Thursday, 26 February 2015

Stephanie in the Water

Stephanie in the Water follows the six times female ASP (Association of Surfing Professionals) world tour winner, Stephanie Gilmore in her attempt to reclaim her world title after losing it to Carissa Moore in 2012, a year that began with a personal attack in her home. Directed by Ava Warbrick, Stephanie in the Water is a documentary that demonstrates Gilmore’s constant struggle between being respected as a female surfer and the problems that arise by being such a huge part of a male dominated industry.

Although a documentation of Steph Gilmore and her efforts in 2012 to regain her world title, Stephanie in the Water also plays very much to the issues surrounding women in surfing, both overtly and subtly. The choice to have a female team of documentary makers was definitely a good one, with New York visual artist and filmmaker Ava Warbrick making her directorial debut. The film definitely has artistic elements engrained within it from the start and makes for an extremely enjoyable watch, both visually and in charting Gilmore’s journey.
It seems as if the choice to use a female director was a conscious one, put in place to avoid the inevitable elements of masculinity that are a dominating feature of the surfing world, but this documentary luckily manages to avoid most of them. There are however, some scenes that demonstrate just how sexualised women in the industry are, with scenes of the surfers having their makeup done and walking the red carpet at the Surfer Poll Awards, in which the scene seemed somewhat disjointed with the message that the film was trying to portray. It becomes obvious that Warbrick is presenting Gilmore as the champion that she is, whilst mainly avoiding the obvious gender issues that surround Gilmore, because no matter how many times the world tour trophy is etched with her name, her status as a woman in surfing will always be the driving force behind everything that she does and the female world champion being a part of that. It is undeniable that Gilmore is the reason that surfing has come so far from the even more oppressive society that it used to be.

However, as the most powerful woman in surfing, one would think that Gilmore has managed to escape the gender related comments and this is, for the most part, true. Although the surfing society respects her as a woman and understands the immensity of her talent, comments still filter through the documentary that demonstrate the effect to which women are still being compared to male surfers on a regular basis. This becomes evident from the very beginning of the documentary with Gilmore being interviewed on an Australian news show and on which the female presenter comments that Steph performs a lot of “blokes moves”, when in reality, as Gilmore goes on to correct her, is just being aggressive and powerful in the water whilst trying to remain feminine. It is comments such as these that split the surfers from the outsiders and it seems absurd for a woman to compare the six times female champion to a male surfer, when the two styles of surfing could not be more different. Perhaps Warbrick chose to open the film with a statement such as this to create a dialogue between the successes that women’s surfing has seen whilst simultaneously battling against gender issues.
I think it is fair to say that Warbrick presents the world of women’s surfing in a very realistic way. Sexualised images of women are present even in Stephanie in the Water, which is odd, considering it is working to humanise Gilmore in a way that separates her and her teammates from their bikini clad magazine alter-ego’s, but the contradiction actually works in demonstrating the parallels of female surfing in a visual way throughout. 
Gilmore is granted her sixty minutes of screen time in which she tries to fight the ever-present female surfer stereotype, but slow motion images of her legs and behind as she elegantly surfs a wave and a topless shot of her changing in her garage will blatantly receive attention for the wrong reasons.
As the best female surfer she notes how a question that she hears too much is, “what’s next? What’s more?” and it is important to indicate that world title male surfers are not being asked the same question, suggesting that the standard of female surfing is always being compared to the male standard.
Saying this, a statement that carries a particular poignancy comes from Gilmore’s board shaper, Darren Handley. Knowing many of the top male and female surfers, he says how Steph is “…not like Kelly [Slater, eleven times ASP male world tour winner], she doesn’t go there to have fun or get a bit of prize money. She goes to win” and it is a comment such as this that is potentially the first of its kind, giving a female surfer the dominance over a male surfer and emphasising her desire to win and progress which is often overlooked for women. It is Handley’s observation that truly shows the strength of women’s surfing in a time where it is all about the men.

It can be said that in creating Stephanie in the Water, Warbrick has exposed the world of female underdogs to the mainstream media and along with her heartfelt and powerful representations of Gilmore both in and out of the water, not only have she and Steph made an attempt at revolutionising the female surfing world, but she has also unconsciously demonstrated, with images and phrases that constantly trickle through the hour, just how difficult it is to avoid women’s sexualisation in surfing no matter how brilliant the surfing talent is.

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