This thesis considers how women negotiate their female ‘difference’ in the male dominated culture of surfing in Byron Bay. Drawing on feminist cultural studies understandings of gender, culture, power and embodied subjectivities, this thesis explores the lived understandings and experiences of women who surf recreationally, and the ways they come to constitute themselves as surfers.
This project stems from the disconnection between my own surfing experiences and the ways I had seen women’s participation in surfing described in existing literature about surfing culture. In particular, there seemed to be a focus professional, commercial and media contexts of surfing, which are often far removed from the more common recreational and ‘everyday’ experiences in the water. In adopting a feminist cultural studies approach, placing the perspectives of women who surf at the centre of the thesis project became a defining methodological, ethical and analytical concern in order to “tackle the relationship… between representations of the body and embodiment as an experience or social practice in concrete, social, cultural and historical contexts” (Davis, 1997b, p. 15). This approach to the research privileges lived experiences over representation in making sense of how women who surf understand cultural knowledges and performances.
In order to account for and make productive use of my own subjectivity as a female surfer in Byron Bay, this thesis draws on Elspeth Probyn’s (1993) notion of ‘thinking the social through the self’ (p. 3) to develop an embodied ethnographic approach. This approach to research establishes a reflexive position within the culture, developing a position of specificity that engages with the watery fleshiness of the physical cultural experience of surfing, while still filtering these experiences through my own feminist cultural studies position. Combining interviews, going surfing and blogging, I use my existing surfing cultural subjectivity to access and engage with the complexities, contradictions and messiness of women’s surfing cultural understandings and experiences in a culturally contextual way.
The analysis continues this embodied and subjective position, which privileges the women’s perspective that they are not, in fact, marginalised, but that they are a differentiated minority. Beginning with Foucault’s understanding of power as relational, the analysis considers how cultural power relations operate within recreational surfing, how women understand and experience themselves as surfers within those cultural power relations, and how they are able to negotiate these power relations to continue to surf without acting like the male surfing majority. In particular, this analysis makes use of the work of Michel Foucault, Elspeth Probyn and Nikolas Rose, to highlight the productive potential of embodied and intersecting subjective relationships between people, spaces and culture, and the ways that sex/gendered understandings of power, ethics and pedagogy are key in how we come to make sense of our social and cultural lives, and how we impact the social and cultural lives of others.