“Blue Crush” and Movies for the Title IX GenerationJune 24, 2013
In the early aughts, “girl power” was an ever-present but seldom politicized pop-culture phenomenon. Because marketers were quick to realize how much money they could make from this budding trend, its products tended to be shallow, pandering, and completely devoid of the political and cultural battles that would have to be fought to actually empower girls and women.
So it was easy to dismiss the Hawaii surfer-girl drama Blue Crush when it came out among all the girl-power commercialism in 2002. I certainly did. Ahead of my senior year of high school, when I was hopelessly devoted to my rowing team, I figured the movie was just another excuse for a studio (and Billabong) to make money while selling empowerment as girls-being-spectacles-in-bikinis. There seemed to be zero connection between the women athletes in my life and the women in the movie. It wasn’t until a decade later that I caught part of Blue Crush at the gym, and I was completely shocked at how central women’s athletics was and how many feminist ideals I saw at play.
In the first scene I saw, the main character, Anne Marie, is having a discussion with her love interest, Matt. She’s paralyzed with fear that she might get injured or die in the surfing competition that is her best, last chance to become a professional. She’s also worried that she’s been stupid to get involved with this guy, who will be leaving Hawaii soon. This is what happens.
Matt: What do you want?
Anne Marie: What do I want? Oh, my God. I want Penny [her little sister] to quit smoking and to go to college. I want to be able to pay the phone and the electricity and the rent all in the same month. I want a girl to be on the cover of Surf magazine. And that would be great if that girl were me, but any girl would do. And I want, I mean I wish my Mom would come home. And I really, really want to win Pipe Masters tomorrow. That’s what I want.
She goes on to explain how unbelievably dangerous it is to surf at this location. She herself nearly drowned surfing there a few years earlier.
Anne Marie: Just tell me what to do. Please.
Matt: You want me to tell you what to do?
Anne Marie: Yes.
Matt: You know what to do.
Anne Marie: No, Matt, I honestly don’t.
Matt: Just be the girl I met on the beach.
Anne Marie: Who? Who was she?
Matt: A girl who’d never ask a guy what to do.
This isn’t exactly a revolutionary concept. I doubt that Laura Mulvey’s experimental films are quite so subtle. But I was taken aback at this clear privileging of Anne Marie’s sporting priorities over the romantic plot, at the clear inequality that she is trying to address in surfing, and at her romantic interest’s complete support and encouragement.
What happens in the competition that follows also impressed me in its progressivism. In the film, Pipe Masters is characterized as “women’s surfing history” because it’s the first time women have competed at Pipeline. It features Anne Marie going up against real-life pro surfers Kate Skarratt and Keala Kennelly. During the climax of the film, Kennelly helps Anne Marie get over her fears. Instead of cold competition, we see encouragement, mentorship, and cooperation. This mirrors the fact that Anne Marie’s former competitor, Eden, is now her best friend and coach. And it seems to be true to life: In a bonus feature, Skarratt talks about how the pro women surfers are all friends and draw inspiration from each other instead of, as Susan Ware wrote last year in Outlook, upholding a “dominant male athletic system defined primarily by competition, elitism, and winning at all costs.”
Blue Crush isn’t a feminist utopia, but it is a surprisingly political look at what can happen when girl power has some teeth and when other feminist issues — cultural exploitation, working poverty, classism, single motherhood, and sexual harassment — are also, inevitably, at play.
For the girl athletes who never knew a time before Title IX (or a time before it was somewhat enforced), we crave movies like this. The ones that admit that girls and women are out there surfing waters as dangerous, running races as long, and hitting the court as hard as men are without getting nearly as many opportunities to play, go pro, or be acknowledged.