Opinion: Magazine editor refuses to make Tracks in gender equality in surf culture
I read Olive Bowers’ letter to Tracks Magazine and decided before judging the publication it was only fair to also read the response by Tracks‘ editor Luke Kennedy, along with the supporting material he included to show that “Olive’s outburst” was unjustified. If you haven’t seen Bowers’ letter yet, I suggest reading it here before continuing.
Unfortunately Kennedy does little more than deflect and dismiss 13-year-old Bowers’ very well articulated complaint. He talks fondly of how his mother “who was a prominent Maroubra surfer in her youth” inspired him and how his first articles for the publication 15 years ago were interviews with female surfers. But instead of honouring these women, he continues by blaming others for not sending him more content about female surfers and even states, “girls in bikinis have always been a part of [surf] culture”. The pervasive use of the word ‘girl’ throughout his article further undermines the ‘women’ surfers and readers he is failing to serve.
The articles cited to illustrate women’s content in Tracks do not help his case: while the interviews with female pro surfers are good, the inline reference to a short magazine intro relating to the WA shark cull debate is laughable. “She don’t surf anymore – the story about a girl who gave up surfing by Luke Kennedy” isn’t a story about a girl at all (and certainly not written from her perspective, as he suggests in his Bowers-rebuttal). Instead it briefly mentions an unnamed girl who moved to Margaret River for the surf and a man “of course”. While she quit surfing after becoming affected by the rise in shark attacks in the area, it is her boyfriend’s chilling encounter that is the climax of this little anecdote. The girl’s so-called perspective only makes up the first three paragraphs of an eight paragraph piece; hardly “girl surfing content”.
Kennedy then defensively deflects from Bowers’ criticism by saying that the same newspaper who published her letter to Tracks included an article about Elle Macpherson next to it. I have no intention of beginning a discussion right now about the implications of Macpherson’s nickname, ‘The Body’, or how the fashion and beauty industry’s standards have been eroding women’s self esteem for decades. But the fact is – Macpherson is a model and works in an industry in which her body and face are seen as her main assets. Tracks is not a fashion magazine, it is a surf magazine. Its ‘vixens’, ‘poster girls’ and ‘Miss Bintang’ have nothing to do with surfing. With this comment, which misses Bowers’ point completely, Kennedy delivers an argument so childish, he might as well have said “but everyone else is doing it, why can’t I!”
Kennedy explains that he “speculated on publishing a Tracks for girls edition”. Implying that there needs to be a special female version of the magazine is ridiculous. Is it really so difficult to have one inclusive and harmonious magazine about something as liberating, spiritual and beautiful as surfing?
And finally, as if Bowers’ young voice counts for nothing on its own, he suggests her letter got published because of the fame of her writer grandmother, Helen Garner. To add condescending insult to injury, Kennedy even closes his article by addressing Garner, not Bowers herself.
The overwhelming online response to Olive’s letter and Kennedy’s rebuttal prove that his way of thinking is outdated in this community. Just because “girls in bikinis have always been part of [surf] culture”, doesn’t mean this should continue. If Tracks Magazine really is ‘The Surfers’ Bible’, it should have a good think about who ‘the Surfers’ are to whom it is preaching and how it can become a leader of cultural change within the sport. Tracks should celebrate the achievements of all surfers, regardless of gender, while conveying the important message to its readers that the women in its articles aren’t sex objects, but athletes to be admired.
Edit 24 April 2014: Since publication of this article, Kennedy’s response, to which I had pointed readers, has unfortunately been removed from the Tracks website. Bits an pieces of his response are still available in other opinion pieces on the internet, but unfortunately I was unable to find the whole thing. I also notice that the structure of the website has changed somewhat, and while there is still a ‘Girls’ tab on the website, it no longer has the horrifying sub-menu items ‘vixens’, ‘poster girls’ and ‘Miss Bintang’. One shuffling step in the right direction I guess.