Gabeira shared the lineup with the sport’s best men and put in incredible rides—this, two years after Kennelly suffered horrific injuries on the same wave.

This is how Gabeira’s sponsor Red Bull wrote it up:

Surfing Teahupoo is as masculine as tackling an NFL linebacker or getting into a legitimate fistfight with Sasquatch. The wave is as perfect as a catastrophe could ever be. It comes out of deep water and explodes on a shallow reef, mutating into a backless wall of heavy water. But it breaks just orderly [enough] to entice people to surf it, and so they do—men, that is.

Well, men and Maya Gabeira. You’d think that the Brazilian goddess has no place out there. You’d think she’s too pretty, too ladylike to be bothered with such a deadly task. But you’ve got to realize this princess is a double-edged sword—she charges harder than most male pro surfers.

She is “a beauty, riding a beast,” the article concludes.

The implication here is beyond clear: big wave surfing is a man’s sport, and Gabeira stands out not because she’s one of a small elite that risks life and limb to perform at this level, but because she’s “pretty,” “ladylike” and a “princess.”

At least this week’s action has produced a hint of a silver lining in this regard. After catching a glorious barrel, Kennelly inspired the following Facebook post by Billabong XXL:

“Well, that does it. We are changing the name of this year's category from Billabong Girls Best Performance Award to WOMENs Performance. Keala Kennelly just set us straight with this ride at Teahupoo.”

That’s a start.


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